Saturday, 31 May 2014

Story: 'Oneiromancy, VIII'

(Parts O, VII, IX)

Long ago, in the ancient and classical societies, divination by visions and dreams was already happening. In those times the oneiromancers were hailed as prophets and oracles, who prudently used their shreds of dreams of future and past events to ensure their own survival and prosperity. Together they formed a fragile and widespread network of dreamers, spread over the whole world but barely aware of its own existence.

The chatter of the dreamline, never resolving to anything better than fragments of events and dreams mixed up in the yoghurt of human experience, left many if not most of the dreamliners in ignorance or denial of their gifts. This status quo continued for thousands of years, memories and legends passing up and down the line like fanciful harbingers of what would be Jung's notion of the collective unconscious. If even one person could have interpreted something truly meaningfully then futuristic wizardry could have advanced the world beyond all measure, but of course it was too early and people didn't understand.

With respect to our narrative, silly as it may be, there are three telling points about the history of the dreamline: Never did people appear in others dreams directly, never had two dreamers lived in such close proximity as Helen Ostrander and Stanley Simonson, and finally never had there been so many missing links in the time sequence as there were now.


In the shared dream, Helen and Stanley stood on the raft beached on the darkened island in the middle of the sunny blue ocean and watched as the shadowy figure emerged from the shack, waved, and started to pick its way down to the beach. The domino pagoda lay forgotten at their feet, its message ignored. The pebbles on its top rearranged into a warning but they paid no attention.

The figure shambled as all apparently good shadowy things must, and puffed a little as she touched down on the beach. She pulled herself together, looked around and then down at what she was wearing. “Decent this time, thank goodness. No more tweeds. Hi there, folks. Still in decent sleep mode, eh?” Their rapt expressions attested to their abstraction. “You sleepers are so dull. I had almost missed you dummies. Welcome to the prison.”

Helen and Stanley couldn't wake up. Trapped.

To be continued...

Friday, 30 May 2014


You can reach up and touch the stars. They can feel so close that all the possibilities of the world are within your reach, that if you wanted you could turn slightly and shift between worlds on the back of a speck of dust, in the blink of an eye.

The stars have inspired humanity for millennia, only losing their influence now due to the fact we can't see them anymore through the light pollution common to humanity. Societies imagined diagrams linking the various stars, inventing powers that were said to influence us in our day to day lives, and then using those pictures to navigate the world. Even when we were exploring Earth we looked up at those celestial bodies and wondered. Now the stars are all that are left to explore, if we can only get there.

One of the fascinating things about stars, the suns of far off solar systems, is that they aren't really there anymore. The distances are so fast that even light travels for hundreds and thousands of years to reach our eyes and the stars we perceive are merely shades of what used to be, that have transformed and moved across the sky far from where we think they are. The astronomical reality is that the planet spins on its axis, the planet also rotates about the sun, the solar system is ploughing around the galaxy and the galaxy has its own motion. The sky is constantly changing but on so slow a timescale that we see nothing happen. Even the axial wobble that is going to lead to the North Star no longer being the North Star occurs on a cycle twenty six thousand years long.

Despite all the astronomy and the science and the navigation the stars are still romantic. You can, if you have the opportunity, go out there and gaze up at the sky and think about your true love, or the massive and wonderful world, or compose poems of intense cheesiness for your own satisfaction. You can go out there and wonder, wonder at the immensity of space and the possibilities of whatever might be out there. Those are all incredibly romantic things, and maybe that's why people don't talk about them any more. Maybe the stars being hidden by excess light is a perfect incidental complement to the cynicism of the world that shuns romanticism. We hide the emotional truth by excessive illumination. Such irony!

We can still do it though. We can wonder and think and dream. It's all possible if we can only see.


Note: Some potential for disruption in the Quirky Muffin as I visit Nottingham for a few days. Here's hoping it works out anyway!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

"Love isn't a feeling, it's an ability"

There are quite a few quotes you can lift from 'Dan In Real Life', almost all of which are vulnerable to the lethal blow of 'cheesy nonsense' that is ever hovering just beyond stage left. Fortunately my editor is away at the moment, being busily imaginary, and so I can just throw out quotes from little romantic movies without recourse to hiding under the desk or wearing the aluminium foil armour* designed to deflect patent cynicism. Anyway, love is both a feeling and an ability, inextricably linked and intertwined much like the snakes on the caduceus or the grand Gordian Knot. (See also: Ouroboros.)

<Blatant change of topic>

After a few days of intense gloominess only exacerbated by marking, it is time to cherish the freedom of being able to get down to some research! Oh, if only the absolute darkness of the glum could be averted always, and not just by carefully timed haircuts as in this case. For those interested, the Reverse Samson Hypothesis is still plausible.

Marking is such fun. Generally, it proceeds in the following manner for each script: You first look at the cover briefly to ascertain any pertinent details or clues about how capable the student was. If there's an extra booklet attached, your estimation goes up, as does the potential for endless reams of nonsense. If they're forgotten to put their ID number on the front, then hope takes a small beating until the contents are revealed. Upon opening the booklet the level of neatness or messiness of the workings gives you your first impression, which you then contrive to hold on to as long as possible if positive. If necessary you go away and have a long and comfortable bath just to avoid ruining the said positive impression a particularly neat exam has given you. Finally you go on and mark...

<Exact details of marking withheld due to squeamishness, wisdom, the rules, and a terrible memory. There was an atomic yo-yo and some screaming, which is all that is recalled.>

Upon completing marking, the marker usually has to unwind and forget about the whole process, if only to stop themselves from ripping up all the scripts and then throwing the shreds around the room in what is commonly referred to as 'Berzerker Assessment Fallout' (BAF). BAF was first identified and classified by Dr Lars Earbush in the early 1950s, in the aftermath of his being found hanging by his feet from a monorail in Seattle. Dr Earbush's subsequent studies resulted in no decisive conclusions whatsoever but did afford the dedicated academic and maker of plaster casts of balloon animals some much-needed respite. BAF has been estimated to last between five minutes and three days in most cases, and most conferences are designed to counteract any potential extended BAF by forced biscuit intakes at regular intervals.

