Thursday, November 11, 2010

15 Authors

Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who've influenced you and who will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what authors my friends choose. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note.) 

In alphabetical order:

Jane Austen

Emily Bronte

Don Cupitt (theologian)

Stephen Donaldson (writer of bad fantasy - first exposure to environmentalism)

Fyodor Dostoevsky (if only for Notes from Underground, which I refuse to re-read)

Alistair MacIntosh (environmental activist and spiritual writer)

Herbert Marcuse

Grant Morrison

Anais Nin

Fernando Pessoa (for the Book of Disquiet)

Adam Philips (psychologist)

Laetitia Sadier

Sheri Tepper (feminist SF)

JRR Tolkien (for better or more probably for worse)

Leo Tolstoy

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Belated Halloween / Rampage tribute

Context: I am trying to write something each day in half an hour's lunch-break and then brush it up slightly at home.

Today: a rather elliptical Anglo-centric tribute to Rampage, the eighties arcade game which saw a giant gorilla, lizard and wolfman knock down skyscrapers by punching them repeatedly.

Apologies if it's a bit rubbish, but it's writing practice and I'd rather subject it to an audience from the word go rather than get all precious about it.


As soon as you could walk, you practiced on Lego.

Then progressed to dollhouses

Fisher Price garages were your stomp fodder

With a tail-flick, Castle Greyskull was gone.

No-one talks about your disastrous trip to Bekonscot

But, hey, it’s ok!

Because you’re family.

We saw the footage on About Anglia

The ruins of Sizewell A, B and C

You are a garguantuan scale-clad cause celebre

Questions are asked of us as the destruction continues.

We deny everything to the TV crews and hide the mutant iguanas in the cellar.

But it’s all right!

For we too have an uneasy relationship with authority.

How many times can you thrill to punching out a copter? Did it pall?

Did you eat one too many toasters?

Or did you start to think that Le Corb had a point?

It matters not. After your masterstroke - the destruction of Basingstoke - you left.

A hollowed out volcano your tropical exile.

But we understand.

All the greats leave us in the end.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The true size of Africa

I am a major map geek, and enjoyed this comparison of the size of Africa relative to other countries. You could lose the USA, India and China in there and still have space for more.

http://static02.mediaite.com/geekosystem/uploads/2010/10/true-size-of-africa.jpg

The UK, in case you're wondering, is about the size of Madagascar, on a good day.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vignette: Eris in Catford

Shambling through Catford on a Sunday morning, I see 'Discordia' embalzoned scarlet-red on a yellow truck trailer.

What? Have Eris and her disciples come at last to South London? What chaos has still to be spread here?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Vignette: geek metaphor FAIL

Walking down the Moseley Road with Shutterbug carrying beer in a long-handled bag, each holding one strap. So we look like this.
Magpiemoth strap bag strap Shutterbug
I tell her that we look like a Tie-Fighter, all sides and only a little middle. She looks at me blankly and I realise I’ve just not just stepped over the geek metaphor horizon, I’ve hurtled right across it.
I laugh at myself all the way back to the house.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Creative writing snippet - Eldritch horror on the line?

I've handed in my first creative writing assignment - 200 odd words of free writing with only the start dictated by the tutor.

It's only gone through one rewrite so it's pretty raw, and proof that when all else fails I can always write bad science fiction about telephone trauma. :-)

All constructive feedback welcome.
He had hardly waited five minutes when the phone rang. Once, twice, its baleful analogue bleep passing out through the smashed glass of the booth, breaking the quiet of the small-hours side-road.
The man, swathed in hat and jacket and scarf, balances a notebook atop the telephone. Pen in right hand, he grabs for the receiver with over-haste, like a drunk reaches for the shot-glass.
He lifts it to his ear and speaks a word you do not understand. Then another, then a whole chain of nonsense syllables from which names periodically emerge: Washington; McAfferty; Kabul. Devoid of context, they float in the air, erased signs.
At length, the man finishes his … report? Recitiation? Ritual? In the phone box, there is a moment's silence as the unseen auditor digests it. Then, a hiss of static and an ululation like a thousand theremin echo from the speaker around the graffiti and steel of the booth.
The voice speaks.
Not bothering to modulate itself for private conversation … or indeed human hearing … each syllable drops in tones of crashing, contemptful lead onto the listener and out into the nighttime street.
The man in the booth reels in dismay at the exchange, buckles, scrabbles at the walls with his free hand like a cat down curtains. Yet he cannot let go of the receiver.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Britpop Nuggets? Your thoughts please!

Following on from reading Phonogram's look back in wistfulness (sorry - couldn't resist) at the so-called Britpop years, it got me thinking. If you stripped away the cliches, ignored the mediocrity and the Blur/Oasis shenanigans, was there enough decent music to justify a compilation? Something akin to the classic singles complilations like the famous Nuggets, which document the unheard treasures of psychedelia and garage?

It's much harder to find real obscurities, but here's my play-list of Britpop nuggets with links where I can find them. All the bands mentioned were either explicitly affiliated with Britpop, helped unwittingly bring it into existence or found themselves affected by it in some sense.

