Friday, July 31, 2009

Since you ask ...

The British Science Fiction Association is carrying out a survey of British science fiction and fantasy writers "to get a handle on the state of British sf". I see no reason why everyone shouldn't get to share my insights. So:

1. Do you consider yourself a writer of science fiction and/or fantasy?
I consider what I write to be science fiction and/or fantasy, and in my writing I try to contribute some new idea or concept to the field with each story or novel. However, not every idea that comes to me is necessarily science fiction or fantasy and it’s not impossible that one day I'll get round to writing something in another genre.

2. What is it about your work that makes it fit into these categories?
The fact it contains concepts that are either presently impossible or not yet possible given our current understanding of the way the world works. To wit: alien life forms, starships, faster than light travel, time travel, technologically advanced Neanderthals.

3. Why have you chosen to write science fiction or fantasy?
It has always been my favourite genre, for the possibilities it offers: the outsider view of humanity; geeky fun with technological and/or philosophical concepts; and big explosions.

4. Do you consider there is anything distinctively British about your work, and if so what is it?
Two of my novels have been predicated on the idea of the British monarchy still being around, in recognisable form, in the 23rd century. I don't think an American author would think twice about his nation's way of life still being around 200 years from now, or there being a US Space Force: he might wonder how it came about but wouldn't be surprised to learn it existed. As a matter of national pride I wanted to perpetuate some of the things I consider good about the UK: we are far from perfect but I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. So, that is probably distinctively British.

5. Do British settings play a major part in your work, and if so, why (or why not)?
Only one novel has been physically located in the British Isles, but as it dealt with the English Civil War that's not really surprising. Despite my answer to question 4, I try to make my futures as multinational as possible, in terms of setting and characters. Characters are generally multi-ethnic with names meant to imply mixed race ancestry. Why? Because my dream future would be like Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Man: all of us quite unmistakably one race, with no superiors or inferiors, but at the same time able to draw on the marvellous riches of our many cultural heritages.

6. What do you consider are the major influences on your work?
I don't consciously set out to imitate anyone but I suppose I have been influenced by any writer who has given me a sense of joy and / or wonder in reading their work. Conversely, I do consciously set out not to imitate writers / TV shows / movies that get it wrong. Sometimes I actively try to correct the error (e.g. putting seatbelts in my starships …).

7. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between publishers in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
I have a YA publisher so it's hard to say: my editors don't base their actions on the science fiction content. Scholastic Inc. in the US apparently had no difficulty with a novel about the Royal Space Fleet per se, but bafflingly renamed His Majesty's Starship as The Ark. However, this latter decision has also baffled other American YA editors I have spoken to so it could just be a Scholastic thing.

8. Do you detect a different response to your science fiction/fantasy between the public in Britain and America (or elsewhere)?
Not really, no. Based on reviews I've read and mail I’ve received, audiences on both sides of the Atlantic have similar proportions of those who get it and those who don't.

9. What effect should good science fiction or fantasy have upon the reader?
The sense of wonder! The reader should close the book with the feeling that they have been somewhere they could never have got on their own. New thought processes or neurons should have connected that mean they will never see the world quite the same way again.

10. What do you consider the most significant weakness in science fiction and fantasy as a genre?
More than any other genre? There is often the risk of everyone trying to put on the Emperor's New Clothes, maybe not realising the Emperor actually knew he wasn't wearing anything all along. I will stop stretching the metaphor before it breaks.

For example, someone coins the phrase "New Weird". Suddenly everything is New Weird – until it isn't, or people just get fed up with New Weird and move on to something new on principle, leaving all the official New Weird authors stranded.

11. What do you think have been the most significant developments in British science fiction and fantasy over the past twenty years?
The explosion in TV sf has been a significant development but not a particularly good one. We don't have any TV executives who are particularly aware of what constitutes good sf. Therefore they scramble to imitate either Joss Whedon or Russell T Davies, not realising that Joss Whedon has a very wide-ranging understanding of sf&f (so trying to imitate Buffy kind of misses the point) and RTD doesn't (so trying to imitate Dr Who will get you nowhere: the strengths of the series predate RTD by a long way).

