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

Archive for July 2010

Inner Space

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On Sunday, I went down to the Southbank to see The Edges Of The World, the Ernesto Neto exhibition at the Hayward. It is a really fun experience, the whole think is imbued with a child-like sense of joy about the world, from the sculpture like a giant geometric toy to the colourful womb-like space the The fact you have to take your shoes off further breaks down your sense of adulthood and the actual kids were loving it.

Downstairs it was a bit more serious (but not much) at the New Decor exhibition which was essentially artists versus interiors. My favourite piece was actually the most serious: Jin Shi’s 1/2 Life which takes its inspiration from the explotation of migrant labour. In contrast, the rest of it was all rather playful (with mixed results – a lot of the Gelitin pieces looked like modern art cliches). Even the toilets got in on the act:

Arty Bogs

Is this part of the exhibit or is it always like this? Anyway, we wondered out into the sun to be confronted by a model favela outside. This was an installation artists Haas & Hahn, a sort of slum version of Home Sweet Home*:

Their social project ‘Project Morrinho’ is one that takes the form of a miniature city built by young people in Rio de Janeiro from brick, paint and other found materials inspired by the landscape, architecture and everyday life of the favelas that span the city.

In unwitting homage to the name of the project, some nob had extensively tagged it with Chelsea graffiti. This didn’t look particularly out of place though, the London kids invovled in making it obviously weren’t overly blessed with imagination.

Favela #1

Then it was across town to the V&A for 1:1 Architects In Small Spaces (hence the trip to Thai Square). Okay, I’ll be honest I was going there for one main reason: The Ark. It was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped but unfortunately none of my photos came out. So instead here is a picture of the equally awesome Ratatoskr (named after Drill Tooth, the Norse messenger squirrel). It was made by scanning twelve birch trees, digitally knitting them together and then cutting them out and combining for real. The result is incredibly impressive.

Ratatosk #2

The Beetle House was another favourite and has given me an overpowering urge to buy a shed and take a blowtorch to it. The exhibition is free and I would highly recommend getting down (the rest of the V&A is pretty amazing too). If you can’t, I’ve got a few more photos and you should check out the concept submissions online.

* My house is the red one with flowers coming out of it at the top left of that photo.

Written by Martin

29 July 2010 at 11:40

Green & Red, Moro, Thai Square

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Some time ago I was overcome by an overwhelming desire for Mexican food. There is a surprising paucity of it in London, it is much more of a tapas city, but a friend had been to Green & Red and recommended it. Right, I said, let’s do it. We’re busy and skint, said everyone I know, can we do it in July? I made a note of this and the plan was duly enacted on Friday.

The English aren’t very good at ordering Mexican or Spanish food. We are scared of being ripped off or going hungry or just looking like complete fish out of water. How many dishes should I order? Of what sort? So we started off very tentatively by ordering a platter of tacos. There were fourteen between the six of us and they disappeared in a flash. Emboldened but still wary, we then each ordered a main and a couple of sides; the original idea was to share the sides but I was planning to keep hold of mine. Since I was already planning to have pork on Saturday, I had lamb but since it seemed wrong to go to a Mexican restaurant and not eat pig I also ordered ribs and chicharron. The menu informed me that chicharron are “Mexican pork scratchings” and these were very much at the processed pub snack end of the spectrum rather than anything particularly authentic. Which is not to say they were unwelcome.

The mains all followed the same format: a pile of corn tortillas, a pile of protein, a bowl of dipping sauce. The majority of the table agreed with my choice of lamb and we were proved right, although the sauce could have done with a bit more pep. Chicken and pork also got the thumbs up. My wife, foolishly disdaining meat, went for seabass but found it disappointingly bland. I offered her a rib as compensation but she was not amused. She then had her revenge by instigating a chilli eating competion. Christ knows why she ordered them as a side but everyone was highly relieved that she had also ordered some cheese since it was the only thing that (barely) took the edge of their insane heat.

