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Archive for March 2012

The Appliance Of Science

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Lots of people tried to guess this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. The shortlist has now been announced and it is interesting to compare the guesses to the actual list. Quite a few people got three of the six book correct but only a few got four and no one got five. Nicholas Whyte went one step further than just guessing though, he ranked the submissions according to Goodreads and Librarything and then applied several steps:

  • Removed all the books that weren’t science fiction (quite a few this year)
  • Removed the two Connie Willis books since they formed the two halves of a single novel
  • Removed the books with very low Goodreads averages
  • Removed the books with a high ratio of Goodreads users to Librarything users
  • Removed the Robert J Sawyer book because it was written by Robert J Sawyer

This produced the following list:

  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson
  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary
  • Equations of Life by Simon Morden
  • The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Not bad at all: four out of six. But Whyte was slightly wrong footed by the fact Readme isn’t a science fiction novel and should have been struck off under his first step. The novel under The Testament of Jessie Lamb was The Waters Rising by Sheri S Tepper which would have given him five out of six. It is also interesting to note that Whyte could have got two thirds of the shortlist just by applying his first two step:

  • Embassytown by China Miéville
  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  • Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear
  • The End Specialist by Drew Magary

When I started reading Whyte’s methodology, I thought it was just going to produce a popularist list since, as he acknowledges, the BSFA Award shortlisted novels were down the bottom. But it worked. I hope it doesn’t work every year though, it would take all the fun out of it!

Written by Martin

26 March 2012 at 08:50

Posted in awards, sf

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Michelin Stars And Science Fiction

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Sad-faced iconoclast and retired restaurant critic Jonathan Meades reckons Michelin stars are over-rated:

Whatever claims it may make to the contrary, these awards are based on Michelin’s idea of probity, which has less to do with an establishment’s standard of cooking than with its cutlery, glassware and the dimensions of the vats of starch in which its napkins have been steeped. The guide’s ill-paid inspectors, callow graduates of hotel schools, are at an even greater loss when faced with casual, informal restaurants which audaciously allow customers to pour their own wine and which serve excellent cooking without “fine dining’s” presentational fuss, where a dozen spotty sous-chefs have touched the multipartite components as they sought to create a Mondrian on the plate.

He thinks the only people interested in Michelin stars are chefs, journalists and devotees of fine dining, “a branch of restauration characterised by smarmily sycophantic service, grotesquely over-elaborate cooking, fussiness, pretension, absurdly high prices and moron chefs who appear to think they are philosophers.” I guess I fall into that last category. Well, it is balls; I take an interest in Michelin-starred restaurants because they tend to serve bloody good food. As I’ve mentioned in passing, the best meal I’ve ever had was at Pied A Terre which had two stars at the time. The reason it was the best meal I’ve ever had was not because I’m a pretentious twat (that is unrelated) but because Shane Osborn’s cooking was simply breathtaking. None of Meades’s criticisms even register. The only place I’ve been to that has even approached his fine dining stereotype was Le Manoir – where the bogs are nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – but then Raymond Blanc is deliberately working in a classic French tradition. Elsewhere, modernity prevails.

The week before Christmas I went up to Morecambe for a short break with my wife to open our stockings and spend a bit of time together before the onslaught of family festivities. Whilst up there I had the second best meal I’ve ever had at the one star L’Enclume. Tucked away in the little village of Cartmel (birthplace of sticky toffee pudding), it is about as far from the London restaurant scene as you can get; we had to drive down windy roads round Morecambe Bay for an hour to reach it. There are two menus, nine or thirteen courses, and once safely ensconced with a kir royale we opted for the latter. It was appropriate for the season since the tasting menu is like a culinary stocking: lots of little delicious surprises to be unwrapped one at a time. One of the early courses that has lodged in my mind was a sort of deconstructed fish and chips, a cod ‘yolk’ with salt and vinegar rice. The concept is exciting, it looks exciting and it tastes exciting. For me, this balance of skill, innovation and flavour is what Michelin-starred cooking is all about. Even better and the stand out of a very good meal was deceptively simple sounding dish of Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone cream, tarragon and malt. The presentation is very a clever, a sort of terrarium in a bowl with the vegetable and herb rising plant-like from the malt soil which conceals the cheese that binds it all together, and the beauty to eye is matched on the tongue. Hats off to Simon Rogan.