Ahem. Do feel free to suggest your own additions. And links, ladies and gents, links!

Pulp - My Legendary Girlfriend
http://www.we7.com/#/album/Pulp/My-Legendary-Girlfriend

Only one of two first division 'Britpop' bands, commercially speaking, included here. And this disco oddity dates just from the start of their rise and reminds me what a unique and brave band they were.

Corduroy - London, England.
http://hypem.com/track/816324

Giving a good name to parochialism. And arguably out-Blurs you-know-who during their Parklife pomp.

Stereolab - Ping Pong
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Stereolab/Ping-Pong

Retro-futurism par excellence, this was Stereolab's almost-hit and occasionally made a appearance on the better class of Britpop dancefloor. Too political for what was essentially an apolitical (and therefore small 'c' conservative) musical movement.

The Boo Radleys - Thinking of Ways
http://www.we7.com/#/album/The-Boo-Radleys/Giant-Steps

Ah, my third band I really fell for (after the Pet Shop Boys and REM). And the first to introduce me to the joys of beauty and noise juxtaposed. Not to be judged by the hit, fine as it was.

How come the Flaming Lips get all the credit when the Boos were doing the fragile psych ballad thing too?

Teenage Fanclub - Neil Jung
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Teenage-Fanclub/Neil-Jung+1

Guilty by association with Britpop through Creation records, the Fannies kept on turning out excellent singles like this.

Elastica - Blue
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Elastica/Blue

There's an awesome acoustic demo version of this, but the plugged-in version will have to do. One of the best bad-but-sweet sex songs which constitute the Elastica oeuvre. Great harmonies, sez my inner Mojo reader.

Super Furry Animals - Hermann Loves Pauline
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Super-Furry-Animals/Hermann-Loves-Pauline+2

Okay, so the chorus is basically Blackberry Way by the Move, but we have to salute one of the few bands inventive enough to emerge from the ashes of Creation intact.

Ride - Leave Them All Behind
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Ride/Leave-Them-All-Behind

In retrospect, it's hard not to see this stadium shoe-gaze as one of the signposts towards the misguided epic tendencies of Oasis, The Verve and the irony-free end of Britpop. Especially given Andy Bell's later status as a Gallagher hired-hand.

The Auteurs - Chinese Bakery
http://www.we7.com/#/song/The-Auteurs/Chinese-Bakery+

One from the sweeter end of Britpop's own Lou Reed

Shack - Streets of Kenny
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Shack/Streets-Of-Kenny+

'Cosmic scouse' elder statesmen - check! Included instead of The La's (too obvious) or Cast (shudder - do you know they are doing a fifteenth anniversary tour of All Change? I'm tempted to picket the Birmingham date with a placard saying 'shame on you'. This is exactly what Phonogram was on about when it was laying into nostalgia)

Black Grape - Kelly's Heroes
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Black-Grape/Kellys-Heroes

Demonstrating that the prolongation of certain Madchester careers wasn't all bad if it enabled Shaun and co to do to this in band #2

St Etienne - You're In A Bad Way
http://www.we7.com/#/song/Saint-Etienne/Youre-In-A-Bad-Way

Included because 'teh Et''s Electro-Mod pomp coincided with the rise of Britpop. Unfortunately also epitomised the sexism inherent in the times, with front-woman Sarah Cracknell getting much more attention in the music press than the tunes.

Mike Flowers Pops - Wonderwall
http://www.we7.com/#/artist/The-Mike-Flowers-Pops

And what better way to end than this Dada-ist protest on the absurdity that Britpop became.

Review - Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Kieran Gillan and Jamie McKelvie

Phonogram is a sly commentary on the Britpop years (1992-1998, at a pinch) with a dash of magic realism thrown in for good measure.

It looks back to when the retro-futurist strain of indie - drawing on mod, New Wave and both summers of love for its music and fashion cues - made it unexpectedly big. As is the way of trends, Britpop then become creatively bankrupt pretty much as soon as the name was coined. It sometimes led to literal bankruptcy, such as in the case of the Creation record label.

A whole tranche of bands - some deservedly, others tragically - were drawn down into a Sarlacc Pit of mediocrity, commercialism and Gallagheriana.

That Phonogram tells this story using the device of a 'phonomancer' (a magician of music) exploring the memory kingdom of Britpop with Luke Haines of the Auteurs acting as Virgil to his Dante not only adds to its charm. More, it lifts it out of being merely illustrated music journalism to being a wise, funny meditation on the perils and seductions of nostalgia.

I suspect it's readership will be confined mainly to men of a certain age - but at least it will unite music and comic nerds.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Musings on tolerance and the so-called 'ground zero mosque'

It's perhaps not commonly known, but I occasionally take services at a Unitarian meeting house in South East London. I'm involved in the management there, albeit to a diminishing extent now I'm based in Birmingham.

For more information on Unitarians (like Quakers with hymns) see http://www.unitarian.org.uk. Our Meeting House is on the web here – http://lewisham-unitarians.blogspot.com/.

