Thursday, July 31, 2008

Manhattan transfers

Looking out of our window, it looks like the Chrysler Building is just down the road. And indeed it is. What isn't obvious is that it's actually a couple of blocks along and a couple down, and once you've got there you can just walk straight past it without realising because from the ground, all skyscrapers look pretty much alike.

This fact makes New York a difficult city to sight-see in. All you can really hope to do is get a good long distance look at something, because close up you're just too close up. There is no in-between.

Which is one reason that tomorrow we're taking a helicopter ride round the island ...

The Chrysler Building is my favourite skyscraper for two reasons. (1) It looks like a jukebox; it is art deco personified. (2) It was briefly the tallest building in the world and Walter P. Chrysler made sure that the very highest room in the building was his own personal toilet; so, when he went, he went on top of everyone.

I wonder if a descendant of the architect designed our hotel, and is the guy who decided that what the old place really needs more than anything else - plugs in the basin that work, for instance - is a wall to wall, floor to ceiling mirror right next to the toilet. It shows a side of me that I rarely see and it isn't pretty.

Anyway, a reasonably full Day 1, with lots of pictures taken but all on my camera, not my phone. That makes them too big to be uploaded easily, so you'll have to take my word for it, and wait for me to get back home to a computer with image processing software. A guided tour of the UN, in which I discovered the existence of a Council I had never heard of. (The Economic & Social Council, which meets a in room with furnishings donated by Sweden.) Then up the Empire State Building to gaze in awe at the haze hiding all the landmarks from sight. And finally an open top bus tour of uptown around Central Park and Harlem. We have seen the spot where John Lennon was gunned down. Life is complete.

Oh, and Grand Central, which is just beautiful and the reason so many Golden Age science fiction writers come from New York. It's timeless; it dates from the nineteenth century yet could be in Diaspar millions of years from now. (I know, Arthur C. Clarke wasn't from New York.) And it has the Dining Concourse, a space below the Main Concourse which is full of eating stalls. A whole level, given to food. What does Paddington have? That little glass enclosed space with the sushi bar. Not the same.

And on that theme, so to dinner ...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The city that never sleeps

I was forgetting! Of course there's a computer on the North American continent with web access. We brought it with us. So, greetings from the wifi network of the Millennium Hotel, UN Plaza, New York. Here's the view down 1st Avenue from my room on the 34th floor.

Look a little further to the left and we're right next to the UN, but frankly from this distance it just looks like another skyscraper. More picturesque photos may follow. At the moment I'm just getting my feet under the table.

The journey started with a mild setback in that we got to Gloucester Green at 04.40 to catch the 04.45 National Express to Heathrow ... and found it had already left. Not impressed, rude letters will be sent, refunds will be demanded. Came by Oxford Tube Airline service instead. But everything else has been smooth as clockwork, and if that's the worst setback then everyone is smiling.

I've been up since 3am and my body clock says it's 5.30pm. Unfortunately New York thinks it's half past midday. Oh well. I'll probably find something to do. Watch this space.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Possible service break, and further reading

My regular 24 hourly dose of sheer joy at arriving at work at 8.30 was only slightly diluted by the knowledge that 8.30 tomorrow morning is when our plane is scheduled to leave the ground. Next stop JFK!

Here’s a reminder of what the next couple of weeks hold in store.

It’s not impossible that somewhere on the North American continent is a computer with Internet access. Whether or not I choose to go out of my way to find it is another matter. I will be on holiday, after all. Therefore there may be further blogging between now and mid-August, or there may not. The possibilities are endless 50/50.

But as we may be entering a two-week communications blackout, if you can’t have your regular dose of Ben I thought I would give you the opportunity for a dose of what makes Ben tick. Here are some of the sites I check on a regular basis.

Serious stuff
  • Roger Ebert. Reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Very often the identity of a film reviewer gives you just as much information as the actual review. For instance, if the Sun’s movie critic declares something the best movie of the summer, chances are low that I will want to see it. If Barry Norman slates it, it probably stinks. Roger Ebert and I rarely disagree.
  • Christian Spotlight on the Movies. Sometimes hilariously po-faced and I rarely take it too seriously – but I will in fairness confess I’ve found useful teaching material here too. As well as a usually informed critique of the story, the production values, the acting etc., this site also feels compelled to offer a morality rating based on variables such as the number of f-words and g-words (yes, the reviewers count them), the attitude to sexuality, whether or not there is an implicit acceptance of evolution ... As a guideline, ‘Mamma Mia!’ gets a ‘Very Offensive’. In fairness, the reviewers do generally accept that a ‘Very Offensive’ can still be worth seeing; it’s the comments from the Great American Public that provide the real treasure. My favourite is still the lady who slated ‘The Passion of the Christ’ because it traumatised her toddler.
  • Ship of Fools: for people who prefer their organised religion disorganised. My usual browsing is on the bulletin boards – Heaven, Purgatory or Hell, depending on the contentiousness of the topic, but there’s also the Caption Competition, amusing articles, the Mystery Worshipper report ...
Blogs of interest that make me think
That was the best title I could come up with for this section. I’m not including most of the personal blogs that I look at because they’re friends of mine for reasons that make sense to me (and my friends) but not necessarily anyone else. Though some of the following are personal blogs and they are friends ...
  • Joella. Used to work with her.
  • Liz Williams. Lovely lady. Writer. More successful than me. Pagan.
  • Charles Stross. Nice guy. Also writer, also (considerably) more successful. Atheist. Shared a room with him once.
  • Making Light. Run by two Big Names of SF Publishing, a good community for insights into all kinds of things publishing-related and spin-off related trivia.
  • The Perorations of Lady Bracknell. Never met the lady but she’s inspiring, and has opened my eyes on a lot of disability issues.
  • The Life and Opinions of Andrew Rilstone. Never met the gent, but ditto. He’s an unashamed Christian literate scientifically-aware geek. Look up his thoughts on Richard Dawkins, Harry Potter and Philip Pullman.
  • Uncle Orson Reviews Everything. Orson Scott Card’s regular column in his local newspaper. Not always – in fact rarely – about science fiction or writing, but he’s one of my favourite authors and I generally find him worth listening to. Even when he’s wrong ...
  • Baldy’s Blog. Wow. I forget how I found this and, okay, it’s of macabre interest. This guy has leukaemia and will be dead in a few months. And he’s blogging it. He denies being brave; he’s just getting on with quietly facing the inevitable.
And finally ...