Green & Red is as much a bar as a restaurant and, ironically, it is the drinks I can remember best. I started with a Pommegranate Fizz which, as you might imagine, is pommegranate syrup and cava. With a shot of tequilla in it. This is much nicer than it sounds. They stock over two hundred different different tequillas and basically every drink is tequilla based. In a shocking oversight, the beer didn’t contain any tequilla. It did, however, contain lime, salt and tabasco. I thought this was surprisingly nice, a strangely compelling hybrid of lager and Bloody Mary. Others voiced the opinion that it just tasted like a dirty pint. Then I had something that had tequilla (surprise!) and grapefruit juice in it. Grapefruit is one of my favourite mixers but I’m not sure it works very well with tequilla. I then somehow got it into my head that a tequilla sour would be a good idea. The glass it was served in was so cold that the egg white had frozen solid and formed a seal over the booze. I looked at it for a bit then got out a pencil and gave it a vigourous stir. Having successfully gained access to the contents, I discovered it wasn’t very nice. I will stick to pisco sours in future. Still, I polished it off (along with my wife’s which she had turned her nose up at) and moved on to a safer choice: Negra Modelo. You will notice that over the course of the evening I failed to drink a single margaretia which was a bit remiss, particularly since they were heavily endorsed by the rest of the table. This all came to £50 a head which isn’t bad considering we were eating and drinking constantly for the whole of the evening.

I have been meaning to go to Moro for even longer than Green & Red. However, I am always overcome with this desire at the last moment – usually after Graham Sleight has tauntingly mentioned popping in for lunch – and Moro is very, very popular. This leads to a repeated phone conversation where I tentatively enquire about a table and a very polite member of staff doesn’t laugh in my face. So it was last Thursday until the end of the conversation when she asked if I was aware they offered the full menu at the bar. I wasn’t.

So I strolled down on Saturday to meet my wife who had been working all day, poor thing, and was in need of a treat. As I walked up Exmouth Market I started to get a bit anxious; I had thought half six was early and that it would be relatively quite at the weekend but no, the street was already suprisingly packed. The tables outside Moro were similarly full but thankfully everyone obviously wanted to make the most of the balmy evening air and I entered to discover to my relief that there was room at the inn. After those minor palputations (and the residual hangover from Green & Red) I needed a drink and, because I’m a creature of habit, this had to be a kir royale. Or a cava royale as they took scrupulous care to call it since Moro is, of course, a Spanish restaurant and they didn’t want to imply any French muck like champagne had crept onto the menu. Which made it slightly odd when it appeared to be made with a bottle of prosecco. Anyway, I didn’t particularly care about its provinance; with glass in hand, perched at the bar with my gorgeous wife, I suddenly felt utterly at home. We then leisurely feasted – and I don’t think feasting is overstating it – on almonds and Manchego as we watched the restaurant slowly fill with people far more organised than I.

When the kitchen opened at seven, we embarked on a bit of a mix and match dining experience, pairing a starter from the daily restaurant menu and with pimentos and fried chickpeas from the tapas bar menu. We fairly raced through the pimentos, leaving a rapidly growing pile of stalks behind, until just before the end when we hit a sleeper cell of fiery peppers of a previously unhinted at potency. We backed carefully away (the waitress said it was sheer chance, you can never tell which ones are going to be hot). The duller flavour of the chickpeas made a nice contrast with the salty sharpness of the peppers but I couldn’t help thinking they needed a bit of salsa with them. However lovingly prepared, a chickpea is not a particularly mouth-watering beast. The starter we shared was mushrooms and prawns in sherry on toast (the menu put it in rather more poetic terms but that was the gist). The mushrooms – okay, they were girolles – soaked up the colour and flavour of the sherry but each element of the plate managed to remain distinct whilst also in harmony.

As you will have gathered by now, I like pink drinks. This becomes socially acceptable in summer so we ordered a bottle of rose. It was adequate but not very exciting, too close to a white to be exactly what my palette needed. My wife’s main of baked mackerel, on the other hand, was exactly what the doctor ordered. It was one of the most beautiful plates of food I’ve seen: a Jackson Pollock riot of colour, like Spain poured on a plate, that managed to look not at all messy. She was mightily pleased.

