It's been five years since I began posting here and to mark the occasion regular reader and contributor to Review 2005, Annette offered to interview me about the history of the blog, some of the things I haven't written about and the future. It was an offer I couldn't refuse ...
Why did you start "feeling listless" and how did you decide on the concept of the site?
I'd like to say that there was some really impressive reason why I started blogging such as a round the world trip or because I'd got a new job. There isn't. I just did. I think it was a zeitgeisty thing. I'd been reading Rebecca's Pocket for years and then Metafilter and eventually I realised that all of the websites I was visiting were weblogs and that I wanted to join in. At the time it was still as far as I could gather an American fad and I just thought it would be interesting to do that kind of thing but with a British and very regional slant. Funnily enough I hadn't had a diary since puberty (don't ask -- it was binned in a rash moment of embarrassment when I realised that a parent had read it) and really at the beginning it wasn't about me at all, although of course these things are always about the person whose writing them even if its for a corporation or subject specific.
I've never thought of blogging as an American fad, though I guess it is sort of.
It was back then. Although I know there where some bloggers in London -- I think plasticbag was around then and LinkMachineGo but it really felt centralised to the US. The first version of the blog really wasn't. I tried running a fairly formless static site at Geocities for a while which mostly gathered links under all kinds of anomalous subjects -- lists of lists I suppose. I'd call them portals although I don't think that's true. The page that gives the best indication of what was to come is here, talking about my low self esteem and what happened at a private view. There would have been more to it but I found the process of updating the site torturous, not having much html experience and putting them together using Microsoft Word then using Geocities monstrous uploading facilities.
I've looked through the site and it's really interesting. Sort of feelinglistless 1.0, very old school. I think it's pretty remarkable that you even left it up on the web after so long. You've never mentioned it on the current site, either, or even put a link to it as far as I know. Do you find it too embarrassing or too personal?
Actually I have strip mined it now and then when I've been lacking in inspiration and most of the material is probably posted on the present site somewhere in 2002/2003 and even 2004 when I was going through a tired slumpy phase. In fact I've even updated some of the links to that they bounce back to the blog -- I think ...
So I tried noodling something closer to a blog together in 2000 within that site wth dates and whatnot and those posts are now on this blog (which now makes the start of the archive look a bit confused). In 2001 I discovered the general simplicity of Blogger which inevitably made things easier. That version was dropped into the original static site using 'includes' and you can see links to the rest of that site there. I've just had a look at that original blogroll and I'm amazed how many are still blogging. That's good news. I'm still surprised in retrospect actually how few people were actually writing a blog in mid-2001.
Yeah, blogs have really taken off lately, there were definitely a lot fewer when I started on Blogger in 2001. And apparently the blog habit is hard to break once you've started, there are quite a few blogs I've now been reading for years.
Funny isn't it. Although the attrition rate is vast because the audience is so massive. When I started I was getting about five hits a day now I'm up to about a hundred and fifty -- but sitemeter's not very good at saying how many of those are unique -- but now and then a whole string of people will jump out of lurking and I wonder how long they've been reading. Someone I used to work with two years ago emailed me not too long ago and outed herself after reading the blog all the way through those two years...
Where did the name "feeling listless" come from?
The original original site was called 'Spring and Fall' after a tv series I was co-creating as a teenager with a school friend about three guys and three girls who lived in the leafy suburbs of somewhere, probably Liverpool, maybe around Sefton Park falling in and out of love. It was basically This Life/Friends/My So-Called Life/As,If with Gilmore Girls sensibilities years before any of those shows hit the airwaves -- we were doing this thing in the very early-nineties and I nearly jumped off a roof when I saw those shows because they each had a bit of what we were trying to accomplish -- St. Elmos Fire was our influence I think, and When Harry Met Sally. We got the name from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem -- we were studying his work for A-Level English Literature. But I'm digressing. After school I co-opted the name to put on things I was creating as part of a copyright notice. So everything I wrote was a 'Spring and Fall Production' -- and I even mocked up advertising posters. For example:
I actually used that thing as a coaster during my second year at original university to create all of those rings. The use of font is annoying isn't it. Anyway I've digressed horribly but the point is that I continued to use the 'Spring and Fall' moniker right into that static site and one of the legacies is my alternative email addresses firstname.lastname@example.org which I use when I want to appear pastoral -- I think nowadays you can co-opt the old Forrest Gump phrase to become 'You can tell a lot about a person by their email address'. Somewhere along the line that original static site imploded because the navigation bar went squiffy and I decided to start again. In too many ways I wish I'd kept springandfall as the name of the blog -- it feels warmer somehow.
springandfall, that is a nice name. That would have been a cool TV series, too, a sort of Friends set in Liverpool. Do you still have scripts of that lying around somewhere?
