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Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Archive for February 2010

Saturday#4 – Nord Rute

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This is the first part of the Valkeapää Narratives and it is probably best if I just quote from the press release:

Nord Rute is a surround sound narrative by Ross Adams inspired by the Sámi artist Nils Aslak Valkeapää’s poem ‘No:272’. The poem is about a reindeer herd on the move. Nord Rute travels into the underworld of the indigenous Sámi people of northern Norway and their age old spring migration 450Km across the arctic tundra with thousands of reindeer. Field recording artist Adams travelled with a Siida – collective of Sámi herders – and sonically documented it using location surround sound recording techniques.

It took place in the Chainhouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf, an outpost of civilisation in the wasteland of East India Dock. I happen to know it pretty well since my wife used to work there, you may know it as the original Container City or home of the Longplayer. Anyway, when we arrived the floor of the Chainhouse was covered with straw and liberally strewn with reindeer pelts. We made ourselves comfortable. Cosy in our nest of blankets with mulled wine in hand it was then a bit of a surprise to be confronted by Eardrum as the support. It wasn’t that they were bad – I rather enjoyed them, despite being strongly adverse to the trumpet – but their percussion-heavy mix of jazz and afro beat was a bit incongruous. However, soon I was lying on my back, transported to Norway by the recordings of Adams, the voice of Persen and the beats of Plaid. All gigs should be experienced like this.

Written by Martin

28 February 2010 at 13:31

Saturday#3 – Bellowhead

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Although not really Bellowhead at all.

When I bought tickets for The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner I wasn’t paying any attention. I knew it was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and I knew it was a production for kids but that was it. In fact, I thought it was a piece of physical theatre until several weeks later when my wife pointed out that no, British folk flag-fliers Bellowhead were responsible and I had completely got the wrong end of the stick. As it turned out, we both had.

The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner was actually directed by Jude Kelly, boss of the Southbank Centre, from an idea by Shân Maclennan and Keith Shadwick. Kelly has then co-opted her resident artists – Bellowhead and Lemn Sissay – into what is essentially a half-arsed school production, presumably solely on the grounds that they were under contract and she wants to squeeze as much out of them as possible. So right at the back of the stage are the eleven members of Bellowhead, in front of them half a dozen Pulse students and the rest of the space is taken up by scores of kids from local primary schools (guaranteeing a sell out crowd). The lights dim. There is an expectant hush. Then, spotlit in the darkness, Jan Blake begins an interminable Ladybird version of ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’. It goes on and on and on. After twenty minutes of this piss poor mauling of the poem – which contains the phrase “catapulted as if from a catapult” – half the audience of children and adults are bored out of their skulls and the other half are asleep.

But finally it is over; the Ancient Mariner (Sissay) takes the stage and the production itself can begin. Now, I’m not an actor or a spoken word artist but it seems to me that if I was going to stand up on stage and read a poem, I might familiarise myself with it beforehand. But what do I know. Sissay reads it in a ridiculous, barely intelligible “ancient” quaver which is bad enough but worse he has no idea where the emphasis in any of the sentences go. To add to this, he manages to get lost, despite constantly referring to the text which is on a stand in front of him. From time to time, the kids would stand and provide a chorus but these moments were all too rare and by the time the mariner had shot the albatross they were completely disengaged, playing with their socks and hair and waiting for it to finish. This meant that the stage was dominated by a tide of blankness.

The only quality of any type was provided by Bellowhead’s live score but even that was constrained by the horrible format. Once it was finally over and the kids had taken their bow, they were finally allowed to actually sing and it obliterated everything in the tedious, static production which had preceded this single moment. Afterwards, battered by the wind on Waterloo Bridge, I discovered my wife hated it even more than me and where I had thought the backing projection merely inoffensively bland, she was enraged by how generic, non-specific and misplaced the images were, particularly since there was nothing worth looking at on the stage. It could have replaced Blake’s awful preamble with a visual guide to the poem, which would have rendered Coleridge’s language less obscure to a young, modern audience; instead it was wallpaper. Horrendously ill-conceived all round.

Written by Martin

28 February 2010 at 12:22

Posted in music, poetry

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Saturday#2 – Skylon

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Skylon won the Best Design Award at the 2007 Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards. No surprise as it is utterly gorgeous, everything works from its integration into the Royal Festival Hall itself, down to the brilliant attention taken with the crockery and cutlery. If the food didn’t quite match the setting then there can still be few nicer places to sit and watch the Southbank, even when the sky is grey and the river muddy. Especially with a kir royale in your hand.

