Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Post #249

Tomorrow this blog is a whole year old, and I’m still not quite sure why I bother. But anyhoo…

Didn’t quite fit into the bus to Granada, so arrived feeling sore and a bit cranky. We dumped bags and headed to the cathedral. In the adjoining Capilla Real we got to see the tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella, who were so happy about winning the town from the Moors in 1492 that they stumped up the cash for Columbus to get lost.

A narrow staircase let you peak at the metal coffins of the dead king and queen. I was reminded of Nimbos telling me about King James, similarly sealed in a lead box. The airtight seal meant he didn’t crumble away to dust as is normal with dead folk, and a later investigation of the coffin found he'd dissolved into soup. I will avoid the tasteless gag about Scotch broth.

Two other odd things about this high Catholic chapel. First, behind the altar is a ceiling-high collection of scenes from the Bible, all done in gaudy 3D. There’s Jesus chatting to some woman, and a priest looking suitably devout.

Oh, and there’s Herod handing over the head of St John the Baptist to Salome (whose mum wanted it for reasons not entirely explained in the Good Book). And between them kneels the remainder of John, captured just as he topples forward so we get an eyeful of his hewn and spurting neck.

The Dr reminded me that public executions would have been a regular part of life at the time this thing was commissioned, so the graphic detail wouldn’t have been quite so shocking.

Secondly, the music playing eerily through the chapel was one of the less-obviously sci-fi tunes from the Bladerunner soundtrack. Guess that Vangelis also did the tunes for that 1492 movie, but even so it was a bit odd. Half expected them to follow it up with some sombre Paddy Kingsland. But they didn’t.

Next day, we dared climb all the way up to the Alhambra. This was partly due to a huge underestimation on my part about how steep it would be (oops) and the still becrutched Dr had to hang on to my arm most of the way (double oops). But we did get a good understanding of the place’s defensive position, as well as seeing a nice bit of stream and garden.

It really is a very beautiful place, and we cooed our way round the Nasrid palace. Again, it’s full of small, interlocking spaces arranged round water features and rooms for contemplation. The Arabic written into the intricate plasterwork everywhere suggests the decorators were fully literate, and there are all kinds of theories about the mathematical and astronomical significance of the d├ęcor.

Every now and then there are rather feeble bits of masonry done by later, Christian hands – there’s an especially galling ceiling of Ferdinand and Isabella’s heraldry which just seems vulgar compared to the modest skill all around it. The Dr explained how the Christian conquest included burning all the Moorish books and manuscripts, learning from the classical age that the West was only just beginning to realise the worth of.

The place was a lot more crowded than when I’d been eight years ago, and I marvelled at the inanities from other visitors. They pointed out to each other what were windows and what ceilings, and which of the pools included “goldfish”.

At least our enlightened countrymen have stopped nicking bits – an awful lot of the Alhambra’s finery resides in the British Museum and V&A.

On Monday we headed back to Malaga by cab – a luxury that gave us time to see the cathedral. I grasped enough Spanish to discuss with the cab driver Granada’s programme of roadworks, Brazil’s chances in the world cup and the myriad virtues of Liverpool. At least I think that’s what it was about.

And then home yesterday to the cold and a cat largely unimpressed to see us, plus all kinds of work things to be done. Did a bit of them, then had wine and Saturday’s Dr Who care of Nimbos. Dreamt of faceless people in cages.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Nos embarrechemos

Or something. Whetever the Spanish is for "we are drunk".

Hello from hot, sweaty Malaga bus station. We have just missed a bus to Granada, and so here I am killing the time before the next one.

Had a nice time yesterday, starting off at the Picasso Museum. Having established in one room that Picasso was bored with just drawing stuff well before he was out of his teens, we followed his bosom fixation through various stylistic developments. His experiment with form seems to have been so you could look front-on at a naked lady, and still see all of her bum.

The Dr was especially taken with the classically influenced stuff. There was some splendid hasty sketches of satyrs and fauns larking about, all with delightfully smiley faces. We bought a poster.

Also liked the more realistic one of the Minotaur hunched over some bird. Looked like an Eddie Campbell drawing, I thought.

Then we went to the Moorish castle on the hill, which the Dr explored valiantly, even with her crutch. It´s a beautiful place, all done in shallow red bricks and using any bits of antiquity they had to hand. So orphaned Roman columns support the arches, stuff like that.

It´s so beautiful, with small courtyards and spaces running into each other, and water babling peacably throughout, that you could almost miss the carefully constructed defensive purpose. Every turn of the entrance is well covered, with handy hidey holes and nooks for soldiers to squeeze into.

The views are also spectacular, and would have been even better in the days before the high-rise blocks and cement factory on the water´s edge.

I´d be quite happy being on guard duty in a place like that.

After some very nice paella and a kip, we headed to a fantastically high-Catholic church for the wedding, admiring the Madame Tussauds-like dioramas of various nuns and saints. I´d never seen a donkey done quite so majestically.

Wedding went on into the very wee hours, and I got the cerveza all to myself. Left about 3 as the dancing got going, and had about four hours sleep before we got turfed from our very plush hotel. Now got four hours on a bus. Bah.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sex and drugs and rock and roll

"Is all my brain and body need..."
Off to Spain 'cos someone who's almost family is getting hitched. And as we hurry ourselves out the door, it strikes me as odd where Dr Who thought'd make a good date with Rose.

When you buy flowers or take her for pizza, you at least make the subtext implicit.
"Das ist gut! C'est fantastique!
Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!"

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Two world wars and one world cup

The football is coming and with it the usual silliness about how we used to be an Empire and had some wins last century.

"We are unique among nations in our ignorance about our own history," raved Rob Newman last month.
"How curious, for example, that the first world war is never taught in our schools as an invasion of Iraq ... I am sure many of you, like me, have never been entirely satisfied with the standard explanation we were given at secondary school for the causes and origins of the [war] - the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. I mean, no one is that popular."

Rob Newman, "History of Oil".

Yes, that took me a bit by surprise, too.

Now Newman's rant about oil isn't the first thing you'd pair up with AN Wilson, but I've been reading "After the Victorians". Newman, for example, doesn't seem maniacally obsessed with linking everything that happened in the first 50 years of the 20th century to the worries of the Church of England. And he's less reverent of poets and paintings.

