Friday, 25 March 2011

Village of the Damned

It’s 6.30am and the alarm is doing its usual morning beep. A groggy arm swings to turn it off, but instead of tapping snooze and retreating back under the duvet, it keeps going and reaches for an i-Phone. There are some tiny muffled taps on a glass screen then suddenly the sound of chirrups and birdsong can be heard. Moments later the room is alive with the noise of activity; saws sawing, spades digging, workers whistling, giggling and grumbling. It can mean only one thing: the Smurfs are awake.

If three is a crowd, our little house has been like Wembley Stadium of late. Courtesy of Smurfs Village, another pointless but addictive i-Phone time-waster, we are now sharing every waking moment with 40 (and counting) cheeky tiny blue people with a very strong work ethic and no interest in shirts.

For those familiar with the concept, Smurfs Village is like Farmville but with more blue. Players are provided with a large clearing in a forest and requested to create new homestead where itinerant Smurfs can live. By planting and successfully growing crops, players earn cash and power-ups to buy things to make the village more homely – houses that look like mushrooms, flower beds, park benches, lampposts, giant friendly caterpillars and the like.

In theory we are omnipotent super beings helping them rebuild their village somewhere safe from the villainous Gargamel. In practice we are their slaves, responding to the daily chores set out by the bearded Papa Smurf. These range from the reasonable (‘Plant four crops of blackcurrants so we can make some juice for thirsty Smurfs’) to the vaguely surreal (‘Send 5 Smurfs into the woods to placate some angry chipmunks). Such tasks are undertaken in real time, which has led to examples of me receiving texts during work meetings advising that my carrots are ready to harvest and should be collected before they wither.

Smurfs Village isn’t a new concept, combining elements of the SIMS series, Tamagotchi robot pets and several other Farmville derivatives. However one interesting addition is the capacity to spend actual money on improving your village. This allows you to fast track the rebuilding process, giving you access to games, utilities and special characters like Smurfette.

I only know one person who has gone down this route and the result was terrifying. Given free reign over her Smurfdom, she created a nightmarish futuristic high rise agrarian nightmare. Row upon row of Smurf houses sit on top of each other like a mushroom Manhattan whilst almost 100 Smurfs work the soil relentlessly, growing only the highest value crops with no break in sight. Meanwhile, Smurfette’s house sits isolated across a river, ‘for her own good.’

Without this purchase power, my own village has evolved slowly and is (I believe) a much nicer place for it. Stone walls line the paths, all homes have gardens with benches and picnic tables and crop rotation keeps the Smurfs and soil happy. Meanwhile my actual garden has gone to pot. Weeds have taken over, all my herbs have gone to seed and the grass was recently up to my knees, but that’s OK because Papa Smurf doesn’t tell me off about that.

Of course with great power comes responsibility, a burden some people take more seriously than others. Another friend was greatly distressed when the village she and her daughter had lovingly created suddenly vanished into the ether after her phone crashed. Still mourning for her little friends, she diligently restarted, only to see that village disappear and be replaced by her original creation. She now accepts that it is her destiny to tend and nurture whichever village is in front of her and has vowed not to shirk her responsibilities.

As for me, well, I’m ashamed to report that my interest in the Smurfs is already on the wane. I’m sick of being a slave to my crops and I’m bored of waiting 42 hours for Smurfs to come back from the forest after tending to a sick squirrel (unless the glitch in the programming which randomly speeds up Smurf time happens to occur). I’m over Handy Smurf’s dull hammering game and generally fed up of tarting up a village that I was quite happy with several levels ago.

In considering whether to ditch the village I was reminded of the most recent series of Mad Men, in which a spurned lover tells a newly engaged Don Draper ‘I hope she knows you only like the beginning of things.’ I wondered if this might also be true for me and the Smurfs? Could it be that with the novelty over and the interesting work done, simply maintaining my creation and generally making sure that everyone is alright is something that just isn’t in my nature? It’s almost reason to stop someone from having children.

