Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Technicolor™ type

Regular acolytes of this ‘ere blog might note a sudden and spangly facelift.

Looked through Blogger’s layout interface because of something I was proposing for work. It was too tempting not to click around and, I hope, make things a touch warmer.

The typeface is now all Trebuchet, named after the contraption for getting middle-aged men into castles.

If I understand these things even remotely, Mr Gill’s beautiful letterings come out of copyright in just fewer than three whole years. Gill Sans, designed for clarity and fine looks, even from far away, is ideally suited to both print and the screen (which is why the BBC use it). I beseech it then being a core font for the web, and will use it and Joanna here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


“At the end the comandante raised his arm in the Fascist salute. ‘¡Arriba España!’ In the early days of Bernie’s captivity, at San Pedro, many prisoners had refused to respond, but when a few were shot they had complied, and now there was a dull ragged response. Bernie had told the other prisoners about an English word that sounded almost the same as ‘Arriba’ and now it was ‘Grieve España’ that they called back.”

CJ Sansom, Winter in Madrid, p. 256.

Mother-in-law leant us this, which gripped when I should have been reading work things. It’s about three public school boys, caught up in Spain after the civil war, as Franco debates whether or not to go in with Hitler.

Bernie Piper is the son of a shopkeeper, in Spain to fight for the reds against fascism. Missing, believed dead, he’s in a work camp in Cuenca, slowly toiling to death, destroying pagan cave paintings. (This might constitute a spoiler were it not also revealed in the back-cover blurb.)

Bernie's grieving girlfriend Barbara has been taken up by the Clark-Gable-moustached spiv Sandy, who got expelled from the old school and never got on with Bernie. Sandy’s up to something mischievous involving gold mines and Jewish refugees. So another school mate, hero and Dunkirk veteran Harry Brett, is sent out to spy on Sandy.

It packs in the historical detail, explaining the power groups, economics and cultural nuances to build up a vivid picture of these terrible times. There also some fun gags involving real historical characters. All this helps flesh out an engrossing plot, and the last 100 pages are especially hard to put down. The Dr was a little disappointed by the abruptness of the ending; I thought it effectively placed the whole thing in the context of the rest of the war.

The 4½-page historical note is and one of best and most concise summaries of the period I’ve seen. But the novel itself explores the splits between what are ostensibly two sides. The British-bribed monarchists vie for power with the fascist Falange, while Bernie’s as much at risk from his fellow communists as he is his captors. And at its heart are those with no particular leanings, ordinary, decent, everyday people helplessly caught up in the horrors.

The acknowledgments don't mention Orwell or Hugh Thomas - which is pretty much all I know about this most uncivil of wars. But I'm intrigued by a couple of the other sources:
“Phillip Knightley’s Philby, KGB Masterspy (London 1978) opened the world of wartime espionage for me […] The article by J. Bandrés and R Llavona, ‘Psychnology in Franco’s Concentration Camps’ (Psychology in Spain, 1997, vol. I, no. I, pp. 3-9) is a chilling account of the abuse of psychiatry.”

Ibid., p.537.

There are posters in the train stations all over London enthusing about Sansom’s other books, and one day when I’m not reading for money I shall endeavour to look them out.

Monday, April 23, 2007

You would make a good Dalek

Up early Saturday to get the train to Manchester. Read the first quarter of Nobody’s Children (first draft), which is really rather good. Hooray!

Met the brother-in-law and his mate P., and caught the free bus into town. Some kids on the bus were off to the same top destination, and compared signed merchandise on the way. One explained seriously to his friend that,

“Nick Briggs is funny, and not as scary as you’d think.”

Texted this at the boss himself, who’s glad it’s not the other way round.

A new companion for Dr Who?The Museum of Science and Industry’s Droo exhibition was absolutely packed, and we had three quarters of an hour before our timed tickets let us in. We sat in a café and ate Bellinis, and I snapped the Dr in front of the TARDIS.

Eventually got into the show, the only grown-ups not escorting children (or using them as an excuse). Proved my geek credentials by not only identifying each of the first eight Doctors, but also which stories their pictures were from. P. very impressed. Or maybe a little scared.

That was the only concession to old-skool show, and we wended our way round the displays of new show monsters and costumes. Was more entertained by the other punters, and kids barely able to toddle explaining to their grans where the Moxx of Balhoon fitted in.

