Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Highlanders

Off to Scotchland now for a few days to go see the second wife. Who we saw last night anyway to hand over her birthday present.

But it is an excuse to go more north of the border than I've ever been and to stop off and say hullo to people all along the way. Thrilling travelogue to follow...

Also saw other Scotch persons last night / this morning and discussed noise at full pelt. Am entertained by the notes I took. "Sonic or something," it says in red biro.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Most excellent canopy the air

It’s not guns that kill people, as the old proverb goes. It’s the pointy metal thumb in so much of a hurry that it will not stop for flesh.

Oh, and whoever it is pulling the trigger.

Proceeding logically from this, I endeavour to recall that my squawking fury is not caused by actual umbrellas. What follows is to save from murder the dim-witted dolts who will wield them:
  1. Umbrellas don’t actually work
    Umbrellas keep the rain off your face and shoulders. A coat with a hood will do this too, and in a much more personal and unobtrusive manner.

    Some people say umbrella’s are practical, especially the folding-up-titchy ones. But that’s true of anoraks you can fold up, too, which also have useful pockets. And they don’t fold inside out in the wind.

    As Lee Evans has observed, the stem of an umbrella dangles down from the middle of the canopy, which is where you’d ideally be standing.

  2. Umbrellas are bigger than you are
    Half the canopy goes unused on the far side of the stem (on a standard-sized brolly, not enough to share with someone else unless they stand directly in front of you). This is especially important to remember when somewhere densely populated – such as London or anywhere you’re not on your own.

    At least leave a bit more space around other people as you pass them. And remember that each corner of your canopy is tipped with a sharp little prong.

    People speak of it being unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, and this is not just superstition. Umbrellas are awkward and unwieldy and capable of doing much damage.

    If you should happen to plunge into someone else – by “if” of course I mean “when” – do try to remember you weren’t looking where you were going as your umbrella was obscuring your view. Assume the person you’ve just barged into has done their best to get round you.

    Unless, of course, they are blinded by a brolly of their own.

    Golfing umbrellas are especially entertaining. We shall leave “golf = evil” for another post.

  3. Umbrellas are not worked with the feet
    Amazing, I know, but it’s perfectly possible to lower an umbrella at the same time as moving your legs. You do not need to stop just inside doorways.

    This is good because otherwise people behind you spend more time getting wet. And considering the ways you will die.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Secrets and lice

Took the Dr to see Neil Gaiman last night, in the same venue as we saw him last year. Rather than being interviewed by a sleb acquaintance, he cracked on with a reading from his new Fragile Things.

"The day the saucers came" is a fun little poem, while "How to talk to girls at parties" took me back to my own sorry soirees as a teen in Southampton and Romsey. Both are a bit weird (the stories that is, not the bastides of Hampshoire.)

Questions were then asked and we are sworn to secrecy on the details of his project with Penn Gillette. But cor and golly and woo.

There was also some good-natured stuff about how Gilliam can have the rights to Good Omens for a groat - because that's the smallest amount that allows a 10% agent's fee. They've already sourced a farthing from eBay.

Nina Sosanya was in the audience. The couple next to me haggled about what they had seen her in and concluded it was one of the Matrices.

Now I am going to shave my head, which is the nearest I can get to justifying today's headline.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Not-so-new romantics

The Dr kicked me out while Jane Eyre was on for fear I’d roll my eyes. It’s her favourite book, a comfort in dark times and she’s this thing about cross blokes on fire.

It also doesn’t help that she once saw my A-level copy, where the staid portrait on the cover has been coloured in with biro.

By the time I got home (from watching Mark of the Rani extras with Nimbos), she was absorbed in a trashy documentary about romantic fiction – “Reader, I Married Him”.

As well as chatting to writers of chick-lit about their wares, Daisy Goodwin did a “scientific” experiment to prove she enjoys the books she enjoys, while various marketeers explained at length how you should judge books by their covers.

One lady tried to argue that calling it all “chick-lit” is another example of evil male patriarchy, putting women back in their place. “What bollocks,” I thought. It’s no more sexist than assuming that sci-fi is the province of spotty boys.

Gratuitous girl-on-girl actionObviously I have a vested interest in this; as well as being a spotty boy, I write exploitative knock-off sci-fi with gratuitous girl-on-girl action. I’m not quite as bothered to be barred by sex as Ray Connolly writing in the Telegraph, but the documentary did miss something important more broadly about genres of writing.

Part of genre’s appeal (I’d argue) is we know more-or-less what we’re getting, familiar pieces and situations just in a new combination. As a result, we are comforted rather than challenged. Sometimes we don’t want to have our brains turned upside down and just want to read something fun.

By giving a kind of writing its own sub-category, you not only pigeon-hole the way that it’s marketed, you also cleave it from the rest of fiction and so imply it can't be as good.

(People struggle to describe what the rest of fiction might be called. “Literary fiction” is a common, snobbish term. “Mundane fiction” (i.e. stuff without spaceships) is the same kind of snobbery on its head.)

Generic fiction is seen to be derivative, predictable and lacking nuance. Sci-fi suffers from this a great deal. The monthly Ansible includes “As Others See Us”, in which the great and good deny peddling sci-fi. Their wares, they say, are about how technology can change our lives or about rethinking political systems. Whereas science-fiction is something less noble.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that sci-fi is all marvellous, or all operates as speculative philosophy. The great majority of it is a bit rubbish – but that’s no different from any other genre, or even of publishing as a whole.

The problem, I think, is that the genre gets judged by its lesser works, whereas anything of any merit transcends the genre label. So we tend not to think of “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Cold Comfort Farm” as sci-fi. Despite the evident sf props and stylings, they’re too good to be lumped in with all that ray-gun shit.

“Generic” doesn’t just mean “of a genre”, it also means non-proprietary, common or in other ways undistinguishable. It has similar, derogatory connotations to “mediocre”, which would explain why, as in the Ansible column, some authors are keen to deny all hint of genre attaching to their serious literature.

It’s difficult to agree on what makes good fiction generally. It’s also difficult to discuss this sort of thing without resorting to personal anecdote. But when I find a Good Book I seize on it. Usually it’s all I buy for months of birthdays – until it’s superseded by the next exciting new find.

In some cases, the birthday message scrawled inside the cover says something like, “Don’t mind the cover!” (I’m thinking of you, Neal Stephenson). Covers may make a book stand out on a shelf but it’s the quality of the content that sells the second and third copies.

The packaging at best means an unheard of book declares, “I’m like that other thing you liked…” This is also the worth of endorsements from best-selling authors and peers.

There were people appalled on the documentary at Austen’s work under chick-lit covers because (again) Austen outstripped the genre. The documentary seemed to miss the difference between marketing a book so it’s prominent in bookshops and the innate quality of the writing itself.

As the Dr was saying last night, Janes Austen and Eyre aren’t just about snagging a stiff-collared Mr Right, who’s not so sulky when you get to know him. There’s something more socio-political going on, with stuff about education and history and warfare, and all kinds of insight and nuance.

So I think genre is a good way of selling more-of-the-same to people already converted, but it's a barrier to getting new blood in. It's not evil patriarchy, it's Catch-22.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What would David Niven do?

For as long as I can remember stalking secondhand bookshops, there have always been certain regulars. While scanning the shelves for the Target logo or works by Philip K Dick, I'd tick off the old Colemanballs, EC Tubb's skiffy and David Niven's autobiography.

"The Moon's A Balloon" also turned up on my grandfather's bookshelves, from which I'd been told to help myself. It was added to the Flashmans and Kiplings and histories of India, something to look into sometime. I picked it up last week while reading something else and rather got involved.