Yet both muddle up history and culture since 1900 to show a) that stuff we were taught at school is more interlinked and cross-pollinating than maybe the conventional packaging of history in syllabuses and documentaries makes out, and b) that it very much informs the world we live in now.

Because of that, what are not necessarily new or unspoken-of-previously ideas about the history we take for granted become all the more radical.

Newman goes on to explain the threat posed by the Baghdad-Berlin railway - an extension of the Orient Express from Constantinople down into what was then Persia - in the years leading up to the war. This would give Germany access to Britain's monopoly of oilfields, at a time when Western powers were becoming dependent on oil. Until that point, Germany had no oil reserves of its own. And Wilson agrees:
"If it did not grab the public imagination as a major threat, the railway obsessed the diplomats and politicians. They knew that access to the oilfields of Persia and to India were vital to [British] interests ... In the very debate in the House of Commons after the assassination of the archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, having offered his personal sympathy ... began almost immediately to speak of those things which most concerned British interests in a coming war. He said barely a word about France or Belgium. He used the question of a back-bencher to allow him to revert to oil concessions in Persia and whether two brigades would be enough to protect them."

AN Wilson, "After the Victorians", pp. 135-6.

The first division of British troops deployed in the war was sent, according to Newman, to Basra not Belgium. He argues that we only hear of the war poets from the muddy trenches, though Wilson reminds us that Rupert Brooke fought in Gallipoli, died in Skyros, and wrote to the then Prime Minister's daughter about his classical fancies come alive.

Wilson avoids any too obvious linkings of Iraq then and now. He's more interested in India than the oil - the railway affected trade routes as well as black gold, and Wilson's book is most interested in the break up of the territories Empress Victoria had lauded over. That imperial collapse is because of the real victors of the 20th century:
"The USA did well out of the [first world] war. Every country in Europe emerged from the war financially ruined. The United States, however, was immeasurably enriched, not least by European debts owing to various US institutions, to the tune of £2,000 million."

Ibid, p. 202.

He then argues that the collapse of the Empire wasn't just the result of the second world war, but a condition of the US joining the fray. There is an argument (though it's not one Wilson argues) that the world wars were the same war between the old imperial powers, just with a bit of an intermission. Certainly the situation in 1939 can be seen to have come about because of flaws in the 1918 settlements. Still, Wilson's especially damning of our "allies" the US and USSR using the second world war in Europe to further their own horrific expansionist ends.

Unlike any war previously, the second world war did not end in peace and order, but a cold war fought between two super-bullies and their affiliated lapdogs. Stalin killed millions, including many who'd been prisoners and/or enemies of the Nazis. But they too suffered an imperial collapse before the end of the century.

The US are even worse than us on their own history. The Dr and I visited the National Air and Space Museum in Dulles while on our honeymoon two years ago. Hanging from the ceiling amid various bi-planes and spacecraft was an innocuous little flyer called Enola Gay. The small plaque gave some idea of the engine capacity, but nothing at all about its famous flight on 6 August 1945, where its one kookily-named bomb killed an estimated 138,890 people - and that not including the after effects.
"The overwhelming view of those who actually knew about the atomic bomb, and its effect upon human lives, was that its use was an obscenity, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Szilard were all utterly opposed. It took tremendous lies, of a Goebbelsesque scale of magnitude, to persuade two or three generations that instead of being gratuitous mass murder, the bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost benign - first, because they avoided the supposed deaths of half a million American troops (the estimated number of casualties had America conquered Japan by an invasion of infantry - a pretext utterly ruled out by the brevity of the time lapse between the dropping of the two weapons); and secondly, because it was better the weapon should be in the hands of the Good Guys rather than truly wicked people such as Hitler or Stalin. Both these views, enlivened with a dash of Bible Christianity, helped to put the President's mind at rest as he meditated upon it all in his diary."

Ibid, pp 472-3.

The implication is that the US dropped the bombs not to have Japan surrender - they'd been attempting to surrender anyhow - but to show Stalin who was boss in the new world order. And they left off many German industralists from facing the noose at Nuremberg because a strong West German economy would be another raspberry blown at Russia.
"All the just war, good cause, humanitarian arguments, they begin to unravel if ever a war is seen to be part of a continuous foreign policy that has remained absolutely consistent for decades. In the 95 years since Mesopotamian oil was first struck ... Britain has been at war with or occupying Iraq for 45 of them."

Newman, ibid.

Wilson is keen to stress that for all we carpet-bombed German civilians, we were still Better Guys than the Nazis, and life was far better with our "win" than had Hitler succeeded. But we weren't entirely the Good Goys we like to think - and still aren't. The Nazi elite were tried for 'planning and waging an aggressive war' - forcing a brutally consistent strategic and economic agenda in defiance of international laws.

Yes, technically we won both wars, but at an incredible cost - financially, politically - and effectively surrendered all our former power and influence to our cousins across the pond. At least we've got the world cup.

Which we won once. Forty years ago.

A period in which the Germans have won it twice, and been runner's up four times.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Put that light out

"As the story goes, Mr. Guerrier, on an otherwise uneventful day, seated himself on a small barrel, then absentmindedly tapped out the live embers from his pipe against it. Unfortunately, the "small barrel" was a keg of gun powder which, in combination with the aforementioned live embers, fatally distributed Mr. Guerrier over quite a substantial area!"

Robert L Munkres, "Tales of Old Fort Laramie".

I like "fatally distributed".

Monday, May 22, 2006

Love and war

Someone recently voiced the old chestnut that we're most technologically innovative as a species during time of war. Of course, the immediate threat of death rather focuses the mind, but there's more to it than that.

You see, you could argue that this means it's human nature to see the worst in everything, to see any potential tool first-off as a weapon.

For example, our understanding of germs and bacteria was just in its infancy - and penicillin still decades away - when mustard gas was being mass-produced for the battlefield. There were scientists testing the affects of atomic bombs even before they realised you'd need better protection than paper-overshoes.

It's the weapons first, then the dreams of atomic motorbikes and travellators that might make life more fun, or the accidental discovery of a mould that cures disease.

