Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Day 4, Rye and atomic Dungeness

We travelled a bit further out today, down to the southeast and the coastline around Rye and the Dungeness. We began with an easy hike around an SSSI adjacent to Rye Harbour ...

Day 4 Rye Harbour

The walk took us on an almost triangular route around a protected coastal ecosystem. The foreshore was a large shingle beach, almost certainly formed by longshore drift, and clearly still on the move judging from the dilapidated groynes all along it ...


The shingle was home to a rather strange cabbage-like plant that formed irregular sparse coverage. The plants were a little desert-like in their distribution, but I couldn't think of what might be limiting them and causing this pattern. Though the SSSI was ostensibly home to a range of rare and protected species (which were nicely illustrated by mosaics), we didn't really come across much obvious wildlife. We did see more goats again, however.

Much more obvious, though distant, were two sources of power generation on the coastline. Just south of Rye we could see a large array of wind turbines, although they weren't up to much as our visit coincided with slack winds. Further off in the distance was a series of rectangular buildings that related to an altogether different carbon-free technology ...

After completing our walk (7.4 km; 4.6 mi) we headed up to the town of Rye itself. It's a nice little maze of cobbled and car-hostile streets where, somewhat to our surprise, the novelist Henry James once lived. Though small, it has its own little castle (complete with balls) and a large and well-provisioned church. After grabbing lunch at a little collective supporting adults with learning difficulties, we did a bit of exploring ...


We then headed out towards Dungeness, stopping off along the way for a closer peak at the first of the area's non-fossil fuel power sources ...


Arriving at the rather desolately beautiful Dungeness headland, our first stop was Prospect Cottage ...


This is a "cottage garden" created by the film-maker and artist Derek Jarman. Being located in the alien environment of Dungeness and rising out of the shingle there, the garden is a rather bizarre version of the rural idyll beloved of chocolate boxes (and one well-provisioned with the "sea cabbages" already mentioned). I'm guessing that's what Jarman was after when he originally created it. Well, that and locating his homage to cosy English living in the evocative and seemingly threatening shadow of Dungeness nuclear power station ...


This is the first nuclear power station that I've gotten up close to, and the setting certainly helped amp up the atmosphere. Firstly, the desolate shingle gives the area the air of a science fiction world, helped when we visited by its framing with a grey sky and sea. Secondly, the area is populated either by small cottages surrounded by junk, or simply by large piles of seeming marine debris, including beached boats and battered shipping containers. These pile on the futurism by giving Dungeness an end-of-the-world feel that wouldn't be out of place in Half-Life 2.

Surprisingly, but at the same time not surprisingly, the area is host to a small community of artists, of which Jarman was once part (he may even have been in the vanguard, but I suspect not). While investigating the displayed works of one painter (Paddy Hamilton, we later discovered), we were invited into his studio and got the low-down on his work and inspiration. One of his series of paintings was of the vehicles that visited Dungeness. It transpired that these belong to a population of transients attracted to the cheap living and isolation of the headland. The paintings themselves were interesting, but the stories behind each gave them an unexpected depth.

All that said, the power station is a pretty anodyne feature. While we were wandering around there was essentially no discernible activity or noise from the station. Quite different from the industrial landscapes around my work, which are always busy or noisy or both. In fact, what activity there was stemmed from the fair number of curious visitors who'd travelled to the tip of the headland to see the reactor buildings. Perhaps because they didn't glow, but just invisibly and silently produced power, people tended not to stay very long, and neither did we. A flurry of photographs, and we headed back inland to Burwash.

Full set of photographs available here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Day 3, Brightling and Bexhill

Two main targets today: a walk based around the neighbouring village Brightling, and a trip to see the De La Warr Pavilion in the seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea.

Day 3 Brightling hike

We picked the Brightling walk from one of our books because it took in a number of follies built by the local 18th century eccentric John ("Mad Jack") Fuller. As his nickname implies, Fuller was regarded by some as a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but he was something of a rebellious MP and a strong patron of the arts and sciences, of which he supported, among others, J.M.W. Turner and Michael Faraday.

Anyway, our hike began at Brightling church, in the graveyard of which is a Fuller's final resting place, a large pyramid mausoleum ...


The walk went on to take in two further follies belonging to Fuller, a temple folly that now forms the centrepiece of a sheep pasture, and a tower folly that can still be scaled for views of Brightling and its surrounds ...


Again, the weather was very much on our side, and the walk took us over fields and through woods, passing goat farms and even crossing (twice) a rumbling, covered conveyor belt snaking its way through Brightling's rolling landscape ...


We could hear this gently grumbling through the forest long before we could see it. Apparently, it serves a neighbourhood gypsum mine. It certainly provided a more industrial feature of interest to counterpoint the more classical follies of Fuller.

Eventually (9.9 km; 6.2 mi), the work circled back on itself and brought us back to Brightling's church and Fuller's pyramid. Although the graveyard was providing dining for some local sheep (which now appears a common management strategy in East Sussex), the total absence of a bench (I know, I know) forced us to look a bit further afield for a lunch spot.

