Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Smiert spionen

On the instructions of my younger brother, the advice of my brother-in-law, and because I'd always meant to anyway, I've been reading more John le Carre, and pursuing Harry Palmer on DVD.

Funeral In Berlin is fab, though without John Barry's music, it lacks some of the cool of The Ipcress File. Also, the back of DVD case gives the whole plot away. The stark ruin on Berlin, contrasting drear on the East and devil-may-care fun on the west, really beefs up the atmosphere - though making the London scenes a bit dull.

I'll seek out Billion Dollar Brain next, but won't bother with the two 90s films, which I remember lacking the essential style and verve of the 60s films.

The spy genre really suffered as a result of the cold war ending - I still reckon James Bond films would be better if they were set back in the 1950s. You can just imagine Q's latest, incredible gadget: "Information is stored on this shiny disc, and read by a beam of light we call a 'laser'...".
"[Latimer] had made a corner for himself in what was known as the 'Mad Mullah Department,' studying the intricate and seemingly indecypherable web of Muslim fundamentalist groups operating out of the Lebanon. The notion so beloved of the amateur terror industry that these bodies are all part of a superplot is nonsense. If only it were so - for then there might be some way to get at them! As it is, they slip about, grouping and regrouping likes drops of water on a wet wall, and they are about as easy to pin down."

John le Carre, "The Secret Pilgrim", p. 178.

The Secret Pilgrim attempts to reconcile the cold war past with the unknown future of the intelligence service. It's the autobiography of Ned (James Fox's character in the film of The Russia House) - from an over-eager young intelligence officer almost killing the wrong man, to a cynical and world-weary negotiator glad to retire from a rampantly corporate world. The final episode, where Ned tries to appeal to Sir Anthony Bradshaw's conscience on the small matter of his "having HMG by the balls" is a precursor to The Constant Gardener, which I'm about four fifths of the way through now.

The book, recently made into a film, is about a a mild-mannered government employee investigating the savage murder of his wife, and carrying on the work she began to expose a gross, corporate conspiracy in the medical world. It's interesting that in this, the intelligence service seems to be in the pocket of the profiteers, and are - unlike in Smiley and Ned's day - the villains. I'm not quite sure I understand why,
"Where there's tuberculosis, you suspect AIDS... Not always, but usually."

John le Carre, The Constant Gardener, p. 252.

Will have to ask one of my clever, medical friends...

I've also been reading the first volume of Queen and Country, which updates the excellent Sandbaggers telly series, which I got through last year. Tough and gutsy like it's original, it does show some basic errors with London geography and idioms - though I'm told these get improved on later in the run.

Also reading Y: The Last Man, which is cool, too. Hoorah for good comics.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Things to see and do

A long weekend of fun activities, prior to the Doctor's birthday.

Tate Modern's Frida Kahlo exhibition was fun, though the Doctor didn't like the portraits with monkeys. We were both impressed by Moses, which made me think of Joseph Campbell's "The Hero With A Thousand Faces", which I read earlier this summer and which interlinks different religions, mythologies and psychoanalysis of dreams into one great (if overly-generalising) gestalt.

We'd been meaning to get to Theatre of Blood for ages, and it was brilliant. The Doctor burrowed into my shoulder for some of the gorier bits, and I was surprised how funny it proved was. The special effects and illusions were expertly done, too. Still trying to figure out if they really rolled away the barrel of wine away with Tim McMullan curled up inside it - I can't see how they can have done it otherwise.

We also met up with chums, ate very well, had a picnic, and saw various films - Casablanca, The Hunger, and The Rising. Comments on those to follow.

We're now working our way though Civilisation and Lost - four episodes in to each, and loving them. The fourth episode of Lost was the one to really hook me. Lock's miraculous recover is just such a wonderful thing, and a perfect contrast to all the death and destruction and freaky weirdshit.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Tree for travellers

Dr Who and the Time Travellers, by Simon Guerrier

So, so pleased by what Black Sheep came up with. And, yes, the traffic-light tree really exists.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Des idées napoléoniennes

Long weekend of running about doing things. Bought shoes, a coat and trinkets for the Doctor's imminent birthday. Caught up with various chums I've not seen in ages. Seen some top telly pilots, been to a wedding, to Whitstable and the dentist, and for curry. Done various bits of writing and reading, too, which I'll talk about another time. And approved two covers for things what I've written, which will turn up on the Internet soonish.

