The Lions in the Castle
Narrator: Two stone lions sit either side of the South Staircase from the entrance hall of the British Museum. Visitors largely ignore them in their haste to do the top ten sights of the museum or get to whatever blockbuster is showing.
The lions once adorned the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. An earthquake dislodged them at some point in the middle ages and they were re-used to decorate the late crusader castle of the Knights of St John in Bodrum. And then 150 years ago in 1856, they were identified by archaeologist Charles Newton who thought they’d be a lot better off in the British Museum. In excavations of the Mausoleum, Newton had found many of the hindquarters of lions and hoped to be able to unite the bodies with the heads in the British Museum. As Newton wrote:
Newton: I was anxiously awaiting for the papers empowering me to take possession of the lions which I had discovered in the Castle last year. Unavoidable delays had prevented the granting of this document.
Narrator: To hurry things up, Newton despatched his good friend the painter George Frederick Watts to Istanbul to acquire the paperwork needed. Although perhaps ‘hurry’ is the wrong word: on the way, Watts had time to cruise through the Greek islands to Athens and paint one portrait of the British ambassador and another of the commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet.
While Watts was away, word was spreading that the lions were of value. Why then, should they be shipped off to London? The Ottoman Minister of War had ordered the Commandant of the Castle of St Peter to remove the lions from the walls and send them to Istanbul.
Newton: It was not a pleasant sight to see this operation performed under our very eyes . . . Two more lions were soon dug out of the walls. The extraction of two of my eye teeth could not have given me so great a pang.
Narrator: Just to rub it in, the Commandant visited Newton at the excavation site where he contrasted the ‘little fragments’ of sculptures Newton had found on the excavation site with the big impressive lions he had extracted from the castle.1
Newton: I endured his civil impertinence for about a quarter of an hour, till at last my inward chafing found vent in a strong expression or two in English addressed to Captain Towsey. The Turks did not understand what I had said: but guessed from the expression of my countenance what was passing in my mind . . .
Narrator: Thinking he had lost them for good, a dejected Newton had photographs taken of the lions. Then they were placed on a ship ready to sail for Istanbul.
At four AM the next morning Watts sailed into Bodrum with the paperwork Newton had been waiting for. A sailor was sent to wake Newton, but:
Newton: I had had so many disappointments about the paperwork that I received this news with sceptical indifference, and doggedly fell asleep again.
Narrator: He was woken up again two hours later by another messenger from Captain Towsey.
Newton: I answered Towsey’s news very sulkily as I believed the lions were gone. But he told me that the ship was still in the harbour awaiting a fair wind. I jumped into the boat without a word more: a few vigorous strokes brought us to the harbour.
Narrator: Newton and Towsey went to see the Commandant, who was surprised to see them so early in the morning.
Newton: We disrupted him with that indecent haste with which mad Englishmen occasionally invade the kieff of an Oriental when any real emergency occurs. I put the firman in his hand with that air of cool satisfaction with which a whist player trumps an ace on the first round.
Narrator: The Commandant was astonished. But once he checked the details, he claimed that the statues on his boat were not the lions described in the paperwork but leopards. Newton was having no more delays.
Newton: Come, come my friend. Aslanlar or caplanlar, you know very well what are the beasts meant by the firman, and where to find them. I claim those beasts, and no other.
Narrator: The lions were handed over, though Newton reimbursed the Commandant for his expense in removing them. Although, one solitary lion from Bodrum made it to the museum in Istanbul where it is displayed on its own. The lions were duly transported to London were they sat in a shed until there was room in the museum to display them. Newton’s friend and fellow archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard objected to the treatment of these antiquities in a creaky shed that let the rain and soot in, but that is another story.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
The lions in the castle
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
"Are you a builder. Are you from Brazil?"
(This was itself a clue. The only person I've spoken to all day is the Dr, who was fretting about wine.)
I asked what number she'd meant to call, and could then explain the error. But she wasn't having any of that, and still asked the above.
In fact, she was so insistent that I thought perhaps I was.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Henry Jones Junior Junior
To ensure this lecture is bang on the moment, we went to see the new Indiana Jones movie this afternoon. It’s had mixed responses amongst our pals but we loved it – with two niggling exceptions.
It’s a rip-roaring, great fun adventure with plenty of jokes and pratfalls. It’s got some nicely icky bits in graves, with skeletons and creepy crawlies. The action sequences are exemplary and the whole thing licks along. It’s not a revisionist new version of the old hero, in the style of Dark Knight Returns. This is Indy as he always was, just a couple of decades later.
Older and greyer after his heroic service in the war, the film opens with Indiana tied up in the back of a car. It’s an ignominious beginning, with the Russians invading the iconic warehouse from the final shot of Raiders, which (as when The X-Files pilot ripped that shot off) is the Area 51 of Roswell.
As well as the Ark of the Covenant, this warehouse also includes an artefact that has magic, magnetic properties and soon Indiana is fighting to stop the Commies getting their hands on an alien.
Oh yes; this one’s about an alien. Though I’d point out that each of the first three movies feature a magic deux ex machina – the angry God of the Old Testament, Shiva feeling betrayed and a goblet used by Jesus.
The Von Danniken plot is just like the overly generalising anthropology so evident in the first three movies. Here the Mayans are sun-worshippers just like the Egyptians, and at a stroke they might have shared the same religion. It’s the fallacy of Hero With A Thousand Faces – that because different cultures show some similarities that they must all be the same.
The Communist baddies and alien crash are both nods to this being the 1950s. Mud Jones owes something to James Dean, and the speeding kids in the opening titles reminded me of American Graffiti. Dr Jones also has to contend with an atomic test – his last-minute solution of hiding in a fridge isn’t exactly a great example for any children watching. And the convenient it gets picked up by the bomb blast and carried out of danger is the same unlikely, easy get-out as in Fires of Pompeii. (the Dr's only criticism of Mr Moran’s clever script is that Donna and the Doctor couldn’t have made the long trek back into town ahead of the suffocating dust.)