It didn't ever actually get to the scripting stage although I think we had the very first scene set up -- this character Toby who was kind of a world-wise guy who everyone eventually ended up talking to for advice was in his flat watching the community pass-by out of the window of this flat and the flat was going to be filled with items which hinted at future storylines and plot developments but we would only see it in the opening scene of the first episode -- the rest of the time he'd just be around parks and coffee shops and other people's places -- it was stylistic thing -- each of the characters would be connected to a sense -- so there would be a character who was a photographer (see), someone who was a great cook (taste), and a musician (listen), a doctor (touch), we could never work out something for smell - and Toby was the odd one out because he was sort of the brain and wise but the joke would be that you didn't ever know what he did other than just be around for the other characters to talk to -- not supernatural -- and there was always the possibility that some future guest star or replacement character would start asking all the questions which the audience had been asking -- which makes it sound like Lost too, but it really wasn't, it was supposed to be funny.
Anyway, so the next embryonic version of that static site was incorrectly called 'Listlessness' because it featured lots of lists of links. I was sitting in an office at work one afternoon and somewhere along the line it transmuted to 'feeling listless' in my brain. I only generally knew what it meant but it sounded good (at least to my addled mind) so I started using it when I began the next site. It's also become my email address because I decided that it needed to match the blog for web identity purposes and now it tends to get a good reaction because of the connotations when I pass it on. But sometimes when I do pass it on I don't hear from the person again so perhaps the connotations aren't all that great. But it's pretty well established now and become an online identity and it's been knocking around long enough now that it would feel weird if I changed it.
I always thought 'feeling listless' sounded like something you'd write at the start of a blog post after a long day. Actually, that's what brought me to the site, I saw the name and thought it sounded interesting.
Well the funny thing is I'd been writing the blog for ages and then I discovered LiveJournal were doing that because I was ego searching and found that someone had written 'feeling listless' at the top of a post with a little smiley face.
How do you think the site has evolved from the time you started it to now?
I've always joked that the first post to the blog was about wrongly predicting the end of the Sugababes. Actually it was the second. The first post was a short tv review of a series of documentaries about the internet from the time which remarkably are still available. So the first link on the blog still works. Amazing.
Looking back at that first week it's lovely to see how little the blog has actually changed. There are capsule reviews of The Miller's Tale and The Five Doctors, a link to a joke campaign to make John Cusack president, the very first Commuter Life post, something about what I did with my lunch time. the Hitchhikers review was timeshifted in much later when I migrated the content from the static site.
I actually started the blog the week I began commuting to Manchester for work first time around and I hadn't realised I'd been talking about the travelling so early, although I notice that I was already following the The Rules and don't mention where I was working (Royal Bank of Scotland call centre I think I can get away with saying now). You'll notice that there are a lot of Review!s which were a feature that ran I think during the first few months -- linking to other people's bad reviews. This post about the brilliantly titled play Shagaround got me into trouble recently when the playwright emailed asking why I was highlighting The Guardian's Lynn Gardner's one star review. I explained that it wasn't anything personal and haven't heard back.
You're one of the most prolific bloggers I know of. How do you manage to post so much on a daily basis?
Actually I think that's gone in fits and starts. Sometimes I'll be amazingly prolific with ten posts a day whereas at other times it's an arduous journey just cranking out one post. I began writing in the days before RSS so originally I had the sites I read saved under subject headings in IE and within those dates of the month. So each day I would look at whatever had been saved under that particular date for any updates and post what was interesting -- it was pretty time consuming but often I'd be finding some really great links and stories that the rest of the web seemed to be missing in websites like, yes, the one for the El Paso Times. Another feature was 'Blog of the Day' which I'd also crank out, well, daily but again that would take hours but eventually made some good contacts and friends that way.
No kidding, the El Paso Times?
Absolutely. Which is why when I found out about you were working for them I did smile. Although I've done a search and can't find anything I actually linked to, but I'm sure I was reading it. When I set up the whole favourites thing I simply went to Yahoo and Dmoz and grabbed lots of links to media sites and I knew that I wanted to include stories that might have been overlooked and I think I thought I'd find that international/regional.
How you have kept yourself motivated to blog for five years, especially with the pace you typically keep up?
