Sunday, 31 December 2006

the gathering storm; the acceptable face of sf

Churchill borrowed some of his biggest ideas from HG Wells. Winston Churchill was a “closet science-fiction fan” who borrowed the lines for one of his most famous speeches from H. G. Wells, a Cambridge academic has discovered. Dr Richard Toye, a Lecturer in History at the University of Cambridge, has found that the phrase “The Gathering Storm” – used by Churchill to depict the rise of Hitler’s Germany – had in fact been conjured up by Wells decades earlier in The War Of The Worlds, which depicts an attack on Britain by Martians. And he has also spotted stark similarities between a speech Churchill made 100 years ago and Wells’ book A Modern Utopia. Tellingly, just two days before Churchill gave the speech in Glasgow on October 9 1906, he had also written to Wells to enthuse about the book, admitting “I owe you a great debt”.
- I saw this story in the Independent, but it's always hard to burrow into their subscription archive to link to articles, so here's the original press release on the Cambridge University website.

Of course, in the early twentieth century science fiction was perfectly acceptable subject matter for 'proper' writers. Earlier this month I read an SF collection, 17xInfinity, an old 60s paperback, which included stories by EM Forster and Rudyard Kipling.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Full Dark House

Read Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler, which wasn't as good as I'd hoped. I might persist though; and an earlier book of his, Roofworld, is one I'd noted a long time ago as one to read.

FDH was set in a well-researched wartime London, and had this interesting fact (on p31 of my library paperback): 'The first bomb to explode in London was not dropped by the Germans but planted by the IRA, and aimed at the most prosaic of targets - Whiteley's emporium in Bayswater.'

Friday, 22 December 2006

the ballad of lucy jordan

'At the age of thirty-seven she realised she'd never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.'

It was probably a little earlier than that that I realised I didn't need to save my letters and emails for future biographers.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

sitting straight 'bad for backs'

BBC News says: Sitting up straight is not the best position for office workers, a study has suggested. Scottish and Canadian researchers used a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show it places an unnecessary strain on your back. They told the Radiological Society of North America that the best position in which to sit at your desk is leaning slightly back, at about 135 degrees.

- hurrah, that's how I often look when on the computer, both at home and work. I'm ahead of the research.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006

calvinist romance - the best kind

James Eglinton has a splendid image at the top of his blog, The Metro Calvinist, an imitation old US magazine romance magazine cover. The magazine's called Calvinist Romance, and the guy is saying to the girl, 'Baby, your name must be Grace, because you're irresistible.' James got it off a now-departed blog.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

welcome to holland

Having just been introduced to Iain D Campbell's blog, the most recent post is very interesting, an item called Welcome to Holland, by Emily Perl Kingsley (who I'm not familiar with):

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy. You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It's just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

snopes stories

Another article from Snopes, this time detailing some of the stories which are obviously jokes but which people have sent to them asking if they were true; some of the stories are pretty good, as is the fact that people think they might be true.

"romantic-comedy behavior gets real-life man arrested"

Are stalkers just people who take to heart the perversity of celebrity culture? Or are they indistinguishable from "normal" romantic lovers except in that their passion is unrequited? Bran Nicol's sharp treatment of the idea of stalking in modern culture takes a while to say what the Onion headline he cites so brilliantly sums up: "Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested". But we also learn of narcissistic personality disorder, notorious stalkers who killed, and a dubiously evocative alternative name for the phenomenon: "interpersonal terrorism".
- from a review of a book on stalking in The Guardian, Saturday 18 November 2006.

I got an Onion book once, Our Dumb Century, which was quite funny but I realised quite quickly that you didn't have to read any of the text of the spoof articles, just the headlines.


Keeping one's head above water isn't sufficient when swimming among sharks.

Why did the girl in Jaws have dandruff? Because she left her head and shoulders on the beach.

How do you play mobius strip poker? Like regular strip poker, but twisted.

Sunday, 17 December 2006


I've got a feeling that the minister of Back Free Church having a blog is one of the signs of the end-times; so quake in your boots, because, just as Sheena said, here it is.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

Khruschev is a fool

[Nikita] Khruschev, however, never minded a joke at his own expense, and in fact once related to Kennedy the story of a man who ran through the Kremlin shouting, 'Khruschev is a fool.' 'He was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison,' said the premier, 'three for insulting the Party Secretary, and twenty for revealing a State secret!'
- April 17, Jeremy Beadle's Today's The Day

chester himes

I read two Chester Himes crime novels recently, A Rage in Harlem and The Real Cool Killers; they were okay, but not good enough to make me want to read the third book in the omnibus edition I had (The Harlem Cycle Vol 1 - Payback Press, a Canongate imprint, although the only time Canongate's name appears, on the info page, it's got an extra 'n' in the obvious place).

The most interesting thing in it was this, in the introduction by Melvin van Peebles, who had interviewed him as a journalist when they were both living in Paris (and whose name is bigger on the cover than Chester Himes's):

He pointed to the two neat piles on either side of the typewriter and explained that before he started one of his 'detective stories', or 'action novels' as he insisted on calling them, he would count out 220 pieces of carbon paper and 440 pieces of typing paper. He would then place a sheet of carbon paper between every two sheets of typing paper so that way he would have an original and a copy of each page that he completed. He would then put the untouched pile on the right hand side of his typewriter and begin to bang away. After he finished typing a page he would put it face down on the pile at his left.
'What's the significance of 220 pages?', I asked, fascinated. 'Are you into numerology or something?'
'Numerology my ass,' Chester laughed. He explained that his contract with the publisher required that he deliver a manuscript of at least 220 pages. 'When the pile on the right hand side begins to get low I know it's time to start winding the story up.'

horror films

I'm not big on horror films really, but the only two films I've watched on Film4 so far have been supposedly horror - R-Point and Nightwatch. Nightwatch in particular I enjoyed a lot; I liked R-Point too, although they had a little interlude with American actors who weren't very good, which made me wonder if perhaps the Koreans weren't very good actors but I just didn't realise it. Perhaps I can only continue to think I don't like horror films by reclassifying all the ones I do like as not really horror. I don't think I can pull that off with Alien, though.