Which is a shame, because often the film is really rather smart. It’s got something to say – and with subtlety – about the erosion of civil liberties and academic freedom as Jones is suspected by the McCarthyites. Only his old mates – Alan Dale and Jim Broadbent – stand by him, while the young folk pooh-pooh his list of medals.
(There’s something odd about his alluded war service, like Jones was in special ops alongside MI6. I realise now that it’s possible he was working alongside the book James Bond.)
The film’s also good at showing Indiana’s brains: he’s multilingual, his experience counts and we see him puzzling stuff out. He even kvetches that Mud Jones hasn’t finished college – while his son is another of George Lucas’s irritating, sulky teens, the film manages to steer clear of that Hollywood cliché of the Bad Dad who Gets Better.
I saw Neal Stephenson lecture at Gresham College a few weeks ago (and hadn’t blogged about it ‘cos what he said was going to be posted on their website). He was good on the “bifocal” careers of actors like Hugo Weaving, Leonard Nimoy and Sigourney Weaver, talented, highly competent actors with very varied careers, yet who have a special appeal to sweaty palmed sci-fi fans.
Stephenson’s contention was that it’s not just that Nimoy was only getting offered Vulcan roles; everyone else being offered those pointy ears after him was a bit of a disappointment. Because Nimoy – and Weaving and Sigourney Weaver, and Brent Spiner and Patrick Stewart and Lucy Lawless and all the Doctors Who, and now I realise Harrison Ford – all have the ability to suggest there’s something smart going on behind their eyes. The best heroes of sci-fi are clever.
In part, Indiana using his brains is a response to his being that much older. His increasing frailty is also used to comic effect – he misjudges distance and isn’t so firm on his feet. But Indiana’s brains and his new-found son’s brawn match the relationship Indiana had with his own father.
Oddly, Harrison Ford is now older than Sean Connery was in 1989, when he was playing Henry Jones Senior – a doddery, tweedy old academic who used his brains instead of his fists. His absence and that of Denham Elliott as Marcus Brody are keenly felt in the film – indeed, Jim Broadbent and John Hurt are like stunt replacements for them.
And the film is very keen to acknowledge Indiana’s past: there’s Indy mourning Marcus and Dad, and being reunited with Marion. A reference to Indy’s teenage past meeting famous figures in history (I assume) acknowledges the TV show. But there’s no mention at all of the Temple of Doom, as if it’s an embarrassing aberration. I half hoped to see a photo of Shortround on Indiana’s desk, or him turning up as yet another old mate who’s gone to the dark side.
Indiana’s not great with choosing buddies is he? There was Alfred Molina in the first one, and the Nazi girlfriend in the last. And now there’s Ray Winstone – who Psychonomy didn’t think had the breeding and accent to have worked for the Secret Service.
Winstone’s cheeky, crooked adventurer is just one example of the broad-brushstroke characterisation. Evil Commie villainess Cate Blanchett wields a sword and severe haircut, and might as well sport an eye-patch and beard she’s such an alpha baddie. You’d expect there to be some crude binary oppositions here: the evil of Communism against heroic, individualist freedom. But Winstone’s a villain for being a capitalist, and while previous films made the Nazis baddies because of their ideology, there’s no mention of what the Russians actually stand for.
And it’s not even that America = good. As I said, the film greys the moral black and white by making the FBI suspect Indiana; in a film about archaeology, only an idiot thinks his past counts for nothing. But these government spooks are the same dunderheaded bureaucrats Indy railed against at the end of Raiders when they put Top Men on the Ark. Indiana sticks it to Cate Blanchett by saying “I like Ike”, and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that as an example of Nietzschean wilful hero archetype of 1930s pulp, he is the kind of self-sufficient Republican who stands against state interference in his life.
But I’m not sure this anti-establishment stuff squares with Indy as a respectable college professor (and, at the end of the film, a dean), horrified at the damage done to a public statue. And the film acknowledges the contradiction: he supports Mud quitting college and following his own dream until he finds out he is family.
Or maybe that’s all just me imposing values (the film also leaves some odd threads dangling, like warning us to watch out for small scorpions... and then getting a swarm of hungry ants). But I’d at least argue that the film that could be much simpler in its morality than it is. And that makes it more rewarding than the pulp hokum of the past that it is pastiching.
And, of course, also all the less forgivable that it’s so very white. Even The Last Crusade gave it’s native peoples dialogue to explain that they’re attacking Indy for a reason – that they’re protecting the artefacts he’s stumbling through and blowing up. Here the nearly naked savages are mute. A plot cherry-picking from the 1950s could have at least nodded at civil rights – perhaps in place of that anti-Red campus protest.
The other thing that bothers is the crappy CGI. Just as with Star Wars, it sticks out like it’s from another movie altogether. Just as with James Bond, it feels like your cheating, betraying the manly realism of the stunts and set pieces. The comedy groundhogs are over-used and stupid, as is Mud swinging through the trees having learnt how from some monkeys.
It’s this – and only this – that makes the film sit oddly with its predecessors.
Monday, May 26, 2008
How you get there
We passed the spaceport on Saturday morning as we made our way to the building next door, the Seacombe ferry terminal. As a treat for my brother-in-law’s 30th birthday, we were off on a cruise down the Manchester ship canal – all 36 miles up to Salford.
Yes, it’s up – the five locks we went though lifted us a total of 17 metres. And since the working ships take precedence over a pleasure cruise like ours, there was a lot of hanging around to get into the canal in the first place. We spent more than an hour shunting around in front of the Eastham entrance waiting for the tide, as one such heavily laden ship in the lock needed the Mersey to be deeper.
When the sun peeked through the clouds, it was all very pleasant. But there was a general grey drear and biting gale from the east that meant our red faces owe us much to frostbite as to suntan. We resorted to whisky and crisps and canoodling to keep back the cold.