Napoloeon III (1808-1873) was a rum sort of fellow, and probably the most interesting bit of my History A-level. A couple of fun things about him turned up in a book I read earlier this summer. For one thing, he inspired the classic Tube map:
"Napoleon's anxious draftmanship indirectly benefitted London, repaying the city's hospitality to him. When he finally presented the Prefect of Paris, Baron Hausmann, with plans for redesigning the French capital, the main thoroughfares were highlighted in primary colours, in red, yellow and green, according to their importance. This unheard-of finishing touch was taken up by later planners and designers, most notably the Mondrian of the Tube, Harry Beck."

Stephen Smith, "Underground London: Travels beneath the city streets", p. 204.

And then there's this:
"[Napoloeon] spent two years in London, from 1838 to 1840. This was at the time of the Chartist riot, when the movement for universal suffrage which had begun in provincial England culminated in disorder and panic in the capital. Louis Napoleon was sworn in as a special constable and paced a beat in the West End, in the company of the cook from the Atheneum."


So Napoleon III was on the same side as the Duke of Wellington - who'd been put in charge of London's fortifications against the seditious, democratic mob. Which is a bit weird - like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both being on the same (baddie) side in Star Wars.

(Oh, and in checking Wikipedia for the link, I love what it says about his son: "The Zulus later claimed that they would not have killed him had they known who he was.")

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Second coming

The new issue of DWM includes the results of the 2004 readers' poll. It's the first time I've ever had something of mine in the running (well, I've been in anthologies that did good, but that's someone else's glory).

Anyway. The Coup came second last in a group of 17. Ho hum.

"At least I can only get better," I told the Doctor, with my usual, tough resolve.

"Or," she replied, "next year you could come last."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Hello there

There's been a couple of occasions in recent weeks when I've had to remind people that blogs, newsgroups and mailing lists don't count as private conversations. Nor are they conversations-in-public that others might accidentally eavesdrop, like something overheard on a train journey. No, they're readily accessible and searchable, and stored for posterity. You can't really get more public, as conversations go.

In fact, email should probably come with the same kind of warning. It's so easily forwarded to the wrong people (and accessed by IT and management at work) that numerous mates have been stung by blowing-off-steam messages and bitchy one-liners getting sent to the people they're sniping at. I once had a brilliant dinner where people compared catastrophies having hit REPLY instead of FORWARD, or where things they'd emailed months ago suddenly being sent round the office.

So, a rule of thumb: these things get read, and they're likely to get read by the people you're talking about.

Still, I've been surprised by the numbers of people who mention this 'ere blog to me - either taking me to task for things they don't agree with, or wanting to know more about things I've mentioned fleetingly, or wanting to know why I even bother. Blimey, these things really do get read.

Oh, and incidentally: tough, patience, and not really sure yet.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Let meaning choose

Writers can be very, very dull on the subject of writing. There are myriad books, websites and blogs detailing aspects of The Craft, debating the use of the serial comma, or ranting against particular phrases, quirks of punctuation and things-they-should-still-teach-in-schools. There's an awful lot of smug, not actually practical, no-you're-wronging involved.

As I often have to explain as part of my job, there's no general consensus on style. Really. While correct spelling has been agreed for hundreds of years, punctuation is still largely a matter of taste. For every style guru who'll insist on one rule, there’s another expert who'll vehemently disagree.

Kingsley Amis put it very nicely: there are those to be scorned because they know/care less about punctuation and grammar than you do, and those to be scorned because they know/care more; that is, there are berks and there are wankers.

