Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Value-added material (VAM)

Things that shouldn't be labelled "special features" on the back of a DVD:

interactive menu screens
How you spoil us with the ability to start and stop the DVD! And of course it's "interactive" - it's not a menu if you can't choose something from it.

chapter selection
Oooh! What next? You tantalise us with the prospect of a box and a sleeve and the shiny surface of the disc?

My Christmas DVDs, incidentally, were Alistair Cooke's America and Private Schultz, both of which I hope to blog about sometime. The Dr got the two-disc Princess Bride and Night of the Hunter.

And my previous DVD-buying methodology is the subject of Clemmo's despair.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Five exhibitions

The Dr and I have spent Christmas eating too much, drinking even more, seeing some chums and enjoying – for the Dr at least – a busman's holiday. If that busman also worked in museums.

1. Cold War Modern – Design 1945-1970
(Victoria and Albert Museum until 11 January 2009)
There's a lot of big ideas crammed into this exhibition – even for such a large space. As I've blogged before, the post-war period saw a punch-drunk sweeping away of the past in favour of big, bold ideas in art, design and ideology. Perhaps it was the horror and damage done by the Second World War, perhaps the burgeoning threat of mutually assured destruction, but the artefacts of that time spell out a bleak and awful picture of the world, with a yearning for something better.

I liked how they put astronaut and environment suits up close with the fab and groovy gear available off the peg in the Portobello Road. There's examples of revolutionary politics from all round the world; '68 and Nam and Che, both the hope and frenzied propaganda from all sides.

Into this context they squeeze clips of Ipcress, Bond and Strangelove, all featuring big, futuristic set design by Ken Adam (the sketch for the play area where Goldfinger spells out to his hoods the details of Operation Grand Slam is, marvellously, called “the Rumpus Room”). These sit beside drawings and photographs of grand housing projects on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and then plans for domes over New York or cities on the Moon. On big screens high above the space stuff, the “stargate” sequence from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey faces the arrival of Kris Kelvin on the space station above Solaris. East and West's visions of man reaching for cold, unfathomable space - opposite and yet so much the same.

In all this grandeur, there's a disturbing desperation. I wondered who they – the hopeful people who dreamt up these things – thought they were kidding. The problem with planning such a monumental new programme of building and social organisation, of so radically creating a new world, is that it assumes we've already lost this one.

(Afterwards, we had coffee and pastries while enjoying the William Morris-styled bit of the cafe, but there wasn't enough light for my camera-phone to get pictures. And the V&A shop proved very good for small trinkets and silliness for the Dr's stocking. No, she didn't just get coal and birch twigs.)

2. Darwin (a.k.a Big Idea exhibition)
Natural History Museum until 19 April 2009
“Before Darwin, the great majority of naturalists believed that species were immutable productions, and had been separately created. Today, his theory that they undergo modification and are all descendants of pre-existing forms is accepted by everyone (or by everyone not determined to disbelive it). Most people would, if asked, find it hard to explain why.”

Steve Jones, Almost Like a Whale, p. xxii.

Like Jones' book, the Natural History Museum exhibition shows how Darwin came to his radical proposition of the history of species as a family tree of connected, branching variance – and then updates the evidence. We see the specimens of birds and beetles Darwin himself caught on his boat trip round the world, and then – like Jones – how 150 years of scientific hard graft has honed and bolstered that central idea, filling in the gaps Darwin himself acknowledged.

There's stuff on why Darwin delayed publishing his findings for so long, and a glimpse of his home life. There are even real creatures to coo at – a lizard called Charlie who apparently doesn't like it if you tap the glass, and a fat, ugly toad that looks like a green and yellow cow pat.

There's sensibly no apology at all to the dissenters, and no mention of “intelligent design”. Yet, the Dr noted they kept speaking of evolution as a “theory”. Her research elsewhere has shown a strange shift in the 1980s and 90s; telly and radio before that rarely felt the need to qualify Darwin's idea as a “theory”, now it's rare that they don't.