Finally, after BAF has subsided, comes the exam board, whereupon the results of the exam and overall marks are considered carefully and then corrected to more accurately reflect the performance of the students. Such corrections range from the addition of a small raisin to their scores, to wholesale fabrication and then deportation of said class or lecturer to the Shetland Isles. In the latter case all concerned are awarded 10 extra marks on the condition they never show their faces again.


* Said armour currently in patenting process.

PS Yes, the title was a decoy. Gotcha.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Story: 'Wordspace', X

(Part I , IX , XI)

The Silly Stone was still, and had been for ages. Then he quivered, laughed maniacally, and wandered off to look at one of the walls of his little pocked of university. Mystery followed him and tried to examine the wall without his eyes watering from the grinding impossibility of what he was seeing.

"You come from an ordered universe, a world defined by immutable concepts. Progress is made by those of you who embody concepts dedicated to neither order nor chaos. Those of you with the capacity to choose. Outside of your... space of words... things are not so simple." The wall of the pocket universe looked so normal but also ridiculous. A solid barrier that represented the last vestiges of where they were. What was on the other side of the barrier that looked like nothing at all? Mystery reached out to touch it.

"No! Never the jabberwockey! Have you never had the anchovies? Reverse the thrusters, pilgrim!" The Silly Stone grabbed him with one of his strange appendages and rolled back to his little safe space in the centre of small but large pocket. That was when Club happened, launching onto the Stone and battering him to the ground. The Stone just lay there, taking it and sobbing until, Mystery managed to dispel his associate's protective tendencies. And for your information, those tendencies were great indeed.

The Silly Stone bounced up as if nothing had ever happened and began talking to a nearby rock, before realising it was just a rock. Then a funny looking creature with huge floppy things on its head appeared in an instant, before vanishing. The Stone started chattering away, then flopping and wiggling, before starting into an apparent conversation before waving an appendage and vanishing the creature to some other continuum. He turned around.

"Hello! How are you then?"

"How are we? We were just having a chat and then you dragged me away from the edge of reality, Club engaged you in fisticuffs, before you went off to talk to a newly appeared floppy thing over there!" Mystery was somewhat agitated. This wasn't mysterious so much as nonsensical!

"Ah, of course! You're the wordy fellows! I was just about to... Ah, of course..." The Silly Stone gathered itself. "Time flows a bit funnily in the different parts of wherever this is. I used to have a name, but now it's gone as if it was never there. Just a leaf on the wind really." The odd assemblage of syllables and solids and ever more bizarre things seemed to peer directly into Club's soul for a moment before turning to Mystery fully.

"In all my experience here, that I can remember at least, no-one has ever come here and forced me to do anything. Never. Until this hostile that entered your world. There is danger here, much danger. I don't know about the destructives in your world but now there is a new force from outside in your world."

Mystery stood very still and asked the question they hoped would dissolve the mystery into fact. "Who? What?"

"In your language you would call him War, or perhaps worse Armageddon. Someone who destroys without compunction." It was indeed the worst that could have happened.

To be continued...

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Diversionary Tactics

Hmmm. I was supposed to be doing something. I wonder what it was? Never mind, there's a solitaire game of 'Forbidden Island' to play. Sure to win this time! Oh. Blast. Where was I? Oh, avoiding marking. Marking isn't so bad, and others have far more than I, but mine keeps diving for cover behind other activities such as endless blurb writing and e-mails that have accumulated to the level of madness! Oh bother, no blog yet for today either. Is there no end?! Must keep going. Must keep going. Don't look back! (Must watch 'Independence Day' tomorrow.)

Wobble wobble wobble. What to do? In the wake of last week's conference and the customary mild sickness associated with such things and the disruptions of people visiting at the weekend everything has fallen apart. And there are masses of things to be done! What? Oh, yes, laundry. Excellent! I love a bit of laundry. If only there had been degrees in laundry...

What's left to do? The aforementioned marking, article reading, foamy calculations, project X, masses of writing and of course travelling to work in the most beautiful place I've ever studied. That five hours of travelling a week is not the easiest thing to maintain on a regular basis. No amount of reading and useful scribbling can avert the battering of being on a bus and lugging luggage around on a weekly basis. Oh, the pain, the melodrama, the countless awkward instances of not quite giving up a seat quickly enough, and the hours of bumping around.

Plainly, my hair is just too long to be able to write well. It's that time again, after weeks of putting it off. There must be a haircut and quickly. Perhaps then I'll be able to pick up the Patrick O'Brian novels again and struggle on some more, and maybe not. There comes a point in the third set of five novels that the increasing melancholy and chatter about middle age and worries of the future become so oppressive that you just have to stop. It's well done, of course, but gloomy in ways best avoided. For your reference, dear reader, it kicks in seriously in 'Clarissa Oakes'.  Maybe it will be better with a haircut? Or will the reread of 'The Belgariad' kick on in earnest?


Friday, 23 May 2014

Movie: 'Godzilla' (2014)

Sometimes you've got to go see the mainstream movies just to remain correctly prejudiced. Pretentious? Yes, and shame is flowing, but that sentence does encapsulate my preconceptions as I went in to see 'Godzilla'. Ultimately those unfair (all preconceptions tend to be unfair) conceptions proved to be right, but there were a few interesting things thrown into the mix. The bottom line reaction is that 'Godzilla' did everything right to be a modern version of all the past iterations of the character, but that doesn't mean I necessarily liked it.