Me and the bossBottlenecks around the Cybermen and Daleks, of course, and other adults seemed to think me brave for having my picture taken right by the sink plunger. The shop was full of new-logo toys – tents and screwdrivers and action figures I’d never have dared dream of when small.

There were a few knock-off products without the new series logo, which looked a bit shabby in comparison. No Big Finish of any flavour – a terrible and tragic oversight.

We wandered a bit round the MSIM’s other, free buildings and then found ourselves a pint. Then a bus to the shops, on which the Dr got chatted up by an incomprehensible drunk. (No, not me.)

On the trek back to Piccadilly, the bro-in-law led us into an inauspicious bookshop to see a display of toy soldiers. There were three tiers of marching Nazis, hand-painted in Hong Kong and £20 a piece. As well as Hitler, Goebbels and anonymous troops and youths, there were limited editions of Heydrich, Hess and other middle-ranking Nazi slebs.

We were struggling to find words when the bloke behind the counter came over to help. The figures, he said, were illegal in some countries, but weren’t half as offensive as stuff in some of his books.

Bryan Ferry had a point, he went on, and anyway, some people collect and dress up in SS uniforms. That was nothing political, of course – the clothes were just stylish and well made. He was short, enthusiastic (at least towards the Dr, who didn’t tower above him) and we weren’t sure if he was joking…

Caught the train back to Macclesfield. The teenage girls sat opposite were overheard to say that I was “pretty fit”, which says a lot about the talent in this poor part of the world. The Dr was still finding this hilarious a good hour later – a bit unfair given the best she can do is drunks and neo-Nazis.

Beer and splendid, scary Droo, then out to snaffle curry. Talked new series theories and old continuity with P. into the small hours. Late up yesterday, good pub lunch and then the long trip home.

Now just 50 pages of Nobody’s Children left and really very pleased.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Harry Potter’s magic wand

Went to see Equus last night at the Gielgud, made famous by Daniel Radcliffe flapping his old chap about at the end.

We had “stage seats” – a bold new venture for me. There’s no legroom in the high horseshoe looking down on the performance, and if you even look like you might have food on your person, a stern-looking bloke comes over. So no popcorn.

It’s an odd place to sit, because you can scrutinise the audience as much as the play. Spotted Howard Jacobson in the posher seats, and possibly Julian Fellowes, too. They didn’t wave.

Richard Griffiths, leading and narrating, was good enough to glance over his shoulder from time to time, to include us in events. His was an engaging, gentle performance, playing against the frustrated, ranty man as written.

Griffiths is Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist, whose latest patient is 17 year-old Alan Strang (Radcliffe), who just blinded some horses with a hoof pick. Dysart’s patience and ploys unravel the reasons behind such an abhorrent act. But the more Dysart “cures” the nightmares plaguing the boy, the more he’s envious of his passion, too, and the more he starts to question “normalcy”.

Radcliffe was excellent, and a world from Harry Potter. The girls were pleased to see he’d been working out, too. Well, if you are going to lark about in the all together for the entertainment of a full house of punters, you want to be looking your best.

All the performances were good, and it was expertly staged. Kudos to the chaps playing horses, cantering about in precarious high heels.

Yet the writing is heavy and overly worthy, and very much of its time. Alan’s parents are by turns a self-taught socialist and blinkeredly religious, and it’s difficult to believe they’d stay together. I found the stuff about telly as the opiate of the plebs very dated, too. The women are very underwritten; able and capable and all very lovely, but objects for the men to respond to. Jenny Agutter was all very good, but really had nothing to do.

I think my real beef was that it reminded me of too many other things, most notably Robert Lindner’s excellent The Fifty-Minute Hour (and ooh! Alan C Elms’ brilliant New York Review of Science Fiction article, Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch: Cordwainer Smith & Kirk Allen is now online).

M’colleague B., sat next to me, was more bothered by the idea of psychiatry as only an intellectual process, the cure coming from deductive reasoning alone. And one lady outside the theatre was very annoyed that, “Just because we know why he did it, doesn’t make it okay.”

I spent a little over two hours waiting to be examined myself, today, having finally got around to registering with a doctor. I am a stone overweight, not diabetic and should cut down a bit on my drinking.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Three points

I have been told that Margaret Thatcher, when Prime Minister, refused to read briefs of more than three bullet points. If not too hot on detail, she did always appear to be on top of the myriad issues that people might ask her about.