If so, it’s the best argument I’ve heard to date that there is a God, somewhere out there. It’s just that having nicely set everything up here on Earth, leaving a few aardvarks and venus fly traps and manatees and dinosaurs and people about the place, he or she got a bit bored, downloaded a new game called Earth 2.0 and just left us all to look after ourselves.

For now my Smurfs can rest easy and I will continue to tend to their needs. Besides, I only need a few more smurfberries to buy Smurfette’s house - I’ve come too close to give up now. After that though, all bets are off. My little blue friends had better up their game in the entertainment stakes or else, in the words of their bearded leader, their smurf could be smurfed.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Just Another Twit

Friends, I have a confession to make. I never thought I would say this, and I feel a bit dirty as I do, but I have been dabbling in Tw*tter. I haven't been doing it much. I mean, I don't have a problem or anything. It's under control. I know my limits. I'm not an addict. It's just a friend said 'Go on, have a try. It's fun. Just a little tweet. It won't hurt you. You know you want to. And then another friend said 'I do it and I'm fine, right? I'm not like those people either. Just one tweet. C'mon. Join us.'

So I did. I was on a very long bus journey with no book and the words of my persuavive pals in my head. So I had a peek. And a play. And a poke. And then I typed @mintcustard into the box and it was still available. And I was pleased. So I told people. On Twitter. And people wrote back. Straight away. And it was nice. So I did it again. And they wrote back again. So I did it again. And again. And again. And now I can't write. Sentences. Anymore.

OK, I can, but I must admit that my previous view of Tw*tter as being a waste of breath, time and internet have been challenged of late. That said, my dabblings to date have taught me three semi-interesting facts, which like all unfettered twits I just can't wait to share:

  1. I was right. There are unquestionably people using Tw*tter who should not be allowed to go within 100 metres of a keyboard or mobile phone. People who use Tw*tter a bit like loud mad people use quiet trains. People who don't wait to be asked to tell you how they are feeling, which they report via a series of parentheses, colons, semi colons and acronymns. Some of these people are my friends. They take pictures of every meal, accompanied by the word Yum. Such people, whilst friends, have been 'unfollowed' as quickly as they were 'followed'.
  2. Tw*tter is the new comedy. In my review last year of the Bedroom Philosopher's superlative show Songs from the 86 Tram I carried on a bit about how difficult it must be to make it as a comedian in this world. Television opportunities are rare and mostly require people to change their acts to fit into whatever the show is doing. It's been a bit of a revelation to be able to follow comedians I love and some I've never heard of and see just how genuinely creative and funny people can be. @isysuttie, @serafinowicz, @sarahksilverman and @ivanbrackenbury I already had expectations for but the best find so far has been @meganamram, a Los Angeles based funny lady whose Tweets (and blog) regularly brighten my day. Take a minute to let her do the same to you.
  3. It works. I'll admit that the main reason for my succumbing to Tw*tter was to try and get more people to read Mint Custard. Plain. Simple. Shameless. Like all of us online narcissists I've seen how many people read these words and it's not very many really. Most of the time that's fine, but sometimes you write something you like and you're proud of and you think wouldn't it be nice if someone actually read this. Having seen the number of people who visit Mint Custard increase 1000% after friends with F*cebook and Tw*tter have posted a link, I was forced to question my very 20th century approach to information sharing. The result? Well, it works. People have been here and even better, it's led me to them and their blogs and thoughts and ideas and creativity, which surely is the point.

Of course the challenge now is to write things that merit a visit. It would be sad to be like many of the tw*ts out there who think that the 140 characters they fart into the internets is all that is required.

Anyway, to any new casual visitors, thanks for dropping by. Please stay a while and have a look around. It's not all rubbish. And to all those people who have been here for the past 3 years, you know I still love you the most, right?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Where the Force is Still Strong

I have a recurring dream. It's not very exciting dream but its frequency continues to surprise me. The locations and the players of this dream are rarely repeated but the result is always the same: somehow, somewhere at some point I gleefully uncover a stash of rare, old Star Wars toys.

