Saturday, April 23, 2016

Mini-review - Milk

Another review found lost down the back of the sofa - Gus Van Sant's Harvey Milk biopic.

Milk (2008) was actually the first Van Sant film I'd seen, but it's GSV in relatively conventional mode. It's a biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to achieve elected office in California, who helped mobilise people against a proposed law (the so-called Briggs Initiative) which would have essentially allowed anyone who either was gay or was supportive of gay rights to be sacked from schools. Tragically, he was assassinated shortly after this victory.

The film itself is a really nicely done ensemble piece, with Sean Penn convincing enough as Milk that you almost forget his macho reputation. The splicing in of real footage of San Francisco, its gay scene and its persecution by the police, lend their realism to the reconstruction of Milk's life.

As an activist, Milk is also an inspiring example of how identity politics can mobilise support, especially when there's not only an existential threat of the kind that LGBT people faced in the 1970's, but also the possibility of successful resistance to that same threat.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Town and city names in song titles: a non-definitive list

The rules - post a song title in the comments containing a town or city I've missed and I'll add it to the list! No city name-checked twice.

No suburbs or urban neighbourhoods, sorry!

Thanks to Rach, Andy T, Andy S, Dan, James, Jo, Rich and Simon for all your suggestions 


Loco In Acapulco - The Four Tops
Is This The Way To Amarillo? - Tony Christie 
Amsterdam - Jacques Brel
Babalon AD - Cradle Of Filth
Bombs Over Baghdad - Outkast
Streets Of Baltimore - Gram Parsons
Bangkok - Alex Chilton 
Barcelona - Freddy Mercury and Montserrat Caballe 
Belfast - Boney M 
I Have Slept With All The Girls in Berlin - The Sisters Of Mercy
Birmingham (UK) Blues - ELO
Boulder to Birmingham (US) - Emmylou Harris
Skank Bloc Bologna - Scritti Politti
Boston Belongs To Me - Death Before Dishonor 
Brighton Rock - Queen
Budapest - George Ezra
Night Boat To Cairo - Madness
Chantilly Lace - The Big Bopper
Chattanooga Choo Choo - Glenn Miller Orchestra
What Is Chatteris? - Half Man Half Biscuit
Sweet Home Chicago - Robert Johnson (but it's the Blues Brothers version people know
Walking into Clarksdale - Page And Plant
Last Train To Clarksville - The Monkees


Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother! - Sufjan Stevens
Panic In Detroit - David Bowie
Clover In Dover - Blur 
Copenhagen - Scott Walker
Durham Town - Roger Whittaker
Dusseldorf - Regina Spektor
Edinburgh Man - The Fall
Eton Rifles - The Jam


Galway Girl - Steve Earle
Galveston - Glen Campbell 
Sealed With A Glasgow Kiss - Carter USM 
Night Falls On Hoboken - Yo La Tengo
Hong Kong Garden - Siouxsie and the Banshees
Istanbul (not Constantinople) - The Four Lads (but best known by They Might Be Giants)


Jacksonville - Sufjan Stevens 
Jericho - The Prodigy
Kingston Town - Lord Creator (and then done again by UB40)
Knutsford City Limits - Robbie Williams
Heart As Big As Liverpool - Pete Wylie
Give Me Hope Johanna - Eddie Grant
Viva Las Vegas - Elvis Presley 
Lazy Leeds Afternoons - The Rythym Sisters
Sunshine On Leith - The Proclaimers
Leningrad - Billy Joel
London Calling - The Clash
Los Angeles - X 
Loughborough Suicide - The Young Knives


Malibu - Hole
Road To Mandalay - Robbie Williams
I'm In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk - The Freshies 
Marrakech Express - Crosby, Stills and Nash
All The Way To Memphis - Mott The Hoople
Minneapolis - Underworld 
Stuck Outside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again - Bob Dylan
Miami - Will Smith
Come To Milton Keynes - The Style Council
Stranger In Moscow - Michael Jackson
Planet Of New Orleans - Dire Straits
New York, New York - Frank Sinatra (and midnight karaoke turns everywhere)
Nice In Nice - The Stranglers 
Energy In Northampton - Linda Jardim 
Nutbush City Limits - Tina Turner
Odessa - Caribou 
Maid Of Orleans - OMD 
Oxford Girl - Oysterband 


