Everything Is Nice

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

Archive for May 2010

Punk Rock

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I’ll tell you about punk rock: punk rock is a word used by dilettantes and, uh… and, uh… heartless manipulators, about music… that takes up the energies, and the bodies, and the hearts and the souls and the time and the minds, of young men, who give what they have to it, and give everything they have to it. And it’s a… it’s a term that’s based on contempt; it’s a term that’s based on fashion, style, elitism, satanism, and, everything that’s rotten about rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know Johnny Rotten… but I’m sure, I’m sure he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did. You see, what, what sounds to you like a big load of trashy old noise… is in fact… the brilliant music of the genius… myself. And that music is so powerful, that it’s quite beyond my control. And, ah… when I’m in the grips of it, I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Have you ever, have you ever felt like that? When you just, when you just, you couldn’t feel anything, and you didn’t want to either. You know, like that? Do you understand what I’m saying, sir?

Iggy Pop

My review of Katja From The Punk Band by Simon Logan is up now at SF Site.

Written by Martin

17 May 2010 at 08:29

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‘Prima Belladonna’ by JG Ballard

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This is Ballard’s first published story (1956, I believe, although it is listed as 1957 here) and, though I’ve read it before, it was still something of a shock since I am now more used to his later work. Although some of the tropes are already there – middle class professionals idling away time in hermetic resorts – the writing, particularly the dialogue, is much more slangy and snappy than we might expect, the vibe is the decadent boredom of Burroughs in Mexico. In essence this is Ballard before he became fixated on the Sixities and, unlike almost everything else he has written, it reads like the work of a young man.

As a bonus, here is a short film inspired by the story which I found on YouTube whilst looking for online criticism:

Quality: ****
Hardness: *

Somewhat predictably, this has Hartwell’s longest, most rambling and spurious introduction so far.

Written by Martin

16 May 2010 at 13:20

‘Transit Of Earth’ by Arthur C. Clarke

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A man sits on Mars, waiting to die and watching the transit of Earth. As Hartwell notes in his introduction, this sort of dying astronaut story is more associated with Ballard than Clarke. However, he pulls this mood piece off nicely.

Quality: ***
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

13 May 2010 at 09:51

32 Great Queen Street

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Well, that comprehensively obliterated the memory of S&M. Both restaurants ostensibly believe in the same thing – great British cooking – but whereas for S&M that means microwaving some mushy peas, for 32GQS it means sand eels, pig’s cheek and pickled rhubarb.

Since I am a decadent, cosmopolitan metrosexual I often start dinner with a glass of prosecco or, in this case, a glass of rhubarb and prosecco fizz. Nom nom nom. My mum’s house red, on the other hand, was “a bit rough” but followed up by a much better carafe of Douro. I failed to match her unit for unit with a half of Hullabaloo which, despite its lovely gingery colour, was surprisingly bitter for a cooper ale and a bottle of Stiegl, an Austrian lager that tastes a bit like Amstel. And then another rhubarb and prosecco fizz for pudding. Nom. N just had water as she felt her kidneys were in need of pampering.

For some reason we were feeling all continental and decided to share four starters between the three of us. Or sort of shared. The cutest of these was a soft-boiled duck egg in a little eggcup with a duck on it and five asparagus soldier. After burning my fingers on this I regressed to five and let my mum cut the top off. Then I wolfed down sticky, orange goodness and left the albumen for her. She, in turn, turned her nose up at sand eels, leaving me and the missus to tear through these. “They’re like whitebait” our lovely waiter helpful informed and so they were, albeit slightly milder, and they disappeared into a nice big splodge of aioli and thence into our gobs. Then I declined smoked mackerel and, judging by their comments, I was right to as it was clearly well fucking strong. I did try a bit of the pickled rhubarb it came with – a kind of British take on the way Scandanavians serve herring – and that was lovely. But then rhubarb always is. Finally, there was a plate of bell onions, tapanade and babaganoush which I would have been disappointed with as an individual starter because it is really more of a sharing snack. So it was perfect in these circumstances and they are very liberal with their bread (take note, other restaurants) so we had something to scoop it up with.