Niven's a stylised, old-school actor, at his steely cool best in "A Matter of Life and Death" and "The Pink Panther", and retaining his dignity amid celebrity car crashes like "Casino Royale" and "Escape to Athena".

He was also his pal Ian Fleming's first choice for playing the movie James Bond (you can see why Fleming was then a little nervous of the ungroomed, burly Scot they ended up casting).

The stylised manner encourages the stereotypes: A skinny weasel with a pencil-moustache that looks like he's drunk too much cocoa; A cad, a rake and an athletic boozer; The name-dropping pal to princesses and presidents.

The book does not exactly undercut this impression. Often Niven's memory of a film is to merely list the cast and say what he thought of the director. He's gushing of friends - whether Bogie or JFK - and the more famous ladies he dallianced with are deftly left unnamed.
"I apologise for the ensuing name dropping. It was hard to avoid it.

People in my profession, who, like myself, have the good fortune to parlay a minimal talent into a long career, find all sorts of doors opened that would otherwise have remained closed. Once behind those doors it makes little sense to write about the butler if Chairman Mao is sitting down to dinner."

David Niven, Introduction to "The Moon's a Balloon" (1971), p. 11.

That said, it's a lot ruder and more caddish than I'd expected, with intimate accounts of his teenage training under (or on top of) a prostitute and a later problem of frostbite of the cock. The stories are peppered with "fucks" and the odd "cunt" unbefitting a gentleman.

The stories are often very funny. At the outbreak of war, Niven - already the film star - decided to join up with the RAF. Despite his producers and managers and the British Consul advising otherwise, he travelled back to Europe. In Paris he was reunited with a fashion-house model, now living as the mistress of a "rich industrialist".

"Monsieur" has installed Claude in the apartment below his family, and so Niven's visit must be conducted in silence.
"If 'Monsieur' had had the foresight to install a pane of glass in his floor, he could have gazed down on the ridiculous spectacle of two people thrashing around below with handkerchiefs stuffed in their mouths. As it was, it was a miracle he didn't come down to investigate because Claude, towards the end of the evening, decided to freshen me up with an alcohol rub. She intimated this in sign language and fetched a large bottle of eau de Cologne. Unfortunately, as I turned over to have my back done, I knocked the bottle out of her hand with my elbow and most of its contents went straight up my behind. Shrieking agony in whispers is a difficult thing to accomplish."

Ibid, p. 206.

Reviews in the front of the book (and also on the Internet) speak of the book's witty charm. Yes, it is a merry read but for all Niven's light touch he comes across as quite a shit.

Petulant, silly antics verge on the monstrous. Expelled from school for posting dog shit to a friend, his early military career is full of daft pranks. When the RAF failed to hand him the top-job he wanted, he responds with a resolute "Then fuck you!"
"'Get out of my office,' he shouted. 'Get out!'

We were standing toe to toe when an inner door opened and an Air Commodore appeared.

'What the devil's going on in here?'

'And fuck you too!' I shouted unreasonably and made for the door and the giggling crowd outside it."

Ibid., p.209.

Even at the end of the book, he's still difficult to work with - leaving it until the last couple of minutes before a live TV play before getting into costume. And only then discovering he's locked himself out of his dressing room. This last-minute chaos clears the lines from his head, of course.

"I hate getting drunk," he protests on page 188 though eight pages later his home has been christened "Cirrhosis by the Sea" by Cary Grant. He has a surprise birthday party in a brothel and at a bash with the Kennedys ends up offering Senator Edward his trousers. We hear of friends and colleagues finished off by the booze, and Niven makes no bones about the kif and horse tranquilisers.

Which all means that when his first wife is killed playing Sardines at a party - falling down the stairs in the darkness - I wondered if he was holding back on the details. He's certainly very curt about the marital difficulties he had with his second wife - a brief mention of "another miscarriage" and a short "trial separation". Having been so articulate about his earlier revelry it feels like he's now clamming up. (Wikipedia suggests more of what was really going on...)

The book ends with Niven visited by a hippy goddaughter, who brings along a Lancashire hippy called Big Top because of his ginger Afro. Niven is sniffy about the man - who smells like "a haystack" - and about the party his goddaughter then takes him to. There's movie and live-action gayness above an antique shop, amid carriage lamps and blow-ups of Mao.

"This isn't your scene is it?" says the goddaughter and allows him to escape. We leave him alone in the night-time, panting for breath, gazing up at the moon and quoting hippy fantasy by EE Cummings.

It's a strange and bitter-sweet ending. With Niven's earlier rant about the sorry state of the film business, you feel the good times are ended. Like 007, he's of another era, a frantic-living playboy who didn't die young and so rather outstayed his welcome.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The invasion, part two

Said I'd paste up the sequel to my Dr Who tour of London. So here it be:

Start the day at St Paul's cathedral, again as early as possible. It's huge, and built to the classical Roman proportions of 1:1.6. This means it's a bit bloody sturdy – when a German was bomb was dropped right on top of it, it only ruined some furniture. (See The Time Travellers, chapter four).

Coming out of the main entrance of St Paul's, turn left and follow the building round until you can see the signs for the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern.

Cosgrove-Hall's invading CybermenHead that way. You're walking down the famous Cybermen steps from "The Invasion". Two things to note:
  1. The pub on your right (which the Cyberman also troop past) is on Knightrider Passage.
  2. The bridge across the river is only six years old. Where did the Cybermen think they were going?
Cross the bridge. It's cool. Tate Modern used to be Bankside Power Station, and is now a big art gallery. It and the bridge also feature prominently at the beginning of the (very good) Dr Who novel "The Tomorrow Windows" – it's inside Tate Modern we get the very first glimpse of Eccleston's Dr Who.

Head left along the river, past the modern reconstruction of the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare did his thing. "The Kingmaker" has at least two Drs Who in the original, and this new version was the pet project of The Lady Cassandra's dad, Sam.

(ETA: And the new series just filmed there for one of next year's episodes.)

Keep going along the river, and when you pass Vinopolis and the Clink prison, you're in the bit from the Talons of Weng Chiang. Filming in 1977, they asked residents to move the cars so as not to spoil the period setting. And some git parked a Porsche in the middle of the street. In the episode, it's what's under the Porsche-shaped horse poo.

Keep going, maybe having a peek into Southwark Cathedral which is pretty. Also the big church south of the river you'll see in anything set in Olde Londone (for example, the lovely model shot at the beginning of the Olivier "Henry V").

Next to Southwark Cathedral is a smallish covered area which hosts Borough Market on Saturdays. All sorts of very good food is here, though it's crowded and costly. You can celeb-spot. Apparently David Hasselhoff comes here to buy elk. Celeb-mail Popbitch reported once how someone had accosted the Hoff here with the words, "You're nothing without your robot car!"

Keep going. The river-crossing bridge up next is a bit dull, innit? That's London Bridge. There's been a bridge here since Roman times, and for many centuries the bridge had two rows of houses on it. The arches holding the bridge up were so close together that they slowed the Thames right down, which meant it froze in winter. They used to have festivals on the ice. There was so much traffic on the bridge that bits of it used to fall off into the river. Hence the song.

[ETA: See Nimbos's comments below.]

Until only a few decades ago, London Bridge looked a lot more impressive. But then some rich American bought it to put in a lake in Arizona, and this one's a quick replacement. The rich American's wife played Dr Who's niece Louise in the second Peter Cushing movie.

Cross over the road (still following the south side of the river) and head down the hill into Tooley Street. You pass by London Bridge station on your right. There'll be a big queue outside the London Dungeon, which has lots of waxwork recreations of various historical torturings, and a groovy mirror maze.

