Monday, December 10, 2012

Men Who Hate Thrillers

I'm just back from a conference in Sweden, at which I was not once attacked by any bisexual-hacker-biker-Nazi-serial killers. There is a sense in which this is disappointing.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Daniel Craig is the best Bond ever, but it's on the basis of Casino Royale, not Skyfall. The latter is a film which works for every second of the time that Javier Bardem is on screen, and ambles around a bit aimlessly whenever he isn't.

There are also problems with what this film wants to be. The 50th anniversary hoopla means that it's trying to do a lot of things at once - part homage to the Bond films that people go on about as if Roger Moore was something to be proud of, part post-Bourne dark action thriller. It's on the latter front that it particularly falls down, coming over all multiple-personality as to whether the things that the security services get up to are bad or not. Bardem is great, but if he'd been allowed to be a villain who often tells the truth (like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) the film would work a lot better. For all the talk about significant deaths in Skyfall, there's nothing here as powerful or moving  as Clive Owen's last words in the first Bourne film.

Skyfall is beautifully shot, and is much better than the incomprehensible low-stakes mess that was Quantum of Solace. But three films in and I'm still waiting for the Bond series that Casino Royale promised, one that was free of baggage like Moneypenny and Q (both of whom are reintroduced here). Some have suggested that with the 50th anniversary out of the way, the sequel I've been waiting for will be coming next. We'll see. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

General Strike

The museum was closed on Thursday due to the general strike in Greece. This was good from the point of view of myself and Dave, because we were running a theoretical seminar at the Irish Institute, and it gave use extra time to prepare. When we went out for lunch at about 3, Exarchia was full of riot police, and we passed some protesters burning boxes in the street - I have no photos of any of this, for all the obvious reasons. This seemed pretty much par for the course, and it was only when I got messages from the UK asking how everything was that I realised the international media had been running a riot story - something must have happened within view of the bar at the Hotel Grande Bretagne, as the old joke goes.

The seminar went well, although it wasn't as like this as we'd hoped:

Walking back from a local bar after the seminar was over we encountered the remnants of some hours-old teargas trapped in a concrete overhang, so I can say that I have been very slightly teargassed. This is endlessly amusing to my dad, due largely to this song

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Raining, In The City Near The Sea

Tonight in Athens there's a thunderstorm over the hills to the east of the city. Proper forked lightening, too, which you see so often in the Mediterranean, but so rarely at home. It's something of a relief, as the hot weather here has been something of a shock to someone used to British Octobers - I caught the sun by walking through the city yesterday.

I've been in Athens for a week now, working as an assistant on a project in the archives of the National Museum. It's a great opportunity, and I'm hoping that I'm making the most of it.

The thing which most people reading this are probably wondering is what changes I'm seeing in the city due to the economic crisis. I'm not the best placed to answer that, unfortunately, as previously I've at best spent a couple of days in the city. I know that there were some riots on Monday, coinciding with Merkel's visit, but the only evidence I saw of that was a burned-out taxi by the museum the next day. Walking through Exarchia  the other night had a sort of 1980s dystopian feel to it (assisted by Bowie's "Heroes" blaring out from one of the bars), but Exarchia's probably always felt like that, being the main anarchist/punk/junkie area since well before the economic crisis began. There's also the matter of confirmation bias: to some extent, I see the city I want to see.

Over the weekend I've been down to the Kerameikos, the area just outside the main gate of ancient Athens, which was used as a cemetery from the Iron Age down into the Hellenistic and Roman periods. It's a nice site, as no-one seems to go there much, and it acts as a surprisingly quiet little park almost in the centre of modern Athens. One of my main highlights was seeing the wild tortoises which live down there. I even got to see a tortoise fight, which I think was inconclusive, as most tortoise fights probably are.

Today I went down to the new Acropolis Museum, which I've never had the chance to go into before. It's a really great building, although I'm not sure all of the material is displayed in the most useful way. And while I've never been much of a fan of Classical art (I prefer Hellenistic), the Parthenon Sculptures gallery is really good, displaying the material (mostly plaster replicas, of course...) around the outside of a rectangle the same size as that of the Parthenon. This is much better that how the British Museum displays its collection of the originals. The Museum's design also shines in the views you get of the acropolis from the gallery while you're viewing the sculptures.

I'm hoping to take in a football match while I'm here, so that might be my next post.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

LA Noire

Posting this month has been down, due mostly to the fact that I've liberated my sister's Xbox 360. The first game I played was LA Noire (a loan from Emily), one of the reasons I wanted to borrow the console in the first place. As might be expected, the period detail is immersive, down to 1940s comedies playing on car radios. The game's real selling point is the investigation mechanics, however, and I'm not aware of any game which has put as much effort into collecting evidence and then using it. It's not enough to suspect things, you have to actually prove that people are lying. Spotting lies is also crucial, thanks to the facial capture technology, which means you spot lies in the same way you will in day-to-day life.