I was less fortunate. As I mentioned, I had planned in advance to have the pork but the lamb did look awfully tempting. I stayed true and order the pork and regretted it. Whereas the lamb was cooked on a charcoal grill, the pork was cooked in a wood chip oven and unfortunately it was in there a bit too long. It tasted wonderful but it was a touch dry. It was also rather large and due to its size – and, let’s be fair, the fact I was having a right old natter with the missus – by the time I approached the end it was pretty cold. And cold pork is not a good thing, particularly if it was a bit dry to start with. It was served with chickpeas which weren’t mentioned on the menu and which would have caused be to think twice since the tapas had already used up my chickpea quota for the quarter. Happily, my wife is a hippy and likes nothing better than a legume so they were swiftly annexed to her plate.

So was this a disappointing end to the meal? Well, not really. When I said I felt at home, I meant it. As I put my last mouthful of pork to one side, I felt no urge to criticise; instead I felt the warm glow of happiness which is the whole reason I like to go out for dinner. Perhaps I should have been breathalysed by the review police on my departure but there you go. Not that I am being completely laissez-faire about it; at £60 a head, I would expect more. I will be back – I may even manage to book a table! – but I think I will be concentrating on the tapas side of things.

Thai Square, on the other hand, wasn’t a restaurant I had been actively wanting to go to but, since I like Thai food, it has got a good reputation and they have branches dotted all over town, it was only a matter of time. The opportunity came when we found ourselves trapped in Kensington, desperately in need of lunch. They had done their best with a site the size of a postage stamp and the service was pleasant but something obviously wasn’t right in the kitchen. I should have been tipped off when the couple next to us left abruptly half-way through their meal but we’d ordered by then. Salt and pepper squid was perfectly adequate, although the only notable thing about it was the generous bowl of chilli sauce. The pad thai, however… Well, if you can’t get that right, why are you running a Thai restaurant? Egg is an integral part but there was far too much here and it had only been sloppily tossed through the noodles meaning there were lumps of raw yolk. It was also far too sweet with the combined result that it tasted like the sort of thing and American would have for breakfast. To top it all off, the prawns were simultaneously muddy and watery. They were the type of prawns that I thought had been confined to provincial Chinese restaurants in the Eighties and had long since died a death.

I also made a tactical error of my own: I ordered a Thai iced tea. In my world, an iced tea is a lovely, refreshing beverage; the perfect thing after a morning spent pounding the humid London streets. But then I’ve never been to Thailand where apparently the ideal thing to add to cold tea is condensed milk. Since I generally spit my mouthful out in disgust if I accidently drink my wife’s tea which contains half a sugar, you will be unsurprised to learn I didn’t finish it. My wife had cunningly ordered a lychee tea from a section of the drinks menu I hadn’t even seen and that was lovely, although the glass was whisked away before she could finish the actually lychees themselves which she had been saving till the end as a treat. We took that as our cue, quickly paid the bill – £15 a head – and took to the streets, full but full of twisted egg wrong.

Written by Martin

26 July 2010 at 14:15

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‘Desertion’ by Clifford D. Simak

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One man and his dog swap their bodies for alien avatars and instantly go native because everyone knows life on Earth is inherently inferior.

Quality: **
Hardness: **

I have now reached p624 and the end is still nowhere in sight (although I have reached the end of the second – apparently entirely arbitary – section of the anthology). I think I need a break.

Written by Martin

26 July 2010 at 09:40

‘Time Fuze’ by Randall Garrett

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This isn’t even a story, it is a two page dramatisation of an idea. It does, however, have one good line:

Leicher could see that Benedict was upset; he rarely used the same profanity twice in one sentence.

Quality: **
Hardness: **

Written by Martin

23 July 2010 at 08:11

Inception (2010)

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Are you watching closely? Well, you don’t have to watch too closely because with Inception Christopher Nolan created an original film as accessible as his Batman films. Whereas Mememto and The Prestige are genuine puzzle pictures that make demands on the audience, Inception is simply an illusion, like the Penrose staircase which features in the film. In Memento, everything is one long reveal, a painful, painstaking drawing out of revelation which viewer and protagonist both struggle towards; in The Prestige, we are told the answer up front but through sleight of hand we are made to forget this; in Inception, we are merely talked through a series of (superbly) nested realities.

Am I complaining? No, not really. In terms of sophistication, it is a lesser film to the other two I have mentioned; however, as an achievement, creating an intelligent existential action thriller that is true summer blockbuster is a remarkable achievement. Basically, you couldn’t wish for a better director than Nolan to re-make The Matrix and he has done so with far greater style and wit. At the same time, I hope he manages to stay fresh. The tone, the construction, the score, the use of flashbacks, the playing with memory: this is all very familiar now. The denouement of all his films have been essentially the same. Nolan might be ploughing a unique furrow but how long before he gets stuck in a rut?