That said, the exhibition is keen to explain that, in science, a theory isn't the same as a guess; it's a carefully worked out and tested hypothesis from evidence, one from which you can make accurate predictions. I thought that was what we called a “fact”, but apparently not. Wikipedia boasts a whole page discussing evolution as theory and fact. But why qualify Darwin like that? We don't talk of Newton's “theory of gravity” - which the work of Einstein (and Eddington) actually disproved (or, at best, radically refined).

3. Byzantium 330-1453
Royal Academy of Arts until 22 March 2009
By the time we got to this one in the mid-afternoon, London was swollen with tourists enjoying the hilarious ratio of euro to pound. They crowded the pavements and train stations, and – a bit to our surprise – the Royal Academy. Yes, let's go to England for the closing down January sales and while we're at it shell out to see some trinkets from the wrong side of Europe...

The exhibition apes the dark and churchy feel of Istanbul's grand churches and mosques, from which the objects come. Boris Johnson's surprisingly superb two-part series After Rome had important things to say about Western prejudice; not only the destruction of the city during the Crusades (and the legacy of that word in the Middle East) but also the fact that Constantinople was a second Rome, continuing the traditions and learning of the Empire long after the West has succumbed to its Dark Age. The Renaissance was less a “rebirth” as the Western powers learning to stop bashing their neighbours and instead start borrowing their books...

(I meant to post my thoughts on Seville and Cordoba ages ago, having visited in September. And then there's Boris going and saying a whole load of stuff I wish I'd thought of...)

In the exhibition, I struggled to follow particular ideas or stories. The exhibition seemed to assume a robust, academic knowledge on the part of its visitors – artefacts, for example, were described as being from Harare or Sinai without any explanation of where these were or on what terms they stood against Byzantium / Constantinople at the time. The Dr, meanwhile, muttered that it grouped different traditions all in together – Coptic (especially) and Ptolemaic with Orthodox and Islamic. It seemed less an attempt to explain or explore the history of and our relationship with the Middle East as a collection of pretty, glittery things.

Favourite artefact: a painting of monks being tempted off a ladder to heaven by spindly, sneaky devils. Weirdly they had postcards of this in the shop after – they almost never have the ones that I like.

4. Babylon – Myth and Reality
British Museum until 15 March 2009
Two years ago, the Doctor and I marvelled down the brilliant blue streets of Babylon, up to the Ishtar Gate. It's vast, it's bright blue and it was nicked by German archaeologists from what's now Iraq and reconstructed in Berlin's Pergamon museum. If you can, go see that before you see this exhibition, which struggles to convey the scale of the Biblical city, squeezed as it is into the upstairs of the old Reading Room.
“Many individuals' first encounter with the name of Babylon will have come from the Old Testament. Of the momentous events that took place in the city, not the least concerned the Judaean exiles taken from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar as part of a conventional military campaign. The repercussions of the Babylonian Captivity in theology, culture and art are still with us, while our knowledge of the historical events has been enhanced by some of the world's most important cuneiform texts.”

IL Finkel and MJ Seymour (eds.), Babylon – Myth and Reality, p. 142.

The Old Testament paints Babylon as cruel conqueror and enslaver. Daniel and his pals Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are remarkable because they stand up to Nebuchadnezzar – the implication being that no one else ever dared to. Interestingly, the section on Rastafarianism linked Babylon to Western greed and commercialism, not to the West's history of enslavement.

Brilliantly, the exhibition closes with those who identify not with the oppressed but the oppressors. It is pretty out-spoken about the site today and the damage done by, first, Saddam Hussein and then the US army. For both, the ancient site is an excuse for extraordinary grand-standing, on a scale beloved by tyranny.

There's comparatively little of the actual city here: some bits of bright blue stone, some small, ancient objects. There are models of the street up to the Ishtar Gate and of the Etemenanki ziggurat – also known as the tower of Babel. Tiny little Scale Guys help suggest the mahoossive. But mostly it's about the how the city's been interpreted since it fell. It compares representations of the city in the Bible or myth (while never quite daring to suggest they're the same thing) with the evidence uncovered since the 19th century, and it discusses how Babylon continues to play a part in stories. There's a picture of a Rod Lord-designed Babel fish and the cover of Hollywood Babylon.