Fortunately, our route to Bexhill-on-Sea took us through a number of small villages and we eventually found the lovely St. Lawrence Church on a hill in Catsfield ...


It wasn't the first church that we stopped at though - but it was the first one that hadn't been deconsecrated and turned into someone's home. C had got as far as sitting down and getting the sandwiches out before we spotted that our first church's "graveyard" was lacking in headstones but did have a washing line ... oops.

After lunch we headed down to the seafront at Bexhill-on-Sea, and visited (probably) the town's most famous attraction: the beautifully Art Deco De La Warr Pavilion ...


C had been wanting to visit this for years but we'd never quite made it far enough east (the A27 being pants). Although I like Art Deco, I've often found that famous buildings I've gone out of my way to find are somewhat disappointing when finally encountered in the flesh, so I wasn't in a huge rush to see the Pavilion. But I must admit that I was pretty impressed in the end. As well as being uber-stylish - with a cylindrical glass front that houses a spiral staircase and some dangling modernist sculpture - its recent refit has given it a real polish. We actually caught it inbetween exhibitions, but just as well really - the building was cool enough to justify wandering around it without trying to take in any art on top.

Unfortunately, Bexhill-on-Sea doesn't have a whole lot else to see (or, rather, nothing that we could see), so we headed for home after finishing our photoshoot of the Pavilion. On the way back we hit another church, Mountfield. Among other details, this had a great Millennium Window with a lovely modern detail ...


Full set of photographs available here.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Day 2, Battle and Bodiam

East Sussex is probably best known in the Britain for its connection with the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This year is probably the most significant, well, memorable, date in British history ... for reasons that (me being from Scotland) are largely mysterious. Today's hike was centred on the town that now exists adjacent to the battle site, the appropriately-named Battle, and took us to Battle Abbey, a memorial to the battle built by the winning side. I'm still not entirely sure why this particular battle is such a tectonic shift in British history (hadn't we been conquered by the Romans previously? aren't we currently "ruled" by an alien royalty?), but I can at least say that I've walked all around the hillside on which the battle took place.

Day 2 Battle walk

We started bang in the centre of Battle but got out of the town in fairly short order, heading northeast. This time the GPS unit had remembered out track so, with a few minor deviations, we stayed close to the plan. This was helped by rather obvious path markers like this one ...


After a short deviation immediately after this railway tunnel, essentially we walked the wrong way around a sewage farm, the walk was pretty uneventful. A long stretch of it was through the bottom end of some impressively large gardens attached to equally impressively large houses, much, I'm sure, to the displeasure of their clearly moneyed owners. The outgoing leg, to a small village called Sedlescombe, took us mostly through fields, while the return leg was a largely forested affair. Quite a long walk (16.6 km; 10.3 mi), but cloudy weather kept it comfortable.

Eventually, we circled back to Battle ...


The town is pretty much dominated by the abbey built to commemorate the battle, and though we'd already walked quite far, we figured that we couldn't possibly visit the town without doing the history.


It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I'd originally feared. After a short film setting the scene, we took a walk around the battle site guided by a surprisingly entertaining audioguide.

Usually I'm extremely skeptical of these devices because they turn art gallery visitors into inconsiderate view blockers, but here there was no risk of that, and the commentary was well-written and actually quite amusing in places. For instance, after introducing an impressive, if tumbledown, portion of the abbey, the speaker delighted in undercutting our perceptions by revealing it as the toilet block.

And though even the geography of the site has changed somewhat since the battle, keying the commentary to particular locations still gave the listener an idea of where key events took place. The key event, of course, was the felling of King Harold, ostensibly by an arrow to the eye, an event we couldn't resist replicating on the very site where Harold (allegedly) fell ...


After leaving Battle we headed home by way of a couple of stops. We caught a really nice church in Salehurst with what we thought was a novel solution to graveyard lawn maintenance ...


Our last stop was nearby Bodiam Castle, something of a total castle stereotype. Not content with classic turrets and slit-like windows for shooting arrows out of, it's also surrounded by a (duck-infested) moat crossed by a drawbridge. Still, it made for a photogenic end to our day out.


Full set of photographs available here.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Day 1, Burwash botch

Today's jaunt (10.7 km; 6.6 miles) took us on a quasi-circular walk that actually began at our holiday home's front door ... at least, that was the plan.

Day 1 Burwash walk

After heading out southeast from Burwash, the walk's first point of interest was Bateman's, home of the British writer Rudyard Kipling for a good part of the early 20th century ...


So far, so good. Unfortunately, things went a bit awry after this point. Although I'd programmed the walk's route into the GPS, a memory problem meant that it had vanished by the time we started out. This shouldn't have been a problem given that we had a walk description and a map of the route. However, shortly after Bateman's a mistake interpreting said description set us on the wrong path. Unfortunately, though we were very much on the wrong path (as shown here), we were still able to stretch our book's instructions to match our surroundings. This seems to be something that we excel at, and our contortions to (mis)match words with what we see around us can be pretty impressive.