The character of Godzilla began as a menace in his original outing in 1954 and then over a ridiculously long series of movies in Japan became a hero, emerging from presumably refreshing naps to beat off other more evil monsters that were ravaging humanity at regular intervals. ("Yay, Godzilla, you've saved us! And you've levelled our apartment block accidentally...") Godzilla is not just the King of the Monsters but also the Count of Collateral Damage and the Archangel of Atomic Breath. I think he even likes bagels but don't quote me on that. Those decades of movies may have been dominated by men in rubber suits, and inconsistent continuity as Godzilla grew ever bigger to continue peaking over the ever-higher skyscrapers, but his status as a champion could never be contested. So, what do you do with Old Stompy in a modern Godzilla movie? Hero or villain?

Let's not be coy, as Godzilla does turn out to be the hero even if he does level most of Hawaii and San Francisco in defeating the evil Muto butterfly monsters. In fact, he is almost the most humanly relateable character in the film, as the actual humans tend to be just a little (or a lot) monotone. Some reviews I've listened to liken the acting performances to pulling a face and then holding it for the rest of the movie, and that's pretty much accurate. Juliette Binoche continues her run of being wasted in films by being killed early, Bryan Cranston does his best to shed his 'Breaking Bad' legacy by being hammy and ending up bland, and the lead actor carries on with all the charisma of a blunt instrument. In line with earlier comments, this could be in line with what a modern version of Godzilla has to be to line up with its history, but it's still a painful reminder of its place in the land of blockbusters.

Despite all the bad things you can say about the film (pedestrian plot, ridiculous coincidences, hideous attempts at emotional manipulation, pointless over-casting of top actors in forgettable roles), it does have a certain relentless charm. You do feel a bit sorry for the maternal Muto when her eggs get torched, and there is a certain awe when Godzilla finally breaks out his atomic breath and fires it down a gigantic throat to burn the last monster from the inside out. There is a sense of wonder when he exchanges stares with Mr Leading Man and then wanders off to finish the job. Part of me wonders if that is an essential part of Godzilla's screen success; He is always more interesting than the humans even if they have to blanded down to ridiculously low standards to achieve that distinction. Is that the only way for him not to be rejected as a 'monster' instead of a character? On side notes the music is ponderous and weighty but fairly unmemorable which is again necessary unless you want to write the 'Godzilla polka'! The restraint in showing Godzilla and the Mutos is admirable, as anything else would have rendered it automatic shlock. David Strathairn is wasted, Binoche is wasted, Ken Watanabe is wasted, all in the cause of providing a starry cast to get people to come to the movie despite the name 'Godzilla'.

Summing up, if you want to see a movie about giant primordial monsters battling and destroying cities collaterally while cardboard humans stomp around being ineffectual then 'Godzilla' is a good movie. (This definition also applies to 'Man of Steel', illustrating why that would have been better as a Godzilla movie too.) In many ways it probably lives up to its cinematic forebears admirably. Unfortunately it is also decidedly bland in many visual and story respects, and computer-generated Godzilla has two of the most heartfelt moments in the film. C'est la vie, for it is after all a monster movie. We can't expect miracles!


PS Someone please write the 'Godzilla Polka'. Now it has been named it must be done!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Returns (a.k.a. Random Silliness XIX)

Upon returning from Gregynog I am forced to face the many things that lie buried in the past, desperately concealed and unsuccessfully pushed to one side by the recent conference.

One: The Mexican Hat Brigade finally found me. Despite all the precautions and my conversion to bucket hat usage, they rumbled into Gregynog Hall, inflicted mariachi music on everyone at 1AM, and then made a quick getaway in their souped-up mariachi milk float. I may have to change my name back to Sven and revert to minstrelling in the Outer Hebrides. Juanita was especially raucous. She still has a lute.

Two: The proposed serial about Prime Minister Edwin secretly being a front for the Spherical Alien Invaders from Planet X has been shelved due to extreme publisher apathy and some anger at the detail that apparently broke the back of credibility: the editors thought that having the aliens show a preference for Bach instead of legendary rock singer Elvis Presley was utterly unbelievable. They've obviously never read 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency'! Rock candy dispatched as concealed vengeance.

Three: My pet square, Luciano, has gone missing. Sadly he rotated until he was normal to this dimensional plane and then effectively vanished. This has been highly upsetting, and now either life must be lived without a tame geometric to my name or a large supply of ready salted walnuts must be purchased and used to lure said geometric back into a visible frame of reference. All donations welcome, as well as reports of squares roaming mid- or South Wales looking lost or incongruous.

Four: Lemon drops are likely to precipitate the end of the Universe. According to latest theory (*), lemon drops are distilled essences of the forthcoming Big Crunch. Said essence is being captured held in reserve, for reasons unknown, and stored in bulk. Such bulk storage ignores the risk of a critical mass building and initiating a post-lemon drop cascade reaction. Be safe, buy lemon drops now, and keep them in a secure place. Thank you for your attention.

Life is never simple. Blasted lutes.

PS The repeated failures to win Forbidden Island (a tabletop game) in solitaire mode have led me to the following questions. Why is this island forbidden? Why can a few sandbags stop portions from dropping into the abyss? What does it all mean? This will vex me. It shall be won!

* Of course not, don't be silly.

Monday, 19 May 2014

What if God exists and his name is Fred?

(Prepared long ago - Away at a mini-conference - Send food)

Suppose, for a moment, that some all powerful entity definitely (as opposed to possibly) exists that created the universe and that his/her/its name is Fred. Does the name make a difference? Well, if the entity in question calls itself Fred, that is a massive difference, because a familiar/understandable name makes things smaller. An omnipotent being called Fred is intrinsically less frightening than one with no recognizable name at all. All unknown things become less frightening with some self-definition (or even just a nickname!).