Keep going down Tooley Street. Soon after the mayor's new offices on your left, there's a bit of green space called Potter's Field. This is, importantly, where the opening moments of "The Coup" took place.

Potter's Field leads you up to Tower Bridge. Duck under Tower Bridge and go have a look at Shad Thames – the tall buildings on the other side. They're very smart and expensive now, but in 1984 were so run down no one minded if Peter Davison pushed a Dalek out the window.

Back on to Tower Bridge, then, and cross the river. The bridge was built in 1894 (so is a lot newer than most Londoners think). I recommend the museum, which lets you go up to the top. Top fact: Peter Cushing's last movie role was in "Biggles", when - for no very good reason - he lived inside one of the bridge's towers.

Head down the steps at the north end of the Bridge, and follow it round the back of the Tower of London, getting a look at the Roman remains they've dug up. As well as being the UNIT HQ in "Christmas Invasion", the Tower is a major setting in Big Finish's "Marian Conspiracy" and "Jubilee".

The square keep in the middle of the complex was built soon after the Norman conquest in 1066 (so is the earliest castle of it's type in the country), as part of the "harrowing" of anyone who didn't like French rule. Going in is expensive and involves lots of queuing, but is well worth the trouble. You also get to see the crown jewels - and thus what happened to that big diamond from "Tooth and Claw". The tea shop will also do you nicely for lunch.

When you're done with the Tower, head west along the riverbank, away from Tower Bridge. When you get to the north end of London Bridge, head away from the river for a look at the Monument. It's a whopping great pillar with a golden sculpture perched on top, and commemorates where they think the Great Fire of London began in 1666. Yes, you're in that little square from the end of "The Visitation".

From there, head up King William Street (north west, following signs for Bank station), and you'll get to the Bank of England – the first bank (as we understand the term) in the world. Here, in the age of Isaac Newton, some clever blokes worked out how to make two plus two equal eight.

(ETA: See Liadnan's comments, below.)

You'll notice that the entrances to Bank underground station (where yesterday's tour began) are all over everywhere round here. This is because the original main entrance had a bomb fall on it in January 1941 – which killed 56 people sheltering inside. The modern entrances are converted from the access shafts dug soon after the bombing.

Head down Cheapside towards St Paul's, but take a right onto King Street and make your way to the Guildhall. It's a pretty ugly, modern building, but they recently discovered that it's built on top of what used to be the Roman amphitheatre. Which is cool.

[ETA: Following Liadnan's comments below, thr Guildhall itself is medieval, but it's buttressed by ugly, modern building which is the bit Nimbos and I were unimpressed by in last year's London Open House.)

Head due west from there down Gresham street, and you'll emerge onto St Martin's, with the big cathedral to your left.

On your right (on the roundabout) is the Museum of London, which will tell you lots of top facts about all the places I've just had your traipse through. Just before you get to the museum, though, there's a cut-through on your left called "Little Britain", which is also the name of a TV show narrated by Tom Baker.

Little Britain is intersected by a main road, King Edward Street, and looking left down it you'll see a big statue of Rowland Hill, the top Victorian who – amongst other clever things – invented the postage stamp.

Carry on through Little Britain, passing St Bart's Hospital on your left. (It's obviously no relation to the St. Gart's Hospital where Dr Who's friend Hex works). Key scenes in my Dr Who book happened in this bit of alleyway. Look out for the small nook on your right leading to St Bart's chapel. It's beautiful.

The great big Smithfield meat market sits at the end of Little Britain. It was built here so that the juices of dead animals could flow into the nearby river Strand Fleet (I am an idiot). Which got so clogged with offal and nastiness that they built over the top of it. The meat market is also built on top of one of the city's old execution sites. Wander round the outside of the market until you find the commemoration to William Wallace (Mel Gibson in Braveheart. That's almost a Dr Who reference.)

Head through the market, passing the line of red telephone boxes which you might want to take pictures of if you're feeling touristy. Depending what day of the week you're doing this, there may be butchers in their white overalls wandering about, but the path through the market is a public right of way.

You're now in a little square with St John Street heading north. Follow it over the (busy) Clerkenwell Road, and then turn left into the pretty Clerkenwell Green, where there are nice little pubs, cafes and eateries. Pretty, isn't it? This is where Dogder taught Oliver Twist how to pick-a-pocket-or-two.

When you've had whatever refreshments you require, head west out of Clerkenwell Green, cross back over Clerkenwell Road, and head down Turnmill Street. At the end, turn left and you'll see Farringdon Tube Station. There are two very good bookshops just a minute's walk the far side of the station, if you've still got any give in your feet.

Friday, September 22, 2006

8 whole friends

Mighty Joe Lidster told me to set up a MySpace ages ago. I did and then did nothing about it because of spending all my time here.

But prompted by a chum saying I’d not replied to their missive, I have updated it today and now have 8 whole friends. Though some of these friends are strangers.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nicolas Poussin clincher

Neil Gaiman villainously links to the YouTube posting of Monday's Mastermind, in which a chap called Nick Duffy answers questions on the Sandman and explains - in some detail - the appeal of lurid kiddie comicbooks.

Blimey. I was at university with Nick 10 years ago and fondly recall an evening spent conjuring names for imaginary indie bands. "Weirdshit Chronicle" was one of mine then. Came up with "Ginger Stepchild" more recently.

According to the super-soaraway Lanacashire Evening Post, Nick still lives in Preston. Ha.

Also, I beat him into the LEP and infamy with the 1997 headline, "Sci-fi Simon reaches for the sky by degrees" - in which I had lovely hair and a face writ over with innocence.

But he'd make the better Shane McGowan.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

If you believe in prayer, pray

Several years ago, a wise old hermit who lived on the hill behind our house dared suggest that there are two types of lecture. There are those done with PowerPoint, he said, and there are those where you actually learn something.

I thought of him and his befuggled wisdom while watching “An Inconvenient Truth”, in which Albert Gore Jnr – who woulda, coulda, shoulda been president of the US of A – gives a slideshow on how we have to save the planet.

He makes an interesting, terrifying and clearly and concisely argued case. It’s not just him on stage with a whole series of statistics, either. He includes silly cartoons about frogs and muggings to get the point across.

Admittedly, the cartoons aren’t quite as memorable as the history of guns in Bowling for Columbine (which is, I learn from Wikipedia, not the work of Matt Stone and Trey Parker). But they do show one thing: it’s not a complicated idea and the consequences are utterly appalling.

Gore apologises for explaining the science, and briefly explains that the more human behaviour clogs up the atmosphere the less heat can escape the planet. This is already happening at an unprecedented rate: the 10 hottest summers on record have all been since 1990, and the new rising tides, floods and hurricanes threaten the lives of millions.

It’s damning and evidential – the point about global warming being that it’s not proven by any one given statistic, but by the vast and ever-growing evidence that all points in one direction.

That said, Gore does tend to refer to what “scientists say” generally, rather than always providing specific sources. The peer-reviewed scientific community does, Gore says, agree unanimously on the reality of climate change, even if they argue about specifics. The conflict of opinion is in the non-peer-reviewed news media.

I’d have liked to have understood more of what scientists disagree on. Is it the conclusions we draw from data – that some top men think we’ve got five years of Greenland being icy, and others as much as 50? Or are there more fundamental differences about what the causes are and what can be done?

For all he’s on the side of the scientists, Gore does use terms that would appal scientists I know. He refers to earlier summers meaning baby caterpillars are born earlier than they used to be. This means they no longer dovetail with the births of baby birds, so the birds are going hungry. Gore calls this messing with “nature’s plan”.

