Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Setting the Menu

Ah, a challenge. The ultimate challenge. Is it a life-changing examination? A feat of acrobatic endeavour? Do 1500 words on the merits of hippopotami as pets need to be compiled at a moment's notice? Good grief, is a life on the line? No, it's greater than any of those, it's the annual New Year's Day banquet, and on this occasion the theme is Italian. Italian!

Putting together a menu is the second most difficult part of the whole operation, but also the most enjoyable. The enjoyment is in the theory, the exertion is in the sequencing of the different operations so that it all fits together, and the chaos is in the doing of said operations. Six different dishes to all be ready at the same time? Easy! You just need an intelligent octopus, five assistants who all follow instructions blindly, an instantaneous washing up machine, and a piece of string. To be honest I don't know why you need the piece of string, but it's traditional and expected.

Why do a mega-meal on New Year's Day? Not just because it's tradition, surely? Tradition is anathema to the logical mind. Is there a rational mind in the house? Eschewing all the major faith-based holidays leaves only the arbitrarily chosen New Year's Day and the ever so slightly squinky birthday. Why describe birthdays via the only vaguely defined 'squinky'? Why keep asking rhetorical questions? Rhetorical questions are the most fun. Birthdays are squinky because they they mark a person's emergence into the world, and into independence, but not their beginning. Birthdays don't even come along uniformly at 40 weeks of actual age. They're 'squinky'. Golly, I hope squinky doesn't have an actual definition!

One of those rhetorical questions didn't get an answer, at least not a whole one. We know why New Year's Day, but not why a super stressful mega-meal is to be produced. Maybe you have to give back sometimes, and so on this day I cook dramatically for the lady who cooks relentlessly for most of the other days of the year. A super-meal for the mother has to happen. It's time to pretend to be a nice person!


Sunday, 28 December 2014

Questions of Reality

The things you see around you, the noises you hear, the textures you feel, the flavours you taste and the aromas or stenches you can smell, none of these things are exactly like that in reality. Every single person in the world experiences their own version of what that world is really like, and it might be close to what is really there but how close? The classic example involves colours: Light hits an object and then reflects into someone's eye, whose brain is keyed to respond to that frequency of light as 'blue' and so Bob sees some blue. Was the thing actually blue? Is blue even a real thing? We have no idea! 'Blue' may just be a human concept for making sense of the things all around us, just like all the colours!

If knowing reality seems difficult, then knowing another person is exponentially more difficult, a process which is far more complicated by the fact that you can never really accomplish that feat! You can get a perception and that's about it. Truly, you can observe and try to understand that perception of someone but is that actually worth anything at all? Consider the obstacles: You are trying to work out the personality of someone, based on the limited number of behaviours you've seen them exhibit, filtered through your own nervous system, and biased by whatever preconception you want to be true of them. On top of all those internal issues, the person you think you know might be pretending or hiding something, throwing even more spanners into the proverbial works and adding more complications by the moment. It's an exceedingly complex business, simplified by nothing except perhaps hiding in the library, and reading the collected works of Wilkie Collins under a giant Cone Of Silence.

That difficulty in understanding the wider world and other people is probably why television is so important to me and to the world. In a life that has been remarkably free of interpersonal reactions, how else to learn about that other world than through television? It's the microcosm that sits in almost everyone's rooms in some manner, feeding humdrum alternative lives during the daytime and larger than life dramas and comedies in the evenings, even though no-one can ever find anything to watch. Oh, what perils there are to modern existence...

Reality, that funny concept we use as a catch-all term for everything we sense around us, is a funny thing. We think we know it, but really we don't have the faintest idea what's going on. Thanks to Uncertainty, our very observation of what we perceive as reality alters it at the quantum level anyway. Is it possible that happens with people too? Of course. Talking to a person forces that person to think about something and thereby change, meaning that you then have something new to learn and so on, and so on, all the while changing yourself until the chain reaction theoretically builds up to the point of total insanity. On a more real level, we're packed full of mental safeguards so as to resist a lot of changes, but that's a whole other story, or maybe many many other stories.

For now, it's probably easier to do as we do every day, and just accept what we see as the truth. It's as close as we will ever get in any case. What you see is what you get.


PS There is a pseudo-follow up to this post entitled 'Mental Safeguards'.Thank you!

Friday, 26 December 2014

Movie: 'The Incredibles' (2004)

The 'greatest hits' sequences of movies continues as we stroll through a week of peerless films here over the festive period. 'The Incredibles' was the sixth Pixar animated feature, and is probably still the best, lacking any of the saccharine qualities of other Pixar movies and turning out a story that is part 'James Bond', part 'Fantastic Four' and all incredible.

'The Incredibles' was a non-typical Pixar movie from the beginning, its brain trust being built around the director and producer of 'The Iron Giant', Brad Bird and John Walker. Those two, so specifically not of Pixar, infused a whole new sensibility to the studio for this film, also written by Bird, and no end of brass instruments. It's a fantastic ride from beginning to end, powered by a fantastic jazzy brass score from Michael Giacchino, and essentially reinventing the superhero movie for the modern age. Forget 'Spider-Man' or 'X-Men', as it all began here, done better than in the vast majority of the following mass produced superhero movies, and with far more heart.

'The Incredibles' boasts an impressive voice cast, magnificent visuals, superb virtual photography, one of the most gorgeous scores ever committed to an animated movie, more spy and adventure references than you'll find in any other film, and some of the most enjoyable spotlighting of comic book tropes on record, but what is it about? At the most basic level it's about a father missing out on the opportunity of being with his family while he longs for the glory days of being a rough and tough superhero, before all the 'supers' were driven underground by lawsuits, and it's about the difficulties they all have in trying to fit in and be normal while repressing the super parts of their characters. It's also about the story that unfolds when that dad, Bob aka Mr Incredible, falls into a new adventure and ultimately allows them all to embrace who they are and each other. Oh, and there are masses of jokes.

The strength of the movie is really in the Brad Bird influence, which permeates the whole enterprise, marking it in a very non-Pixar fashion. I am in no way saying that regular Pixar is bad, but it's not quite like 'The Incredibles'. This was very much the movie he wanted to make, and his passion for it bursts through both in the excellent filmmakers' commentary on the DVD and the audacious Giacchino score. It's the kind of spy and superhero caper that doesn't get made any more, indeed the kind that never got made to begin with! It's heartfelt where it needs be heartfelt, earns every emotional punchline, pushes the style up to maximum while retaining a charm and solidity, and all while maintaining arcs for four separate characters.

As 'The Apartment' plays to the side, it's becoming clear in retrospect that a vital aspect that it and 'The Incredibles' have in common is a punchy lack of schmaltziness. Is it possible that Brad Bird and Billy Wilder have a lot more in common than we think? It's clear they both wished there was more sneaking in movies in general.

Apart from the gags and some incredibly energetic action sequences - including one spectacular running chase sequence - there's something special about 'The Incredibles', something intangible and insubstantial, some style long unseen in film and not seen since. It's the 1950s fused into James Bond and international globetrotting, superheroics and fallen idols, hero worship gone bad and life renewed. Or it's a massive action romp with just enough plot to keep the whole thing running smoothly. You decide.


Movie: 'The Music Man' (1962)

Now that was a great experience. We're kicking off a 'greatest hits' sequence here at the Quirky Muffin with one of the greatest, and now least talked of, musicals to ever roll out to theatres: 'The Music Man'. Yes, let's roll back to 1962 and this movie adaptation of the super-hit Broadway musical, both featuring the incomparable Robert Preston. The stage version of 'The Music Man' is the musical that Baxter tries to use as a date for Miss Kubilik in 'The Apartment' and was apparently a sensation, but you might be wondering how I eventually came to see it so late or at all. The stage version is well known, but the movie?

The obvious route into watching 'The Music Man' (TMM) is the star himself, Robert Preston, who featured very memorably in the great (and underrated) space adventure 'The Last Starfighter' as interstellar huckster Centauri. We'll get to that movie one day, and appreciatively, but it does serve as the classic genre route for getting to TMM. As a secondary route you can follow Paul Ford from 'The Phil Silvers Show' where he unforgettably played Colonel Hall in his continuously bewildered state. Getting back to hucksters, though, it's Preston's movie from beginning to end, befitting his status as the stage lead and the character's status as the eponymous lead, Professor Harold Hill the Music Man and travelling con man.

The movie is the story of Hill's visit to stubborn Iowa town River City, where he plans to repeat his longstanding con of pretending to set up a boys band before skipping town with all the money and not having taught anything musical. In short he's a charlatan, maybe one with a heart of gold, but it's buried so deep as to be invisible and only Shirley Jones as Marion the Librarian can dig deep enough to reach it. Shirley Jones is brilliant, and played her role on stage too. Her songs may tend to the annoying warble, but she's every inch the actress for the role, unbearably lovely, tough, and vulnerable once reached. A lovely performance. Preston lives his role as if he was born to play it, on the other hand, dancing around while high on life, and finagling for all he's worth. He plays the very model of the scheming trickster, and one supremely musically gifted while not knowing a note of music. He should have been in more things, and probably was on the stage.

The true test of a musical is in whether the songs and dances fit organically into the story or stop the narrative dead, whether they add anything or merely function as decoration, and whether they distinguish themselves from those in other musicals. 'The Music Man' has songs that hit in places that other musicals fear to approach, except for perhaps 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying'. TMM has a feel of locomotion to it, probably inherited from the opening number on the train, and pulls you along breathlessly when it goes into a quick number and manages to remain visually interesting  when in the middle of a slow warbler. It also features the most wondrous sequence you will encounter in a film musical: A song and dance sequence in a library, which doubles as a seduction scene for Hill trying to steal the heart of Marion, madame librarian. A totally magical sequence only matched by one of the most still moments at the end, when Marion reveals ... Well, I won't say what she reveals.

A good musical oozes glee, a wonder at the sheer joy of being alive, and this is one of the best big musicals. It's just strange that I've never heard anyone ever refer to it.


PS Great Honk! Ye Gods!