Written by Martin

22 July 2010 at 11:55

Posted in films, sf

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‘giANTS’ by Edward Bryant

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Remember that giant guinea pig story? This is the giant ant story. The thing is though, this story actually cares about niceties like square-cube law which makes a further mockery of the earlier inclusion of Breuer’s nonsense story. Bryant’s realism is welcome but the old male scientist and the young female reporter dynamic of the story is tired.

I didn’t actually understand the final sentence of the story at all though. It doesn’t really effect the overall story but if anyone out there has read it, I would be grateful for any enlightenment.

Quality: ***
Hardness: ****

By the way, that is a rotten title. I’m surprised he didn’t go the whole hog and call it ‘GiANTS’ by Edward BryANT.

Written by Martin

22 July 2010 at 11:11

Can I Make Things Better

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The shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize was announced yesterday and it was a bit of a damp squib. Not that it doesn’t contain a lot of good music but I can’t remember a more conservative list. As coincidence would have it, I have been absolutely rinsing the xx album (one of the shortlisted twelve) this week. It is the most immediate album I’ve heard in some time, an accessibility that isn’t at the expense of depth. It is also one of the most sensual. I remember someone telling be that Soulvaki by Slowdive was their favourite make out album at college and this is an album very much in that mold. You picture half-closed blinds, tiger-striping a room with morning light, full ashtrays, lethagy and lust. Regardless of this – and the fact the xx are bookies’ favourite – I will be sticking a fiver on Laura Marling.

Written by Martin

21 July 2010 at 09:53

‘Occam’s Scalpel’ by Theodore Sturgeon

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Not much of a story and not at all hard SF, as the introduction makes clear:

Although his stories made clever use of science, he was never known as an hard sf writer, but rather as the finest literary craftsman of his day in the genre… “Occam’s Scalpel” is on the edge of being not sf at all. There is no better example herein of what the writers of the fifties and later meant by “speculative fiction.” Strict Constructionists would rule it out.

This evasion and wriggle is symptomatic of the anthology. I am also pretty sure this is the first time the editors have used the term “Constructionist”. Anyway, ‘Occam’s Scalpel’ has a simple three act structure that we might describe as i) Planning The Job, ii) The Heist and iii) Post-Match Analysis. Each act is shorter than the one before and also provides diminishing returns to the reader.

A man (a doctor) visits his brother (another doctor) in the middle of the night. Their re-union and the lapsing back into the old, familar relationship is nicely done but can’t really compensate for the fact the first act is one great chunk of exposition taking up most of the story. We are then told the life story of one Cleveland Wheeler, a masterpiece of contrivance that spans the extremes of good and bad luck and makes clear that Wheeler could never be a real person. This is a shame after the deft characterisation of the brothers. We are being told all this because he is about to take over as boss at the company where the doctor currently works as personal physician to the existing (dying) boss. This company just happens to be the most powerful corporation on Earth and so – out of some stange sense of superiority? – this pair take it upon themselves make sure Wheeler will govern justly.

The doctor is now with Wheeler at the old boss’s cremation, deep in the second sub-basement of corporate HQ. Afterwards, he takes Wheeler aside and leads him through a secret passage to a chamber behind the furnace. Here he informs the new boss that the old boss was in fact an alien and then performs an autopsy to prove it. Again, the relationship between the two men is skillfully and economically sketched out by Sturgeon. This would be unremarkable in normal literary fiction but is unfortunately noteworthy in SF. However, the literary craftsmanship the editors refer to does not extend beyond dialogue and characterisation; obviously the old boss is not an alien, this is clear from the beginning. This leaves the only dramatic tension whether or not Wheeler will fall for the plan. Obviously he does.

The reason for the alien hoax is to convince Wheeler that the standard climate-changing pollution of the megacorp is actually a campaign of terraforming to make the planet more suitable for alien invasion and settlement. This is half nicely prescient, half traditional cobblers. If I was Wheeler, I suspect I would apply Ockham’s Razor rather different when considering the relative likelihood of this being evidence of a secret alien plan or a put up job as part of an internal power struggle.