My reservations with the game are twofold: it wasn't entirely clear to me how my results in cases actually affected the overall plot, which makes it feel a little bit like it's on rails - playing some of the cases again might give me a better idea of how true this feeling is. The second is that aspects of the metaplot seem underdeveloped: the dénouement in the "hunt for a serial killer" section is underwhelming, but more important are the relationships of the protagonist with women, which aren't really explored until late in the game. This matters in terms of the choices the protagonist makes, which are significant, but lack impact without a background context.

A minor quibble is that the game is in glorious technicolour: an optional mode allowing you to play it in expressionist, shadowy black-and-white would have been a nice touch. And despite my reservations about some aspects of the plot, LA Noire gets its noir ending spot on. I know that extra cases are available as downloadable content, and I suspect I'll be getting them sooner or later.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Neil Armstrong's death brought up some discussion of the fact that there are almost no photographs of him on the surface of the moon: most of the photography was assigned to Armstrong, so the pictures are of Aldrin, and it's very hard to tell two men in identical spacesuits apart (later missions added red stripes to the Commander's suit to help with identification). Thanks to my misspent youth collecting things to do with astronomy and spaceflight,  I do have a copy of one of the photographs identified as Armstrong, so here it is (the NASA designation is AS11-40-5886): 

NASA AS11-40-5886

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Favela Democracy vs. Europe's Last Stalinist Dictatorship

With the Olympics now over, it's safe for me to talk about my own experience of them - going to the Olympic football at Old Trafford. I got the tickets for me and my parents last year, when they were first released, thinking that there would be lots of football tickets and not many people would want them. Also, with Old Trafford so close, it seemed like the obvious thing to do.

You buy the tickets before it's known which teams will be playing, so when the games were finally announced I found out I'd be seeing Egypt vs. New Zealand and Brazil vs. Belarus. Obviously, I was pretty pleased at getting tickets for Brazil, particularly as Brazil use the Olympic team in building their squad for the next World Cup.

We went out to Old Trafford by tram, with plenty of other people going to the same place - including a Brazilian drummer. For future reference, a drum on a tram is only entertaining for the first five minutes, if that. What was interesting to see the array of football shirts and flags being displayed by people outside the ground - not just the teams that were playing, but people from all parts of the world. In what can only be a 21st century development, there were lots of Mancs in Brazil gear, and lots of Brazilians in Manchester United shirts.

Egypt and New Zealand were up first, and even though they were hardly the main attraction, the ground was pretty full for them. It was an entertaining game, set up nicely by the fact that New Zealand scored first, from one of their few attacks. As those who saw New Zealand at the last World Cup will know, they may not have much going forward, but they're tough to break down. And so it proved, although in point of fact the Egyptians had only themselves to blame, carving out masses of opportunities only to indulge in some comically bad finishing. While Egypt did get an equaliser close to the end of the first half, the pattern repeated in the second half, with a late opportunity to win the game badly squandered, to the particular ire of a group of Egyptian fans to my right.

Egypt On The Attack

Egypt on the attack.

As might be expected, the stadium filled up more for the Brazil game. This included the seats directly behind us, which were occupied by a group of lads who had not turned up for Egypt vs. New Zealand, turned up late to Brazil vs. Belarus, moaned that it was not a premier league match, spent a lot of time talking about how drunk/coked up they were going to get afterwards, went early to/came back late from half time, and left before the end of the match. So they were arseholes, but they were authentic British arseholes, of the type that you can find in any given pub. Room should have been found for them in the opening ceremony.

Hulk Takes A Corner

Hulk takes a corner.

The game itself was great, and was once again made so by the fact that Belarus took an unexpected lead with a great header, which was celebrated by myself with some glee. It was unexpected, but not undeserved: they were playing far better than the Brazil team, with the expensive stars looking like they weren't all that interested. Brazil equalised a few minutes later with a real bullet of a header, but Belarus actually had several other opportunities to score in the first half. My favourite of these was when a Belarusian winger did his level best to replicate the magical 1984 goal John Barnes scored against Brazil, which just failed to come off.