There was also plenty of waving to be done; the workers on the boats we passed and on the docks and quays, people even coming out of their canalside houses to wave as we went by. Perhaps that suggests the quietness of the route. My late grandmother could remember a trip down to Cornwall sometime in the 1920s, and people coming out their houses to gawp at the car going past. Perhaps it's also to do with the canal being a gentler, more amenable way of getting about than your usual 21st century haste.
The canal was opened in 1894 – the same year as Tower Bridge in London – and all along the route there’s evidence of the extraordinary Victorian engineering. The Dr had fun taking pictures of the various bridges: ones that swung apart to let the masts of ships through, or built up so high over the canal the mast could duck under them.
There was also a constant commentary: not always audible outside on deck, where the gale blew it all about. They turned up the volume, which only made it like shouting below deck. And a little off-putting when you went to the toilet, which had it’s own set of speakers. The lady speaking gave a broad, industrial history – including what industries line the canal today – but tactfully ignored any mention of how vehemently Liverpool opposed the canal in the first place. And maybe there was a bit too much pointing out of things we could already see: ducks and heron on the water, or yet another bridge.
(J. also objected to the idea that traffic on the M60 overhead would all be going to the Trafford Centre.)
The main industry today seemed to be things of power: coal for the coal-fired powerstation, or colour-coded pipes full of gas. And much was made of the canal’s green credentials. It had been neglected after the Second World War, and not just from the impact of bombing. The huge number of planes built in the war meant that airfreight was cheap in peacetime, and quicker than going by boat. But these days, the cost of petrol and environmental concerns mean that the canal is on the up.
In fact, there was plenty of economic joy on show. Liverpool’s Liver building and twin cathedrals are overshadowed by splendid new skyscrapers. It reminded me and the Dr of Sydney; the huge and sturdy Victorian buildings dwarfed by the shiny new tier. But maybe the modern architecture makes all cities look too much the same: this could have been Cardiff or Bristol or Canary Wharf too.
And at journey’s end there was Salford, with its Imperial War Museum and Lowry Centre, and the building site that will soon be the BBC. Again, it felt Canary Wharf and Cardiff, shiny and groovy with plenty of posh drinking and eating, but no different from too many other places. Were it not for the accents of the deferrying passengers, we could have been anywhere.
We trammed into town to join more of J.’s chums (including the Yemayan Ambassador from page 91 of The Pirate Loop) and had our second curry in two days. Made the last train back to Macclesfield, and were home for the last half-hour of Moonraker.
Journey back to London the next day took as long as the canal trip; there are no trains through Macclesfield this whole week – I assume they’ve closed the line at half-term because working commuters take precedence over paying customers merely using the train for fun. So we went via Reading (and beer with H. and J.), and enjoyed screaming children and a girl who wept into her mobile that the boy she’d dumped and told to go find someone else to snog had only gone and done that.
Blimey, we thought. How long ago that teenage stuff now seems. And like the canals and railways, we struggle against the laws of physics to fend off our decrepitude. It is back to the gym tomorrow…
Friday, May 23, 2008
Bite my wire
Jimmy McNulty is working in Baltimore Homicide, and is aggrieved that anyone he catches gets off, and that none of his colleagues or anyone in the DEA even knows the name Avon Barksdale - the man running all the drugs. So Jimmy kvecthes to his mate who is a judge, and the judge sets up a special operation tailing Barksdale. But this only pisses everyone in the two departments off, so McNulty's unit is mostly a bunch of lazy, sweary no-hopers, the deadwood everyone else has been looking to get shot of for years.
Or so it seems at first...
It starts slow and for the first three episodes I just thought it was a perfectly competent cop show. Being HBO, there's sporadic nudity, violence and swearing. I know one chap who was turned off the whole thing by a scene in episode one where some cops are stupid and crude.
But firstly, it's clouding up the moralities, so there's nothing so simple as good guys and bad guys. Every one of the huge cast is morally conflicted and there's all kinds of stupidity on show due to short tempers or not giving a stuff.
Secondly, in episode four the real genius kicks in. We get scenes playing off - without spelling out explicitly - stuff we've already seen. And we're often privy to stuff that particular characters don't know: what really happened or how close they came to a lead. And yet at the same time the show holds stuff back from us, so something said earlier on in the series gets shown to be macho bluster in the last episode.
From episode four it is utterly compelling, and when they start bumping off regular characters, you genuinely have no idea where it's going to go. And I have years of this stuff still to get to - hooray!
But Charlie Brooker enthuses much better than I (and has all sorts of stuff about why it feels like a novel and has such an authentic feel):
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
I've been following the One Laptop Per Child project for ever and am a bit surprised I've not blogged about it before. The prototype model of the chunky green thing even came with a yellow crank handle. How can that not be cool?
The BBC news story is especially exciting because the laptops are going to be released to us greedy Westerners:
Prof Negroponte announced the resumption of the Get-One-Give-One programme to allow people in wealthy nations to buy two XO laptops and donate one to a child in a developing country.
The programme will be open to people in North America and Europe and start in August or September.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Royal Mail is fast running out of solid ground under it, like the polar bears. Branches of Post Office are closing up and down the country – which, one claimant argues, is a breach of human rights.
There was also a story a couple of weeks ago that, since 2006 and the end of Royal Mail’s 350-year monopoly on delivering post in this country, nobody’s actually come forward to try to compete.
It’s apparently just not worth their while; the volume of letters is declining at the same rate as the polar icecaps. And of course, the postal regulator thinks the solution to this is privatisation.
The mail system we understand today is a Victorian invention – Rowland Hill’s revolutionary “Post-office reform: its importance and practicability” was published in 1837, the year Victoria gave up being a princess.
Hill begins his argument for reducing the cost and complexity of the postal system with some numbers. Taxing postage is counter-productive, he says. The tax deters people from using the state-owned mail, and fewer people using the system means less revenue to the state overall – Hill himself quotes a loss of some half a million pounds for 1835 on page 2.