With the same mythic buildings and characters depicted by different art traditions over the centuries, this is an exploration of stories and cultures bleeding into one another, becoming scared as they help define – or at least shape – identity and power. The real ninth century BC Assyrian queen, Sammu-rammat, for example, ends up worshipped as the goddess Semiramas by the Greeks.

We emerged into a crowded museum, the Dr spitting feathers as a huge Biblical tour stopped for no man or woman or child. She was not incensed at their rudeness but the nonsense they were being told, provenance and context completely ignored to make chosen objects fit the pre-agreed story.

5. Taking Liberties
British Library until 1 March 2009

This one is exemplary: a collection of iconic documents brilliantly grouped and explained so that visitors are challenged on their own political ideas. There's Magna Carta, or the death warrant for Charles I, the 1832 Reform Act, a copy not just of the Beveridge report in English but in half a dozen other languages as the world looked in awe at our pioneering social wheeze. It's fascinating enough just to gaze on these things, and all of it for free. But there's more.

The documents – and explanations, associated items and illustrations – are grouped under broad headings like “Rule of law” or “Freedom of speech”. There's stuff on Lords reform and on whether referenda are actually democratic, CCTV and a national DNA database – all sorts of complex, knotty stuff. It's brilliant at simply and concisely laying out the different sides on a given issue and then getting you to do some thinking. In fact, it's a shame this isn't a permanent exhibition. It's the only one of the five discussed here I'd want to mooch round a second time.

At the end of each section you're encourage to vote on three or four questions, choosing a statement from a list. To do this, you have to scan your wristband, so the machine remembers your answers. At the end of the exhibition, you can see how you voted compared to the mass of other visitors, and where on a political graph your votes place you.

A couple of times, what I'd seen in the exhibition made me at least reconsider my natural instincts at the poll. But I also found on several occasions I didn't quite agree with any of the statements, that there were exceptions or at least things I'd want to clarify. So there was some fudging towards the statement that best exemplified by fluffy, why-can't-we-all-just-get-along sensibilities.

And that's, I think, the one thing the exhibition lacked: something about party politics, the Whip system, the way it reduces any kind of issue to a simplistic yes or no, your answer as much dependent on the will of HQ as your own insight or conscience. (I'd quote Paxman on just this point in The Political Animal, but we seem to have leant it to someone.) There's nothing on political compromise, on supporting something because that's supporting your team.

The exhibition raises an eyebrow at the Levellers and Chartists – whose ideas that were so terrifying and radical in their own day are now rights we take for granted. But it doesn't explain why that happens. It's a great strength and a great weakness that our system allows change only in a series of small, hard-negotiated steps. That's fundamental because you can't understand the liberties and law we have now without understanding how these decisions are made.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cards and carols

Christmas was invented 165 years ago with two important inventions. First, on 19 December, 1843, Chuck Dickens published "A Christmas Carol". I am currently reading this in installments to the Dr, wowed by the fecund and twisted imagery. (You can currently also hear versions read by David Jason and Mitch Benn.)

Scrooge is Dickens' response to the horrors of Malthus, but he's also a richly drawn, smart, funny guy. It's implied he suffered abuse from his father - something skipped in the Muppet's own version. I love that his visitations could all be put down to what he ate late at night - "there's more of gravy than of grave about you," he tells the ghost of Jacob Marley. And there's something almost commendable about his insistence on hard work and financial self-reliance. He's a brilliant, memorable character because he's so much more than just a panto grotesque. As the story unfolds, Scrooge warms to Christmas but we also warm to him.

It is also 165 since (my hero) Henry Cole invented the first Christmas card. I like to think that brilliantly moustached Victorian gentlemen turned to their wives at the breakfast table and cried, "What the hell am I meant to do with this?"

Their wives will have considered and then smiled, "Send him one back by return of post." (The fifth Doctor Who discusses this economic model in part two of The Judgement of Isskar.)

Anyway. The Dr and I have dispensed with the card Card. We've bunged some money to Comic Relief and instead offer this electric alternative:

Merry Christmas!

A merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

No one wants to buy this dump

The Dr sends this clip from a 1992 episode of Spitting Image whose time has come again:

Speaking of houses, my own Doctor Who & Home Truths has had spankingly good reviews in the geek press:
“A science-fiction ghost story, similar to Nigel Kneale's rationalistic hauntings [...] An effective and disturbingly spooky tale, Home Truths lingers in the mind long after the open-ended conclusion, and is one of the very strongest of this latest series of Companion Chronicles.”

Matt Michael, "The DWM Review", Dr Who's Magazine #403, 7 January 2009, p.56.

“a surprisingly atmospheric and menacing tale. Author Simon Guerrier has sensibly realised that these audiobook-style discs are often best when spooky, and packs plenty of unsettling moments into this MR James-style story of an apparently haunted futuristic house. One of the best releases yet...”

Saxon Bullock, “Rated Misc”, SFX #178, January 2009, p. 130.

(That said, my story in Christmas Round the World doesn't get a mention in Andrew Osmond's review on p. 115 of the same issue. Guess that means he thinks I'm one of the “sprouts or socks”.)

The Big Finish website now boasts a trailer for Doctor Who and the Judgement of Isskar – which is out next month.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis…

…is the title of a new book by m’colleague Jonathan Clements, and an accompanying promotional blog. Best Name Of Anything Ever.

(And I have named characters "Zing Zang", "Georgina Wet-Eleven" and "Harmonious 14 Zinc"...)

Says Clemmo:
“I have been writing about Japanese comics and animation for almost two decades, taking potshots at anime, manga and related fields, spreading scurrilous gossip and telling tall tales. And my friends in the business didn’t seem to mind, as long as they had plausible deniability, which meant that sometimes, even though the real name of a work was obvious to everyone, I needed to call it something else.”

Jonathan Clements, Welcome to Schoolgirl Milky Crisis blog, 11 November 2008.

A-viking his way through the industry’s oddest stories, Clemmo positively sweats Opinion and Insight. It’s mad, it’s funny, it’s not-quite-explicitly rude. And I’m told it might yet feature a post called “Cat moves”, whose point-and-laugh subject is me.

The book is published by those splendid fellows at Titan, who are also publishing my Fire and Water.

By timely coincidence, YouTube has a trailer for the third series of Primeval, which will be on ITV1 at some point in the new year. There’s no clips of the one set in South Africa, which must just be an oversight. But I’ve read scripts and seen rough-cuts and generally been In The Room and important, and it is wholly fabtastic. Dinosaurs! Chasing pretty people! What is not to be in love with?

Monday, December 15, 2008

With both barrels?

Annoyingly, I've already called a post “50s way to leave your lover”. Indeed, that might be useful context before braving the review that follows of The Envoy by Edward Wilson.

Kit Fournier works as a senior diplomat for the US in London in 1956, ostensibly enjoying a “special relationship” with the Brits and fighting a Cold War against Russia. But things are never so simple... Amongst other plots and counterplots, the US don't like the UK's attempts to have their own hydrogen bomb. It just so happens Kit's cousin's husband is one of those doing the attempting. Trouble is, Kit has always had a thing for that cousin...

The Envoy is a thrilling read, filled with grubby detail and observation in the manner of good le Carre. In fact, there's a lot here that's familiar from the Smiley books: the “tradecraft” of codes and of chalk marks and dead-drops in Kensington Gardens, the olive oil drunk to line the stomach before boozing with the Russians. There's a lot on the mechanics and political pressures of day-to-day spy work.
“Mice, thought Kit. Not tiny rodents, but MICE: money, ideology, coercion, excitement. Basic training for case officers: the four means that you use to recruit an agent or persuade someone to betray their country. MICE, he thought, how apt an acronym. It wasn't that simple. The 'E' could stand for ego as well as excitement, but ego could cause problems – like bragging. Of the four, most section chiefs preferred 'money'. When you get someone to take a bribe you have a paper trail for blackmail, then you get 'coercion' as a bonus – and that's even better than greed.”