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Ink on the page

There is something very personal about writing a letter, an unusual effort in this day and age. A letter is not disposable, endlessly editable, or renewable like the ubiquitous e-letters that amass to form e-mail. A letter has weight, substance and an emotional substrate to all written in it. It's not just ink on a page, but sweat, and mood indicated by the handwriting and the phraseology and the words erased. In short a paper correspondence is a totally different beast. The Quirky Muffin as mailed in physically would be a totally different beast to the one we have now, maybe not better but definitely different. There would be more poems, for one thing, and rather alarmingly.

As Christmas Day wafts by fairly unconcernedly and irrelevantly, I can look back and think about the letters I've written and how they linger. Just today I wrote a Christmas missive for my friend code named Cookie Monster, who lives far far away in a land beyond the closest horizon. Will she enjoy it? Hopefully, but if nothing else she'll love to get the letter itself, assuming it doesn't get eaten by the baby or accidentally thrust into a dark pit by spouses or vengeful cleaners. Oh, the horror of having cleaners for enemies on two separate continents, and only due to a beetroot stain incident in a conference four years ago! You would think that herbalists would be used to such things, but no... You pay, and pay, and pay...

Words are special, as I may have said repeatedly before, but words inscribed by hand on a page are more so. Not just handwritten letters, inscribed with curls of ink carefully addressed to the people that matter in the world, but pencil scratchings in fronts of books explaining gifts and adding emphasis, and journals describing people's innermost thoughts and never intended to see the light of day. Printed books are valuable in a different way, but mass produced and valueless until they're personalised in some way. A handwritten note can elevate a tome's personal value to priceless, while years of ownership can render a volume so recognisably yours as to be irreplaceable, whether it be by accumulated mutilations, annotations, or just those signs of use peculiar to each reader. However that emotional content of the handwritten note, lasting long beyond its author, can be so affecting even in mundanity as to be overwhelming. Some of the best parts of 'Due South' revolve around the entries in Benton's late father's journal, for example, which are either notes to himself or to his son down the line.

It's ironic that I would write this on Christmas Day, when all the greetings cards that have caused the felling of several forests are finally at their destinations with all manner of utterly uninteresting token messages. In my upbringing we never did Christmas, and such things passed me by. Now people get letters instead, a tradition that hopefully will catch on again. A token Christmas card with a ubiquitous message? Never! Several sides of composed and illegible text, well-meaningly crafted but incomprehensible? Yes, all the way! Now, that's more Christmas like, even if you're a non-believer like me!


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The First Inaugural Story Jam

It's Christmas, that massively confusing time for the more agnostic amongst us, and in a bid to escape thinking about it too much and relax from dog-related stress it might be time to do a story idea jam! For the record, Tess the venerable wacky sheepdog now has a funky blue bandage with red trucks emblazoned on it, and is making me very jealous. I want a funky blue bandage with red trucks on it!

Story jam, story jam. What is a story jam? On this occasion it's a session wherein I let loose every story idea that's rumbling around in the head and throw them down on the page, noting the best ones for future stories. For example, to recycle one idea from another post:

1) What if there were a group of mythology technicians who pulled the mythology for each civilization on each planet from a filing cabinet of templates, and what if one time you got it wrong and all mixed up?

Now, for an actual story jam. Even now I'm coming up dry, but let's keep going.

2) What if you were a bad guy and found out you were working for the good guys all along?

3) 'Detective, Detective', which I'm not allowed to talk about.

4) A correspondence story between twinned people in different dimensions.

5) The Jacques Cousteau of space.

6) What if your life took the form of a movie serial?

7) Scarves. The scarf-ocracy. Everything determined by scarves.

8) The world really is a great big onion, with different lives and peoples on different levels.

9) The modern world without combustion (but not Steampunk somehow?)?

10) Ghostly wanderings in the 9th Dimension.

11) Why, why, why are there never enough clothes pegs?

Now, having idea pumped for a while I got all these... things... some of which are just a bit terrible. However, there is hope, because they could be mushed up together in different ways and there is at least one really decent science-fiction idea in the list. Will a story come from it all? You will have to wait and see! More story jams will follow.


Sunday, 21 December 2014

Story: The Glove, X [Obsoleted]

An abbreviated story segment this time as we begin to work through the morass that is 'The Glove', and work out the motivations of all concerned. Yes, that's right: Motivation! Ha! The vow is that we'll get to the end of this story or try to do so for all the remaining lifetime of the Quirky Muffin! Actually, it's a very interesting voyage of discovery in learning the importance of putting some reason into why people do things. In 'Wordspace' there is an external motivating factor, and each of the character's literal definitions is itself motivation, but here... Well, we'll find out as we go, and that's all part of the fun. In fact, that discovery is why I began all this in the first place. The circle is complete once again.


The Glove, X
(Part I , IX , XI )

Edin the techno city reared up into the sky all around him, shiny and new and emblazoned with all the clan markers in lights. Over there the Mackay building, and there Anderson Park, and behind them all the Kirk of St Andrews, a historic anomaly in a metropolis otherwise pushing into the future constantly and relentlessly.

Once again Steffan stepped off the train and looked all around pensively. The city was just as rushed and worrisome as it always was, nothing like the bucolic peace to be found commonly back in Burgh. Returning to his lodgings, and waving at his young landlady as he went up the stairs, he entered and lay in his bunk. Shock had set in even as exhaustion loitered on the edge of his awareness. Sleep didn't come.

It was only late evening and not yet night. Steffan looked out the window. Somewhere out there there were answers; details that would let him know what to do next, should he do anything at all. Yes, that was the question: "Why should I do anything?" What gave him the right to go snooping and prying, seeking to change things that had been for a long age? On the other hand, why were people killing each other in the middle of the country?

When he had first arrived here in Edin, on this moon Ganymede orbiting the planet Troos, Steffan had found no mentions of rebellion or dissidence amongst the people he had talked to. Now he set out to find some, and if not successful then make them instead. He set out for the nearest cantina, one right in the shadow of the Kirk itself, and readied himself for gossip mongering of the first order.

To be continued...

Friday, 19 December 2014

Flying Without A Net

There's no curtain here at the Quirky Muffin and sometimes things get retconned out. Specifically I had been thinking about the difficulties of continuing the story 'Wordspace', as repeatedly mentioned, and it occurred to me that all the trouble might be due to this portion of the story having naturally closed. It happens all the time, and I do have a crackpot theory about it, that stories naturally reach end or rest points, and that's really nothing you can do but end or rest when you reach them and then formally re-launch when you get going again. So, the last episode of 'Wordspace' has been obsoleted, put in the vocabulary burner, telescoped into oblivion, but remains there to be seen by anyone who can be bothered, but no longer canonical and leading nowhere. Ah, canon, that odd idea that someone gets to say what is and isn't official! Believe what you will, but it's the entertained who get to choose what's real in their own personal canons. You can end up thinking about the idea of canon a lot when you've seen, read and listened to enough 'Star Trek', but ultimately we all choose our own and discard the things that don't make sense.

Flying without a net, it's time to get on track, so with 'Wordspace' filed away with 'Triangles' in both having a chapter or phase done, one of 'The Glove' or 'Oneiromancy' gets upped to the front line, both of which are in prime states of development. Or, more honestly 'The Glove' is in a deep state of crisis but it can be salvaged. Is any of this interesting? Does it matter if it isn't? Difficult questions both, both of them subject to themselves too, recursively looping on forever. The annoying thing about 'The Glove' is that it doesn't have a central folly to power it, and so it flounders. No triangular portals to parallel dimensional versions of Aberystwyth, Plain Chocolate Digestive Detectives, words masquerading as characters or a narrative partly being conveyed via dreams. It's just Scottish people on another planet, with a possibly conspiracy in the background; hardly enough folly or conceit to power a small custard pie factory. Still, it will turn out well in the end, or at least turn out in some manner.

"To turn out well"?

Never before have I considered the origins or significance of that colloquialism. It's a baking term, surely? It refers to baked items coming out of their trays or moulds well when they're turned over, hence a well cooked cake 'turns out well' when it is done right. That never occurred to me. Has the 'Quirky Muffin' turned a corner into an imaginary street of accidentally educational content? Did the editors suddenly discover the truth behind the mothballing of the entire story 'Rasputin at the Linseed Shop'? Has your author turned over a new leaf? All will be revealed next time! Stand by for action!


(Edited to allow for additional nonsense.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How does any of this happen?

Turning off quality controls now...
A lot of the time the world doesn't make sense at all, or more specifically the people don't make sense. It's very hard for a river to not make sense, or a boulder, but people take to it naturally it seems. A religious group besieges a school in Pakistan and 145 people are killed. Torture is used by the so-called liberal countries of the world to extract information. Intolerance, inequality, and divisiveness seems to reign supreme and what gets done about it all? At least Cuba and the US seem to be putting the past behind them, which is one good thing, even as Russia becomes more and more of a problem.

The hardest thing to understand in the people of the world is the apparently widespread inability to accept plurality of beliefs. Person A believes in one thing and Person B in another, and so do they agree to disagree, or even engage in a friendly debate? No, because A and/or B is incapable of accepting plurality of thought and they fight to the death. Madness, and it's even worse when it comes to matters of the faith! You would think that when it comes to unprovable beliefs people would get along in a shared house of tolerance but no...

Actually I have a crackpot theory about fanaticism and religious intolerance, which states that intolerance and fanaticism is broadly linked to insecurity within the fanatic. People who truly believe in something wouldn't need to go mad in attacking other people's faiths; It's much like the man in his mid-life crisis trying to act young and convince other people to bury his own rampant insecurities. I'll have to watch out for this myself, and try not to start buying sports bikes and giant sombreros in 2019. End of crackpot theory, which may well already exist out there anyway. Of course this theory doesn't allow for people driven by massive egos but that's another story.

This inability with plurality is inexplicable on many levels, as a lot of human behaviour can be. How do all these terrible things happen? And why? How do companies get so ridiculously big that they lose all touch with morality? What is the deal with professionals charging hundred of pounds per hour? Why does any of it make sense? Maybe it doesn't make sense, and trying to find a reason drives people insane? You can't help but feel bad for Obama, trapped in the middle of a sea of lunatics, fully aware that a rotten person could get much more done in his job than a decent one. See, there is political comment sometimes, superficial though it might be.