Lunch started with a thimble of tomato soup, although I’m probably not allowed to call it soup, am I? This seems to be de rigueur these days because, although I forgot to mention it, the same happened at Vanila Black. Skylon won with regards to both the soup and the glasswear. Plus it was served from a flask. Having allowed them their fun, I started with heart of globe artichoke with antibes salad, extra fine french beans, nicoise olives, confit tomatoes and barrel aged feta which was a decent enough salad but didn’t fully integrate the boldness vinegariness of the artichoke. Whilst I has eating this I noticed a flask of mushroom velouté being borne to other table. They do like their flasks. N managed to order a dish that contained had most of her favourite ingredients on one plate: pan fried fillet of red mullet, crisp fennel with shaved mature pecorino, bouillabaisse vinaigrette. The combinations of flavours – not immediately obvious pairings – worked as well in the mouth and these the delicate arrangement, set off with some unmentioned spots of vivid saffron butter, worked on the plate.

Whilst we were eating these starters the restaurant started to fill up until, by the time we left, it was packed. The service never dipped; unfortunately, with the mains, the quality of the food did. My poached ox cheeks were a beautiful colour and texture but lacking in any depth of flavour. Out came a flask again, this time to pour over a beef consomme which added little to the plate apart from meaning that there was no dry space to seat the almost ludicrously decadent truffle pomme puree. Instead a snooze-inducing quantity sat to one side in a small saucepan. Elsewhere I would probably have loved this but together it made for heavy, unbalanced meal. The only flavours which stood out were the wonderful pot au feu vegetables but when the veg is the best bit of the meal something has gone wrong. N’s ballotine of hake had a lovely graduation of colour as it moved from melty to crispy and, despite only minimal seasoning, this was all that was needed to bring out its flavour. Alas, this was served with a white bean stew that was less a stew and more a flavourless clump of what looked unappetisingly like baked beans and three pieces of broccoli, the stalks of which were inedible and the heads drenched in butter. It was a plate lacking any of the subtlety and care of the starter, except in the cooking of the fish. A missed opportunity.

Luckily desserts saved the meal. I’m not really one for table cooking, it seems like excessive ostentation and faff, but crêpes Suzette deserve it. Due to my position I didn’t get to witness their creation, only see the light in N’s eyes and feel the heat of the Grand Marnier on the back of my neck. N, who had always wanted to try the dish, was entranced by the ritual and eat the crêpes with a huge smile on her face in total silence, apart from one small, barely audible “nom” of pure contentment. For me it was roast fig stuffed with butterscotch ice cream, berry compote, black olive tuile. Frankly you could have jettisoned the compote, the tuile, the unadvertised biscuit the fig sat on and the fussy foams and emulsions that dotted the plate because the fig on its own was everything I could have possibly wanted. I very nearly ordered another.

Despite telling me I was strictly limited to two hours when I made the booking, the excellent if slightly over-specialised staff had no desire to rush us so we continued to admire the now much busier view over coffee. Although I don’t actually drink coffee. A place like Skylon is never going to be competitively priced but I did wince a little at £3.60 for a “herbal infusion” AKA a mint tea that could have stood rather more infusing. If you want to see how mint tea should be served, go to Ottolenghi. However, since it was served with unannounced petit fours it is hard to complain too much (despite the inherent contradiction of sipping mint tea whilst dropping nougat into your gob).

Forty two pounds a head, excluding service, of which the three course set menu was twenty seven fifty. The majority of this was paid for by Third Row Fandom as a wedding gift. Cheers! They had also previously stumped up for a rather better meal in the rather more anonymous Almeida.

Written by Martin

28 February 2010 at 11:42

Posted in food

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Saturday#1 – Andreas Gursky

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I’ve just come back from the framer’s and I have now achieved one of my ambitions in life. I am the proud owner of an Andreas Gursky:

Now, it is hardly ‘The Rhine II’ but to be honest the chances of me aquiring the world’s single greatest photograph are pretty slim. Besides I do already have a copy of it hanging in my bedroom thanks to the Tate’s awesome printing service. No, ‘Untitled XV’ may be a minor work created for the last World Cup but it is mine, all mine.

Written by Martin

27 February 2010 at 11:52

Posted in art

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‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe

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Gene Wolfe is a sacred cow of science fiction, consistently held up as a demonstration that – in the right hands – the genre can be high literature. So how come the only two stories I had read by him – ‘Viewpoint’ and ‘The Ziggurat’ – where terrible? Was I just unlucky or was everyone else mad?

