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:

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.