Belarus continued to play well in the second half, but their attacking threat faded somewhat. Just after the hour-mark Brazil took the lead in a manner which pretty much sums up Brazil, to me: Neymar conned the referee into giving a free-kick just outside the area, then dispatched it brilliantly into the far corner. Belarus still played well, but it was pretty obvious that they weren't going to get back into it. The real Brazil highlight came three minutes into injury time, with Neymar releasing Oscar into the area with a backheel, resulting in a great goal. It was harsh on Belarus, who didn't really deserve to lose by two goals.

Free-Kick To Brazil

Free-kick to Brazil.

After this match, the teams took some surprising paths. From what we'd seen, we expected Belarus to easily beat Egypt and progress to the later stages, but they actually lost 3-1 to them, with Egypt going through. Brazil made the final, as expected, but then lost 1-2 to Mexico (the margin could have been much bigger). I was glad about that:  Brazil brought the same arrogant, under-motivated attitude to the final that they had to the game I saw.

This was, I realise now, the only competitive international football I'd ever been to, and  I really enjoyed it. Two games for £20 is very good compared to the Premier League, and probably stacks up quite well compared to the more popular Olympic events.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Till there was rock, you only had God

- David Bowie, "Sweet Head" (1972)

There's always a bit of trepidation when you first approach something that's an acknowledged classic, and that's certainly how I felt before listening to Ziggy Stardust for the first time. Fortunately, it's as good as it's supposed to be. "Five Years" is a startling and bleak beginning to what is, after all, one of the definitive glam-rock albums. But it's for that reason that it's important, the nihilism lingering in your head and undercutting the rock-star hedonism that unfolds on most of the rest of the album - which is there in spades on tracks like "Moonage Daydream", "Hang On To Yourself", and "Suffragette City". In some ways it's strange that "Ziggy Stardust" is as low-key as it is, as you might imagine Ziggy's elegy to be more spectacular (although the Bauhaus cover version means that we have both ends covered). It's not an album without its weak spots: Doggett's book is correct in wondering what, exactly, "It Ain't Easy" is doing here, but it's a great album because it contains so much that's good, not because it's perfect.

It's also the case that a step-change here, in that while fame was the object of Hunky Dory, here it's very much the subject. Bowie is no longer content to look at fame from the outside, but to examine it at first hand. The major hurdle that had to be overcome was that David Bowie was not famous, and the key realisation was that fame could be constructed and worn, like a mask. One of the things that's so interesting about the whole Ziggy Stardust phenomenon is the role that performativity plays in it: Ziggy Stardust is a rock star because he tells you that he is, and because he does the things that you have come to expect from the cultural script of rock stardom (In 1972 the script was only about 15 years old, which makes it interesting that the Ziggy Stardust character was able to capture the concept so perfectly and prefigure so much of what was to come: in 1972 Elvis had Five Years left).

In some senses what seems most remarkable now is Bowie's decision to kill off the whole Ziggy Stardust mythology after only a year, at the height of his (now real) stardom. In some alternative universe there's a David Bowie who milked it for all he was worth, touring the world with The Spiders from Mars for 5-6 years, and who in 2012 is a mostly-forgotten piece of nostagic kitsch, like Alvin Stardust. The decision to kill off Ziggy was gutsy, and it resulted in Bowie being able to repeatedly change himself, and take an audience with him. Rock stars and identities are ephemeral, and if you've completely created yourself once, you can do it again and again.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

"You don't owe these people any more! You've given them everything!" 'Not everything. Not yet.'

On Sunday I went to see The Dark Knight Rises, before I ended up reading a review or finding out too much about it. My discussion here will CONTAIN SPOILERS, so avoid if you haven't seen the film yet. Also, it'll be a much better read if you know what I'm talking about.

My expectations were high, as I really liked The Dark Knight, but I feel they were fulfilled Getting a superhero film right is notoriously difficult, and the level of difficulty is increased when you've decided to use these archetypes to try and tell a serious story, and give the whole thing enough verisimilitude that you can suspend disbelief about characters like Batman or The Joker existing in what seems very much to be our world. It's a credit to Nolan that he's pulled this off, and has created a film which nicely rounds out the story he wanted to tell.

My favourite of the trilogy is still The Dark Knight, but The Dark Knight Rises is a close second. I feel Batman Begins is easily the weakest of the three. A somewhat weak first film with two good sequels is unusual, but that seems to be what happened.

There are a few comparatively minor things that I don't think completely work in The Dark Knight Rises. Given the running time, more time could have been spent showing us the kinds of inequality in Gotham which allow Bane to take over: as it is, one character tells us that it exists, but we never really get to see it. Similarly, when someone taken to what you've already set up as The Worst Prison In The World, the first thought of the viewer upon seeing it should not be "Oh, that seems all right". Apparently the thing in Room 101 that is the worst thing in the world is Tom Conti talking to you like a kindly uncle, which might be true, but is strange nonetheless.