A Free Man In Paris - Joni Mitchell
Streets Of Philadelphia - Bruce Springsteen
By The Time I Get To Phoenix - Public Enemy 
Pompeii - Bastille 
All The Way To Reno - REM
The Bells Of Rhymney - Pete Seeger (or, if you like, The Byrds)
Rochdale Cowboy - Mike Harding
Don't Go Back To Rockville - REM 
When In Rome, Do The Jerk - Rocket From The Crypt
Rotterdam - The Beautiful South


San Francisco - Scott McKenzie (you know, the one about flowers in your hair) 
Do You Know The Way to San Jose? - Dionne Warwick
Santa Cruz - The Thrills 
Miss Sarajevo - Passengers
Scarborough Fair - Trad (although we all know the Simon And Garfunkel version)
Seneca Falls - The Distillers
Sheffield Sex City - Pulp
Singapore - Tom Waits
I Stockholm - Lars Winnerb├Ąck 
Tallahassie Lassie - Freddy Cannon
Texarkana - REM
Anarchy In Timperley - Frank Sidebottom (borderline suburb, but added because Frank)
Because Of Toledo - The Blue Nile
60 Seconds Over Tokyo - Pere Ubu
Rose Of Tralee - Trad
24 Hours From Tulsa - Gene Pitney 


Vienna - Ultravox
Warszawa - David Bowie
Waterloo - Abba (Wikipedia confirms Waterloo is a town)
Wichita Lineman - Glen Campbell 
Winchester Cathedral - New Vaudeville Band
Woodstock - Joni Mitchell (not just a festival, but the town where the festival was) 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Gaimanesque - Franklyn mini-review

As some of the posts in the next few weeks may suggest, I've discovered a vein of previously drafted film reviews. And since the election campaigns are currently still rather all-consuming, I'm bringing these artefacts to light to fill a few gaps in my blogging schedule.

Magpie Moth: blogging like it's the noughties all over again. :)

[warning - plot spoilers ahead]

Franklyn (2009) is a surprisingly thoughtful film of three interlocking stories - a jilted groom-to-be whse childhood friend mysteriously appears as a grown woman; an artist looking deep (too deep) into herself; a delusional soldier who imagines himself a grim atheist in a gothic city of religions, hunting down his father/adversary.

It's a fantasy film providing genre critique, looking at the perils and seductiveness of self-absorption in an interior world. And it has a genuinely moving ending - having your romantic leads only meet in the final scene is a pretty daring trick to pull.

Franklyn isn't quite up to the standards of Neil Gaiman, but it's certainly Gaimanesque in its conceit. It's a good try, certainly, and you can add on a point if you think you'll like the cut of its jib, making 6/10.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The intelligence community - Burn After Reading reviewed

The Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading (2008) could best be described as a black-hearted Beltway farce. Ex-CIA analyst Osborn Cox (John Malkovich) is blackmailed by the gym staff who find his half-finished memoirs, cuckolded and then divorced by his wife. These strands of plot then align unhappily with bloody consequences.

Trouble is, I've made it much neater - in every sense of the word - than it it in practice. Despite a great cast (Malkovich, McDormand, Swinton and Clooney) and some great scenes (mostly involving Brad Pitt's gym bunny) Burn.. seems curiously underwritten, lacking coherency and maybe at least one rewrite away from being the sum of its parts.

Granted - Coen Brothers films can feel a little foggy by today's cinema conventions precisely because they leave space for the viewer to form their own ideas as to what's really going on inside or outside their character's heads. When that works well, you get the woozy phantasmagoria of Barton Fink. When that doesn't quite work, you get Burn After Reading.

Curioser still - the film, with its fatalistic 'stuff happens' credo, is strangely apolitical for a Washington-set comedy. Not every film set in the capital has to be political, of course, but for a film about (ha!) the intelligence community to have no such context is a wasted opportunity.

Even minor Coen is, on balance, better than no Coen. Even The Ladykillers. And for goodness sake this is much better than The Ladykillers.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Campaigning force awakens in Northern Ireland and Wales

In the latest issue of Thumbprint, the MND Association's in-house magazine, there's an article by me on what we're doing for the Northern Irish and Welsh Assembly elections. 