The theme of yesterday's address/sermon was religious tolerance and I include extracts below, as it's the first one I've been halfway to happy with.

I begin with a quote from the German Enlightenment writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe wrote "Toleration ought in reality to be merely a transitory mood. It must lead to recognition. To tolerate is to affront."

I want to talk to you about this idea of reaching past the kind of negative toleration Goethe is criticising. I want to talk about a more difficult, but positive toleration of those of all faiths and of none based on reconciliation and recognition.

In recent weeks, some of you may have been following a controversy in the United States about an Islamic community centre in Manhattan. If you haven't heard, this is the story.

A cleric named Imam Rauf from the Sufist tradition of Islam is proposing to build a community centre with prayer rooms in Manhattan, some three blocks away, and out of sight of, from the site of the World Trade Centre. Some have compared it to an Islamic YMCA. No big deal, you might say.

Guess again. Irresponsible politicians have branded the project the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and moved to attack it as disrespectful to the dead of 9/11. Adverts have been run on the side of New York buses picturing a plane flying into one of the World Trade Centre towers and a mosque divided by the question: Why Here?

Sadly, all too many people seem willing to listen to these politicians. The German theologian Hans Kung wrote "There will be peace on earth when there is peace among the world religions." Hmm. Guess we're not quite there yet.

So, what should be a simple, local planning decision for the city authorities has become a national controversy in which the President has been forced to intervene, citing the first amendment rights of all US citizens to freedom of religious expression.

Here's what the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg has had to say on the matter:

Islam did not attack the World Trade Center-–Al-Qaeda did. To implicate all of Islam for the actions of a few who twisted a great religion is unfair and un-American.

I understand the impulse to find another location for the mosque and community center. I understand the pain of those who are motivated by loss too terrible to contemplate.

However, this is a test of our commitment to American values. We must have the courage of our convictions. We must do what is right, not what is easy. And we must put our faith in the freedoms that have sustained our great country for more than 200 years.

So, it looks as if the proposal for the community centre will go ahead. But it throws into sharp relief the limits of negative tolerance. The First Amendment or other forms of negative tolerance before the law don't require people to understand and accept the religious beliefs of others. To see things from another's perspective. A negative freedom cannot of itself create a positive understanding of others, only the space to allow us to cultivate this understanding.

Let's move back to this country and look at some of the readings we heard earlier. The French philosopher Voltaire, a noted Anglophile, praises eighteenth century Britain in his Letters on the English for its hard-won religious pluralism. In 1733, he writes of the equality of the stock exchange, "where the Jew, the Muslim and the Christian transact together as though they all professed the same religion … [where] the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist and the Churchman depends on the Quakers word."

Clearly, compared with the wars of the Reformation and with other eighteenth century states like France, where religious tolerance was seldom seen, this kind of economic pragmatism was a big step forward.

But, wind forward fifty years to the setting of Dickens' Barnaby Rudge, the 'No Popery' riots of the 1780's, and we find that this freedom has yet to turn into mutual understanding. We find burning churches, an intolerance of difference in the form of Catholicism, a latent violence which becomes active violence under the provocation of unscrupulous politicians.

The riots find their echo today in the actions of the far right, now organised into the English Defence League. The League march against Islam in cities like Birmingham and like the No Popery riots, they target places of worship. Not far from Birmingham, they left a pig's head on the wall of Dudley Central Mosque – an outrage not only to practicing Muslims but to anyone who takes freedom of religious practice seriously.

So we too in Britain have no reason to be complacent in our negative tolerance of other beliefs, other faiths. We too need to work towards not only maintaining what we have, but also work towards a positive recognition of the worth of all religious traditions.

As one anonymous but pretty wise person put it, "toleration [...]is the first step towards curiosity, interest, study, understanding, appreciating and finally valuing diversity."

We Unitarians have long been adept at incorporating elements of all religions, all philosophies into our worship. Within our walls, each of us brings our own combination of elements such as Christianity, humanist philosophy, Buddhism, paganism as well as the other Abrahamic religions Islam and Judaism.

For those of us who come from, or still feel attached to, the Christian tradition, the intolerance expressed in the Bible towards other faiths, other peoples, can be problematic. Thankfully, there are passages in the New Testament in particular which point in the other direction. In Romans 2, Paul points out that it's not what religion you practice, it's how you live your life which is crucial.

What the times now require – of everyone, and I would argue that this includes Unitarians - is taking that next step of religious tolerance. That which moves us further towards appreciating and valuing our diversity of belief.

Here we are in South East London surrounded by people of all faiths and of none. We've got Voltaire's Churchmen, Quakers and Presbyterians, Dickens' Catholics and Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus and much more besides.

Not all of them share all our liberal views on religion, but with most of them I would suspect we would find more to unite than to divide us. A commitment to truth and to peace, a love of friends and family, and a desire to leave the world in a better place than when we found it. By listening to and better understanding each other we recognise common ground and – in the spirit of Gandhi - begin to move towards a win-win situation for everyone.

For me, it strikes me that for a person who lives in one of the areas of Birmingham with the highest proportion of practicing Muslims, I know very little about my neighbours. So I'm going to make a small start by reading more about Islam and working to understand them better.