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Dark Kerniggut

I didn’t expect to go and see The Dark Knight because I have to say superhero movies don’t really cut it for me anymore. But it was tempting, and Bonusbarn wanted to see it, so ...

And, like the previous Batman Begins, it still cuts it.

I’d like to say what I disliked about The Dark Knight first, then go on to praise it for its considerable strengths and thus end on a high note. But to do that I’d have to plaster this with SPOILER WARNINGS, as Blogspot sadly lacks Livejournal’s handy method of hiding sensitive material behind cuts. So I’ll start with the strengths first and end on a low note. Sorry.

Strengths ...

Heath Ledger as the Joker. Head bowed, chin receded, constantly mumbling his jaws, flicking his tongue, the occasional slight stammer as his words race to catch up with his thoughts which stay a steady half inch away from his ever receding sanity. A brilliant performance.

Apparently Ledger lived alone in a hotel for a month to perfect the character’s mannerisms and voice, ingesting various comics and even keeping a diary of the Joker’s thoughts. I have to say that when it comes to the great acting divide exemplified by the friction between Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man – "why can’t he just act?" – I’ve always been on the Olivier side. Whether Ledger had to go through all that when another actor could have just turned up and given a performance, I don’t know. But what he did, he did well.

Even more so than Batman Begins, this is a film set mostly in the real world where the whole concept of the Caped Crusader is, to put it mildly, fairly silly. Gotham City is mostly Chicago rather than an ornate Burtonesque film set, yet Batman fits in.

We are spared the almost obligatory Origin Story for the Joker – we never learn his details other than what he tells us (and that too changes with each repetition). When we first meet him he is the mostly plausible twisted genius behind a successful bank raid. He proceeds to rise through the ranks of Gotham organised crime. Sadly, this is where the deterioration slips in, and by the end he’s a standard Batman villain able to hold the city to ransom through the acquisition and application of advanced technology that has everyone else flummoxed. I felt let down.

So, more weaknesses ...

Batman Begins covered a lot of ground but didn’t seem that long. This takes 2.5 hours and you feel it. The story starts in recognisable real world terms involving the Mob and the Triads, and that too is a plus. But then it seems to forget how it started. A whole subplot involves Batman abducting a Triad leader from Hong Kong and bringing him back to Gotham, but all this really accomplishes is to introduce a nifty and plot significant bat gadget that we could have learnt about in a fraction of the time. Another subplot involves a greedy employee of Wayne Industries who works out who his boss really is and intends to blackmail him. This too ultimately goes nowhere. Both those could have been shaved off the running time, sparing up a good half hour of bum-numbing time.

But the biggest letdown – here comes the SPOILER – was the working out of the Dent/Gordon/Wayne triangle. These are the three most powerful men in the city, one way or another. Lieutenant/Commissioner (he gets promoted) Gordon wants to be an honest cop and doesn’t like relying on a masked vigilante. Millionaire Bruce Wayne is fed up with being said masked vigilante, working outside the law and inspiring a host of inept copycat vigilantes. Both of them look to the new crusading DA, Harvey Dent, to be Gotham’s shining white knight – a hero that the city deserves. He certainly seems to fit the bill and this leads on to some genuine, thoughtful musing on right and wrong and how far the law can go in chasing crime. At one point Dent begins to go off the rails with a captured Joker henchman and Batman sharply slaps him back again. The point is taken and Dent, briefly, returns to the straight and narrow. Then he undergoes some horrendous suffering and a tragic personal loss, and flips into an even darker Dark Knight all of his own. The tragedy, we are told, is that the Joker took "the best of us" and corrupted him.