After about 15 minutes, we finally clocked our mistake, by which point we were the best part of a mile from its genesis. Reasoning that we could use our map to correct for mistake number one, we dutifully trudged onwards and into making mistake number two. Actually, we did get ourselves briefly onto the right path, but somehow managed to overshoot it. After winding up in an unexpected field, we despaired and thought about tracing our steps, but gave the walk one final chance to come good (it was a close thing). This time our luck was in, and after clambering over some barbed wire fencing, we got ourselves back on track.

In the end, the walk was actually a rather nice fields and forests affair, and with the weather so good it was easy to be forgiving of our mistakes. Aside from Bateman's, which a final late mistake saw us accidentally gatecrashing without paying, it was really just a nice jaunt in the English countryside. It did bag us our first oast house though ...


After recovering from our unexpectedly extended walk, we had a look around Burwash itself. It's more-or-less a one street town, with a just few short lanes padding it out. As is pretty much de rigueur for English villages, it had a great church in it, so there was much photographing of stained glass windows ...


After the previous evening's vegetarian-stretching dinner on the town, we opted to try out the barn's self-catering facilities. We also raided its video library for the evening's entertainment. Unfortunately, we'd seen almost everything worth watching, so against our better judgement plumped for an unknown Russell Crowe vehicle dealing with an ice hockey team from the polar wastes of Mystery Alaska. But, much to our surprise, it was actually perfectly acceptable entertainment. Totally generic, but very capably done. And served well by a good heart and some choice profanity.

Full set of photographs available here.

Burwash Barn

As of late yesterday, we're on holiday in Burwash, East Sussex, another of our 2009 staycations. Previously we've done Scotland and Wales, but this is the English leg of our UK travels this year.

Anyway, so far so good. The place we're staying, a converted barn, is fantastic. As well as being really attractive, the owners have kitted it out with virtually everything you'd need. To use a cliche, it's practically a home from home. We've even got wi-fi, and we arrived to find a cake waiting for us.


As we arrived relatively late in the day, we didn't have much time last night for anything other than a nice chat with the owner and a trip to the nearly adjacent pub, the Rose And Crown, for dinner. Which, in passing, was really quite good, despite the traditional lack of vegetarian options (well, I say that having had the "trio of sausages" dish). Getting back to the barn, I noticed the disconcertingly low light-pollution, so tried to take a star trails photograph, with mixed results ...

Burwash Startrails 1b

The air was rather damp last night, so as time passed, the lens got more and more condensation, with the result that only one really bright star was visible throughout the whole exposure period. Still the gradually fading trails work quite well.

Up early this morning to try for a local hike. Unsurprisingly given last night's condensation, dawn was nice and misty, especially in the valley below us. So out came the camera again. Here are our neighbours at the bottom of the garden, complete with a view over the sea of fog ...


Thursday, 24 September 2009

Ducks and Suppression

It's been a while since I reported on the ducks, but as I'm off on holiday next week, an update's in order.

Despite their advanced state of development, they've still not made the slightest foray off the ground and are still waddling around the quad. As of today, there are seven "ducklings". Five remain from the original batch of survivors, and they're indistinguishable from adults now. And there are two from the later batch; while they still have a bit of duckling in their feathering, they also look just like adults to a first glance.

But there's been more duck news this week.

The quad is due to be re-landscaped during the winter, and one of the future developments will be a proper pond. However, furious debate has arisen about whether the ducks will continue to be fed in the future. Although attrition is particularly high in the quad (less severe this year than last), year-on-year the number of ducks that returns to breed is rising. So there's been heavy discussion between "stakeholders" (estates, duck-feeders, duck-lovers) about the pros and cons of continually incrementing the quad's population. My contribution to this discussion has been to point out that, even with feeding, duck mortality is pretty high, apparently through inter-brood competition (= murder by competing mother ducks). Anyway, it's now been decided that the ducks won't be fed in future years, so that their numbers can equilibriate (Malthus-style) to the quad's unassisted carrying capacity. But, in order to avoid drawing attention to future duck famines (and their attendant PR disasters), I've been instructed not to report duck activity on our local e-mail distribution list, nor send around pictures of cute ducklings.

As I basically concur with the no-feeding decision, I'll be going along with this strategy. It'll be interesting to see how long the news blackout can hold - a lot of offices look down into the quad ...

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Personally sacred

I got a really special item today courtesy of APM. Until last year, he shared an office with Mike Fasham, but just this week he's moved to a new one. As part of the move, he's been sorting through and organising Mike's remaining papers and books at NOCS. Through of the generosity of Mike's family, some of us have been lucky to acquire some of the scientific reprints and texts from his library (including a copy of the oceanographic bible, Tracers in the Sea). Thanks to careful sifting by APM, I've now got a copy of one of Mike's first scientific papers, originally published way back in the year that I was born. But today I got something even more special.