Somehow optimism lives on though. Good things do happen, and life does go on. People help other people and random acts of kindness continue. It's easy to forget when the news is filled with bad things and neglects the good, but pluses do exist. Plurality does exist, too. Non-fanatical people from different beliefs can and do coexist and even get on together. If you can understand that liking something isn't equivalent to it being good, or believing something isn't the same as it being absolutely true then the world is truly a fascinating place of variety, wonder and diversity. Just watch out for the ones who can't see that, or watch beautiful clouds on happy summer evenings and be dazzled, or smell a flower on the road less travelled.


Monday, 15 December 2014

Movie: 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' (2004)

I can't work out this film at all, especially amidst the rampant and unapologetic apologism that seems to permeate how I approach problem films. If you present a film that was received badly to me, my reaction is almost always to defend it. If it goes on like this this blog will be getting a valid reputation of some sort! Blast.

Now let's put that aside and begin. 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' is a film by Wes Anderson, the man with the style and atmosphere all his own in a world of contemporary mediocrity. He is one of the few living directors I actually respect, but his movies can be a bit sweary, except for two that I love: 'The Fantastic Mister Fox' and 'Moonrise Kingdom'. 'The Life Aquatic' definitely falls into the 'too sweary' category for me, but it also ticks another box that rarely gets ticked, the box that 'Joe Versus The Volcano' pioneered here at 'The Quirky Muffin': the category of being 'categorically misunderstood'. Just as 'Joe Versus The Volcano' is misunderstood because people are expecting a conventional narrative, so is 'The Life Aquatic'. Neither of them are conventional narratives, but are closer to being filmic versions of poetry perhaps? Or epic verse? Or mythology?

Parenthetically, mythology is distinct from fiction both because it is usually created in deep history and is involved mightily with archetypes. I'm not qualified to talk too much about archetypes but they are fundamental ideas, stories and characters that form the building blocks for all derived fiction. Archetypes appeal to us on a whole other level than derived works, even if an entirely archetypal story might be very simple.

So, is 'The Life Aquatic' mythology? No, but it's definitely something far more in line with verse than prose. It's a fascinating watch. It's the story of seagoing documentary maker and explorer Steve Zissou and his team, clearly modelled on Jacques Cousteau although every such reference on the commentary is bleeped out, and his struggles with the decline in interest in his films and adventures which is mirrored by his own growing lack of engagement in those pursuits. There is also piracy, a love story, and some redemption but let's not layer in too much here.

This is a fascinating film, lyrical in nature, but somewhat undermined by its own language. It's harder to make a sweet movie with the swearing, although that's my prejudice and not others. Visually it's stunning, as stunning as any of Anderson's films, and features the now rare Bill Murray leading man performance. If you like the enigma that is Bill Murray then this is a movie for you, but it's also an enigma of a movie in itself. 'The Life Aquatic' didn't do well, which is completely predictable upon viewing. It's not what people expect it to be, and the eradication of an explicit reference to Cousteau probably makes it harder still. It's funny, and touching, but also human and sporting a massive number of red bobble hats, all adrift in a poetical sea of context. There are masses of things to like, as well as a multitude of things to look at and wonder at how they got there. Does that make it more real or more ridiculous? The stylisation is spectacular, reminding me of my own love for such things, and entirely typical of Anderson.

The late and apparently great Roger Ebert and I never agree on anything, except on 'Joe Versus The Volcano' and 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou'. Could either of us recommend this film wholeheartedly in a review? No, but you absolutely should watch them anyway, because they're utterly different to everything around them and in a world of movies which all tend to be the same, that's an essential experience. However a warning: Angelica Houston is in this film so beware if you can't handle that creepiness!


PS Not too apologetic after all. It's a good film, or at least it's a good something!

Book: 'The Big Over Easy' by Jasper Fforde (2005)

Fforde is my favourite (and possibly only) living author. His books are so funny and distinct from all others that reading them is refreshing, like a cool stream of coherent nonsense, or paradoxes that revel in their own natures. You could throw the word 'meta' around trendily to describe them, but that would be a cheap shot, and one which demeans the effort that must go into their writing. The two Nursery Crimes novels, of which this is the first, represent his earliest writing projects as far as I know. They were polished up over time to be released after Thursday Next, his leading character, had made her debut and launched his career, and represent an author at the peak of his daffiest comedy. There may be a third and concluding novel one day, although everyone stopped holding their breath from fear of asphyxiation long ago.

'The Big Over Easy', or TBOE, is a novel that does its best to defy description. It's set in an otherworldly version of the classically regarded metropolis of Reading, home of the only Nursery Crimes police department in the world, as Nursery Rhyme characters are apparently real there, as are talking bears and all other kinds of odd phenomena. The story revolves around the death of one Humpty Dumpty, a formerly walking and talking egg, but did he fall off his wall naturally or was he pushed? The story is actually about a dozen things more than that arc, but it is the title arc so it gets the primary descriptor role. If you suspect it might be noir-ish from the title, you're not in the wrong.

This is a completely different kind of book to 'Shades of Grey', a book so close to the source of all puns and jokes that it becomes almost primordially funny while still maintaining a decent storyline. It's incredibly impressive. Not only funny, it takes a juvenile sounding concept and straps it to a procedural case and a host of other grittier problems to make it a novel for a broad audience. It's remarkable that a story which features Wee Willie Winkie, a golden goose, and a four thumbed alien from the planet Rambosia can still be for all ages but it is. Abundantly.

Why read 'The Big Over Easy'? It's a noirish detective/monster/fantasy/comedy full of jokes that demands to be read in its entirety without interruption. On many levels it and 'The Fourth Bear' represent Fforde at his absolutely best (so far). Oh, how I longed for the third novel for so long, but it is apparently still a long way in the future, gestating. It would be nice if Thursday Next could be delayed for it to happen but maybe Fforde is still collecting the necessary jokes? Are there that many more jokes in the world? We will have to wait, and wait, and finally see!


Note: Closely allied with 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' in my mind, if that helps in the understanding.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


It's late on a Saturday evening. The Quirky Muffin has yet to be written. A rejected draft on writing supporting statements for application forms has been, well, rejected. Re-assessing reviews for legendary turkey movies 'Her Alibi' and 'The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou' remain on the slate for future entries. What to fill up the space with this time?

Should this be a commentary on being sick and suffering multiple ice slip abrasions all in one day? Should it be about one of the most stonking defeats ever suffered in 'Ticket to Ride Europe', where not a single route ticket was accomplished? Should it even be about 'The Big Over Easy', that wonderful Jasper Fforde I just finished re-reading for the umpteenth time? It's hard to say. Inevitably, if this goes on, it could end up being a post about what the post could be about. No, that's just too meta, and the Meta Police are already after me for crimes committed in commentaries. When the 'Forbidden Planet' commentary goes up we may all have to hide in the Film Bin Vault until the New Year!

No, no meta, just gibberish. Gibberish is easy with a rusty mind. In fact it's beneficial. The saga of 'Wordspace' has been preoccupying the rusty mind recently, with no end in sight and the perils of a first person narrative weighing it down. Every weakness has a strength on the flipside if you can but find it. We have a narrative wherein there exists a Wordspace, populated by the words of the English language, all of whom are defined mostly - but not totally - by their dictionary meanings. Our protagonist is Mystery, who has to date met a word from another dimension (ie language), been to meet the Silly Stone in the point of intersection between all worlds, discovered another possible invader was loose in the Wordspace, returned to devastation, journeyed to the Zone of Meaningless Jargon to negotiate with and release the destructive words long imprisoned there, and is now somewhat at a loss for things to do while the long wrongly exiled War and friends set out to defend their home space. Mystery is at a loose end... It's entirely possible that his story has finished, and I missed it. Oh no, a missed natural ending?

Blast this coughing. If it weren't so late I would be listening to some Merrison/Williams Sherlock Holmes right now, but it is late, and there is not time. That's a strange thing to say on a weekend! Oh, for those wonderful weekends of not being compelled toward anything! They must have happened sometime, somewhere, and to someone.


Thursday, 11 December 2014

Story: Oneiromancy, XIII

(Part O , XII , XIV)

The hypnotist's office smelt nice, like a warm loaf of bread straight from the oven. Dr Kibbel stood before the fire, hands steepled before him, his thoughts concealed for now. Stanley lay half-exhausted in one of the easy chairs, watching Kibbel and Helen alternately from beneath half-lowered eyelids. Nothing about being a geography teacher had prepared him for this.

Helen was reading deeply, rubbing her tired eyes from time to time, skimming through the abstracts of academic articles, cuttings from various newspapers, and what looked like signed accounts of tales various and unknown to him. He could swear he had seen one page that looked like a picture of a cute brown donkey pass through her hands as she parsed through. He was willing to bet waitressing hadn't prepared Helen for any of this either.

"Dr Kibbel," Stanley began, "you might try to explain to me what's going on as my friend reads."

"Yes, I might." Dr Kibbel said blankly.

"That's not hugely helpful."

Kibbel shook his head, as if coming out of a trance, as he probably had been from his meditative air. "You're right, you're right, it's not helpful. I had allowed myself to become ensnared in past events. You must both have been through most harrowing events. I still can't believe it's happening. Before I begin I should tell you that I can help you both with your dreams to some extent, but that your only sure recourse for safety is the drastic one of dealing with 'The Tweedy Woman'."

The doctor settled down onto the only spare seat, a stool, and began to tell a story as if they were all out camping in Yosemite instead of in a hypnotist's small rooms in quaint old Britain. "A long time ago, my mother was part of a project called Alpha Dreamline. It wasn't 'hush hush' so much as 'dull dull'. No-one talked about it due to everyone thinking it completely crackers. The theory was that certain people could tap into a communication channel that ran through the collective unconscious. It was one of Jung's pet ideas that he kept under his hat and ran through various friends and students. Mum was apparently a great receiver, but as time went on it became clear that the dreamline had a singularity, an event horizon, a blockage in the line. You get the idea."

Helen was by now listening as well. "Yes, we've met the blockage in question."

