Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Flames merge

33 years ago, in Mister Miracle #18 ('Wild, Wild Wedding Guests!), the title character (aka 'Scott Free', super escape artist) married Big Barda('Female Fury' from Armaghetto on the world of Apokolips, later subject of an essay by author Michael Chabon.) The wedding was beset by a gallery of boldly drawn pop-art villains, but was nevertheless completed as ordained ('This cannot be stopped! The Source has sanctioned this marriage in words of fire!' - definitely part of the script of our own vow-renewal.) In the final panels, Miltonian supervillain Darkseid arrives in a thunderous tornado, grey-granite face like Nixon on Mount Rushmore, and muses that although he hadn't stopped the service he had spoiled it, declaiming "It had deep sentiment yet little joy. But life at best is bittersweet."

The marriage of my longstanding friend Paul to the lovely Anna last Saturday had both deep emotion and visible joy. Tornadoes and supervillains were little in evidence, although the day was somewhat blustery. In Brighton's Royal Pavilion, sounds of buskers and excitable language students drifted through the windows during the moving service, giving it a very Brightonian atmosphere. The Pavilion people, wary of yet another fire, vetoed a delightful part of the ceremony (deferred to the reception) - the lighting of a 'candle of unity' from two flames. Beautiful symbolism.

The following day one of our nephews lit a candle too during his baptism. Flames and symbols moving from person to person, place to place. Then it was time to go.

So a weekend of symbolic events and momentous lifestages. For me the bittersweet element was present too - such things (and indeed being in Brighton at all, once the site of all possibility, now suspiciously like just another real place) bring to mind 'time's long ruin' - some sweet melancholy as the shadow cast by present joy.

Did take a few pics on my phone. These aren't the best imaginable picture - I'm sure the various imagemaking devices being brandished will produce better ones at some point...

The best man is responsible for looking after the groom. He is less concerned with the wellbeing of the guests.

Neville-attending blonde man figures out camera controls with the aid of the manual

Phil sweeps back his flowing locks

The main event - Cyprus conjoined with Russia

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

'Scouts in Bondage' Prout, Geoffrey (1930)

'Scouts in Bondage' often crops up as an example of an innocently-titled book which has assumed unintended connotations. For instance, a bookshop in Lewes has a copy in its window, not for sale but splitting the sides of passers-by for many years - the owner has even magnified the hilarity by compiling a collection of details of similar books, under the same title. It also features in the Bizarre Books anthology, and is mentioned in several web pages...

We own a copy and its spine has radiated mild amusement from our shelves for quite some time. I decided to actually read the book, as a way of honouring the original text and perhaps learning more about Scouting (so that I can drop knowledgeable Scouting references into conversation with Mike Nolan.)

So, ending the sniggering (well almost, the fact that Geoffrey Prout is 'also author of "Trawler Boy Dick"' made me giggle - was the man incapable of writing anything without a future double entendre in it?) I ventured into the book itself, 'A Story of Boy Scouts in Strange Adventure'. The foreword does something unusual for thriller - reassures the reader that it will all turn out fine in the end. 'The Scouts in this story, though fettered for a while by a period of bondage, are just the jolly, good-natured, determined boys who are typical of a country Troop struggling for existence...what a stirring series of adventures they all had before they came triumphantly and with honour out of their bondage to a state of strength and proprietorship!' I'm sure some of Prout's author contemporaries, such as 'Sapper' and Dornford Yates, would have puffed on their pipes and advised him not to defuse any sense of jeopardy in this way.