Way back in the mists of time, I wrote my PhD thesis based almost entirely around the description, in a review chapter, of a plankton model that Mike once wrote (Modelling the marine biota, 1993). Anyway, today APM found me a near-final draft of the chapter, complete with comments from both Mike and one of his colleagues. It's a really significant item for me, being both a connection to Mike and to my earliest, and most significant, introduction to plankton modelling. It's just great.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Paper anniversary

It's the second anniversary of Strange News From The Plankton! So a second opportunity to reflect on the success or otherwise of this project. First up, this year has been slightly more successful in numbers of posts, up from 120 to 135. And this increase has been achieved despite a decline in the number of duck posts, down from 42 to 18 in spite of a more robust quad population. The balance between fiction and science fiction has also tipped in a more positive direction, although only if I lump the crime genre in with more literary reads. Still, I think I'm dodging the pulpier end of this most popular of genres for now. Another plus point has been a bit of an increase in the science content, with even a couple of items on the planktonic side. Still, given it's my job, I could probably do a lot better. And I was quite pleased that I managed to sort out at least one holiday blog this year - we're off to East Sussex / Kent next week, so I'll have another opportunity to try my hand at that. On the downside, despite my protestations last year, there's still very little sign of any of the cleverer content I occasionally think about but never write (cf. the manifesto). My idea of a "How did I get here?" series is still very much confined to my head, while I've not properly formulated any ideas for more formalised projects (well, at least ones that are plausible enough to share). Still, as ever, there's always time. Strange News can continue for now.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Revolution Management 101

After missing it during an annoyingly short run at the cinema, we finally caught the second part of Steven Soderbergh's biographical film Che, about the eponymous Argentinian revolutionary. It provides an solid counterpart to "Part 1" (which we saw a couple of months ago), and its contrasting story paints a diptych of revolutionary case studies, the first a tale of success, the second a tale of failure. While "Part 1" shows the rising arc of Guevara's career, culminating in the successful liberation of Cuba, "Part 2" shows the declining phase, ending in his ignominious execution in a cottage in Bolivia.

It's interesting to view the films as commentary on how to, and how not to, run a revolution. In Cuba, the revolutionaries, most of whom are Cuban (though not Guevara), are seen positively and supported by the oppressed population. In Bolivia, by contrast, the revolutionaries, none of whom are Bolivian, are viewed suspiciously by an indigenous population so downtrodden that it seems almost oblivious to its oppression. So while Cuba is ripe for revolution, Bolivia is barren soil for the revolutionaries.

However, as it is basically documenting the inevitable (from our future perspective) decline and loss of Guevara's small band, "Part 2" is a rather sombre affair, for which the end is well-known. That said, it's still compelling to watch. Del Toro's Guevara is still a magnetic, if brooding, presence, and much like "Part 1", the film is more like a documentary than a dramatisation in its presentation of biography. Apparently, Soderbergh was aiming for a film that showed what it was like to hang around with Guevara, and I can see that.

Again, what mostly comes over is Guevara's rather professional attitude to revolution; he's certainly single-minded. But he's also painted as unwaveringly even-handed with his fellow revolutionaries, and respectful of the civilians he encounters, for instance ensuring that they're paid for supplies he and his troops acquire. Although, admittedly, the screenplay is drawn from his own diaries, so might be a tad self-serving. As a result, the Che from this pair of films is a much less romantic, or perhaps less romanticised, figure than the wide-eyed young doctor of The Motorcycle Diaries. But this presentation of an older Guevara is (in my ignorant opinion) probably the more realistic one, and one that may cause less mouth-foaming indignation from his counter-revolutionary enemies.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Quarantine Mechanics

Perhaps I should have learnt from my most recent experience of him, but I was sufficiently intrigued by the backcover blurb that I couldn't resist checking out Quarantine by the Australian novelist Greg Egan.

The novel is set in the late 21st century, 33 years after the appearance of the Bubble, a strange, impenetrable barrier that isolates Earth's solar system from the surrounding space and which obscures the stars. While the physics, purpose and creators of the Bubble defy explanation, many ideas have been advanced for its appearance, and it has inspired violent religious cults that have rocked society with terrorist acts.

Nick Stavrianos is a former policeman, and a widower because of one cult's actions, now operates as a private detective in Australia. Originally because of his work, but now additionally because of his loss, he is augmented with mods, nanomachine-delivered modifications to his nervous system that manage all facets of his life, from those that permit direct technology interfacing to those that allow him to control his perception and moods. One mod, Karen, even creates a visual and auditory hallucination of his eponymous dead wife, one which advises and chastises him in equal measure.