"And you've named her, we'll assume it's definitely a her for now, 'The Tweedy Lady'." An ironic grin touched his lips for a moment, before an incoming iciness. "She has a lot to answer for. For decades now Alpha Dreamline has been dead, an artefact of another age, no trial successes, nothing new from past sensitives except for old chatter fading away. Tweedy Lady is exercising her block for all it's worth and the project is all but gone, as are the minds of many a person we think might have been tapped in to the channel. You two are very, very lucky to have not joined those poor souls."

Helen already knew why. "It's not so much luck as force of numbers."

"Yes, somehow your close proximity means you communicate very clearly and act in unison, protecting each other." Kibbel hesitated. "The only horror being possible if either of you were asleep without the other also asleep. But we can fix that to some extent. Our knowledge of the brain has advanced just a little since Alpha Dreamline was in full flight. At least we can ensure that you go to sleep simultaneously."

Stanley Simonson stood up and faced the hypnotherapist. "That all sounds very neat, but how does a hypnotherapist end up with so much information about a non-secret project like this? Just because your mother was part of it?"

"No, because I am still part of it, and now for better or for worse, you both are too."

There shall be more...

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


Up until 1956 there was an extra element of fun associated with going to the cinema. Not only would you get a couple of movies, the news reel, and some cartoons for your entrance fee, but you might also get to see a chapter of a serial. Yes, the serial stories that infest this show have both cinematic and literary forebears. It seems like a whole other world now, that land of double features, matinees and serials at the cinema house.

My thoughts have been turning towards serials of late after finally beginning to watch the 'Superman' serial from 1948, which along with its sequel form the live action precedent that allowed 'The Adventures of Superman' to land on television. In fact television is what killed off the movie serials, but that would be a subject for minds more learned than mine to expound upon. The serials practically were early television, but far more thrilling than the plays of the week you would find on the magic box in the living room.

How marvelous it must have been to turn up week after week, ready to get that set of celluloid entertainment you were expecting, and wondering how they would resolve that cliffhanger from the week before? Well, I'm assuming that chapters were released weekly, which seems sensible. The 'Superman' serial is brilliant, and so much fun that I'm regretting not having played the DVDs before. With 'Atom Man vs Superman' still to come, and the two Batman serials, a whole new world of fun adventure could blossom before my eyes. The titles of these golden age serials are so tantalising! Oh, how could anyone resist 'King of the Mounties', 'Zorro's Flying Legion', 'The Drums of Fu Manchu', 'Perils of Nyoka', 'Jungle Girl' and all the other serials that flashed before the eyes of all those people? Politically correct? Probably not. Fun? Certainly! Fun fun fun!

Fortunately the serials aren't gone completely; The most popular and iconic ones are out there on DVD, as are the serials that have fallen into public domain. There's even fan work in restoring some notable examples of the form and redistributing them. Oh, some day, some day, we'll all be able to dig into some of the long neglected serials that thrilled people with excitement and peril. Roll on the next job, so some money can be diverted to sampling these pulpy sequences of cliffhangers and resolutions.

Pulp, now that's a theme that's popped up a lot recently...


Sunday, 7 December 2014

Curiouser and curiouser

Before beginning in earnest, lets take a moment to think about cheese, and not having read 'Alice In Wonderland' in ages. That really has to pop up onto my 'to do' list. One simply can not keep making these Lewis Carroll quotes without having read the source texts. It's one of the modern day crimes of this Information Age. Oh, the blasted Information Age! I'm fighting another of those crimes right now by reading 'The Tempest' in anticipation of the fan commentary we are going to record for 'Forbidden Planet', so take that, tertiary source biased Information Age. Ha!

Actually, 'The Tempest' is turning out to be quite good. I was expecting the usual Shakespeare awfulness experienced elsewhere; they really choose the dreariest ones to give you at school. Ah, school. It was a good week at school, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It's true that as an observer you only get the best of things, and that the week was dominated by Christmas rehearsals, but there was still enough to get an assessment of how things work at an effective primary school. Aww, it's so much nicer at primary schools than secondaries. I'm almost smitten by the whole thing, but now remember that this is probably a bit dull for the hypothetical reader. Mutter mutter.

The 'Superman' serial from 1948 is playing as this post gets closer and close to completion. It too is actually very entertaining, although I am wondering how many more times Clark Kent can hide behind a similar rock to change into his Superman costume before the whole thing falls apart completely. However, cynicism has no place here in the context of adventure serials, or anywhere else really. The concept of cynicism is the enemy of practically every entertainment enterprise. Get away, cynics, and learn the joy of wonder once again. Yes, wonder, the antidote to all ills.

A sense of wonder, after some long and repeated thoughts on the subject, dominates a lot of what I seem to enjoy. There seems little point in watching kitchen sink dramas, reading pretentious literary tragedies, or violence fuelled action movies when in other places you can find wonder in its purest forms. That's really what I would hope the power of the movie was back in its heyday: A distilled sense of aspiration and wonder that could then inspire people to be happier in their own lives. Does that still happen? It sounds very much like a topic for another day, in any case, and one that needs time to form so that it doesn't turn into yet another example of old-headed railing about how things aren't what they used to be.

Ah, a week ahead of no scheduled activities. It's going to get curiouser and curiouser, whether our fates are influenced by auspicious stars or not. This Shakespeare guy could write when he was on form, so Project Gutenberg's going to provide a few more of his plays for consideration; anything but 'Macbeth' or 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. Yeesh.


Friday, 5 December 2014

Television: 'The Adventures of Superman' (1952-1954)

That's not a typo in the title; I know 'The Adventures of Superman' ran from 1952 through to 1958, with an interruption as they switched from black and white to monochrome. This post is going to be about the first two seasons, the ones in black and white, the pulpy ones.

Superman and Batman were created in the late 1930s and both prospered in that pulpy atmosphere of noir, press hounds, and detective stories. Super villains, extensive uses of science fiction, and the trappings of superheroes came later. First and foremost they and other comic book heroes were detectives and/or adventurers, and an investigative reporter was just as much of a detective as a darkly costumed vigilante.

The first two years of 'The Adventures of Superman' and the first year of 'Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman' really tapped heavily into that pulpiness of the character's origins and then lost steam as they lost that thread, the former as they became distracted by colour and the science fiction craze of the time and the latter by a radical change in writing teams and network meddling.

'The Adventures Of Superman' was a show I barely saw as I was growing up. It probably popped up on Channel 4 during it's classic reruns era, before it flipped to only showing sitcoms and then apparently only 'Friends' for a long long time. This was a series that ultimately defined all the superhero shows and movies that would follow for decades, and one that was born out of its radio show predecessor which famously inspired a lot of the earlier stories. This Superman was the first man to fly on screen in live action, as far as I know, as the flying was animated in his earlier movie serials. This Superman was the first screen version to have Clark Kent as the primary character instead of his costumed persona (reversed largely for the colour seasons), and most importantly he had a Lois Lane to really battle for control of the story in Phyllis Coates. Coates played Lois for the first season and was one of the toughest beautiful versions of the character to appear. The criminals sometimes took quite the battering before Superman even appeared!

Lest we forget the immaturity of television at the time, and the immaturity of myself, 'The Adventures of Superman' was mostly seen as a children's show but it was one which had a lot of implied maturity. There was death, there was creepy insanity, and some real peril for the leads. The realness of the actors really lends itself to some real peril, even the sometimes ludicrous Jimmy Olsen does, and it plays with the black and white on many levels. Just like many of the best television series, they ended up making a miniature movie every week, and doing it well.

All these words, and none of them about George Reeves yet, the titular lead. He's probably the best Clark Kent to have ever been cast, and his Superman is no minor achievement either. Watching it in context, which is an essential part of watching most archive television, his confidence is amazing. From the first episode on, he knows exactly how to play the smart and streetwise performer with a glint of fun, and how to wear the sometimes silly muscle suit of Superman without ruining the whole effect. Reeves was the definitive Superman for decades for a reason, and this was the definitive superhero show for that same reason: The whole show committed to internal consistency.

It was a great show, and it still is if you can get into that 1950s mindset, because when Reeves winks at the end you know you're watching something special.


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Earth Hour

Okay, one more unstructured post before we return to the regular format, mainly due to the dog surviving to bark another day and be generally insane. This is good news. Definitely good news. That and the few days I've spent in a primary school have left me feeling rather creative and positive, and remembering some of the more unusual activities from the past.

In our student house in Nottingham, the housemates and myself established a short-lived tradition of short story reading events on erratically scheduled Sunday evenings, as well as the one-off legendary Earth Hour candlelit dinner. Earth Hour is an annual event where people, buildings and businesses are encouraged to switch off unnecessary lights and electrical items for an hour in the night (8:30 PM to 9:30 PM in UK), all in the spirit of promoting preserving the planet. I really adored Earth Hour, it was great, and right now I'm planning another Earth Hour dinner for 2015.

The environmental message of Earth Hour is an important one, but the event itself is fun without the (potent) ideological backdrop. No money changes hand, even though the event is organised by the World Wildlife Fund, and its influence is purely a symbolic and fun one. Breaking out the candles and unplugging the computers, televisions and radios is always fun! Candlelight isn't just for romantic dinners, but can be used for everything.

Go, Earth Hour!

It is such a relief to be able to relax about things now. Originally the title for this blog was going to 'Reprieves, Greek dance and endless rehearsals' but then the long neglected post on Earth Hour popped out of the list, and refused to go away. All the Greek dance sequences in the Christmas concert rehearsals have softened me to the point that an easy post is the best of all possibilities, as have the budgetary dents of the accumulated Christmas shopping bouts. Earth Hour will cancel out the madness of Christmas shopping. Everyone, we need to turn off from time to time.


Monday, 1 December 2014

A shaky few days

You don't get pets for life, only for the durations of their lives. You love them with the full knowledge that you will almost certainly outlast them, and keep on doing it anyway. It's one of the big things that makes us humans: We do things despite a conscious knowledge of death, while no other Earth species knows what's coming, and sometimes we crack under that knowledge. As you might have gathered, clouds are gathering in the gloom, and the gloom is getting darker.

Our pet is a particularly dopey old English sheepdog who's been barking at me suspiciously for what seems like since time immemorial. One day, an appropriate time after the passing away of the previous pet, I planted the idea of an Old English sheepdog in my parents head, so that they would have something to take care of and take care of them. Little did I know that that the loon they brought back from the pet shelter would be quite so... manic.