The counter-argument, though, is that it's not destruction that motivates us. Man does what he has always done to get by since his days on the savannah - used those tools available to him to give any slight advantage in protecting himself and his family. Those okaying the use of mustard gas or the A-bomb did so, they said, to save lives.

So it is not hate that technology thrives on, but love.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

This is a fake

Went to see the Da Vinci Code this afternoon, cos it was raining and we couldn't think of anything else. The Dr was laughing by the end.

Do mind the spoilers.

In fact, it probably won't make any sense unless you've seen the film.

And even then, not a lot.

There are a handful of things that irritated me:

It's not very clever
We're talking about a multi-million bestseller, so it's got to have been accessible in the first place. But this huge secret that the greatest scholars of the past millennia have kept safe, and which the church and various crackpot millionairres are desperate to locate, is hidden behind a few word games and anagrams no more complex than anything you'd find in a weekly puzzle magazine.

Don't believe me? It takes Tom Hanks a couple of days to crack it all.

Oh, there are nods to research and history, and there is a bit where Hanks says he needs a library. We'll ignore the fact that he's in central London and the best library he can think of is in Chelsea, forgetting that he's nearer one containing all the books ever published. The big fool. He doesn't go to the library anyway because he gets his answer by googling with a mobile.

What really bothers is the idea that any given symbol stands for one particular thing. It's what you get in puzzle magazines because it makes it easier for the person solving the puzzle. But symbols can mean all sorts of things. For example, depending on context, the sun can mean: male, light, summer, heat, day, fire, royalty, time, that the tennis will be okay...

I'd get you a glass of water, Madge, but you know what he'd only do with itSince symbols can mean different things, there are all sorts of readings to be made. Maybe Leonardo did mean something particular by not putting any wine glasses in his Last Supper. Maybe he just didn't want people thinking it was one of those sorts of party.

Likewise, "paganism" isn't just one religion. It describes many different kinds of religion, both historically and now. That the Romans had such a pantheistic view allowed them to embrace all kinds of beliefs. So claiming the pentacle as a specific emblem of a specific kind of religion is to reduce everything down to something simple and plot-convenient.

Anyway, it's not a pentacle, because the "pent" bit means it'd have five points, not six. And that would rather overturn a fundamental part of the solution, wouldn't it?

Don't trust authority
It would be Leonardo, wouldn't it? Not Masaccio or Fra Angelico, or anyone else slightly less well known. And the clues are in Leo's more famous paintings, too. That's helpful. And Isaac Newton was in on it too. And you always knew the police and the church were up to no good, didn't you?

Thing is, it does make a very good case against religion. The lecture on the early church is not just pretty much verifiable, it's the most damaging to those who take doctrine very seriously. Many of the most crucial bits of dogma were agreed in committees and/or by killing anyone who disagreed. Applying historical scrutiny to the church collapses the absolutes, and also begs questions about why the church isn't more about what Jesus actually said...

But the film's keen not to get at the church too much. At first it looks like all of Christianity's in on the plot. Then it's just the Catholics. No, then it's Opus Dei. No, then it's just an unofficial splinter group who's efforts are so not what the rest of the church would approve of that they'll be excommunicated if they're caught. And no, it's not even them. It's just Alfred Molina running the show.

But no, he's just the mug of someone else, who's really just trying to bring down the church...

So by the end of the film it's rather as if there's isn't some great big conspiracy because it's all unravelled. That policeman didn't mean to beat up that innocent air traffic bloke. He just thought Jesus wanted him to do it, and now he knows better.

What really bothered me was that it fails to deal with what faith actually means to people. The baddie albino is taking his faith too far, it seems. Tom Hanks used to believe when he was in trouble, and now having established that Jesus had a wife and kids he believes in him all the more... Er, why?

Because the truly sensational thing about Jesus having a family is that it makes him more of an ordinary bloke. He's more like us, and less like a superhero. What he said and did suddenly relates much more to our own everyday lives. His best mate was jealous of his wife, for example. And (like the couple in Ever Decreasing Circles) the Jesuses dined out in matching clothes.

But the Da Vinci Code isn't interested in ordinary people and how faith affects them. We don't know anything about Hanks or Tatou that's not revealed to be part of the plot. Compare them to the characters in The Second Coming, where everything is about the affect on ordinary people, and God reveals his majesty at the football and down the pub.

All you need is blood
Himmler was very taken by the Holy Grail mythology, and the history of the teutonic knights. Jesus's 500x great-granddaughter will have had her blood somewhat diluted over the millennia. And she's no more special than the monarchy rules by divine right.

There's some sport made that she might have inherited healing powers in her fingertips, but can't (yet) walk on water. But of course the film can't say anything definitively because that proof would deny the faith so necessary for the final shot of the film.

What is Tom Hanks actually doing? Praying to the husband of the dead woman he's just found? Because discovering the bloke had a kid suddenly restores all his faith?

And what's Audrey Tatou going to do now? Surely she needs to have babies to continue the all-important line. So is she destined for frolicksome rituals like she caught her "grandfather" at? Did you see the look of them villagers she's staying with?

Rather her than me... Posted by Picasa

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Must keep control

“In any month in the USA, more people are killed than on 9/11 … In any year in Israel, more than 10 times more deaths will occur from road traffic accidents than in the worst year of suicide bombings during this recent intifada—a terrible statistic. With this sort of record, it might be argued that a sign of development in a country is its number of road traffic accidents.”

Baroness Tonge, Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2006, Col. 92.

Some advice I had when learning to drive, a frightening number of years ago: everyone else is a homicidal maniac who wants you to crash into them.

That’s not just other drivers. When passing parked cars, look out for the dimwit opening his door into you. Expect horses and bicycles to weave out into the road, even when they know you’re overtaking. And pedestrians will leap out from any cover at all, just for the look on your face.

It’s this paranoia that makes driving hard work, but also keeps you safe. It’s got nothing to do with how coolly you drive at 120 mph. It’s about how elegantly you cope when things all go wrong.

It’s not how brilliant a driver you are, but how horrifying everyone else is.

This is actually the real skill in anything. A chef is not just someone who can follow a recipe, it’s someone who can manage a kitchen and deal with stuff going whoops. No, that doesn’t mean just swearing at skivvies.