The story is actually tame enough. A professor (who 'wore an old quilted black-satin dinner-jacket and a skullcap with a tassel on it', just like my professorial colleagues) engages the Scouts to help dig up remains of a ruined chapel, seeking blocks of masonry with inscriptions. Assembled together these reveal the location of a secret treasure, actually a document which restores the rightful owners to the local mansion. Along the way, various lower-class 'wasters', 'hooligans' and even 'hobble-di-hoys' attempt to thwart them. Punches are thrown, rivers forged, cars crashed, tables full of pies demolished - and all is well in the end. It is an enchanting period piece. The text is punctuated with cries of 'Crumbs!', 'By Jingo!', Right-o!' and 'Well, I'm blest!' Prout was a Scoutmaster apparently and his enthusiasm for the movement shines through every page - it is in effect an advertisement for Scouting. (What little I know of the movement comes from Ian Hislop's recent programme about Baden-Powell, which left me seeing Scouts as having always been rather a modern organisation, with its open-ness to boys of all creeds and backgrounds - and BP as a fascinating character, among other things a manipulator of his own celebrity (rather like Paris Hilton.) All of this has given me a benign view of the whole business, even a sense that my youth spent reading in darkened rooms, puny arms barely able to turn the pages, may not have been living life to the full. Perhaps like Prout and chums I should have sought to emulate 'frontiersmen ...unfettered by any laws but those of their own making, which were dictated by the manliness and humanity of the type.' Well, never too late to dream...)

So a nice book. But hang on - when did the bondage happen? I had expected the Scouts to be trapped or imprisoned by the baddies - perhaps escaping using Scouting skills, like lighting a fire with only two matches. But no Scout is confined in any way. Has Prout tricked us with his warnings? I had expected scenes of imprisonment so prolonged and claustrophobic that I'd be grateful for the knowledge that it must, eventually, end. Instead - nothing. The only 'bondage' is the Scouts deal with the professor, whereby they dig for stone in return for a new hut - a kind of economic serfdom I suppose. Strangely, the professor does hint that he realises he's in a novel, when he first appears:
"Welcome to Welbeck!" he said in his jovial, thin, cracked voice. "Splendid alliteration, that! Sometimes I think I would be better at cheap fiction than histories. Ha, ha!"
So either there's a Marxist subtext or it's an early experiment in postmodern reflexive fiction. Or, more likely, a simple adventure story of its time, designed to promote the values of Scouting. In any case, a book worth more than a laugh at the title.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Internet 'sometimes inaccurate' shock

In my quest to understand what 'the kids' are into, I've set up a Facebook account. So far it's been fun in a rather laboured way. The opportunity to 'poke' people is somewhat unsettling. Looking at one of my new friend's pages, I saw the results of one of those 'What Kind of X Am I' quizzes, with a link to the originating site. There I found a quiz titled 'How Well Do You Know Batman', which I thought might result in a 'hey look, I do have a personality' bit of decoration for my sparse Facebook page. This seemed OK apart from a tendency for all the questions to have 'Michael Caine' as an obviously wrong answer... until Question 8:

8. Who is not a Batman ally.


OK. I'm sure most people are aware of Robin, Batman's plucky young ward (now on version 3; one grew up, one died but has recently been resurrected, #3 will be adopted as Bruce Wayne's son as the 'ward' arrangement is frowned on these days.) And Alfred the butler is obviously an ally, ditto Batgirl (both the original Barbara Gordon version, now a wheelchair-bound Oracle, and the scary teen martial artist in the current continuity.) Catwoman has admittedly been a villain but has spent more time as a fellow crimefighter and even lover of the 'Dark Knight'; one couldn't say she's not an 'ally'. Ace I assume refers to Ace the Bathound, Batman's mask-wearing dog* - (Bat)man's best friend so definitely an ally. I assumed the witless oafs meant Catwoman... but still only scored 9/10.

So that's it, no more internet for me....

* Probably not the cornerstone of a debate about how comics have evolved into real literature. I presume he was written out of the continuity in the 80s when DC Comics 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' wiped out countless absurd characters, incongruous plotlines and complicated multiple realities. However he seems to be back in the animated series. Hilariously, when he first appeared in the printed comic, the mask was placed on him to conceal his identity...