Edward Wilson, The Envoy, p. 17.

Like le Carre, the author's biography suggests he might have practical experience of this kind of stuff. I find myself, having read the book, reading between the lines and wondering how much Wilson shares Kit's own frustration with the country of his birth – the country he fought for – when compared to “civilised Europe”.
“Edward Wilson served in Vietnam as an officer in the 5th Special Forces. His decorations include the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal for Valor. Soon after leaving the army, Wilson became a permanent expatriate. He formally lost US nationality in 1986. Edward Wilson is a British citizen but has also lived and worked in Germany and France. For the past thirty years he has been a teacher in Suffolk. The author enjoys sailing and has a twenty-foot sloop at Orford on the River Ore. Arcadia also published his first novel A River in May.”
(The book sets the covert British nuclear programme at Orford Ness, and Kit spies on it from his boat.)

America is puerile and brash in the book: there's much made of its embarrassingly unsophisticated view of art and music, as the symptoms of homosexuality. And I don't think that the British were any less suspicious of gayness; the intelligence service's treatment of Alan Turning being a case in point. Another character remains closeted – Kit blackmails him - because the British won't tolerate his being gay.

Otherwise, Wilson's novel is crammed full of choice historical detail. Prime Minister Eden is sozzled on amphetamines as he gets manic over Suez. Just like in From Russia, With Love, one of the characters can reveal the truth about the secret killing of Beria. And Kit is responsible for the death of Lionel 'Buster' Crabbe – and the ensuing scandal, which I'd seen detailed in the IWM's Ian Fleming + James Bond exhibition earlier this year.

The acknowledgements oddly then claim that, “A few real names are used, but no real people are portrayed”. Which again isn't true: Joseph Kennedy storms in as early as page 6, after five pages all about his daughter.

I also think Wilson is a little disingenuous with his history. His intelligence agents are always bang on the nose with their secrets, as if they've got access to history books from decades in the future. Le Carre is much better at the sense of agents gleaning scant fact from the fug of misinformation and plain confusion (the hard work very like the kind of proper journalism Nick Davies pines for in Flat Earth News, which I shall write about later this week).

Yet I'm incredibly envious of the vivid, complex and rich 1950s Wilson conjures here, the compromises and moral dilemmas on every page, the way he has us siding with Kit despite his being such a relentless arsehole. Kit is selfish to the point of flagrant treason, vicious to the point of hospitalising a bloke he has already entirely outwitted, and a coward when running away from battle or a comrade being horribly killed. Yet we're with him all the way – perhaps just to see how long he can keep ahead of those who are clearly going to kill him.
“This is not the kind of escapist spy thriller generally found on the bestseller lists. Wilson's story has no heroes. It's a sophisticated, convincing novel that shows governments and their secret services as cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless.”

Susanna Yager, “Cynically exploitative and utterly ruthless”, The Daily Telegraph, 14 March 2008.

It's busy, it's exciting, it's bleaker than an unhappy goth, it's got things to say about the selfish motives and unlikely happenstance that influence the fumbling forward of history. And however much a shit Kit might be, he still believes in some kind of rules.
“Perhaps Vasili was right: Russians lose their soul when they leave Russia. That, thought Kit, was the good thing about being an American. If you wanted to find your soul, the best way to find it was to get the hell out of the country. They all did it: Whistler, Henry James, Josephine Baker, Eliot, Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald – even the Duchess of Windsor. And when they did go back, they usually killed themselves or ended up, like Pound, in St Elizabeth's insane asylum. Pound, thought Kit, had got off too lightly. The poet should have been shot for turning traitor and siding with fascists. Still, there's nothing wrong with being a traitor if that's what you think you've got to do – but in the end, they have to shoot you and you shouldn't complain. The rules are clear and simple.”

Wilson, pp. 172-3.

And then it does two things which really, really annoyed me. About page 200 (of 268) there are two major revelations about Kit which throw the story into a whole different gear, and which are at best a little elegant, at worse just plain cheating. The plot twangs off at an angle due to a past illness and a document he keeps at his home, neither of which have been mentioned before. It's like a Whodunnit where the murderer is someone we only meet – or hear of – in the final chapter.