As you might have noticed the ingredients are little out of the ordinary, half way towards the nose to tail philosphy of somewhere like St John. This was even more noticeable – and exciting – with the mains, although there were quite a few options, including all the specials, that we unfortunately had to discard out of hand because they were for sharing (a good concept in the abstract, I reckon). Instead, N had skate wing in nettle and anchovy butter and said it was the nicest piece of fish she’d ever eaten. My mum had kid ragout which was a gigantic mound but when I tried a mouthful was amazingly delicate and zinging with mint. As for me, I went decadent again with scallops, peas and pig’s cheek. It was pretty much all my favourite things on a plate but as I forced in the final mouthful of delicious, gelatinous cheek I thought I might have overdosed on indulgence. I remember reading a question once about how cooking at a restaurant differed from cooking at home. The answer? More butter and salt that you can possibly imagine. In fact, if I had any criticism of 32GQS it would be that they really don’t hold back on the seasoning; our salt and pepper remained untouched and neither of my companions usually hold back.

£40 a head, all in, and that is a bloody bargain.

Written by Martin

12 May 2010 at 16:53

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Silence Is Golden

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Yes, it has been quite quiet here recently. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Despite illness, work, weddings and elections, I haven’t been entirely dormant though: I am now on that Twitter. I’m also planning to write something for SMS and start on Part Two of The Ascent Of Wonder.

And then there is food. I had an absolutely awful meal in the Islington branch of S&M, the sausage and mash restaurant that my work email filter blocks on the grounds of rudeness, at the weekend. As we were leaving we spotted an advert on the door seeking a chef, kitchen assistant and waitress so maybe that explains it. Tonight I’m off to 32 Great Queen Street – a restaurant without a name or a website – which is guaranteed to be much better.

Written by Martin

11 May 2010 at 15:58

Posted in food, short stories

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District 9

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I had been planning to review the shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation – Long Form category of the Hugos for Strange Horizons. That was before I saw Avatar and realised I had absolutely nothing to say about this idiotic, worthless film. So, instead, I thought I would post some thoughts about the films on the shortlist here.

Along with Avatar, District 9 was one of the two films I hadn’t seen before starting the process and it was a shock to my pre-conceptions. From what I had read, I had expected Neill Blomkamp’s film to be a promising but flawed debut; I hadn’t expected a work of such pervasive cinematic incompetence. Perhaps this is understandable in a first time director expanding his own short film, Alive In Joburg (2005), but then where was Peter Jackson who, as producer, received higher billing than Blomkamp? It starts with a great science fiction premise: a giant spaceship appears over the skies of Johannesburg but instead of a glorious moment of first contact there is only silence; when humanity forces its way into the ship, the alien inhabitants are disorganised and dying. The problem is not only the story Blomkamp uses this to tell and the way he tells this story.

The aliens arrived in 1982 and, by the time the film starts, twenty years later, there are over a million of them inhabiting the titular slum district on the edge of the city under the aspices of MNU, a private security contractor. As they grow the slum grows too big to contain, tensions between the “prawns” and the humans rise. This backstory is deftly sketched out in the form of a faux documentary, a venerable tradition – it is the ripping-off-a-plaster theory of infodumping – which works well here (even if it is presumably a legacy of the budget constraints of the original short film). Blomkamp then doubles down by making his protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), the subject of a documentary himself. Unfortunately these dual documentaries set up an interference pattern because it soon becomes clear that whilst this new ‘day in the life’ documentary is being told forwards as the bulk of the film, the extracts from the initial ‘talking heads’ documentary were filmed after the events of the movie. The idea is to set up some tension by foreshadowing that something major will happen to Van De Merwe but this is laboured and unnecessary; he is the protagonist, we know something major is going to happen to him. This sort of clumsy redundancy becomes a feature of the film.

The format does have some rewards. Copley – who also produced and starred in Alive In Joburg – gives a brilliant, naturalistic performance as the everyman MNU middle manager with inevitable David Brent-ish overtones. He is one of the best things about District 9 but he is a locus of realism in a film that otherwise has all the nonsense of a Hollywood shoot ’em up whilst taking place in a context (post-Apartheid South Africa) that makes the stakes for failure considerably higher. For example, nothing abot MNU makes sense from their mandate down to their name – Multi National United? Really? More importantly, the whole catalyst for the film – MNU’s resettlement of the district to a “reserve” hundreds of kilometres away – only makes sense if you consider it as exactly what it is: a direct analogy for District Six.