The trick, even when the cooker’s blown up, the food’s been trodden into the floor and you’ve forgotten to stock up on cornflower, is for the dining person not even to be aware that anything’s other than peachy.

The skilful surgeon can sort out sudden gushing. The manager can deal with deadlines being brought forward. The passengers of a skilful driver won’t even notice the changing of gears.

It’s about care and planning and experience. It’s about being in control whatever’s hurled your way.

Tradespersons will often give you some sense of authority by offering options to choose from. “I can use sticky tape for free,” a plumber might tell you, “but it’ll leak poo again soon enough. I can unblock the pipe for about fifty quid, but it’s still gonna stink in the summer. Or, for the cost of a van and deposit, you could move house to somewhere not built above the intercept sewer.”

This specialist knowledge comes from actually doing the job. A doctor will know more about your sore throat than you could look up in five minutes’ googling. A chef will know the best way to cut asparagus (cutting with the back end of the knife, keeping the point always on the chopping board and acting like a pivot).

I know more about grammar from four years of freelancing than from four years of reading English at universities. Writing is a similar skill. It’s not just that you can plonk words down on a page (no, really). You have to be selfless enough to heed editorial criticism and self-confident enough to know when it’s wrong. You have to be in control of your stuff.

You don’t go to a plumber or dentist because they’ll tell you what you want to hear, nor because they look good in photos. You want someone with the skill, integrity, experience and ability who can sort the shit out.

Politics, though, is doing its own thing. Politics, though, is Not The Same. You should vote not for the prettiest or funniest option, but for the one you trust to best make the difficult decisions.

Yet an unfortunate side effect of the democratic process is that it can make voting a popularity contest. Which means even the biggest politicians aren’t actually in control.

Professional politicians are keen not to say anything unpopular. So they’re keen on environmental issues so long as they keep their posh cars. Anyway, when we don’t keep buying new cars, lots of people lose their jobs.

They’re keen on renewable energies, but nuclear power stations are less costly to invest in. They like tough new laws on terror, but nuclear power stations are also an obvious target.

These are difficult, complex issues which can’t be summed up in a soundbite. Any decision has far-reaching consequences for all kinds of different groups.

One thing politicians like to do is show “strength”. Someone’s bothering our islands of sheep? We’ll have won a war with them in a fortnight. We’ve lost thousands of people we should have deported? Well now we’ll deport every one of them, even if that means sending them to their deaths.

A chicken’s got the sniffles in Norfolk? Exterminate all poultry everywhere!

It’s like smacking a leaky pipe or a sore tooth with a mallet, just to be seen to be doing something.

Strength is not the same as control, no matter what dictators tell you. Being strong on crime or refugees isn’t a solution, it’s a reaction. It’s attacking the symptoms not the cause. The system of releasing foreign prisoners needs fixing, not just to be ignored.

When you’re in the driving seat you want to put your foot down. It’s a thrill to wield that power, and it’s what they do in movies.

But giving into that temptation is not good driving. It’s not merely reckless, it kills.

Friday, May 19, 2006

My squid

This was originally a fanzine article, back when that was the only way to foist my blatherings on anyone. Then it went on my old site. And now, a bit rewritten, it be here. But Scottie did ask.

Darth Vader is cool.The Dr has a thing about Darth Vader. She cries at the end of Return of the Jedi when he [spoiler] dies – and actually starts crying midway through the Ewok battle, just because she knows what’s coming. Quite freaked me the first time that happened. She ran away from meeting Dave Prowse once, too.

The thing about Vader is he’s tall, dressed in black and you impose your own emotions on his blank mask of a face. The Star Wars prequels have entirely changed what we thought was going on in there. The moody stares he gives in the original movies now suggest less “I’m very cross!” as “I’m very conflicted…”

There’s also his voice. Of all the fret about casting for the prequels, one thing was made clear - James Earl Jones’s husky, gravely tones would be back. How could it not be him?

It's staggering that Jones was a last-minute casting back in 1977. Originally, Orson Welles was front-runner to do all that heavy breathing. He was a name of the same generation as Dr Peter Cushing and smiley Alec Guinness, and there'd then be three established “names” to support newcomers Ford, Fisher and Hamill.

Now there’s two stories why Welles got dropped. One goes that his voice was just too recognisable. Which is odd, because that’d surely be the same for both Cushing and Guinness.

Alternatively, there’s the rise in racial consciousness that had led to the boycotting of films in the mid 1970s which failed to feature - let alone represent - black actors and/or characters. Writer/director George Lucas was in post-production on a film with an entirely white cast.

Vader, therefore, got voiced by a black actor. An established, award-winning actor with a fantastic voice. And, in time for the sequels, Han's rogueish but redeemable chum, Lando, was cobbled together.

(Orson Welles later did voices for other hokey sci-fi. His last film role was as the voice of a, er, planet in the Transformers movie.)

So what's this got to do with Ackbar - fishy fellow from Return of the Jedi? (That answer your question, Scottie?) Well, the reasoning behind the boycotting was that cinema was pretty much ignoring black people. Sure, Poitier was working, and there were no end of bit parts as noble savages and hoodlums going. But that wasn’t really good enough.

Science-fiction, for all its claims of being a progressive, thought-evolving, looking-to-the-better-future-earnestly happening, was just as guilty as everyone else of excluding and misrepresenting racial groups. And since SF was making all the pious claims about visions of the future, the continual prejudice was all the less forgivable.

2001 - A Space Odyssey, for example, may well be a hugely impressive, convincingly “realistic” (whatever that might mean when you're talking about fiction, let alone SF) bit of cinema. Yet, now the real year 2001 is old history, one of the most jarring things they got “wrong” is that it's not only the space programme that’s exclusively populated by whites. So, it seems, is the whole Earth.

There were efforts made: the Planet of the Apes films have been seen by many as dealing with civil rights, and in Soylent Green Charlton Heston works for a black man.

Star Trek's Uhura might now seem a mini-skirted honey who answered the white man's telephone, but for the late '60s her position of “equality” was terribly broad-minded. Her character and position wasn't seen as sexist or demeaning - she was a black character with a role to play. She was a role model. Even Martin Luther King said so.

(She snogs Kirk at one point, the first inter-racial kiss on US television. It was so shocking it wasn’t shown in the UK for decades.)