Nick's latest case concerns the disappearance of a 32 year old patient from a secure facility for the mentally-handicapped. The woman, Laura, doesn't appear to fit the profile for a kidnapping victim, and is only missed by her surviving family because her vanishing may represent a financial reward for the facility's negligence. Nick's initial investigations uncover little beyond Laura's predisposition for brief periods of disappearance, but as he delves deeper he uncovers an electronic trail of evidence that points to her illegal transport to the north Australian city-province of New Hong Kong. Following this leads Nick to infiltrate the corporate headquarters of Biomedical Developments International, BDI, where he briefly encounters Laura before he himself is captured.

Waking up, he finds that his portfolio of mods has been extended with the addition of a loyalty mod, Sentinel, that makes him a willing slave of BDI. With his particular background, he's of use to them as a security guard in a project they're undertaking based on their analysis of Laura. Her ability to escape secure accommodation is just the tip of an iceberg of talent that BDI have reverse-engineered into a new mod, Ensemble, that breaks new ground in quantum mechanics (QM). By interfering with normal human brain function and preventing wavefunction collapse (via a version of "consciousness causes collapse"), the mod allows its user to "smear" their reality, such that they can choose the outcome of events from the wide array of possibilities presented by the quantum nature of reality. In this way, the user operates somewhat like a quantum computer in which the "correct answer" to a problem is found by sifting all of the possible subjective experiences of the user, and then collapsing the user's wavefunction so that only this one answer is made objectively real.

Though this all seems impossible at first to Nick, the demonstration of Ensemble's power by the researcher/test subject Po-kwai, convinces him of its reality. But its potential for misuse, and its possible connection to the Bubble, gradually forces him to act despite Sentinel.

The above description does something of a quantitative disservice to the novel. The conventional part of the novel, that bit prior to the arrival of QM, only makes up about a third of the book, while the crazy-ass, reality dysfunction of Ensemble requires the final two thirds of Philip K. Dick-esque mindfuckery. To be fair to Egan, his flavour of reality distortion is quite unlike that of PKD. The latter's seemed entirely drug-fuelled, and allowed his novels to forsake coherence and conventional narrative structure, instead replacing them with a heightened sense of paranoia and alienation. Which is why, for all of the clever ideas that sometimes underpin PKD's books, I can't really stand them. By contrast, Egan's deconstruction of reality is firmly rooted in one of the many interpretations of QM, and is both cleverly thought-through and logically coherent. Much to Egan's credit.

However, it makes for an extremely confusing and challenging read. I said something similar of the last of his novels that I read, but the problem here is of a much greater magnitude. In Schild's Ladder, the difficult bits could be skipped since they didn't prevent the reader from generally getting the jist of the story. Here, after an initially conventional science fiction backstory and opener, the novel goes off at the deep-end to such a degree that it's difficult to make head-or-tail of a large and significant chunk of what's going on. While Egan is pretty descriptive (generally in a good way), I don't think I really got to grips with Ensemble until I started this review and had to think about what it was I'd just read. None of which makes for a positive prognosis for most readers I'd imagine. Those with a better grip of QM will probably make better weather of it, but I found the ideas and descriptions so dense that, at times, they passed through me as if I was skim-reading the book.

Aside from the difficulty of hurdling a key plot device from the deeply non-intuitive world of QM, the delving into Ensemble gradually pushes the novel's early concerns for the Bubble and Laura far into the background. While there are late digressions to tackle both of these, Egan's attention has clearly switched to thinking through the implications of his QM conceit. By the end, I was pretty sure that Laura and the Bubble were connected (a fact that I had actually immediately grasped from their close ages), but the "smearing" of reality left things considerably more opaque than one would desire.

One of the odd things about Quarantine's jack-knife turn into the ultimate nature of reality, is that it sort-of undoes what's an otherwise interesting future that he's carved out. From the get-go the idea of the Bubble is a fantastic one, and one that Egan runs with for a while. The consequences, political, philosophical and theological, of the sudden imprisonment (or is it protection?) of humanity are all touched on, and I was genuinely surprised that Egan largely left them to twist in the wind. Similarly, in introducing mods to the reader, he opens the reader to the idea that subjective experience could be as easily modified as a computer's screensaver. The early descriptions of Nick's use of his mods are quite brilliant, from the controlled use of his old police mods to focus on the case, to the disruptive appearance of Karen and its subtext on his (mis)handling of his own grief. But all of these carefully constructed details feel somewhat sacrificed when Egan hits his QM-stride.

So, again, a mixed experience from Mr. Egan. Despite the difficulty navigating the deeply counter-intuitive core of the novel, and with Egan's increasing disinterest in the book's early plotting, it's hard not to be drawn in and impressed by just how far he pushes QM as a narrative device. Even if it does seem as if he ultimately lost his way in telling the tale. I'll be getting back to him at some point, I've no doubt, but I'll leave him be for a bit just to give my head a bit of a rest.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

One Night In Beastly

My erstwhile nitrification colleague, APM, is getting married. Hurrah. And while we're all too old for the dubiously sexist activities typically associated with stag nights, making something of a day of it was very much still an option. Unfortunately, my left wrist has been playing up again recently (a gardening injury; no, really), so I was forced to miss the day's main activities: quad bikes and dune buggies. However, I was able to join the party for an evening's dining and drinking in the much maligned (by me, mostly) town of Eastleigh. A surprisingly restrained and (unsurprisingly) enjoyable evening resulted, for which I took far too many photographs.