Well, no he didn’t. The Joker, it turns out, took the whining pretty boy ninny, stripped away his supports and showed him for what he really is. Dent gets to whine at both Batman and Gordon with a speech that is essentially "boo hoo, poor me, I’ve had a hard time, everyone must be nice to me, it’s not fair!" Yes, he actually protests in those words – "not fair". From the District Attorney? Oh, please. However badly he has suffered, sympathy is now at zero point and I didn’t believe either Batman or Gordon could show him any. (Gordon’s conditions were, admittedly, a little more constrained than Batman’s at the time.)

Gordon and Batman are the strong ones, the best of them. Gordon has already risked everything in fighting the Joker, Batman has lost immeasurably more than Dent ever could, and now they both recognise and collude in the sacrifice that must be made for Dent’s good work to continue. And it’s highly unfair, but you don’t hear either of them complaining.

The most moving act of heroism, it must be said, comes near the end and from the quarter you would least expect it. Not any of the individuals named above.

This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan, the other three being Batman Begins, of course, Memento and The Prestige. I suspect this is most successful film to date – but, not that it’s any of my business, I do hope he hangs up the cape from now. Good as this one was, the world does not need any more Batman movies. It needs many more Mementos and Prestiges – original films with original stories. (Thus speaks the aspiring novelist who won’t be able to do any work on the current work in progress for a couple of months because I’ve taken on yet more writing work for hire.) He will never make a great movie if it is a Batman movie – and if he continues the franchise in the direction this one took then the direction can only be downwards.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Smiling, having fun, feeling like a number one

A tech guy at a conference once told me that his favourite video was for Abba’s Super Trouper because it’s the only video ever to give prominence to a techie. But there are other reasons to like Abba. Someone liked them enough to make a musical out of it, and to celebrate exactly two years of marriage we saw it last night.

Musicals are inherently ridiculous because you have to accept that people spontaneously burst into perfectly composed and memorised song and dance routines at a moment’s notice. In most musicals the songs are at least composed for the occasion. ‘Mamma Mia!’ requires you to take your suspension of disbelief one step further – people are bursting into Abba songs at key moments, by and large (and with a little rewriting) squeezing them into their circumstances.

‘Mamma Mia!’ was the first musical to be cobbled together from unrelated pop songs into a more or less coherent story. Without ‘Mamma Mia!’ there would be no ‘We Will Rock You’ or (God help us) ‘Never Forget – the Take That Musical’. If there’s ever any kind of musical Nuremberg then that fact will be the first item on the docket, but they weren’t to know it at the time.

But it’s not the first time Abba’s music has been used in this way. The wonderful 1994 Muriel’s Wedding (1994) – the film that gave us Toni Collette – was replete with it; the dippy, man-hungry Muriel announces that she wants her wedding to be ‘as perfect as an Abba song’ and you immediately know what she means. The secret is that Abba’s songs already sound like they are about an episode in someone’s life, and the two singers always put exactly the right emotion into their singing. If it was a heartbreaker like ‘The winner takes it all’, they sounded heartbroken. If it was cheerfully optimistic like ‘Take a chance on me’, that was how they did it. And so on. It makes sense that if you give those songs, only slightly adapted, to some decent actors then they will also be able to make it work.

Obviously, the show itself is cornier than an Oklahoma morning and the plot is instantly disposable. Two child actors are getting married – apparently – despite having less chemistry going than the Fleischmann-Pons experiment. The insufferable bride has three possible candidates for her father, due to a somewhat wayward youth on her mum’s part, and has invited all three as a surprise to the wedding. She is convinced – incorrectly – that she will know her dad when she sees him.

Fortunately that is just the McGuffin to get the story going and after that it’s left up to the grown-ups – Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård – to do their stuff. And do it very well – though Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. He really, really, really cannot. He can fumble his way if the song sticks within his very limited range – ‘Our last summer’, ‘I do, I do, I do’ – but I would rather rewatch Die Another Day, frame by frame, than hear him again doing ‘SOS’.

Further, like Abba themselves, they take it seriously but not too seriously. You can tell they’re having fun. (And smiling.) And even if we’re not remotely interested in the bride and groom, there is enough to engage the attention in the other characters. Meryl Streep loves her accidentally-conceived daughter and has made a lot of sacrifices to be a good mum. Her two friends are fiercely loyal and always helpful (and have you ever known Julie Walters be bad in any role?). The three dad candidates are all likeable guys, each determined to be a good father now they know that they have (at least one third of) a daughter, and they manage to be friends with each other too.

Put it this way. You smile a lot while watching it, your foot taps, and you come out still smiling at the end.

The current mix tape that I am listening to in my car is of 80s synthpop hits. ‘Together in electric dreams’. ‘Say hello, wave goodbye’. ‘Are friends electric’. ‘The model’. I’m sure something could be done with that ...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Leonard Cohen in cheerful song shock

Well, until you listen to the lyrics, anyway.

Youtube embedding is disabled by request, so you have to go there to listen. It's worth the trip. Johnny Walker played this on R2 yesterday as I drove down the M4 and the car was rocking from side to side. Though that might have been wonky tyre pressure.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Drove my Chevy to the Levels

The car being in the garage with a leak somewhere, this is what we have pootled about in for Friday and Saturday.
It is ... smaller than I'm accustomed to. When I opened a back door I had to stop myself getting in out of reflex, because I was as far from the front of the car as I usually am when I'm in the driver's seat. And now that I have the proper car back again, may I say what a pleasure it is to be able to do hills without dropping at least one gear.