But despite these small steps, the consensus in SF had always been that SF heroes are white, Beautiful People, governed by white Beautiful People - albeit older and beardier ones. Ugliness, off-whiteness and anything that even vaguely hints at “the foreign” is not merely relegated to the status of alien, but is seen to be determinedly “evil alien”. Just ask that Ming The Merciless – Darth Vader's cultural forefather. (He had a bolshy daughter that pirates fell in love with, too.)

So when a bright scarlet fish-person with boggly great eyes takes the role of highest serving officer in the rebel fleet, things are pretty bloody cool.

Ackbar gets his name from the 16th century mogul, a dynamic military leader. “Allah akbar” means “God is great”, and since “Allah” is the God bit, Ackbar then is great. This is another example of Lucas’s anthropologically mythic resonance. Or his riding rough-shod over other people’s cultures.

So Ackbar is the man. Sure, an old bloke with a beard and some whiney woman in a cape (the hallmarks of any civilised authority) may have talked us through the plan, but it's Ackbar who takes the troops out. It’s him who must make the most difficult decision in the whole series of films - whether to run the trap that they all end up in, or run away never to return.

Beard and whiney woman wouldn't have stood a chance, but Ackbar does the rebel alliance proud.

And who pilots the Millennium Falcon while our regular cast of Beautiful people are playing with the teddy bears? It's our pal Lando, and accompanied by some really frightening looker of a co-pilot. Oh, and the evil Emperor's a white guy.

Further reading

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Elephant graveyard

AckbarAs predicted, the old website has finally died so some of the earliest images on this 'ere blog will have sodden off too. Blimey. Posted by Picasa

Anatomy of memory

Spent the day mostly sieving 2,200 words about children down to more like just 770. Am now able to define "harm" and "condition" like a pro. Can't think why I'd possibly want to.

Thence to the pub to play honourary boy to the Dr and her chums. One chum was down in the Smoke to lecture some medical folks about memory. It seems that such classic works of phrenology as A Chump at Oxford are wrong - you can't get your memory back by a second bump on the head.

I tend to forget things once I start drinking, even if I don't get all drunk. This may mean the following's not quite as right as it should be. (It's also why I've usually a notebook, so as not to lose important stuff like "Write that!" or "Want lunch?").

Bumps on the head don't tend to make you lose your memory - though there are a few examples of that. Instead, you tend to lose the ability to retain information; you stop making new memories.

This can be short-term, so you might forget the whole week in which you had that nasty car crash, but then everything else is fine. Sometimes it isn't, and there's one bloke who thinks he's still in his mid-twenties and can't recognise his wife. (The medical term for this is a "mid-life crisis".)

Rather luridly, I remember being told by another person medical that nobody's quite sure how anaesthetic actually works. Had leafed through a facsimile of John Snow's 1848 pageturner, "On Narcotism by the Inhalation of Vapours" (which runs broadly: "We tried this, the patient died."; "We tried that, the patient died."; "We tried something else, the patient died." And then, after quite a few patients, "We tried my new mixture and the patient didn't die... immediately.")

"We assume," said the person medical, "that the modified Snow's mixture we use nowadays stops you from feeling the pain."

I recall nodding warily, knowing how persons medical love to confound any comforting sureties.

"But," he went on, "there's no way to prove that. Which is what science is all about. So we do tests, and we're able to prove two things. One: anaesthesia paralyses you. Two: it affects the short-term memory. So while you're lying there being operated on..."

There's something seriously wrong about doctors.

Anyway. There's also a difference between implicit and explicit memory - so you forget the directions to Brighton, while still able to drive a car.

Now I've knocked my head about over the years. As well as the just-being-tall headbanging, on my 18th birthday I ran head-first into a tree. That was six months after I'd been beaten up in the street, waking next morning with no clue what had happened, wondering how I'd wing the bruises with the parents. Yet my memory for explicit detail has always been a bit hot.

I could always remember phone numbers until I got a mobile. I'm still good with people's names so long as I see them written down. And my entire neurological system seems wired solely to glean oddments of fact. Hopeless at everything else. You may have noticed.

I vividly recall being told about John Snow, and can index that up against other otherwise unrelated morsels when it comes to writing some story. I will likely not forget that this evening's chat also included discourse on the weasels and spuds of Scotland, and the suicide of cats.

Yet I've entirely forgotten to post a letter two days in a row.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Who watches the custard?

The Dr passed me "The cost of telling the truth", Neil Garrett's account of what happened after he broke the story last year that Jean Charles de Menezes was not wearing a bulky jacket, was not running, and did not vault the ticket gates.

There's something especially chilling about the arrest four times of Garrett's pregnant girlfriend - she was once held for hours without bread or water - when those who shot an innocent man eight times for... er... looking like another foreigner may not ever be held accountable. There's also been little explanation for why the media got told de Menezes was running, jumping and wearing a big coat - and worse, for where the "rapist" accusation came from.

It hardly makes you proud of the "free" society that miserly extremists want to spoil for everyone.

There is not a great deal you can do to stop people who've already decided their own lives are worth less than their "cause". Much crime prevention is about making things less easy, not impossible. I can't believe anyone joins the police force for reasons other than to make life easier, safer and better for everyone.

And since the police are exemplars of the community, we often forget that - like politicians and doctors and those folk in glossy mags - they are also human beings with the same ordinary frailties as the rest of us.

People make mistakes. People get tired. People are so caught up in nobly defending all that's obviously right that they sometimes need to be beseeched-thee in the bowels of Christ to consider the possibility that they are wrong.

Most of us can do an okay job at things - that's the law of averages. We can't all be brilliant and amazing. Mediocrity is a derogative term, but it's literally how things turn out across the board.

It was reassuring to see the huge police presence in London last summer, as it was to fill out the pubs after the memorial in Trafalgar Square. We will make a stand for what's obviously right. It might merely be a gesture of defiance, but it feels good to be able to make it anyway.

So I'm sure that most, maybe all, of those involved in the shooting made understandable errors in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

But it doesn't make any of us feel any safer when an innocent man gets shot. Nor when it turns out that all we were told about him is not actually true. Nor that the police seem to have bullied the bloke who found this out.