(This quarter of the year is demanding so much courage that I might have to send out for some more. The problem with making progress is that you have to manoeuvre around some particularly evil abysses in the process, and those abysses look into you as the sayings do promise.)

So, the first thing to note about Old English sheepdogs is that they love to play tug of war. Also, they herd all the people in the house into one location, lie on their backs and paddle their legs for attention, bark incessantly and guard their food, and in the case of our Crazy Tess adore car journeys to anywhere. She certainly has been an insane dog to have around, breathing life into a stuffy country bungalow in the middle of nowhere. Despite her indifference toward me, which is shared by practically all animals it seems, it's going to be a wrench when she vanishes. I love the crazy hound.

Normally the Quirky Muffin is written in a vaguely non-personal mode, as more of a challenge to the writer, but the secondary and mostly forgotten minor point is to act as something therapeutic. Here, in the shade of a rather wonderful first day of primary school experience - not sold on it yet, but it is far more interesting than secondary teaching - it's nice to talk a little and ponder the meanings of it all as ominous ideas crowd in. Or, perhaps there has been enough of the ponderings already. Even if we are rendered very shortly to be former dog owners, one of the great things about rescued pets is that whatever life you have given them is better than they might have had before or could have had elsewhere. Accentuate the positives, grasp tightly on to every cliché you can find, and never forget. Then, get another pet, something small and docile this time.

The veterinary surgeon summons once again tomorrow, and blood tests will decide all. If only severe stress were compatible with sleep in some way. A third night without the slumber might be pushing it just a little, but what will be will be...


Saturday, 29 November 2014

Unpredictable Service

It's not often that you get to spend a week doing something new and unusual but next week will be one of those occasions. Yes, a whole week of school experience in a primary school will definitely be different! Who knows how it will work out?

Hopefully the strangeness of the week won't disrupt Project Quirky Muffin, but the world should prepare for some exhausted postponements. Service will be unpredictable, but for what reason? Will pure exhaustion reduce this humble (ha!) writer to a premature and precipitate state of slumber each evening? Will the accumulated chores force every evening into an overly directed pattern of job applications before a blog can even emerge from the strained brain? Will those little people take an instant dislike and end up calling the parental mafia in to rub this writer out? Only time will tell, and in this case time is being pretty cagey with the details.

They are little people, those children, and it's going to be a curious wait to see how it goes. 'Why go at all?', you might be asking. That answer may well be provided after, once the ringing in the ears from all the assembly singing and Christmas event rehearsals has abated and the bruises from the illuminated globe projectiles has healed. Oh, there shall be pain, for smart shoes will be compulsory with all their attendant problems. Please send all sympathy via the Quirky Muffin and make it sugar-free.

Writing is an acquired skill, one developed via writing. It's much like a muscle that doesn't get used in the normal course of events and resists when you flex it unreasonably. That's why the Quirky Muffin is here; to flex that muscle. When it works it is one of the greatest feelings in the world, and when it doesn't it's profoundly unsatisfying. Fortunately the accumulated audience amounts to several web-bots, a scary clown who keeps sending me explosive apple turnovers, and whoever else accidentally drops in while looking for a movie or book review. There shall never need to be quality control, for there is no intended control over the quality. Boom boom? Anyone?

<Mutter mutter ignorant of Basil Brush grumble barbarians gripe gripe gripe.>

With all of that, and with the usual insistence that the world has far too few triangles in it, it's definitely time to start wrapping up this entry. It's all too tempting to try and be funny all the time, sometimes to the great annoyance of others, but it does seem appropriate here. We can't be serious all the time, except for perhaps when in the deep throes of depression. Fortunately the seasonal blues seem to be not so bad this year, possibly due to the healthy influence of being far more rested and not so vexed with the head strain of mathematics, or maybe just because of some rogue variable still to be identified. Maybe it was the stopping of sugar that has helped even out the mood swings? It also helps to be working through 'Mork and Mindy', 'Dharma and Greg', 'The Addams Family', 'Get Smart', 'Batman' and a host of fabulous other books and DVDs. Is it materialistic to have them all? Yes, it sure is. Do they help? Yes, they sure do. Is 'Gilligan's Island' tempting me despite limited purchasing resources? Oh, gosh, yes it is! Blast!

Who knows how 'Mork And Mindy' will change in the fairly infamous tumults of the second season and beyond, but for now in its first year, it is truly a wonderful little show. Challenging, fun, unexpected and the best vehicle Robin Williams ever had. It's always sad when a performer has his best gig so early, but at least it happened at all. A much belated farewell to Robin Williams now, thanks for all of Mork.


Thursday, 27 November 2014

Story: Wordspace, XXIII [Obsoleted]

(Part I , XXII , XXIV)

The punctuation dust billowed on the horizon, periods flying highest into the air while the commas and semi-colons wobbled about, imbalanced in the atmosphere of the Wordspace.

Mystery stood watching the horizon, events having overtaken its own importance, and feeling unusually alone. Its stalwart and taciturn companion Club was off with War's army, preparing for the possible Battle of the Zone of Meaningless Jargon, and all that were left around him were the Lesser and Greater Abstracts that had no immediate value in a conflict. A conflict that had been unthinkable a few short days ago.

The Council was meeting. Mystery perambulated over and listened. As the meeting progressed a question shifted over it like a particularly warm blanket in the cold season. No-one else had mentioned the missing Change even once, in this meeting, or in any meeting he had ever attended. It was the greatest error of omission it could remember, and one that was totally absolute. No-one was talking about that phantom word now, despite its not being in the legion that had been retrieved from their exiles. Mystery drifted over to its old friend Wimsy and whispered a light summons, and then gathered up a loitering Dereliction on the way. Dereliction always had a good stock of gossip on hand, the best source of information now with Gossip absent with another group.

Wimsy spoke up first once they reached a small and comfortable dip in the firmament of the world. "You look as if you've had a few too many days under the strain, old chap. Getting a bit blank and stary, I'm afraid."

Dereliction chuckled, and added, "You could take a few days and sleep, if not for this massive disaster!"

"Yes, this massive disaster. It's linked to something we haven't talked about yet. Have either of you ever heard anyone talk about Change?" Mystery tried to downplay it as much as possible.

"Change?" Wimsy started suddenly. "Change... I've never heard anyone mention it at all outside of the records. That was my predecessor's time, I'm afraid, and it seemed to be preoccupied with limericks and verse at the time." Wimsy shuddered; It had never liked verse and ran to ballads and riddles instead. Dereliction was silent.

"Yes, Change was in my predecessor's time too, and it features prominently in its notes, but why not a word in any meeting I've attended. We've had debates and dialogues on the nature of the Destructives, always ending up in maintaining the status quo. Never, though, a word on Change."

Dereliction looked pained, and then shuffled. Its capacity for silence was never great.

"Come on, spit it out, old chap!" Wimsy urged their silent companion.

"The Wordspace never speaks of Change," began Dereliction, "but that doesn't mean that no-one does." It looked up at the sky, and began to tell a tale. "Once, I was asleep in the back of a Council meeting..."

There shall be more...

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Productive Day

There are still hours to go until bedtime and all the chores are done. It's unprecedented in recent times. It was the productive day. Everything got done quickly and tidily and now...

What on Earth do people do with free time anyway?

Normally my days are buried under piles of things that Must Be Done, and those things continue on, amidst prevarications and procrastinations, until just a few moments before sleeping time. Frequently e-letters are being pumped out while in the heavy thrall of pre-sleep, with words blurring into abstract geometry before the already vacant eyes. The Quirky Muffin hasn't been written with a clear mind in months, probably not since employment, and yet today it's running smoothly. It feels strange.

A productive day is a very rare thing. Today there two job applications, completed negotiations for next week's primary school experience, the resubmission of the fabled academic paper (version Mu, for those interested), a bucketload of 'Dharma and Greg' episodes, and even a long and unusually coherent electronic missive to codename Blodyn of Mid Wales as well as another to the president of Mexico at Greenpeace's behest. Everything got done.

'Dharma and Greg', right, that needs explanation. There have been a lot of references to that show recently. It's not a favourite, in fact a lot of its typical components fall into the box of things I don't normally like, but when it hits it hits in such an abstract and surreal way that it makes the minor ordeals all worthwhile. How many shows have had a bunch of lead characters trapped on board a boat by a sea lion? Or someone open a shop that doesn't sell anything and be a success? Or even the infamous 'Mr Boots' episode and manly bonding over a bobsleigh? It's one of those shows where you take the rough with the smooth and smile at the good things. They almost never go the easy or predictably awkward route, and that's to be commended.

Yesterday the blog was about a ghost story, the interview incident in Carmarthen. Ghostly goings on in an abandoned store. It seems as if everyone accrues a personal ghost story in their life, sometimes at secondhand from a relative or friend, but there's always at least one. Isn't that an odd coincidence? Maybe we're all involved in a giant conspiracy, passing around ghost stories in a massive circuit of Chinese Whisper? Perhaps the 'ghosts' are incredibly potent interludes of déjà vu, brought on by unconscious triggers most diabolical? Or could they really be ghosts? I'm drawn in closing to my favourite episode of 'Due South', in which a convalescing Fraser is visited by the recurring presumed ghost of his dead father, who in turn is being visited by the ghost of his own mother, and which all ultimately resolves with Benton senior, deceased, lying on his back in the swimming pool in full RMCP dress uniform and complaining about. Never was there a more wonderful moment, especially when you consider that one of Fraser's uncles died wrapped in cabbage leaves.

That can not be followed.


Monday, 24 November 2014

Ghost Story

Do you believe in ghosts? We don't have to be talking about the remnants of souls long since passed from the mortal coil. They might be n-th dimensional shadows of beings on abstract higher planes of existence intruding into our reality, or echoes of past and future beings reflecting through temporal refractions, or projections from living people onto the collective subconscious, or any of a number of other possibilities. Death is not the sole causal possibility.

Why talk about ghosts at all? Well, it was just mentioned in my current book, Dick Cavett's 'Talk Show', and there is a ghostly anecdote in my story bag, rather incredibly! Is it meaningful or simply a coincidence? It is not my decision to make. Are ghosts impossible? Well, never say 'impossible' unless you've tied up the problem in paradox ribbons, but they certainly seem improbable or at the very least ineffectual. Note, as Cavett says, that if ghosts imply some possibility of a soul's existence after death then why be so upset about it?

