Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Renaissance Domesticity

Monday turned into another of our two-exhibitions-and-a-good-lunch day trips to London - starting in the morning with a visit to the Queen's Gallery, which I don't think that I'd ever been inside before. It turned out to be quite grand in places, too - mahogany panels and Molton Brown soap in the lavatories (no, not "toilets"), even...

But let's not lower the tone. We were there for the "Bruegel to Rubens" show, Angela having a particular taste for Dutch Renaissance painting, and yeah, it was good - although the Bruegel snowscapes and calm domestic interiors were sometimes in danger of being overwhelmed by the sort of splashy, lush, lurid religious art which frankly does nothing for me. Still, there were some great portraits, including a Van Dyck self-portrait with one of the show's two best stories attached.

(The first such story involved Bruegel's "Massacre of the Innocents", which if one looks is remarkably short of depictions of innocents being massacred. Apparently, it was completed and went to a Spanish nobleman's collection just in time for an outbreak of religious warfare in which the Spanish troops behaved with all the gentleness associated with such wars. Showing soldiers committing mass murder was suddenly considered impolitic, so it was promptly edited. The story about the Van Dyck, on the other hand, involved him selling a different painting to a British aristocrat, not realising that said aristo was going to present it to Charles I. So Van Dyck dumped a thing by his studio assistants on that buyer, and Charles, being a smarter art connoisseur than he was ... anything else, really ... sent it back as inferior quality. And then Van Dyck sent him a better painting; a self-portrait. Ten out of ten for cocky confidence in one's own skills.)

Then, for a bonus, it turned out that the same ticket got us into the place's other exhibition of the moment, a catchall "Treasures from the Royal Collection" show. Of course, the royals having been collecting hard and with some judgement, on and off, for some centuries now, this featured a handfull of Canalettos here, the odd diamond as big as your thumbnail there, a bejewelled ostrich-egg cup, some gorgeous jousting armour... The sort of thing that anyone could turn up in their attic, really. No strong theme, but quite an assortment.

Anyway, lunch was in Wahaca, a chance discovery we happened to pass in Covent Garden and which I'll now thoroughly recommend for freshly-cooked Mexican nibbles (even if their 'Web site is a bit Flash-crazed), and on to the Royal Academy for their current Palladio exhibition.

This must have been fun to set up. Most of it consisted of drawings from all over the place (the RIBA library, the Chatsworth collection, wherever), mostly by the man himself, ranging from rough sketches of Roman remains through to formal final designs for great buildings, sometimes with a variety of details offered on the same sheet. However, there were also a clutch of portraits, many of them by very major artists of the period, of assorted Italian urban worthies who featured significantly in Palladio's career - and most eye-catchingly of all, there were a bunch of detailed wooden models of some of his buildings, borrowed from an architectural study centre named for Palladio in Vicenza.

But I guess it was the drawings that were most important in a crucial way. When somebody has basically defined a culture's architecture for five hundred years (note - I'm sitting in a modern suburban house with a pseudo-pediment worked into the frontage as I type this), it's useful to be reminded that he was a working architect above all, with a vast sense of detail. (Okay, here I'm remembering the TV programme about the man that was on a few months back, which made the same point.) If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, well, you can see that Palladio qualifies. Not the most glamorous exhibition I've ever been to, but interesting in a kind of fractal way; the closer you look, the more there was to find.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Island Story (Naval History Divn.)

Angela had some time off at the end of last week, so we decided to catch up on a bit of tourist stuff in which we'd be intending to engage down Hampshire way. This developed a bit of a theme.

First off was Fort Nelson, which is one of the Palmerston Forts, dating to one of those periods when we (the British) had decided that we didn't trust the French, specifically the 1860s; as we'd also noticed that (a) the Royal Navy was spread a bit thin around our shiny new empire, and (b) naval gunnery was getting a bit long-ranged, these were hastily dug into the countryside around Portsmouth to protect the big Navy base there. They were subsequently abandoned, but Fort Nelson has now been reopened and spruced up a bit to hold the Royal Armouries' artillery collection. Actually, the place has a bit of a feeling of a work in progress; although the (small-ish) gallery of early artillery pieces looks fine (and includes one or two oddities, such as this baroque presentation piece given to the commander of artillery for the Knights of St. John of Malta), much of the fort still looks a bit battered round the edges, and some of the more modern display pieces - including some segments of Saddam Hussein’s "Supergun" (the thing that got its designer, Gerald Bull, assassinated with a rather smaller gun) - are held in a rather plain shed-like building. Still, the tunnels down to the ammunition storage space under the chalk of the hill are very striking, and the place is generally worth a visit for those who might be interested in military engineering.

Descending from the hill and looking back, one is reminded that Portsmouth and the area thereabouts is still very much involved in British military history generally. The modern military research station just along the road from Fort Nelson is another illustration, for a start, and the profile of that big phased array radar tower is not only distinctive - it's somewhat amusing for anyone with a taste for certain popular mini-board games.