I'm in two minds about the end. On the one hand, when Chekov's Autopilot finally goes off it seems like a bit of a copout, and makes the line I've used as my title ring a bit hollow. Nolan does deserve credit for making me think that he might actually Kill The Batman, though. Doing that would have left Michael Caine's Alfred with an unhappy ending, but maybe that's part of the price for saving Gotham? The ending which they went with is perfectly good, if perhaps a bit conventional.

Anyway, I really liked it. I still haven't read any reviews, so I can hunt those out and be told why I'm wrong, now.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

This Year's Present


An original UK quad film poster for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). It spent 40 years folded up before I got it from Amazon Marketplace. As my dad pointed out, this is probably the first thing I've bought that will get more valuable, although that's not why I bought it.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Polished Surface of a Desk

A long time ago when I was writing for pulps I put into a story a line like "he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water." They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn't appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn't know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn't even hear death knock on the door. That damn little paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just couldn't push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.
From a letter by Raymond Chandler, which I saw on Letters of Note.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hunky Dory

The fact that "Changes" is the first song on Hunky Dory (1971) is a useful crutch for an unimaginative writer. So here goes: the album represents a remarkable change from The Man Who Sold The World, with the Hard-Rock/Proto-Metal of the latter replaced by the 1970s pop sound of folk-memory. This is the Bowie that starts playing in your head when someone says "David Bowie". This is an album which contains not only "Changes", but also "Life On Mars" and "Oh! You Pretty Things", demonstrating that this is the start of Bowie's most fertile period.

One of the interesting things about reading someone else's opinions on music is that you're suddenly confronted with things you've been mishearing for years. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who thought it was "Turn to face the strain" rather than "Turn to face the strange" on "Changes", although I was perhaps alone in hearing "Now the workers have struck for vain/'cos Lenin's on sale again" rather than "Now the workers have struck for fame/'cos Lennon's on sale again" in "Life on Mars".

While the album represents a change of direction musically, the lyrical themes are very consistent with The Man Who Sold The World: transcending the limits of humanity, occultism (The Nietzschian "Homo Superior" of "Oh! You Pretty Things" is supplemented by a casual reference to Himmler on "Quickand", an early indication as to where the darker part of Bowie's psyche will be heading in a few years), and insanity. This is also an album about fame, and Bowie chooses to wear his influences on his sleeve, with songs explicitly about Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan, and "Queen Bitch" commonly reckoned to be about Lou Reed (although Doggett's book makes a persuasive case for it being a jealous swipe at Marc Bolan's new-found stardom).

So here's the mystery: it's a really good album, with some excellent songs, so why wasn't it a massive success? The single of "Changes" failed to make the Top 40, which is so improbable it makes your head spin. The answer may be the lack of a central strand: all the elements of Bowie's success are here, but there's a lack of a central something to make the diverse elements come together cohesively.

But something is coming...

Sunday, May 13, 2012


By way of proof that I do actually do archaeology sometimes:

Halkyn 1

Halkyn 2

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Merry Widow

The hundred million self-confident German masters were to be brutally installed in Europe, and secured in power by a monopoly of technical civilisation and the slave-labour of a dwindling native population of neglected, diseased, illiterate cretins, in order that they might have leisure to buzz along infinite Autobahnen, admire the Strength-Through-Joy Hostel, the Party headquarters, the Military Museum and the Planetarium which their Fuhrer would have built in Linz (his new Hitleropolis), trot round local picture-galleries, and listen over their cream buns to endless recordings of The Merry Widow. This was to be the German Millennium, from which even the imagination was to have no means of escape.
- Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Mind of Adolf Hitler (1953)

The Guardian's acquisition of Bashar and Asma al-Assad's emails makes me wonder if anyone's ever done a sociological analysis of the material culture choices made by dictators. The Assads, like Hitler, seem to go for a fairly straightforward bourgeois consumerism - a banality of culture to go alongside the banality of evil. Gaddafi, meanwhile, went for the full-on Tony-Montana-in-Scarface aesthetic. Further datapoints are required to spin the concept out to book-length, of course.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Condition of Stockport

There is Stockport, too, which lies on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, but belongs nevertheless to the manufacturing district of Manchester. It lies in a narrow valley along the Mersey, so that the streets slope down a steep hill on one side and up an equally steep one on the other, while the railway from Manchester to Birmingham passes over a high viaduct above the city and the whole valley. Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks, indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working-class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district.
- Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)
You have to wonder what he'd make of Merseyway, a piece of Le Corbusier-esque High Modernism which is increasingly inhabited by pawnbrokers shops. On the other hand, the description of it that I just gave tells you pretty much everything you need to know.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Man Who Sold The World

This is the first of my pieces on David Bowie's 1970s albums, which I'm listening to and simultaneously reading about in Peter Doggett's book The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s.