Nuno Mendes gained a Michelin star last year for attempting something similar in the much more conviently located Bethnal Green. Viajante specialises in innovative cooking but on our visit in February innovative pushed over into challenging. As it happened, Jay Rayner had visited the week before and his review a similar experience:

Modern techniques are great. They’re brilliant. If you want to cook my steak by banging it round the Large Hadron Collider, be my guest. Dehydrate my pig cheeks. Spherify my nuts. But only do so if the result tastes nicer. At Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.

It was not a bad meal but it over-promised and under-delivered and that isn’t something you want to say when the bill for two was a shade over £400. None of the courses stayed with me in the same way Rogan’s did. Sometimes by palatte was utterly confused, sometimes textures were actively unpleasant and, as we discovered previously at Corner Room (Mendes’s casual restaurant at the back of the building), sous vide is not a magic spell that you can simply cast over a carrot. A wonderful, simple dish of roasted snow crown, parsley and English cultivated mushrooms at L’Enclume knocked this faffery into a cocked hat. So the Michelin guide isn’t infallible. To hammer this home, a couple of days latter we had a far better and much more fun meal at Morito. This is exactly the sort of informal restaurant that Meades talks about stealing a march on the dinosaurs of fine dining. But it isn’t all or nothing and I’m very glad both exist.

Elsewhere Patrick Wolohan proposes a Michelin star system for SF. The driver for this is his disatisfaction with demarcation within numerical ratings and the fact that “with such a wide range of subgenres and styles in the genre, I found it increasingly impossible to compare books on a numeric basis.” The Michelin-style ratings he intends to use instead are:

No stars: bad or nothing special. (“No longer do I need to worry about slotting a mediocre high fantasy above or below a fun, if flawed steampunk adventure.”)

One star: a great example of its subgenre and one that is highly recommended for those who enjoy that specific subgenre or are looking to break into the subgenre.

Two star: a standout novel that demonstrates a unique approach or exceptional execution, likely to be one of the year’s best and definitely worth reading, regardless of subgenre or preference. Strengths outweigh the weakness by a large margin.

Three stars: an instant classic in my mind, a soul crushing work of such brilliance that it annihilates any hope of every writing a novel as good, and an absolute must read. Virtually flawless.

Now, I have never given a review a grade or a score. When others have attempted to apply a numerical rating to my reviews, I’ve found the whole thing a bit baffling. So perhaps I’m not the best person to comment on such a system but, whilst I think the concept is sound, I do wonder about the application. The criteria Wolohan is using are already watered down from the actual Michelin descriptions and it is hard not to see him succumbing to grade inflation in the same way he complains happens with other systems. For example, there are currently only 106 three-star restaurants in the whole world of which only ten in US (there are 4 in the UK). It is a tiny, tiny proportion and that is through active searching rather than lone happenstance. Wolohan does set out his likely limits – “I could see myself giving out 10-15 starred reviews a year (if the books are good enough), 5 or fewer two star reviews, and no more than 2 (probably 0) three star reviews.” – but, although these seem like modest numbers, I still think they are too high. Even leaving aside our radically different ideas about what consitutes good literature, the vast majority of books will fall under the no star category. I’d have thought having a ratings system without being able to actually use would be too strong a temptation.

I’ll be interested in the experiment though, because he is surely right that there is much too much over-inflated angels-on-a-pinhead rating of books within the SF community. I still think that words matter more than number (and I wish people took a bit more care over their words) but focussing on the truly exceptional, whether literature or food, is a positive thing and encourages both producers and consumers to want the best. And wanting the best is never pretentious.