It also looms somewhat above Portchester Castle, which means that this photo covers the range of this history. Portchester Castle itself is a pleasingly intact and pretty impressive medieval structure, which apparently served as a launching-point for a lot of English expeditions during the Hundred Years War, a PoW camp during the Napoleonic Wars, and so on - but then you get up onto the roof level, look down, and are reminded that it's actually tucked in one corner of a complete Roman coastal fort, dating back to the 3rd century AD. Apparently, this is the most intact Roman fortress in Northern Europe, having been vandalised remarkably little over the centuries. (For some reason, the locals scavenged stone from the walls by taking a bit at a time from the inside surfaces, rather than engaging in wholesale demolition. I'd guess that it was still seeing some use for defensive purposes much of the time, which must have helped.) It's a well-kept site, too.

And, lastly, we got to Buckler's Hard, a small village along the coast past Southampton (and not far from the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu) which once held the dockyards where some Royal Navy ships were built in Napoleonic times. Actually, it's more of a hamlet, albeit with a decent museum dedicated to its history and a very wide main street. It was supposed to be bigger when it was first planned, by the second Duke of Montagu, but he was planning to use it as a port for sugar from the estates he'd just supposedly acquired in the West Indies, and he was rather ignoring the fact that the area of the estates in question was in French hands at the time. When the privately-sponsored military expedition which was supposed to deal with that inconvenience, umm, didn't work, the plans for "Montagu Town" fell through. Freelance commercial imperialism; gotta love it...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recent Reading: The Father of Locks

by Andrew Killeen


It's normally poor technique to begin a book review by talking about a different book, but...

There are quite a few historical detective stories around these days, but most of them are lightweight entertainments -- harmless enough, often quite fun, but not very strong on the sense of history. All else aside, the assumptions and necessities of the detective story form tend to dominate. The genre's biggest claim to some kind of intellectual credibility is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but not many other books really want to be compared to that if they have any sense.

The Father of Locks has some chance of surviving that comparison. It's normally poor technique to begin a book review by talking about a different book, but note: the youthful narrator of Andrew Killeen's d├ębut novel enters the story by invading a huge, strange library building in search of a lost manuscript by Aristotle. I think that Killeen knows exactly what he's doing there.

Not that his detective is borrowed from Eco's cerebral (but fictional) Brother William of Baskerville. Abu Nuwas is an historical figure, and more to the point, an occasional guest star in the Arabian Nights. He's also a poet and, in this story, an agent of the legendary vizier Ja'far al-Barmaki. Moreover, he's a wildly decadent drunkard, bisexual lecher, violent troublemaker, and lover of falconry. (Most of this, apparently, is derived from his poetry.) But he has an intellectual's grasp of detail, a poet's understanding of human nature, and a sense of justice; when Ja'far assigns him to investigate rumours that Iblis, the devil (who Abu Nuwas naturally claims to admire) is stalking the streets of Abbasid Baghdad, it's with a sensible expectation of success. Not least because failure in Ja'far's service isn't terribly healthy.

To be honest, this isn't the greatest detective story plot I've ever seen; there's a big espionage/diplomatic plot, with one major element that modern readers are likely to identify long before most of the characters, and a big, dark red herring to spin things out. The solution mostly comes from a series of conveniently overheard conversations, providing Abu Nuwas with a string of clues that he pulls together in an extended flash of inspiration. The book's title is misleading, too; it's a translation of "Abu Nuwas", and "locks" here means "locks of hair"; the poet was apparently noted for his hairstyle. On the other hand, his sidekick and Watson, Ismail al-Rawiya, is actually a dab hand with lockpicks (I'm not actually sure about the lock and lockpicking technology seen in this story -- I get a sense of anachronism -- but I couldn't swear to this), cheerfully occupying the Thief of Baghdad stereotype as well as seeking a life as a storyteller, despite coming from Cornwall.

There are also places where Killeen's research pokes through in rough lumps, especially early on, when he is still setting the scene; while Ismail is evidently bright and observant, I'm not sure that he could have the sort of perspective that would allow him to say of a group of people "veterans of the revolution ... they now formed the military class of the regime". Likewise, some of the historical-figure guest appearances are gratuitous (although others are nicely subversive, especially the faintly idiotic Harun al-Rashid). But no matter; the thing that sells this book lies elsewhere, in Killeen's cheerful use of the 1001 Nights pattern. Much of the novel consists of stories told by various characters to explain the background to the plot, or just to explain themselves or to fill the time. At the point when the Frankish ambassador launches into "The Tale of the Horn of Hruodland", I realised that Killeen was showing off, but with some justification. By the end, Abu Nuwas is offering the rather cliched suggestion that telling our stories anew every day "is how we know we are still alive" -- but yes, his characters live through their storytelling.

