Friday, 29 November 2013

The Friday Lecture

The time approaches, and is filled with the portent of great danger. Students ramble dazedly about campus, thinking about what is to come. Yawns and stretches cross from horizon to horizon as the grim reality of the Friday five o'clock lecture approaches. Over Hugh Owen Building a great row of vultures sits, waiting for the wreckage that will ensue.

Oh, Friday night lecture, why do you torment us so?

The tumult begins, as students cascade down the hill toward town, all except for those precious few, destined to spend a further hour deep in academic purgatory. For those few a lecture in a darkened lecture theatre awaits, with only the faint possibility of reprieve before the due time is up.

And so it goes, as it always does, the presentation continuing and the lecturer's throat drying out even under the heavy assistance of a few pints of water on hand. Dazed and tired faces look on, as the voice begins to falter, until finally it peters out completely. The students become amazed at their luck and tumble out until the speaker stands alone with a register and a pile of leftover pages to lug back to his office.

The throat stays dry until hours later, and the headache lingers until the wee small hours of the morning, when rowdies can be heard in the streets outside and finally the world expands to enough of the cosmos to encourage sleep. For a few hours now there shall be sleep.

It goes like this every Friday afternoon, until finally the end of term approaches and everyone concerned breaths a sigh of relief. One last Friday night lecture and all concerned can relax and the cycle begins one last time. Release always comes if you wait long enough, at least until the next academic year.


Dedicated to everyone with a last thing lecture on a Friday.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The Blank Page

Every thing that gets written starts with what can only be described as the blank page. Sure, there might be a template or a pattern to fill in, but it's still ultimately blank. My amazement lives in the idea that there are people out there who can fill blank pages so well, people who can construct plays and novels that seem to effortlessly entertain and divert and illuminate. I wish I could do the same, but I know that I write experiments and exercises more than triumphs. They are far more valuable personally than aesthetically or creatively, but they are still valuable, and the Quirky Muffins lives on in its state of permanent disarray.

Some people can fill the pages magnificently. Steven Moffat, for example, just landed a wonderful fiftieth anniversary episode of 'Doctor Who' squarely in the park and made it look easy. I'm sure it was utterly blindingly difficult, as were his two episodes of 'Sherlock' so far and all the great 'Press Gang' and 'Doctor Who' and 'Coupling' shows he wrote. The man is a wizard. Long live the Great Moff. He's a man who got to write two of his favourite characters in the history of literature, and they're both icons to boot. He's also a man who gets ridiculous amounts of petty criticism from the audience portion of the media-sphere, and keeps on going despite it. In the short term, the Internet has all the critical value of a drunken mob of yobs dissatisfied that their free lump of gold has a picture of a yak instead of a mango engraved upon it. Long term reaction is all that reflects accurately.

For sheer diversity not many people leap into the mind as quickly as the Moff. Perhaps another example is the bearded wonder Terry Pratchett, who wrote in so many genres and tones in the grand era of his Discworld novels that he could well be one of the most magnificently skilled authors ever to wield a pen, and yet they're all fantasy so no one will ever really take him seriously. It's bizarre how that works. Long time correction will win out again, just more subtly.

Perhaps the blank page is really an invitation instead of a challenge. Perhaps my research would fare better if it began on a blank page again, a new invitation to investigation. It is so frustrating to be blocked by what seems to be a minor problem. Every system of differential equations has to be completed by boundary or initial conditions so that we can work out specific solutions instead of general ones, so why can't we concoct a compatible set of conditions for our problem? Obviously there's a fundamental lack of understanding going on somewhere. There's a blank page unfilled, an improvidence deep in the works only now wreaking havoc, and general rethinking and restart is in order. Yet, we are so incredibly close as it stands...

On good days, especially on real paper, the blank page is a fantastic thing to have in front of you. You can do amazing things with a piece of paper, a pen, and no computer or Internet to distract. Long bus journeys back and forth to Aberystwyth have yielded lovely long letters as well as bizarre odes to joy and some of these posts. What more can come of the blank pages to come? And what of your own blanks?


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book: 'Dust And Shadow' by Lyndsay Faye (2009)

I've been trying to get back to Sherlock Holmes for a while now, looking for an avenue to sneak back onto the topic that would hold its structure enough to not collapse inward into 'Gosh! Sherlock Holmes!', so the novel by Lyndsay Faye (Baker Street Babes!) was as good an excuse as any, and will also feed into the post being written on 'Murder By Decree'. You see, this book and that movie are connected thematically, both being about Holmes investigating Jack the Ripper and both being unusual in that Sherlock gets emotional.