This anthropomorphising carefully avoids having to talk about why the Earth’s creatures so well fit the conditions of the places they live in. We get no mention of why human beings suit a particular, small range of climatic, temperate and atmospheric conditions. Yes, he mentions ice ages from 10,000 years ago, but there is no hint of a whiff of a mention of the dreaded evolution.

The Dr cynically suggests that tying the need to adapt our behaviour to the environment to the way we’ve already adapted would be a turn off for too many people.

Evolution is about adapting to circumstance or dying out. Now we can see how things are going wrong – and how they’re going to get worse – we either adapt or die.

But that doesn’t contradict the firmly held beliefs of those who refute all the first principles. The way we live now is soiling God’s creation and we are already being visited by plagues and tornadoes of Biblical proportions. There is evidence all over the world that says in very big letters, “Don’t make me come down there!”

Gore is keen to engage with arguments against, and his point about the US car exports is fascinating. The industry argues that enforcing better fuel efficiency and lower emissions will damage their sales. But because US standards are so way behind China, Japan and Europe, US cars cannot be sold abroad. So the only way to up sales and so increase revenues and numbers of jobs is to, er, enforce these standards.

Gore also argues that global warming is not a (party) political issue but a moral one – we have to save our planet. He didn’t say, though he really have ought to, “Or we’re all going to die!”

For all it’s above party politics, the lecture was explicitly critical of the current US president and former Republican regimes. Gore is damning about conflicts of interest with lobbying groups, though it would have made a more balanced case if he’d shown where the Democrats got it wrong, too. That would also make it less easily dismissed as a party political tirade.

The film is aimed specifically at US audiences (we’re told to write to Congress rather than to our political leaders), and I can see why some have seen this as a prelude to a presidential campaign.

That feeling is not helped by Gore using the personal life of his family to get his point across: stuff about his dad’s farm, his son being hit by a car, his sister dying of lung cancer. Yes, it made things more personal and gave us an insight into the man, but – bar the parallels with the decades of denial from the tobacco lobby that cigarettes were carcinogenic – it felt like it was straying from the point.

So will it make a difference? The Dr and I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 in the US while on our honeymoon and were amazed by the audience’s reaction. We couldn’t possibly believe, after all the evidence on screen, that Bush could get re-elected. But he was.

I think Gore’s film is different, though. While challenging Bush to ratify the Kyoto agreement, he also lists the states and cities who have pledged their agreement – acting despite the president. The credits roll explaining what we can do – yes even us foreigners.

A good place to start is

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

"I’m pretty rubbish, now you point it out."

Have had a happy day's writing (plus a brief excursion to hand in a contract) and am onto Scene 10 of 47. The intrepid little brother is coming round tomorrow so we can go through it.

Also agreed a couple of exciting new things having met with a new editor yesterday. And 1,800 words of what might be a book is now a chapter-by-chapter breakdown with all sorts of viceral detail. Perhaps something will come of it.

Currently listening to the first episode of Mr J Lidster's "Reaping", and am delighted to hear Dr Who refer explicitly to the Mim. Hooray!

Our sponge-like chums put in a pretty thrilling appearance before the end of the year. Should have that to finish just tomorrow...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Straight bit

'Strain current affairs edutainment "60 Minutes" just ran The Overlanders, a 15-minute theeng on the younger brother's horseplay.

The theeng (which you can experience in real, live video) shows off footage from his forthcoming documentary, "One Straight Road". (No, not this one.)

Strangely I'm biased but it's all a bit impressive. Git. And about time we saw some of his moving pictures.

Still haven't seen the brother since he got back from the bush, what with his being so bustlingly showbiz. Though he is coming next week to tidy up the cat poo. Hope he doesn't want to film it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bond Watch: Sir Roger Moore

Live and Let Die
Yes, I’m rather impressed with Alex and Richard’s idea that Sir Roger Moore learns he’s the new James Bond in his opening scene with M (discussed in the comments of this previous Bond post).

Unlike OHMSS, they keep the new Bond out of the pre-credit sequence and instead tease us with fragments of plot. What connects a killing at the United Nations, a killing in a New Orleans street and a killing in a weird voodoo ritual? The new Bond will surely work it out.

It’s the second film in a row to be set in America, but it’s got a grittier, harder edge than Diamonds Are Forever. We see an America that’s dirty, dangerous and racially segregated. George Martin’s atmospheric score also reflects the changing times.

Roger Moore is a skinny little bloke compared to his predecessors and suffers from 70s fashions, with dweeby patterned jackets and ironed creases in his flares. It’s all a bit fussy and uncool.

Is Felix Lighter an inherited title as well? If they’d been worried about establishing the new man, they could have wheeled out Norman Burton again (he’s the one in Diamonds Are Forver). Can’t see him in Licence to Kill, though.

The Man With The Golden Gun
More silly things done by Bond: squeezes a fat bloke’s bum.

Does Scaramanga’s obsession with Bond mean that he thinks Sir Roj is the same man as Sir Sean? Alternatively, do their paths cross because Sir Roj is pursuing Gibson, the man Scaramanga is planning to kill?

The stuff about Gibson and the energy crisis works quite well, lending some weight to the cock-fight plot, though there’s some especially crass infodumping about halfway through, with M detailing science that everyone in the room already knows.

Which is a shame because there’s some deft and witty writing here. Top marks for Bond’s threat to shoot a bloke in the cock if he doesn’t answer questions: “Speak now or forever hold your piece.”

I think Sir Roj is at his best when being a bit ruthless – shagging Rosie Carver in the last one when he knows that she’s a wrong ‘un, or holding Maud Adams to ransom. Yes, in For Your Eyes Only, it is a Good Thing he kicks the car.

Other silly things: Scaramanga’s Shadow Gallery has a life-size Sir Roj on display and it doesn’t occur to him that Bond might use this. And why does the dummy have a real and loaded gun?

The Spy Who Loved Me
The Making of… will tell you that this was a new direction for Bond, pushing the franchise into off-the-wall fantasy.

But it’s the first to obviously repeat stuff: a ski chase as in OHMSS, the swallowing whole of vessels like in You Only Live Twice, underwater battles as per Thunderball and a gagdet-strewn car as in Goldfinger.

We also get the first explicit reference to Bond’s wife since she died. Gogol calls M “Miles” (the only time the films mention his name) and XXX calls Q “Major Boothroyd” – so he is the same man as in Dr No. We also see Bond (again) as a naval Commander.

Setting things up for the future, Walter Gotell makes his first appearance as Gogol and Robert Brown appears as Admiral Hargreaves. As well as taking over as M, he’s referred to as "Admiral" in Octopussy, which might mean he’s the same bloke all along.

The Dr Who cast is pretty good in this one: George Baker, Jeremy Bulloch (though not as Smithers), Kevin McNally, Cyril Shaps and Edward de Souza. No, you can’t count Caroline Munro.

An odd thing: 007 and XXX join forces in Egypt and are briefed by Q. They then take the train to Sardinia (no, I don't think that's possible either), where, er, Q is waiting for them with the Lotus. They don't seem surprised or say, "Didn't we just see you?"

Another odd thing: how many chances does Stromberg give Jaws to kill Bond? It’s far less credible than the number of times he survives buildings falling on top of him. You can almost hear Stromberg saying, “Maybe fifth time lucky…”

It’s been slowly creeping up on us, but this is the first film to really go out of its way to give M and Q more interesting things to do. Bernard Lee’s final film sees him looking unwell in Venice and running an office in Rio. It's like Bond can't be trusted to go out on missions on his own.

