Spoken Words in the Frozen North

Poets seem to have all the luck*.  They have regular performance events where they can stand up and introduce an audience to their work.  Not so prose.  It seems that the art of storytelling has lost the telling part – unless you have a bunch of books under your belt.  I was honoured to be included in the line-up for the Wee Red Gig.

The event was held in the Wee Red Bar at the Edinburgh College of Art which is a small place just off the central courtyard of the ECA complex.  After having my satchel searched by the obligatory Small Angry Man (who was very polite).  This is   all we had:  a mike to talk into and some lights shining in our faces.  It was great.  I’m glad my own work went down well.  All of the other stories were of a high standard and I was impressed with the range of styles (writing and performance) that were on show.  The Writers Bloc guys  were their usual professional selves and I have to thank them for giving me the opportunity to get up there and introduce my work to a new audience.  My only regret was forgetting to bring a camera and recording the entire show.

Next Time…

* Though I am told that poetry isn’t as popular as it used to be and it’s damn hard to make any money in it.

Stick your Xfactor somewhere smelly

For a change, rather than be annoyed with the Beeb, I would point out a couple of shows I actually enjoyed.

Let’s start with First Life.

If you’re not from the UK it’s hard to understand how much of a cultural icon David Attenborough is.  He’s been presenting wildlife shows on the BBC for many decades now and he always brings a calm, knowledgeable, authority (tinged with wonder) that makes his documentaries completely compelling.  He never veers into mawkish sentimentality or anthropomorphism and so you’re left with a clear message that Nature, for all its cruelty and arbitrariness, is a beautiful thing.

His new show First Life looks at the origins of life.  Attenborough shows how fossils demonstrate the increasingly complexity of life and the myriad of unusual forms.  There are a reconstructions but these serve to illustrate points – not add drama.  All in all this is TV that I highly recommend.

And then there’s The Beauty of Diagrams: Episode 1 the Vitruvian Man

Most of us have seen the Vitruvian Man but how many know why it’s called that or why Da Vinci drew it?  I knew some of the history already but the BBC’s pet mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy really brings it all together with his enthusiasm for the subject.

Here’s the BBC’s description

He looks at Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous diagram of the perfect human body, which has many layers from anatomy to architecture, and defines our species like no other drawing before or since. The Vitruvian Man, drawn in the 1480s when he was living and working in Milan, has become one of the most famous images in the world. Leonardo’s drawings form a vast body of work, covering every imaginable subject in spectacular detail: from feet, skulls and hands to muscles and sinews; from hearts and lungs to buildings, bridges and flying machines.

Vitruvian Man perfectly synthesises Leonardo’s passions for anatomy, for the mechanics of the human body and for geometry. It is also full of surprises, illustrating an ancient architectural riddle set out 1,500 years earlier by the classical writer Vitruvius about the relative proportions of buildings and men; a riddle that, even today, still fascinates and beguiles experts and viewers alike.

Interesting stuff!

Forsooth! Boringness on the Beeb

Blighty is a strange old place.  Wherever you go you can hardly move for tripping over the crumbling remains of empire.  Of course that’s big news in the tourist trade, “Look there’s a castle! Oh look there’s a palace!  Gosh, real royalty!”  The Empire’s days are over (though we don’t tell that to the tourists) or mayhaps not if you watch British television.  Looking for something to have on while I spoon peas into my mouth I stumbled across Garrow’s Law.

This is a very strange show: mix one part period drama to one part courtroom drama with a pinch of social consciousness.  In this episode we see Mr Garrow hired to investigate insurance fraud in the slave trade – murky stuff among rum coves.  Everyone speaks in that weird Pride and Prejuidice diction even though they are clearly wearing modern sensibilities.  Of course everyone is well scrubbed and wearing the most vibrant of colours.   It’s the sort of backward looking frivolous tosh that the beeb regularly churns out.
And the really strange thing is William Garrow was a very real person!

M’luds, I am given to understand that this moving-picture show is on its second run!  Forsooth indeed.

Behold Tentacles!

And now you can, just in time for Christmas, because someone has produced a graphic novel of HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness. I’ve been waiting for the film to come out for long time and even that’s apparently coming along quite nicely*.