No story by any author other than Conan Doyle is canonical, and most aren't even true to the style. In truth, of those that I've read only Nicholas Meyer's 'Seven-Per-Cent Solution' comes close to being eminently Doyle-ian in style and then perhaps unintentionally. So, 'Dust and Shadows' approaches the story via the characters rather than by some stylistic apeing. It does so wonderfully but somewhat grimly as the tones of Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper do not easy bedfellows make. They clashed awkwardly in 'Murder By Decree' and again here. There seems to be a temptation to mix the infamous real world maniacal serial killer and contemporaneous fictional Master Detective, and -- Oh boggle! Of course there's a temptation! It's like mixing chocolate chip cookies with ice cream! Except that in this case we can't tell which is which. If you see sensationalist fact and sensationalist fiction conveniently set in the same time frame then who's going to not think about it?

Stop. Recoup. How I loathe critics. We can make up our own minds about what's good and bad; We don't need elitist snobs setting themselves up to favour us with their barbed shafts of critical wit. Humbug to them, and then make them watch Fleischer Popeye cartoons and work out what's really going on in the world. I rather like those cartoons, by the way. Fleischer were cool. Very fluid.

Back to 'Dust And Shadow', and perhaps it's best to avoid traditional criticism as it becomes destructive if used widely or for too long. My reaction was generally positive but in this case the cookies and the ice cream don't go together as well as we thought they might. In fact, we already know this to be true from 'Murder By Decree', which inspires shudders of dissonance in recollection. The character of Sherlock Holmes is not the one who can react to the outrage spectacularly enough to fulfil the role of the hero in this story. Sherlock Holmes is a man, a fictional man, of such steely resolve that he'll live through the case and perhaps even catch Jack, but then lock the horror up within himself as fuel to carry himself onward. That's not the hero of the story we need. In fact, if anyone should be the hero it is Dr Watson, and he is the one to resolve it all in the end. We sometimes forget Watson is a soldier, and the one out of the two who has experience of doing terrible things for good ends. Indeed that's often the lot of the doctor as well as the warrior. Interesting. Doctors fight wars just as much as soldiers, but theirs are eternal and never ending.

It's a staggeringly well researched book, full of little details and a clear love for the canon and the characters - are the characters part of canon or does that refer to the stories only? Canon is a fuzzy word, like chamomile or marshmallow - but the central twinned cores of the story can't coexist and remain true to themselves. You can have Sherlock Holmes being taken to see Sigmund Freud, or even trash everything and have 'Young Sherlock Holmes', but the Ripper is too real. It's a shame as I have nothing but admiration in every other sense of the work. There was another Holmes pastiche - 'pastiche' is the word they use for non-canonical Sherlock stories - recently, called the House of Silk, and that had similar problems in that the ultimate resolution of the story was too grim and too real to fit into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Also, it just wasn't as well written as 'Dust and Shadow', or 'The Seven-Per-Cent Solution', or 'All Consuming Fire' or the majestic canon itself. It's like trying to light a candle and pass it off as a bonfire. I can't believe I haven't mentioned 'All Consuming Fire' before this, by Andy Lane. If you know what that is then you get a gold star, a pat on the head, and then a giant glass of milk. Hmm, three pastiches here and not two...

Having said all that, I'll keep 'Dust And Shadow'. It's a well written beast, but just a trifle too inevitably grim. How could it be otherwise?


PS Oh, and on this day of Doctor Who mania, I have only two words for you: Sherlock Lives.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Home Strait

We made it into the home strait, my students and I, and now I only need to get them through seven more lecture hours before they are finally rid of me and get to sit the exam I nominally wrote. And then what will happen to them? Well, they'll go on to their next courses and classes and I'll go on to whatever my next port of call might be. It's just hard to know where and what that might be. Probably there will be a lot of work as post-PhD rebuilding goes on.

Life after being a student is rarely what it was before, or what it was planned to be, or so I perceive from the people around me those I used to know. It's a strange and hectic time. Where one would expect a degree of stability with a PhD after one's name instead we find insecurity and pressure. It's tough, and would be better with a publication or two, but that's the touchiest subject of all.