But it is, technically, a Chevrolet (Matiz). And as we drove it down to Somerset, I can say I've driven ... well, check the title of this post.

And this is what we went to see.

Wells cathedral, crossing another one off our list. The verdict: extremely favourable. Its yellow stone makes it less stark than some others; it feels warmer and more welcoming. And it is in astonishingly good condition. The stone (at least in the walls and pillars) isn't worn or pitted with age. Its pride and joy are these:

... giant scissor arches, spanning the nave and the transepts, put up in the 14th century to take the weight of the tower. And they look as smooth and clean as if they had been cut with machine tools in the last 30 years.

These steps are distinctly worn:

The staircase used to curve to the right into the chapter house, but then a new extension was added straight ahead as well. And now there is this lovely curve as if two torrents of stone were pouring down from different directions and merging.

In one of the transepts, an astronomical clock gives you 24-hour time plus phases of the moon, and little jousting men who pop out when it strikes the hour. This comes from the 14th century too.

Wells itself - well, much nicer than it appears in Hot Fuzz, which was filmed there but with the cathedral CGIed out. Just try not to step in, or twist an ankle in, the streams running down either side of the street out of the market place, where one of the eponymous wells delivers its water to a conduit. This was thanks to a new favourite bishop, Thomas Bekynton, who decided the people should benefit from the springs of water that give the town its name and which rise in the grounds of the extremely well fortified bishop's palace. (When the bishop feels the need to add a drawbridge and moat to his palace, you can assume relations with the church have reached a new low.) This bish also has a tomb depicting himself in all his finery ... and, on a lower level, himself as a decomposed corpse. He knew he was a powerful man and he knew he was also just a mortal who would one day be as dead as the rest of us. For a medieval bishop, this is extremely forward thinking.

Now back home with the regular car, raised voices between mother and son in the next room and housework to do. Life goes on ... as Bekynton would have known. He definitely didn't eat babies.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Big in Portugal?

Sadly not.
Sent: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 3:23 AM
Subject: interview about your books, Portugal, website conspiracy

im from Portugal, i have a website about conspiracy a new world order, website with more than 500 pages , more than 30.000 visits per month,
here at Portugal, europe.

im making interviews by email, to some author's, i already interviewed the disclosure project, and some authors.
may i make you an interview by email, about your book « the new World Order»
Don't knock it - it's better than my Portuguese.

At first I just notice key words like "interview". Wow, I think, I didn't even know there was a Portuguese edition. On second reading, terms like "conspiracy" start to sink in. I realise I can make a stab as to what "oculta" might mean, and even the full "realidadeoculta" isn’t hard given the Iberian habit of saying "-dad" where we say "-ty", hence, libertad, natividad, universidad ... Might be worth a peek at the site.

... Right. All I know about Portuguese is that it derives from Galician and the vowel combination "ão" is pronounced like a very foreshortened "ong", stopping just before you get to the "g". Hence their Lisbão becomes our Lisbon. However, I don’t really need Portuguese to get terms like Illuminati and Nova Ordem Mundial.

And so I write back to express my appreciation at being approached, and, yes, willingness to be interviewed (media whore? Moi?) but to save anyone’s time being wasted I also point out that The New World Order is a science fiction novel aimed at young adults set during an alternative English Civil War.

The slightly ambiguous response: "thank you, I hadn't realised it's science fiction". Clearly there are some things that even conspiracy theorists won't touch with a bargepole.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Singing Pierce Brosnan: surprisingly popular

As many of you know, I have an acquired Swedish heritage by marriage. I know how to pronounce ö and å. I know what a krona is worth. I have a reserve King should I ever feel insufficiently catered for in the monarchy stakes, and will one day have a Queen Victoria who will be considerably hotter than the last one.

And so I could have reasonably expected to one day go and see Mamma Mia! What I couldn't reasonably expect was that the 8pm show in the middle of the week should be sold out. Sold out! On a Wednesday! For goodness sake, people, what were you doing on Tuesday or Monday? Or was it sold out then too?

How many Abba fans are there in Oxford? Are we the Abba capital of Europe, or at least the secondary capital outside Stockholm?

Still, it was a nice excuse to drop in at the Fox with Best Beloved for a drink instead. We will try our luck again next week, most likely Tuesday. Which happens to be our second anniversary. Clearly some things are just meant.

Monday, July 14, 2008

XLII days

Finished reading Imperium by Robert Harris at the weekend. This is a novelised account of the career of Marcus Tullius Cicero up until his election as Consul of Rome and it's pushed my knowledge of Roman history back by a further generation. I knew that a series of civil wars between Pompey and Caesar were won by Caesar, who became dictator of Rome. The old Republic effectively died then, though it lived on in name. Caesar's death brought about more civil wars, which resulted in victory for Augustus, the first Emperor, and gave us 400 years of Empire.

Imperium has taught me how the Republic went bad to start with. It wasn't the defining moment by any means but it gave an already tottering structure a further push.