My three bullets for you today are:
  • ITEM! A talk next Thursday addresses human remains and display, and probably won’t include my one-liners:

    “The Stories of Sara Baartman – the ‘Hottentot Venus’”
    Written and presented by Dr Debbie Challis
    National Portrait Gallery (in the lecture room, downstairs)
    Thursday 26 April 2007, 13:15 - 14:00

  • ITEM! M’colleague Mr B. Aaronovitch has joined the 21st century, and marks this auspicious occasion by… er, railing against the 21st century

  • ITEM! M’colleague and soon-to-be neighbour G. thinks he knows where Martha Jones gets her look from

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pomp and circumstance

Watched the BBC’s 1962 Elgar drama documentary, directed by the young Ken Russell.

The imagery is beautiful and cinematic – looking as if made with a most un-BBC budget. Unlike more modern drama docs, the actors do not speak and the only voice heard is narrator Huw Wheldon. It’s a very effective way of illustrating one man’s essay, but also makes best use of Elgar’s music.

It mentions Elgar’s Catholicism as an inspiration for his epic and melodic scores, which is kind of ironic since his work is seen as so inherently C-of-E British. But then the lush theatricality of our anthems, crownings and royal ceremonies has always been a bit Anglo-Catholic.

It suddenly occurred to me (no doubt after everybody else) that Anglicans who object to women vicars must, on the same principles, oppose Betty as head of their church.

Elgar himself was uncomfortable with the patriotic claims made of his music. Perhaps the most extraordinary sequence in Russell’s beautiful film is his use of Elgar’s “Pomp and circumstance”. This Boer War marching song is, with someone else’s lyrics, better known as “Land of Hope and Glory”. And Russell juxtaposes the lyric-less original with awful footage from the First World War – men shot as they ascend from the rat-infested trenches, queues of wounded soldiers staggering through the mud. It’s an incredible, provocative sequence, and I could see just why Elgar might have felt angry…

Sunday, April 15, 2007

What’s a weekend?

Spoke to the sister this morning, swapping gossip of one sort and another. She lives on the other side of the planet and has caught the natives’ upward inflection. The Dr and I hope to spend Christmas with her in Melbourne, some other projects permitting.

Work continues. Have gone through the proofs of Dave Stone’s novel, The Two Jasons, in time to receive the first draft of our next book, care of Jon and Kate and Phil. The Wake needs a little tweaking and is ready for studio, and by Tuesday I should have all this year’s remaining scripts done. Chapter 2 of Inside Benny is currently 25,000 words, and is coming together nicely. Bit of a blimmin’ mammoth, though. And we’re powering through the short story competition.

Met the writer Colin Harvey last night – or one of them. This one’s the winner of SFX’s own new writer competition, who’s also got a story in Snapshots. He was lucky enough to catch me when I’d spent all day at the typing, and I may have been a little talkative.

We and several other colleagues were in Lewisham’s answer to the Dolphin, ostensibly to pick apart the joys of Gridlock. Nope, everyone seemed agreed it was pretty damn wondrous, and I arrived too late for what had apparently been lots of snitty misery about the end of Life of Mars.

(Though I can sympathise with much of the criticism, it kept me and the Dr entertained and guessing right to the end. And Ralph Brown was, as always, a shiny great treasure.)

Congratulations to m’colleague E., who sneakishly, secretly got himself wed yesterday. Everyone should get married. And, more importantly, they should then have a good party.

E., you’re not allowed to do that bit in secret, okay?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Births, marriages, deaths

Met the Dr in the spangly Young Vic bar Wednesday night, where we shared some giraffes of wine. She also bought me a leatherless present, London: City of Words.

Have already learnt that Caxton’s first English printing press was inherited by the splendidly named Wynken de Worde. In about 1500, de Worde moved it from Westminster to Fleet Street, which remained the heart of English pressing for just shy of 500 years. Good fact!

We then ambled onwards to Tas for some Turkish comestibles. It was packed, but the service was exemplary and we had some very good food. Also got through quite a lot of fizz.

Yesterday was somewhat different, and we grabbed a lift from my cousin in Richmond down to my grandfather’s funeral. He was 93 and had been declining some time, but his death (on 31 March) was still a bit of a shock. Lots of family I’d not seen in years, and some wonderful stories too. Most of them entirely unrepeatable.

I’d been tasked last week with ringing round the cousins to gather stories to use in the eulogy. Most featured boozing and swearing. One family friend referred to the latter as “bicycling”, after “Jesus Christ on a bicycle!”