“The loss to the revenue is, however, far from being the most serious of the injuries inflicted on society by the high rates of postage. When it is considered how much the religious, moral, and intellectual progress of the people, would be accelerated by the unobstructed circulation of letters and of the many cheap and excellent non-political publications of the present day, the Post Office assumes the new and important character of a powerful engine of civilization; capable of performing a distinguished part in the great work of National education, but rendered feeble and inefficient by erroneous financial arrangements.”
Rowland Hill, “Post-office reform: its importance and practicability” (1937), p. 7.Admittedly, Hill argued that the system would probably be better administered in private hands:
“There cannot be a doubt that if the law did not interpose its prohibition, the transmission of letters would be gladly overtaken by capitalists, and conducted on the ordinary commercial principles, with all that economy, attention to the wants of their customers, and skilful adaptation of means to the desired end, which is usually practised by those whose interests are involved in their success.”
Ibid.But, since there is a monopoly, he argued, the state had a duty to make the system work, to make it work well, and to maximise revenues. And, because it had a monopoly, the costs would be easily spread across the whole country. In fact, if you had a national network anyway, the difference in cost of sending a letter 100 miles rather than 10 was almost negligible; either way, it was still even less than a penny.
So Hill rather brilliantly argued that you would raise revenues by at least quartering the price of postage (from the usual 4d) – and paying the fare in advance of posting, to avoid people cheating the system.
“I therefore propose –
That the charge for primary distribution, that is to say, the postage on all letters received in a post-town, and delivered in the same, or any other post-town in this British Isles, shall be at the uniform rate of one penny per ounce ; – all letters and other papers, whether single or multiple, forming one packet, and not weighing more than one ounce, being charged one penny ; and heavier packets, to any convenient limit (say one pound,) being charged an additional half penny for each additional half ounce.”
Ibid., pp. 33-34.While Hill also called for a “great increase” in the number of receiving houses, he argued that a uniform rate of postage would make their job easier and more efficient: letters would either be paid for or not, so they’d just need distributing. It’s not dissimilar to recent discussions of micropayments: if there’s a system of handling them cheaply and efficiently, then there’ll be enough of them to make it pay.
And Hill’s brilliant system worked.
“In 1839 on average each person in the UK received just 4 letters a year. That figure doubled in 1840 to 8; in 1871 it was 32; by 1900 it had almost doubled again to 60.”
Simon Eliot, “Aspects of the Victorian Book – The Economic and Social Background to Victorian Print Culture: postal system”.
(See the graph at the foot of the page for the extraordinary scale of that…)
The Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, was issued on 6 May 1840. Soon there were wildly exciting technological developments like envelopes and, in 1843, Hill’s mate (and something of a hero of mine) Henry Cole invented the Christmas card. Hill, still the radical pioneer, was suggesting outlandish things like people having letter shaped holes in their front doors to make delivering post that much easier.
“Reducing the cost of mail would be a boost to literacy and democratise the use of the post,” says the British Postal Museum and Archive – arguing that Hill’s changes to the system were a deliberate social reform. But cheaper postage (and speedier services when post got sent my rail and, in London, it’s own private underground train) benefited everyone: the workings of business, of Empire, of news and thought and science were all given a great push.
As a result, and with Hill’s reforms being quickly adopted abroad, the world became a smaller place; our conversations became more widespread, diverse and quicker.
It’s no wonder that many commentators feel Hill’s postal system has been undone by the Internet – which, since 1990, has had just as huge an impact on worldwide work and natter. But the Internet is not the guilty party; the killer has been choking Hill’s system since long before 1990. Hill argued that the system would work because Royal Mail had its monopoly, and it is whittling away that monopoly that is causing the harm.
Telegrams, phonecalls and later faxes and pagers all competed with old-fashioned post; the speed and convenience of modern technology making many kinds of letter redundant. No longer would a courting couple arrange their dates by post; instead they’d enrage their parents by spending all night saying nothing down the phone.
But until (relatively) recently these technologies were no threat to Hill’s system because they too were part of Royal Mail’s monopoly. With its Victorian communication network set up, Royal Mail was inevitably in the best place to nurture the nascent technologies of telegraph and phone. Telegrams were sent and received from the local Post Office, and via cables that swam from Porthcurno in Cornwall, they reached the whole of the world. Britain’s telephone network was run by the General Post Office until 1980 – when British Telecom was created.
Now I’m not arguing that the telephone lines be renationalised. (But I can see an argument for making letters and parcels part of BT’s licence, that they’re as much “telecommunications” as telephone lines and broadband.) I’m just making the point.
But where the Royal Mail really was screwed was by being split into three. They separated the businesses of delivering letters, delivering parcels and operating post offices in 1986.
Oddly, Rowland Hill might have approved of this split. Having outlined his proposals for the fee of “an additional half penny for each additional half ounce” on parcels, he conceded his own doubts:
“The charge for weights exceeding one ounce should not, perhaps, in strict fairness, increase at so great a rate ; but strict fairness may be advantageously sacrificed to simplicity ; and it is perhaps not desirable that the Post Office should be encumbered with parcels.”
Hill, p. 34.And yet, I’d argue that the parcels – and post that needs signing for – is the profitable bit. It’s the service you pay a premium on, and it’s the bit phone, fax and email can’t do. Tellingly, Parcelforce doesn’t have a monopoly on this stuff and – as Hill did sort of predicted (see above) – capitalists have skilfully, economically made parcels big business. There are expensive, elaborate advertisements for why one courier’s that millisecond quicker or how you can follow the progression of what you’ve sent to the square quantum particle.
And it’s simple to see why: the transmission of abstract ideas can be done in the electronic ether, as fast and free as available technology; but you’re always going to need someone to shift physical stuff.
And the Internet, I’d argue, has increased the postage of physical stuff. People shop online and then have their wares sent to them from all over the country and even from abroad. They swap stuff, they auction stuff, they send gifts to the people and communities they met online. All the stuff you can’t just do by talking, that needs someone getting off their arse.