It had to be edited down a little to fit - and the Star Wars references I included didn't quite make the cut - but here it is as originally drafted. 

Campaigning force awakens in Northern Ireland and Wales 
If you’ve enjoyed the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, then you’ve seen that it takes a lot of people – not just the usual heroes – to overcome The Dark Side. Campaigning is much the same: if we all do a little then we can change a lot.

In 2016, we’re looking to increase our MND campaigning powers in Wales and Northern Ireland. But just like the rebels in Star Wars – we can’t do it without your help. Every e-mail sent helps us reach politicians in a position to influence MND care. Every local campaign volunteer is a local voice for change.

Where better to start this year than with the elections to the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies in May? These elections matter more than you might think – decisions about health and social care are mostly taken in Belfast and Cardiff rather than in Westminster.

So, we’ve launched two new campaigns - one for Northern Ireland and one for Wales - asking Assembly election candidates to commit to championing MND. For some politicians, this may begin a journey of sympathy and support for our cause throughout their career.

To help them understand the impact of MND, we’ve picked a relevant local issue to lead on in Northern Ireland and Wales.


Northern Ireland: Every Breath Counts

The starting point for our Every Breath Counts campaign is the fact that respiratory failure is the most common cause of death in people with MND. That means specialist health professionals play a vital role in care as breathing becomes more difficult.

Every Breath Counts is calling for an increase in the provision of respiratory care in Northern Ireland – especially in the community – to improve quality of life and reduce unplanned hospital admissions.

For more information including our briefing paper see

Wales: MND Won’t Wait

Our MND Won’t Wait campaign emphasises that a timely and accurate diagnosis is essential for the right care at the right time to occur.

In 2013, we found that one in five people with MND in Wales waited longer than a year between first visiting their GP and seeing a neurologist for diagnosis. Though some progress has been made, three years later, we still believe there remains much to be done to raise standards and awareness.

For more information, including our briefing paper, see

How you can help

We know that politicians respond best to local people telling them about MND in their own words. So we’d love your help in Northern Ireland and in Wales in sending them a friendly message, asking them to champion MND.

And it only takes five minutes – all you need to do is go to the homepage for the campaign and send an e-mail to candidates in your area.

If you have a little more time, you might want to personalise your e-mail or adapt one of our template letters.

Join in on Facebook and Twitter

Please do also raise awareness of MND in Northern Ireland and Wales by retweeting and sharing our campaign news to your followers and friends.

Follow us on Twitter at @mndcampaignsNI and @mndcampaignsWLS

Use the Twitter hashtags #everybreath and #mndwontwait

Like us on Facebook at

Keep in touch with us
Questions about the campaigns? Share responses from your candidates?

Interested in finding out more about volunteering in local campaigning (you don’t need to be a Jedi)?

Get in touch with Campaign Manager Tim Atkinson for a chat on or 01543 415121.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

William Gibson's Spook Country

I am one of those fickle readers who have William Gibson's early novels - that loose but seminal trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive - on my shelves but have shied away from reading anything else he's done since.

To be fair, that decision was taken in my early twenties, when Gibson's gradual move away from cyberpunk into more mature (also read - less futuristic) settings would not have found favour with me at the time.

But, since chance threw a copy of Spook Country (2007) into my path, I thought I'd give late-period Gibson a go.

Curiously - the book sold me on Gibson as a writer, but not on the novel itself. 

It reminded me that William Gibson is pretty much the only present-day science-fiction author I can think of who writes like a poet. And the window-dressing in this book - the psychogeographic observations of New York, LA and Vancouver - is beautiful.

He's also an astute observer of contemporary societal and technological trends, Spook Country essentially being science-fiction set in the contemporary world, exploring the potential of what is rather than what could be. Reading latter-day Gibson makes me feel like I'm living the future now, which is a rare and uncanny experience.

It does seem however with Spook Country that what Gibson really wanted to write was a series of vignettes or feuilleton articles, but what he was contracted to do was a novel. So while the scene-setting, the digressions into cultural review and the aphorisms about the creative industries are great, the plot itself is flimsy. 