The elder brother – who delivered the short version of all this – had also worked through Grandpa’s own incredible memoir. He remembered Conan-Doyle as “tubby”, went tiger-hunting aged seven, and married my Granny having seen her only six times in daylight. The wedding guests had to take cover in the street from an attacking Meschersmitt.

But for the man who’d been born in Shanghai and lived his life all over the world, the last goodbye was in Basingstoke. We filed out to the thumping Radetzky March, and on to a pub flying the Union boldly.

Then back to the Smoke, and we took our chauffeur out for drinks and pizza in Richmond. More revelries and revelations, and some cheesecake for pudding.

With exquisite timing, my friends P. and A. produced a baby the same day that Grandpa died. Very glad to hear all is well with them. Found myself humming while on the way into work not Radetzky but that one from the Lion King.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Leather goods

Three years ago this afternoon, on a rather bright and sunny Easter Sunday in Greenwich, the Dr said, "Oh, go on then".

It seems a world away now. There was no Droo on the telly, I’d yet to get inside the Stockwell Moat Studios, and we lived in an underground flat with poo seeping up through the floor. Ah, happy days…

The commemorative wossname for a third anniversary is leather, according to my extensive research (no, not Wikipedia but page 55 of Schott’s Original Miscellany). But what to get the Mrs, who already has cat suits and whips?

After some lateral consternation, I settled on 300 – Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s lavish comic-strip version of the battle of Thermopylae. Well they’re wearing leather shoes and shields. It’s also Greek stuff, which the wife likes, and comics is what we enthused about the first time we met.

It’s a graphically violent, lurid story, a tiny band of macho warriors going against all the odds. Miller’s style – which I first saw in Ronin – is stark and shadowy, with crudely hewn figures carved into the page, spattered with gore and muck. The story moves quickly and is unrelenting, piling up the Spartan mythology. They crack butch jokes in the face of misery and their training is more like torture.

For something so epic and steeped in history it’s not unlike the recent Commando collections, tough men being hacked to bits for the edification of children. It also reminded me of the hard-edged violence and humour of some of my favourite old Judge Dredd.

But it’s also a fun way to crystalise in my brain things I’d sort of gleaned in bits and pieces. I now understand how the battle played out, and know the Persian King Xerxes for more than being the "X" in Edward Lear’s alphabet rhymes.

Some concern that it might be read as don’t-negotiate-with-the-black-foreigners, and the Spartans’ lust for the glorious death that echoes in the heavens and history is never problematised as religious fundamentalism. No, it’s Xerxes seeing himself as a God that is hubris.

But it’s richly told and incredible looking, and we now both want to go see the film. The Dr muttered something about it being "visual culture" and so relevant to her work. Which also means we can claim the tax back on the tickets. Woo!

Thinking of graphic comics (if you see what I mean), A. leant me Marvel Zombies, which is one of the maddest lends yet. It’s about an alternative universe where zombie-ism wins, and undead superheroes eat the whole world up. Colonel (nee Captain) America has half his head sliced off and Peter Parker eats his wife and his auntie. There’s also some fun stuff as the zombie heroes try to keep the hunger in check by re-eating stuff that falls from the jagged holes in their bodies. Nice.

It’s a vicious and funny one-off, packed full of comics continuity that mostly passed me by. But having always felt that Marvel was a bit goody-goody, this is a joyously guilty pleasure.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Venice of the north

Done lots of work, ate lots of chocolate, saw some family from ‘cross the pond. The Dr dragged me out into the sunshine yesterday and we explored the posher, greener bits around where we abode.

Went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery and its busy Canaletto in England exhibition (on until 22 April). The DPG (as it’s known to the hood) only has a moderate exhibition space, which was crammed with a great wealth of pics large and small, plus a great wealth of fellow browsers.

Canaletto was in England between 1746-55, and his main interest was evidently the architecture. Just as in his famous Venetian efforts, grand buildings look majestic beneath a great deal of pretty sky. The people who give scale and a clue to the period are constructed from crude spheres and cylinders – more marionettes than they are people. On close inspection I have to admit I was rather reminded of Trumpton.

The epic views of the skyline above the Thames show a vibrant and complex metropolis, its most modern (then) constructions showing Venetian influence. Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s loom hugely over the rest of the city, but it’s fun to spot the odd other landmark – the roofs of Westminster and the Banqueting Hall, the square tower of the cathedral at Southwark.