It’s difficult to quote any numbers when the infrastructure is in bits, but without competing couriers paying for lavish advertisements, or even paying separately and on top of each other for their networks to have the same reach, surely it’d be cheaper for all of us to send stuff. And, on Hill’s model, that means we’d do it more.
Dividing the postal system up ever further is just slash and burn economics; you strip out the bits of an ecosystem that will yield short term returns, but you do so at the expense of that system having a future.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Tales from the cryptic
On Sunday, I made amendments to something else which hasn't been announced yet and so cannot be spoken of either.
And this morning I was on the 07.02 train to Victoria to spend most of the day visiting something related to another as yet unannounced thingie.
I can reveal, however, that on the way home I was bought some Percy Pigs on expenses. Ooh, my showbiz life. But mmm, Percy pigs.
Friday, May 16, 2008
"At its worst merely silly, at its best is had been spell-binding."
John Brosnan, Peter Nicholls, Kim Newman, "Dr Who", in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls), Orbit 1993, p. 346.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
On the hoof
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
50s way to leave your lover
Hooray! We almost skipped in the great glass elevator up to the second floor.
Also strikingly modern was the new-fangled audio guide. Rather than being given some ersatz walkie-talkie, you used your own mobile phone. (Calls were charged at London landline rate, rather than at some cunning premium. We, um, didn’t bother.)
The post-war period is a fascinating one, and is also currently RESEARCH. Which means any exhibitions and related books and curios are tax deductible. And what follows is cobbled together from various bits of reading and not-quite-thinking.
Britain was punch-drunk after the war, reeling from the barely-understood-yet evaporation of her empire. There’s a thing in Graham Green’s “The End of the Affair”, where the narrator describes the fearlessness of living in the Blitz, where you might die any moment. It seems it’s only when there’s no more bombing, when you might survive, that your muscles unclench and you again remember how it is to be terrified. This is a post-traumatic stress civilisation. How in hell did it get through?
The shared effort of war has led to expectations of a shared effort in peace. There’s a welfare system, a National Health Service and as much dentistry and spectacles as anyone can eat. A huge rebuilding operation was also required.
“The full extent of the war damage to London’s infrastructure and housing stock made reconstruction an urgent priority. The publication of Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan established a framework where issues of reconstruction and social progress combined in the utopian idealism of slum clearance, New Town development and green belt conservation.”
And with that rebuilding came a magnificent street party, deftly coinciding with the 100th anniversary of a great bash in a greenhouse. In his book on the Festival of Britain’s design and merchandising spree, Paul Rennie speaks of jubilant firework displays and nights of dancing.
“The relative sophistication of these entertainments, for ordinary people, and in the context of post-war austerity, should not be discounted.”
The new fashion for promenading wasn’t just dangerous for its European influence. The Thames beside which young people strolled was still busy, noisy and industrial, and the London smog killed 4,000 people in 1952. Yet the Festival marked something important; freedom after the austerity and secrecy of the war.
In some ways, the Festival was a conscious step backward to the pre-Great War – and imagined – period of church fetes and bicycling vicars. Look at the type-faces used in the Festival’s literature: fat-stemmed, fussy, serifed fonts as if Modernism had never happened. Things clearly fashioned by men and not machines. That, says Rennie, is a conscious turfing out of the
“ubiquitous sanserif faces of the 1930s and WWII”.
The celebration is especially evident in the Festival’s logo; a compass decked out in coloured bunting. Abram Green’s Festival logo and his posters for the Financial Times, according to Rennie,
“define the graphic style of the decade perfectly.”
And yet Rennie’s own book and the Science Museum would seem to disagree. The Festival isn’t of its age for looking fondly backwards, but for its yearning, breathless gaze into the future. It was symbolic, says Rennie, of,
“Britain’s status as an atomic power and the technical lead that it had in such fields as radar, computers, telecommunications, television and jet engines.”
The Festival was defined by technical innovation. New electric trains from Waterloo meant the South Bank site was viable because there would be less soot and smoke (p. 15), while the Festival also introduced ordinary people to the space-age concept of proper toilet paper (p. 19). It was this generation that put men on the moon.
Oliver Postgate – later inventor of Bagpuss, the Clangers and Ivor – had a job at the Festival. He helped build the scientific machines, which were constructed around complicated bubble machines,
“in essence, a large diagram depicting a flow of materials, the flow being marked out by thin glass tubes through which coloured liquid, regularly interspersed with air-bubbles, would travel along slowly."
His description of that work gives a brilliant, idiosyncratic sense of what the Festival – and its time – might have been like.
"The main characteristic of work for the Festival was that nothing that was supposed to happen happened when it was supposed to. Our material was finished and ready on time but the building it was to go into, the Power and Production Pavilion, was, to put it simply, not there. It was eventually made available to us exactly a week before the Festival was due to open, whereupon we discovered that, for reasons we knew nothing of, the showcases had not been made according to the plans we had been working to.
There was no time to argue about this and no point in doing so because nobody was taking responsibility. Bob and I just set to and sustained by Benzedrine and knobs of sugar, worked, non-stop, night and day for the whole week.
Even then I didn't quite finish. As the King and Queen and the two Princesses came through the pavilion, viewing the exhibits on the formal Opening Day, they might have thought that all the ingenious animated displays were electrically driven. Not so; I was lying on my back underneath one of them, winding it by hand.”
I love the glee and naivety around this new-fangled science stuff, of civilisation being on the cusp on an enlightenment it doesn’t like to admit it doesn’t understand. Shoe shops of the period excitedly offered to X-ray your feet on the pre-text that they’d fit your shoes much better, but really because it was just cool to use the gadget. Paul Rennie tells of similarly overly-enthusiastic space-age jollity at the Science Museum.
“A proposal for a new 'Newton-Einstein House', which subjected visitors to extreme gravitational forces, was ultimately rejected.”