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 17:05

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Spirit

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Usually I have little time for subtitles; if it is that important, stick it on the cover. In this instance, the subtitle, The Princess of Bois Dormant, signals the fact that the novel is a homage to Alexandre Dumas’s The Count Of Monte Cristo. It is not a story I know well – I have seen the 2002 film adaptation but it was at Christmas so I couldn’t tell you whether it was James Caviezel or Guy Pearce who was the wronged party – but the understanding that this will be a story about betrayal and revenge is inescapable. Perhaps the familiarity of the story explains why the back cover synopsis is so unusually detailed, as I will show by quoting from it at unusual length:

After the massacre, Bibi was given a choice: become the General’s concubine, or Lady Nef’s servant. She chose to be a servant and they took here away, from the mediaeval isolation of Cymru to the labyrinthine Great House in Kirgiz; and then to teeming Baykonur, the Enclosed City, Gateway to the Stars.

Bibi had no desire to leave Earth. She certainly had no wish to try the Buonarotti Transit, non-duration ‘starflight’ that could leave you criminally insane, or turned inside out; or both. But circumstances forced Nef and the General to take her with them to Sigurt’s World: on a diplomatic mission that was to end in mayhem and inexplicable betrayal. In the terrible prison of Fenmu, Nef and Bibi found each other again. The great lady, before she died, bequeathed to Bibi her exalted level of Access to the Systems – and the 4-Space co-ordinates of a secret treasure.

There is another paragraph after that but those 150 words manage to cover the first four acts of the novel and take us up to page 255 of 472. What is remarkable about this synopsis is not its casual disregard for its notoriously spoiler-sensitive readership (see current Gollancz publicity director on spoilers) but the fact it barely scratches the surface of this extraordinary novel. Spirit contains more in a single book than most modern science fiction trilogies manage and is easily one of the half dozen best SF novels published this century. I took no notes whilst reading it and as such I cannot really do justice to the novel so what follows is not a review but some thoughts.

Bibi is short for Gwibiwr – Welsh for wanderer or voyager – and Spirit is the story of her rise and fall and rise again. Orphaned at ten by an assault on her home by General Yu, she becomes a servant in his household for his wife, Lady Nef. If this initially seems like slavery, it soon becomes clear it is more akin to adoption. The first act sees Bibi grows to adulthood in this house, the irregularly sized chapters advancing us forward in time and the gaps between them unknown. This is a standard literary technique but also fits with a recurring theme of the novel that time is fluid. So too is gender and Jones presents a fascinating future society hundreds of years in the future following the alien invasion catalogued in her earlier Aleutian trilogy consisting of White Queen (1991), North Wind (1994) and Phoenix Café (1997). As with The Count Of Monte Cristo, I am working from a position of ignorance with respect to these novels – I read North Wind when I was 14 but can remember nothing of it – and, whilst knowledge of them is not necessary to fall in love with Spirit, I can’t help thinking greater understanding of the Aleutians and the Gender Wars and the rest of the future history would have enriched the experience. It is against this backdrop and on the brink of adulthood that Bibi stumbles upon a conspiracy that sees the whole household being banished from Earth.

The second act (Jones terms it an “intermission” but although it is substantially shorter than the preceding part, it has similar heft), sees Bibi make the Buonarotti transit from Earth to the space station Speranza, the capital of the loose federation of alien species. If time was fluid before, it becomes glorious unreal during transit. I was reminded of M John Harrison’s deliberate decision with Light to create a universe where not only was faster than light travel possible, all faster than light travel was possible:

Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, by assuming anything.

There is something fearless about this position and that is a word that encapsulates Jones’s novel. After spending some time on Speranza and adapting to a whole new social order, Bibi and the household are sent on a diplomatic mission to Sigurt’s World and the novel transitions to a wonderfully Banksian planetary romance. Basically, if you love Iain Banks but have been disappointed by his output for the last decade or so, Spirit is the book for you. The mission goes wrong in a bit of alien politicking that is again a novel in itself; in the immediate aftermath of the debacle, the General betrays Lady Nef to save himself and casual condemns Bibi on the grounds that she is the only person who would now this. Unaware of their shared fate, the pair are imprisoned and forgotten in caves on the planet’s moon and, in the face of decades of isolation and despair, Bibi’s soul disintegrates. It is a huge tonal shift and a remorselessly bleak section but Bibi emerges from it, taking the reader with her on each painful step to recovering. When through her efforts she is re-united with Lady Nef, the path is clear for her escape but it remains a hard row to hoe.