More importantly, is this a silly question? Probably it is, but the sillier ones are always the better ones, and lost causes are often more worth fighting for than the others. (It's amazing what you can learn from 'Star Trek' novels.) How many of the greatest mysteries in the universe are considered impossible just because we can't name them yet? Is science ridiculously richer for classifying relativity, or just for naming it and reducing it to something knowable? And does knowing that contribute more to our awareness than 'Joe Versus The Volcano', 'Detective Comics 775' or 'Yes Man'? And is any of it worth more or less if the Big Bang was kicked off by some bloke called Fred? Obviously it is more important to know about relativity in a science-driven world than the others, but more by choice than necessity. The world has chosen to compete via science and warfare, so we have to keep going or be conquered. Also, science is fascinating when done well.

Whether or not there is some being (called Fred or Ethel or StarAsterisk), it doesn't really answer a fundamental question. Doubt still remains. Why? Well, if there is some creator, then how did that creator come into existence? If there isn't a creator then what started everything into action, and if there is no starting event to the universe then how did this all come into existence to begin with? A Big Bang with or without a creator still leaves the same question of first causes, that long infinite chain of events, which must all have been caused somehow in our own perception of reality. First causes... Somewhere outside this dimension, this universe, there could be a whole other realm where causality doesn't exist and first causes don't have to exist. Ultimately there might have to be, otherwise the chain will go on forever. Then the universe would be caused by the universe which would then be caused by the universe and so? It's as good a theory as any other, and it still allows the possibility of some creator, even one called Fred.


Note: The game 'Forbidden Desert' is almost impossibly difficult. Dreadfully impossible. Or we might just be doing it wrong. Mutter.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Books: 'Join Me' and 'Yes Man' by Danny Wallace

'Join Me' and 'Yes Man' are semi-autobiographical memoirs/novels (some parts must be exaggerated, surely?) halves of one story, as published in 2003 and 2005. They are probably meant to be separate stories, but the symmetry is so strong it's easier to treat them as one. In 'Join Me' Danny Wallace, who has surely made more lives better than we will ever know in a thousand tiny ways, started a collective (it's not a cult!) by accident and loses his girlfriend, while in 'Yes Man' he was inspired by a man on the bus to 'say yes more' and does so for most of a year, while finding new love in the process of risking all. It may all sound a bit twee, or a bit silly, but they do work and they do capture a transitional stage in the life of a man called Danny. Danny might be a bit strange, but he's jolly nice with it.

Note: these books are a bit sweary so they must be good to get past my swearing intolerance. Remember that as we go on, if we can go on past this writers block. Oh, trumpety trump! It's like trying to think through a brain of syrup. Incoherence, giant ear muffs over the eyes. Keep going, keep going!

In a sense it's superfluous to go into details of how the founder of Join Me put up adverts in local media simply saying to join him, and to send a passport photo to his address in a demonstration of dedication, and that people actually did it. In an era when people famously have stopped joining things, people joined him when not even he knew what the point was yet. And through all this and personal tragedies, although not too great tragedies as the surely partly fictionalised girlfriend Hanne was a bit mean, there exists a Karma Army as a result to this very day. A Karma Army that does random acts of kindness just for the fun of it. That's an awesome thing to have on your list of things accomplished: Started international army of kindness. It's not a 'stupid boy project' at all. That's all I'll say about 'Join Me' as it really deserves to be read to be enjoyed, and serves mainly as a prelude to the one I really love, 'Yes Man'.

'Yes Man' was the book I read first, picking it up at random from a rack of bestsellers in a supermarket. 'Yes Man' is the one with an unalloyed happy ending. 'Yes Man' is dramatically worse, but almost offensively wonderful. Go read it. Please, for sanity's sake. In the aftermath of the events of 'Join Me' and some other events, Danny is a bit sad, withdrawn from the world and taking no risks. One day that man on the bus appears, and everything changes. At a surface level, the whole thing is more contrived, but it's also just that bit more romantic than 'Join Me'. Encapsulated into the narrative is a different paradigm to life, and one that people rarely even consider. Yes, it is rampantly silly to say yes to everything ('si a todo!'), but it is also one of the healthiest ideas to crawl out of a cave and scream for attention in many many centuries. We should all say yes more, or as the default, and leap into the unknown. (Note: I haven't, but plan to sometime. Stop looking at me. Oh fine, tomorrow then!)

Of course these two books were never meant to be self-help manuals but really works of entertainment. Their value is incidental or to some extent accidental, but that value does exist. It exists within the witty and self-deprecating prose of Danny, the adventures he gets up to in what some declare 'stupid boy projects' but which are really acts of sanity. In the mad mad world of the remaining twenty-first century some things are going to have to go. Conformity is something that will hold more people back on the grand scale, and quite a few of them are people who would like to join something that does nice things, and go through life 'saying yes more'. Here's to them, and here's to Danny. He's changed lots of lives, including mine tangentially, and maybe it's time to just finally give in on the hypocrisy and say yes to 'Join Me'. Or maybe you should instead?


Note: The following book 'Friends Like These' didn't work for me personally. I therefore do not write about it except to note that it exists, and you might like it. If you exist. If any of us exist. This post was completed in place of 'What if there is a God and his name is Ernie?', which is in development torture. Sigh.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Operation Pointing Dodo

"There is a plan. It is very secret. Much like the pointing dodo of yore it may only be discovered long after it's over. Operation Pointing Dodo is a go."

If only it were true. Aberystwyth is a genuine haven for more than half the year, with quiet beautiful beaches and hills, and then for the remaining warm weather months, it becomes much more of a tourist crucible. The remaining staff and postgraduate students burn in the heat of the tourists and undergraduates sitting exams, becoming coated in beach barbecue stench and wondering where it all went wrong. And of course nothing has gone wrong at all.