Finally, we are back to the two brothers, toasting a job well done. Sturgeon starts by telling us that the second brother is a manufacturer of medical training dummies. Really? Oh, thanks for spelling that out. If the second act is telegraphed, the third is completely redundant.

Quality: **
Hardness: *

Written by Martin

20 July 2010 at 10:34

Cay Tre

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One of the joys of living in Hackney is the abundance of Vietnamese restaurants. Cay Tre is one of my favourite of these but I don’t actually visit it that often. This is because it is situated on Old Street, passed dozens of other, closer restaurants on Kingland Road and Mare Street but at ground zero for the Shoreditch night time economy. Its quality, location and modest size mean it is always rammed; when we arrived for our table at 9pm on Friday, the queue – as always – was out the door and there were plenty of people happy to stand there for twenty minutes to get a table.

Going out for Vietnamese is a pretty casual experience and is often plagued by two general flaws: overly long menus and lousy service. For example, it is sometimes hard to sort the wheat from the chaff perusing Tre Viet’s phone book-sized menu and the service at Huong-Viet is almost comically inept. Those are actually two of my other favourites but it does make the brisk economy of Cay Tre a breath of fresh air.

The compact menu allows them to showcase a large number of house specials which all have a nice little description below them (another rarity), even if this does sometimes tend to the cheesy such as describing shrimp fritters as “crunchtastic”. We still ordered them since they sounded intriguing, although with summer rolls (since that is pretty much the law) and salt and pepper squid (because we are greedy). I’m not sure when me and my wife fell into ordering three starters for the two of us – I think I was probably the insitigator – but we need to knock it on the head to avoid eating ourselves to death. This is particularly true at Cay Tre, where the starters are essentially the same size as mains.

Summer rolls are innocent enough – one for you, one for me, three bites and its gone, nom nom nom – and you can even pretend they are healthy (until you bang them into the toung xào and then scoop up the rest of the sauce with your finger). Then came a mound of batter and another mound of deep fried squid. Eep. Copious nouc cham was needed, I am now more convinced than ever that the shrimp is just a dirty prawn and by the end of it we both felt slightly ill. Enjoyably ill but I think we’ve learnt our lesson.

However, although we might have learnt our lesson for the future, we hadn’t invented a time machine. What about the mains? We were a bit apprehensive at this point, particularly since we had both ordered some of the most substantial items on the menu. My “very manly” pork belly was well named: massive chunks of fatty pork served with a dark, rich broth which it had obviously been stewing in for some considerable time since it was soft enough to cut with a spoon. It described itself as being blowtorched so I was hoping for crackling but this had obviously been only to sear the outside and provide a bit of colour as the fat was still, well, fat. I’m afraid this much lard was just too much for me to face. My wife’s catfish was similarly blubbery and intense. It was also slightly dangerous.

As I mentioned, it isn’t the biggest restaurant in the world and they pack in the covers with the result before you’ve progressed very far with your meal every inch of your tiny table is already covered with crockery. This requires a bit of shuffling at the best of times. When your catfish comes in a clay pot resting on a saucer of alcohol which the waiter deftly lights almost before you’ve noticed it has arrived, this shuffling becomes rather more urgent. “I’ve just lost all the hair off my arm,” my wife remarked mildly. The pay off for this is a dark sauce that thickens and caramelises as you (warily) watch. Delicious but, again, heavy on the palette. To further add to our gluttony, we have a long standing marital rice disagreement – I think steamed rice is pointless, she thinks its pointlessness is the point – which means we always unnecessarily order two bowls of rice. I think I’ve finally learnt my lesson on this too.

Somehow we made it onto the bus home but that was us done for the night. £29 a head, including service and two beers each. We will be back but we will be more cautious next time.

Written by Martin

19 July 2010 at 10:39

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‘All The Hues Of Hell’ by Gene Wolfe

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An archetypally constructed Wolfe story. You spend the first third trying to find your feet and understand the surface of the story. Then you spend the middle trying to work out the hidden depths beneath the surface. Then, just when you think you have a handle on things, the conclusion throws a spanner into things.

Quality: ***
Hardness: ***

Written by Martin

19 July 2010 at 08:02