Radio Days

Having my name mentioned on Edge Hill alumnus Stuart Maconie's radio show left me curiously giddy. (I emailed in a lame quip feigning confusion between last night's featured band, young, quirky Indie / Folk / Alternative Feist and 1970s German experimental progrockers Faust. He found this amusing enough to mention - perhaps feeling under obligation to his alma mater.)
I don't think I've been mentioned on the radio since a birthday dedication on Ed Stewart's programme c1969. I've been on the radio myself a handful of times - results day phone-ins and the like. Once in the mid-80s my friend Roy Smiles and I did a sort of roundup of arts events on Southern Sound. As we knew next to nothing about any of the acts, we made up some barely plausible surreal nonsense and put it across with deadpan authority. We were sacked after 3 weeks but we did get £10 for taxi fares.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Anybody Can Do Anything

Perhaps my favourite book ever, 'Anybody Can Do Anything' by Betty Macdonald is a little-known semi-autobiographical story, set in Seattle during the Depression. I read a copy I found at home when I was about 11, and have reread it many times since. Like other Macdonald enthusiasts I have bought several copies from secondhand shops, just so I can give them to people - though a nice new paperback means you can get your own, along with her other novels. These include 'The Egg and I', which was filmed with Claudette Colbert and spawned the Ma and Pa Kettle films; and 'The Plague and I', the funniest account of life in a TB sanitarium ever written.

Despite the title, 'Anybody Can Do Anything' it isn't a self-help book - it refers to Betty's sister Mary's lifelong habit of encouraging her into ambitious projects, mainly jobs for which Betty is completely unqualified. The action follows on from the rural dystopia of 'The Egg and I', when Betty leaves her husband on the farm to start over in Seattle. A wry, self-deprecating humour and lively use of language make it as absorbing and amusing as, say, Bill Bryson. A random snippet:

In the lobby [Mary] introduced me to about fifteen assorted men and women and explained that she had just brought me down out of the mountains to take her place as private secretary to Mr. Webster. In her enthusiasm she made it sound a little as though she had to wing me to get me down out of the trees, and I felt I should have taken a few nuts and berries out of my pocket and nibbled on them just to keep in character.

It isn't all bright breezy stuff - the depiction of the Depression is powerful in places, and an encounter with an insane co-worker is one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. Somewhere in the text she says something along the lines of 'never collect things because after a while they begin to collect you' - a concept I would like to explore here once I have tracked down the actual quote.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

On Chesil Beach

Nudged by Rob's review, I've finally read Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach'. Out of force of habit I bought a signed 1st/1st, an item which is probably less rare than pebbles on the 'infinite shingle' of Chesil Beach itself. (There is a very nice limited edition in a slipcase, also signed, for collectors/aesthetes/suckers (tick all that apply) which may well appreciate in value by, say, the heat death of the universe - maybe if my Postal Order arrives I'll get one..)

Reading the first printing means that the tiny anachronisms reported in the press are still there. So the Stones and Beatles are still covering Chuck Berry in 1962. I also wondered if a 'rocker' would be likely to have a 'studded leather jacket' in that period. And surely an iPod of that vintage would be made of Bakelite, not 'beige plastic, like a hearing aid'.

(I made one of these up.)

McEwan helpfully indicates that the hotel in the story has a precise location but does not exist. This will save coachloads of tourists descending on the area, seeking to relive that 'ruining-your-life-through-sexual-misunderstanding-on-the-cusp-of-a-new-era' experience. But hopefully kind-hearted Dorset hoteliers will place copies of the book on the nightstands of their honeymoon suites.

Chesil Beach itself is a somewhat uncanny location, liminal as a bastard, deftly chosen as the focus of this powerful short novel.

The novel creates a powerful sense of the 'situatedness' of the characters, as the trajectories of their intertwined personal lives and the historical moment they live in bring about a kind of inexorable force of circumstance, played out with McEwan's trademark 'impending doom'. However, I think we're being encouraged to do more than pity the characters as benighted dwellers in a less liberated time. Rather, we're gently nudged to speculate as to what similar forces of ignorance might encapsulate us, now. The 'nudges' for me are: the discussion about the qualitative equivalence of medieval millenarian cults and CND (a complex but specific exploration of the concept that the unenlightened 'then' may share qualities with 'now'); the insertion of a news item from Bagdhad into the BBC news (with countless other possibilities to choose from, an item that momentarily jerks us into the present); more tenuously, the mange-tout-munching philosopher-mother character whose modern lifestyle acts as a kind of bridge between eras. Just my £0.02 worth...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Doctor Who plans nosedive to hell

