Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympics 2012

What a great start to the games. Apart from the unfortunately prolonged but totally traditional parade by the athletes (next time: perhaps enforce a sprinters-only policy?), and a misjudged end from the Queen Mother of Pop (why, why, why?), it was a surprising triumph. I say "surprising" because I'd already played out doomed scenarios in my head that focused on stodgy "favourites" such as our regal history, Shakespeare, Victoriana, WW2 or cheesy glam-rock. However, while all of these made brief appearances in Boyle's ceremony, it wasn't in thrall to any one of them, or, indeed, any of the other themes that it touched on.

Interestingly, while it started off with a chocolate box version of pre-industrial rural life in Britain, it quickly supplanted this with a rather subversive segment about the industrial revolution. This was both an ambivalent endorsement / critique but also an excellent spectacle, finishing brilliantly with the forging of an Olympic ring. Another unexpected highlight was the prominent positioning of our socialised healthcare system, the NHS, in the ceremony - not at all what I was expecting, and a bit of a provocative inclusion in what are otherwise quite privatised Games. I wonder how that'll play in the US, more mouth-foaming outrage from the New Right hopefully.

And while a medley of British pop hits is usually pretty crass, it seemed to work here. It might have been that it combined it with an entertaining modern tale (such as it was) of life and love in multicultural Britain, but it might also have been that we do, as a nation, have an impressive back catalogue to draw on (good to hear FGTH get a few seconds - and a T-shirt - there). Either way, it wasn't even in the same universe as what I'd jadedly imagined such a medley would turn out like.

But there was more to come, of which the torch ceremony was definitely the highlight. We've been trying to guess who'd be lighting the torch all week, and we were kept guessing right to the end, what with appearances from Beckham and Redgrave. So it was particularly pleasing that the organisers played a blinder by making it the responsibility of a suite of young up-and-coming athletes, each picked by the same former stars of the athletics firmament that we thought might have been doing the lighting. And then, just when that seemed a brilliant touch, the torch itself turned into the star of the show. It's a fantastic piece, and its gradual lighting, then evolution into the Olympic Standard, was pretty breathtaking.

Obviously we then had an unwelcome performance from Paul McCartney - of whom, less really would be more - but it wasn't nearly enough to take the shine off of an excellent opening to the games. Of which, Boyle is now a total shoe-in for a Knighthood, and it's wholly deserved. Now all we (the Nation, that is) have to do is win some medals (48+ apparently), and the whole thing will have been a triumph. Go GB, etc.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Oligarchic Overlords in town

For some unexplained reason our dock is currently hosting an enormous yacht. It is graduation today, and UoS does have something of a (unwarranted?) reputation for hosting some of the UK's wealthier students, but the boat's on such a scale that it being "daddy's" for one of our students seems unlikely. Whatever the reason for its appearance, its shockingly large size certainly provokes dark thoughts about the 1%.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Case Histories

Following on from yet another enjoyable jaunt with Inspector Rebus, I thought I'd dip into crime fiction again, but with a bit of a difference this time. Kate Atkinson was (is?) a writer of literary fiction with a couple of well-received novels under her belt when she appeared to take something of a sharp turn down the dark(-ish) alley leading to crime fiction. Four novels later, she hasn't reversed course just yet, and the private detective she invented, Jackson Brodie, has now washed up in a successful (as far as I can tell) TV series. Anyway, what's her first novel, Case Histories, like then?

Ex-army and ex-police, Jackson Brodie now resides in the low-rent end of Cambridge, plying a living as a private detective investigating - mostly - missing cats and potentially misbehaving wives at the high-rent end. On the subject of which, he also has an ex-wife who's now shacked up with an academic and is threatening to take their daughter on an extended trip to New Zealand. Into this professional ennui and personal strife, Jackson lands three new cases: a sister missing for 30 years; the unsolved murder of a daughter; and a misplaced niece, the daughter of a murderess. While Jackson gradually collates what little new information he can on these old, cold cases, his meetings with their clients proves at least as eventful. And the ante gets upped further when, for some unknown reason, it appears that someone wants to kill Jackson.

What a brilliant read. The first thing about it that struck me, and which surprised me, is that it's frequently a seriously funny book. While it does contain a handful of comedy set-pieces (Jackon's first encounter with his nemesis and an old tom cat being one of them), the humour largely stems from Atkinson's characters, particularly Jackson, who she has made endless sources of wry observations on life. Though life has treated him harshly - a fact that the reader is slowly and skilfully edged towards - Jackson is very amusingly insightful of both his own life and that of the others his line of work bumps him into.
[Julia] had one of those husky voices that sounded as if she was permanently coming down with a cold. Men seemed to find that sexy in a woman, which Jackson thought was odd because it made women sound less like women and more like men. Maybe it was a gay thing.
What I found more impressive was that Atkinson pulls this off in a book built on the rock solid foundation of loss. After a (brilliant) introduction to the three case histories that teeters towards loss, the text hovers above this for most of the time, but every so often dips down to remind the reader (if I can get all florid about it) of the yawning chasms in peoples' hearts when loved ones either die or disappear. Atkinson's creation of Theo Wyre, and his murdered daughter, Laura, is, in particular, unbearably sad. But this underlying loss gives the book a balanced texture and an unexpected (to me) veracity.