Also on record is the building of Westminster Bridge (the one Daleks famously queued upon, and where Eccles and Rose first held hands).

I found the pen-and-ink sketches of far more appeal than the oils. Perhaps it’s the quick movement of the marks on the paper that give them more life and vibrancy. Perhaps the lack of glossy colour makes them more dirty and lived in. Or perhaps they look more comic strip and trendy. I also like seeing the working, and the sketches include notes for later colouring-by-numbers and hastily scrawled other detail.

As is the law in these matters, the few postcards missed all of our favourites, so I splashed out on the £25 book. We wended our way up the sunshiny hill and found a pub with a garden and lunches.

Back home to the grindstone until getting on for 10, and got most of what I’d planned finished off. Then snuggled up with the Dr to watch nothing on telly, flipping channels and bothering the cat.

At one point we moved from UKHitler, showing Eva Braun’s holiday movies, to 8 Women starring Catherine Deneuve. This – in those moments we saw of it – seemed a muddle of pretentious old cliché and was not, I said, a little French.

“The Nazis were better,” said the Dr. And then added (she said as a joke), “They made for better television”.

Spent the rest of my bank holiday being warned of terrible dooms that would follow repeating her words here.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Slave I

The Dr and I went to see Amazing Grace last night, the biopic of William Wilberforce. The performances are excellent, there are some good gags, and it looks sumptuous and real. I was especially impressed with shots of a Thames clogged with 18th century shipping.

It is, though, a bit chocolate-boxy, with the very perfect Wilber not merely giving his all for the slaves, but also inventing the GCSE, women’s suffrage and modern geology. He talks at one point of the healing waters from a spring having “waited for a million years”. Er, surely his own religious convictions would have stopped him from so brilliantly pre-empting Lyell (who was only born the same year as the film opens on).

The film packs in the historical figures who knew and influenced Wilbur: John Newton, Pitt the Younger, Thomas Clarkson, Lords Grenville and Fox and (the only black speaking part in the film) Olaudah Equiano. The script also works hard to explain the context: that many working class people lived brutal and impoverished lives; that there was no money for war veterans or other social causes; that whole cities had been built on slavery; that with America and France in revolution, a “popular” movement could be seen as seditious.

Much of this is described rather than seen, so apart from a few city street scenes the film always looks immaculate and tidy. Evidence of the horrors of slavery is also kept to descriptions of witnesses, rather than being enacted on screen. Wilberforce sees a few opiate visions, but mostly it’s what people say.

This is, of course, as was with the case the abolitionists made to Parliament. Yet I felt the film was somehow pulling its punches. The Roots TV series, which we’ve also been watching, is much more explicitly graphic, and I think more effective.

Yet it’s not as if there are loads of films made on the subject, and it’s not a bad film by any means. Though it certainly doesn’t suggest it was easy for Wilberforce to get the slave trade abolished in the British Empire (on 25 March 1807), it does rather simplify the story.

Slavery itself was not banned in the Empire until 1834 (after Wilberforce was dead). In the independent United States it continued until after their vicious civil war. No mention is made of that – indeed, the US is spoken of only with whispered excitement as a contagious hotbed of freedom and liberty.

The banning of the trade did eventually lead to the banning of slavery itself, and because existing slaves could not be replaced it can be argued that they were better treated in the intervening period. Yet indenture remained as slavery in all but name well into the twentieth century, and slavery continued in many countries until the end of the nineteenth. Slavery in various forms still exists today.

There’s a whole heap of events and stuff commemorating abolition this year, and I’ve had fun going through all the links there to glean yet more top facts:
“The surgeon on HMS Sybille , Robert McKinnal, took drastic action when a seaman went down with yellow fever, to convince his fellows that it was not contagious. One of the symptoms of yellow fever is black vomit, and McKinnal, on deck and in sight of the crew, drank off a glassful.”

Royal Navy, “Boredom, boat service and the black vomit”.

ETA: No sooner have I posted than I notice this feature on the emphasis of the commemoration on the BBC news site. Ng. Always behind the tide, me. Get there eventually.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The tyrants of style

berks and wankers
Kingsley Amis identified two principal groups in the debate over use of language: ‘Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own; wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own.’”

David Marsh (ed.), Guardian styleguide – B

Not for the first time I am writing a style guide.

Usually, my work involves adhering to other people’s prejudices, so it’s fun to dictate my own terms. Client X will, for example, henceforth write “focused” with one S and TARDIS in caps (as an acronym).