So, a story. A long time ago, in a land far far away (twenty minutes bus ride north, sandwiches were necessary) your loveable author found himself present for an interview in a retrospectively doomed new shop in Carmarthen. Did I get the job? No, of course not, my interview failure record remains proudly unsmirched to date. In fact, while making a very creditable performance, my gaze was repeatedly drawn to a dark corner at the back. The proprietor must have noticed as he then proceeded to explain how that location had had trouble keeping a shop for a long time, and was in fact partly built over a prisoners graveyard, the part in question being that dark corner at the back. It was a strange interlude, that interview in the doomed shop, with the odd presence in the dark demanding attention. Was there a presence though, or was the window too bright or the interviewer offputting. It's hard to say after all this time, but creepy was the word.

Have I just told a ghost story? There's no way to tell at the moment. One of the truest traits of a good ghost story is the doubt over whether it is a ghost story to begin with. Also, I'm not MR James. For true ghost stories he's the one to read, that trusty medieval scholar and archivist of supernatural scares. There will have to be more on MR James another day, when I've read through more of the 'Complete Ghost Stories'. Yes, ghost stories will be back for Earth Hour 2015. Oh, Earth Hour, there's something else to talk about!

Plans are afoot.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Television: 'Due South' (1994-1996) [Revised]

There were few television shows as cool as 'Due South', or as passionate in what they were trying to do. It was a Canadian buddy cop show about a 'perfect' Mountie in Chicago called Benton Fraser and his friendship with Italian American cop Ray Vecchio, which thrived on the dynamic between its two leads as they tackled various kinds of cases both personal and professional. Over the course of two years the excellent Paul Gross and David Marciano took two characters that could have been cardboard cutouts in the wrong hands and pumped so much humanity into them, with the assistance of a writing team that included Paul Haggis and David Shore, that they transcended the genre they began in. Paul Gross in particular was drenched in so much natural sincerity that he could be relied on to carry absolutely anything, while the development of the series was twinned to that of David Marciano's development as Vecchio.

So far did they move from the gag definition of 'Dudley Doright in Chicago', that Fraser evolved from an invincible moral superhero to the best perfect but flawed man with a vulnerable heart to ever get tangled up in crime, while Vecchio begins as a potentially corrupt streetwise cop and ends as a contemporary wise man who's absorbed much from his friend and supplied all the rest from his tough urban heart. To be true, it's very hard to write about the series as a whole, as the standalone episodes vary in type tremendously, and the season one mini-arc is such an emotional journey that it practically constitutes an award-winning four part mini-series all on its own. Oh, and Leslie Nielsen guest stars twice, brilliantly.

Instead of summarising an summarisable program it might be wiser to pick out some of the standout elements that recurred as series motifs. Easily the best place to begin is with the musical sequences, which lift every episode they appear in tremendously, whether they be montages or not. I honestly don't know if they were montages, whether they were encapsulating sequences of gangsters trying to track down the shoemaker and eliminate Fraser, excellent production value car or carriage chases, Vecchio confronting his star-crossed criminal soulmate, or Fraser's slum-mates renovating their building. Every montage worked, even the very early heavy rock instances.

After the montages, there is of course the wolf. Fraser had a deaf lip-reading wolf companion named Diefenbaker, uncannily intelligent, who essentially functioned as a third lead. There were actually at least two shows where Diefenbaker was the lead and performed pretty well. A wolf, played by a non-wolf called Lincoln in the grand tradition of television and film. Serving as Vecchio's wolf was the coolest car to ever feature in a television show, and I've used 'cool' now in this blog more often than in the past decade, the legendary mint green Buick Riviera from 1971. That car is so pretty that even I would consider driving just to have one.

Now we get to the banter, which essentially defines the dynamic between the two leads and the basis for some of the most rounded supporting characters to ever be found in a short-lived series. Incidental comments and speeches formed the basis for much of the character development, sometimes inspiring whole episodes later down the run of the show. The primary example, which may be a bad one as I suspect it was planned, was Fraser's monologue in 'You Must Remember This', which is paradoxically the definition of a Vecchio episodes. That monologue essentially defines and foreshadows the three-part arc that climaxes season one, the last part of which was covered earlier in the blog, and the arc that almost collapses the whole narrative of the series. This three part odyssey effectively undercuts the whole second season by being too good, but that's a whole other story, and that season succeeds in other ways.

Finally, to the music. The music was special, blending with montages to make some of the episodes iconic for those who've seen them. Many episodes in the first season featured now Canadian super singer Sarah Maclachlan and prospering in the fusion, and others cherry picked from opera, rock and contemporary folk to fit the genre of the show that week. As a note, the early episode combination of a horse and carriage chase to heavy rock was pretty brave and memorable indeed. Golly, this was a show that went places other shows didn't dare to approach. Even the cues were fascinatingly native American.

'Due South': A great series, which started roughly but built to a polish by first building up the perfect mountie, coupling him with a shakily moral police detective, breaking the aforementioned perfect mountie and then rebuilding them both better. Yes, I'm prejudiced as it was a formative show for me, but it's my blog. For forty two episodes 'Due South' was something special, and very odd.


PS Yes, I know I haven't talked about the subsequent 'revival' season. Take that as a hint.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Solitude of the Swimmer

Hmmm, now that I've purged myself of 'Star Trek' talk for a few days at least - be grateful you didn't get specialist posts on the episodes 'Arena' and 'Shore Leave'! - it's time to move on to something completely different. A long time ago my imaginary penpal Elena suggested I write a blog in Spanish on the solitude of the swimmer, entitled 'La soledad del nadador'. This will happen, for I can write in Spanish, and sometimes even coherently, but for now it will be English. Spanish will be the translation!

What goes through the mind of the swimmer during the course of a session? Drawing from my weekly trips to Carmarthen swimming pool, I will endeavour to describe the feelings and thoughts that occur, while frantically attempting to not drown. Oh, Carmarthen pool... It's nice there, pastel blue or grey, or not. I really don't remember. It's got a big hole in the ground filled with water, not too deep, and that's what matters. There are two ways to proceed: The humorous route and the contemplative. Of course it will have to be a complicated mix of the two that prevails. It's a foolish and ill-advised mix, but necessary!

Before the solitude kicks in, you first have to change. This is more complicated than you might think, as all the cubicle and locker doors are weighted or sprung to close on you, sometimes with great malice. Once you're ensconced within the apportioned space you then have to shuffle everything around - always dropping and sometimes shattering something in the process - until finally you are changed into the appropriately loud Bermuda swimming shorts. Then, sometimes remembering to hold the cubicle door open with the bag, you shuffle everything from the cubicle to the locker, awkwardly holding it open with one hand while unceremoniously shoving with the other. You might also drop something at this point, and not notice. Upon completing this step, you may be forced to move everything to another locker if the lock is broken or there's no awkward wriststrap on the key and your pocket's velcro is untrustworthy. (Note: There must be something on the topic of velcro to talk about. There must be!)

The changing of clothes complete, and the fiddling with the key bracelet completed, you approach the pool and with washed feet attempt the entry. Dangling of feet is necessary at this point in order to gauge the upcoming torture. If cold to feet then the pool will be very cold, and if the toes detect some relative warmth then it will also be very cold! Ultimately you slide in and dunk until all is settled, and reach the portion of this essay that is actually based on the title.

Swimming is one of the greatest things you can do alone while surrounded by people. True, it's impossible to actually swim if there are too many people or a couple of families disgorge into the water and claim it all for themselves arbitrarily, but in the case where swimming is actually possible it's very cooling and soothing. Up and down you waft, water blunting the sounds so they feel distant indeed, struggling for air from time to time, never really getting anywhere... It doesn't look very interesting to do what some of the others do though: Determinedly thrashing up and down a regulation number of lengths before sloping off to the showers. Exercise should really be freeform or utilitarian wherever possible. Make it totally useless or totally useful but nothing in between! Was there a Falstaff quote similar to that?

Finally when the pool begins to feel cold again, indicating a possible risk to health and sanity, you emerge. It's a tough life. Heading to the shower room, you contemplate the crushed feeling all over your body before slowly becoming more upright and poised. The worst is yet to come, with the forced folksiness of the showers. Nothing is stranger than being naked with a bunch of strangers in a shower room, so you just get it over with as quickly as possible and then make a break back to the locker, doing the awkwardness in reverse this time, then the cubicle for more drops and smashes, and finally out into the wide world. Brrr. It is cold, but worth it. For a few minutes you were in a whole different world, where the physics were startlingly different, and there was space to think at last. Shall we do it again? Oh, why not?! Well done!


Note: Possibly I was channelling some of the narration from the old Goofy cartoons. It's impossible to tell. Hopefully imaginary Elena will like this stupid nonsense.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Book: 'Final Frontier' by Diane Carey (1988, Star Trek)

I have to raise my flag, as I have many times, to my status as a lover of 'Star Trek'. It's a guilty pleasure, yes, but still one not to be sneezed at. Specifically, the original series is the one to watch, and it's also the one to read. Before the advent of the spin-off series, the original run was the base for a massive expanded universe of novels, some wonderful and some dreadful, some clashing dreadfully with each other, but all written by the fans. It was the one example of a television series blowing up into a massive book series that you could point at categorically as a creative miracle, an unprecedented creative phenomenon that was only really curtailed when the added series and accumulated material choked the whole endeavour into a continuity choke hold after twenty five years! They still make 'Star Trek' novels now, but without the licence to really go non-canonical and instead living in the niches left unexplored by the screen versions. The original 'Star Trek' novels just let it rip as there was nothing left to compare too!