So, with indecent haste, that sums up the first half of the novel. The second half is the revenge, although it isn’t really a revenge at all. Lots of reviewers seem to have struggled with the second half of the novel for this reason. These issues are probably best articulated by Paul Kincaid in his review for Strange Horizons:

But here the faithfulness of the copy to its original begins to waver. For a start, the way that Dumas accelerated both the action and the tension throughout this portion of his novel is largely absent from Spirit, and the occasional adventures inserted into the story seem largely artificial additions, not really part of the overall plot… But it is a novel whose strength wanes the longer it goes on. If she had stayed closer to the colour and drama of the original, it might have ended up being even better.

It is certainly radically different from the preceding section but then those sections are each pretty different themselves and the deviation from Dumas is, I feel, a strength of the novel. True, tension is decreased but in its place is something warmer, deeper, more effecting. This is well captured by Duncan Lawrie’s review for The Zone:

Spirit bristles with energy and anger, gradually smoothing into equanimity. A key message of the book is presented in the first few pages: “Believe me, this is the greatest secret I know. Rule your own mind, and you may rule the world. Far more important, you will be happy, no matter what comes. And happiness is all that matters in the end.” (p. 7)

Ultimately, that is what makes Spirit not just a great novel but a book I took to my heart (even if these random scribbles don’t really convey that).

Written by Martin

23 March 2012 at 12:57

Posted in books, sf

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Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold

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Sometimes publicity succeeds by inducing such an incredulous reaction in the reader that it makes the product irresistible. So it was with Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold. The first email I received from Solaris had the subject line “Hello boys! What’s your kind of fantasy?”, presumably intending to signal that this is the sort of book for people who like looking at Eva Herzigová’s breasts. The subject line of the second email was even more to the point, promising “Epic fantasies fulfilled! Girl on lizard action!”. Blimey. Then there is the name of the titular heroine herself. It is a pretty bold move to name a character in a secondary world fantasy after a four thousand year old Akkadian city. It is an even bolder move to give her a name of such blunt nominative determinism that it roughly translates as Whorey McSword. Congratulations to the Solaris publicity team, I was hooked. Who could pass up the queasily fascinating offer of a novel about a Wonderbra-wearing mercenary-turned-brothel-keeper who has sex with reptiles?

We’ll get back to the sex in a minute but first the plot and, perhaps more importantly, the setting. Babylon runs the Red Lantern in Scalentine, a hub city that is linked to myriad other worlds through portals. It is sort of place where the Chief of the Militia is a friendly werewolf who is happy to lend you a couple of quid to cover your taxes. It is the sort of place where you might bump into a Barraklé – “not unlike a human above the waist, not dissimilar to a sort of giant furry caterpillar below, with four arms, four breasts and more than enough of other things as well, apparently” – or a dozen other different species.

Bablyon is persuaded by one Darask Fain to find a missing girl (a girl but not a human). In a book by a man, Fain – the ravishing spy who lives in a casino – would probably be the hero. Here he is totty, “the most devastating thing on two legs in Scalentine” with a voice “like velvet-glad fingers running down one’s naked back.” Babylon needs find the girl before the conjunction of the twin moons, although this turns out to be a bit of a red herring. At the same time, we learn through flashbacks to her time as a disciple of the goddess Babaska how she came to pursue her unusual dual career. It is a bit of a mess but a lot of fun (although modern publishing strictures dictate that it is 200 pages longer than it should be).

Because appearances can be deceptive. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but I wouldn’t read it on the train and the blurb is enough to put anyone off. Inside it is extremely enjoyable fluff with enough smarts to keep the bubble intact. Even Babylon’s silly name turns out to be a semi-plausible nomme de guerre. The marketing bunf is even more misleading, both because there isn’t actually much sex and when it arrives it is firmly female-focused.