On the plus side, the crop of authors who came up through Interzone are flourishing, and more power to them. Twenty years ago would a very good but not particularly famous sf author have got a £1m, 10 book deal? I think not.

Monday, July 27, 2009

If I'm getting swine flu I want it NOW

Not that I think I am getting it, but that's what worries me. If I can have it now, it should be out of my system this time next Monday: when, if all goes to plan, I should be at or at least near Heathrow for my flight to Montreal ... Whereas if I start sniffling and aching around Thursday or Friday, that could really screw up a decent holiday.

Yes, it's that time of year again. Worldcon here I come. H1N1 permitting.

Proof of what a civilised people the Canadians are lies in the timing of flights. Previous flights to North America have all involved getting up at oh-my-god-o'clock and perhaps watching the sun rise over the M25. Next Monday's flight is at 15.30. How did that happen?

The programme has been published and looks pretty good. And unlike last year, when they put me on two items and cancelled one, this year I feel quite decently used. As well as a reading and signing session (expected attendance ... well, who knows):
  • When: Fri 11:00
  • Title: The Golden Duck Awards for Children's and YA Science Fiction
  • All Participants: Ben Jeapes, Cathy Petrini, Helen Gbala, Henry Melton, Janet McNaughton, S.C. Butler, Michèle Laframboise, Jean-Pierre Guillet, Lindalee Stuckley
  • Description: For picture books, the Eleanor Cameron Award for middle grade books and the Hal Clement Award books for young adults, this award is designed to encourage the people to write those books that capture future SF fans. Lindalee Stuckey introduces the award, and is joined by a number of current authors for children and young adults for discussion.
  • When: Fri 21:00
  • Title: Just A Minute
  • All Participants: Ben Jeapes, David Clements, Pat Cadigan, Paul Cornell, Steve Green, Tom Galloway
  • Moderator: Paul Cornell
  • Description: Only sf/fantasy panelists in this Worldcon version of the venerable British quiz show, in which panelists must extemporize for a minute on a given topic without hesitation, repetition or deviation.
  • When: Sat 10:00
  • Title: Archetypes Without Stereotypes
  • All Participants: Ben Jeapes, Pat Rothfuss, Nalo Hopkinson, Doselle Young
  • Moderator: Pat Rothfuss
  • Description: Thanks to culture and convention, every reader carries a built-in cast of characters requiring little or no explanation. Is there a way to use this built-in knowledge without writing stereotypes or poorly-defined stock characters? What happens when readers don't share those assumptions?
  • When: Sat 20:00
  • Title: Size Doesn't Matter
  • All Participants: Ben Jeapes, Bob Neilson, delphyne woods, Karen Haber, Jacob Weisman
  • Moderator: me!
  • Description: Design in SF&F publishing is often better in books produced by the smaller presses, which have fewer resources than their larger counterparts. Is the small press the last refuge of beautifully designed books?
  • When: Sun 11:00
  • Title: Writing for Teens
  • All Participants: Anne Harris, Ben Jeapes, Fiona Patton, Eoin Colfer
  • Moderator: me again!
  • Description: How is writing for YA/teens different? Do you just leave out the sex and long exposition, or is there more to it?
  • When: Sun 15:30
  • Title: The Napoleonic War from Both Sides
  • All Participants: Ben Jeapes, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams
  • Moderator: Walter Jon Williams
  • Description: One of the most important, worldshaping conflicts. A rich source for both fantasy and science fiction. Our panellists try to explain it to you.
  • When: Sun 17:00
  • Title: Science Blogging - The New Science Journalism?
  • All Participants: Ben Jeapes, Daniel P. Dern, Mur Lafferty, Sumitra Rajagopalan
  • Moderator: Daniel P. Dern
  • Description: Touted as a new way of reaching the public, has science blogging matched its initial promise? Has it caused more problems than it solves? [Hell if I know ...]
I may not come back with any answers to any of these questions, but I'll have fun establishing the boundaries of my ignorance.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Nice day for a Wycliffe wedding

Before today I don't think I had ever actually heard the wedding march played at a wedding, outside episodes of Friends. The groom was a Brit, the bride was American and the service was a cultural hybrid. Apparently a key part of American weddings is the Installation Seating of the Mothers, which I also haven't seen before, not even in episodes of Friends. Maybe it's just a Baptist thing. They send the bridesmaids down the aisle, one at a time, like a couple of practice shots. Then the mothers are escorted in to take their places at the front, in case they are unable to do so themselves. Best Beloved murmured that it will never catch on over here.