This was the designation of the Sixth Municipal District of Cape Town as a whites-only area in 1966 and the subsequent forced relocation of all non-whites. District 9‘s attempt to revisit this injustice means that while the aliens’ presence in Johannesburg starts as a nice piece of cinematic nose thumbing at American cultural hegemony, it quickly sees them being crudely bludgeoned into symbolic representations of black people. This deprives the aliens of any existence they might have in their own right and means we have, for example, the ridiculous spectacle of Van De Merwe going door to door serving eviction notices to the aliens on behalf of MNU. This is not to mention the problem of getting a bunch of aimless, scavenging drones who breed indiscriminately to stand in for black South Africans. This is a shame because the film is actually very strong on depicting prejudice and institutional racism. Early on Van De Merwe unselfconsciously defends the use of the term “prawns” as a slur because “that is what they look like” and is then filmed awkwardly bonding with his black colleagues. It is this which – if you are able to put to the back of your mind the fact that what you are watching is stupid and potentially offensive – makes the mass eviction serving an impressive piece of film making.

Unfortunately, we then have to snap out of our rigid analogy to accommodate a new film. One of the aliens is apparently less lazy and unintelligent than the rest of his species and has been secretly working on a plan for the last two decades to fix the mothership which has been hanging motionless overhead. This plot element is, in itself, very silly but it also shows that Blomkamp and co-writer Terri Tatchell haven’t thought ahead. This is the point where they have to abandon the documentary style as they need to show events elsewhere yet they do not abandon it entirely. This leaves the film an unsettling patchwork of styles with the continuing but sporadic uses of found footage increasingly unlikely and the talking heads increasingly superfluous.

Not long after this departure, Van De Merwe gets splashed with some magic fluid and the film barrels down its new trajectory as an action film. Van De Merwe goes straight home after his hard day’s work because – surprise! – he doesn’t bother to tell anyone he has been contaminated. MNU – surprise! – reveal itself to be a standard Evil Corporation hell bent on grinding Van De Merwe’s bones for bread in search of biotech profits. (Van De Merwe’s boss is also his father-in-law but that does stop him from cheerfully allowing himself to be filmed approving live vivisection. Bloody in-laws.) To survive Van De Merwe must – surprise! – team up with the clever alien, overcome his bigotry and learn important life lessons. It is remarkably hackneyed stuff, a painfully familiar blend of plot holes, clichés, sentimentality and blowing shit up. I said this was incompetent film making but perhaps a more charitable way of describing District 9 is as a film that runs on instinct. This is sustainable at the level of the individual scene but beyond that it disintegrates.

Written by Martin

11 May 2010 at 10:25

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The Compass

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Yeah, sorry, I went out for dinner again last night. I was making up the numbers and for any number of reasons I shold have stayed at home.

The Compass used to be The Salmon And Compasses, a pub done over as a trendy bar, where I used to go and neck Stella and listen to my friends DJ. I am now older and wiser and drink Amstel – that one percent makes all the difference – and the pub has similarly been given a mature make over as a gastropub. Actually, everytime I go in the dining room seems to have expanded so by now it is more gastro than pub (the kitchen is actually behind the bar).

I’ve eaten at The Compass before and it has everything you could want from a gastropub: good food, a nice spread of beers (bitter and lager), decent atmosphere and friendly (and attractive) bar staff. Last night everything seemed to go a bit wrong though. This was augured when I arrived by Snow Patrol playing in all their deafening, anthemic glory and a volume knob that seemed to be being twiddled at random throughout the evening. And is F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E. really dining music?

Anyway, I ordered steak because I was feeling braindead and unimaginative. The meat was well seasoned and cooked (though not quite as rare as I would have done it myself) but a bit fatty and I would hope for some more flavour from ribeye. As is compulsary in all gastropubs the chips were triple-cooked, there are good reasons for this and it does make a good chip. If done well. The Compass completely ballsed it, creating hollow, rectangular crisps. Maybe they should stick to twice-cooked in future. The final insult was the bearnaise which was far too buttery in both taste and consistency. The one thing they did get right was a good sized clump of watercress to accompany it. This really is the daddy of salad leaves and the perfect companion to a steak and they had set it off nicely with just a touch of bit of lemon.

The main point of interest, however, was my slightly bizarre, almost magnificent but ultimately sickly starter. This was cauliflower pannacotta with parmesan crisp on a bed of rocket. Pause to consider that. The first mouthful was delicious, the second – using the crisp as a delivery vector – was even better, with the third I ran into a problem: there was about 100g of cauliflour-flavoured cream, milk and sugar on my plate and nothing to go with it. I valiantly mashed it with my rocket but though it helped, it was a losing battle. As I reached the end, I was feeling slightly nauseous. All it need was some Melba toast or something and it would have been a triumph, instead it made me go a bit wrong.

Written by Martin

6 May 2010 at 15:56

Posted in food

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