Poor old Lovecraft, he never achieved much success in his lifetime but he’s been increasingly popular since his death.  He’s become an acknowledged major influence in modern horror – certainly among people open to his odd prose and pessimistic universe.  While some authors (notably Stephen King and more recently Charles Stross) give him a nod in their own work mainstream commentators have frequently been less praising.  They complain about his turigid prose and clunky dialogue (I’d agree with this last point) but they seem to miss the point.  With Lovecraftian prose**  it’s oddness immerses the reader in the scariness of his universe – popularly called The Cthulhu Mythos.  You can see how Lovecraft’s style can be difficult to deal with – even for those writing a postive review:

Lovecraft isn’t easy to read; his language is archaic and convoluted, and you might not know half the time what he is going on about. Happily, however, one can now experience his eccentricities, his pessimism, and his daring without having to wade through his prose …

Which suggests that even that reviewer really didn’t get Lovecraft.

* … except that it’s allegedly going to be in 3D.  I suppose you can’t have everything.

** More irony.  How many authors can claim to have little or no success in their lifetime and yet have a style named after them?

Science Magazine does Science Fiction?

I’m not sure how I feel about New Scientist covering literature but then we’re talking SF so I’ll let them off.  They’ve put up a gallery of 11 SF books, picked by scientists and writers, to name the seminal books they feel have been forgotten.  I am not sure I get why they think these books are forgotten – most seem to still be in print – but there’s some excellent books in there.  I particularly recommend First and Last Men.

News from the waking Dragon?

I was about to go to bed when I found this article on the BBC news site John Humphrys has gone to China.  I found it interesting because the report is not really what I expected. Humphrys even notes, “I know China … I’ve been going there for more than 30 years and it’s virtually impossible to do any proper reporting there.” And then he goes on to say that he wasn’t harassed (as he expected) nor did he feel that the people were  stopped from speaking to him (which has happened in the past).  I find this all very intriguing.  There’s an almost cartoonish feel to much of the news of China  which often me leaves with the impression certain news outlets are looking for a new Great Satan now that the soviet union is consigned to history.  Do we really want that?

I grew up in the wasteland that was the Scotland Maggie Thatcher created.  I remember, only vaguely because I was very young, the fear that the bomb would drop and we’d all be dead.  I believe  mum when she tells me people were very very worried in the 60s and 70s.  When the Wind blows was so terrifying to me as a youngster that I can’t watch it now.  I’ve never been a fan of the paradigm that emerged in the west during this period.  It seems that there’s a thought that’s grabbed the powers-that-be there’s only way and it’s the Western way, as though there’s something wrong with a mix of governments.  So I think I’ll pass on a new Cold War.  Cheers.

Having said that, I am a little uncertain how I feel about how dissidents are treated in China.  And we have the workers who live a life of virtual slavery in the new satanic mills to thank for much of our modern gadgetry.  Clearly not all is well in the Middle Kingdom.

Which really sums up the vast enigma of the place.  I don’t think it’s every really changed in that regard.  If you look at history, China has always  seemed to oscillate between isolation and expansiveness.  Perhaps it’s now waking up and entering into a new outward looking period?

Humphrys talks to some students and leaves us with this observation:

They seemed genuinely baffled by my insistence that the ultimate freedom is the freedom to throw out the people in power if you don’t like them.

“You do that in your country all the time,” one of them pointed out to me, “and it doesn’t seem, to make much difference. What we want is stability – and that’s what we’ve got.”

Wallace and Gromit’s not so grand day?

I just watched this Television show. I stumbled across it on BBC’s iPlayer. It’s reasonably interesting in a childish way… and that’s what I thought it was – a children’s show.  Well, I was surprised to discover that it aired at 7:30pm which is otherwise known as prime British Family Telly time.  So I am a bit confused and I have to ask, what is this point of this show?  Is it showcasing Wallace and Gromit, is it showcasing invention?  What did the producers actually want to do here?  What it appears we have is some sort of odd halfway house where vignettes about inventions (which are actually interesting) are interspersed with unfunny jokes.

Because, let’s face it, we can’t have intelligent television about science and technology for families can we?  And we all know that scientists are either humorous boffins or filled with sinister intent. As we don’t want to scare the poor people of Blighty as they tuck into their peas I can see the producers opting for the humourous boffins.

And getting it wrong.

Compare this with Horrible Histories, which is a surprisingly entertaining kids show which doesn’t treat the little Kevins of the world as dolts.