I've just been sent this link to Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", which feels disturbingly topical for something sixty years old. It's a manifesto for clarity in writing and thinking, and everyone should read it. You don't need to know the difference between a noun and an adjective, nor why the split infinitive is perfectly acceptable English, nor any rules for hyphens, semi-colons and commas. These will all come, of their own accord, just so long as your meaning is clear.
"A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
  • What am I trying to say?
  • What words will express it?
  • What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  • Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?"

Friday, August 12, 2005

Recent reads

Didn't get very far with Albion before giving up, I'm afraid. Which is a shame, because since the end of For Tomorrow, I've been looking for a comic to follow. Or, more accurately, borrow. By the end of issue 2 of Albion, I was just left feeling I'd missed something, and couldn't be arsed to wonder what.

So, since I was helping myself to someone else's bookshelf anyway, I picked up We3 because it had a cool cover. Blimey. That was a bit good - even the Doctor was hooked, getting cross over my shoulder 'cos she was reading faster than me. Hooray for a good comic! Seems like ages since I last read something that wasn't, ultimately, a disappointment.

Am now reading The Men Who Stare At Goats. Loved Ronson's Them, and again this manages to mix the geekily-observed funny with the liberally-minded terrifying. It can be funny, with Prudence Calabrese explaining how she got into psychic "remote viewing" and appeared on TV to reveal details of the Martian satellite flying alongside the Hale-Bopp comet, and then terrifying when Prudence discovers that her and her colleagues' predictions may have influenced the 39 people who killed themselves to join the said alien vessel.
"'It's kind of stressful to talk about,' she said. 'I don't really know what to say.'
'I guess you weren't to know that all the excitement would, uh, lead to a mass suicide,' I said.
'You'd think that if you were a remote viewer you should have been able to figure that out ahead of time,' said Prudence."

Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare At Goats, p. 121.

Of course, Prudence is also revealed (on page 97, and then again on page 100) to have been a big fan of Dr Who...

Just getting to the stuff about the torturing of Iraqi prisoners, which is even more weird and awful all at once. Still, it's so full of weird stories, I can't help wondering it's not a massive exercise in counter-intelligence.

Thinking of that, a few chums outside of the Smoke continue to ask the same questions: What is London like since the bombings? Or, What's changed? Or, Do you feel like you're living under siege?

Well no, not really. It's not that different, though there are a lot more police around. I've seen people having their bags searched as I've walked to work, and I've had to open my bag a few times for security people to peer in to. But, well, for all this talk of there being another one due any time, I think there was more grim anticipation before July 7th. No, things are just carrying on...

Hmm. I was going to type something about "things carrying on as if normal", but that reminds me of Salam Pax from ages ago:

"A BBC reporter walking thru the Mutanabi Friday book market (again) ends his report with :
'It looks like Iraqis are putting on an air of normality'
Look, what are you supposed to do then? Run around in the streets wailing? War is at the door eeeeeeeeeeeee!"
It wouldn't be very British, would it?

And to finish, another chum has started a blog, it's hardly rocket science, which promises to deal with the challanges of the Brit surviving abroad. Already it has made me laugh, especially this bit:
"The thing is, I come from England. Although we have very poor weather, and our teeth can be pretty gross, termites don't figure in our indigenous fauna."
Right. Off to the pub.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

If you are wise you'll listen to me

Back from a long weekend across the border in Cornwall. Had a great time, though I am entirely knackered out. Hate the fact I can’t sleep on trains, and – as discussed before – driving is not my idea of a laugh.

Hired a fat-arsed little Meganne at Plymouth, which really wasn’t built with a gallumphing six foot three me in mind. Kept knocking the windscreen-wipers into action with my knee, and clutch control is a sod when you have to twist your ankle round to reach the pedals. The laughably steep West Looe Hill - with cars parked all up what’s barely a single lane and vans bombing down towards you - was Not Fun.

Have dreamt three nights running of being packed into a box I don’t fit, with the lid being pressed shut over my protruding ankles and feet. Can’t imagine why.

Still, all worthwhile. Wedding on Saturday was shockingly good, with fireworks and bands, and scallops-wrapped-in-bacon. We have also made some new friends. Felt overly sober, though, having Behaved 'cos of driving duties. As a result, my "dancing" was, I’m told, worse than usual. That’s quite an achievement, actually.