The present day Science Museum is divided into three. The first section contents itself with the new technologies that people chose themselves. There’s the ultra-slim GEC hairdryer (model DM397A) from 1956. “Unlike previous types,” says the label, “it had a compact and quiet induction motor. This did not protrude from the main body and allowed the hairdryer to be sleek and stylish”.
There’s Russell Hobbs’ first offering, an electric coffee pot from 1952. There’s early electric toasters and the onomatopoeic “Sylph” electric iron. Various versions of bulky hi-fi systems all include complex valve and bulb-strewn amplifiers and hardly space-age wooden surrounds. The clunky Post Office-provided telephone receiver was still supplied until 1981.
The list of artefacts is important because each is a sea change in how people lived their lives. More, it gives an insight into how they filled their time and recorded their experience, increasingly with gadgets. I was taken by the mechanics of a Bell & Howell cine-camera, where you only used one side of the 8mm film at once, reloading it when one side was full. At the process lab, the film was split lengthwise and the 2x 25 foot lengths spliced together into 1x 50 foot length.
Beside me in the exhibition, a fellow visitor was trying to capture this explanation on his mobile phone. In the modern world, you just plug in a USB or email the pictures to yourself, or go to one of those photo machines that accept every kind of plug in but the one you’ve got.
And last there were the Frigidaire electric refrigerator, a Hotpoint washing machine (with mangle attachment on its top) and a Dishmaster electric dishwasher – all with the same stylistic rounded edges and gleaming surfaces, like props straight from Dan McRegor Dare.
Dare is the subject of the second section, which sketches who he was and how the Eagle came about, and includes a few pages of original artwork from his comic strip adventures and a selection of the wild merchandise that went with them. Admittedly, the Dan and Digby walkie-talkie is rather less strange a concept than my own walkie-talkie Eccles and Slitheen.
Excitingly, there’s two exclusive Frank Hampson posters, commissioned by the Science Museum in 1977. You can see them here:
I wasn’t surprised to see no mention of Colonel Dan’s adventures in 2000AD, Eagle mark II or recent CGI. A panel did show covers to the Garth Ennis-scripted Dan Dare strip and the Best of Eagle collection, and of course neither of these was available to buy from the shop.
Lastly, there was a section on broader developments in technology – the health service, nuclear power and electric trains. The Daily Mirror of 25 January 1955 (price 1½d, “Forward with the people”) broke the news of a “£1,200,000,000” network of electric trains, ordered by the Transport Commission. And, from Saturday, it would also be offering a brand new “Woman’s Sunday Mirror”.
I loved the British space suit – or rather the “Royal Aircraft Establishment flying suit” – with it’s goldfish-bowl round helmet, chunky zips and pleated arms and legs, with slipper-like boots lacked to the suit’s ankles. It seemed so cheap and simple, and made of natural fibre, that it seemed more like a costume from a low-budget sci-fi show. The adjacent oxygen cylinder had apparently been used on the conquest of Everest. Noticing the chunky black piping, I wondered if the air would taste of rubber. Nicely, these exhibits were often labelled with classic, cutaway illustrations from the old Eagle.
It’s a strange exhibition in all, I think because of the disconnect between the bright-eyed aspiration in the comics and designs – the determination to built a better future after the horror of the war – and the literal fall-out. It’s not just the X ray machines in shoe shops, or the scant protection offered to the Duke of Edinburgh in the photo of him visiting a nuclear power station – in a nice suit, just some paper coverings on his feet. A. spoke of having seen many of the exhibits in his own family’s homes, only yellowed with years of cigarette smoke.
In looking into this period, I guess I keep seeing the same thing; people plunging into the future because it was too awful to go back, rather than because they had any idea what they were doing. There seemed to be no thought at all that people might get burnt by the white heat of technology. The nearest mention we get of the nuclear threat in the Science Museum is an Eagle cutaway of a British intercept missile.
And I didn’t spot any mention of the hovercraft, the resolutely British invention I associate so indelibly with its Eagle cutaway. But then only this weekend I was reading how the hovercraft helped kill off some of the sexy sheen which difficulty lent stuff we take for granted.
“James Bond did not take the car ferry to France. This is the one part of the journey where my plans must diverge from his. He headed instead for Lydd Ferryfield airport, in Kent, where he drove up a ramp and straight into a Bristol plane bound for Le Touquet. This used to be a regular practice for the rich until the hovercraft killed off the business in 1970.”
See also Charlie Higson’s piece on Ian Fleming, and the booze and fags and women that killed him, in the same bat-time, same bat-paper:
“Let's face it, writers are pretty boring. Writers never know how to pose for photographs – is it hand on chin, or hand not on chin? Some might get drunk and sleep around, some might shoot themselves in an effort to appear more interesting, but the fact is 99% of our lives are spent locked away in a small room with a keyboard.”
Which is my cue to just shut up.
Monday, May 12, 2008
"a new Doctor Who story as told by one of the Doctor’s companions played by the actor who portrayed the role in the Classic Doctor Who TV series. Although essentially a talking book, each production includes dramatised sequences featuring a second actor and boasts sound-effects and an original music score ...Already the Internet is asking how Sara (pronounced "Sarah") can narrate something when she gets killed in the one story she's in. Bwah ha ha, etc.
With release number five, we return to the First Doctor with a story told by his short-lived travelling companion, Sara Kingdom who originally joined the TARDIS crew for the epic length TV story, The Daleks’ Master Plan. As in the original TV series, Sara Kingdom will once again be played by Jean Marsh of Upstairs, Downstairs fame. The story, entitled Dream Home, has been written by Simon Guerrier."
But I learned a new top fact on Saturday (in the pub, celebrating the birthdays of R. and Jenny Who). Jonny Morris tells me that May Warden, the actress what played the aged-to-death Sara, is the oldest* person ever to have been in Doctor Who - I googled her now and she was born on 9 May, 1891.
If we'd known that on Saturday, we could have celebrated her birthday too.