Saturday, 12 September 2009

What goes around comes around?

One of the interesting side effects of the success of The Wire is the bump in profile of a number of crime writers who have written for it. Authors who formerly would only ever have surfaced at genre conventions or passed unmentioned at the top of best-sellers lists, now get interviewed on arts programmes on the television or radio. These have included Richard Price (who I've reviewed here before), Dennis Lehane (who I haven't) and George Pelecanos, who I've read before but for whom this, The Turnaround, is the first review.

Set in poor and poorer districts of Washington DC, the novel begins in the 1960s where teenage Alex Pappas is working in his father's Greek diner and looking forwards to college. Hooking up with some hot-headed friends one day, they drive to a neighbouring black district where their paths cross with the brothers James and Raymond Monroe, and the sociopathic Charles Baker. However, after precipitating a racist incident, Alex and his friends find themselves on the receiving end of an assault by the Monroe brothers and Baker, an event that changes the direction of their lives, and which ends the life of Alex's friend Billy. The novel then flash-forwards to the present-day, where Alex now tends his long-dead father's diner, college not having been part of his future after all. James now works as a physiotherapist with disabled veterans, while worrying about his own son serving in Iraq. Meanwhile, Raymond, convicted of the fatal assault, struggles to hold jobs and orbits too closely to Baker and his life of petty crime and thuggery. A chance meeting between Alex and James triggers the latter into making a reconciliatory connection. But Baker sees an opportunity for making a fast buck from his former victims, and drags Raymond into his plans.

This is really a crime-and-consequences novel. While it begins with a fatal crime and spirals around the preparation for a further one, it spends much of its time dwelling on the various consequences that its characters have experienced since they were brought together in their youth. And it succeeds at this really well. The quite different life paths of Alex, James and Baker are fleshed out nicely, and following them over just a few weeks puts a real shape on the lives that they've flopped into or carved out for themselves. Though Alex is arguably the central character, James' desire to forge a connection with Alex and to get some sort of closure on the past crime makes him the novel's moral core. Baker serves as the novel's "free parameter", a perennially criminal wheeler-dealer whose actions jeopardise James' plans. Although, even here, the novel pauses to consider his life and the forces that have shaped his apparent "choices".

One slightly odd detail in the novel is that it transpires that the exact perpetrators of the original crime are not those who are punished for it. The novel at first appears to make this clear early on, but then seems to muddy things by keeping coy to make Alex's later discovery of this an Event. I may have just misread it on this point, of course.

Anyway, overall a pretty solid piece of writing. While confined to the genre ghetto, a lot more character-driven and a lot less formulaic than convention (and, in fact, the last Pelecanos I read). Although, as implied already, not entirely surprising from someone who's written for The Wire.

Monday, 7 September 2009


Caught a great piece of biological trivia the other day on the radio thanks to David Attenborough (as part of his Life Stories series).

Penguins, apparently, are not the first birds to bear the name. Prior to the 19th century, populations of the Great Auk occurred all over the North Atlantic wherever there were remote islands that protected them and their eggs from land-dwelling predators. The Great Auk was actually classified by Linnaeus as genus Pinguinus from one of its common names. Anyway, when sailors finally made their way to southern hemisphere locations such as Antarctica, they named the flightless aquatic birds that they found there after the Great Auk, to which they bear a resemblance but have no close evolutionary relationship.

The sad side to this story is, of course, that the Great Auk is no more. Much like the more famous flightless Dodo, the Great Auk didn't have a chance when we turned up on the islands that it nested on. If we didn't hunt it down directly, the assorted animals that accompanied us on our travels around the world did the job for us. As a result, it never saw the end of the 19th century.

Anyway, fascinating but dispiriting at the same time.

The Curious Case Of A Dreadful Film Lined Up For An Oscar

Last night we had the misfortune of catching up with one of the 2008 Oscar winners, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Admittedly, it did only win in more technical categories, but it was originally nominated across the board. I'd like to know why.

While I'd expected an overly sentimental tale of doomed love set against a backdrop of 20th century events (à la Forrest Gump; whose screenwriter ponies up the "goods" here), I hadn't expected that so little could be stretched so far, nor that the resulting film would be so incoherent (especially given the director's previous Brad Pitt-led successes with Se7en and, especially, Fight Club).

What was originally a slender short story has bizarrely ballooned to almost 3 hours here. Scenes which communicate practically nothing by way of either narrative or character are unfathomably stretched, while the film paradoxically appears to leave other threads on the cutting room floor. For instance, two ostensibly important characters from Button's early life, a charming pygmy and an aged piano teacher, are given a modicum of screentime only for their contributions to evaporate inexplicably. The portentous departure of the pygmy is crying out for some follow-up, while the piano-playing learnt by Button makes but a brief appearance near the end of the film.