There's a false sense of ownership to being among the people who appreciate the environment in the off months, breathing in the air and thinking abstractly as the waves roll in and out, or the breeze flows across the hilltops, and in the natural human mode of arrogance it's incredibly frustrating when the people who only like it for its weather just stumble out blindly and clutter the place up. Oh, the fury, the horror, the lack of thinking space! Oh the pettiness in grumbling at other people having fun!

It would be nice if there could be an Operation Pointing Dodo, an organised rebellion that would see the stinky bonfires and barbecues blown away to the waters most deep. We could assemble in three teams: behind the mini-golf shed, atop Constitution Hill at the frisbee golf (please don't ask), and by the lighthouse. Armed with our trusty goggles and cheese sabres (again, it's a long story) we could strike a blow for the people who get displaced in the summer by the thoughtless visitors! And then, we would be lynched by the shopkeepers and hoteliers who depend on students and tourists for their livelihoods.

Oh, cheese sabres, you were so close... If only the level 3 Gouda Divining failure hadn't stopped that ambition for cheese magehood fully in its tracks. Perhaps next year, although it seems ever less likely. A cheese mage would be an ideal participant in Pointing Dodo.

Reverting back to the reasonable mode of thought, all those people out there are brilliantly exercising their rights of equality and liberty and pyromania. Roll on October! Bring on the storms! Grumble grumble mutter mutter sigh. All is as it should be.


PS Yet another mini-conference next week. More cover blogs being prepared for Monday and Wednesday. Somehow.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Amsterdam book review

While on holiday I read a lot. For the first time in years a stream of unread novels flew through my intent hands and were enjoyed appropriately. Three and a half novels in fact and now, for your education and my pleasure, it's time to write a little about them. One of the great horrors of growing up is a lack of leisure time for reading!

First off, we have 'The Detective And The Woman' by Amy Thomas, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Sadly, this didn't live up to the high standard of 'The Seven-per-cent Solution', and ultimately impressed I was not. There's a distinct whiff of competently written fan fiction about this one, for what would happen if Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes had had a case together during the detective's hiatus. They get married at the end. Sequels have followed. It all seems to be a bit off character really, but at least it's short.

Secondly, 'The Girl, The Gold Watch And Everything' by John D Macdonald. This is a caper story, a crime novel, a science fiction novelty and a rites of passage tale all wrapped together. It's also just the tad disturbing as the protagonist largely parallels me up until a certain point, and that's not the point where he discovers his inherited gold watch can pause time. Overall, an interesting one trick novel, written expertly and soaked in a West Coast of the United States atmosphere. Upsetting but again quite short. Some people will probably love it.

Thirdly, 'Three Hearts and Three Lions' by Poul Anderson. Anderson is one of the great legendary fantasy and science fiction writers and this one of his well known works. My only other experience so far with his work is the much more well known 'Broken Sword', which was a bit too bleak to be enjoyable. This is definitely a far more agreeable (short again) novel. An engineer is transported from occupied Denmark where he's working for the resistance against the Nazis to a seemingly parallel world locked in its own war between order and chaos. Therein he falls in love, regains his memories of a former life there and finally finds the means to save the day. Defying convention it ends abruptly, glosses over the actual defeating of chaos, and culminates in the hero not getting to live happily ever after. Recommended, fun and serious, but an underwhelming ending. Will it get read again? Maybe, but it's no certainty.

Finally, and I'll come back to this in the future, even a few days after returning I'm still stuck in 'The Prestige' (not short) by Christopher Priest. The reading of this novel has been overshadowed by two things: one, a certain lack of taste for his eerie writing picked up while trying out 'The Glamour' on my now-defunct Kindle, and two the clear fact that the movie adaptation tells this story remarkably better. I will get back to this once the novel is finished and a full post can be written comparing novel and film.

It's not a holiday if there's no reading and apart from all the above 'Yes Man' came to the rescue at several points, when trams and trains and buses were threatening to destroy the delicacies of the soul. Again, more on 'Yes Man' and it's predecessor 'Join Me' soon. Oh, Danny Wallace you have made a difference to so many people!


Monday, 12 May 2014

The Amsterdam Trip: A Summary

A holiday is a tricky beast. A mass of whirling preconceptions and plans that collapse down to the waveform that is reality once you set foot at the destination and realise just what you've really arrived at. The last week was spent, for me and my anniversary-ing parents, in scenic and wet Amsterdam, the mildewy elegant and liberal capital of the already liberal Netherlands. Needless to say, people got cheese for gifts and postcards were totally neglected.

That's right, I forgot all postcards. Sorry, people of the world who expected some.

For my part, I did exactly two things as activities and excursions in Amsterdam: The zoo and tracking down board game shops. Everything else fell by the wayside in the chaos and panic, and instead it narrowed down to animals and cardboard. In retrospect Zooloretto would have been the best game to get. Blast it all! My travel arrangements favoured everyone but me, so that's a trip well organised. Sigh.

The Amsterdam Artis Zoo is lovely, taking up a massive portion of the city to the east of the Hermitage (ticked off a Civilization computer game landmark!), and filled with all the usual suspects as well as the lesser seen sea lions and alligators. The alligators were hiding when the even more than usually hesitant trip to the reptile house occurred and a few side glimpses of snakes pushed me back out into the cold drizzle. Oh Dutch drizzle, you are no match for the Welsh kind, which kicks you in the teeth after soaking you through and not before. The Beiderbecke references were knocked off pretty quickly by copying the notion of a canal cruise and then what was there left to do?