To get on in academia you have to justify yourself and your research with publications. In principle and in practice that would appear to be fine, but in actuality we end up in the worst kind of quagmire. For my part, it's reasonable that I don't have publications as I really haven't worked hard enough. This will have to be made up for in the worst ways imaginable - working, blast it! - but in the meantime I'm pretty much unemployable as an academic. It's time to buckle down and examine every possible combination of boundary condition possible until death or glory beckons, and then convert to Statistics and founder there as well! Or bizarrely succeed, of course.

So seven lecture hours to go and three or four topics left to stretch into the time... It's not as hard as it could have been, even if the content of the module is woefully insufficient. Tomorrow's lecture has been naturally extended just by adding a clear throughline, and talking about the individual steps. The only danger is that students can get put off the things they need to know for the exam by the things they need to know to succeed. Teaching to exams is a dangerous business, after all, and one best to be avoided. Hopefully I've added enough to make the lectures coherent and linearly stronger while not obfuscating the issue overly.

obfuscate: to confuse or make unclear

'Obfuscate' is a lovely work, the antonym for 'explain' or 'clarify'. If we only knew how much some of the people in charge obfuscated we would be much much harder on them. I've often been tempted to obfuscate in times of utmost stress just to escape a tedious social occasion. Usually I just left instead. Why obfuscate when you can just be rude?


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Story: Oneiromancy, IV

(Part O , III , V)

This time he was flying, high - far too high - above a desert that was shimmering under the heat of a relentless sun in the pale blue sky. The dunes were barely perceptible from this height, merely smudges on the otherwise featureless expanse from horizon to horizon. The speed was incredible as he knifed through the air, and if it weren't for the inevitable dreamland physics in action he felt he would have fainted due to lack of breathing mere moments into the experience.

It was calm up there, in the great expanse, and for a while he forgot about it all and enjoyed the experience. Where he was going, he knew not, nor where he had flown from. Between a few minutes and a few days later the man slowed and then stopped high above what seemed to be a featureless hill of sand projecting from the arid plains. The world convulsed.

The shaking went on for ages, and the sky itself seemed to shudder. The sun vanished and the moon rose, and the moon vanished in turn to be replaced by three new moons and a ring of cosmic debris emitting a ghostly light. The convulsions settled and in startlement the flier saw a face in the hill of sand beneath him. Defiantly feminine nose, eyes and mouth could be seen in the dunes and valleys beneath and the suggestions of ears and a noble brow and chin.

The eyes opened and for a moment looked about wildly before seeing the man. Disconcertingly, the blue of the pupils had no tinge of sandiness and a sense of serenity settled into them as she gazed upwards and he down. The mouth opened, but only a mighty wind emerged, and then a horrid void pulling the man down in a great wave of suction. All power of flight faded and he plummeted down, down, down into the abyss that was the sandy mouth until finally he vanished from all Earthly sight and was gone.

The great sandy face wept sandy tears and seemed to shiver and quake in its own feeble structure, looking for a way out back to reality. A way to tell what she was trying to tell. The blue eyes of sand blinked, faded to yellow, and then the whole facade crumpled back into the desert, as if no-one had ever been there. The sandy desert continued, an archetype buried in the great common unconscious of the people dead, born and waiting.

The dream time faded into nothingness and somewhere out in the wide world of space and time a man awoke - and a woman - both confused and disoriented, and both with a nagging sense of things badly awry. If only the man had had time and thought in their own private shared desert to look up, and gaze upon a now sculpted debris ring, he would have seen something extraordinary: "Help me".

And then they went about their business for yet another day.

To be extended...

Sunday, 17 November 2013


Hitting my head against a wall. Mathematics getting in the way of real writing. Giant concepts flying around and messing with the concept of reality. Logarithms jumping up and down and waving noxious plain yogurt around menacingly. Oh good grief, it's so hard to be analytical and so tired, and still trying to write prose. Tired because of locking myself out of my hotel room for six hours and not sleeping a couple of days ago, and analytical because I am a mathematician. Today I was thinking about how they determined the value of the exponential constant e and am still wondering. The exponential function is incredibly interesting. Presumably they estimated e from some graphical concepts first, or one of its limit definitions, and then realised that it was the same number that kept popping up elsewhere before connecting all the dots and shouting 'Barnaby Jones'!

My hotel has very interesting carpets, by the way. Oh, the tedium!