* Well, all right, technically, she's the earliest-born person ever to have been in Doctor Who.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
She's on her own
Friday, May 09, 2008
It's just £3.75 a copy and all in a good cause. Buy Flood now.
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
There are many different strategies, but all are desperately urgent and equally simpering to please. Perhaps this is just what you get with being an adult and having a mortgage (and being good for a loan of some £¼ million). But this is what I've had in the last lunar cycle:
- 1 April
Barclaycard send two blank cheques with a maximum total value of five grand. "Streamline your finances" says the accompanying letter, by paying off "outstanding credit or store card balances to your Barclaycard."
"It couldn't be easier," they continue, "to take advantage of this great offer", where the solution to not keeping up with your myriad debts is to, er, borrow more money. I am reminded of my post last year on business buzzwords.
Verb. Have sex with.
- 3 April
Black Horse personal finance tells me I have "been specially selected by Black Horse for a limited offer Priority Loan. We've set aside an amount of £7,575 especially for you. This offer is only available for a short time - so don't miss out on this opportunity. To activate your Priority Loan call us today - it's that easy to apply."
It says the magic number £7,575 another couple of times on the letter, and in big letters, too, for the hard of cogitating. What's more, "because our loans are available up to £15,000, you could borrow more if you need it."
So why are they only tantalising me with about half what they could offer? I feel rather slighted.
"Enjoy affordable repayments" it also says in bold letters. Yes, because it's such great fun, being technically able to keep off the bailiffs!
- 9 April
MBNA offers a credit card by which I might "spring clean" my finances. How seasonal! It's like the first chapter of Wind in the Willows! They don't do anything so unromantic as name actual cash figures, but the small print says there's a cash limit of £50,000 - though they'll dictate all the terms. In fact, there's so many conditions they have to provide a separate leaflet. Obviously no catches there!
- 11 April
Barclaycard again! And I could have "Cash in just 4 working days" - well, they admit that it could be in your account in that time - from £1,000 to £25,000.
- 12 April
British Airways have sent me a credit card. A real plastic one, stuck to a letter. Only it says in small print on the side, "This is not a Real Credit Card". But being able to see what the actual card looks like sure helps me decide whether it's a good offer.
- 15 April
Black Horse again, with a loan to help "Put your plans into action - now!" And they feel snubbed I've not been in touch. "We recently wrote to you with a loan offer - if that amount wasn't right for you there are different amounts available ... Only you know what you want a loan for - here are some suggestions, what did you have in mind."
They then suggest a garden makeover (£5,050), a dream kitchen (£7,575) and - the jackpot - a chance to spring clean my finances (£10,050). They're oddly precise figures, aren't they? Especially when I don't have a garden.
- 20 April
Lloyds TSB this time, not Black Horse at all. And apparently "£5,000 is ready and waiting for you...". Note the suggestive glance of that slutty ellipsis. "Approval on a loan is less than 30 minutes" they explain - because of course I'm the one rushing to get this signed. In fact, I'm so in a hurry I might not notice the huge great box-out, that "Typical 17.9% APR".
- 1 May
Barclaycard again. Word for word the same letter as 1 April with those two sultry cheques. Just in case I've changed my mind.
What is the solution? Well, first there's the Mailing Preference Service. But it can take months and it doesn't always work (Black Horse uses slight variations of my address which, I think, worm round the system). And anyway, the sharks themselves have provided the means of delivery.
There are prepaid envelopes with most of these letters. Prepaid, because the bank has to pay up to the Post Office if the envelopes are used. So you tear up the terms and conditions on the offer, stick them in the envelope, and post them back to the bank.
Petty? Well, yes and no. Because if enough people do it, the cost of sending this rubbish is too much to make it worthwhile. At least that's what I tell myself as I giggle fiendishly at the post box.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
You are an insect
But I’d been asked to prepare something for people who’d not seen any old Doctor Who before – indeed, who might not have been born by the time of Survival episode three. And the audience seemed quite happy with it - he even asked me for my notes. This is what I said:
Hello. If you’ve not seen old Doctor Who before, you probably need some warning. Pyramids of Mars was first shown in 1975. And some of the special effects look like they are from the mid 1970s. That’s often what most surprises people who haven’t seen much old telly. Yes, the TARDIS is dangling on a string. Yes, some of the cross-fade effects don’t quite exactly match up. But this is from two years before Star Wars and a lifetime before CGI. And as old Doctor Who goes, Pyramids of Mars is one of the best.
It tops polls and top-ten lists. It’s one Doctor Who fans show to those poor people who don’t know – or care – about the old series. Russell T Davies had clips from it in his grown-up series Queer as Folk – which caused a controversy what with its sympathetic portrayal of a Doctor Who fan.
So what makes it so good? Well. Ignoring the 70s special effects, it looks great; it’s set in 1911 and the BBC were always good at period pieces. It thieves its plot from the Hammer film The Mummy – the guy playing Professor Scarman clearly chosen because he looks a bit like Peter Cushing. And mummies make for a great monster.
But more than that. What sets it apart from other stories is that it’s Doctor Who versus a God. Sutekh is a brilliant baddie – though he spends most of his time stuck on a chair. He’s voiced by Gabriel Woolf, who was in the new series with David Tennant a couple of years ago, as the voice of the Devil. Some people think they’re the same character.
But it’s not just that Sutekh’s a God. The Doctor is terrified of him. The way Tom Baker plays it is absolutely chilling. And because the Doctor is scared, so are we.
It’s also a great story for Sarah Jane. She’s in her element here. In fact, she turns out to know a surprising amount about Egyptian mythology and how to use a rifle. She also just so happens to try on the right sort of period clothes. But again, it’s a compelling performance – always running to keep up with the Doctor, terrified but brave.
And special mention to Michael Sheard as Laurence Scarman, fantastically baffled, enthusiastic and rather moving. Sheard would later be throttled by Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and played Hitler in the last Indiana Jones movie. He’s one of Doctor Who’s best ever guest actors, but is probably most famous as the dreaded Mr Bronsan in late 80s Grange Hill.