This is a sign of a franchise: where the practical wants of the actors supersedes what their characters would do. I gather something similar happens in the West Wing with a promotion for CJ (though I’ve only just finished Season 5).

Moonraker feels a hell of a lot like the last one as Bond gathers evidence on the bloke he already knows is the villain. The villain’s plan to start civilisation over is the same, as is the final gag of Bond caught doing the deed.

The Star Wars-inspired finale is kept relatively brief, though I remember all the marketing pushing James Bond In Space. (Sir Roj even appeared on the Muppet Show with a laser gun).

How many times do they need to tell us that Jaws and his missus have been rescued?

For Your Eyes Only
Blimey. It’s all a bit small-scale after outer space. Bond doesn’t even leave Europe in this one. Bill Conti’s music is very much of its time. It’s not bad, but it lacks the timeless style of John Barry and makes this feel just like any other (low-budget) action movie.

It does feel like a new kind of Bond film (again), and continually undercuts the grandeur of the past. Bond visits his late wife’s grave and finally sees off Blofeld. But:

Why is Teresa buried in England, and in a tiny little church? Her dad Draco seems to be based in Portugal and could probably afford something swankier.

Blofeld is as we saw him at the end of OHMSS - bald, in a neck brace and wheelchair. Which suggests that OHMSS is canon and Diamonds Are Forever is not. Which is a bit odd.

There’s a car chase with Bond behind the wheel of a 2CV, and the countess he shags turns out to be a scally. The finale is not Bond going one-on-one with a terrifying villain or chasing after bombs in a spaceship. He breaks a computer by throwing it off a rock.

Bond is looking old, and Lynn-Holly Johnson’s character just makes that more obvious. As well as turning down a dead-cert shag, Bond is toe-curlingly patrician with her, with lessons on how to behave. Up, I thought, yours grandad.

He’s no less patronising to Melina, and though she laughs at his jokes in the car chase I didn’t feel there’s much chemistry between them. At the end of the film they’re (inevitably) lovers, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “When did that happen?” They’ve not even snogged until then.

Yeah, the plotting is a bit weird. There’s a gratuitous cheat when Bond and Melina go scuba-diving and Melina FOR NO REASON AT ALL takes off her aqua-lung and leaves it by the underwater Greek ruin. Well, NO REASON AT ALL other than that she has read the script and knows that she and Bond will need that aqua-lung there in a few scenes time.

The Greek Temple appears to be near the Corfu coast, whereas the sunken ship is out to sea (and something of a journey). Kristatos captures Bond and Melina as they surface from the sunken ship, but tries to kill them in the water above the Greek Temple (where their handy aqua-lung comes in). So, er, does he take them back towards Corfu because that’s where the scratchy coral is? Doesn’t that mean he’s more likely to be seen doing his killings?

Oh, but bonus points for Charles Dance as a thug!

Cor. It looks amazing, John Barry’s score is gorgeous and the whole thing zips along. Maud Adams is really rather marvellous. Suddenly Bond has got his groove back.

They make less of Bond being an old man now, but play a nasty card with Moneypenny when Sir Roj smarms all over her new assistant.

I’d missed Bond disguising himself as a gorilla from my list of Bond being silly. He also manages to remove himself from the gorilla suit and escape to the back of the train carriage while Kabir Bedi is watching him. But Bond being magic, he is not seen.

It feels like there are a lot more action set pieces than usual, and there’s a nice mix of the exotic (in India) and the very political real. Weird to see Checkpoint Charlie and a divided Berlin having been there a fortnight ago.

Also odd to see Détente creeping in – a theme since the Spy Who Loved Me. I gather this is because the Bond films sold well in Russia, so the producers were keen to push us all being chums. But it means Bond seems ahead of more war-mongering spy stuff from the time. Eat that, John le Carre.

And, er, Q’s set up a workshop in India. Now I can see it might be helpful to give Bond his gadgets, but this makes it feel like there’s a whole industry behind Bond, following wherever he goes. Q even helps in the field, leading Bond into a siege and saving pretty ladies in the process. While Sir Roj is sliding down banisters.

Perhaps Desmond Llewellyn was being considered to take over from Sir Roj? Don’t laugh – have you seen who else they considered?

A View to a Kill
So, Sir Roj’s last one already. Blimey, that went quick. And you can tell by the hair and the rubbish robot dog that it’s from more than two decades ago.

It’s a bit slow, actually – with lots of scenes of people just talking to each other about their various allegiances. The 80s “fashions” don’t help because rather than looking stylish and cool, Bond seems to be stalking the blousy wives of the crassest chinless wonders.

Like For Your Eyes Only, they’re continually undercutting Bond’s cool: his rifle only shoots rock salt, the police think he’s talking bollocks and he woos a girl by making a quiche. Tanya Roberts is also not the most brilliant leading lady, and there’s far more sparkle with both May Day and Fiona Fullerton.

There’s another lady in it who I kept trying to place. The Internet explains that it is her from Last Crusade.

Why does Bond give control of the fire truck to Stacy, and then climb out on to the back? Surely it’s not just so the ladder can detatch and swing him about over the road to add excitement to the chase. That would be silly.

The mine set is amazing, and the fight on the Golden Gate Bridge very impressive. But then it ends in a cut-price version of the endings to Spy and Moonraker. This time, Bond’s having a shower. Half an hour earlier and Q could have caught him taking a shit.

It just seems a bit of an ignominious end for the most prolific of Bonds. I’d been rather sniffy about Sir Roj’s efforts compared to the hard stuff of his colleagues, but some of that was downright cool. Good job, 007.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The old bloke’s a porker

Today I held in my very hands The Centenarian – the newest Dr Who anthology of thrilling short stories.

Wodged within its great wealth of pages are a story of mine (I’ve written about “Incongruous Details” on the Centenarian blog) and a thrilling preview of Time Signature – the next Dr Who anthology of thrilling short stories, as edited by little me.

So that’s all a bit exciting.

Spent the afternoon going though an archive (i.e. two cardboard boxes full of CDs), gathering materials for a forthcoming thingie. As is the way with archives, I also found a few excitements I wasn’t exactly looking for. Pretty baubles! In one case, literally.

Also suggested an idea to the chief that may even happen into being. It is not merely a cockle-warmingly good idea but a cheap one too, so here’s hoping.

I have also deleted quite a lot of words about an education programme, done the washing up and discussed current affairs in depth with the cat. He thinks the pope should have known better and that it’s not very Christian to say to people, “Your Mum’s rubbish”.

That is (if Shag’s memory serves him correctly) what John 14 refers to as “asking for a slap”.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Prints of darkness

I have learned two new things – both of them obvious to anyone with a brane.

Kept awake last night by a rather smashing storm. The pause between purple lightning and the gurgle of thunder remained a constant seven elephants, which scientifically proves the storm was either sitting perfectly still or using our house as a pivot.

The cat was not impressed at all by this and kept nosing up for a cuddle. The moment he felt a bit better about life, he would bravely scamper off to pursue invisible mice.

“I don’t need you,” spoke his behaviour. “I am helluva tough with my animal instincts.”

He’d then scurry back into my armpit the moment the storm got more noisy.

Shag had been acting odd all evening – the anxious running about between our feet and wauing that either means its bedtime or he’s made some smelly bears. (You can usually tell the difference by whether your nostrils are aflame.)

But it was early and my nose was still intact. “Don’t be so silly,” I told him, though not too sternly as he is quite impressionably dim.

Later, I headed up to fetch some Robinsons Apple and Blackcurrant for night-time slaking (we can’t have water because the cat sticks his head in it). Our kitchen, just to be different, is up in the converted roof. And was liberally glossed over with water.