Lucasfilm wasn’t up and running when Freud was about, but I suspect even the most casual student of cod-psychology could deduce that this goes back to my childhood and a period from 1979 to 1985 when I lived, walked and breathed all things Star Wars. Buying Christmas and birthday presents for me was a doddle. As long as there was a Kenner label on it you were on safe ground and I was in seventh heaven. I guess my recurring dream shows that those beloved toys [still safely stowed in my parents’ loft] have morphed into some kind of embodiment of youthful happiness.

With this in mind, you can perhaps imagine the hyperventilating that took place when I stumbled upon Lobos Collectables. Packed to the rafters with almost everything that ever tumbled out of Lucas’ mind, and a whole lot more besides, this small corner of Northcote is a shrine to science fiction, fantasy and overactive imaginations.

It resembles what you’d imagine the inside of Kevin Smith’s head looks like. Walls and walls of figurines, statues, aliens, robots, superheroes and super villains provide a backdrop to lovingly recreated dioramas, play sets and display cabinets. Spaceships hang suspended from the ceiling, a Star Wars trilogy pinball table pings in the corner whilst a life size Simpsons family watch old sci-fi movies from their sofa. This is no ordinary shop.

At the centre of the Lobos universe is Dennis Kafkis, a thirty something Melbournian who has managed to turn his own childhood escapism into a place where anyone can seek sanctuary from the rigours of what some like to call the real world.

I asked Dennis how Lobos Collectables came into being. Fittingly his story is full of adventure, romance, honour, tragedy, determination and a little bit of magic…

How did you get started in the world of science fiction? You always start with one item. In my case it was a bucket of green army men. I spent many hours in the back yard planning missions. My parents divorced when I was 8 or 9 and I was an only child. I went into a fantasy world of characters from sci-fi films. I could do it well because my parents spoiled me with toys and comic books - most likely their guilt about dissolving their marriage! So toys came into my life at a very important juncture for me.

What was it about Star Wars in particular that appealed to you? I don’t remember much of my childhood but I remember asking my mother for the same outfits Luke and Han wore at the end of Star Wars when they received their medals. She said no and thought I was crazy to want knee high boots and all the gear! I’m sure I had a big cry about it... I remember wondering why Chewie never got a medal as well. He risked his furry ass too! If you ask me he got ripped off.

I found my first Star Wars figure in the street in 1979 – the original Han Solo. Do you remember yours? My first was Luke from Return of the Jedi in his black suit. I still have it. I remember being in grade 2 and was playing with it outside during the lunch break. When we went inside I realized I’d lost his green light sabre. I was distraught and asked the teacher to let me go and look for it during class time. I took a friend with me and we looked for what seemed to be an eternity but with no luck. That sabre is out there somewhere!

When did the toys become a hobby? Well there was myself, Peter Mackay and our close friend Peter ‘Lobos’ Mastroanis. All of us came from the same high school and we kept up our interest in pop culture and sci-fi as we grew up. We loved movies, comics and toys including many things that are now collectable. We got into McFarlane figures, NECA , Bowen statues, Sideshow collectables. We got some of the holy grails that never got released in Australia - limited edition SDCC [San Diego Comic Convention] items. You name it, we bought it. I love the craftsmanship and the technology in making a fantastic looking figure or toy collectable… the imagination of different looks of aliens and the like. It can transport people’s imagination to another place.

How did you go from collector to owning your own store? Lobos and I were always going to open a comic store together. It was our dream so we thought ‘why not try to do it...?’ Then tragically he passed away. He was 31. He had a genetic malfunction in his heart and suffered a sudden heart attack. You hear stories where someone is fine one minute and not with us the next; this is one of them. I talked to him just a few hours earlier and everything was fine. It still haunts me to this day. When his younger brother Luis called me to tell me the news I was trembling like I was holding a jack hammer. Tragic night.

What did Peter mean to you?
We were best friends from the age of 12. He was one of the best and kindest of people. He was very creative and taught me more than I ever taught him, that's for sure. We were going to open the shop five years ago, so it’s taken me a few years to get over his death. But I put my mind to it and opened the store and named it after him. Peter loved dogs – that’s how he got the nickname Lobos. It means ‘the Wolf’ in Spanish. His illustrated design is on our business cards – a picture of a wolf. There is a framed photo of myself and Peter in the store with Wolverine in the middle. It’s a great photo, you must see it.