An in-depth analysis of all the material at hand upon arrival led to a swift declaration of a Red Light District prohibited zone, a bike hire that was subsequently mostly ignored, and the directions to board game shops supplied by the awesome Elena being salvaged and used on the final morning. Not buying a game was compensated for by identifying and visiting a cheese shop as a consequence! Who can go to Amsterdam and not buy cheese, truly? It is the default gift, apart from knocked off windmills, leather jackets and terrible miniature clogs! Note: Never get gifts for anyone from Amsterdam unless you want a friend with clogs, leather jackets and windmill beanie hats driven by cheesy breath. Ick.

The overriding impression of Amsterdam from my city-loathing point of view is that is comparatively green, comparatively scenic, less grey and severe than some other places, crushed underneath a sea of cyclists and generally quite nice away from the aforementioned prohibited zone. But it's still a city. Bleuch! The public transport system is admirably integrated though, right down to universal travel passes and free ferries across the massive river Ij. There are scenic streets and canals, and historic buildings galore, as well as some of the seediest gift shops known to humanity. It's a strange contradiction in terms in many ways, and a contradiction that will need further independent study.

Now if only we could get to the bottom of why the term 'museum' actually means 'gallery' in the European countries I've been to a mass of disappointments might be averted in the future. Actual museums are so much nicer than galleries!


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Movie: 'Dan In Real Life' (2007)

(Prepared far far in advance. Away in Amsterdam.)

The danger in writing about 'Dan In Real Life' is that you will write 'It's a lovely little movie' over and over again, because it is. So why not just get that over with at the beginning? It is a lovely little movie after all, and it firmly and unequivocally belongs in my little box of post-Millennial movies that are actually good. It also slots neatly in to the very small set of movies featuring comedic actors in crossover roles, which so far is complete in 'Groundhog Day', 'The Truman Show', 'Stranger Than Fiction' and this movie. If you know of anymore please add a comment.

Where to begin? Very well, 'Dan In Real Life' is a romance / family drama with some comedic overtones. It's one of the few such movies I can stand to watch, and in part that's because of an unwavering sense of reality that's meshed deep into the fabric of what is ultimately a simple tale. It's so simple that it can be summarised by the following: "Widower single dad falls for woman, woman turns out to be his brother's new girlfriend, they end up together anyway."

This is potentially a futile post as I have no idea what it is I like about this film. Why do I cry at a romance at all? It's set in a big house where a massive extended family is having its annual meeting, which is not something I relate to, and it's all about love and its attendant messiness and the stressed relationships between the titular Dan and his three daughters. Maybe if we ignore the love story and concentrate on Dan himself it might become clearer. It's really much more a film about Dan than anyone else, a story of someone finding it within himself to not be afraid anymore and love again. With some naturalistic funny bits. It's not a comedy firstmost or secondmost, but a story. A simple story at that, but one with a magnificent cast, in a beautiful place, with great skill apparent at all technical levels, and a heart of gold at the core. Also, Sondre Lerche does a great job with the music. Check him out. He's only a little crazy.

It's strange how it works out. A film which could be overwhelmingly twee or sentimental instead holds its course enough to be comfortable and affecting. A potentially humdrum stressed family dynamic resolves into what could be a new beginning for all concerned. A potentially farcical Steve Carell movie turns out to be an understated character piece. Sometimes the pieces do align. I actually do get kind of bored in the story with his middle daughter but it feeds into the ending so it has to be there. Teen love? Love is for lesser mortals, those who don't have crumpets! Oh, love...

It's easy to become scared of life and love, especially it doesn't seem forthcoming. Just remember, it's not the case that you find love, but that love will find you if you're open to it. That's a nice thought, even if it is too sappy to be true. It's a good movie, with an excellent soundtrack and a massively winning performance from Carell, and one that sits very strangely in my movie collection. I suppose the answer to why I like it is obvious: It's nice to think that people can overcome their demons and be happy and even in love and loved. It's a nice thought. Until then, however, it's crumpets and swimming.

Love will find you!

Friday, 9 May 2014

Television: 'Star Trek The Next Generation: Family' (Episode 4x02)

(Prepared long ago. Away in Amsterdam.)

As I sit here typing frenetically and producing cover material for the Muffin over the next few weeks, I am overshadowed by a massive number of Star Trek novels. Star Trek was a massive influence on me, massive, and on revisiting much of non-Original Series era be underwhelming or feel a little hidebound.

'Star Trek: The Next Generation', henceforth to be referred to as TNG, had a number of problems. There's not much point in going into the problems in depth, but amongst them there was the problem of writing truly meaningful or dramatic episodes within a purely episodic structure where there could be no consequences. It was a show that started in the 1980s after all, with all the trappings of that era. TNG actually succeeded for the most part despite itself and its own structure, and part of that was because occasionally it could do episodes like 'Family'.

'Family' was the follow-up to the preceding two-parter 'The Best Of Both Worlds' in which Picard (Captain Jean-Luc Picard, false Frenchman and tea addict) was taken and assimilated in a fashion into the Borg and used to power and mastermind an invasion into the United Federation of Planets. Of course by the end of that story he was reclaimed and restored to the Enterprise-D (which doesn't look like a giant duck at all, oh no) and in the normal Star Trek scheme of things that would have been that. On this occasion there was 'Family', though, which allowed consequences, which were unheard of outside the still-recent movies II, III and IV.

Consequences did not occur much in Star Trek then as mostly things get forgotten by the next episode, but 'Family' was one of two notable TNG episodes (along with 'Lessons' which refers to 'The Inner Light') to show consequences to a given story. That changed everything. Picard got a whole episode, in concert with less impressive but thematically similar B and C stories, to recover from what would be one of the most traumatic things to occur to a character in Star Trek ever. It was and is quite the magical show as Patrick Stewart showed every inch of his acting calibre and sold the idea that Picard might not come back to the ship, that the world is different now, and that some trauma doesn't go away. And then he gets to fight in mud with Jeremy Kemp (brother Picard) and remind us all that he is the guy with the most rounded and human character on the ship by far. I think fighting in mud with Jeremy Kemp should be the overwhelming feature of every trauma recovery in Star Trek really, but that's just me.