Anyway, back off topic we go. What is the topic? I don't know, and I'm determined to stop having such things in general as they ruin the intent of the whole thing. It doesn't have to be about anything, not least of which the way the little Shakespeare head patterns in the weave would skip pattern halfway up each flight of stairs as they changed rolls. No, it shouldn't even be about carpet! Oh bother, that might be too hard, but carpet is certainly off the table. No more carpet talk. That reminds me that one of the most annoying things about living in Hungary was the lack of carpet and the insistence people would have on you removing your shoes when you visited them. It was bizarre. There were lots of good things about Hungary but this wasn't one of them. I wish they had had carpet instead of trying to make me wear communal slippers. Oh, and the green men lie. Strange places and silly times. That was not carpet talk, but rather 'absence of carpet' talk and so no rules were broken, especially if you look away now and pretend to be examining that cloud that looks like Clement Atlee.

One night's sleep isn't enough to make up for working too much. My head is so full of cotton wool that is even this nonsense has twinges of sense to it. Hopefully the trend of people not reading this will continue so as to leave this all unknown. Hmmm, but hopefully the stories will continue to get enhanced viewership. We're due to have the next episode in 'Oneiromancy' soon, and it's proving tricky as convincing dream imagery can only really be concocted while in a less than lucid state. In short, you have to be in a truly weird state of mind to come up with things which can actually be realistic as dreams. <breaks> I just wrote some due to being utterly sleep deprived and thinking that camels might be covertly comedic on purpose. There could be an academy somewhere that teaches them. Oh, and you are all sand dunes.

What? Oh! Um, the second season DVDs of 'The Six Million Dollar Man' are waiting for me to get to them. TSMDM is an interesting television show. It's camp and cheesy but also good hearted and was also a massive shift forward for genre television at the time. The dramatic standards were high and they made the best of what they had. It's fascinating. It's even more fascinating to realise how few years lay between the end of TSMDM and 'The Fall Guy'. Suddenly the words are making sense, just when it's time to stop. It was actually more fun to be fighting through the block in a way, but the lunacy has gone. Humbug!


Friday, 15 November 2013


The Phrontistery states that a 'paranym' is an obsolete term for a 'euphemism', those beloved terms we use in place of things considered crude or inappropriate. The vast majority of euphemisms, as a consequence of their function are related to scatological and sexual issues, those twinned topics that make people uncomfortable the world over.

I like the word 'paranym', it being a word that can be used in place of 'euphemism' and unknown enough to be a euphemism itself. The Phrontistery is a treasure trove of little known terms that faded out of the language, and yet when you browse through the lists it becomes apparent why some of them went to begin with. We just don't talk that much about donkeys in detail anymore, or tiny details of churches, and people don't seem to want the extensive vocabularies of days past. It's sad, but I digress from my original intent, which is for now lost to time as much as 'paranym' or 'tetradarchy'.

Euphemisms don't seem to be as common now as they were in the past, a legacy of a bygone era when people were less open and all things scatological and sexual proscribed from the language at all cost. Now, it somehow feels quaint to use a paranym. Perhaps that societal change is one of the reasons why spoken English has become rather less colourful as time goes by and more and more things become acceptable to the population at large, if not for prudes such as myself.

There are lovely words that could be used again in my world at large. For example, the word 'xerostomia' is far more interesting than 'excessive dryness of the mouth'. Next time I'm trapped in a parching hotel room, gasping for air and wondering when the night will finally come to an end I will cherish my xerostomia even if it is worrying in the extreme. You should all cherish xerostomia when it occurs, but not preserve it for time immemorial. That would be the insane option, as favoured by game show hosts and people of dubious reality.

And now, for a mild diversion, last night was the last night for 'Thor: The Dark World' at the local cinema and so I duly toddled the twenty sideways steps to get there and was ultimately a bit bored. Previously mentioned somewhere was my apprehension at this year's movies as among them were three essentially corrective sequels or reboots to movies I liked but apparently very few other people did, name 'Iron Man 2', 'Superman Returns' and 'Thor'. 'Thor: The Dark World' is fine, but it has had its predecessor's soul sucked out of it and replaced with generic action. If you want to make a film interesting then the characters are what is needed, not fighting. Fighting just makes a movie like every other fighting movie. What was a neo-Nordic-Shakespearian romp was converted to spaceships and cataclysmic events with really far too many jokes. They were good jokes, of course, but there too many. Also, filmmakers, if you're going to use Christopher Ecclestone then you'd better give him something interesting to do underneath the rubbishy makeup! In the end 'Thor TDW' was the only one of the three relaunches I saw, and in a perverse way I'm glad to have skipped 'Man of Steel' and 'Iron Man 3'.

Perhaps we'll get back to paranyms one day, and start babbling incoherently again, as only the use of euphemisms permit, smoothing as they do the dark potholes of narrative stream and denying dalliances with subjects best left for another conversation. Here's for encouraging euphemisms!


