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Knit The City

Knitting, as the old song has it*; what is it good for?  Absolutely nothing!

I was forced to knit as a small child at school.  I embarked on a scarf (or was it a sock?) but after a few rows it went all wonky and I cast aside my yarn and needles in disgust, feeling that I'd been taught a valuable lesson; knitting is rubbish, and if you want a scarf you should go to a shop and buy one that someone else has knitted: they knit so that we don't have to.

How different it could all have been if only Knit The City had been available in the craft classes of my youth.  It makes knitting look fun and exciting, and it's written by a masked guerilla knitter, so it would probably have gone down really well with the mainly Trotskyite primary school teachers of the early '70s.

Knit the City records the exploits of a group of 'yarnstormers', devoted to the art of 'enhancing a public place or object with graffitti knitting'.  The first examples featured in the book are simple-looking stripey tubes, much like the leg-warmers of yesteryear, which appear mysteriously on lamp-posts, sign-post poles and bicycle cross-bars, each adorned with a tag bearing Deadly Knitshade's evocative logo:

Plarchie and friend.
As more yarnstormers arrive to swell the ranks of DK's woolly posse the knits become more complex and ambitious.  In a tunnel beneath Waterloo station a knitted spider lurks in its knitted web, surrounded by struggling knitted captives.  The rusty gates of the deserted Strand Station disgorge a host of knitted ghouls on Hallowe'en.  Deep in the Natural History Museum strange woolly specimens appear; a knitted Slender Snipe Eel, some knitted squid, and a gigantic orange kraken knitted out of supermarket carrier bags, Squidius knittius giganticus plasticus, or Plarchie for short.

A herd of hand-made sheep hurries along the handrail of London Bridge, and knitted cherubim with carefully-positioned felt fig-leaves hang around at Piccadilly Circus on Valentine's Day.  In Parliament Square, a whole phone box gets the yarnstorm treatment.

The yarnstormer's adventures are all retold here in a winning and whimsical style, with plenty of full-colour photographs.  It's like a coffee table book for people with really small coffee tables, and would make an excellent present for anyone who likes knitting or graffitti, or knitting and graffitti, or public art that isn't all about Meaningful Stuff , or who just fancies a chuckle.  At the back there are step-by step step guides to knitting your own squid and sheep, but if it's actual knitting patterns you're after you should probably also look at Stitch London, by Deadly Knitshade's close friend and confidante Lauren O'Farrell, which is equally well-illustrated but heavier on the knit-on-purl-one stuff and will teach you how to knit traditional British bobbies, Big Ben, and Her Majesty The Queen, plus corgis.  (Alan Titchmarsh liked it too, but don't let that put you off.)

Knitting will never look the same again.

Philip Reeve

Knit the City is published by Summersdale and you can buy it HERE.  Go on.  You know you want to.

* I may not be recalling the lyrics with perfect accuracy, but I'm sure it was something along these lines.

Cyber Circus

I don't suppose I would ever have read Kim Lakin-Smith's Cyber Circus if I hadn't met its lovely author at BristolCon this autumn, because I had seen it described here and there as 'Steampunk', and assumed it would be yet more alternate-Victoriana japes, of which I've read (and written) enough.  Actually it's something far richer and rarer.

According to the subtitle at the start of Chapter One, Cyber Circus is set in 1937 in a place called Sore Earth.  That date, and the fact that the Sore Earthers' agricultural boo-boos have reduced their topsoil to dust, suggests that the story evolved out of reflections on the Dustbowl (a suggestion confirmed by the earlier short story Black Sunday, reprinted at the back of this volume), while the book's vision of carnival life carries faint echoes of Tod Brownings Freaks and Daniel P Mannix's Memoirs of a Sword Swallower.  But there any connection with our reality ends.  This is not any 1937 we recognise, and Sore Earth isn't some parallel Oklahoma but a fully fledged fantasy world with its own loosely-sketched geography, history and fauna. Above it cruises 'Cyber Circus', a bizarre, bio-engineered, living dirigible carrying a strange crew of mutants and outcasts.  The towns at which they stop to stage their shows have a whiff of the wild west about them - scabby mining outposts ruled by violent men and inhabited by the sort of people who'd have been kicked out of Deadwood for being too scruffy and sweary.  Several different nations are mentioned, all unfamiliar.  As far as I could tell, Sore Earth could be another planet, albeit one with retro fashion-sense.  At times, with its cast of whores, misfits and former soldiers the thing it resembled most was a darker-hearted Firefly.

Kim Lakin-Smith's prose is both stripped-down and florid, shot through with gnarly hard-boiled dialogue and vivid imagery.  It takes a little getting used to, but it's well worth the effort.  I admired the uncompromising freakishness of her freaks - the bioluminescent heroine and the hero with his cybernetic eye are quite ordinary compared to the pig man, the feral wolf girl and the scuttler children - and the empathy she makes us feel for them, strange and ugly as they might seem at first meeting.  She has the courage, too, to make her characters unlikeable - spiky, ill-tempered, selfish, cowardly - and yet still sympathetic.  The story moves fast and takes some curious twists and turns on its way to a dramatic final showdown.

So Cyber Circus is definitely some kind of 'punk': violent, grungy, transgressive and bristling with attitude.  Compared with it, most Steampunk that I've read needs to be reclassified as 'Steam-Easy-Listening' or Steam-Middle-of-the-Road'.  But actually trying to pin down books like this to a particular sub-genre is just geeky stamp-collecting: Steampunk?  Deiselpunk? New Weird? Who cares?  There are only two kinds of Sci-Fi/Fantasy books: good and bad.  Cyber Circus is one of the good ones.

Philip Reeve.

Cyber Circus is published by Newcon Press, price £9.99 pb, and is available from their website.

You can meet Kim Lakin-Smith (and me!) in person at the Kitschies 'Steampunk Christmas' event on the 8th December at Blackwell's Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, London.