When I asked this elsewhere there was a general concensus that as Wolfe got older he became more conservative and more Catholic to the detriment of his writing. The two stories I had read were from this later period. I should read his earlier stuff. In particular, I should read ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ since it is the greatest science fiction novella ever written.

I have now read the novella and can confirm that it is indeed very good, as are ‘”A Story” by John Marsch’ and ‘V.R.T.’, the two linked novellas which accompany it. I was reminded of Sacsayhuamán, its interlocking parts constructed so seamlessly that it shouldn’t be possible. The reader is treat with respect which then must then earn and behind all this there is a deep, ingenuous intelligence. It is only a shame this intelligence seems to have calcified so unpleasantly in later years.

Written by Martin

25 February 2010 at 13:20

Posted in sf, short stories

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Let’s Remix It

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Mark Newton published a short story, ‘Salam and Baseema’, on his blog and asked people to remix it. He’s just posted my remix. Here’s what I did:

Step 1: Fillet – I wanted to radically change the story before I even started to think about remixing it so I deleted everything apart from the first line of each paragraph.

Step 2: Reconstitute – I then grouped these individual sentences back into paragraphs. It was interesting to see how neatly some paragraphs reformed, not just sections of dialogue (which you might expect) but more descriptive parts. However, there were some rogue sentence left over. I decided I wanted to keep this remix very formal and therefore that I wouldn’t cut any of these sentences. Instead, I temporarily moved them to the end of the document for later.

Step 3: Stir – I grouped my small paragraphs into bigger sections. This included moving some of them out of their original order as well as merging previously seperate sections into single sections.

Step 4: Swap – The story structure was working pretty well but it needed finessing so it was time to swap some of the sentences, both within sections and between sections. This also allowed me to re-integrate the problem sentences and, in fact, in several instances the overall structure is determined by this need.

Step 5: Split – Some of the sentences still just weren’t working. In particular: “Luckily, there is none, and upon realising this, in the sanctum of the bus, they kiss again, Salam’s hands sliding in an explorative fashion along Baseema’s thigh.” It refers so directly to a sentence that was cut that it was impossible to integrate. So I compromised and allowed myself to split three sentences. See if you can spot them! I also cunningly turned one of them into my new title.

Step 6: Polish – There was a temptation here to add or embellish the text but I managed to resist this and keep true to my original plan. I did make a few punctuation and tense changes as well as Anglicising some of the words (whilst leaving exclamations in the original). Oh, and I removed the capitals from Rock and Reggae, you know how I feel about that.

A pretty interesting experiment. Obviously I took a very formal approach, I’m hoping some other people will take a looser, more artistic approach.

Written by Martin

24 February 2010 at 18:45

Posted in short stories

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‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke

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We came slowly in through the concentric shells of gas that had been blasted out six thousand years before, yet were expanding still. They where immensely hot, radiating even now with a fierce violet light, but were far too tenuous to do us any damage. When the star had exploded, its outer layers had been driven upward with such speed that they had escaped completely from its gravitational field. Now they formed a hollow shell large enough to engulf a thousand solar systems, and at its center burned the tiny, fantastic object which the star had now become – a White Dwarf, smaller than the Earth, yet weighing a million times as much.

This is the sort of thing hard SF is meant to be about and Clarke does it very well. At the same time though, he is happy to just handwave away the speed of light with “the secret of the Transfinite Drive”. I can imagine fewer things duller than getting into a debate about whether FTL travel should be consistent with hard SF but I think this is worth pointing out.

The story itself unfortunately hinges on a silly punchline that is adolescent and hack-ish. To his credit, Clarke treats this with great seriousness but this only makes it even more baffling that he constructed the story around a cheap joke. The reaction of the characters to the revelation is no more plausible than the existence of a Transfinite Drive either.

Quality: **
Hardness: ****

Written by Martin

24 February 2010 at 09:58

‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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With a subtitle like ‘The Evolution Of Hard SF’ you would expect H&C to include some precursor texts. It is less clear that you would expect them to include Hawthorne’s 1844 gothic tale. Particularly since they note that:

It is antithetical in imagery and in affect to the ideal of hard science fiction from Verne and most of Wells through Campbell’s Modern sf. (p. 68)

The story itself? Mad scientist keeps his daughter imprisioned in a poisonous garden in order to give her a toxic vagina. Alright, if you like olden days tosh.

Quality: **
Hardness: **

A quick Google also suggests that H&C have excised Hawthorne’s framing device for the story which seems a fairly reckless editorial decision.