So, if you take one thing away from this talk, please do reflect on how we as Unitarians can play a role in fostering greater understanding and positive tolerance between faiths.

In closing, I want to leave you with two quotes. One is from the Prophet Muhammed himself, who said "You have two qualities which God, the Most Exalted, likes and loves. One is mildness and the other is toleration."

The second, longer quote is from Imam Rauf, the sponsor of the Manhattan community centre we began our address with.

At an interfaith memorial service for the martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf said, 'If to be a Jew means to say with all one's heart, mind, and soul: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one. If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.'

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It Could Be Worse - a fanzine-sized window back into 1995 Pt 1

Issue three of this American indie ‘zine recently fell into my lap for 50p in Swordfish records. Here are the highlights…

1001 obscure indie bands mentioned within and their terrible/awesome names

Fleshy Ranks (ok, actually a reggae artist, but…)

Nikey Fungus (conjuring up the lovely image of decaying shoes)

Crawling With Tarts (what?)

The Warlock Pinchers (don’t pinch a warlock or baaaad things will happen)

Gerrymander Bob (will play well with the Electoral Commission crowd, no doubt)

The Dead Milkmen (milk fetish, part the first)

Lubricated Goat (whaaat?)

Milkcult (milk fetish, part the second)

Linus P Smile (Wynder K Frog tribute?)

Bögsküll (not one but two inappropriate umlauts)

Ditch Croaker (See p47 of the Monstrous Compendium, 2nd edition AD&D, THACO 14)

Dumpster Juice (whaaaaaatttt?)

Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos (AS YOU WISH)

Difference Engines (the ‘zine reviewed records by two bands, both called Difference Engines. I think they should have a steam-punk duel to sort it out)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Gym musings

Yes, as heralded on Facebook, I have joined a gym. The induction is tonight but there is a problem and it's name is cognitive dissonance. In the same way that Mariah Carey, so myth would have it, doesn't do stairs, I don't do gyms.

I'll spare you the long explanation for this. However, if I say, 'PE teachers using pupils to build elite rugby-playing warrior cadre and sod the rest of the brats', which is slightly unfair (one of them at least taught me to swim) but mostly accurate, and then figure in a decade or so of mixed laziness and insecurity on my part, then I trust you'll get the point.

But, riding a surge of confidence, and with the example of my very, very indie housemate transforming before my eyes in to a tower of a half-marathon running man, albeit one in a Sunn-O))) T-shirt, I've signed up for the Council fitness scheme.

Courtesy of COW on Digbeth High Street, I now have a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a vintage blue Adidas top. I was thinking that all I needed was a pack of Gitanes, my other housemate's fake moustache and a small existentialist paperback and I'd look like some mythical 70's scrawny French footballing stereotype (left winger, naturally), when the idea hit me.

Going to get fit should be fun, not a chore or a duty. But if 'I' don't do gyms, maybe there's another 'I' who does. And by bringing in an element of role-playing to the whole process it may well become fun and enable me to walk in there without feeling overawed by the paragons of gym culture.

So, when I go to the gym I may well be taking 'Alain' with me, as an idea, at least. Maybe as a totemic copy of The Myth of Sisyphus, appropriately enough. Not the moustache though.

And thank you Michael Cera. I was sure there was a reason why I sat through Youth In Revolt earlier this year. And now I know what it is.

Quote for today

"Consider that, despite endless research in Western psychology demonstrating without question that animals and people respond to love and praise more than to punishment, you persist in criticizing yourself mercilessly in the vague hope that it will somehow make you a better person. This is poison." ~ Jose Stevens

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Review: Inception

As the lights went down at the Electric, we had been talking about the use of language. How the way you write and follow the conventions of style and grammar can have a strange, pure beauty of its own. Loving the sign for its own sake rather than what it signifies.

Quite by chance, Inception, the new Christopher Nolan film, often felt like another exercise in form over content. Although not based on anything Philip K Dick wrote, it's so successful an exercise in bringing his tics and tropes to the screen that it pretty much out-Dicks any actual adaptation past in its successful conflation of the real and the unreal.

So, we get a core plot of subconscious corporate espionage: infiltrators of dreams offered the job that can't be done - planting an idea in the mind of a sleeper as opposed to merely stealing one - inception, rather than extraction. We get a vengeful female anima in the dreamscape of the male lead (Leo di Caprio) which takes the form of his dead wife. We get moments of jaw-dropping effect, such as when Ellen Page's character (Ariadne - shades of the Matrix's wearisome obsession with Greek mythology) realises that she's in a dream of Paris rather than the real thing. The cityscape explodes into fragments around her as she awakes. And we get three-ton lumbering ambiguity as characters ask themselves how you can tell whether the 'real world' is just another dream. That way, my friend, lies solipsism...

All very phildickian - and I didn't make that adjective up - only pushed through the Hollywood subtlety mincer and SFX engine. The PHD novel it reminds me the most of is Ubik, that strange little novel about dream vampires in the shared consciousness of the almost dead.