I always said that if it became the kind of site that just republished links to other blogs without comment then I'd pack up and go. For a while I went through a crisis of confidence because it seemed to be me that this was exactly what was happening because of tiredness or a lack of inspiration. I wasn't posting anything which hadn't been seen anywhere else or opinions that differed that markedly from elsewhere. I'd write a film review and wonder exactly what I was contributing to the whole. Then I simply decided that I should just plough on and see it as a record of my life on and offline and that in fact my opinion probably counts for something in the long run. At the moment I try and promise myself I'll try and post something every day, even if it's a link to something I've read online or to a post I've left elsewhere. Sometimes I'll surprise myself and drop in several hundred words about something without thinking about it. I'm highly self-critical though -- sometimes the idiom or writing style goes out of the window in the crush to get it online and I really should proof read before I post.
How do you avoid burning out?
Because everything keeps changing, everything just keeps moving on, and even when I was in a routine I've always said that I want to try at least one new thing every day, even if it's seeing a film I haven't before or enjoying (or not) a food I've never tried. Everything adds to your experience and so in fact you've always got something to talk and write about. I remember Nora Ephron describing about being at her mother's bedside when she was terminal and her mother giving her the big talk about the rest of her life and asking her why she didn't have a notepad and wasn't making notes. When Ephron told her it was because this wasn't work, that her mother was dying and she couldn't write about that, her mother told her 'Everything is Copy' and it's very true. Unless it contravenes The Rules in which case it gets stored for a rainy day and when I'm a newspaper columnist. Plus it sounds corny but if there are people make a point of visiting the blog or read the RSS feed I want them to have something to look at. It's not a big thing, but there's always a fractional disappointment when your favourite site hasn't been updated.
"Then I simply decided that I should just plough on and see it as a record of my life on and offline and that in fact my opinion probably counts for something in the long run." That's a good philosophy for blogging. I think that's one of the best things about the format- it's in the moment and it's forgiving in that even if a post is not the most brilliant thing ever written, it's excusable because just keeping it going day after day is the more important thing. And kottke-style remaindered links are OK, but I like that you usually have a little more to say about the things you link to.
Well links can still reflect the personality of a person and sometimes if I'm not talking about myself I do try and select links which say something about how I'm feeling. Not too long ago I posted a story from some Alaskan newspaper about a treadmill which had been built to exercise a hippo which is weird but funny out of context but it meant a lot at the time. But sometimes I think bald links don't do much other than increase that page or site's technocrati rating. ]
Do you have a favorite post or posts?
Y'know I have a really bad memory for these things but sometimes I'll look at a random page and find something I'm amazed I wrote, that is me. I'm really impressed with a series of posts that described in minute detail what happened some random weekend -- from Saturday to Monday night . It wasn't that exciting really, just a night out and a cinema trip to Manchester but it was an attempt to try and write and remember the minutia and I think it was successful. It's actually fairly personal in its own way -- certainly moreso than usual. To be honest, the best posts are the ones which don't seem like something I have ability to write. I tend to only see the flaws.
Do you have a least favorite post?
Two words. Review 2004. After the success of review 2003 I decided that I'd do years around -- one year I'd get other people to do work (more of which later) and in the other year I'd try and do something myself. In January 2004 I decided to keep a record of every book I read, play I attended, record I heard, tv show I watched and film I saw on dvd or at the cinema so that at the end of the year I could post the ultimate personal review. It seemed like the easiest thing in the world really -- just type them up at the end of the day. Well, as is the way of things I began to drop behind until I'd get to whole weeks were I'd have to sit with a calendar actually trying to remember what I did when. Eventually the music dropped by the wayside and anything tv which I hadn't made a point of watching. The really big mistake was deciding to include links to sites connected with everything because on my dial-up that took an age even when Google was feeling lucky. So anyway over the course of that year I'd spend hours cranking through the stuff -- it also happened to be the year I began with screenselect so I was seeing even more films than ever before so they all had to be added. When I reached the end of the year and began posting these things it became very apparent that I was posting these lists and they were just boring. I tried adding commentary, perhaps noting the films and television shows which I'd really enjoyed or noting how little I'd gone out in patches -- twelve episodes of Murder One watched in a day and so forth. I'd hoped that someone might pick it up for all it's nerdy resolute brilliance. Not even my regular readers mentioned it. It just sat there. Perhaps one day someone will use it in a study of the viewing habits of someone in the mid-naughties.
If I learnt anything, it was that I needed to get out more. Still do.
Sorry to say I did find Review 2004 pretty tedious, but I did admire that someone actually took the time to document what they watched for an entire year.
The blogging equivalent of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Man.
What posts have received the most responses from readers?