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Television: 'M*A*S*H: Abyssinia, Henry' (Episode 3x24)

There is conceivably no other television show that I will write two episode articles about, barring possible original Star Trek. I could easily pick two or three more to write about, even, which is unprecedented. The series was so good and original and funny in its first four seasons that it transcends the limits of its own format to be spectacular.

The man behind it all was show creator and leader Larry Gelbart, who with the great assistance of the crack directors and cast managed to produce a series both heartfelt, socially aware, critical and utterly human. The only downside to the show's first three seasons was the unhappiness of Wayne Rogers and McLean Stevenson, who played Trapper and Henry, and the perceived (and real) priority given by the show to Alan Alda's Hawkeye Pierce. Clearly there was a degree of 'second banana' syndrome but the show really did bias heavily and unfairly at times toward Alda at their expense and so independently the two finally decided to leave. Wayne Rogers was written out more absently in the fourth season premiere but here the beloved Henry gets a full and unexpected sendoff, Stevenson leaving in a presumably more planned and less acrimonious manner than Rogers. Even Frank Burns got a nicer sendoff than Trapper!

On the other hand, they killed Henry Blake.

It wasn't unprecedented for a character to die in a television show, but here it was a surprise, and came hot on the heels of twenty minutes of reminding us why the character was well-loved. The closing sequence was shocking: Radar walks into the OR and reads out a report that Henry Blake's plane was shot down, and that he was lost on his return home to the US after his trials in Korea. The actors themselves had only had a few minutes to prepare and it shows. There's a rawness to it all that is quite, quite jarring. The producers were vowed to never do anything so shocking again, and they didn't, but they didn't have to. You only have to throw the elbow once, after all, to show that you can and will. There was an episode of 'The West Wing' about that.

The main point about this episode is that it put MASH aside, into a whole other category of television show. For the rest of its run it wasn't the 'sitcom called MASH' anymore, but simply MASH. It may never have done anything so extreme as 'Abyssinia, Henry' again, which is extremely funny as well as sad, but it set a bar. In many ways no-one else has ever even made it close enough to see that bar. It's a quality mark to be able to do drunken shenanigans, a hearty farewell to a character flying home, and then a grim moment of terribly bad news. You can tell 'Abyssinia, Henry' is a good episode because it's hard to watch. Even while the fun is going on, the spectre of what to come refuses to budge, and so any viewing other than the first is permeated with an almost vicious melancholy. I'll even avoid the couple of episodes preceding it just to try to forget it happens. Blast you, MASH writers.

Rest in peace, Henry Blake, you were loved.

PS For commentaries on every single episode of MASH, check out Rob Kelly's AfterMASH podcast. So far he's almost halfway through season six.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Doodling On

Random reflections. My weeks tend to be rather schizophrenic, split between Aberystwyth and here in picturesque Pontyates. There's never any time to get settled, and the two hour bus journeys allows time only for reading huge tracts of lovely novels and getting rather travel sick. It's all quite the slog but there is reward in it, of the more abstract kind. An opportunity to lecture has been invaluable and as the remaining weeks dwindle away it's fun to think about what has gone right and what has gone wrong.

It's surprising how well the overall process of lecturing has gone. I surely could have been better prepared for every single lecture, the early ones being particularly catastrophic, but the lectures have been mildly successful. It's true that they laugh at me rather than listen and learn but that's the way of life as I have learnt it. There have always been people laughing at or dismissing rather than being interested. I think I must put out some kind of 'buffoon' aura or miss some cues. Ah well, 'tis life, and we do what we do to get by. Now if I could only get these lectures to be long enough I would be delighted!

As I continue to doodle here I remember how strange the latest 'Due South' commentary for Film Bin was, all kinds of hesitations and garbledness pushed together to make a big mess which sometimes seemed more concerned with director Lyndon Chubbuck than the episode itself, which was rather good but part two of a story whose part one was bizarre. As a result the whole thing was bizarre but Mr Chubbuck saved part two heroically.

So many novels on the go at the moment, thanks to the (lonely) awesomeness of living away from home four nights a week. Even if I wanted to work I couldn't, as there is no laptop and I refuse to buy one. In this frantic and frenzied world I am amazed, utterly astounded even, that people buy gadgets so that their work and entanglements follow them even on holiday! Isn't it bizarre? Humans are so confounding! It was probably less stressful when we all used sign language and the occasional grunt to communicate. I hypocritically use my primeval phone to check e-mail but really wish that habit hadn't grown.