Inception is masterfully directed and carefully plotted - once the film leaves behind the slightly sluggish and confusing initial scenes it not only holds the attention rock solid, but manages to convey the woozy unreality of the dreamworld as waking minds imagine it.

There are sequences towards the end of the film where as many as four levels of dream are running in the mind of one man like Russian dolls, all on different time sequences. To keep this conceit going and make it not only comprehensible to the audience, but deliriously watchable, is a feat indeed. Nolan deserves serious credit for this.

Where Dick and Inception part company is in the film's relentless pursuit of style over depth - the sign, not the signifier again. Every Dick book I've read has been rooted - consciously or not - in his restless speed-freak paranoid world-view. You might not agree with it or understand it but every novel is underpinned by it. Inception, on the other hand, seems happy to borrow Dick's tropes without engaging with his ideas or providing others in its stead.

This is surprising given that dreams have provided such fertile intellectual soil for neurology, psychoanalysis, philosophy and so on. Instead, the best Inception can provide is a reductionist take on father-son relations which reeks of Freud 101 and a dreamworld which looks - as Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian pointed out - like a series of Bond movie locations. I wasn't expecting David Lynch (although a film which crossed Inception with Inland Empire would be awesome), but come on!

Similarly, the plot feels like a rather linear and simplistic long con. I've seen episodes of Hustle with more complexity than this.

The actors do their best too, but it's a director's film. Di Caprio as ever makes a great trickster and a lousy emoter - like the film himself, he can't be relied on for psychological depth. Tom Hardy steals every scene he's in, but doesn't get enough to do other than sneer and shoot.

But to criticise Inception for lack of depth is perhaps to miss the point - it remains a great application of phildickian style to the blockbuster format. And better an exercise in pure aesthetics than one with cracker-barrel, trenchcoat and mirrorshades philosophising tacked onto it. Yes, I'm talking to you, Wachowski Brothers.

So while I might regret the film it could have been, it's still a resounding success: fast-paced after the first third, kinetic, frequently breathtaking, not overly gratuitous in its violence and utterly watchable. And head and shoulders above the other big action movies I've seen so far this year.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Steve McCurry retrospective - Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

With the best will in the world, it's hard not to see the BMAG as other than the dowager duchess of the Birmingham art scene. It's your go-to place for the classics, some pre-Raphaelite action and, of course, the best tea room ever.

But the tea room flags up the main problem I've had with it: as an art gallery, it's a great architectural showcase but not, I humbly submit, a great collection of art. The Walsall Art Gallery, despite it's inconvenient location, beats it hands down for its permanent collection and usually for its touring exhibitions too.

But Milady BMAG has come up trumps with the new Waterhall exhibition, which I urge you to go see. It's snaffled a touring retrospective by photo-journalist Steve McMurry, featuring his work in South Asia, South East Asia and the former Soviet states.

McMurry basically does two types of photo - the portrait of the everyday person in a far-flung part of the world, and the landscape of same. What elevates him above travel photography cliche and the charge of voyeurism is that he is very good indeed. How shall I count the ways?

First and foremost, he knows how to pick 'em. His luminous picture of the 'Afghan Girl' from Time magazine in the 80's currently adorns the side of the BMAG. This and others in the exhibition are a great demonstration of his ability to identify people who are photogenic and - more importantly - win their trust, so as to allow him to shoot until he gets it just right.

His habit of shooting his pictures with the subject in focus and a blurred backdrop (my companion gave me the technical explanation for this but I've forgotten it now - sorry Shutterbug) draws you in and almost compels emotional engagement, while still placing the subject in a context - like a ship-breaking yard in India, or a Tibetan temple, or a village in the Hindu Kush. He doesn't candy-coat life in the developing world, nuh-huh.

Like the best photo-journalism, some of his pictures work as a wordless critique all the more powerful for the fact that interpretation is left wholly to the viewer to piece together. I was almost tearful at the top-down view of a city left bombed out by the Soviets in Afghanistan, with the lights of cookfires revealing where people were stubbornly refusing to leave their homes.

So, go check it out - it's free, it's great photography and it's inspiring to anyone with an interest in social justice!

Oh, one strike against it - it's sponsored by (harumph!) Continental Airlines (Birmingham to New York non-stop, apparently). Write to the BMAG and Magnum Photo Cooperative to tell them that you love the exhibition but wish they weren't taking the climate-polluting airline shilling to make it happen. Surely both can do better than this.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book reviews: Gentle, Sharpe, Stross & Voltaire

In as far as I'm ever 'off' books, my first and best intoxicant, I've been going through a lean patch recently. Now, the reading bug has returned with a vengeance. Here's a quick digest of my labours.

Charles Stross - Iron Sunrise: I skim-read this as an appetiser for the Fuller Memorandum. It's Stross in hard SF mode this time. If you read one of his books in this vein, I'm afraid it's not Sunrise - the singularity gone wild tale of Accelerando is much better. Instead, what we've got here is just okay. I'm torn between saluting him for his believable adult relationships (I mean, c'mon, this is SF) and berating him for a) failing to make me care about the tragedy at the centre of the book, b) having Nazis in Sppaaaacce as the main villains of the piece and c) one somewhat exploitative and unnecessary scene with his female lead.