There are two ways of looking at this I suppose -- number of hits attracted and emails received. The first one is easy -- Room 101. Darren at LinkMachineGo posted it at Metafilter and the site went ape for several days. Not as much as when HeardSaid was picked up my The Guardian newsblog then Jason Kottke -- that was hilarious. In terms of emails -- well I still get feedback from people about my unorthodox review of the Elizabeth Wurtzel books (sometimes because they think it all happened -- well it did a bit, sort of) but there isn't anything which has prompted a flurry or anything. It is funny how I still managed to hear from people who've found something I've written in the past via google and I appear to be the only only person to mention it and they think I'm an expert. I used to get loads of people asking the opening title music for As,If although I eventually updated the original post with the information and obviously they've stopped now. There are some tentpoles which keep being mentioned though, such as Life Props and the yearly reviews written by other people.
That Room 101 list is funny, despite the fact that I've never seen the show Room 101. And I remember when HeardSaid was mentioned on kottke.org, that must have been really cool for you.
Jumping and screaming really.
Have you always been interested in film and television?
I have -- which is a shame sometimes because I wish I was far better read than I am. Sometimes I'll bluff my way through conversations because I've seen the tv adaptation -- surprisingly well in fact which suggests to me that many people have read less books than they like to admit -- there are simply too few hours in the day. My tastes expanded exponentially at university though -- before then it was all science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters. Then I saw Farewell My Concubine and Like Water For Chocolate and my life changed. Amazing.
When did you start writing reviews?
I have an email pal at uni I met through the Empire Online website who I carried on writing to afterwards and I'd often write reviews in the letters -- quite long ones with star ratings. I listed some of those online at the IMDb and then when the static site began I'd post one on there almost every week. When I began blogging that seemed like the natural place for them to go. Not including reposts from other sources, the first capsule was for A Cool Dry Place and the first three paragrapher for Groovejet by Spiller. How typically random.
Can you explain the idea behind the Life Props series?
Every now and then I'll try and think up an idea that will motivate me to write around a subject. Scene Unseen was an example of this (High Fidelity, Josie and the Pussycats, Bounce, The Thomas Crown Affair, A Knight's Tale, Being John Malkovich, The Usual Suspects, Broadcast News, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Election, The Limey, The Matrix, Amelie, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Jerry Maguire) or the infamous House photo strip (which I still think was a lost classic...) Life Props was an example of this in an irregular sense. The idea was that everyone has items which just get them through the day, like mugs or records or scarf or bags -- the incidentals they probably don't think too much about but they'd probably be lost without them. That was the genesis, but some of them became mini-histories, about all the scarves I've ever owned or bags. But the best response was for the piece about Natalie Imbruglia's That Day which really captured how I was feeling about that commuter year and beyond -- I've heard that people have bought and loved the album off the back of that which I suppose what these things are about.
I really enjoyed your Review 2003 and Review 2005. How did those come about?
Thanks. To be honest the best explanation for Review 2003 is in the epilogue that I posted a month later. Some notes though -- the prominent film director was Peter Jackson (I know). When you look at who did contribute it is pretty extraordinary -- as I said here, gathering all of the reviews and posts together in one place, little did I realise I would have replies from future Oscar nominees (James Blitz), Doctor Who writers (Rob Shearman and Paul Cornell), magazine editors (Emily Dubberly) and rulers of their own country (Danny Wallace). Review 2005 was an attempt to rekindle the magic and in its own way I think it was even better. Again I was amazed by the time and trouble people took over what they were writing and there were contributions from people who didn't have blogs or hadn't given up on writing their own blog. In some cases they've gone on to start a new one.
I think you've done a good job of giving readers a glimpse into your life while still abiding by The Rules (more in this post, too). Do you find that to be an issue sometimes, wanting to be more personal but not wanting it out there for the whole Internet to see?
Surprisingly not. The Rules have always been there as way of warding off my own self-indulgence because I know that sometimes if I started writing what I was really feeling, rather than being the help I know it is for some people it would just mean I'm thinking about issues I should really be putting to one side and working through. Also because of my life plans I knew that I simply couldn't talk about work in the way I might sometimes want to because I needed the money and there are priorities. Sometimes I've probably been over cautious but I think that's probably better than doing the Dooce. And I'd never want to be in the situation where I have to avoid someone because I've written something about them on the blog and I don't know how they'd react.
In what ways do you think starting the blog has affected your life?