The Roman Republic had already lasted 400 years. It was a pretty forward thinking system (for a male-led society that had slaves and gladiators) that shared power among the noble families, laying on a sense of noblesse oblige that kept public buildings maintained, the public utilities functioning and the people fed. Thus it kept the people happy too, and they got a direct say in the running of the government via the tribunes, elected by and for the tribes of Rome. It was ideal for running a small city state, but sadly the city state ran away on its own success and acquired an empire that the Republic really wasn't equipped to handle.

For instance, it didn’t know what to do with Pompey the Great when he returned home from a highly successful military campaign. Generals were given short-term appointments to meet a specific need, and once that need was over, they returned to civilian life. That didn't suit Pompey at all and he soon grew bored and fidgety, which in a successful general who commands massive loyalty is a very bad thing.

Then pirates attacked Ostia, the port of Rome, burning several ships, and Rome was gripped by a 9/11 type panic. The pirates are coming! It's the end of the world as we know it! Save us! Someone! Anyone! Though actually the "anyone" they looked to was the man of the moment, Pompey.

Pompey's military assessment was that the pirate menace was too distributed to be handled by the traditional Roman power sharing system. It needed one man to be given supreme command of the Mediterranean area, able to call upon vast military powers on demand, plus authority over all coastal areas up to 50 miles inland. He also had a modest proposal for who that one man might be. The notion was put to the vote by Aulus Gabinius, a pro-Pompey tribune.

This completely flew in the face of the Roman way of doing things and it was vehemently opposed by the aristocrats. Any one of the tribunes had the power to veto any proposal and one of them did so, which meant very bravely standing up on the rostrum in the Forum and saying so in front of a baying mob of citizens who all wanted Pompey as their new Director of Homeland Security.

(A linguistic aside. A rostra is the battering ram mounted in the bow of a traditional armed galley. The platform from which the tribunes addressed the people was decorated with the rostra of several captured vessels. Hence it was called the rostrum, from which we get the word.)

And so, Gabinius stood up in front of the people, pointed at his opponent, and shouted, "he's vetoing the bill! Does he represent you?" "No!" they cried. "We want Pompey and we want him, now! Give us a P, give us an O ..." "Yes, yes, yes," said Gabinius, forestalling any chance of their spelling out Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and possibly losing the momentum of the moment. "But meanwhile, in that case, let's unelect him!" "Yay! Go representative democracy!" the people cried, and they proceeded to do just that, there and then, on the spot, tribe by tribe. 18 tribes were needed for a majority. When 17 had declared their intention, the man was asked if he wanted to reconsider his veto. He withdrew it and the law was passed. Pompey got his power and another seam split in the side of the Republic.

Thus popular fear and panic was combined with shrewd manipulation of the constitutional democratic process to trample age-old traditional freedoms, and liberty died a little more.

Thank goodness that nowadays we've moved beyond that kind of thing.

Brad Pitt? Brad Pitt??

Your result for The Best Thing About You Test...


Compassion is the most human of the virtues. And you? Your heart has limits far beyond normal levels empathy, and your capacity for feeling the world's pain is boundless. You poor, beautiful, wonderful thing. All 7 virtues are a part of you, but your compassion runs deepest.

It is likely you're an altruist. And it's likely (but not necessarily true, think of Bono) that your humility score is high too.

Compassionate famous people: Brad Pitt, Mother Theresa, The A-Team.

Your raw relative scores follow. 0% is low, and 100% is perfect, nearly impossible. Note that I pitted the virtues against each other, so in some way these are relative scores. It's impossible to score high on all of them, and a low score on one is just relatively low compared to the other virtues.


70% Compassion

44% Intelligence

63% Humility

56% Honesty

38% Discipline

29% Courage

25% Passion

Take The Best Thing About You Test at HelloQuizzy

Saturday, July 12, 2008

End of an era

That's a bit of a cliché, but when a 96 year old great aunt dies you're allowed to use it. My grandmother will shortly be 99 and so I may be using it again within the next year or so, but M got there first.

We were the only ones to call her M. Her initials were MDLWG and her family had always called her L. Her husband, G (who we really did call G, as in the initial, the seventh letter of the alphabet) decided he preferred M instead so that's what later generations called her.

Her eulogy at yesterday's funeral was eye opening. I knew she had been a Wren during WW2. I didn't know that before the war she had been earning a living as a single woman, and owned a car, and was able to strip and clean an engine. And I certainly didn't know that during the war she commanded 1000 Wrens decoding stuff at Bletchley Park. You don't often think "bloody hell!" during a funeral but this occasion was the exception.

I shouldn't have been surprised. She spent nearly 20 years almost blind, with audio books her salvation. A couple of years ago I recorded The New World Order for her as a present. I let her know I was doing this and she was delighted. "If you could put it onto CD for me, that would be perfect," said this frail, elderly lady in her nineties ... Wow, I thought, then. And now I know why technology never held any fears for her.

In fact, even G didn't know about her involvement at Bletchley Park until it was declassified - whereupon, after what must have been over 20 years of marriage, she calmly told him a few home truths about various missions he had been on during the war which he hadn't known she had known about. Where is a good fly on the wall when you really need one?