On Sunday we were off to chums in a converted mill (well, a converting mill, since there's still work to be done) just outside Bodmin, where there were more pals and Pimms and a feast. Around midnight, those who were staying had to contend with a bat who wanted to join the party. Eerie, sweet things, bats, utterly silent as they zip about overhead. Eventually directed the thing in the direction of an open window, and retired about oneish.

The pals who'd left, it turned out, fared worse – their car broke down and they didn't see home till gone five. As I said, cars can pretty much sod off.

The Doctor, meanwhile, performed wonders as an ace navigator all weekend – especially clever since she’s not a driver herself – and ensured there were beers and wines waiting when driving chores had been done.

In an effort to stretch my twisted limbs, on Monday we went for a two-hour walk with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory waiting at the end of it. Really enjoyed the film. A clever chum had pointed out the worlds of Dr Who represented by (the utterly fantastic) Deep Roy, James Fox and Annette Badland. I also wonder whether Grandpa George was specifically cast to look like Roald Dahl... Not so upset by the Christopher Lee segments as others (such as Gaiman) have been. Felt it gave the film some depth – and made it more than just some lurid, occasionally sickly, eye-candy.

Anyway. Back home last night to cat-sick and house chores and work. Got quite a lot done of the stuff I took away with me. Had taken Time Travellers proofs to read on the train, and sadly kept laughing at my own jokes – and worse, at my own turns-of-phrase. Think it all hangs together, though.

A world of secret projects still needs battling, though. Best get on with it.

Friday, August 05, 2005

You can believe he has secrets

Off to the pub tonight, with lots of things I can't talk about. Like the new Dr Who, I tell myself.

Since getting back from Bristol I've begun writing up something I can't talk about, started a big, new project I can't talk about, been okayed for something I can't talk about, and invoiced for something I can't talk about. Yet. And there's a whole load of stuff of mine coming out in the next few months, and I shouldn't be talking about any of that yet, either.

This, of course, is where the Internet is a dangerous temptation. And having a blog even worse. I have to content myself with sharing my secrets with the wife and cat. Lucky them.

At least I'm not alone in this. I guess it's a Writer Thing that you only talk about Old Stuff, while anything you're actually doing (and interested in) is embargoed until months after you've handed it in and forgotten all about it.

Sharing details of these top secret projects with those in the same boat doesn't lighten the load, either. Oh no. It's not just that it means shouldering more salacious details that can't be passed on, I'm also terribly envious of what they've got out in the world just now...

Eddie Robson, for example, is similarly writing things he can't talk about yet. Still, I found out today he has his own blog, which is typically brilliant, sharp and better-than-what-I-do. And I should be collecting his new book on Film Noir tonight, which I did proofing duties on and so have already read. And it's brilliant, sharp and better-than-what-I-do, too. Damn him.

Matthew Sweet is also writing something he can't talk about yet. But he's on the telly next week dishing dirt. And in the Times today, and all that sort of thing. Gah!

And Joe Lidster is writing things not to be spoken of, and said he'd kill me even for the merest mentioning. So that's just between you and me, eh?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Did I really write that?

Just back from Bristol, where the Doctor and I looked in on friends' new babies. Got a bit drunk last night, which was fun, and also went to the obligatory museums. The Doctor liked the slavery stuff at the Industrial Museum, and the Georgian House was cool, too, though had an awful lot of steps when you're lugging a heavy bag. Both museums were nicely free.

Have been reading Tom Reilly's revisionist history of Cromwell in Ireland, for reasons which may one day come to light. Lots of detail, though it's sometimes quite repetitive. I can also see where the Amazon reviewer is coming from about the Reilly favouring secondary sources over primary... but there's really no need for how savage that review is. Academics, eh?

Popped in to the Big Finish offices on Friday and got to hear the first few minutes of Lost Museum. Golly. Had a Ron Grainer moment. Oh, and Christmas is in - I think it works. And proofs of Time Travellers are in the post.