The cat was busy pressing his forehead into the back of my ankles. “See?” he seemed to say. “See?”

The skylights in the roof of the kitchen can be locked just-a-bit-open, which is useful if you’ve been griddling chicken breasts for a rather scrummy tea and want to be rid of the steam. The just-a-bit-open nature of the locking mechanism means that any previous rain has been easily kept out.

Thing learnt #1: If it storms particularly hard, the just-a-bit-open locking system isn’t waterproof. Well done the redoubtable British weather. And well done that man with the late-night mop who cleared up all the mess.

So it looks like the summer is over. The nights are drawing in and we even got a Goth weathergirl after the BBC’s 10 pm news. The Dr was delighted to spot black fingernails and everything.

“I guess that means the clocks will be going back soon,” I said. But there’s weeks and weeks left before that.

Thing learnt #2: British summers are longer than the winters. We get 21 weeks of Greenwich Mean Time each year, and 31 weeks of British Summer Time.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

This offence of the curry bread

Over curry and beer with the Joffstar a couple of weeks ago, we fell into talk of good comics. He kindly leant me the first volume of Ranma ½ which I devoured on the Victoria line home.

The vast cast of Ranma &189;, many of whom I've not met yetMr Tendo owns a "school of indiscriminate grappling" and three daughters. He's keen to have his daughters marry, so send word to an old pal with an eligible son. The son, Ranma, is soon engaged to the youngest daughter Akane. But she's still at school, fancies the local doctor and anyway she says she hates boys.

But there's another wee problem. Ranma and his dad are both cursed, having fallen into some Chinese ponds when out training. Now whenever Ranma's dad gets hit with cold water he turns into an enormous panda.

Ranma's curse is all the more terrible - cold water turns him into a girl.

It's a weirdly compelling story, with a love triangle and school bullies and unrequited crushes. With it’s martial arts and teen-loves and curses-from-the-dawn-of-time, it’d be a bit obvious to say it’s like Buffy. Well, yes, but imagine Buffy getting her tits out all the time. If you hadn’t already.

As Joffstar said, for all the plot, ahem, requires accidental disrobings and people wandering in on showering, bosomy teenagers, it’s endearingly innocent. Though I am amused that the noise for prodding someone’s boobs to check that they are real is “Poit! Poit!”

It's also giddily silly, with the panda using hand-held signs to communicate his despair because he's unable to speak. (There's a nice moment where he answers the phone and then just looks exasperated at the reader).

By the end of this first book, we’ve set up the regulars and all the tangled love-geometry of triangles within triangles, and things are getting complicated by visiting cast – such as an old schoolmate of Ranma’s hellbent on revenge. The schoolmate is, as is everyone, a martial arts whizzkid, but his terrible sense of direction is the source of many jokes.

Joffstar tells me it continues in this vein, with other people turning up with their own strange curses. He’s moving house, though, so he can’t find volumes two and three. Gah.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Shipping forecast

Sent this shippy review of The Time Travellers, which seems generally pleased with the thing. When I wrote that chapter, the snog seemed less crucial than ensuring I got the 1966 bus routes and fares 1966 correct. Even asked the London Transport Museum for help, and they went and looked it up. Hooray!

Shippers will be pleased to hear that there are more snogs to come in the life of Bernice Surprise Summerfield. A week ago I was just finishing a holiday but it seems like another life now. Work continues apace and things are getting signed off in one manner and another.

"Collected Works" is at proof stage and I've seen the final cover. We race towards a final version of the words and then it can go and be published.

"Old Friends" has gone back to its authors (Jonathan, Marc and Pete) so they can argue with my comments and agree on the appropriate Japanese.

Edits of some plays are done and we've even had time to do trailers. E. Robson responds that this is the first of his audio work he's actually ever heard, because though he's all prolific and that, none of it is out yet. (There is a trailer for his rather lovely Memory Lane on Joe's Reaping, but E. Robson has yet to get a copy.)

Have also seen the final artwork for "Summer of Love" and am filled with paroxysms of pleasure.

Now reading the first draft of the first play of Benny's Season 8 (so far into the future there's nowhere yet to link to), and have another draft awaiting my attentions. Any time soon I should get responses back on two other projects which may require hasty rewriting on my part.

In the meantime, another company entirely has asked for a more detailed breakdown of something I sent them in May. I'd rather expected a "Thanks but no thanks!" as I've since learnt a bit more about what they're after. But instead they just said a bit more about what they're after and have asked me to suitably respond. This is pitching for a big and paid gig, so that's all a bit exciting.

And then there's the script I promised the brother, and something for that there John S Drew. And, you know, attending to the needs of both wife and cat.

And watching the rest of "For Your Eyes Only"...

Monday, September 11, 2006

It should be in a museum

I wished they'd used this on the front of the DVD, and not the uninspiring photoThe brother in law played something of a blinder with the DVD of “One of our Dinosaurs is Missing” for the Dr’s recent anniversary. Cor, it’s a corker. And, of course, an essential bit of reading for anyone interested in the history of museum acquisitions and their interpretation.

Sometime soon after the First World War, Derek Nimmo’s dandy secret agent escapes China with the top secret “Lotus X”. With Chinese hoodlums (led by Peter Ustinov) hot on his trail, he hides the secret in the skeleton of a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum, but then has a nasty fall.

Lucky for him, he bumps into his old nanny just before he passes out, and she’s able to take on the case. While Nimmo languishes in a cell perishing all thought of his being a spy, the hoodlums and the nannies both plot to recover the Lotus X whatever way they can – even if it means scousing the dinosaur.

It took the wife a bit by surprise to find that this was a Disney film, especially considering the cast – which includes Joan Sims, Bernard Bresslaw, Jon Pertwee and Roy Kinnear, and suggests a sexless Carry On or, even an Ealing comedy.

It was the last film of director Robert Stevenson, who’d been responsible for Mary Poppins, Old Yeller (a favourite of my mum’s), The Absent-Minded Professor, and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

(He also directed Darby O’Gill and the Little People, with its lurid Technicolor Oirland, complete with shamrocks and leprechauns. It features an all-smiling, all-singing Sean Connery three years before he became James Bond. Yes, it’s why Ian Fleming responded, “What? Him?!?”)

Dinosaurs is a very low-budget runaround in comparison to all that – a clue to that being the absence of American stars other than Helen Hayes. The cast are quite amazing, the leads ably supported by some fantastic cameos. And the whole thing is a set-up for two brilliant set pieces: the chase through fog-enshrouded London with the stolen dinosaur, and the final fisticuffs between hoodlums and nannies.

It does feel like something from another age, with Caucasian actors made up (in some cases almost not at all) to play the lead Chinese. The Dr and Nimbos both felt sure it hailed from the late 60s, though it’s from 1975 (so post, not pre, Pertwee’s commitments to the universe as Dr Who).

It is very funny, but in an especially mild-mannered way. The villains are all good eggs really, if only you take a moment to chat to them. Like Talons (made two years later), what racial jokes there are more readily mock English pretensions than bully the Oriental.

I couldn’t understand why Clive Revill, as Ustinov’s ambitious number two, seemed so familiar – and his make-up only made him more so. And then I remembered that he used to be the Emperor before Fidgeting George cut his bits out. Do put those scissors down, dear, or you'll end up the subject of a rhyme in Struwwelpeter.

What I especially like is the way Dinosaurs constantly undercuts the gritty tension of the thriller. So it sets itself up as something like Fu Manchu, but we discover along the way that the Chinese super-villain had a nanny, too, and that anyway Nimmo doesn’t work for M but for a supermarket.