She it was who was Chief Wren in Ceylon (Sri Lanka to be) after the war. When she reached the rank of Commander she wrote to her brother, my grandfather, pointing out that being of equal rank but in the senior service she now took precidence. He wrote back to say that when she could spell precedence, she could have it. Knowing how meticulous she was about, well, everything, that must have rankled.

She had a firm Christian faith, which apparently she got when she sensed God's protecting presence as she lay in a hospital ward, too ill to be moved, in London during the Blitz as the bombs rained down around her. Hard to argue with. She had a much more traditional Anglican outlook than I did - for instance, she always lamented my generation's disregard for olde English translations and ceremony, and I remember discussing/arguing about Confirmation with her. Her outlook was that it's better to be confirmed than not. I had seen far too many contemporaries go through it and take some pretty important vows just for the presents afterwards, and so my view was that it's really better to mean it first. However, she was fully in favour of women priests, remarriage of divorcees in church and other things that still give the C of E hangups. In other words, her faith really was a faith, something that lived and breathed within her, rather than dryly following the rulebook.

Everything she did in life she did quietly, without fuss and without complaining, and she did it resolutely and well. On a beautiful summer day last month she pottered about in the garden, felt a little unwell, went upstairs and quietly died.

There was one more thing that I learnt yesterday, something she had never mentioned to me, which might be grounds for being nervous. If there's any member of the family I would trust to have a prophetic word, it was her, and apparently she always thought I would go into the church ...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Will they wear trousers?

In my third year at university a group of us went to the SCM (Student Christian Movement / Slightly Christian Marxists) Annual Conference in Aberystwyth. I know I enjoyed it though I only remember the bad bits. I remember a programme item on 'Post-Christians', led by two young women who were the first and last self-described post-Christians I've met, and quite possibly the only two ever. Their intent was to take the morality of Jesus without all the embarrassing supernatural stuff and apply it in the modern, real world in which we live. No different from any other morally natured atheist, in short, and claiming it as an actual movement struck me then, and now, as a complete waste of time. Philip Pullman has summed it up so much better in his notion of the Republic of Heaven.

And then – oh dear, oh dear – and then there was the last plenary meeting. Plans were made for a final service to close off the proceedings. Some women raised an objection: would it be communion? And would the communion be given by a man? Because, at that stage of the church’s history, there was no way they were going to kneel before a man.


First of all, this was in the innocent days before T. Pratchett had invented Nanny Ogg and so her aphorism: " stand before your god, bow before your king, kneel before your husband" sadly wouldn't have occurred to anyone. A logical answer was that communion should also be administered by a woman. "But the Catholics can't take communion from a woman!" they cried. "Actually, we don't mind," said the Catholics. "Yes you do, stop rocking the boat," said those determined to make of it an issue. And so on. At one point a woman was in tears, declaring, "my partner and I are being forced out for the church and we're damned if we'll let it happen here too."

At one point someone was told, in short, to put a sock in it and stop upsetting people. His response were four words that should never, ever come out of the mouth of a follower of the Servant King: "no, why should I?"

In short it was a fairly typical SCM get-together, nice people determined to live nicely without any of that tedious Biblical guidance stuff, and I forget how it was resolved. If it ever was. I had never had a problem with the idea of ordaining women, ever; in fact it was already something that other Protestant denominations had been doing for years if not decades and longer. But that was the first time I realised how deep the feelings ran in the C of E. A mere seven years later (and nearly 2000 years later than it should have been) the Anglican church started ordaining women as priests and now – hallelujah! – they can become bishops too.

And there's the ones who don't like this and are threatening to leave the church ...

Previously my attitude to such has been "Goodbye, then!" But recently the Lord in his wisdom has drawn to my attention 1 Corinthians 10:23-33:

"Everything is permissible" – but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible" – but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake – the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

The take-home message there is: don't stand on your rights, however right your rights may be. Other people are more important. One of the biggest problems of the pro-women's ordination in the past was that too many approached it as a right to be demanded, not a calling to serve. And that goes for some of my colleagues in Aberystwyth, too, which was one reason they were singularly failing to make any kind of progress. There's a danger of doing it again here.

Let's be straight – those who for whatever reason don't believe women should be bishops are just plain wrong, simple as that. There should be women bishops. I welcome women bishops.

There may be situations where a woman bishop is not advisable - say, running a diocese in a Muslim area? But that is an obstacle to overcome, a challenge, not a reason for an outright ban. Still, tempting as it is to dismiss the contras as a bunch of fuddy duddy misogynists with psychological hangups about women in authority, they are also hurting human beings and the hurt needs to be addressed.

I've no idea how but I'm sure the Archdruid is working on it.

Entirely on topic is this cartoon from Matt.

Not really on topic, but not entirely off it either, is this from

Obama Pictures and McCain Pictures

Farewell RTD

I was going to write about Dr Who. Then I read Abigail Nussbaum's thoughts on the topic and decided she's got there first, though with more words.