Nor have I seen the bride holding her hands up in praise during a hymn before. But this was a Wycliffe wedding so it may be normal.

I always favour smaller weddings over large ones, because I know from experience that the smaller the possible guest list, the more attention you pay to inviting exactly the right people. You want them there. (Even if I did deduce we were on the B-list, only getting the invitation a fortnight ago, but obviously we were at the wanted end of the B-list.) Half the congregation were recently graduated students, suddenly finding an excuse for a reunion. People were happy, and the expression on the groom's face when his intended appeared at the end of the aisle would have lit up the whole place on its own, with a little left over to power the microphones.

The bride's brother delivered the address. I tried to picture my sister's reaction if I had offered to do the same, and delivered a lengthy exposition of the various theological points contained within the reading. Actually, best left unpictured.

The service was in the college chapel and was the first wedding to be held there for six or seven years. The entrance to the chapel is officially through a pair of double doors leading in from the outside. They hadn't been opened since the last wedding, and the Academic Administrator plus groom had to rugby charge to get them to shift.

Inside these doors is a space of a couple of feet, and then a pair of interior doors. These open easily, because during the last six or seven years this space has been used to store equipment. It had all been cleared away, so only the cognoscenti - i.e. most of the congregation, and me because my wife told me - knew the bride was making her entrance out of the A/V cupboard. And why not? She was a sound vision, ba-boom.

Friday, July 24, 2009

100 Things Your Kids May Never Know About

There's an elegiac little list with this title over at experiences, generally technological, that you may have had but your children haven't and won't. I remember far too much of it.

So, I will just mention the things on the list that I never experienced either:
  • Super-8 movies and cine film of all kinds
  • 8-track cartridges
  • Betamax tapes
  • MiniDisc
  • Laserdisc
  • Shortwave radio
  • Using jumpers to set IRQs [not even sure what this means]
  • Tweaking the volume setting on your tape deck to get a computer game to load, and waiting ages for it to actually do it
  • Daisy chaining your SCSI devices and making sure they’ve all got a different ID
  • Blowing the dust out of a NES cartridge in the hopes that it’ll load this time
  • Turning a PlayStation on its end to try and get a game to load
  • CB radios
A lot of these I was aware of, just didn't have. Anything computational completely passed me by. When I think of all those times I lamented my thrifty, technosceptic parents ... maybe they didn't do me such a disservice.

Even so, that's 12 items out of 100. My time may be passing.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Three down ...

I always associate Gloucester with Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells II. I think of one, I start to hum the other. It may be where I bought my copy. The album certainly came out in 1992, the year of Bonusbarn's birth, and that was my first summer in Abingdon. I took a week off work and a day trip to Gloucester was my first major venture out of my new home. I felt quite the explorer, navigating the diabolical Marcham S-bend for the first time in my trusty Renault 4.

So yesterday, our third anniversary and the day after Bonusbarn's 17th birthday, that was where we went.

Pleasant place. Nice, wide, pedestrianised city centre; good range of shops; and a cathedral, which was of course the purpose of the visit. It achieves the effect managed by all good Perpendicular Gothic cathedrals of making several thousand tons of stone look delicate and lace-like.

The western half, up to the choir screen, is strangely sparse with little ornamentation on walls, floor or ceiling.

From the choir onwards is where all the ornamentation is. Tombs, side chapels, ornate fan vaulting, beautiful tiled floors.

We nearly doubled the congregation of a quickie lunchtime communion service in the Lady Chapel (the celebrant told us our anniversary is also the feast day of St Mary Magdalene; Best Beloved knew this, I either didn't or had forgotten). Three modern screens behind the altar here give the Saviour a definite hint of pubic hair (left) and a pair of muscular buttocks (right). Not areas traditionally associated with veneration, but the church must move with the times.