I also appreciate there will have been internal investigations, sincerely conducted to ensure that such a mistake can never be made again. But that's not good enough.

If the guardians of the law go unguarded themselves, how can we have any faith in them?

Even Judge Dredd, idol of a brutal, dystopian police state in a comic for boys who like killings, understands this. The lesson drummed into me as a spotty, cross teenager was that it's not enought that justice is done, it must be seen to be done.

Because without that, what happened to de Menezes could happen to any one of us. That's terrifying. Terrorists blow themselves up on public transport exactly to make us think that.

Which reminds me of Ming last week (and of Millennium who quoted him): "Human rights are there to protect all of us, and you never know when you or your family or friends might need them."

Monday, May 15, 2006

Holistic interconnectedness of all things

Spent a fun afternoon in Ladbroke Grove yesterday, listening to actors do shouting. I was able to answer some of their questions, and advise on what's happening next. The Great Plan proceeds accordingly, and as ever there was marvellous lunch. And some beers. And talk of energy and never long speeches.

Doing the same thing again tomorrow. And after that it'll be recording something I haven't finished yet, so I'd best get a shift on.

For those as have asked, the Dr is much improved - and spent the weekend in the north quaffing curry and giving a paper at some conference. It went down well, apparently, and may lead to other fun things. Her hoof is still swollen and no joy to walk on, and she's still not allowed to do hoovering.

Was into work much earlier than I needed to be today, because of the luck of the draw. Meant other things could get done, so hooroo! Have confirmed that someone I work with is an old playmate of someone I work with - not the first time that's happened in this particular office, rather oddly. And will now attempt the canteen.

For those bored rigid by these cryptic updates on the minutiae of my life, I do have a longer post forming in my brane about political-leaders-in-general. This will take some time to write up, and will likely be influenced by my tea on Wednesday, depending if invited persons can make it. I type this not because it's of any use to you, dear reader, but to remind me to get the thing done.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Shoulder to shoulder

Been a bit caught up in work and sorting other people out these last few days. Went to see X-Men: The Last Stand on Friday, which was good fun. Frasier's especially splendid as a big hairy monster, though I didn't feel the film had quite the emotional impact some of the events in it warranted.

Also watched the Great Escape for work reasons, and was entertained by the bonus stuff on the Dr Zhivago DVD. There's footage of US telly shows interviewing Omar Shariff and Julie Christie which is fascinating for how this kind of press stuff has evolved.

Julie Christie sits there demurely drinking tea and smoking amid noise and chaos off camera, while very unprepared journalists asked her coyly about her boyfriend and whether she likes America. Omar has to explain that he's been to the US before, and one interviewer cannot get over his being... you know, foreign and Egyptian and stuff. Like the food.

Loved Cybermen yesterday, and had fun in the pub afterwards mocking some friends' best attempts to find plot holes. Favourite bit was Lucy being a bit fick. And a dickie-bowed Doctor still wearing his plimsoles.

Also new in Dr Who this week is the announcement of another book I'm in. Now you'll know what Mim are.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cats, axes and man-noise

Popped down to the shires to see family yesterday, getting work done on the train. Pretty pleased with the bit where someone hoots to see someone else watching a third party swimming. Oh yes, it’s a corker.

Admired the view from my grandpa’s new pad while my nephew detailed his morning at the nursery. A MAN had made NOISE. He’d made the NOISE with his MOUTH. And then they’d all had to go INSIDE.

After a bit of puzzling with the generations of parent I asked, “Was the man just like your uncles?”

Nephew considered, and then nodded emphatically. So we reckon a tramp kvetching at the gate.

After tuna steak and noodles, my sister – who heads home to Australia next week – helped me buy some smartish tee-shirts and another chav top (the Dr disapproves of yet more stripy arms, but she can hardly talk since she’d spent the afternoon hobbling to the shoe shops of Penge).

Then we had a few beers in a pub I used to lurk near when I was 16 – around the time a man had been axed in the alleyway. Those were rough and tumble days back then, accounting for how manly and fearless I grew up.

Had a good old natter about, well, everything really – which is a lot to cover in merely four pints. Freelancing, the adjustment of sleeves, the rubbishness-of-boys and plans for our future…

Also discussed a ghostly encounter that she’d had some months after a significant death. We have very different views on this sort of thing, but I liked the explanation that, “He’d just taken a while to find me.” Could well imagine the immaculately dressed and mannered spirit patiently waiting on a lift…

Before wending my way back to a hayfever-clogged Smoke, my parents were delighted to present me with a photo they’d taken in Zurich of a red-triangle roadsign warning of black cats.

“But cats aren’t dangerous,” said the Dr when she saw it. I loved her quite a lot for that.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Am I... ginger?

The cat nipped into to HMV on Oxford Street yesterday to pick up a little something for the still off-sick Dr. I've spent the evening working tonight (a bit of writing of my own, a bit of reading the veritable glories of Mr E Robson of the North), and every now and then I'm called through to enjoy a choice moment from Anne of Green Gables.

I'm informed that it's the epic tale of little ginger orphan who reads and talks too much, and gets into trouble with her gossipy neighbours. The opening five minutes reminded me of Labyrinthe, but it's been making the Dr squeal all evening. Apparently it spoke to her a lot when she was little. Didn't the cat do well?

One bit I was called for was the dying of the hair, and much discussion followed about the joys of being ginger. And then I found this gem while glancing through old notebooks for something (which I think I've lost), diliginantly copied out from whatever the Dr was reading one Christmas.
"The belief that red hair is unlucky dates back to the Egyptians, who burned red-haired women alive in an attempt to wipe them all out."

Lucinda Hawksley, Lizzie Siddal, the targedy of a pre-Raphaelite supermodel, p. 2.

Monday, May 08, 2006

“There was no help anywhere”

Up early this morning to be drowned on the way into Soho, where Patrick Stewart was doing his first promo stuff for the new X-Men film. I arrived too early, got the wrong room, and as a result ended up burgling a bacon sandwich. The X-Men only had pastries.

The event was in cahoots with, so there were kids pledging themselves against bullying and Stewart himself talked about school life in the 50s.