There’s no general consensus on style. Really. While correct spelling has been more or less agreed for hundreds of years, punctuation and phrasing is still largely a matter of taste. For every style guru who’ll insist on one rule, there’s another expert who’ll vehemently disagree.

Which can be a bit bothersome when you work for lots of people, all with their own ways of doing things. At least the style guides I’ve written so far have tended to start with a warning:
“What follows are not definite rules for written English everywhere. They’re just how we do things here...”
Should it matter? Well, people do notice inconsistent and incorrect usage – and not just the finger-wagging wankers with their copies of one set of rules. If nothing else, inconsistency is distracting. People should be taking note of what you’re saying, not where you’ve used capital letters to say it.

When style does become an issue, it helps if the style guide can explain the reasoning. I like to think that my own bigotry-of-style at least stems from some rational first principles.

For example, I recently had to justify why we used double (“) quotation marks rather than single (‘) ones on a website I do stuff for.
“Double quotes are easier to read on a screen,”
I said, which follows from our principle aim:
“Our copy is easy to read, accessible, consistent and does not distract the reader.”
But there’s still fierce debate about the serial comma, which I think a fussy affectation. One colleague however protested,
“Readers need telling when to breathe!”
There’s usually some kind of style council to arbitrate when copy-writers get into such an argument. As a result, style guides are often packed full of Top Facts, and give an insight into how reportage gets criticised and – sometimes –sued:

Alibis are not excuses
“If Bill Sykes has an alibi it means he did not commit the crime because he can prove he was somewhere else at the time. It is not a false explanation or an excuse.”

BBC News Styleguide (PDF 276kb), p. 78.

Talks with Iranians
“The language spoken in Iran (and Tajikistan) is Persian, not Farsi. Flemings speak Dutch.”

John Grimond, Economist Style Guide – miscellaneous spelling

Asylum seeker
“(No hyphen)
Someone seeking refugee status or humanitarian protection; there is no such thing as a "bogus" or "illegal" asylum seeker. Refugees are people who have fled their home countries in fear for their lives, and may have been granted asylum under the 1951 refugee convention or qualify for humanitarian protection or discretionary leave, or have been granted exceptional leave to remain in Britain. An asylum seeker can only become an illegal immigrant if he or she remains in Britain after having failed to respond to a removal notice.”

David Marsh (ed.), Guardian styleguide - A

(It’s reading this kind of thing more than my upbringing that got me 10/10 in Channel 4 News’s Easter quiz.)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Music to wash hands by

Nimbos, the Dr and I went to Westminster Abbey last night. Sat on uncomfortable chairs in front of a memorial to MARTHA to hear St John’s Passion sung, along with several hundred other people.

The singing was good and the acoustics authentic, though I thought it lacked the polish of some other versions I’ve been to. Think I prefer the Matthew one anyway, which is more widescreen and special effects. The John one seems less epic, and more matter of fact about (SPOILER!) the death of God.

But fun, and good for people watching. There was a lot of milling about immediately before, and also during the interval-that-wasn’t. Nimbos felt it might help to shout “Runaround!” – a reference the Dr didn’t get.

One gaggle of ladies felt they had paltry seats so decided to move them. They then did their best to ignore the badged gentleman explaining they’d blocked up a fire exit.

Afterwards the Doctor led us down a gale-force Whitehall to a new good pub discovery. But it had stopped serving food an hour previously, so we schlepped into the place next door and ate gratefully their microwaved fodder.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Point of view

O. writes from the Continent:
“Do you know I always read your blog... and get quite annoyed when there isn't an update for a few days.”
Which inspired me to spend lunch wandering round Manet to Picasso, which is free and until 23 May. I’ve gone on about what follows before (sorry), but it does have the distinction of being almost not-at-all Droo.

I got to know O. when we were doing A levels together, and especially due to one summer’s homework. We had to go to famous galleries dotted all over London, sketch a set list of Worthy Old Paintings and forego all our pocket money for postcards. O. was a good companion for that sort of thing because he has quite different ideas about pictures. We spent many afternoons idling in pubs shouting, “No, you big fool!” back and forth.

The impressionists were my pin-ups. No, I don’t mean J. Culshaw and company – which included D. Tennant on Friday and writing my two of my Droo chums. Heck, wasn’t going to do that…

The late 1800s were rather exciting artistically, with all sorts of clever ideas. These included lightbulbs and photographs and refined chemical processing. And these things had an affect on the hapless, cravat-wearing creatives who flounced around drawing from nature.