And the final chapter shows us the fall-out that falls on Kit and brings us forward to the eighties. It denies any chance of a sequel and ties the whole thing up. But it breaks the rules of the le Carre shocker, and dares try a happy ending. He should die! He should suffer some bizarre, gruesome “accident” the press can't quite explain, like all those who've suffered his actions.

Kit said it himself: the rules are clear and simple.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Scenes of Bispham

Took a stroll with the Dr and the Baldrick-in-law to enjoy Blackpool's unprecedented glimpse of Orb.

Dr and Baldrick
The Dr and Baldrick-in-law. They are huddling together for warmth.

Sun! In Blackpool!
Sun! In Blackpool! Truly it is the end of days.

Embankment - walking the glorified drains.

Welcome part 1
Welcome part 1 - Tourists brave the pleasure beach at their own risk.

Welcome part 2
Welcome part 2 - Danger: pleasure.

Castellations: The impressive complex of defences around the Norbreck Castle. Probably to keep the Picts out.

BL099: More warnings of danger of fun DEATH.

S Club 7
S Club 7. No, wait, I mean Steps.

A wee slope
A wee slope, with toilets at the top.

Of fence
Of fence: We begin the long trawl back again.

Stoppage. The Dr and the Baldrick-in-law bask in the sunshine.

Tram pulled
Tram pulled. Funny-looking cycle lane. You can't see paraglider motoring above the beach; my phone couldn't pick him out against the sky.

Sunset. Just left of this, you'd see the tangled street furniture of trams and streetlights, and the Blackpool tower in amongst it. But my camera didn't like that.

Beware trams
Beware trams. I was too late to snap the tram heading for the Starr Gate - and, I assume, ancient/alien Egypt.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I know, I'll take you to B-

Hello from grey, rainy Blackpool. I know, what a turn-up, I can hardly believe it myself. Last night, with the rain bashing the Velux windows like someone outside brewing popcorn, I tried to remember a time I've been in Lancashire where the sky wasn't falling. I lived for three years as a student in Preston, and one time the rain was so hard it bruised...

(In the south, of course, it never rains. It's specks of liquid sunshine.)

Finished a few bits of chore yesterday morning - including several days' washing up since the Dr's been away in Aberdeen. Have, excitingly, now been commissioned for two things which I'm really buzzing about which cannot be announced. And on Thursday night, met with a bloke who explained clever stuff at a level I could understand(!), who is going to be very useful for something else I'm working on. No, I can't tell you about that yet, either.

Bundled up to Euston to find that the ticket the Dr had bought me was for a nice seat in first class. Apparently, she'd told me this in one of my more attentive moments. But what a nice surprise! Virgin threw in free egg sandwiches and orange juice and wine, and I sat comfy and content. I've finished The Envoy, which I will blog on in due course, and am now mesmerised by Nick Davies' Flat Earth News, a fascinating, damning and thorough exploration of the collapse of journalistic standards in the last decade or so. Again, it'll get a post of its own sometime.

The in-laws took me for fish and chips and then we drank whisky and watched TV. I realise that, before I went freelance, I was Jen from the IT Crowd. Which is odd, because after I went freelance, I did a couple of days' work with Chris O'Dowd. But yes, I once wowed the execs with a speech about the weightlessness of the internet. It is made of dreams.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

House proud

I've scrawled a great long thing for the Big Finish blog on the writing of Doctor Who & Home Truths.

I've also seen a more-or-less final version of something I'm working on with Codename Moose - he is clever. Have the last bits of that to chase up as well as getting going on the next two commissions. No, I can't tell you what it is yet. Also waiting on approval of a couple of things I've pitched for which I really hope I'm allowed to do.

And, completely unrelatedly, I had a new dinner table delivered at 06.45 this morning. Didn't half confuse the cat.