Then we went exploring. The cathedral scores especially high in its nook-and-cranny quota by letting the public up to the next level – the galleries set into the walls behind the arches on either side of the choir (at £2 a head, which I don't remember being the case in 1992). Up there you get a good close-up view of east window, and the Whispering Gallery. The latter really is a surprising feature. Before they put the east window in, you could get all round the east end of the building at that level. Then the window cut one side off from the other. So, they built a free-standing enclosed stone passageway outside the walls – you can see it from the outside – that goes around behind the window. If someone standing at one end whispers, someone at the other can hear it quite plainly. I was standing at one end of the gallery; Best Beloved, in the red coat, indicates the other.

I like the way this side chapel refuses to let anything as plebian as an important support buttress get in its way. It just quietly gets on with its life and pretends the buttress isn't there.

I got the feeling of the cathedral being a physical part of the city, much more than Salisbury where my (still favourite) cathedral sits in aloof dignity in the middle of a neatly mowed lawn. Buildings on the north side of the cathedral start to accrete onto the cathedral itself – you can't tell where one ends and the other begins. It actually is a complex.

We went through the gate at the west end of the cathedral precinct, looking for somewhere to sit and have lunch. This turned out to be the site of the martyrdom of John Hooper, of whom I hadn't heard before yesterday but now probably approve, and I got the distinct feeling Gloucester had stopped trying. The fronts of the houses that look onto the precinct are immaculate, but the back sides really are the backsides. It was like the precinct was mooning us. The rear of the precinct forms one side of a square of 60s or 70s houses and flats that could be in Milton Keynes for all their sense of history. Bit of a letdown.

But, nothing daunted. Outside, when it wasn't raining I found a real seaside feel to the city, without a sea. Something in the air and light tells you you're close to a large body of water, i.e. the River Severn. The calling of the seagulls adds to it. And so we went looking for the Historic Docks (which we knew to be Historic because the signs said so). These have been very nicely done up, either converting the old warehouses or adding new buildings in a recognisably related style. Mind you, actually go into the buildings and you enter Retail Hell – it's a retail outlet centre, like Bicester Village, utterly dry and soulless until you step outside again. We went mad, drunk with retail intoxication, and bought some socks at Marks & Spencer. Oh yes, three years of marriage has taught us how to splurge.

And so home, and a delicious anniversary dinner at Kitsons, which is under new management that doesn't yet have a credit rating and so only takes cash or cheques. But, as the waitress helpfully pointed out before forgetting to bring the bread I ordered, there's a Nationwide with a cashpoint opposite.

Tentative plans are now being drawn up for a raid on Worcester (after which we will have done the Three Choirs without any of that tedious singing stuff); or even for a long weekend taking in Worcester and Tewkesbury. Watch this space.

Monday, July 20, 2009

If you believed they put a man on the moon ...

Through some superhuman effort I managed not to cut my throat whilst shaving, though it wasn't easy. The Today Programme was talking to one of those tedious idiots who continue to believe the moon landings didn't. It didn't help that the guy sounded a little like Tony Benn, though I am coming to respect Mr B in my old age. Considerably more than this fool, anyway. "I don't see the evidence," he bleated over and again.

I suppose we should consider his point of view. So, apart from the fact that: hundreds of thousands of people were complicit in the hoax; the moon shots were tracked by countless disinterested independent parties (plus the Soviets, who were extremely interested and would have screamed at the slightest hint of a doubt); the instruments left behind by the astronauts are still there and working; the NASA probe now orbiting the moon has sent back shots of the landing sites that show the abandoned descent stages and the footprints left by the astronauts ... apart from all that, what evidence is there? And while we're at it, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Anyway, today's the day, 40 years ago, when it all happened. I wish I could say I remember it - I was all of four years old - but I don't. My mother's main memory is of trying to pay attention to the news while her oblivious inlaws fussed over a road map, trying to work out the best route from Hereford back to New Malden. I don't even remember that.

I do remember the last Apollo landing, Apollo 17, though I didn't know it was that at the time: Gene Cernan (I think) singing "I was walking on the moon one day / in the merry merry month of ... December", and the discovery of orange soil. I even remember telling my teacher at school about the orange soil, so it must have struck some kind of chord. And I remember having a cutaway diagram book all about Skylab, and I remember the Apollo-Soyuz linkup that was essentially meant to use up the last of the Saturn Vs ... but I don't remember the first landing.