In the interview session afterwards, he told me that bullying means we fear being seen, so we do our best not to be noticed and hope they’ll go bother someone else. We have to confront it, he said. We should have the courage to step forward. That’s what this event was all about.

Mind you, he didn’t tell me this exclusively. I was one of a group, and too intimidated by the small women with big microphones pushing in front of me. So actually, he was really telling them and I just happened to be in the vicinity.

My boss Joe at least got to ask what next for Star Trek. The answer will be up on Film Focus soon.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Have you met the French?

What a beautiful episode - though the Dr denies that the posh frocks and cleavage qualify it as costume porn.

(Afterwards, she got to watch Sense and Sensibility (for its healing qualities), and I teased her about the Alan Rickman thing. You know, where he runs down a corridor like someones pulling at a string tied to his... breeches.)

The Girl in the Fireplace reminded me, probably inevitably, of Casanova - the style, the pace, the sexual frission of court, and the unavoidable end of the party... Loved how scary and funny it was by turns, and every line part of the ultimate, clever resolution. It's nice the audience gets an answer that the Doctor misses out on. And yes, bananas are good.

Two things struck me watching it that then didn't happen.

1. This was the first time we've ever seen Dr Who drunk.
Actually, it turns out he's pretending. We already know the Doctor can handle his booze: the Twin Dilemma referred back to the fourth Doctor's drunken antics (though onscreen he was only drinking ginger ale), and we've seen him drink wine several times.

On the intoxicants front, he also started out as a smoker (he's landed in trouble when a caveman sees him lighting a pipe with "his fingers" (actually a match). And the Left-Handed Hummingbird (a book from the days when Dr Who really wasn't for children) has him take some magic drugs that will let him get to the baddie. We also know, though that what with his alien physiognomy, an aspirin could kill him. Which might explain why he's soft on the boozing.

2. He takes the long way round
For a minute, I thought he was really going to hang around for 3,000 years and catch up with Rose and Mickey the slow way. He's a Time Lord, he can do that. Again, the books had him stuck on Earth for a century waiting for his mates to turn up, and it's the sort of huge and mad idea New Show has made work so well (just like, "It's not 12 hours, it's 12 months... Sorry.")

These aren't criticisms - I just can't really think of anything else to say.

The Dr (my Dr) is out of plaster, but has her foot strapped up for at least a week, and could be on crutches for four. We dared to have lunch in Beckenham, just to get her out of the flat for a bit. That's worn her out for the day. Cheers for all the messages (and hello to everyone who's found this blog via the mail she sent round herself). Will keep yous posted.

Right, back to my Benny homework.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Proper doctors

"Ps please buy some ‘no more nails’ on the way home x"
Said M.’s txt yesterday afternoon. I was at work and there seemed to be no context, no sense and no relevance to it. M.’s message was a bit out of nowhere too. So I rang to let her know she’d sent someone else’s text to me, and generally just to holler “Hullo”.

“We’re still at the hospital,” says M. I explain I’ve not had whatever message she PS’d to, and why doesn’t she start at the beginning.

“Don’t laugh,” says M, “but the Dr has broken her foot.”


“Well. She’s fractured a toe. Really don’t laugh. She was doing the hoovering and a Greek statue fell on her.”

The culpritThe statue now looks even more authentic, which was why M. wanted the glue.

Ho hum. The hospital took down her title (as well as her name), and thereafter assumed she was medical. Poor girl had to explain that no, she’s only qualified in old bits of carved stone and how to manage them. Not sure they believed her.

The woundShe’s fine, but frustrated that she needs someone to run around after her. I had to cook the risotto for H. and P. – who came for dinner despite the injury, and helped with the medicinal wine.

The Dr has also had to miss the conference she was meant to be speaking at, and I won’t be out with boys this evening. Got plenty of work to do anyway.

The resultHad her watch the first half of Dr Zhivago while I did the washing up, and she now needs me to flip the disc over for part two. And then tonight, Dr Who.

I asked Moffat on Thursday what to expect. “The Aztecs with fellatio,” he said. I’m assuming that was a joke. Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 05, 2006

Isn't salacious...

...a great word? Things Stars Wars has taught me #87576.

Han shoots first(Delighted to discover they're releasing the original versions of the original Star Wars trilogy later this year, with Han shooting first and the Ewoks' better song.)

Anyway, am thinking of salacious in particular following Labour's shuffling about. It's something of a shock to realise just how few of the brass have escaped some kind of muck on 'em recently.

On Saturday, the Dr had tried to explain to an Italian how it's all a bit like the mid-nineties, when every other day some high-up Tory was discovered up to things that if not illegal were at least a bit unsavoury. The Italian bloke asked what our ministers had done and, when we told him, he laughed. Yes, it could be a lot worse.

Politicians - like police officers, teachers and doctors - are as fallible as any other human beings. Mistakes get made, and sometimes priorities are a bit odd. I'd rather they had lofty ideals they couldn't always meet than that they didn't aspire to anything for fear of hypocrisy.

Yet they're also meant to be exemplars for the rest of us rough-necks to look up to. I think if you want just to be treated like any other ordinary bloke then you shouldn't lord it over other people. Dump the chauffeur for a bus pass, that sort of thing. You can't have it both ways.

Will some late substitions really changes things for the Labourers? Any timely response the Government makes to anything is going to be called knee-jerk by someone. It's also easy to snipe at whoever's in charge, without making any effort to do better.

(Discussed something similar in the pub last night about critics of new Dr Who. Just you try making something nearly as good. That's not to say you shouldn't find fault, but it's not all you should be looking for, and something isn't wrong just cos you'd have done it differently.)

Which is a rather liberal (small l), hand-wringing way of saying that I'm not sure what good will come of any of this. The various ministerial scandals recently seem more about point-scoring than making things right. Yeah, the abominably smug cabinet got a bloody nose yesterday, and so have to have a re-think. And yet East London has doubled its number of BNP local councillors, and criminals from abroard will now be shipped home automatically, even if that's effectively a death sentence.

It salacious politics: making for a good story, but with little to be proud of.