The film's framing device also completely over-eggs things with an overly dramatic "present-day" portion set in the midst of Hurricane Katrina. This framing also messes up the chronology as when an old-but-capable Daisy nurses a dying Benjamin in 2003 suddenly flashes forward to a gnarled, at-deaths-door Daisy a mere two years later.

Though its political subtext is dubious in the extreme, Forrest Gump at least stuck to a sensible narrative structure, and did manage to sneak some well-placed humour in with the special effects. Here, it's as if the special effects scenes were done first with the narrative a quick cut-and-paste job to get the viewer between them. And even then, while some of the effects are successful, the digital artists appear unable to portray a vigorous, young Brad Pitt as easily as they can the decrepit, aged version. As a result, Pitt spends a suspiciously long chunk of the film looking like (or close to) his actual age.

And all of these flaws sit on top of the larger one of the film's meaning. Beyond the "doomed love" theme I've already alluded to, it's difficult to discern any deeper thought in the film (beyond a generic "carpe diem"). In part this may be because the device at the core of the film, Button's reversed ageing, instantly makes his trials and tribulations difficult to empathise with. But I'd have thought a screenwriter with 3 hours to play with would have been able to manage more than this.

Still, it netted the filmmakers 11 Oscar nominations (of which it won 3), so who am I to say they stole 3 hours of my life that I'm not getting back?

P.S. In perusing the IMDb to find out more about the film, I did discover that I share my birthday (and obviously nothing else) with Brad Pitt. He's exactly 8 years my senior.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The First Amendment

When I was 17 I turned a corner. After thinking about it for the better part of a year, I decided that I was faithless, that this was a natural and progressive thing, and that in due course the rest of the world would similarly come to its senses and "snap out of it". This was all a long time ago and since then I've come to realise that my evolution was personal, and that its completeness was not (as I then thought it was) a feature of the wider world writ small. The Abstinence Teacher by the American novelist Tom Perrotta is his attempt to explore the persistence and growth of religion in contemporary American life (at least according to this interview in the A.V. Club).

The novel begins with Ruth Ramsey, a popular sex education teacher and divorced mother to two daughters, being chastised by her school board after making some seemingly innocuous remarks in her classroom about oral sex. This reprimand is followed by the advance of a pro-abstinence agenda into her lessons, a development that both challenges Ruth's progressive values and her commitment to teaching her students a truthful account of sexual practise and health.

Meanwhile, Tim Mason, a popular football coach and recovering addict, is coming to terms with the temptations of his old life and his new beginning with Christ. Carried away by a victory on the pitch, Tim gathers his teenage players in prayer only to incur the ire of Ruth, mother to one of Tim's star strikers. This receipt of wrath from one quarter is counterbalanced by his church's warm approval in another. But Tim is not entirely unquestioning of his new-found grace and his new life with a devoted young wife.

Thrown together as combatants in the larger culture war, Ruth and Tim first come to a frosty agreement, but despite their differences both feel a certain frisson from contact with the other side. A feeling that is strangely exacerbated as their personal wars become ever more enflamed.

As intimated above, the themes of this novel are perennially interesting to me, so after originally hearing about the book a while back I've been looking forwards to reading it. As it happens, I've come across Perrotta before in the cinema with Election and Little Children, both of which I enjoyed (though the latter is somewhat more challenging). And so it was with this novel, although with certain qualifications.

One of the things that's enjoyable about the novel is also one of its weaknesses. Although the novel initially sets up the two central characters seemingly in opposition and whets the appetite of the reader for a stand-up fight, Perrotta gradually softens the divide between them by fleshing them out and making them more human. Ruth's uncompromising liberal views are melted somewhat by her insecurities and her desire for a partner in life. Tim is quite swiftly transformed from a seeming paragon of faith into a man dogged by his old addictions and coming round to the idea that Jesus might just be a new one. As such the culture war becomes more of a culture tiff between the characters, with the wider war relegated to the sidelines and to characters that the reader can easily dislike but which there's little investment in. But this warm treatment of its characters tends to make the novel quite comfy and enjoyable even if it does dissipate its heated premise. By the time that the novel's slightly ambiguous ending rolls around, any remaining opposition between the characters has been replaced by compassion, and by an incipient passion. Not quite what I signed up for.

I suspect (and C co-suspects) that Perrotta originally intended for a novel with a more confrontational dynamic at its core, but found that he just didn't have the heart (or ability) to write from the perspective of an uncompromising Christian. Tim is clearly the sort of Christian that woolly liberals are going to be comfortable with. Though his introduction is an inflammatory display of public worship, he is revealed to otherwise be quite liberal in his outlook, with progressive views on homosexuality and a somewhat accommodating resolve when it comes to everyday frailties. And Perrotta probably goes a bit far in making Tim self-aware of his substitution of Jesus for his old vices, that could have been more subtext-y. In fact, it almost gets to the point where Tim's faith loses credibility with the reader, something that's detrimental to the novel's exploration of the core issues. As such, while Perrotta may have intended to write a novel of interest to both "sides", the result is a novel that essentially sides with progressive (Christian or otherwise) values. A hardline faith-warrior is unlikely to draw anything from this book other than confirmation of the weakness of the liberal outlook. Or something. But, as I say, it's still enjoyable.