The Patrick O'Brian novels are rather good. I'm enjoying them much more this time. Mark Twain is also proving to be much better than I expected as I plunge into 'The Prince and the Pauper', while remaining bafflingly stuck on Dorothy L Sayers' 'Five Red Herrings'. It's noticeable in the Sayers novels that she employs extremely accurate dialects and the Scottish verbiage in 'Five Red Herrings' is extremely annoying. Sometimes realism can be taken so far as to sabotage the intended effect of the story itself. It's entirely possible I'm the only one who has ever been bothered by such things though, so I'll refrain from further comment. I think the book must be missing a hook of some kind or that I'm just jaded with mysteries.

It's time to stop, and think about the stories to come. What will come down the Dream Line?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Story: The Glove, VI [Obsoleted]

(Part I , V , VII)

Steffan stood outside the Piper Hall for a moment and wondered at the madness of what he had just done. Then, without looking back even once he walked down the road and submerged into the throng of people going about their business.

Inside the Pipers Hall, Master Octavius sat with steepled fingers and thought about the events of the day. He had not considered for a moment that the apprentice would refuse and now there was someone unprecedented out there in the world, someone aware of the purpose of the Guild but also apart from it.

The Apprentice sat in a cafe and wondered what to do with his life. After refusing the honour of joining the Masters Council he had also requested and been granted a suspension of his Guild Membership for the purposes of sabbatical. Sipping from a hot mug of coffee he realised that he had no purpose in his life for the first time since being little.

Octavious had two meetings after Steffan had gone and his duties had reasserted themselves: One with the other members of the Council, and then another with the second choice for the mission. The reserve Piper was experienced, steady, and incredibly well known. The very presence of Master Lambo would not fail to make itself known in any location for very long. It was not an ideal situation at all.

The coffee ebbed away to nothing in the mug, and Steffan wondered at what he had learnt. The Pipers functioned as a surveillance agency for the whole world, gathering and collating intelligence in a way he had never realised before. During training he had been told a little about listening to people and to always be on the watch for new material for ballads but this new information took that idea several steps beyond anything. The piles of papers and maps on Octavius's world indicated something major in the works, and a huge trust in the man who had rejected his offer.

Octavius sent Lambo on his way at the same time that Steffan left the cafe for home. As the suspended apprentice went into his kitchen to tell his mother and father the news, new piles of intelligence collapsed onto the Master's table as well as an in-depth study of Steffan himself. The study was the same as it had been the last time he had read it, but now the conclusions twisted about and a nagging anxiety about the boy would not abate, even as that boy lay in his bed and wondered at the supposed rise in anger amongst the population at large.

The night rolled in and Burgh settled to sleep, or as much to sleep as a bustling city could. For most, anxieties faded away as blissful repose put their minds to ease, but 'most' is almost never the same as 'all'.

To be continued...

NOTE: After re-reading 'Dragonflight' and 'Dragonquest' it is obvious that the Pipers are are inspired by the Harpers in those classic Anne McCaffrey novels. If you haven't read the pair, then you really should.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Far too easy

It's far too easy to forget that you care about things sometimes, and if you do remember it can become a bit fuzzy as to why you care. I've been back in Aberystwyth for extended periods twice now since finishing my undergraduate degree and only two nights ago did I remember just why I love it so.

On the first occasion I was here, I was on a short postdoc and it took place mostly over late February to June and it was all quite summery. The area was beautiful and the weather was dry and I just didn't reconnect to why it was awesome. Yes, there are lovely walks across the hills and bike trails but that's not the heart of living in Aberystwyth.

There is a key experience to being here, which I only am a few nights a week, and that is to walk along the promenade on a cold wet windy night, to get splashed and catch mist in the face from water slapping against the great containing wall. To smile ridiculously into the night and wait to catch some more. That's how I remembered I loved Aberystwyth on Fireworks Night and it will stick with me now until I have to leave again, for parts unknown. It is sublime for someone of my perverse nature, and was compounded with some student fireworks going up from Constitution Hill. Then I got splashed some more. It was lovely.

The only equivalent experiences I can came is far more touristy and schlocky but just as enjoyable. If you go to Barcelona in Spring or Autumn, eschewing the horrors of the summer, there are two experiences of a most enjoyable nature. They both involve rain. I really love rain. First of all, if you are walking down Las Ramblas and the tiniest speck of rain falls from the skies, everyone runs for cover like scared little children, and then they look at you like a mad person if you don't. Madness! Secondly, you can visit La Font Magica - the Magic Fountain - and watch its illuminations as the day transitions through dusk, and somehow move on to another plane. The music, the gathering gloom, and the lights conspire to make some other experience of it all, and one to be cherished.