The first sex scene is on page 46 and is with a client because, even though Babylon owns the Red Lantern, she is not afraid to roll her sleeves up and get stuck in. Of course, he is a very nice man; of course, she finds him attractive; of course, he requires nothing outside of her rather vanilla horizons. It is all good clean fun and she even has an orgasm. Obviously this bears no resemblance to actual prostitution; it is a fantasy in more ways than one. But Sebold has made enough of a sidestep that it is hugely less problematic than you would expect. (If anything is troubling, it is the dodgy Johnny Foreigner accents deployed by many of the alien species.)

With its political intrigue and god sex, Babylon Steel resembles a version of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin where the po-faced angst has been dialled right down. Both novels push the attitude and tropes of paranormal romance into epic fantasy but, given the huge popularity of these two sub-genres, I do wonder why the approaches haven’t mixed more already. Why there isn’t more erotic epic fantasy being published? Surely there is a gap in the market for bringing the sauce of one to the sweep of the other? It would certainly stand in stark contrast to the prevalent Third Wave fantasy mode (characterised as ‘gritty’, if you are a fan, and ‘grimdark’, if you are not). Perhaps unsurprising for a subgenre where the primary form of human interaction is murder, it has a reputation for being more than a little rapey.

I’ll give the last word to Babylon herself:

“As for sex… it’s a sacrament, don’t get me wrong. Always was, always will be. It’s one of the most powerful forces there is. And misused, it’s devastating. But sex is also intimate, essentially faintly ridiculous and very, very human.”

Written by Martin

22 March 2012 at 13:29

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Winter Is Coming: Ice by Anna Kavan

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I had come back to investigate rumours of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world. But as soon as I got here she became an obsession, I could think only of her, felt I must she her immediately, nothing else mattered. Of course I knew it was utterly irrational. And so was my present uneasiness: no harm was likely to come to me in my own country; and yet I was becoming more and more anxious as I drove. (p. 6)

From the outset it is obvious that Ice is a novel about
obsession but it rapidly becomes clear that it is overwhelmingly about illness. Our nameless narrator has returned to this country from business overseas and is involved with this brewing civil emergency but it is not clear what this is or what his role in it is. Government? Military? He is somehow an insider yet he seems to fear the police. It is a defining feature of the novel that the narrator is both victim and agent of authority.

It is unseasonably cold and the man at the petrol station warns him of ice as he sets off up the country lanes to visit the girl. Ethereal, blonde to the point of translucency, she is never named either. They knew each other when they were younger but she married another man:

This was past history. But the consequences of the traumatic experience were still evident in the insomnia and headaches from which I suffered. The drugs prescribed for me produced horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised. These dreams were not confined to sleep only, and a deplorable side effect was the way I had come to enjoy them. (p. 8-9)

So he is traumatised, hallucinating and addicted. The waking dream occurs again and again; it is always the same: she becomes trapped, entombed, in ice. “Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre.” (p. 7) Early on, the imagery recurs again and again – “Great ice-cliffs were closing in on all sides.” (p. 13); “The masses of dense foliage all round became prison walls, impassable circular green ice-walls, surging towards her.” (p. 19) – culminate in an extraordinarily intense evocation:

“Despairingly she looked all round. She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an over-hanging ring of frigid, fiery, colossal waves about to collapse upon her. Frozen by the deathly cold emanating from the ice, dazzled by the blaze of crystalline ice-light, she felt herself becoming part of the polar vision, her structure becoming one with the ice and snow. As her fate, she accepted the world of ice, shining, shimmering, dead; she resigned herself to the triumph of glaciers and the death of her world.” (p. 21)

It is impossible not to reach into Kavan’s own life when faced with this. The short biography in my edition notes that “she was, at best, evasive about the facts of her life” but the facts we do know are telling. Born Helen Wood at the turn of the last century, Kavan was a pseudonym she adopted from one of her own characters following a nervous breakdown. She became addicted to heroin in her twenties following a painful illness and struggled with the drug for the next forty years. The failure of psychiatry and pharmacology is written clearly in this novel. There are also points were the narrator seems to know the girl from the inside, the first person narration appearing to give way to the third person and the author and the girl merge. Given this, we can wonder about the fact that Kavan repeatedly tells us that the girl was a victim during childhood, was brutalised and haunted by the experience of her youth.