One area where the novel is more obviously weak is its writing. Perrotta's prose comes over extremely flatly. Description and characterisation, while serviceable, do read rather passively, with the latter largely being done through events and heavy-handed remembrances. Generally, the novel works more on its ideas than its literary merit (even if it does soft pedal on these). That said, Perrotta does include a number of choice comedy moments, including a great session at an abstinence education training event where Ruth and her co-offenders tear strips off the faith-based ideology.

Overall, fun, but not the novel I was expecting. However, it would be a far more challenging and less palatable read were an unwavering religious character to be at the novel's centre. Not a novel I think Perrotta is ready to write, possibly ever.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

A night with David Byrne

Much belated, and further to an earlier post, I caught a David Byrne concert last month in Southampton's Guildhall.

Though I've loved the music of Talking Heads for years (well, decades), they've been defunct for almost the whole time; split into David Byrne and everyone else. As reconciliation seems extremely unlikely, at least judging from press items, seeing Byrne solo seemed to afford the best chance of catching some of my favourite songs.

Though Talking Heads have been out of commission since the early 1990s, Byrne has kept himself pretty busy with his own solo work plus a series of art and film/theatre projects. He's also continued to tour intermittently, and his current tour is centred around his joint album with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Eno is absent on the tour, and instead Byrne is touring with a small company (about 11 in total) of musicians, singers and dancers. The latter initially provoked confusion / consternation when they appeared on stage, but by the end they seemed a natural part of the show.

Anyhow, perhaps not surprisingly, Byrne played a mix of his own material and that of Talking Heads, with the latter occurring later in the show. Also not surprisingly, the Talking Heads material was much better received by the audience (of which my friend AM and I were easily in the lower quartile in demographic terms). His own material was pretty good, primarily in the "world music" genre, but unfortunately for Byrne, his Talking Heads back-catalogue just has too many hits in it. His own stuff, unless spectacular, is always going to come off as slightly inferior (though I do write as a Talking Heads fan). I have to say that it was pretty upbeat and danceable (not that I really "got down"; unlike a seemingly stiff suit in front of us who really did). Just not as evocative (or from-my-past?) as the Talking Heads material. Though I didn't get the songs I'd hoped for, it was quite a thrill hearing the opening bars of the likes of Once in a Lifetime and Road to Nowhere. Perhaps it's just because I'm a climate-related scientist, but I love the apocalyptic undercurrents of the latter song.

As for the performance, Byrne wasn't the most talkative of hosts, but he was pretty wry at times, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I particularly liked his choice of white tutus to finish the evening off - the sight of the whole troupe in those was pretty cool. Byrne's backing group were up to the job and, far from being the anonymous musicians that I originally took them to be, they're all pretty accomplished judging from their web bios. I've already made a mention of the dancers, but they're worth another one. When they first appeared (two women and a man) they just seemed a distraction to offset an otherwise plain set of props, but as things went on made a lot of the material. And one of them even did a bit of crowd surfing at the end, in defiance of the venue's prohibitions on the subject. The acoustics of the venue seemed a bit ropey at first, but I got used to them as the evening wore on. Or perhaps, as evidenced by the next morning, my hearing was just gradually impaired in a beneficial way during the concert? Probably as good as one can expect from a dusty old civic centre venue.

Anyhow, it was a pretty good night out. Great to finally see, in the flesh, someone I've listened to for years and years. Especially as Byrne made the evening so much fun - even after four (yes, count them) encores. And, as ever, it was a joy to be reacquainted with songs my iPod (with its ~7000 tracks) only occasionally shuffles to the top.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

File under: coincidences involving ambulances

We had an interesting (for us that is, unfortunate for everyone else involved) hat-trick of run-ins with a series of accidents over the weekend.

First, on Saturday we missed, by minutes, what appeared a horrendous car crash in the small town of Wickham. It was difficult to judge what had happened, but the wreckage strongly suggested someone travelling far, far too quickly for a town road. Next, and only a few hours and miles later, we were visiting one of the Hampshire Open Studios, when a young woman was thrown from her horse in a field attached to the venue. Cue sirens. Finally, on Monday we were just returning from the cinema (Killer Instinct) over the Itchen Bridge only to come across a traffic accident involving a cyclist and either a car or a moped. We seemingly only just missed being witnesses.

Anyway, any one of these incidents would be unusual in my experience, but to have three in the space of a little over 24 hours was really quite strange. Hopefully, broken bones was the worst suffered in each, but I suspect I'll never know either way.