A bloke at work recommended this short, Hungarian film, thinking it might be my kind of thing. And it is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hitting the books

I've a couple of reviews in the new issue (#257) of Vector, “the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association”. Dalek, I Loved You by Nick Griffiths and Debatable Space by Philip Palmer are both “lively” and fun but neither is quite as bright or insightful as perhaps their authors think. Might post the reviews up here one day.

I’ve also gabled through a bit of other reading. Eden is Tim Smit’s own account of the space-age bubblewrap project he set up in Cornwall. There are some great photos and some fun moments, but I’d hoped for a bit more insight into the design and philosophy of the place, something to add to the brilliant but brief Architecture of Eden, which places the thing in the context of whopping crystal palaces and train stations.

Instead, Smit lists staff and incidents like one almighty 284-page acceptance speech. There are rants about all the forms and hoops you have to dance through to be given several million pounds and a few aphorisms about comfy, fluffy business. A good edit would crop out all the dying metaphors, and I finished feeling it had been written too soon after the opening, so we don’t really get a sense of how successful things have been. The paperback edition includes an odd addendum, in which Smit was being filmed for This is Your Life when news broke about 9/11. I read it again just to check there wasn’t a point to it.

The Looking-Glass War is a typically bleak John le Carre. Three spies are sent out to gather scraps about what could potentially be a new missile base aimed at London. They’re variously screwed up by their own foolishness and the infighting of their superiors. George Smiley can only shake his head.

There's some fun to be had in it hailing from 1965. Betty listens to “dance music” on a gramophone on page 136, and there's confusion when guns go metric on page 181: the “three-eight” is now a “nine millimetre”.

But this is compelling in its tedious anti-Bond detail; the drudgery, the pettiness, the ruptured mental health of anyone stupid enough to get caught up in spying. And, as so often the case, the ending underlines Britain's delusions of grandeur in the face of the cold war.
“'They're crazy people, the English! That old fellow by the river: they think the Thames is the biggest river in the world, you know that? And it's nothing! Just a little brown stream, you could nearly jump across it some places!'”

John le Carre, The Looking-Glass War, p. 286.

I’m now reading The Envoy by Edward Wilson, a 50s-set spy shocker in a similar vein to le Carre. So far it's superb.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fountain of snot and knowledge

I've returned from Chicago with a cold, plus chocolates and Indiana Jones Lego for the Dr. She's also pleased I know the stink she likes after only four years of being hitched.

Snow outside my hotel windowThe convention was great fun but exhausting - a Doctor Who convention is one of the rare places where the rubbish filling my head can be useful. The food was huge, the snow was festive, and everyone was just lovely. Made a lot of new friends and got drunk with some old ones. The air-con made it feel like I'd sunburnt my face, and the heating meant I couldn't decide whether to where muppet-skin jumpers or tee-shirts.

Spent most of my time in the hotel itself, though we did escape to TGI Friday one night for enormous food and K. took me to Target. Both were just the far side of the hotel car park, so they hardly count. But hey, it was cold.

Oddly, the snow seemed to affect domestic flights more than it did international. There was much concern as the blizzard came down on Sunday, especially amongst those who had a million miles to drive.

They've got lionsOn Monday, a fantastic fellow called Dennis ferried us into town for a last look round the Art Institute of Chicago. How strange to see it covered in snow, the same yet so different from last time.

I'd last been there in June 2004, in the blistering heat of my honeymoon. Chicago was the one place we visited in our grand tour of family and friends that the Dr and I thought we might like to live. Again, I was impressed by the beauty and history and buzz of the place, still zinging from the election of their boy.

After the art we went for a long walk looking for something to eat. Had a last, gargantuan lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, then nabbed a taxi back to the car park and raced to the airport.

My plane home was on time until the last minute, when the cold killed the tug towing us from the gate. We eventually took off about an hour and a half late; hope everyone else got home okay.

I watched WALL-E (which might have been written by Russell T Davies), Iron Man (far, far better than I'd expected) and a really rather brilliant documentary called Young @ Heart. Also did plenty of writing.

Have spent the morning trudging through my email. Now have Codename Moose popping round to show me his homework and to watch something that counts as Research. Have pitched for something, been organising something else and am generally back in the thick of it like I was never away...