Wilt - Tom Sharpe: This came as part of a book-swap deal with a work colleague and co-conspirator. I'd never read any Sharpe despite his reputation as a great comic writer because I'd been put off by the dreadful covers.

Note to publishers: you could sell a lot more of his books by ditching whichever seaside caricaturist you got to do the original artwork. While you're at it, fire Josh Kirby as well.

So how does the reputation compare to the reality? Well, at least fifty percent justified, which is pretty darn good. The sections in particular, where Wilt, wrongly accused of murder, faces down the detective, his accuser, are absurd brilliance, like The Outsider or The Trial replayed as peculiarly English farce. Carry on existentialism, anyone?

On the other hand, the sections with Wilts' wife and the American free-love academics lost on a boat in the fens work only as a tale of a collection of grotesques and the book loses its way a little as a result.

Voltaire - Letters Concerning The English Nation. Part of my informal reading list for the eighteenth century, this is V's love-letter to the English enlightenment. Very interesting for what he has to say about the Quakers, and for a point-by-point demolition of Pascal's Pensees, championing rational enquiry. My head's with Voltaire, but surprisingly my sympathies on this one are with poor, tortured Pascal and his absurd faith in Christianity. But then I didn't like Candide either, so V must be one of those authors who has my admiration but not my allegiance.

Mary Gentle - Left To Her Own Devices: MG is one of those authors who reinforce my half-serious contention that really all the best SF and fantasy authors are women. This is her cyberpunk novella about artificial intelligence, with her two recurring anti-heroes The White Crow and the (deep-breath) Lord-Architect Baltazar Casaubon plucked from their usual seventeenth century and re-placed in a near-future London. And none the worse for it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blog of the week: CutsWatch

A blow by blow account of the Government's hack and slash approach to deficit reduction, courtesy of TUC staffers: http://www.touchstoneblog.org.uk/category/cuts-watch/.

Thanks to Dave Powell at Friends of the Earth for this one.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Review: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

The Fuller Memorandum is the third in Charles' Stross series of thriller/horror crossover novels. You can read Memorandum without having to read the preceding two (The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue). Exposition is generously provided and only a small number of recurring characters need reintroduction.


Each book follows Bob Howard, occult secret agent for 'The Laundry', the codename for Britain's occult secret service. Bob is less James Bond, more George Smiley by way of the IT Crowd. Overworked, underpaid and oppressed by bureaucracy, he uses his l88t coding skills (programming = modern day magic) to fight occult crime.

The series owes a heavy but affectionate debt to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, borrowing liberally from his bestiary and pantheon of unspeakable gods with unpronounceable names. His overarching narrative of tentacled horrors from the dawn of time ready to wake and DEVOUR US ALL AND OUR CATS lends itself both to grandeur and self-deflating parody.

It's to Stross's credit that he manages both well. The Fuller Memorandum features both a really rather nasty cult of Nyarlathotep (No! Not the Black Pharaoh and Messenger of the Elder Gods!) alongside Bob's knowing asides about how ridiculous his work is.

I have a somewhat embarrassing relationship with Wolverhampton. Back when I was at university in Birmingham I nearly landscaped it by accident. I was trying to develop a new graphics algorithm. Planar homogenous matrix transformations into dimensions dominated by gibbering horrors tend to attract the Laundry's attention: they got to me just in time - just before the nameless horrors I was about to unintentionally summon into this world - and made me a job offer I wasn't allowed to refuse.

If you like Bob's narrative voice and the setting appeals, chances are you'll be sold on Memorandum. It's built on old parts - Gothic horror and techno thriller - but lovingly arranged by a skilled author in new juxtapositions. Bob makes for a endearingly fallible hero, who manages to unleash his hidden badass without ever looking indestructible.

Having said that, this is the third book essentially based on a single concept and it's starting to show a little. Moreover, while it rattles along nicely and has a lot of charm, compared with its immediate predecessor The Jennifer Morgue (which turned the James Bond knob up to 11 for inspired satirical effect) the plot can be summarised, perhaps slightly cruelly, 'stuff happens to Bob and then he saves the day.' I didn't have that 'confusion to clarity' moment that I like to have in thrillers, where all the different threads fall into place at the end.

A good few tentacle lengths ahead of most genre fiction, then, but I'd like to see Stross round off the series with one more book and go out on a high note.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Adam Roberts takes on The Wheel of Time

For reasons best known to himself (masochism?) SF/fantasy writer and literary academic Adam Roberts set himself the task of reading all ten books of the Wheel of Time epic fantasy series.


That's ten books, all of which are at least 500 pages long and some break the 1,000 page barrier. Some might say that life is too short, but at least Roberts has read them all so you don't have to.

So, for one of the best thoughtful and withering deconstructions of bad fantasy I've ever seen, some great quotes, seek out his blog.