Nimbos, always eager to spoil the fun, points out that the dinosaur prop looks like a skeleton, not a fossil. But he was impressed enough with the set to not always be sure what had been filmed on location.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Just like Salisbury

Bob’s my uncle (and his Mrs used to be my boss at the same time my sister was my landlady). You can now hear the noise he makes at his shiny new site.


A bit surprised by the response from some chums to the death of Steve Irwin (sorry to pick on that site in particular but it's indicative of stuff said in the pub last night). Some have said Irwin was reckless or a madman, or even deserved what he got.

I can’t help feel that if those gorillas had mauled David Attenborough instead of hugging him, it’d earn a different response. No less reckless a stunt for making good telly, it’s just Irwin wasn’t so immaculately spoken.

Danger men

Watching a 70s drama about Philby, Burgess & Maclean the other night (in which Derek Jacobi got Richard Hurndall and Arthur Lowe all cross), the Dr asked why spies so appealed.

The things the spies did and reported on led to the deaths of thousands – and they colluded willingly. (This led to a discussion of party politics, team games and all this current rubbish, my thoughts on which I’ll write up once I’ve prised “Interesting Times” from her paws.) She also decried what ruthless, vicious bastards spies are.

I concede she does rather have a point.

So what appeals? The charm and sex appeal of the style begun by Bond does lend the bastards some humanity, and a lot of what I like is the tension caused by the wretched ruthlessness of the job. Then there’s the tedious wish-fulfilment bullshit of one man who can make a real difference.

Spies are also clever protagonists, relying on wits and skill. They face constant danger in the field, battling against all the odds. Though they may have support and resources back home, they’re very much on their own. They face terrible, unforgiving brutality should they get things a bit wrong. As a result, they immediately make a plot into a thriller.

One of the great appeals of Casino Royale when I read it all those years ago was Bond getting things a bit wrong. Am hoping the new film (full trailer now here) will include his penance-by-tennis-racket.

See also: Millennium Dome on DangerMouse.

The whole brevity thing

Rob complained last night that my posts here go on a bit long. I patiently explained that cutting stuff down is the difficult bit and usually something I’m paid for. Rambling is extravagant luxury.

“But I don’t read to the end,” he said.

I think I replied along the lines of this blog being for my own personal amusement. But I have a notebook for that and its good practice anyway, so shall attempt more frequent concisisity.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Intelligent design

The Royal Chelsea HospitalAfter a day trawling through the washing and inbox, the Dr and I last night attended a soirée at the Royal Chelsea Hospital which included a talk and free fizz.

Chatted to a couple of other punters, all linked to art institutions of some kind. The Dr spoke knowledgeably of effigies of Queen Anne and what conservation cleaning can reveal, and I mugged a bit and ate canapés.

One of the pensioners showed us round the chapel, and explained the prominent baptismal font. Pensioners’ grandchildren are eligible to be baptised (and married) in the place.

Then it was on to the smart Council Chamber for two quick talks explaining the hospital’s role now (with 300-odd pensioners today, and a new infirmary in the works - donate here), and the history of its origination. The latter made use of portraits round the room of the founding heroes and villains.

Charles II (yay!) set up the hospital at about the same time as he did the country’s first standing army. Work got underway quickly, and then stalled for over a decade when the Earl of Raneleigh (boo!) ran off with the money.

The hospital didn’t just deal with the social problem of former soldiers now begging. Charles had been newly established as king by a government who’d cut his dad’s head off, and the “sentinels” – as the pensioners were originally described in all the documentation – had an implied remit to act, should he need them, as bodyguard.

Christopher Wren (yay!) positioned the building at a slight angle to the river, so that the pensioners are shaded from the sun in the summer and get maximum sunlight in the winter.

The design also includes shallow, wide steps ideal for old blokes and a clever mix of public and private space in the long wards. Pensioners can hide away in their berths, or sit chatting in the corridor. Which is all a bit clever, really.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I am a doughnut

Climbed into a cab at a little after 3 in the morning on Saturday and had a very easy ride up to Stansted. Behind us in the check-in queue, two female exemplars of English moderation and kindness took their time explaining the obvious: that the airport is very busy even at this time in the morning; that it’s still dark outside; that there’s a lot of people going to Berlin.

They also get mardy about a young couple just ahead of us they’ve decided jumped the queue. When they start saying, “Well then we should push ahead, too,” I point out that the young couple have been there all along. They glare at me right up to the check-in desk.

Security is no more of a palava than usual, apart from them not allowing cigarette lighters in your hand luggage. Well d’uh. Your hand luggage must also be, er, hand luggage, and not just a suitcase which you can demonstrably lift. We pass swiftly through the arguments with patient airport staff, whose mantra goes, “No,” and, “No,” and, “No,” and, “Even in this circumstance there aren't any exceptions.”

Had hoped to pick up “Lost Girls” in the airport bookshops, which are often ahead of the outside, real world. No such luck, and the Internet is available for just £1 per 10 minutes. Bah.

We shuffle onto the plane, and no one is allowed any sleep because Ryanair has exciting news of drinks and scratchcards and hire cars and shit. Everyone is already cranky from no-sleep, so this makes things all the more lovely.

Then we are in Berlin, sleep-starved and lost by the route into town. There are chatty volunteers at the railway station showing what tickets to buy, but they’re so chatty we miss a train while they “serve” the people in front of us. The train then stops for 20 minutes at one station and terminates at the next. We spend longer getting the miles into town than we did in the air.

“It’s a lot like London,” says the Dr as we plod out of Friedrichstrasse station, friendly commuters bowling past us, between us and sometimes right over the top.

We amble down the street to where our hotel is meant to be. On first sight, Berlin reminds us of Chicago, our favourite American city from our honeymoon. The hotel is sumptuous and we sleep a couple of blissful hours, me dreaming of Bernice Summerfield and spaceships full of cats. The Dr indulges in a bath (we don’t have such things at home), and the Hotel even provides its own rubber duck.

After a spot of lunch we wander up to the Brandenburg Gate, both so blinded by prejudice we’re amazed to realise we’re staying in what used to be East Berlin. Poster campaigns show the city’s gleaming tube network peopled by every demographic – young, old, scruffy, smart, disabled, gay and into rock music. I think I even spot someone who isn’t white, but it might be my imagination.

We gawp at the gate we’re so familiar with from old news, and then go for a peak at the Reichstag. Deciding to do the climb to the roof another day, we amble back through the park comparing notes on our A-levels and what we learned about the fire.

Glass of Wine by VermeerFeeling jet-lagged we explore the Gemaldegalerie, where there’s a Botticelli sketch of Venus and a lovely Vermeer of a girl polishing off a Glass of Wine. We pootle around for a good two and a half hours, and spent an anxious time in the shop afterwards looking for postcards. Why do they never have ones of our favourites?

On the way back to the hotel we marvel at the swanky new shopping centres, and then stumble over what used to be the border. We follow the line of the old Berlin Wall, picked out in colour stone in the pavement, and take photos where there are odd fragments of tall concrete, like the ruins of a skinny Stonehenge.

We reach Checkpoint Charlie and instead of trying its museum (which we’ve been warned is a bit gaudy), we read the many information boards all round the crossroads. It’s an eerie and moving experience – both of us remember watching this place on the news and seeing the world change. It could have all so easily played out more violently, more miserably, more slowly…

Then back to the hotel and the Dr has a swim while I snooze. We eat at the same nice place we had lunch in and then crash into an early night. The Dr dreams of monkeys without legs after I tell her I glimpsed one on the television.