Still, given the choice between a magic fountain and a wet, cold, windy night on the seafront the choice will have to be the seafront. What an awesome place!


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Story: The Disappearance (XIII)

(Part XII , XIV)

The story according to Rolf McGonagle:
It all started out very innocently. As I sit here held captive it all seems quite unbelievable. My father, the great Zod McGonagle called me into his office and said that he was going to retire but that first there was a secret that had to be passed on. He put on his most solemn and pompous expression. "Rolf, my boy," he said to me, "we have a secret partner in the business. You'll come to know them as you go forward in running this place. For now I shall simply introduce you to your cousin Dabney Sheldon."

I looked at Dabney Sheldon and saw someone utterly unprepossessing. He was of nondescript years and a little hard to pin down. Over the following years though, he exposed and used a will of iron on numerous occasions. Dabney's involvement was to bring an extra source of unbelievably inexpensive and reliable ingredients from an unknown origin, which he would not reveal for obscure reasons. And it was impressed upon me that we could not reveal said source without unbelievably bad implications for all concerned. I would not be assuaged and probed further, but the methods by which Dabney enforced the secrecy of the project first appalled me, and then beguiled me. The disappearances of detectives and innocent bystanders became less of an outrage and more of a price that had to be paid.

Dabney would discover someone had been asking questions and after a few questions of his own would then calmly order they be 'slipped the biscuit', and a few bystanders too for camouflage. His eyes never seemed to change as he gave the order but his lips did twitch. I suspect my lips twitch a little now too, as that responsibility has devolved unto me. Dabney left us many years ago. One day he was simply gone, and there was an order left on my desk to 'carry on and keep the schedules'. I gather now he was a transitional advisor sent to help me when I took over.

Even though the dirty tricks had long ceased to be a problem to me, the mystery of it all was too intriguing so as I followed the schedules I tried to learn more about what was going on. One evening on a routine walk around the tertiary supply dump I saw the supplies materialising from thin air and then never looked back. Ha, the future! Who would ever have thought it! Every time we sold something now with cheap food from the future we made a profit and became exponentially richer as a family fifty years from now due to the wonders of compound interest. Eventually I hitched a ride to the future and got the whole story, and then slowly took charge of both ends of the operation, taking over from a ruined and ancient version of myself there of course. The timeline would take a battering but who would care as we were getting richer!

My niece Agnes may look at me as if I were dirt, but money is power, and we need to be powerful in the future. It was worth it. It's always worth it. And if not, then the white knight always need someone to tilt at. And you'll never be able to stop us. It's all in place now. You'll never stop us, and if there's a singularity that kills thousands of people then that's worth it too, and from my point of view... Well, it's neither here nor there.

More will follow...

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Television: 'Sherlock' 2x01 - A Scandal In Belgravia

As I sit, trying and struggling to get into the pilot episode of 'Elementary', I'm more and more forcibly reminded about this superior example of the original contemporary Sherlock show in this phase of Holmesian adaptations. 'A Scandal In Belgravia' is by far the best example of the BBC television movies, written by the ever excellent Stephen Moffat and directed by the now moved-on Paul McGuigan.

The joy of the BBC 'Sherlock' is in the sheer joyful blending of the modern canonical details with present day Britain, and the modern substitutions that it possible to be so authentic. Text messages are an automatic replacement for telegrams, while the Internet is an easy substitute for tabloid papers. Finally, it was possible for modern Watson to be returning from service in Afghanistan just as the canonical Watson did. It's an easy fit now, after decades of adaptations being not quite right. Even the lauded Rathbone and Bruce Holmes films struggle in the imperfect calendar setting.

Looking at 'A Scandal in Belgravia' specifically, we see an intricately constructed film that integrates elements from the story 'A Study In Scarlet' with a massive number of original elements, and the prevailing loneliness of the Holmes brothers. The massive enlargement of the role of Mycroft Holmes is one of the most endearing aspects of 'Sherlock', allowing massive insight into the background of Sherlock without ever spelling it out explicitly. The surest way to kill an iconic character is to explain them, and that is never done here. We see the things that motivate them without understanding the reasons why. Also, Mark Gatiss is brilliant in the role, a far better performer than he is writer in fact. The epic nature of the story, spanning months, and the entirely new character of Molly also allow access into Sherlock's development without really explaining any of it.