But, what the hell. My overall feelings: positive. The finale of the 2007 season took the series in a distinctly downward direction. Then we got the Titanic Christmas special and it angled a few more degrees downwards. Then we got 'Partners in Crime', by the end of which the series was nosediving like an overweight Stuka on full throttle with no wings. And then, to my surprise, it began to pull out. The g-forces were crushing but it actually levelled off and headed up again. Not even the 'Silence in the Library' / 'Forest of the Dead' two parter could quite bring it back to the dizzy heights it was enjoying exactly a year earlier with 'Blink', but it was doing pretty well. The curve kept upwards ...

... and levelled off, a little, at 'Journey's End'. Face it, it was always going to be anticlimactic; Russell T Davies has form for setting up something so massive that the payoff can only be a letdown. But for once no one turned into a minor deity and no one got banished to Hell. My reservations about Davros were nicely dealt with when it became clear he's just the embarrassing senior relative kept in the basement; can't get rid of him but don't really need his advice either. RTD pulled off more than he let go of; even the Grand Reunion of Every Former Companion Ever just about worked, though Torchwood didn't get much to do (wasn't it nice of Jack to vanish with the only gun capable of bringing down a Dalek, leaving Gwen and Ianto with silly old machine guns?) and there was a ten second snippet that quite obviously existed for the sole purpose of bringing K9 into the mix. But, all in all, a worthy way of saying goodbye.

And definitely not quite as bad as Andrew Rilstone would have it.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Prince Caspian: now with added plot

Prince Caspian was the book that taught me about sequels. The same characters in the same setting, but different! A whole new story! I was very pleased with myself for cottoning on to the concept. Even more pleased that I worked out why hundreds of years should have passed since the last book before our four heroes do.

But I was rather hoping they wouldn't make a movie out of it. Plotwise, it's the least of the Narnia books. The kids turn up, Peter fights a duel with Miraz, Caspian is confirmed as the rightful king and the kids bugger off again. Okay, there's a bit more, perhaps, going on in the background ... but not enough to make a two-hour film. When the BBC did their version back in the eighties they ran it together with Voyage of the Dawn Treader into one long six-part serial, of which Prince Caspian occupied only the first two parts (and Caspian was a boy with girly curly hair, so you just wanted to slap him).

But of course they had to make Prince Caspian next to reuse the kids from the first film. Then they'll have to make Voyage of the Dawn Treader to reuse Edmund and Lucy for the last time, and then The Silver Chair to reuse Eustace ... By this reckoning it will be about 2020 before they make my favourite, the one I wish they would do – The Magician's Nephew. It's set partly in the real world (one reason why it's my favourite), it's got Jadis (another), it's got guinea pigs (still another), the role of Uncle Andrew would give a camping field day to any British thesp (though with a sense of tedious inevitability it would probably go to Sir Ian McKellen) and the feeling I got when I realised "OMG that's Aslan and he's creating Narnia!!" still makes me tingle. In fact Walden Media has a duty, nay, an obligation to bring that jaw-dropping moment of realisation to a new generation of children.

And the kids are one-use-only, disposable.

I wonder if they'll get that far, though. Prince Caspian is the last chance to do epic, full-scale battle, at least until The Last (um) Battle, which I'll be very surprised if they make, and epic, full-scale battle does seem to be what the modern movie audience is after. But we'll let tomorrow happen tomorrow, and for the time being I'll go on record as saying I enjoyed Prince Caspian, and indeed (unlike the book) it's a sequel that surpasses the original.

The first film was padded out a little with some unnecessary plot tension (escaping the wolves at Mr Tumnus's) and sexing up the final battle which in the book happened almost entirely off-stage. The latter was justified, the former I really didn't think was. And it was spoiled every time someone totally failed to react to being covered in snow, making it clear the stuff was just polystyrene flakes and puncturing the illusion.

This film is padded out by an entire second act, starting about one hour into the proceedings, that didn't happen in the book at all. But it so easily could have. Prince Caspian is much lighter on the theology than the first book; if there's a lesson, it's about trust and obedience, and the Big Plot Addition is fully in the spirit of that lesson. It brings the story round in one big loop to where the plot would have been anyway without it – the duel with Miraz (even more exciting than in the book) and the final showdown – but in the meantime the characters have grown, harsh lessons have been learnt and Peter in particular has learnt a little humility, which he badly needs. Meanwhile the Big Plot Addition makes total sense, plotwise and military. As in the first film, Peter knows how to use air power – but of course he is a boy growing up during WW2.

The actors playing Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are much more assured than before, growing into their roles and their acting ability. Susan and Lucy are both hotties in training – Susan especially would be channelling the spirit of young Jenny Agutter, if Jenny Agutter weren't still alive. But Edmund is my favourite. He is the younger brother who is just as good as Peter, but knows he is second fiddle and is happy to accept the position. He quietly gets on with his job, backs his brother up (note that in several scenes he's walking almost alongside Peter, but a step or two behind) and meanwhile saves the day on a couple of occasions. Of course, in the previous film he had his own severely character forming humility lessons. Though there is a nice moment here where he is incorrectly addressed as Prince Edmund, and corrects the speaker.