Aaargh! It's all gone horribly wrong! Less Freema in the next series - the ghastly Catherine tate character reprised as the companion - Martha Jones cussing and snogging her way through Torchwood - pah! Just when it was all going so well.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Atlantis to Revelation: Godscapes in my luggage

My holiday reading included, by chance, two rather different takes on 'life, the universe and everything'. In Edinburgh, there's a shop in Grassmarket which sells both craft materials and books on the work of Rudolf Steiner and his Anthroposophy movement. (An odd combination. Once when Danny Baker was presenting 'The Big Breakfast' he did a piece on shops which sell eccentric combinations of things - 'Suits of armour and wool' was one memorable example.) Living as I was in expansive holiday time, I decided to buy some of these books to see what Steiner was all about. I had heard of him vaguely - of the education system he founded still used in a number of schools, and of arts, architecture, and health systems based on his principles. I also associated him in my mind with 'Theosophy' and spiritualism. I wasn't too far off the mark (check out Wikipedia for an overview) but what I picked up on from the books I got was the Christianity that is central to his philosophy. Briefly, he talks of a cosmic Christ, available to all since His resurrection as an inner, higher self. We live in a spiritual universe governed by moral laws, with etheric and astral being as well as physical form. Some will have difficulty with a worldview based on clairvoyance, that includes Atlantis and Lemuria; or the idea that there were two Jesuses (in different Gospels - this explains some anomolies of His ancestry) whose consciousness merged into one prior to the Ministry. (From my comics/SF-reading perspective, all of this seems great - like the Bible adapted by Jack Kirby.) I would imagine that Anthoposophy has some (post)-New-Age adherents, synthesising as it does some pagan-friendly concepts of a living Earth, with reincarnation, karma, inclusion (co-option) of all religions ('Each religion is valid and true for the time and cultural context in which it was born')and (as a marketer might say) much much more. His 'spiritual science' could be seen as a holistic theory of everything; to his credit, Steiner advises people to draw their own conclusions based on experimental knowledge.

The other wide-ranging (well, big) theological work that I purchased was Unlocking the Bible by David Pawson. From a brief look in the shop, I anticipated a book of Bible commentary, which I hoped might help me understand what some of the more baffling/offensive sections could possibly mean. However when I actually read it I discovered a rather different kind of book; explaining indeed but zeroing in on a particular interpretaion (in a way it could be called fixing or 'Locking' the Bible.) Pawson advises reading whole books rather than dipping into chapters and passages, and depicts the Bible as a kind of unified entity with a beginning and end, ie the story-arc (or Ark) of God's plan in the past, present and future. A pretty much literal reading, and one in which the Hebrew Bible foreshadows the NT thoughout. For instance, the reference to Gods in the plural in Genesis demonstrates that the Trinity was already being described... It's hard to imagine a reading that differs more from my own (which if pressed I would say is along the lines of 'it can all be myth and therefore all profoundly true, sacred and at the same time just words on pages, available for endless interpretation, open source rather than Microsoft') - but the detail and effort involved in constructing the model is admirable in a way...

So, two big explanations of everything that is, each of which is, within its own system, whole and self-sufficient. Would any such system (such as the grand 'theory of everything' sought by physicists) be any better? Seductive as they (and others like them) might be, I always end up moving on - trying to be comfortable with doubt and have faith in mystery.

Behold the beauty...

Scotland pics now on my Flickr site. Yes, more dirty doorways, bits of fence, lumps of metal and random images. Enjoy!

Sweetheart, Stout

Further low-alcohol adventures were had in Scotland. For most of the first week this was a fruitless task, though the local shop in Blair Atholl did have some dusty bottles of 'Blaumeister Frei!' which he had been waiting ages for someone to buy. Then I found Sweetheart Stout (2%) - the best substance in the world - like drinking a pot of jam. The can still has the lovely image of an ageless beauty on it:

Ironically I also bought some new malt whisky. Yes, I do still take strong liquor on occasion. I must get through, ooh, a bottle every 6 months or so - approach with care. Just finished a Bladnoch 15-year old (a special edition which was nice, though I rather wish I'd sold it on eBay as it has more than doubled in price since I started drinking it.)