To whet your appetite, here's a quote from his review of Fires of Heaven:

'None of the previous volumes in this series are what you would call fast-paced (although I concede the first one had a reasonable, if stately, momentum to it); but this book is slower than a slug on mogadon. By this stage in his series Jordan had evidently, and I think unwisely, decided to jettison ‘stuff happening’ as the organising principle of his fiction in favour of ‘characters talking, backstorying, bickering, flirting, fretting over their motivations and wearing painstakingly described clothing’. Of course, Jordan’s previous model of ‘stuff happening’ was ‘meandering characters getting intermittently attacked by trollocs.’ But it was better than what we get here.'

Monday, May 31, 2010

World Cup Special: Our Song for South Africa

My friends in Cop On The Edge have written a world cup song, and here they are to tell you all about it:

Hello,

It is time to get excited. We are very pleased to be part of a brand new compilation celebrating the 2010 World Cup.

'Fast Forward', lovingly put together by those fine people at Indiecater Records, is a collection of 32 songs, by 32 bands, each writing about one of the 32 countries taking part in this year's World Cup. Our contribution is Bafana Bafana, a tribute not just to the South African football team, but to awesome South Africans in general.

Click here to listen to the songs, and you can download the album for a mere €5, or buy a memory stick with artwork, lyrics and other gubbins for €10.

This will be the first of a veritable gush of releases coming your way from us this summer as we finish up our studio adventures, but it will definitely be the only one to namecheck Desmond Tutu.

Love

The Cops

--

www.myspace.com/copontheedgemusic

www.facebook.com/copontheedge

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A quote for the election

'There used to be a thing or a commodity we put great store by. It was called the People. Find out where the People have gone. I don't mean the square-eyed toothpaste-and-hair-dye people or the new-car-or-bust people, or the success-and-coronary people. Maybe they never existed, but if there ever were the People, that's the commodity the Declaration was talking about, and Mr. Lincoln.'

John Steinbeck

Monday, April 19, 2010

Three activist links for Monday 19 April 2010

Big Gay Flashmob

Activists take the battle for equality to Conservative head office. Just tremendously cheering and rather effective too, if the media presence evident on this film is anything to go by.

Brilliant website where you can borrow and lend stuff in your area


Birmingham Friends of the Earth keep the pressure up on Birmingham International Airport

Lovely to see this sort of coverage in local news blog The Stirrer.

Who'd like an activist choir for Birmingham?

This is a totally awesome idea which has come from two different directions.

I recently saw What Would Jesus Buy, the docufilm about anti-overconsumption activist Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping, which had this great faux-evangelist choir backing Billy.

Then, I got a flyer about a new project in Stafford coming out of the Transition movement there - a Greenshoots choir for people who enjoy singing and want to make a difference. And I quote:

"We want to share and learn songs that inspire and uplift. These will include songs from around the world with positive messages of peace, love and freedom

If you are interested [..] email greenshoots@transitiontownstafford.org.uk"

So, who'd be up for something like this in Birmingham? I'm at best an indifferent singer but I love the actual activity of singing. So, c'mon singers; musicians; arrangers - what do you think?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Fellow Euro-city hoppers sought for summer

We interrupt this service for a more personal request: would anyone be interested in doing some Euro-tourism in July or Autumn?

Two places I saw a little of in 2009 that I'm keen to revisit in 2010:

a) Brussels (and Belgium) more generally
b) Copenhagen (and maybe a few other places in Scandanavia besides)

So if anyone fancies an extended city break (by train, naturally), then just drop me a line.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Adding magical elements to an Enlightenment world

I thought I'd set the ball rolling with some posts about world creation and I'd welcome your thoughts on any of the below. I don't want to create a perfectly imagined world - I'd rather be writing a novel with my limited time, frankly - but thinking about how the world works will at least give me a springboard for filling in the many blanks.

First up - magic. I've been giving some thought to how magic might work in this alternative Regency literary universe and come up with a few ideas.

Post-Enlightenment 'civilised magic' is compelled to recognise the limits set by eighteenth-century rationalism (Hume, the Encyclopedists etc) and Newtonian physics. This means that it focuses on magic which:

a) Affects human states - suggestions, illusions and hypnosis, physical and mental enhancement.

b) Protects the 'rational' universe against the incursions of irrational forces such as ghosts and other fantastic creatures - banishments, exorcisms etc.

So, in level 1 D&D terms, that would mean that Sleep, Phantasmal Force and Detect Magic would still be viable, even if Magic Missile (which requires creation ex nihilo) would not be.

The more in conformity with physical laws the magic is, the less likely it is to cause problems for the practitioner.

In addition, there would also have to be strict legal or cultural prohibitions on the use of magic to control the minds of others.

Affects which while in theory not out of bounds - true invisibility as opposed to misdirection, delayed ageing, physical transmutation, reanimation (the headless chicken effect) - require a lot of energy, complex rituals or other appropriate McGuffins. Hence the need for magicians to work together.

Being able to do anything outside these limits involves finding loopholes in the eighteenth century understanding of the way the universe works, but they only work once. Hence the increasing unreliability of alchemy, traditional magics etc. down the years.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the paradigm barrier, other creatures (of form to be determined) in turn seek loopholes to find their way into the physical universe from which they've been barred by logic.