But to any nutjobs who still insist there was nothing to remember, I say only this.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Roof of the World Order

A friend recently returned from trekking in the Himalayas tells me that a copy of The New World Order was in his rucksack as he looked down on the Everest base camp.

You may now resume your lives.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Occasional recipes: Flying Jacob

Flying who?

I know, I know. Sometimes I wonder whether Swedish cuisine is in fact a very clever, straight-faced joke on the rest of the world. Do our Volvo-driving, Abba-crooning cousins really tuck in regularly to pickled herring with creme fraiche, boiled potatoes and lingonberry sauce? Or do they just wait until one of them brings home a Brit who wants to marry her and really, really wants to impress his prospective inlaws?

Anyway, Flying Jacob/Flygande Jakob is a dish that includes those traditional Swedish food items bananas, chili, peanuts and rice. Oh, and chicken and bacon. We got the recipe from Swedish Mike, an exiled Swede who lives in Abingdon and blogs strange recipes at I won't steal a fellow blogger's thunder, so here I'll just list the ingredients with our variations. To serve four:
  • 4 portions cooked white rice
  • 6 - 8 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
  • 4 skin- and boneless chicken breasts, cut into bitesized pieces
  • 3 ripe bananas, sliced
  • 125 ml chili sauce (or spicy ketchup) [we used chili & garlic sauce from Tesco: strong but worth it]
  • 350 ml single cream [cream was left off the shopping list to an administrative error: we made up the fluid difference with a 50/50 mix of milk and natural yoghurt. In my opinion this worked perfectly: I wouldn't want it to be richer/creamier than it was.]
  • Peanuts [regular salted]
As to how to cook all this, see how Swedish Mike does it, and do likewise. You won't go far wrong. The overall effect is very Thai or Indonesian: the different flavours - yes, even the bananas - work together astonishingly well.

Friday, July 17, 2009


The CRB system was set up in the wake of the Soham murders, committed by Ian Huntley. Huntley had been able to get a job at a school despite some previous by using his mother's maiden name. The CRB system checks, amongst other things, that you have always been who you say you are. Therefore it could probably catch another Ian Huntley. It couldn't catch, say, another Gary Glitter, who was only found out when an engineer at PC World found pictures on the computer he had taken in for repairs. Muppet.

It certainly wouldn't and couldn't catch the family members or long-standing acquaintances of children who are the most likely to commit any form of abuse. But still, the grasp of the CRB spreads and spreads, instilling a sense of false bureaucratic security in the brains of politicians and tabloids but absolutely no one else, and now it has reached the realm of famous authors.

Fortunately things aren't quite as bad as they're being painted. Yes, authors who visit schools more than once a month will have to apply for a CRB (and representatives of other trades too, presumably, but authors are a large subset of the whole). And yes, that does include people like Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Anthony Horowitz, Quentin Blake … And yes, it costs £64 to prove they're not paedophiles. BUT, in the case of authors, that will be apparently be paid for anyway, and those of us who visit schools less than once a month won't be required to register. (This assumes the teachers in charge of visits to be fully au fait with the regulations and not insist on CRBs for everyone, regardless, which is by no means a given.) So the situation hasn't really changed. That much.

It remains utterly ludicrous, as Mr Pullman points out: in 20 years of visiting schools, he has never been left alone with kids. Ever. But the logic of applying the rule to the once-a-month-or-more brigade is precisely that: prolonged and repeated exposure allegedly increases the chances of grooming the kids for Unspeakable Acts. How you do this when faced with a baying mob of 50 year 9s and 10s, I have no idea. I doubt anyone does. But that's the roolz.

Once, on a school visit, I was asked to wait in the staff room for a while, and then a single solitary boy, aged 13ish, was sent to get me when everyone was ready. So I suppose I was technically alone with a child, for about 5 seconds. The staff room had a glass wall looking onto a main corridor, but still I suppose that if I was a really, really determined, cunning and persuasive paedo – and if the young man was brain dead, dumb and physically handicapped – then I could have got lucky. We really are pushing the bounds of probability here.