Written by Martin

22 February 2010 at 11:06

“If It Sounds Like Writing, I Rewrite It”

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Usually when the Guardian turns over the front half of the Review to authors it means everybody has gone on holiday and they are desperate to fill space. In a turn up for the books, yesterday’s feature was actually quite good. Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules Of Writing (presumably there is a new edition due) they have asked various writers for more of the same. Sometimes – as with Richard Ford – the answers are boring and stupid. Quite often they contain gems though.

Margaret Atwood: Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

Roddy Doyle: Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.

Helen Dunmore: If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

Jonathan Frazen: Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money. [More prosaically he notes that “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”]

David Hare: Jokes are like hands and feet for a painter. They may not be what you want to end up doing but you have to master them in the meanwhile.

Hilary Mantel: First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

Michael Moorcock: My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Colm Tóibín: No going to London.

Sarah Waters: Treat writing as a job. Be disciplined. Lots of writers get a bit OCD-ish about this. Graham Greene famously wrote 500 words a day. Jean Plaidy managed 5,000 before lunch, then spent the afternoon answering fan mail. My minimum is 1,000 words a day – which is sometimes easy to achieve, and is sometimes, frankly, like shitting a brick, but I will make myself stay at my desk until I’ve got there, because I know that by doing that I am inching the book forward. Those 1,000 words might well be rubbish – they often are. But then, it is always easier to return to rubbish words at a later date and make them better.

I could quote the whole of Self’s advice. He also provides the most interesting section of the latest edition of the London Review of Books (so obviously they hide him away at the back like a ten-inch-long dildo on Clapham Common).

Written by Martin

21 February 2010 at 10:18

Posted in criticism

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Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery

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I thought it might be helpful to pick a few thoughts about epic fantasy and sword and sorcery out of that other post. Here are some of the characteristics that were thought might distinguish them:

Epic Fantasy:

  • The plot is central to the world’s history or even cosmology.
  • The story come to an end, usually with some sort of healing of the land, and either a restoration or dissolution of magic
  • The story is published as single narrative arc (for example, a trilogy).
  • Characters tend to the heroic.
  • Setting likely to be pastoral and expansive.

Sword and Sorcery:

  • The plot is what adventurous people tend to do within a particular world.
  • There is always room for another adventure.
  • The stories are published as a series of interlocking narratives (for example, individual novels)
  • Characters tend to the anti-heroic.
  • Setting can be urban and intimate.

Obviously these are not hard and fast rules and should be taken in the spirit of thinking aloud in public. The fact that these distinctions break down, particularly, in modern commercial fantasy, returns me to thinking about the history of the subgenres. For epic fantasy, this is relatively straightforward and seems to come in clear waves; for sword and sorcery, things are murkier and the waves are overlapping. Again, these are notes towards a theory so treat them with the scepticism they deserve and feel free to shoot me down in the comments.

Epic Fantasy:

  • Progenitor text: Tolkien – Lord Of The Rings (1954-55)
  • First wave – emergence as a commercial subgenre: Brooks – Shanara (1977-85), Eddings – Belgariad (1982-84) and Weis and Hickman –Dragonlance Chronicles (1984-85)
  • Second wave – bestsellers within a mature subgenre: Jordan (1990-), Goodkind (1994-) and Martin (1996-)

Sword And Sorcery:

  • Progenitor text: Howard – Conan (1933-35)
  • First wave – emergence as not quite a subgenre: Leiber – ‘Fafhrd And Gray Mouser’ (1939-) and Anderson – Broken Sword (1954)
  • Second wave – deconstruction and subversion: Moorcock – Elric (1965-75) and Wagner – Kane (1970-78)

The third wave of commercial fantasy then seems to be a merging of these two traditions. So, for example, Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains (2008) explicitly ties itself to the sword and sorcery tradition in opposition to Tolkien tradition but is not especially different to contemporary epic fantasy. Equally, Scott Lynch’s The Gentlemen Bastards (2006-) follows in the footsteps of Leiber but is highly popular and influential within epic fantasy circles. This isn’t entirely new, as previously mentioned Glen Cook’s The Chronicles Of The Black Company (1984-85) is an early example of this, but it does seem to be increasing and it may well explain the reason people have increasingly felt the need to resort to the adjective “gritty”.

Right, I have to go to a charity fundraiser now so I don’t have time to fully integrate two other important influences: Dungeons & Dragons (1974) and Perdido Street Station (2000). And yes, I know I need to read Wizardry And Wild Romance. (I also realise women are under-represented in this crude history.)

Written by Martin

20 February 2010 at 12:06