Most directly would be that I was invited to contribute to other websites on the strength of what I was writing here which is amazing really and in some ways some of my best work has appeared elsewhere. The ideal answer would be that I've made huge wonking great life choices because of something which has happened through the blog but I don't think that's completely true. Certainly I've more of an idea of the kind of career I'd enjoy but I was working towards my degree before I started blogging -- I've spent most of this decade getting here. I'd say that through the blog I've a greater awareness of what's happening in the world and what it can be like. Although you could say that if you're a web user in general, the blog has been good motivation to widen my outlook so that I'd potentially be able to comment on it. But also it's been a good way to keep writing and not let that get too stale - like anything I think that if you stop doing it you lose it -- in 2002 I lost access I didn't blog for months -- I found it incredibly difficult to get back onto the swing. The downside is that my writing style has become somewhat bloggy -- my academic writing can be really inconsistent because I'll keep wanting to use certain phraseology that doesn't fit.
What have you found the most rewarding about blogging these past five years?
Actually having some kind of record of the past five years -- my memory can be spotty at best and it's great being able to see what I was doing this week last year or the year before. But also some of the people I've 'met' globally in places I can only dream of visiting. They say that traveling broadens the mind and blogging does to.
As longtime readers know, close to a year ago you announced your acceptance to graduate school to study film and television. When did you decide you wanted to go back to school?
That's a bit of a grey area but I suppose as soon as I graduated from my first one in 1996. Oh gosh that was ten years ago this week... I originally wanted to return and study art history and so I did some work experience then received paid work in the museums and art galleries in Liverpool. Most of these jobs were part time on different days but beautifully through recommendations I'd end up working in lots of different departments on many different databasing and cataloguing projects -- which was really exciting. As time went on though I slowly began to realise that I was much less interested in art history than I was film but also that I needed to find some way of paying for that. So when the project work ended at the art gallery I decided on a plan to save enough money to return to university.
Somewhere along the line I thought that ten thousand pounds would do it -- so I got the first full time job that came along, which happened to be in Manchester and worked the one calender year I knew I would need to find a similar and better paid job back in Liverpool, saving what I could along the way. Had the summer off for the 2002 Commonwealth Games (back in Manchester) then applied for many jobs; after a hiccup (Nat West) I ended up work for the city council and spent the next few years saving up to the ten thousand knowing that even if I didn't get into university after all, I'd at least have enough money to change my life for the better. When I was a teenager I made a pact with myself that I'd hopefully end up doing lots of different things and that's how it has turned out.
Has your experience in graduate school matched with your expectations?
No -- but that's probably because I set my expectations very high. The teaching and course have been amazing and again I've quite rightly increased my film appreciation. I'd always had issues being able to interact with films made before I was born but now I feel like I've a good working knowledge of the whole century of film. If there's been a real disappointment it's that I haven't been able to engage with university life in the way I'd hoped because I've been commuting and I simply haven't been there when I really needed to be. Sometimes because I've needed to travel home I've left nights out before they've really got started or been a boring clock watcher. But I did manage to make a couple good friends who I hope to see again and again.
What would you like to do when you finish your degree program?
To quote High Fidelity my all-time top five dream jobs:
(1) Full time film reviewer, possibly writing for Empire magazine, Total Film, SFX
(2) Film journalist for the Press Association or Reuters or one of the agencies
(3) Working in the film archive at the BFI or BBC
(4) Working for one of the big film festivals like Edinburgh, Sundance, Raindance, Cannes...
(5) Being paid to blog by one of the above or someone else.
Oh and secret agent of course.
Are you interested in filmmaking or television production at all, perhaps directing or screenwriting, or would you like to continue with the criticism and analysis side of it?
Long story, but not right now. Before I was blogging I toiled away at something for years but there weren't the outlets for the kind of thing I was interested in. There are now. So I might go back to some day. So I'll not spoil. To be honest I think I've always been best coming up with ideas but not execution - all my characters have a habit of sounding the same and not realistic, for example.
What do you see as the future of "feeling listless"? Can you see yourself continuing the blog for, say, another five years?
I've said it before but I can't ever imagine shutting down the blog. The post frequency might nosedive now and then or I might write less about myself and more about the world or vice versa but I don't see the point in stopping completely since there's nothing more exciting than having a record of your life and some of the people you've met.
Congratulations on five years of 'feeling listless'. I've always felt there was a special sort of magic about the site. There's an infectious enthusiasm, a great appreciation of life and art, and a wonderful sense of fun and creativity that I love about it. It's a truly amazing collection of work, and it has been a joy to read for the past few years. Happy anniversary and I hope there are many more to come.
Me too. Thanks very much Annette. I'm embarassed and touched and humbled.
Take care everyone.