Until these inventions came along and spoiled things, an artist’s talent was easy to quantify. The trick was to make what you had drawn look like the thing you were drawing. Even now, there are learned scraps over painted portraiture hinging not on who is the sitter but whether it’s at all a good likeness.

But photography came along and with a point and click reality was caught in an instant (well, it took a bit of time when they first got invented, but not anything like as long as a painting).

Photos also showed up the falseness of the way paintings presented their subjects. Paintings composed the elements of the picture, framing them the most pleasing way. A photo captured the raw immediacy – blurs, blinks and ignoble posture. It could brutally crop parts of the scene, creating a new and dramatic, if troubling, composition. And once snapped, there was little way to correct it. At least canvas could be painted over.

Photos were still in black-and-white, so these painters tended to glory in colour. The brilliant sky-blues and vivid pinks were another technical innovation – colour that’s still stunning a century later. The artists experimented with “complimentary colours”; clashes of blue and orange, red and green, purple and yellow, that made their work more vibrant.

At the same time, electric light transformed painting. It wasn’t just that they could work later in the day, and on less bright and airy subjects. The lightbulb made evident many of Newton’s observations about the spectrum, and without needing to shove sticks in your eye sockets. It made the artists see reality in ways they’d never seen before.

While the impressionists were daring to show optical mixing and coloured shadows, and Seurat contrived scenes out of blobs of coloured light, the hapless, much-moustached physicists just over the border were thinking maybe light travelled in blobs.

Impressionism was then excitingly brash and modern, on the nose of the latest developments. And its proponents got into trouble with the establishment – who still wanted pictures that looked just like the subject.

Scruffy old Claude Monet, who is a bit cool, dared to suggest that my throwing some paint around a canvas at slapdash speed you could still create the feeling of the subject. Not like a photograph in all its detail, perhaps, but something with more of an emotional flavour.

So even before you get to all the politics that the paintings might also reflect, there’s something a bit brilliant to see in all those pictures of the same haystack or cathedral. By painting the same subject over and over, Claude was breaking all sorts of rules, the old punk.

It was on one of these daytrips with O. that I discovered a real dazzler of a painting:

Water Lillies, Claude Monet, after 1916
Again, Claude painted lots of huge water lilies – the canvases almost as big as his tiny Japanese garden in a fashionable Parisian suburb. But this one is my favourite, being more yellow than green-purple and with more of the canvas left bare.

It's big: 2 metres tall but 4¼ metres widthways. You need to stand at the far end of the room to appreciate what you’re seeing – up close it’s a mess of unconnected marks and squiggles.

And so (because I’d seen Droo defuse a bomb in Earthshock part two) a question formed in my brain: how the heck did Monet even paint it?

He could have only ever been an arms length away from the canvas. And if that wasn’t boggling enough for you, Claude was also fairly blind when he painted it.

Monday, April 02, 2007

"I've lit the blue touch paper..."

Received in the post from the father-in-law some clippings from the Blackpool Gazette. Front-page news on Friday was that Dr Who will be turning them on.

The web version doesn't show what the clipping does: Tom Baker doing the deed back in '75, all grinning teeth and curls.

I'm especially pleased that Tennant's appearance seems to have been organised by,
"Jackie Potter, Blackpool Council's strategic director of tourism and regeneration."
Have they also booked Michael Sheen?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Small world...

Spent the afternoon being harried round my parents’ garden by two young and tireless nephews. Some attempt was made at teaching them piggy-in-the-middle, and though they enjoyed the chasing they were disappointed that it might involve rules.

The thuggish four year-old was making an impassioned stand against the sectarian – he had on a Superman costume, yet with a pair of Spider-Man socks. And at one point he stopped in the midst of a tackle to share his latest epiphany:
“Uncle Simon, do you know about Doctor Who?”
It seems he was, for the first time ever, allowed to stay up last night. He liked the Things but not the Lady, and shared the absurd miracle that there’ll be EVEN MORE next week – at least, so long as he is good.

(His elder brother had the same response after his first taste of school dinners. He would ask, with great care and when nobody else was listening, whether you knew of such a thing as apple crumble.)

My mum was also impressed with the episode – but she has a weird thing for Roy Marsden anyway, and consultants with good bedside manner.

(Oh, and the title of this post is Sir Sean Connery’s response to an unexpected “I gotta brudda.”)