The first chapter gives us the intrusion of the dream-like into what we initially perceive to be our world with the encroaching ice acting as a metaphor. But it becomes rapidly more real, plunging us into a Ballardian disaster novel in which entropy inexorably claims the Earth. From the second chapter, it also becomes clear that the world itself is uncertain; it shifts – or should that be slips since this is quintessential slipstream – entirely into the realm of dreams. As one mysterious character puts it later, “the hallucination of space-time, and the joining of past and future so that either could be the present, and all ages.” (p. 123) Within this context, the landscape is reconfigured, repeatedly; shrinking the world and crushing the actors. The loose triumvirate of narrator, girl and husband remains, although changed, but there are hints that it is not a triumvirate at all.

The narrator knows things about the pair of them that he cannot know, describes events as if he is there when he is not. Is he actually the husband? Is the “I” of the narrative a disassociated state that allows him to stand outside of himself and criticise his own behaviour? As the book progresses the character of “the husband” becomes instead “the warden”, her jailer and both the narrator’s antagonist and a figure he finds strangely attractive. Again, there is a inexplicable bond between them:

“In an indescribable way our looks tangled together. I seemed to be looking at my own reflexion. Suddenly I was entangled in utmost confusion, not sure which of us was which. We were like halves of one being, joined in some mysterious symbiosis. I fought to retain my identity, but all my efforts failed to keep us apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him.” (p. 98)

This split personality is explicitly suggested by a police officer when the narrator is arrested in one of the small towns he visits as he moves towards the girl and away from the ice: “I wish to state that the witness is a psychopath, probably schizoid.” (p.77) At one point he finds (or dreams he finds) the girl after having been brutally beaten: “I felt I had been defrauded: I alone should have done the breaking with tender love; I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.” (p. 54) His obsession is a sickness.

My copy of the novel is the 2006 Peter Owen edition with an introduction from Christopher Priest. I think you can see a lot of Ice in Priest’s most recent novel, The Islanders – the unreliable narrator, the twisted travelogue, the undercurrent of obsession – and John Self makes a similar point with respect to The Affirmation. In his introduction, Priest says: “To work as allegory there has to be an exactness that the reader can grasp. In Ice the symbols are elusive, mysterious, captivating. It ends as it begins, with nothing that is practical or concluded.” If it is not an allegory, perhaps Ice is simply a wound; a raw insight into Kavan’s illness.

Written by Martin

20 March 2012 at 15:08

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Girl Walk

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I’ve mentioned my love of Girl Talk before and it hasn’t gone away. ‘Feed The Animals’ and its follow up ‘All Day’ are never off my iPod and are invaluable in the gym. As I have been running along like a hamster in an underground bunker where I am forced to watch Loose Women with the subtitles on, I’ve often thought what a good soundtrack these music collages would make for a piece of contemporary dance. Turns out Wild Combination had the same idea and produced Girl Walk. Here is the first chapter:

So, if you ever see me on the streets of London, that’s what I’m doing on the inside.

Written by Martin

17 March 2012 at 16:02

Posted in music, performance

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Our Community, Your Establishment

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Reflecting on some of the ideas in his great book Culture and Society, Raymond Williams observed that it was only when he “realised that no one ever used [the word] ‘community’ in a hostile sense” that he became suspicious of it. On that basis we should be suspicious of “the literary establishment”, because it is only used in a negative way – like a squash court wall again, something that exists in order to have stuff hurled against it.

Geoff Dyer on the literary establishment: “There is no such thing as the literary establishment. I know this because I am part of it.”

Written by Martin

17 March 2012 at 10:52

Posted in criticism, quotes

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