It is one of the landmark episodes, a show without a space mission or a problem to be solved via science or neutrinoes or some silly deus ex machina. The only stories are personal stories, and they all land, and when Picard does eventually return to be captain again - get back in your own seat, Number One - it is because he has worked through his problems himself. The introduction of stories like this is what saved TNG, what powered DS9 completely at times, and then disappeared somehow as Star Trek went away again into the dark. Of course that is the way it goes, and that was the way it went. At least we got one of the best episodes ever when TNG was on air, and it was called 'Family'.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Story: 'Wordspace', IX

(Part I , VIII , X) - (Prepared long ago - delivering the Dutch from tyranny and cheeses at this time)

Mystery, Club and Sorpresa stood at the point of intersection. Their ally Cloud, left behind on their other plane of existence, would be doing what? Would he wait? Would he be summoned away for some vital mission?

Mystery jerked himself back to his new reality, his mind wandering as it never had before. Was that an effect of crossing over to this strange new place, wherever it might be? Around them was the accumulated debris of eons, or of just a few minutes. The space was vast (or quite, quite small) and dominated by the figure he could only assume was the Silly Stone.

The Silly Stone was bunny hopping. Badly.

Club immediately stepped forward, to Mystery's right flank. He looked quite normal and composed, but composure for Club meant preparedness and vigilance. The Silly Stone continued on obliviously, now making strange noises that might have been singing.

Mystery's mind had wandered again, and this time he brought it back from the Isle of Truth, Lies and Mystery as it had used to be. This time there was an almost audible mental twang. What was the Silly Stone? What had Sorpresa done when he was here last? (If 'last' even had any meaning?) Now that he was reminded of that strange visitor from another land he examined him closely. Sorpresa wasn't looking around, not was he chirping away in his own lingua franca. He just watched the Silly Stone silently and quite intently. Did he know something?

Bunny hop hop hop. Hop chirp splat hop click squeal hop unidentifiable noise tra la la hop.

The Silly Stone was evidently sillier than even Space had intimated. Mystery and Club looked on as he capered around, utterly alien and yet quite familiar. Parts of the Stone seemed to made of the regular syllables and letters of their own syllabic existence while others were utterly different and... inexplicable... even solid. And what was there in the syllabic sense was partly extra-lexical. It was madness!

"Sploot sploot, clammy nostrum axc:lap." The Silly Stone had stopped before him and he realised that he had drifted off again. "Slappy Clippy Drchr Sponge?"

"Sponge?" A genuine word?

"Sponge! Ah! Tarkll lingual smash traversal sl^p."


"Yes. Translation. Don't spckl, it's almost settled in now. Ah, I know this trpl from before! No need to analyse! Como se va, Sorpresa?" The Silly Stone addressed Sorpresa.

"Bueno, excelente, pero ahora quiero ir a mi casa. Ha hecho muchas días." Sorpresa sounded happy, but not urgent.

"Si si, en un momento." The Stone turned back to Mystery and Club. "I've identified your lexicon now. Never met anyone from your world before. What can I do for you? Sing a song? do a merry Rosetta jig?"

"No, ah... This is confusing..."

"Yes, it would be. As lexical beings you're struggling with being out of context." A slow waltz around the tiny/huge room. "You'll adjust in a few moments. Plus, I suspect a few days trying to interpret another language has left you more than a little tired." A sigh. "When you're made of language itself, a new one can be rather opaque."

"Yes... What?"

"Time means nothing here. I know most things and at the same not many at all. However, it's best to get our friend Surprise here home." The Stone spun, handed a funny looking bag to Sorpresa, who attached it somehow quickly. Then the Stone snapped his digits and boom, Sorpresa was gone.

"Sorpresa? Surprise?"

"Yes, Surprise."

"I see... That explains the jumping out of holes while grinning."

"Probably. He's much more fun than the other one."

"The other one we haven't seen at all."

"Just as well. A nasty piece of work. Quite shook the feathers off my back." The Silly Stone stopped bouncing and looked worried instead. "I suppose that we'd better talk."

"Yes, it sounds we had better." Mystery had a feeling that the weirder events were yet to come.

More shall follow.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Story: Oneiromancy, VII

(Part O , VI , VIII) - (Written long ago - Currently in Amsterdam, testing the Dutch toffee tolerance)

Weirdness has an endearing habit of becoming normal with exposure. So many things that used to be weird are now normal, and so many that used to be normal are now quite bizarre. On many levels, weirdness is interchangeable with unfamiliarity. Those thoughts wouldn't occur to Stanley for another few days, until long after his world had changed irrevocably.

After departing the Blue Monkey, the teacher spent his evening marking and then transferring everything he could remember about the dreams and his experiences to paper. The light path, the owl in the blue fez, the great sand face in the desert, and finally the incredible feeling of familiarity and connectedness in the cafe that day. After some thought, he mentioned the infuriating dreams of his past and the extents he had gone to to rid himself of them.

Two streets away, Helen had scribbled down what little she remembered about her dreams. She also wrote about some rumours she had heard about while studying at college. The rest of the evening was spent distractedly at Spanish class, which fact does not concern the narrative any further.

Dusk fell early in what was after all the late Spring, and Stanley worriedly took a walk around the park, then around the supermarket, and then once around the block. It had been years since he had been so scared of going to sleep. Finally, in a state of near exhaustion from worry, he nervously brushed his teeth and washed before retiring to his rather unruly bedchamber. For all the wrong reasons, he couldn't rid Helen Ostrander from his mind.