We get up lateish and head towards Museum Island, the reason we are here. On the way we pass through Bebelplatz, the square where the Nazis burnt 25,000 books.

The well-read Dr quotes Heine’s remark that,
“where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn people,”
and wonders whether the burning of the Satanic Verses all those years ago was the first symptom of more recent religious tensions. I start to answer that burning books is easier than burning people, but that’s not actually true.

The destruction of books is the destruction of social structure. The law is in books, as is religion and science and history. To burn a book is a refusal to empathise, to think, to engage. When you have burned down people’s ideas and opinions there is nothing left to stop you burning the people down, too.

Bebelplatz is an empty, open space amid the university, and though there are a couple of artworks about books in general, I think there should be something more lasting. They should have something like the stalls of mixed second-hand reading outside the National Film Theatre, with all kinds of well-thumbed, unsuitable ideas at tantalisingly affordable prices.

We move on, and the Dr adores the Altes Museum, speaking highly of a video presentation that shows where the ancient objects were taken from and how. We cheer as it shows an original Firman (a Turkish certificate saying they Ottoman government okay any looting), and I’m introduced to Furtwangler, whose marvellous moustache – as Charles Newton said – makes him look like the Dying Gaul.

There’s all sorts of detail in the objects on display and we coo at intricate glass and gold works and the insights into everyday life. We collect a mass of photocopied sheets with their additional facts about each display, the Dr marvelling at how well interpreted it all is. Again, though, the selection of postcards misses several favourites.

The museum is on a shared square with the vast, dark edifice of Berlin Cathedral and the building site that used to be the East Berlin government. The secular cathedral of classical gods easily holds its own against the Christian fella, and a great neon sign declares that “All art has been contemporary”. Feeling taller and happier and properly on holiday, we go find a suitable beer.

Next stop is the Pergamon, and the Dr marvels at how cheap the museums are before remembering that in London all this would be free.

The Pergamon is on a much bigger scale than the Altes, with whole reconstructions of pillaged ancient streets, but leaves us less impressed. I like the vast paintings of the relics in situ, hanging above the same relics on display. Yes, they look better where they were. And they wouldn’t have been quite so bombed, either.

We head home, get changed and head out for dinner. After a bit too much red wine we see in the Dr’s birthday with what cards I’d intercepted and the book on Victorian London she’d already intercepted.

Breakfast arrives at 7am, courtesy of the not-too-bad husband. We then amble down to the Health Club for the morning of indulgence I’d booked. The Dr chose the special “strawberry bath” while I was lead away by an agreeable-looking blonde to have an all-over massage.

She gently suggests I’d be more comfortable without the swimming trunks on and then sets to work on my knotty bits. Its odd to sprawl out in the all-together for a complete – and pretty – stranger, but I am soon blissed out by the pummelling. Point out later to the wife that it’s the first time in nearly seven years another woman’s got to have a prod at me naked. Does this count as a scratching of the itch, and do I have to wait as long for another go at it?

When it’s the Dr’s turn, I have fun playing in the saunas and then in the pool, and but for the last ten minutes have the whole place to myself. The Dr should have birthdays more often.

Floaty and content we find some clothes to put on and head out to again to explore. We pass the rather groovy British Embassy building, a cube of yellow inset with fun blue and pink shapes. It looks like a military headquarters run by children.

Queued and queued to get into the Reichstag as we passed through the various airlocks of security and up into Norman Foster’s splendid roof. The fine panoramic views remind you how flat Berlin is and why there are so many bicycles.

We then wandered East down the Spree and into the old Jewish quarter. Having marvelled at the great palace built for the Post Office’s horses, and at the magnificent rebuilt synagogue, we had a happy time poking around the fashionable, studenty shops. The area around the Nikolaikirche was very badly bombed, and the rebuilt area is rather smart and foreboding. A bar seemed a bit perturbed to be serving tourists, so we left them to it.

Instead, we dined at the 12 Apostles, a lovely pizzeria just next to the Pergamon. It was bustling with locals – always a good sign – and we got to sit right up by the open-plan kitchen. I had a huge calzone (a folded over pizza), and managed manfully to finish it. Cor, it was good. We bickered amiably about the selfish gene and about lost bits of stone off Malta and where our travels would take us next, and then plodded home.

Breakfasted and checked-out of the hotel, and then made our way to the Jewish Museum, which was something of a surprise. It was less about the Nazis as about the history of Germano-Jews since the time of the First Crusade. Charting the highs and lows of bias in the law and acts of violence, to the contributions to society by Jewish scientists and artists, it’s as much a celebration as a warning.

I found it moving and involving, and was impressed by how much it engaged the gangs of noisy schoolkids. The interactive elements included difficult yes/no questions about citizenship and immigration, such as “Should those born in Germany automatically qualify for German citizenship?” (68% of visitors when we were there said, “Yes.”)

Then we had a foolishly long walk across town to the Humburger Bahnhof – a former railway station and now a contemporary art gallery. It had been recommended by a few people, and we were hugely disappointed. As well as the usual pretension of the things on display, the place was stark and unfriendly, the staff keen to tell us off for carrying a cardigan the wrong way.

Only contemporary art makes you feel like a trespasser, and I found it difficult to get anything from the work. Were scuff marks just discernible in the blinding-white walls some new, untitled piece? Or were they just what was left behind when a piece had been relocated? In different cases, both.

There was little signage or – so important to the Dr – interpretation. The café was not open but didn’t tell say so anywhere (so we got told off again for blundering in), and there were various building works going on and things set up, with nothing to explain which areas on the map were newly out of bounds.

We did like some of the things – some fascinating photos from inside the ruin of the Palast der Republik, built in 1976 to govern East Berlin. But much of the collection was large, abstract, plain-toned stuff, presented against large, plain-toned walls so as to reduce any hint of excitement.

Also, of course, none of the things we liked were available as postcards. Instead they had lots of pretentiously rude ones – dead-eyed women fingering their bits, a bloke looking bored with his half-hearted cock out. I suppose there’s an argument that it’s not dreary porn because of the building its in. But, you know, piss off.

We had curried sausages before taking a train back to the Altes Museum, where the Dr was keen to make notes. On the way back to the hotel to fetch our bags we nipped into the Friedrichswerdersche Kirche and had a look at the collection of sculptures by Schinkel. The church was largely destroyed during the war and has been rebuilt elegantly. Some of the early 19th century sculptures were also missing limbs, and seemed oddly so much more like the classical works that had inspired them.

There was time for a beer before getting the train back to the airport. Our place was late leaving London, but they didn’t tell us that until we were on the plane. We mooched around the meagre airport facilities – a coffee bar, a shop and a sickly-stinking Burger King – and then huddled in a corridor with our fellow passengers.

Air travel brings out the worst in people anyway, but the half-hour lateness turned boarding into a scrum. There is something especially galling about people pretending not to see me as they shove past – I am tall, I am freakish-looking and I spend my whole life in the way.

We left the tangled morass at Stansted, climbing into our waiting taxi as people around us swore at each other for all having been off on holiday. Home about half one this morning, to the Dr’s remaining cards and presents, and a pair of new shoes for me.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Rhymes with "Vimto grins"

If seasoned smokers, tokers and pipe-pokers can blow Smoke Rings (and Tolkein implies such activity is the finest part of havin' a puff), surely the same technique - the same articulation of the throat and tonguing action - might be used in the forging of vomit rings.

Imagine the joyous bafflement inflicted at bus stops besplattered in acidic hoops... like the Mysterons have had a night on the tiles.

Surely there's a research grant in this. No, really.

ETA: That should be "Anagram of", not "rhymes with". I am a twat. And much in need of a holiday.