Anyway, I'm bringing this all up because I just finished re-reading one of my favourite 'Star Trek' novels, a historical epic in fact, the legendary 'Final Frontier' by Diane Carey. Carey was one of the few authors to capture the nautical elements of the series, its true spirit of exploration, and the sheer drama of being in command. 'Final Frontier', on top of all that, is a historical within 'Star Trek', a tale of James Kirk's father George Kirk, his friend Captain Robert April, and the true first adventure of the Starship Enterprise, even before it was named. The concept of a 'Star Trek' historical seems audacious even now, especially one that partly establishes the chain of events that leads into early episodes of the series, tying in directly to the classic 'The City On The Edge Of Forever', and especially audacious in its own success. It succeeds by quality of writing, and that's the key. You can convey so much by exchanging looks in the written word, and by cracking jokes where they're warranted.

Carey wrote a number of great 'Star Trek' novels including 'Dreadnought', 'Battlestations', 'Final Frontier', 'Best Destiny' and 'The Great Starship Race', and some following stories. They are all steeped in something I referred to before: Space nauticality. It literally does become a separate version of 'Horatio Hornblower in outer space', a slightly other parallel dimension to the series, but one with lots of added detail. 'Final Frontier' has its main strength in the twinned narratives of George Kirk's main story, his letters to his kids, and the framing story of James Kirk in the wake of 'City on the Edge of Forever'. It works brilliantly! The second strength is in the rich definition of the characters set up in the historical portion. George Kirk and Robert April are pen sketched thoroughly almost immediately, and then put through the ringer as sabotage lands the still-new and unnamed starship Enterprise deep in Romulan space instead of the ion storm that was the focus of their rescue mission, all with a crew of technicians. It all rings true to both its own reality of a fledgeling Starfleet, and the original series itself.

Two of the most beneficial and novel aspects of 'Star Trek' is the positive view of the future, and the linked aspirational view of exploring the universe. It really was a great fusion and rebuttal of most previous screen science fiction. 'Final Frontier' helps set up that positive future even more, with Robert April being the effective spear carrier for diplomacy and exploration, fusing his strengths with the more militaristic viewpoints of George Kirk into the mindset that informs the Starfleet of the television show. In between those two ideals lies James Kirk, the mightiest captain of them all. In our era where manned exploration has very much faded out to nothing, it's fascinating to see how different everything could be. One day we could all be out there, sailing amongst the stars. Wouldn't it be wonderful? That's what 'Star Trek' was always meant to be!


Sunday, 16 November 2014

To shmoosh or not to shmoosh

Hmm. To shmoosh or not to shmoosh? Should this author, in blatant flouting of recent tradition, resort to shmooshing a lot of hot air into a blog post, or instead commit to some overly worthy bit of storytelling or reviewing? It would be so easy to fall into a habit of endlessly alternating between focus and non-focus, between trying to get to the conclusion of 'Wordspace' and just pitter-pattering at the keyboard until at least four paragraphs of text have miraculously emerged. No, on this occasion the pattern must be broken. Let's shmoosh!

Originally, almost a couple of weeks ago in fact, this title was going to be used for blathering about my attempts to shmoosh the first phase of the serial story 'Triangles' into a single entry, and how bizarrely difficult it is to get into full shmooshing mode. Once you've got there though, shmooshing (please don't go thinking that 'shmoosh' is a real word, by the way!) is very easy; you just need to be mildly deranged, partially phased into a different mental dimension, and inordinately unaware of everything else but the paper in front of you. Editing demands paper; Nothing else will do! Similarly, hot air condensation needs a keyboard and a mild instability.

Oh, to shmoosh, or not to shmoosh? It's a tough path. Even now the temptation is to twist off onto a targeted tangent and talk about the rather excellent episode of 'Maverick' that just spun off the DVD player, or to wonder at the novels currently being processed in my book pile, or even to write a totally redundant blog about the famed classic movie 'Jaws' that I watched earlier in the day. No, there's very little left to be said about 'Jaws', if anything at all. Only Spielberg and Dreyfus know whatever else is there to be said, and they're not telling!

Oh, the reams of things that could be reported, if it were that kind of day. Yes, the pool was crowded once again, with families making and characteristically rude invasions and hogging the place. Yes, preoccupations are growing with somehow finding copies of the lesser known and short-lived 1993 series 'Moon Over Miami'. Darn, I wish I had never remembered it existed! It was actually a sweet detective romantic comedy show that ran for only thirteen episodes, and which almost no-one remembers. It will never make it to DVD on anything but bootleg, but oh it would be a nice bootleg to have! It's just one of those odd moments of television that will never reappear again, like 'Sharky and George', 'Crazy Like A Fox', 'Close And True' and horribly 'Muppet Babies'. Getting back on track: Yes, this is yet another day of not learning Greek. All these things are normal.

Blast, now I'll be thinking about 'Muppet Babies' too! It's a world of torment for the man-children out there! No wonder the world is full of confused people! 'Batman' still won't arrive for weeks, in order to dispel the gloom.

Bring on the orange jelly and article corrections. It's going to be a long haul.


PS Consider yourself shmooshed.

Friday, 14 November 2014

In the library

The village library is full of fascination. It might be a moderately sized room, airy and spacious and lined with books, but there is a sense of history about the place. You can imagine generations of people wandering in and out, while you while away an afternoon there as a volunteer, some by choice and some by association. Stories flit through the mind, some true, and some obviously made up.

There was 'Rusty' Jack Jones, the miner who tried to foment the great library revolt of 1972, but was unfortunately foiled by a library attendant with a handy line in projectile manuals. The library revolt was sadly a failure, and the systemic despotism was continued until Dai 'Whistle Blower' Jones made it across the border to the next county and spilled the beans to the relevant authorities. There followed then a purge, the likes of which had not been before and never since. People still wince at the very mention of Whitaker's Almanack.

As I sit here, considering the truths of lengthy unemployment and a week of no job news while the people tap away on the library computers, it's a good time to count the positives. Crikey, the world is still spinning, life goes on, the whole of season two of 'Dharma and Greg' (don't ask) is stretching ahead on DVD, things are there to be done, and piles of books are waiting to be read!

Oh, books, the panacea for all the worst horrors of existence. Life would be a totally different experience without books. Without books, there would be no village library and stories about Mabel Ablewhite, the deranged book bender of Dyfed. Mabel was on a library watch list across all of South Wales, mainly due to her intense and compulsive bending of paperback books. Ultimately she was caught trying to bend a telephone directory in the late 1980s, in the wrong direction, and was never seen or heard of again after being taken away by some heavily laden library assistants.

Books have been with me as long as I can remember, before computers, television and music. Long may it continue. Oh, how lucky it was to have so many Star Trek novels of my own and books to read at primary school!


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Story: Wordspace, XXII

(Part I , XXI , XXIII)

The Conclave of the Abstracts assembled in a semi-circle about the portal from which Mystery's band had emerged a few hours before. The Lesser and Greater Abstracts present settled into a quickly constructed amphitheatre, built out of the consonants and vowels that could be quickly harvested from the nearby vegetation. Even in the scrub surrounding the Zone of Jargon enough was found to seat the grandness of Time, the melancholy of Death, the radiance of Life, and the clipboard of Destiny.

Mystery opened the Conclave, and immediately they made a small poll to determine who should chair the occasion. After only one round of votes, the winner turned out to be saintly Truth, who shuffled to the impromptu podium (a pile of ampersands), and addressed the masses somewhat lengthily, but of course with great fidelity to the purpose at hand.

Mystery stepped back into the crowd and looked at the audience beyond the abstracts, the nouns and adjectives with nothing obscure to their meanings, all waiting to see what might happen. Only the sentries maintained a vigil apart from watching the Conclave, where Truth had introduced Introspection, and was now listening to that fine and thoughtful word's report on the current state of the Wordspace.

War and Tactics were amongst the serried ranks of the Abstracts, taking notes, and Cloud was overhead. Somewhere out there in the wilderness, Earth and the other Elements were hopefully still surviving, or else they would be reborn out of the Well of Vocabulary, fresh and innocent all over again. Almost everyone had been at some point, Mystery himself remembering days of idle learning amongst his mentors and at the foot of School himself. He wondered idly about Fire, who shimmered so when it got agitated.

The report ran that the Invader had roundly trounced and annihilated several of the small colonies, and had almost crushed Earth's group before they had barrelled him over and made a run for the Zone. Then they had run, according to the Zone's guardians Constancy and Solidity, and this second group had arrived some days later. Dedication, this group's leader, had decided the Zone to be a last bastion of safety, and a good defensive position, should all efforts to resist fail. Now there would be resistance aplenty, if the Destructives had their way.

Once the report had completed, Truth invited War to the too-small podium, and there he asked the questions that would shape his thinking of how to continue. He sought descriptions of the Invader, hints on the motivation, interrogated Mystery and Club on the report from the mysterious Silly Stone, and then stood silently for a moment.

A sentry hooted from its perch on the side of the Zone, and Mystery turned to look at the horizon. The dust of punctuation was stirring. Something was about to happen. He turned to look at the band he had rescued from the Zone, who were as suddenly uncertain as he. War whistled, and called out orders, and his army formed.

Here ends Phase 1 of 'Wordspace', which shall be continued another time.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Phone Calls

This was going to be called 'What if the world was a shoelace?' but the title was too good so it's being saved for some greater inspiration, perhaps one involving the meaning of life, the universe and spinach. Oh yes, spinach must have a meaning, but who are we to judge? Spinach Existentialists Anonymous?

Phone calls happened today, and they were stressful. Surely other people can't have as much trouble with the beastly things? Preparing to make a phone call is a microcosm of the problems of procrastination writ large. Can you have a microcosm writ large? Let us assume for now that we can. Procrastination is a cumulative problem, a barrier that grows thicker and more impenetrable with every second and every task put off. So it is with phone calls.

Breaking the barrier of procrastination is something that really needs to be trained into you, sometimes by the fascinating field of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or CBT. At first experience, CBT seems far less than useful, but if very often works. In my case, I just had to become aware of the dangerous behaviour and break the habit as well as I could. Those grooves in the brain surely do take a lot of writing over. Grooves in the brain... like grooves on a record... Both can be formed by the Electric Mayhem, and equal depth...

"What, a seemingly random mention of the Electric Mayhem?"

The Electric Mayhem Orchestra were the house band on 'The Muppet Show', the raucous and impulsive rock group that dominated every moment they appeared in. If you want to beat procrastination, then the Mayhem are the ones to emulate, especially the drummer Animal. Go for it, people, and listen to the patronising blogger. Just be ready before you jump.