At the moment, I'm envisaging magecraft as a hereditary gift rather than a learnable trait, one which may have been bred into certain aristocratic lines but contains a good deal of randomness in terms of where and in whom it turns up (eugenics is so dull and takes me to some politically uncomfortable places).

So, any reflections? I acknowledge something of a debt to Mage: The Awakening here in my thinking, but hopefully not an overwhelming one.

To my mind, the three big unanswered questions are how magic then intersects with class, gender and religion in this universe.

Will 'civilised' magic have moved towards greater professionalization and openness to middle class applicant? Do tensions result?

Is magic a permissable profession for women?

What's the position of the Established Church, Catholicism and Dissent towards magic?

More on these issues to follow in later posts as I turn towards the society I'm writing about.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Magpiemoth starts writing

I've said to a few people that I'd use my convalesence this week to refocus on my writing again. And I have - but not in the way I expected.
 
A quick recap: last November for National Novel Writing Month I bashed out 20,000 words of a first draft about geeks on campus. I was pleasantly surprised that it didn't suck as hard as I thought it might. Even if I didn't make the 50K word target, that was something.
 
So I thought I'd revisit the work and the topic in 2010. What I've found, however, is that I don't want to write anything too overtly autobiographical right now - I can always come back to this at a later date.
 
No, I want to write something fun! Something playful! So it's back to the idea from the previous year's abortive NaNoWriMo attempt - Regency fantasy. Tolkien meets Jane Austen with side orders of Georgette Heyer and Ann Radcliffe.
 
The plan is that I'll start writing in May and provide a chapter a month to anyone who signs up with Just Giving to donate to Friends of the Earth (any amount is fine - it's the donation and the resulting guilt trip for me that counts)
 
I'll also provide ongoing freebies via this blog - world creation notes, short stories, vignettes, maybe even artwork - who knows?
 
So, watch this space over the course of April as we begin to fill in the blanks.
 
 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Peckham Library’s 10 years of Environmentally Destructive Waste

Press-release from Southwark Eco-Angels, taking action on energy wastage in my old stamping ground of Peckham. Possibly an action which could be imitated in other areas? And I like the fact it's a Friends of the Earth-Greenpeace co-production!

Leading light Donnachadh McCarthy's own eco-auditing website is here, if you'd like a closer look.

Giant Cheque Burning Protest –

Peckham Library’s 10 years of Environmentally Destructive Waste

Saturday 10th April 2.30pm

On Saturday 10th April, Britain’s first public protest against council energy wastage will take place outside the Peckham Library.

A giant cheque written on behalf of Southwark Council-Tax Payers to Peckham Library for £100,000 representing the money estimated to have been wasted on energy in the ten years since the Library opened, will be formally burned to represent Southwark Council’s record on wastage over the last 10 years.

This year represents the tenth anniversary for the iconic Will Allsop designed Library.

It is also exactly a year since the Peckham Library was exposed in the press for scandalously wasteful energy practices.

So what happened following the press scandal? Did Southwark councillors or librarians take immediate action to stop the waste of council tax, energy and CO2?

Sadly nothing whatsoever was done. Indeed, according to a Freedom of Information request carried out last month on behalf of Eco-Angels Southwark, the energy bill has rocketed another 25%.

In 2009/10 this one Library consumed £42,000 of taxpayers’ money to heat and light it, up from £32,000 in 2008/9.

When Eco-Angels Southwark visited the Library last week they found:

· Despite it being 8C outside on a cold spring day, 18 windows were open in the centrally heated building.

· The temperature in the main library was a sweltering 23.3C. The CIBSE recommended temperature is 19C. Every one degree above 19C, costs an extra 10% in energy and money. Thus heating the library to 23.3C, wastes a whopping 43.3% of the heating bill.

· Lighting was on in all the naturally lit areas of the library.

· The floodlights outside the library remain on 24 hours a day.

· Halogen Lamps which are the most wasteful bulbs possible remain in use at the reception.

From these facts, it is clear that the library is wasting at least a third of its energy consumption. Therefore over £10,000 a year in today’s terms has been wasted every year the library has been open. This adds up to more than £100,000.

As this waste has gone on under Labour, Lib Dem and Tory administrations in Southwark, all three party leaders and local MPs have been invited to witness the Giant Cheque Burning outside the library on Saturday, as well as members of the general public.

Eco-Angels Southwark spokesperson Donnachadh McCarthy said “Southwark’s libraries are scandalously wasting tax-payers money and helping to destroy our children’s future by this senseless environmental destruction.
Libraries should be leading our children by example. Our libraries should be carbon angels not carbon vandals. We need our libraries to be carbon negative now!”

Note: Eco Angels Southwark is being organised by a group of local members of Greenpeace Southwark and Friends of the Earth Southwark.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Best (only?) comic about the Venerable Bede ever!

What better way to start off my new blog than with this Bede comic, courtesy of John Allison, author of the mighty Bad Machinery and Scary Go Round. Howay!