Some other things to note:
At the start the Doctor is still nominally working for the Brigadier and UNIT – as featured in the new series on Saturday.
Sarah says she’s from 1980 – five years in the future when this first went out.
Yes, when the Doctor is in disguise, it really is Tom Baker wrapped up in the bandages.
The house where it was filmed was owned at the time by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.
And when Sutekh stands up in episode four… Well, keep your eyes on his chair.
Sunday, May 04, 2008
I've had it with blondes
Thence to Cud playing at the Scala - an indie band I used to read about in the pages of Deadline. And how it did take me back to nights out in the early/mid nineties; there was even a fantastically ill-loved performance poet in the line-up.
Cud were really very splendid, a lead singer Carl Puttnam all very Jim Morrison, squeezed into very tight leather trousers. How exciting to see m'colleague Will Potter being a rock and roll star. I danced about like a foolish buffoon before we ducked out mid-encore to make the last train home.
All the way back there was earnest speculation everywhere you looked as to whether anyone could really vote Boris. People even said they'd x'ed his box "because of the comedy value". What a depressingly stupid place London can sometimes be.
And more so yesterday, when it took an hour and half to get from Waterloo to Richmond (a journey that's usually about 20 minutes). Met up with the brothers and a cousin for beers and cheery chat - and the final delivery of a belated Christmas present. Had meant to get back home in time for last orders at a friend's birthday. But it took nearly three hours to get home...
Rewrites today on a thing as-yet-unannounced. And if that goes okay I might watch last night's Droo.
Friday, May 02, 2008
Change, my dear
Alex Mallinson has produced an absolutely stunning cover which gave me chills the first time I saw it.
The schoolboy whose twin brother vanished in the night. A woman whose house teems with alien refugees. The dad who dies every evening...
All through space and time live people, ordinary people, whose lives have been turned upside down.
People who’ve lost jobs and loved ones, or seen their homes destroyed, or found themselves on whole other planets. They’ve nothing in common with one another except that their lives can never be the same.
Because they’re people who’ve met the Doctor. Featuring 25 original stories from 25 brand-new authors – the winners of a competition to seek out bold new writing talent!
Foreword by Paul Cornell
Homework by Michael Coen
Change Management by Simon Moore
Curiosity by Mike Amberry
Potential by Stephen Dunn
Second Chances by Bernard O’Toole
Child’s Play by LM Myles
Relativity by Michael Montoure
Outstanding Balance by Tim Lambert
The Last Thing You Ever See by Richard Goff
The Shopping Trolleys of Doom by Caleb Woodbridge
The Final Star by Chris Wing
The Man on the Phone by Mark Smith
The Monster in the Wardrobe by James C McFetridge
Suns and Mothers by Einar Olgeirsson
Taking the Cure by Matthew James
Those Left Behind by Violet Addison
Evitability by Andrew K Purvis
£436 by Nick May
Time Shear by Steven Alexander
Running on Empty by JR Loflin
Swamp of Horrors (1957) – Viewing Notes by Michael Rees
Insider Dealing by Dann Chinn
The Andrew Invasion by John Callaghan
Stolen Days by Arnold T Blumberg
Lares Domestici by Anna Bratton
Thursday, May 01, 2008
Indistinguishable from magic
(Lisa Tuttle explained to the Times last week about the award, its controversies and this year’s nominees.)
Arrived soaked by rain and weirded out by all the folk in really very impressive Star Wars costumes. Was it all in aid of added showbiz gloss, or a ruse to get some interest from the media? The Clarke Awards, after all, only celebrate unsexy stuff like books. Or was this instead some kind of ill-thought-through tribute? The first awards since the death of Sir Arthur, and I wondered what he’d think.
Nope, turns out they’re all there for a film, being shown after the book stuff. But I did have the splendid joy of Darth Vader trying to squeeze past me and J., perhaps trying to reach the free beer. And in a very unSith-like manner, asking politely, “Excuse me.”
Didn’t trip over on the way into the ceremony this time, and sat and ate ice cream and gossiped until they made the announcement. Hooray for Richard Morgan who seemed endearingly amazed. And hooray for more beer and gossip afterwards.
There was my boss Andrew Sewell basking in Blake’s 7 telly. There was Paul Cornell, who – what with the Stormtroopers jostling around us – I described as my own Master Yoda. And then decided he was more my Emperor Palpatine and I was his Darth Maul. By the time I was suggesting that I’d have to throw him off a balcony into the heating system of the Death Star, and that he’d explode for no very good reason and so restore balance and stuff to the Force… Well, he deftly, fearfully walked away.
There was also the SFX gang and the Pan Macmillan gang and Anthony Brown on behalf of all things Visimag. And I realised only after he must have left that one familiar seeming bloke used to be one of my tutors, who I’d not seen since I graduated almost a decade ago. Gah. Patrick Parrinder inspired my paper on Iain Banks and utopia, and marvellously pointed out that, from evidence in the text, the Martians launched their war of the worlds out of what seems to be a giant space cannon.
Excitingly, I did get to say hello to Ken MacLeod. Was, I asked, Trotskyite science-fiction just him spotting a niche? And he started to say no and we almost got talking. Then some bloke came over to say Ken had should have won, and Ken began to explain he was very happy with it being Richard Morgan, and someone needed to get past to reach the free beer and then I was out of his orbit…
And ended up in a silly discussion about how one might improve the Clarke’s? What about additional, less distinguished awards for sci-fi films and telly? Or, because no else does this, adverts thieving sci-fi stuff? That dancing transforming Corsa, for example. (It might not actually be a Corsa ad, but that’s what we geeks called it.) And what happens to the driver when his car morphs into a robot? Is he splattered all over the dashboard?
You see; thinking through the consequences of new technology. One day I’ll be on the Clarke shortlist.