What kind of reactions do you hear from people when they first come in the shop?Oh my God ... I want to live here ... I will save all my dole money and spend it here every fortnight ... Can I work here please...? ... Where do you guys get all this stuff? ... Oh My God’ again... There’s a lot of drooling but mostly it is ‘cool shop, love the shop’ etc

Do you see Lobos as a shop or a museum? I understand what you mean with all the glass cabinets but no, not really a museum. They always have a ring of unapproachable about them and our store is not like that. Lobos is a place for escapism. You can touch, feel, talk to staff, even watch a movie on the TV. We do dioramas and displays of movie scenes. We open most items and take them out of their packaging. If you have time come spend an hour in the store and have a good look at everything. If you’re having a bad day or week you will soon forget about it!

I once found some Star Wars wallpaper for 50 cents at a church fete. What is the luckiest find you've ever made for merchandise? It’s my mother that finds the best stuff – I’ve trained her up! She’s like one of those St Bernard snow dogs. She found some 30” Batman and Superman figures which sell for $100 each. She also found a Star Wars Lego Imperial Shuttle in its box, 100% complete, just on the street. Don’t ask how! The guys in the shop always laugh about her.

My best find was at a garage sale 5 years ago. There was a box full of 1980s toys – Transformers, Star Wars, He Man and others, all in really good condition with all the weapons. The son had left home and his parents were selling all his left overs at a fraction of what they were worth. I gave them what they wanted for it and didn’t haggle!

Back in the 1990s a friend bought me an R5-D4 he found in an op shop because he knew it was the only original figure I didn’t have. Now you can find hundreds of them online and on e-Bay. Does the internet spoil the magic of shops like Lobos? This is my favourite question! Yes the internet mostly destroys the magic. It’s so easy to find things [online] these days, you’re 100% correct. Finding a special gem in a market or op shop has almost become a thing of the past.

We don’t have an internet site and we do not sell on e-Bay. We know you can sell all your really good items quickly and actually get a better price for them than our ticket price because you’re selling to the world and a larger market. But if we did that then the friends of Lobos would never see all the good items we have or have the chance to buy them!

One thing I like to do is place rare figures worth over $20- $30 each on our bargain wall from time to time so that someone finds it for a third of the price and can say they have found their own gems. I do this on purpose. I can sell it for more but let’s have a bit of magic... I had one guy saying ‘you know this figure is worth over $50 dollars but you have it in the $12.95 section?’ I said ‘well, we can’t change the price can we? It’s yours.’ He comes in all the time…

Is it fair to say Lobos is a labour of love? I work full time in a totally unrelated business that allows me to fund Lobos until it can stand on its own two feet (or in the world of Lobos, 12 feet and a tentacle. It is a sci-fi store!) For me this is a hobby and a passion. I do most of the work for Lobos at night. I stay up late and sneak in an hour or two here and there every day.

Most places like ours have closed down or are on the decline. It’s not easy - most weeks we don't even cover the costs of running the store but the feedback we get from our friends of the store is amazing so hopefully it will pick up in time and we can grow and become friends to many more people.

Dennis Kafkis and a few friends

Going back to your first love, what's your favourite Star Wars movie moment? Empire Strikes Back is my favourite movie. I love the Battle of Hoth. Snow and sci-fi: a perfect mix. The Cantina scenes [from Star Wars] with all the aliens are great too. I get the freeze frame out and do the slow mo action on them all. I also enjoy the Bespin City scenes as well. Anytime the heroes get screwed it’s interesting viewing…

Despite what adults think, kids love The Phantom Menace don't they? Yes they do. Trust me we sell lots of Jar Jar Binks figures and dolls. Give the alien a break, he’s okay!

What do you think Lobos would think of the store you made in his name? I am sure he would love it. We were very much about honour and this is a good start. It’s against my will but as time goes by your memories become blurred and not as sharp as they once were. I want to hold all the memories I have of Peter very close to me I hope the store remains open for 50 years so his memory is always there.