Two desperate hours later he got up, made a cup of cocoa and then returned to bed. Several sips of the warm brown goop later he subsided into sleep and mirrored what Helen had been doing for hours already. He slept, as she slept, and then they dreamed.

Within the dream, Helen had been floating on a raft in the middle of a deep blue ocean, watching the dolphins and building houses out of giant dominoes. To windward a second raft approached rapidly, in a most illogical manner. She paid it only nominal attention and continued laying the large double six as the garage roof.

Stanley held on to the raft grimly as the squids propelled it along, endlessly pumping away. Finally they slowed and then vanished underwater as the rafts collided and merged most ridiculously into one giant structure. He examined the house Helen was distractedly building and wondered why she hadn't properly buttressed the arched ceiling. He got down to work and piled into the architecture. If only they a mass of kapla and a steadier raft they could work wonders!

The raft approached a darkened island. Upon the island there was a shack. Within the shack a light burned erratically. Stanley and Helen looked confusedly at one another and then up at the shack. Behind them was a clear dividing line between night and day, firmly defying the sun high up in the sky. At their feet, a scale pagoda made out of dominoes. On the topmost level, a message was crawling out in pebbles: "Help me."

A figure emerged from the shack.

To be continued...

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Antecedent

(Written far in advance. En route to Amsterdam.)

This is not my first blog, in fact 'The Quirky Muffin' is a legacy weblog, inheriting its address from the now long-dormant `Mighty Clomp'. The 'Mighty Clomp' inherited its name from one of my sister's and my favourite toys, who was known as The Clomp. The Clomp, quite apart from being deliciously nasty, powerful and exiled also has the unfortunate tendency to get carried away, and once spent a month on the bottom of the sea because "it would be nice to get away from it all and chat with a squid". He also monologues, which will seemingly always be a problem for maniacal super villains. He sits on a stack of books not very far away even now, chuckling about the things he plans to do should he ever stop being incredibly lazy and addicted to writing false memoirs. The books are by Jim Davis.

antecedent: something that happened or existed before something else and is similar to it in some way

The Mighty Clomp was therefore the antecedent of the Muffin, and in many ways they are similar. Also in many ways they are quite dissimilar. Where the Muffin is fairly anonymised and generally depersonalised (or at least as much as it can be while still remaining a blog), the Clomp was a much more inappropriate place to be. Fortunately no-one was there and it collapsed rapidly under the weight of a total paucity of events and an author with a background devoid of anything but books and Star Trek. While this blog is determinedly adirectional, the Clomp was aimless but it is missed in the tiniest crevices of the author's heart. At least it lives on in the smallest ways, and the real (comparatively 'more real') Clomp sits on his stack and sings German drinking songs still.

As you read this I'm far, far away and preparing for a length journey to Amsterdam via bus, rail and ferry. If you encounter someone in the next few days in Amsterdam, maybe on a bicycle and looking lost maybe you should offer them a cheese in the hopes of reviving the spirits. In more general terms, I strongly advise tolerance for passing cyclists or crazy people in your swimming pool. They might be me! Especially if they have a bicycle AND are in the pool. There's a reason why I have to leave Britain! It's not all holidays and parental anniversaries.

Amsterdam... land of bike paths and swimming pools, and other things best left uninvestigated. If you're interested, please try to read 'Yes Man' by Danny Wallace before I get to writing about it! Amsterdam features very prominantly, as does a little dog. Intrigued?


PS It's hard to believe that this silly little personal challenge of a blog has been going for more than three hundred entries, and is still just as random and nonsensical as it has ever been. Even now there are seven different files open, each with a different heading and silly idea attached. And they're all manifestly terrible. More than three hundred entries and the quality's still somewhere between debatable and deplorable. Que sera, sera, loonies.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Total Submission

You must lay down all your joys and whims. None of them may pass with you into publication. All prose and colour, be it visual or verbal, is left at the gates unless you pay the utmost penalty. You shall not pass muster without that total submission. And lo, when your manuscript is taken they say unto you that it shall be judged by your peers, some of whom are not angry for the incidents of Leeds in 2013, and that you must wait.

The weeks, they pass slowly, and the words crumble into dust until at last all queries must be answered with conspicuous delay, and arguments with custard and rhubarb most sharp. If thou dost not comply with the rites so vague, and so laden with pomp, then nothing will fall upon you for all your labours but the peril of the pink slip of rejection. The editor shall place marks of black against your name, and when next the badges of publication are drawn you shall be given the wonky pelican.


It was a good day. After six and a bit years of massively nonsensical labour, a paper has emerged and been submitted, and all on the eve of the eve of a monumental holiday. What do you do when you get a paper submitted (not guaranteed to be published, just submitted)? Well, you start thinking about the next one, of course! Just what could it be about? Ummm... That's a bit of a difficult question...

Also, in general news not related to aardvarks expect something special from Film Bin for the massively cult film 'Flash Gordon' very very soon. We even had a special guest and some snacks. It went surprisingly well for an endeavour I think we were all a bit nervous about on the Crew. Fortunately even if we do pick up a listener we're sure to lose them again pretty quickly. They only have to listen to any other one of our shows!


This is the last live blog before the holiday, and all but one of the cover posts is now prepared. It has taken far more effort than I thought possible, and that last one shall be taken care of tomorrow even as the first of the cover posts come out. Maybe in the future the Quirky Muffin will suspend for vacations, but not this time!

As a result these are the last words before departure. We shall close by commemorating the number nine, the letter Q, and by suggesting quite complimentarily in both directions that Brian Blessed is indeed the British William Shatner. Let fly in comments if you disagree.