We can be sure Animal wouldn't have a problem with making phone calls; he would just use the receiver as a drumstick. Maybe there are better role models, after all.


Saturday, 8 November 2014

Story: Wordspace, XXI

(Part I , XX , XXII)

"Redundant miscellany" was what Mystery said into the aperture beside the portal. Two layers of jargon away, the form of the guardian waved some letters in assent, and operated the primitive switch that kept the portal safely locked down.

Mystery waited.

The exit portal opened, in the airlock fashion that had defined the entrance, and Mystery led its band of saviours, or so it hoped they might be, through into the wider world of the Wordspace. As they began their transition, War suddenly whirled and clutched two of the cohort, and then flung them far into the interior of the Zone. The portal closed long before they reached the egress, War never looking back as they assembled outside and shuddered under the great syllables of Sky.

"Not all of us were safe to be trusted." Was all War would mutter, and Mystery didn't debate the point; some words were too destructive to be even with his band of Destructives. He instead directed his attention the guardian, in this case Constancy's apprentice Solidity. "Greetings and conjugation to you, friend."

"May you be free of punctuation," replied Solidity, "and welcome." The youthful guardian bowed to Mystery and its companions, not entirely without fear. Lies winked at it.

Outside the portal, they were surrounded by chaos as hundred of words scattered about setting up makeshift structures and organising themselves. To one side some of the Lesser Abstracts were assembled and waiting for Mystery's arrival, while high above on the side of the Zone it could see sentries posted, and on the horizon his old friend Cloud was zooming along, possibly on patrol. Truth waved from a cluster of Greater Abstracts, and Lies went to meet its old friend, while Mystery was detained by duty.

The remnants of the Council watched Mystery approach, with its friend Club behind him and to its left and War to its right. Surprisingly, Mystery felt more people get in line, and saw Truth and Lies flanking him too. The Lesser Abstracts assembled include Medicine, Regulation, Refraction, Wimsy and Entertainment. Wimsy winked, even as Regulation shrank backwards at the growing presence of War. The whole atmosphere changed, as it became clear that there was now a genuine leader in the room.

"Tell us now whether we are in present danger, then if there is opportunity what has been going on while Mystery was recruiting us, what you know about the traitor Change, and then we will organise our plans." War's tone was imperious as it commanded the Council. "Where are the Great Ones, who used to be in charge?"

Mystery murmured, "The Great Abstracts abdicated responsibility in favour of a rotating Council of Lessers shortly after sending you into exile."

Regulation handed over a printed report, which War consumed quickly. It looked at the Council. "We shall have a Conclave of all Abstracts present."

A conclave!

To be continued...

Thursday, 6 November 2014

One Day Late

Ah, a late post. In the chaos of preparing for today's interview, which went incredible badly and will not be alluded to further, yesterday's post went nowhere at all! It vanished into the hole of trying to sleep while being sick and nauseous and then doing very badly indeed. How is that for negligence on the part of the Quirky Muffin authorial staff? Guilt has overcome me.

In truth, it would have been difficult to write something anyway yesterday, both because of the nervous dehydration and the chaos that has sleeted in from the transitional windward side of things. It very much feels like things are about to change in certain unpredictable ways, and that all is about to become just a bit wobbly, which of course is simply a premonition. A premonition?

Premonitions are very personal things, and not entirely to be trusted, if at all. For all that, I believe in them always. Something weird is going to happen, even if it's just a lifechanging piece of music (listening to a nocturne by Glinka right now, by the way), or a wander by the river that will prompt a spectacular thought. Something will change, and probably for the better. Oh, premonitions, you're always wrong but I'll believe in you anyway.

On a side note, one of the words I picked out from Phrontistery for a post has morphed into a suspected story idea, which is currently going under the codename 'Mythogenesis', and will kick off once two of the three ongoing stories have been finally put to bed. Three is too many to have ongoing at one time, and so it will have to wait, but the word itself is fascinating:

mythogenesis - origin of myths.

Doesn't that word ring up all kinds of fascinating angles and ideas, of people on some other plane designing myths to be deployed down to civilizations on distant worlds of wonder and spectacle? No? What about rice pudding? Does it inspire thoughts of rice pudding? I firmly believe that most myths actually did spring from rice pudding and only human egocentricism prevents us all from realising this utterly devastating fact. One day the penny will drop, and global peace will fall as we unite in abject hilarity.

The world is a strange, strange place.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Television: 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' (1964-1968) [Revised]

Very few television series had the personal impact that 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' had on me. Long before 'Star Trek' was back in reruns on BBC Two, 'Voyage' was on Channel Four, who were gleefully running all the worst episodes in the Sunday morning graveyard slots, along with Diana Rigg in 'The Avengers'. Historically, 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' is well known for all its worst elements, for all the men in rubber monster suits who dominated two thirds of its run, for the dimwitted behaviour of the crew, the total seriousness of all the performances even in the the midst of utter lunacy, and the 'Seaview rock and roll' as crewmen lurched from side to side on set in no way that corresponds to the exterior shots of the submarine Seaview. On many levels it was total rubbish and budget-starved gibberish, but the whole thing is saved by one inescapable fact: 'Voyage' is also often one of the most fun and imaginative television series you could hope to see. We could also supplement this fact with the high end underwater production values and special effects that became its headlining merit for at the least the first few seasons.

It may have been nonsensical, but 'voyage' has one thing that it can hold over its smarter and better-made step-cousin 'Star Trek', and that is the freedom to be utterly bananas at any point it wants to be. 'Star Trek' was by far the better show, but it did live within the boundaries of its own reality, with little license to ever get outside that box. 'Voyage' morphed into strange variants of itself with every season, and stuck to no continuity of reality other than what was happening in any given episode, with the crew being relentlessly surprised every week at whatever madness had engulfed them. Submarine interior over-run by jungle? Check. Admiral Nelson has turned lycanthropic but been cured by a deliberate case of 'The Bends'? Yep, we can do that. An espionage story? Why not? Atmosphere on fire, and we'll put it out with nukes? Okay. The catch all response was to try it out, except in the third season, when ever week was a rubber monster or mad scientist incident, with Captain Crane brainwashed inevitably as the topping on the cake. Crane must have been brainwashed so many times that it was ridiculous to think he had anything left in that cranium at all...

I'm writing this in the wake of watching the last of the one hundred and ten episodes, and completing one of the greatest and daftest DVD marathons of recent history. It's over now, and that's a sad thing. There will be no more criminally bad twisting of the submarine by a hand just off screen, nor will the incredibly uncredible flying sub crash into the ocean any more, like a slab of rock doing a belly flop. It's done. Until the DVDs get cracked out again at some indeterminate future, of course.

'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' was the brainchild of one Irwin Allen, first in feature film form, and then as this television show. Allen, who was the science fiction shlock king for a period in the 1960s with this, 'Land of the Giants', 'The Time Tunnel', and 'Lost in Space', saw that he could reuse a lot of the best special effect shots of the movie, recast the whole endeavour, and make a great looking science fiction show about a futuristic nuclear submarine and its crew. He may or may not have been partly inspired by a pilot for a show called 'Star Trek' that finally emerged in February 1965, or vice-versa. It's hard to tell. What emerged was a deadly serious dramatic television series focussed on espionage stories for its first season, so serious that it became so openly mockable as to be absurd. Irwin Allen, was in the words of David Hedison "totally humorous", and so were his series. To be fair, many dramas were deadly serious for a long, long time on US television, with 'Maverick' and 'Voyage' contemporary 'The Man From UNCLE' being rare examples of a more naturalistic tone before 'Star Trek' destroyed the mold of how to make genre television. Just to make sure no humour got into the mix, stars Hedison (Captain Lee Crane), Richard Basehart (Admiral Harriman Nelson), and the supporting cast played it so seriously that even the semi-regular end of episode jokey wrap up sequences would fall to the ground dead on arrival. That was all part of the fun!

'Voyage', as stated previously, had a different 'typical style' each season. In the monochrome first season, it was espionage and even featured women occasionally. Colour arrived with second season, as well as the influence of the super-hit 'Batman' (finally coming out on DVD soon), and so a healthy mix of 'monsters of the week' got wrapped in with spy stories, mind control and idiotic evil scientists. In the third season all traces of womankind got eliminated as did the expense of significant guest stars and the madness was ratchetted up to eleven as legions of monsters cascaded on to the submarine Seaview every week, with Crane being mind controlled on a regular basis, and Nelson becoming ever more exasperated while actor Basehart despaired for his very future. Finally, in the fourth season, and on a greatly reduced budget, the show reverted to some kind of a balance of episode types and credibility, but too late for the ratings and it got cancelled ironically after one of its strongest episodes. In fact, the fourth season is probably the first or second strongest season of the show, proving that ratings mean nothing for series quality, if we didn't know that already.

Oh, 'Voyage', you were silly. Nelson's handpicked crew often were so stunningly incompetent or slow on the uptake that you wondered how they passed the navy tests, but at least they could be relied upon to be serious at all times, which was something. Very often the most sensible person on the submarine was one of Seamen Kowalski or Paterson, both of whom seemed capable of fixing everything with no hesitation. Chief Sharkey, the only non-commissioned officer functioned mainly as an exposition monkey, and first officer Chip Morton had the grand honour of stolidly commanding the ship because Nelson and Crane were too busy most of the time being brainwashed, turned into monsters, or being ingenious to cover up for Nelson's terrible judgement in choosing scientists to run his installations. It was a fun, fun series, with only two or three episodes being so bad as to be unwatchable. Of those few stinkers the one that sticks out as worst by far is 'The Hear Monster', in which the Seaview is apparently menaced by a heat monster played by a bunsen burner on a small cart. Let us not finish on a low though, for this was one of the most imaginative series of the 1960s, however terrible it might have been at times. There was a freedom to be writing on a show that wasn't expected to make sense, and it must have been intoxicating at times, especially as they almost always wrapped up the plot with a brief handwaving explanation in the last thirty seconds.

I'll miss 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea', at least until I rewatch a few, but now it's time for something else: 'The Invaders' is coming! Or 'Quincy, ME', or even the long awaited 'Star Trek' rewatch.