I eagerly look forward to Millennium's analysis of this week's politics, having enjoyed his crossness at Prescott's snobbery. Think it would also do the Dr good to have someone to rail about governance to, someone who knows more about the subject than just what ex-Queen Amidala says. I wonder if Millennium's daddies like curry?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Schoolboy errors

Knowing that it was the first of a trilogy (about the hunt for Jean-Luc Picard), I read Tinker, Tailor looking for people we'd see again. What with the name of the next book in the series, I'd rather assumed that the schoolboy in question would be the, er, schoolboy. The one whose parents are divorcing, and who becomes a watcher for Jim Prideaux.

Somewhat to my surprise, it's some old boy hack at the heat of book 2. Jerry Westerby is one of the well-oiled fellows Smiley has tea with when trying to rat out his mole. (If that's an expression.) He talks to Smiley in Red Indian (lots of "How!" and "Big um Chief!" stuff), and has a drinking habit that's the pride of Fleet Street.

The wheeze of The Honourable Schoolboy is that George Smiley - having ratted said mole in the top secret service shambles called the Circus - now has to get the Circus back on its feet. It's not helped that the international spying community think the Circus a bit rubbish at the moment. But that's because it's what Smiley's been telling them...

A clue leads them to suspect that a Hong Kong millionairre, Drake Ko OBE, is up to naughties, so they send the pissed old hack Westerby out to interview him and scratch around for more clues. Trouble is, Drake Ko has a pretty young girlfriend, and Westerby is not immune...

The exotic Hong Kong (and wider Far Eastern) setting explains why this middle book didn't get adapted by the BBC. It's a very broad canvas - a movie, rather than six episodes of people having meals in service stations and bedsits. "Drake Ko" is a comedy name right out of James Bond (It sounds like "Draco"... do you see?) And there's heavy doses of the sex, cynicism and sadism you expect in spy stories.

It's also hard to like any of the brutal, cold fish working in the Circus, nor the oilly civil servants politicking around them, nor the rowdy ex-pats and their parties.

Yet the book is hugely absorbing as le Carre (and his agents) unpick the details of Drake Ko's life, and of the history of the region. Imperialism - British, American, Russian and Chinese - is as much a villain as D. Ko. At one point, Westerby's on a US military base just as the war in Vietnam is declared over.
"The windows overlooking the airfield were smoked and double glazed. On the runway, aircraft landed and took off without making a sound. This is how they tried to win, Jerry thought: from inside soundproof rooms, through smoked glass, using machines at arm's length. This is how they lost."

John le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy, p. 437.

We're never in any doubt that Smiley detests what the job requires of him, and the terrible cost on all those involved, yet on he presses anyway.

Westerby, for all he's a bit of a pickle, cares enough about the people whose lives are being mucked about to do something about it. As a result, he has far more old-school nobility than anyone he's working for, and for all he's made a hash of his life, for all he's barrelling towards hashing it once and for all, he's a sympathetic and engaging character, and one we're rooting for all the way.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin

MICKEY shakes off the broken glass and climbs out of the car. SPECCY KID laughs as MICKEY trips over K9, and falls flat on his face.

MICKEY: How did you get out the car, then?

K9: I was not wearing a seat-belt, Master. I fell out of the back.

MICKEY: Right. There’s a lesson there, you ram-raiding youngsters.

K9: Please replace my side panel. My parts are showing.

So Dr Who grows up. All right, I cried. Twice. And couldn’t get the stuff about age and death and having to let go out of my head all night.

It’s funny, lots of people have said the bat-people plot was secondary to the stuff about companions, but I think they worked deftly hand-in-hand. The monsters offer Dr Who all he longs for, the chance of saving his friends. That’s why they’re scary.

More importantly, while the you-can’t-hold-back-death stuff is bothering to us wearing-out grown ups who remember Sarah from the first time round (or, at least, from the Five Drs Who and some novels), there’s plenty to freak out the children.

The stuff that used to scare me about Dr Who was not the stuff on screen but what my head then did with it. That’s how nightmares work – they’re a sign of your imagination engaging with the consequences.

Mawdryn Undead terrified (don’t laugh) because Dr Who had regenerated alone and by accident, and was sick and covered in blood in the TARDIS. My hero had been smacked down by something vicious and random, and no one had been there to help him.

Another of Dr Who's birdsIn Vengeance on Varos, the Dr rescues Peri from being turned into a squawky bird, and though the (dodgy) make-up wears off, she’s still squawky bird in her head. He hadn’t saved her, and he didn’t even noticed she was still a monster.

(Years later, I got to tell Nabil Shaban he’d given me terrible nightmares. He considered this, and then just said, “Good.”)

School Reunion had archetypal stuff with benevolent teachers being evil and the monsters amid the familiar. (Very familiar if you know Rusty’s a big fan of Buffy: blowing up the school, a Scooby gang, vampires, the loneliness of immortality, and nasty Ripper…)

More than that, though, there’s the kid left out from what everyone else is doing, locked outside the classroom and locked inside the school. He’s the one who doesn’t understand the lessons everyone else finds so easy, and the one who glimpses a monster that no one else will believe.

Stuff to lodge into your head then, whether it’s the speccy kid, Rose or Sarah you identify with. Which is a bit bloody clever, I thought.

But isn’t Speccy Kid going to be in big trouble for blowing up his own school? A speccy kid with an ASBO and a hoodie and…

More schoolboy errors tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


A long time ago, when I was feeling broken, I'd go and see a couple of chums in Bath who would make it all seem okay. There would be food, a lot of drink, and even more silly stories, and I'd head home again about three feet taller, knowing that whatever-it-was didn't really matter anyway.

I got to be Best Man to these chums, and also to kill one of them in a story. Bwa ha ha.

Bath has now been replaced by a late-Victorian farmhouse in the Marche (back of upper thigh on the Italian "leg"). I was there only last year being a farmhand, but this weekend we went for a surprise birthday.

I have met several very nice few people (including one who is, by a weird coincidence, a mate of a mate), and discussed all kinds of everything under the sun: the slow food movement; the winter procedure for lemon trees; recycled fuels in racing cars...

I also have some pretty good bruises from (not entirely soberly) helping push a Volkswagen Beetle whose battery had fallen asleep. And my shoes are muddy. BUt the Dr and I are both feeling a lot better about everything.

A ton of work sits quietly on my shoulders, and little of it got done this weekend. Also some exciting announcements very soon. And I still haven't seen K9 yet...