(A constant theme of David Langford's Ansible newsletter is how often mainstream or literary reviewers or writers who want to praise or recommend a science fiction book, film or TV programme will do so by saying it's not really, or transcends, or is better than, science fiction. I remember reading something similar by someone talking about a literary author's book which featured a device or technique which had been used before in crime fiction - I forget what it was - but which was hailed as radical or innovative because it was literature rather than genre fiction.)

Alex puts it well re The Exorcist - disturbing and unsettling, but not 'scary'. I should say I did think The Exorcist was a good film.

I thought I'd have watched a lot more on Film4 since it went Freeview; I've still got Lost In Translation on video, which I videoed in the first fortnight. Bethan saw it at The Big Scream, the Clapham Picture House's screenings for parents with children under 1; the only film I saw there, I think, was Super Size Me.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

hook, line and sinker

Watched the third of our York Tesco £1 DVDs last night, Hook, Line and Sinker, 'a zany adventure featuring one of America's most beloved comedy duos', Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who of course I'd never heard of before. The sound and visual quality wasn't great, but it was okay - had a few good lines. Certainly no less funny than the Marx Brothers films that I have persevered with but never 'got' - we watched A Night At The Opera recently and I still really don't find them funny.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

a canticle for leibowitz (plus bonus exorcist digression)

Inspired by its appearance in the Top 50 list referred to below, and by Alex's mention of it as one of the favourites from those he'd read off the list (and the fact that Tlon were selling a copy for 75p), I read A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.

It was okay. For me the most interesting thing about it was the premise that in the aftermath of an apocalyptic atomic war, the survivors would turn on and destroy every body and object of authority, as sharing responsibility for bringing the world to this state, except for the church (and just the Catholic church, at that) - I can't imagine that anyone writing today would make that projection. So that when we join our future history we have what is essentially a medieval world in which all learning and knowledge and education sits with religious orders in monasteries and abbeys. And the church is treated sympathetically rather than satirically. It's the kind of book which might, unexpectedly, have been looked on favourably by the Catholic church, in much the same way as The Exorcist was.

(The film of The Exorcist got an award from a Catholic organisation, I forget which. I saw the film relatively recently - certainly some time after having watched Mark Kermode's documentary about it. Strangely enough I didn't find it that scary, and I wondered if the reason why so many people do is because its characters deal with the existence of spiritual evil and a spiritual battle in a perfectly accepting, matter of fact way, rather than a sensational, standard horror movie way. Perhaps it is that idea of the existence of a spiritual world which involves evil which people find most scary; perhaps it has less of an impact on people like Christians who believe that already. Or I might just have been desensitised by everything I'd read and watched up to that point. I should )

An interesting exchange from near the end of the book (p272 of 313):
- 'If I thought I had such a thing as a soul, and that there was an angry God in heaven, I might agree with you.'
- Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. 'You don't *have* a soul, Doctor. You *are* a soul. You *have* a body temporarily.'

The copy I got is a US edition from 1988; I'm sure I recognised the cover. Not sure how it got over here; its rippled state suggests it may have floated over. There's an ink stamp in the back that says 'Property of Paul Dwyer Catholic High School'. A quick Google suggests that the only school of that name is in Oshawa, Ontario. The first two lines of the printing history of the book are: Lippincott edition published October 1959, Catholic Digest edition published September 1960.

Walter Miller's Wikipedia entry reveals that this was his only novel published in his lifetime, that he was traumatised by his involvement in the bombing of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, that he was a Catholic, and that he shot himself; it has links to a couple of interesting articles also.


the princess and the pea

Nice cartoon in current Private Eye of mum reading to child at bedtime from The Princess and The Pea, captioned (more or less):
'Oi, David,' said Princess Posh, 'have you seen that pea I was saving for my dinner?'

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

cover DVDs

British newspapers gave away 54m DVDs in the first quarter of this year, roughly as many as were bought in shops.
- Guardian, 26 August 2006

employing married women

The eighth of December 1951 [the day he was born] marked the 10th anniversary of America's entry into the second world war. Until that time, half of the 48 states had laws making it illegal to employ a married woman.
- extract from Bill Bryson's autobiography, reproduced in the Guardian, Saturday 2 September 2006.

on film in afghanistan

Gruelling mountain marches, extreme temperature swings and dogged battles make Kunar the most physically punishing war for US troops since Vietnam. The Guardian joined one patrol that had walked 28 days, each man lugging a 40kg backpack. Several soldiers said they preferred their previous deployment, in Falluja, Iraq, because conditions were better there.

Money and videos play a large role in the fight. Locals recruited to target Americans must produce footage to ensure payment, said several officers and local officials. Survivors have the strange experience of watching attempts on their lives. Last April Lieutenant Brian Farrell drove over a roadside bomb that destroyed his Humvee truck. He escaped with a light wound but two months later relived the attack through the internet.

"I never wanted to be famous," quipped the fresh-faced 25-year-old, whose comrades poke fun about his "movie stardom". [Click here to see the video, filmed by insurgents, of the attack on Lt Farrell's vehicle.} But the joke is short-lived. Lt Farrell's regiment has suffered 156 casualties, including 19 deaths, since it deployed last March. Lt Farrell's own platoon counts two dead and six wounded.

- from an article on Afghanistan from the Guardian, Monday 4 December 2006.


An article on Rona from the Guardian of Saturday 26 August.