The other thing that elevates the marvellous 'Belgravia' is the usage of Irene Adler, known forever to Sherlock and his fans simply as 'The Woman'. Here she is woman amped up to the extreme, powerful and vulnerable, and the only one to crack through the imbalanced mentality of Sherlock. She is the Woman, and defeats him at every turn until the end. The underlying story of 'Sherlock' is that he is a man missing a part, that he will never become fully normal, but this is an interesting waypoint on the way to his ultimate destiny. The final reveal at the end, motivated as it is by Sherlock having been told his own earlier undoing at Adler's hands, is all the sweeter in combination with what is perhaps the most sumptuous music to ever be scored on a television show. He wins, but destroys himself in the process.

When we look back at 'Sherlock', after its full run of twelve or fifteen films has been completed, it is very likely that this episode will stand as the pinnacle of the bunch. No-one writes Sherlock Holmes like Moffat, unshackled as he is here by the content restrictions he normally has on 'Doctor Who'. The other writers pale in comparison, even when they turn in solid examples. Strangely the next film, 'The Hounds of Baskerville', was critically lauded while being deplorably bad. It's sad, really, that glitz can overrule judgement so thoroughly and in direct contrast to 'Belgravia'.

It's time to stop, as the pilot episode to 'Elementary' winds down without ever really winding up. Strange and mercenary thing to do, manufacturing a second updated Sherlock Holmes television show. Maybe it will become more engaging? But never as much as 'A Scandal In Belgravia'.

Roll on, series three, it's long past time!


Friday, 1 November 2013

Verne and Wells

It doesn't always feel that I do subjects justice on the Quirky Muffin. Sometimes something promising gets shrunk or cranked out due to time constraints or just wanting to go to sleep and be done with the day. Not this time.

Jules Verne pioneered science fiction in a few of his Extraordinary Voyages stories. He did it unwittingly and comparatively seldom but he travelled to the centre of the Earth and sent ships around the moon. His influence was enormous and his most famous stories are clearly adventures as opposed to horrors or tragedies. Years after Verne's prime and death, John Dickson Carr declared adventures impossible to write as the World Wars had made the planet too small for anything or any journey to be romantic, but he forgot that stories didn't need to be realistic to be stories, and that adventures could still work in other more speculative kinds of fiction. Adventure would go on, and they would be repopularised by Star Trek of all things, a clear successor to the wanderlust of Jules Verne's novels as well as the daring exploits of Horatio Hornblower. Star Trek was positive where so much other science fiction was dystopian and that was why it was popular. In America they freed science fiction from the shackles of horror and it prospered.

How had science fiction become so shackled to horror and dystopian visions of the future? Perhaps one of the main reasons was the grand success of H.G. Wells, who coupled fantastical ideals to catastrophic events. His journeys inevitably saw the protagonist go too far and retreat stumbling while the problem either crumbled away of its own causing or simply ended in tragedy as in the case of 'The Invisible Man'. These landmark stories coupled horror to grand speculative ideas and they remain coupled to this day. In Britain we never had Star Trek of our own, but instead had Doctor Who, which of course is steeped in rich layers of body horror and monsters almost every episode. We were never really liberated, and nothing has ever challenged Doctor Who as THE British science fiction program.

In Star Trek and Doctor Who do we essentially see the duelling spirits of Verne and Wells, grappling over how we should approach stories and ideas ahead of their times? I can not even attempt to disguise my lack of interest in the Wells stories, being as they are so dismally pessimistic. Why read along to the desolation of Britain under alien invasion when you can travel under the oceans for twenty thousand leagues or discover the Lost World with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Is this the juvenile and immature choice to make? Perhaps, but it is definitely the most enjoyable choice.

It certainly feels as if Wells is felt everywhere except in Star Trek, as if those bold voyages are the only place for some kind of Verne-ian ideal to prosper openly. Perhaps the 1960s were the only time when such a series could launch into the popular culture and become an archetype to test time itself? Only the primal idea of Superman even seems to approach that optimism, defeated though it has been in recent incarnations.

Despite all this, and the dreariness of the sci-fi landscape as a whole, you can't help but admire HG Wells for the impact his style and works have had, from The Twilight Zone to Doctor Who to Farscape and beyond. He created modern science fiction. Jules Verne inspired Star Trek though, and for that he's the winner in my eyes.