Lobos Collectables is at 503 High Street, Northcote. It's open 11-6 on Wednesdays and Fridays, 10-6 on weekends. I recommend you go in.

(with thanks to TK 421 for the photography)

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Radio Killed the Video Star

As Taffy once said, I love my radio. From Viking FM and Radio Humberside’s Top Town Quiz during Sunday dinner at my Grandma's to Simon Mayo’s Breakfast Show and Sunday nights taping the weekly Top 40; through Mark and Lard’s graveyard and Mary Anne Hobbs’ Breezeblock to my own late night ineptitude on Sydney community radio and finally to The Ghost and the Lime Champions on 3RRR I’ve always preferred pottering around with the radio in the background than sticking the telly on.

The history of the radio’s development is long and complicated, with no end of players, patents and claims about who invented what and who nicked which bit from whom. Whether you’re a Marconi man or a Fessenden kinda girl (I’m probably in the latter camp, given he undertook the first music-and-talking type radio broadcast) the truth is there has been a dial-full of folks responsible for spreading the joys of the wireless around the world. Although they are unlikely to be added to this illustrious list by anyone else, I’d like to offer a tip of the hat to the people behind TuneIn Radio for playing their part in revolutionising radio for me all over again.

For anyone with an i-Phone (seemingly every single person on my morning train) or i-Pad (my friend Mark plus one man with a beard on my train) TuneIn Radio is one of many available apps that lets you listen to radio on your Steve-Jobs-endorsed portable device. The others might be good too but to be honest, I don’t care as TuneIn already offers more than I thought possible with its basic premise – the ability to listen to any radio station with a digital stream, in the world, live.

Combine this with an i-Pod dock and you have crystal clear as-if-you-are-there live radio from every continent, country, county, state, borough and city in the world there in your kitchen, toilet or train. And, yes, the world. There’s even a station in Antarctica. You can see it with the handy menu that lets you zoom in and out like Google Maps, showing all the radio stations you might know and plenty you don’t.

I suspect there’s an element of homesick relief about TuneIn that magnifies its importance in my life. I’ve often said that if I could get a decent newspaper, a pint of bitter and access to BBC Radio 6 my expat experience would be a lot easier. TuneIn delivers one third of that and much more besides for the foreigner abroad.

As I sat feeling sorry for myself with my broken arm last Christmas I was surprisingly cheered by the sound of Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2 interviewing the larger than life Archbishop of York. I never listened to Evans when he was on in the mid-nineties every day, but the sound of him making gravy over breakfast whilst I ate my tea brought me a whole lot closer to my folks back home and more Christmassy than I'd felt in years. Even better, when I texted my mum to tell her, she was listening to it too.

In between mainlining 6 Music (Shaun, Jo, Tom, Lauren, Jarvis, Huey, Marc, thank you...) I’ve already revisited all the stations from my youth, as well as some from my travels, both dodgy (ah FUN Radio, still terrible...) and higher quality (no more Pet Sounds but it’s still nice to hear Tom Dunne’s voice on Newstalk). When you have instant access to the voices of people you’ve grown up with, or even just people who have clearly grown up a similar way to you (I’m looking at you Shaun Keaveny) the power of radio to make the world smaller really does hit home.

I hope you’ll forgive me for carrying on like some hanky-on-head wearing ex-pat. In some ways it was inevitable that given this kind of opportunity I would head home in the first instance. If it helps we’ve also been taking random shots at stations the world over, losing hours in incomprehensible languages and music we don’t know. The curious thing is how much radio from Japan to Germany, Morocco to Mexico sounds the same. And how popular the Black Eyed Peas are...

Anyway, thank you TuneIn Radio folks. We may never meet, but you’ve already done me a service that Marconi et al would be proud of. And in the interests of redressing my UK imbalances, I’d encourage anyone outside of Australia to spend some time with 3RRR here in Melbourne. Even with access to every digital dial in the world, some things are worth staying home for.