(As a sidenote: I'm sorry, good as the actors are, unless Mrs Pevensie had a fling about 15 years ago with some passing Mediterranean type then there is no way those boys are brothers. Peter is burly, round faced, strong of arm and stout of heart – English yeomanry down to his very DNA. Edmund is slim, dark and frankly looks more like a Calormene.)

Miraz is nicely villainous without being bog-eyed and cackling. Cruel, but also brave. Caspian is an interesting casting decision as the actor, Ben Barnes, is 27, which is older than Samuel West was playing the grown-up Caspian in the BBC Dawn Treader. The Caspian of the book was a kid which made it less incongruous that he meekly takes orders from other kids. Maybe they wanted him pre-grown for the next movie; but the fact that he grows in maturity during the film means that at the start he comes across as even more immature than a younger actor would. Oh well. At least this time we know Narnia is in good hands when the High King and his three sibs go back to their own world, leaving King Caspian X with the challenge of integrating Narnians and Telmarines and possibly setting up his own Truth & Reconciliation Commission to bring the two together.

Whichever genius decided in the first film that beavers are cockney has here decreed that badgers are Scottish. He wasn't wrong on either count. The stunning use of central European landscapes shows that the sole reason the Iron Curtain came down was to give us good fantasy film locations, Aslan again proves that God has a mild Irish accent, and I couldn't stop giggling at Reepicheep's first words, perhaps because I knew who was saying them.

The Dawn Treader is already on the building blocks, so to speak. It will be interesting to see how they handle that one. It's more picaresque than either of the first two books – a series of mostly unconnected adventures. In the unlikely event of them giving me the script to write, I would focus it on the redemption of Eustace plus Reep's personal mission and add some linking sense of menace that needs to be overcome – possibly with the sea monster, possibly pirates/slavers or something like that. But that's just me.

When I blog on that experience in a few years time, I'll probably try and fail to make a joke that combines 'Caspian' and 'Sea'.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Occasional recipes: baked Spanish risotto

This is Silvana Franco's recipe from BBC Food. Serves 4.

  • 250g cherry tomatoes
  • 1 red onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped [as usual the garlic is hugely underestimated. Five, minimum.]
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 300g risotto rice [if you can GET risotto rice. But Tesco easy cook rice works just as well.]
  • 4 chicken thigh fillets, halved [or even just chicken thighs, not filleted.]
  • 200g/7oz chorizo, thickly sliced [it comes in packs of thin slices so bung it all in. From the one time we did use a proper bit of chorizo, you have to remember to remove the skin ...]
  • 2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary [optional, i.e. we didn't have any, which was an oversight on our part because it grows in Tesco carpark.]
  • 1¾ pints hot chicken stock
  • pinch of saffron strands [also optional, and to my knowledge this doesn't grow in Tesco]
  • 8 large, raw prawns [or a pack of small cooked and peeled prawns from, yes, Tesco ...]
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Place the cherry tomatoes in a roasting tin and sprinkle over the red onion, garlic and olive oil. Roast for 20 minutes until the tomatoes are softened.
  2. Stir in the rice, chicken, chorizo, rosemary, chicken stock, saffron and some salt and pepper, mixing well together [and listening to The Now Show]. Return to the oven for 20 minutes.
  3. Stir in the prawns and return to the oven for a further 10 minutes until the rice is tender and the chicken is cooked through.
This one bulks out very nicely - plus, okay, there were three people eating a meal for four. The prawns, the tomatoes and the chorizo give it three distinct background flavours that combine nicely. Very Mediterranean.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Spelling it worng

I have just finished writing a review of Charles Stross's Saturn's Children, which is a deliberate tribute to the works of Robert A. Heinlein, which means typing "Heinlien" quite a lot. And I can't do it. My fingers have taken an active dislike to his name. These were the fingers that had to turn the pages of Hienlein's Number of the Beast, so they may have a point. Except that I'm not that good on "Storss" either.

Nor am I great (from a random sample of memory) on:
  • abd
  • abotu
  • adn
  • anbd
  • applicatoin
  • becuase
  • commerical
  • copmany
  • hopsital
  • huis
  • pout (as in down)
  • whioch
My handwriting, which was never great to start with, went completely to pot when I took up typing. Now my typing is going the same way. Please will someone invent some decent voice-, or even better thought-recongition sofwtare.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sing if you're proud to be happy, joyful, bright

Hands up if you've ever known someone, probably older than you and quite possibly a relative, complain that the word 'gay' has been hijacked?

It obviously weighs heavy on the mind of the American Family Association, which like many organisations with the word 'Family' in the title is right wing, Christian and a little dippy. Its news site gets an automated feed from Associated Press but it apparently performs its own automated find-and-replace on certain key words. The Association is firmly of the opinion that 'gay' should keep to its old definition and if someone means homosexual then that is what it should say.

Which is unfortunate for US Olympic Sprinter Tyson Gay.

(Courtesy of

It reminded me of the episode of Friends where Joey goes overboard with Word's Thesaurus function as he writes a letter and ends up signing himself "Baby Kangaroo". Even funnier, it reminded someone else in a comments thread of an article from The Onion brilliantly lampooning the agenda-heavy reporting of some news outlets.