Some further reading on the subject:
Any politician who tries to rationalise the system will inevitably provoke hysterical screams of wrath from the red-tops, and be labelled as soft on crime by the leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. So, cross-party action – which is would be needed to change anything – is unlikely if it's a single party issue. The hysteria could however be toughed out by the next Prime Minister and the next Labour leader (highly unlikely to be the same person) working together. The former will be a product of a system that can actually understand the non-tangible benefits of authors visiting schools. The latter should welcome the chance to distance himself from the triumphs of his predecessors' reigns. It could work.

Meanwhile Pullman et al will have to decide what matters more to them – the grind and, yes, the insult of being required to register, or the thought of the kids who would greatly value their visits being deprived of same. And Anthony Horowitz has nothing to fear: the CRB form is extremely unlikely to have a question saying "Are you now or have you ever been the perpetrator of Crime Traveller" so his secret is safe.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Always shoot hovering litter with a bow and arrow

At least, that's the only interpretation we could come up with for this rather strange little graphic on the label of a bottle of Tango.

Or maybe it's "Wait until it's hovering over a bin, then shoot it with a bow and arrow." Yes, that would be tidier. That must be it.

Said bottle was consumed at our table at the reception following the wedding of Best Man's Ex in Swanage, which is really what this post is about. The weather was an extremely wet dry run for next month's holiday in Ireland, but that doesn't really matter when the proceedings were mostly indoors. Mostly. A brave attempt was made to congregate on the lawn outside the church where five or six gazebos had been pushed together. The problem with gazebos is that their sides slope and so they don't really tile. Everyone was clustered into neat little squares and you couldn't get from one to the other without another split-second drenching.

But, a lovely day with the children of both parties being especially supportive. Junior Godson proudly explained to us that now he has two step-parents and two real ones, which I think pleases his sense of symmetry (he was always the artistic one). I got a little irritated at constant references to how BME had raised two boys on her own ... Her ex is quite a good friend (as you might gather) and I know for a fact that he's been as involved as he possibly can be. But it wasn't actually her making these claims, just relatives/other guests, and anything that helps close that particular chapter and open a new one is just fine by me.

None of this silly giving away business, either: bride and groom entered by different and opposite doors, met at the foot of the aisle and walked up together. As it should be.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Total Eclipse of Art

I've always had a soft spot for Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart". It combined traditional Jim Steinman anthemic passion with the best of eighties excess, and managed to be sad and moving at the same time.

Then it became a staple of the end-of-year SFSoc weekend at university, with a mash-up video of classic Dr Who scenes (tragically still not available on YouTube, as far as I can tell), so it also became associated with the bitter-sweet end of term feeling that you were saying goodbye to your friends, even if you were going to see them again in September.

And now I like it even more. Cue the Literal Video Version.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

My life measured against the Commitments

I first saw The Commitments when it came out in 1991, and I enjoyed it. At the time I lived in Basingstoke, but someone has to and we shall speak no more of that.

I next saw it last night and enjoyed it even more. What's changed in my life, apart from an extra 18 years maturity? Well, somewhere along the line I've picked up a nodding acquaintance with a lot more music. I'm not sure how, from someone who still listens to Classic FM more than any other radio station (with Radio 4 a close second), but it's happened. Part of it certainly comes down to former colleagues and associates forming The Limitations in the 1990s. That was eye and ear opening, and I owe them the thrill of recognition that I finally got at the intros to all the old soul classics.

The rest of it is just being alive, I suppose, and keeping an ear to the ground, and developing as Me. When I moved here I knew that if I could possibly afford it, I wanted to live on my own because I had never quite managed that before. I wanted to find out what I was like, without outside interference, and develop any areas that needed developing. It meant going short on stuff for a few years but it was worth it. I just hadn't realised how worth it it was.

On to the film and, okay, the plot of The Commitments could be written on the back of an envelope: band starts up, personal differences emerge, band collapses on the brink of greatness. But (as I endlessly explain to our resident Media student, but he insists on ignoring my wisdom), it's not what it's about that matters in a film but how it's about it. One of the joys of The Commitments is its sheer Irishness.