Without getting too spoileriffic, it's a slight piece of cloak and dagger action involving a GPS-tracked McGuffin and different factions in the US military-industrial complex. Gibson pulls out his usual diversionary tactic of switching between different protagonists whose storylines eventually converge, but the ending is enough of an anti-climax as to leave this reader at least rather deflated.

Spook Country, then, is a very interesting travelling companion for a while, but the destination isn't worth the journey. Like boarding the Orient Express but finding yourself unaccountably stranded at Blake Street (LOCAL REFERENCE KLAXON).

On the other hand - I am definitely going to delve deeper into Gibson's body of work. His writing has only got better and I am belatedly realising there is definitely life after cyperpunk here.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Don't tell me I have nothing to read: a compendium of 2015 SF/fantasy recommendations

One of the benefits of being in the peanut gallery and following the Hugo Awards is that you pay attention to which stories are being talked about as potential contenders for the Best Novel. 

Then it escalates - you start looking at other SF/fantasy awards and cross-reference what books make each shortlist. Bingo - what you get is a reading list of cool stuff from the last year to watch out for. And given my default tendency to delve into the past for my reading choices, this is a useful corrective.

So, while we're waiting for the Hugo nominees to be announced around the end of the month, here's what's been added to my mental to-be-read pile.

Right up my street
The House of Shattered Wings - Aliette de Boliard
Radiance - Catherynne M Valente 
The Traitor - Seth Dickinson
The Library At Mount Char - Scott Hawkins
The Just City - Jo Walton 
Sorceror To The Crown - Zen Cho 
Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor 
Archivist Wasp - Nicole Kornher-Stace

Curious but cautious

Luna: New Moon - Ian McDonald
The Thing Itself - Adam Roberts (I love Roberts as a critic but my reaction to his novels has varied)
The Night Clock - Paul Meloy
Lament For the Afterlife - Lisa L Hannett
The Glorious Angels - Justina Roberts
Uprooted - Naomi Novik
Updraft - Fran Wilde
Karen Memory - Elizabeth Bear  
Gentleman Jole And The Red Queen - Lois McMaster Bujold
Planetfall - Emma Newman

Would need to read the previous book(s) in the series first

Dark Eden / Mother Of Eden - Chris Beckett
Europe In Autumn / Europe At Midnight - Dave Hutchinson
Nexus/Crux/Apex - Ramez Naam
The March North/A Succession Of Bad Days - Grayson Saunders

Possibly a little too dark for my taste, but I won't know unless I try

The Heart Goes Last - Margaret Atwood (I kind of feel I should try classic-period Atwood first? Is that wrong?)
The Reflection - Hugo Wilcken 
The Shore - Sara Taylor
The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan
Wild cards

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson
Barsk - The Elephants Graveyard - Lawrence M Schoen
Bryony And Roses - T Kingfisher
The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro  
Sources and thanks to:

Ansible - the Grand Heirophant of all e-zines and a great link library to various awards and their shortlists.
Nicholas Whyte's summary of a discussion about Hugo nominations on File 770.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Hugo nominations - here's what we submitted

The nominating period for this year's Hugo Awards wrapped up on Thursday (31 March) last week. Here's what I eventually submitted, with help from a few friends who can vote in the next round but not nominate because of the way the registration deadlines played out

As you can see, it's not a full ballot - there are whole categories of short fiction which I cannot speak - but it covers as many bases as it could.

Best Novel

Ancillary Mercy - Ann Leckie
The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street - Natasha Pulley
The Grace Of Kings - Ken Liu
Seveneves - Neil Stephenson
The Dark Forest - Liu Cixin  

Best Related Work

Rave And Let Die - Adam Roberts

Best Graphic Story

Saga Vol 5
Ms Marvel Vol 2
The Wicked And The Divine Vol 2

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)

Ex Machina
Mad Max - Fury Road
Star Wars - Episode VII - The Force Awakens
The Martian
Daredevil Season 1

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

4,722 Hours -  Agents of Shield
AKA Crush Syndrome - Jessica Jones
Cut Man - Daredevil

Best Professional Artist
Christian Ward

Best Semiprozine


Best Fanzine

File 770

Best Fancast

Caustic Soda podcast

Best Fan Writer

Eric Flint
Camestros Felapton
Mike Glyer
Charles Stross
Philip Sandifer

John W. Campbell Award (not a Hugo) for new writers

Natasha Pulley