To someone who's main exposure to Bowie has been through singles compilations, this album, recorded in 1970, is something of a surprise. The glam-rock which made Bowie's name had yet to arrive, and we find ourselves very much at the tail end of the 1960s scene. The themes which would become Bowie trademarks: sexuality ("The Width of a Circle", "She Shook Me Cold"), violence ("Running Gun Blues"), madness ("All The Madmen"), the occult ("The Supermen") and dystopian futures ("Saviour Machine") are all present. The melodies themselves, however, are very much in the psychedelic rock/hard rock/acid rock/heavy rock which is pretty standard for the time. Going by Doggett's account, Bowie was never fully invested in the album, and much of it was created by other members of the production team

The one exception to this is the title track, which looks back in capturing something of the alienated deep-space chill of Bowie's only previous hit single "Space Oddity" (1969), and fits with the Bowie of the future in that it demonstrates his ability to give you something which sounds like nothing you've heard before. It's perhaps also the only song on the album in which the melody really matches the lyrical content. The latter is perhaps the bleakest thing this album has to offer, acting as a prescient commentary on the 1960s counter-culture, and perhaps on Bowie's fears about himself and his identity: everything you believe in is going to be sold out - and you're going to be the one who does it. Troubling stuff for someone who was only 23 when this was written and recorded, but we all have our moments.

So, this isn't destined to be one of my favourite albums, but it's an interesting look at the background from which Bowie's most successful period emerged. Next up: Hunky Dory.

Thursday, February 02, 2012



Delamere Street, Chester, January 2012.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

1980s Science-Fiction Was Never Knowingly Under-Bleak

After a period of increasing tension and escalating border incidents, full-scale war erupted between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China.
On October 7th, 1996, the Bundeswehr crossed the border between East and West Germany and began attacking Soviet garrison units still in the country.
While the political leadership of the European members of NATO debated the prudence of intervention, the U.S. army crossed the frontier.
...On July 9th, with advanced elements of the 1st German Army on Soviet soil, the Red Army began using tactical nuclear weapons.
The winter of 1997-98 was particularly cold. Civilian war casualties in the industrialized nations had reached almost 15% by the turn of the year, but the worst was yet to come. Communication and transportation systems were non-existent, and food distribution was impossible. In the wake of nuclear war came famine on a scale previously undreamed of...Plague, typhoid, cholera, typhus, and many other diseases swept the world's population. By the time they had run their courses, the global casualty rate would be 50%.
- Twilight: 2000 Referee's Manual (1984)

I downloaded the pdf of this a few years ago as part of an RPG Day promotion. It's eerie to think that people were sitting down to play this game at a time when the above seemed like a future that was more likely than not. The suggested campaign is pretty interesting, being Xenophon's Anabasis transposed to post-nuclear central Europe. If I can ever get a group together, I may even run it. I probably wouldn't use the original rules, as they're a bit too early 80s for me. I could probably kitbash something together based on  Reign, though.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

An Experiment With An Artist

Bowie, in particular, in a series of 'camp' incarnations (Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Mr Newton, the thin white duke, and more depressingly the Blond Fuehrer) achieved something of a cult status in the early 70s. He attracted a mass youth (rather than teeny-bopper) audience and set up a number of visual precedents in terms of personal appearance (make-up, dyed hair, etc.) which created a new sexually ambiguous image for those youngsters willing and brave enough to challenge the notoriously pedestrian stereotypes conventionally available to working-class men and women. Every Bowie concert performed in drab provincial cinemas and Victorian town halls attracted a host of startling Bowie lookalikes, self-consciously cool under gangster hats which concealed (at least until the doors were opened) hair rinsed a luminous vermilion, orange, or scarlet streaked with gold and silver.
- Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The meaning of style (1979) 

According to Wikipedia, one of those drab provincial cinema gigs was in my manor, just by where I went to secondary school. While I've been into Bowie for quite a long time now, my knowledge of his music comes pretty much entirely from radio play and singles collections - I know almost nothing about the albums, although some of them have excellent reputations.

For Christmas I got a copy of Peter Doggett's recent book The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie and the 1970s, and copies of "The Man Who Sold The World" (1970) and "Hunky Dory" (1971). My plan is to listen to the albums as I read the relevant sections of the book. I may even blog about it here as I do it, although I'm pretty sure people have done that before.