I was a little less convinced by the structuring of the book. Atkinson jumps around in time a lot, using this as a means to bump the reader's journey onwards. That seemed a little lazy to me, and rather confusing at times, as when significant between-chapters events that are obscured by small jumps forward in time are only gradually revealed to the reader. At one point I actually began to wonder if the copy I was reading had lost a few pages. And the end of the novel seemed a little like a rush to (opaquely, at times) tie up all of the loose ends. The deus ex machina of an unexpected inheritance doesn't help with this misgiving.

It's churlish to complain, what with the novel offering far (far) more than conventional crime fiction (yes, I'm looking at you Rebus), but the "detective" part of the tale is also a little bit unsatisfying. Jackson solves two of the three crimes relatively straightforwardly, basically by chasing up leads that were missed - only partially understandably - during the original investigations. I can't now remember if he actually solves the third case, but the reader gets to do this themselves via a seemingly completely decoupled plot strand and the book's occasional, and telling, mentioning of dates and ages.

These niggles aside, I really enjoyed this book. It made me both laugh out loud and deeply sad, but in the good way. I'll without doubt be getting to Atkinson's sequel novels in the near-future - not least to partake of Jackson's eminently agreeable company. Finally, much as shown when literary fiction writers "invade" science fiction (Atwood, McCarthy), it's yet another sign that the genres are ripe territory for writers who dare.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

SeaCity Museum


SeaCity Museum, a set on Flickr.

As part of a long-running renovation of the Civic Centre complex, Southampton now has a museum dedicated (largely) to its maritime heritage. More enticingly, the council has - arguably generously - given all residents of the city a set of free tickets ...

Perhaps unsurprisingly, about half of it is devoted to the city's most famous shipping connection, but the other half is pretty good too, taking in the development of Southampton as a city and spending quite a bit of time on its connections with migration.

Somewhat to our surprise (at least as indicated by the amount of time we put on our parking ticket) we wound up taking almost 4 hours to go through it all. They've done a good job with the content - it'll be interesting to see if / how often they update it.

There are also a few really nice uses of the old building too. Using an old court room for the Titanic inquest diorama works brilliantly, and C did like the transformation of the subterranean police cells into toilets!

Another day, another Rebus

Another enjoyable Rebus to report, this time number 8: Black and Blue. On this occasion, Rebus is pitted against a copycat serial killer, gangs in Glasgow and the fledgling drug trade in Aberdeen's booming oil industry. As usual, the book's an eminently readable tale, that both piggy-backs on the earlier novels while solidly building on the foundation they provide. And also as usual - irritatingly, repetitively so - Rankin again manages to turn out a better book than its already great predecessors, by turns clever, alarming and wry. I actually found this one even more of a step up in quality than I've gotten used to. One of the distinguishing features this time around, and one that Rankin handles very well, is the tying of the tale to a real case, that of the late-1960s serial killer Bible John. Rankin does a great job fleshing out one of the theories about this killer's disappearance, and nicely weaves this - and him - into the story, ultimately pitting Rebus and Bible John in a race to track down the copycat, Johnny Bible. I also really quite liked the flitting around between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, as well as the jaunt to the Shetlands and the Broch of Mousa. Anyway, roll on the next novel - will Rankin ever stumble?

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Pallant House

WP_000449 by Dr Yool
WP_000449, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.

Out today to a Peter Blake show over at Pallant House in Chichester. A nice little show, though while interesting in terms of pop cultural history, not quite the best we've seen at PH. Well worth it though, not least just to see the gallery's permanent collection again - including this work, Gladrags, by Susie MacMurray.

Reconsidering religion

The AV Club has an interesting article in it today entitled "Reconsidering religion" in which its writers discuss pieces of art (literature, music, cinema, television) that gave them second thoughts about the religion in which they'd been raised. The list contains items that I might have expected, such as Kurt Vonnegut, but also some more unexpected or even off-the-wall suggestions including Heinlein (perhaps not so off-the-wall really), the Housemartins, and even the Bible itself (actually, scratch that - that's probably obvious).

The article also got me thinking, as I'm sure was intended, about whether I could pin down something that did the same in my own life. For me, this would have been somewhere in the window between summer 1988 and summer 1989 - I can't tie it down any better than that, but I know that these two periods bookend my own switch. Memory aside, that this block of time is a little hazy also stems from there being no "Eureka!" moment. Rather, a process that began in summer 1988 gradually accumulated enough scepticism (or whatever the quantum of doubt is) to tip me into open atheism by summer 1989. Good scientist that I pretend to be, I formally describe myself today as agnostic, but the only theological possibilities that I consider plausible (however infinitesimally) are so far removed from mainstream religions that, to all intents and purposes, I've gone the whole way.

Anyway, when I've reflected on this subject in the past, the piece of art that most floats to the top is Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Strange, because it's both a long way short of their best film, The Life of Brian, and it doesn't share that film's very obvious ecclesiastical sensibilities and musings. However, it is loaded throughout with snubs to established religions, and it does present a rather prosaic - if unarguable - "meaning of life" at the end (and it doesn't hurt, additionally, to have the Galaxy Song). So though it didn't exactly "convert" me, I know that it made me think that there might just be more to existence than sitting in a Carnoustie church. I guess I must have been a bit more impressionable in those days.

I don't think that it really did more than accelerate the rot that took hold when I read The Blind Watchmaker during my summer holidays in 1988 (of which, reading this was also a symptom rather than a cause), but I know it was one of the drivers that got me thinking, and I know where that all ended up by 1989. So, thanks Monty Python. Thanks a bunch. ;-)