I'm sure I didn't recognise Procul Harum's Whiter Shade of Pale back in 1991, so I completely missed the joke of it being belted out on a church organ during practice by the band's keyboard player, together with the in-depth discussions (and the movie's punchline) as to what the lyrics actually mean. And I certainly didn't get the irony of playing 24 hours from Tulsa at a wedding reception. ("I hate to do this to you / But I love somebody new ...")

The keyboard player mentions in the confessional that where he used to sing hymns to himself, now he just hums "When A Man Loves A Woman" by Marvin Gaye. The priest's voice corrects him through the grill: "Percy Sledge". Our heroes play their first gig as part of the vicar's anti-drugs campaign, under a banner saying "Heroine kills" (sic) with the second e mostly blanked out. At another gig an accidental collision of mike stand and bass guitar makes the bass player the earth for the entire electrical system.

The band plays soul because "the Irish are the blacks of Europe, and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland, and Northsiders are the blacks of Dublin". And they are good. The cast were chosen for their musical ability before their acting (though neither is bad). And after two hours we get their last and best gig, where you just want to get up there and dance with them as they pound out "Try a little tenderness" and "Take me to the river" and "In the midnight hour". As the last note plays they are glowing. They know they work as a band. They have achieved something marvellous. Then they go off stage and effortlessly self-destruct.

There is no deep message to the film, but there is poetry, as is pointed out by one of the most engaging characters, Joey "The Lips" Fagan, who may or may not have played with Wilson Pickett and Little Richard and Elvis and all the greats, but who effortlessly works his way through the backing singers. Sure, they could have got famous and made lots of money ... but where would be the artistry in that?

At one point the manager, Jimmy, is waiting for the lift in a tower block and finds himself standing next to a boy and a horse.

"You're not taking him up in there?"

"I have to," the boy replies. "The stairs'd kill him ..."

And that's all Jimmy, and us, need to know.

Friday, July 03, 2009


Only kidding. I'm reasonably certain that I just have a typical summer cold, nothing worse. Grounds for this are the regular metronomic progression of symptoms – a sore throat earlier this week, a day or so of no discernible symptoms and then yesterday the awareness that I was sneezing more than usual. Then I woke up at 2.30 this morning with a blocked/runny nose, one of the most irritating symptom combinations ever devised, and thereafter it was a couple of minutes sleep maximum, clutching a Kleenex, each time waiting for the next sudden gush of snot. Lovely.

But it meant that come 6am I was pretty certain I should be staying in bed, and so I did. This meant that when the heavens broke round about 7am, I was lying in a comfortable warm bed in a cool, shaded room listening to them. This is an experience everyone should have. Pause to think how rarely it happens. Torrential rain like that itself is rare. If you're in bed when it comes then you're probably asleep, or have been woken up in the small hours so are grumpy and resentful, or you're trying to get to sleep in the first place. But to lie there, awake, with a totally clear conscience and to hear it tipping down all around you is an awesome, near religious feeling.

Once it had stopped – which it did all at once, like turning off a tap – I realised the sash windows had all been open top and bottom so all the windowsills needed mopping down. Meh. Worth it.

Best Beloved was on her way to work when the rain hit and got totally drenched. There are plus sides to working in a theological college, and one of them is that she could simply proceed on into work and borrow a surplus surplice and robe. Apparently the robe gaped a little so the surplice was used as an undergarment. Part of her job is to greet visitors and I wish I had been there to see it.

Now tired, headachey ... the cold progresses as normal. Should be done by the end of the weekend. Unless it is something worse. Again I say, oink.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Corporate and bilingual

Just been doing some web surfing to see if I need a visa for Canada next month. (I was pretty sure I didn't, and I was right, but you know how these panic attacks can be ...)

I'm pleased to be able to report that the Canada Border Services Agency "delivers innovative border management". Or, if you like (this is Canada) L'Agence des services frontaliers du Canada "assure une gestion novatrice de la frontière". Which means pretty much the same thing.

I personally wouldn't want my border services agency to be innovative. I would want them to keep the bad guys out and let the good guys in, which as far as I'm aware is a quite traditional interpretation of the role. Any development thereon may not be such a good thing.

I await the innovativity both with interest and avec l'intérêt.