(Well, most of them. Some die, despite their stories. This is, I should note, a fairly bloody and brutally unsentimental crime story in places. Also, Abu Nuwas lives the decadent poet life pretty determinedly. Caveat emptor.)

Like The Name of the Rose, this novel ends with mysteries solved and secrets revealed to the investigators, but not much justice done; history isn't really a nice place to visit, and if Harun's Baghdad is enjoying a golden age of poetry and prosperity, it's because it's fairly safely under the thumb of an authoritarian regime which uses violence and religious orthodoxy to keep control. Moreover, Harun's rule follows a period of brutal civil war, and another such period will follow his death; the reason that the 1001 Nights so often invokes it as a time of glory is that things were so often so much worse. But Ismail al-Rawiya is an engaging guide, and Abu Nuwas has at least a little of the charisma which he assumes is his right as a decadent poet. Many historical detective stories end up as parts of series, and The Father of Locks ends with that option open; while The Name of the Rose was always the better for standing alone, I wouldn't mind seeing Killeen return to old Baghdad.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Expand, Contract (3)

For those attempting to keep track of my work - latest news of many of the e23 projects I've got in hand or completed is that they're waiting in the queue for review and (especially, as it seems) production time and effort at Steve Jackson Games. More on some of these (fairly) soon, I hope.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Theatre: God of Carnage

Arts Theatre, Cambridge, 28/2/2009.

Yes, it's been rather a theatrical month round here. God of Carnage is by French playwright Yasmina Reza, who was also responsible for Art, which I saw a few years ago. The story goes that Reza proclaimed herself bemused when Art (in translation) won a Best Comedy award, as she thought that she was writing a tragedy; well, if God of Carnage wasn't originally intended as a comedy, then the translator, Christopher Hampton, must have added a lot of jokes in the course of his work (which is possible, I guess). But it also wants to be a bit more than "just" a comedy.

Mind you, this production sells on more than Reza's name, with a cast including the ever-wonderful Richard E. Grant, plus Roger Allam (not a name I recognised, but his face is familiar from lots of British TV, and he's good), Serena Evans, and Lia Williams. The plot is more setting-specific than that of Art - this is very overtly a story of the Parisian bourgeoisie, with lots of specific details - and tries rather hard to expose bourgeois failings. Two couples meet to discuss the fact that one of their young sons has beaten up the other, in an atmosphere of strained civility, and things naturally go downhill quickly from there. This collapse is predictable, and not just because it's necessary for the play to exist; one of the men rapidly demonstrates an appalling mobile 'phone addiction, while the other mentions an incident involving a hamster without realising how badly it shows him up... These aren't really civilised people.

Mind you, I'm not sure what sort of people they are. The mobile 'phone junkie is a lawyer who is dealing with a problematic corporate case, but he also seems to have some kind of background in international criminal law; one of the women is a mild-mannered liberal housewife who has somehow written a publishable book about Darfur. I had a slight sense that they had whatever features the plot demanded.

Which plot does dearly want to be taken seriously. This isn't just four people getting into screaming comedic rows, you understand; it's a picture of the flaws and dishonesty that fail to disguise the weakness and savagery of humanity. We're supposed to take the play's title seriously, you see; God is a god of carnage. Oh dear; I'm not actually sure that a four-hand, one-act bourgeois comedy can really support the weight of all this, and throwing in references to real, unspeakable tragedies like Darfur to add weight could just look dangerously crass. But perhaps I'm being too Anglo-Saxon about this. And it is rather a good bourgeois comedy.

Recent Reading: Singularity Sky

by Charles Stross

Yes, I've only just got around to Charles Stross's first novel, from 2004; terribly disorganised of me. Anyway, I'm doing some catching up.

For those who are further behind than me, a little scene-setting. Some time in the 21st century, humanity's computer systems apparently bootstrapped themselves into a state of nigh-godhood called the Eschaton. Being a near-god, the Eschaton is evidently ineffable and barking mad, but friendly to authors looking for plots; it promptly scattered most of humanity onto habitable worlds across thousands of lightyears, and also across thousands of years of time. Faster-than-light travel is thus shown to be possible, and therefore so is causality violation, but the Eschaton, apparently understandably worried that someone might use time travel to prevent its own emergence, declares an absolute ban on the sort of dangerous misbehaviour that it's just shown to be highly feasible, and drops large rocks on people who don't follow its rules.

(Characters in this book keep saying that the Eschaton isn't really a god, but blimey, it acts like one, doesn't it?)

Anyway, a couple of centuries later (in their frame of reference), we meet the New Republic, one of the ad hoc human colonies created by this event. It was founded by a bunch of future-shocked Central European technophobes who go in for place names like New Austria and New Prague, but whose style is pretty solidly Czarist Russian - all else aside, they perform a pretty fair re-enactment of bits of the Russo-Japanese War in the course of this novel, and we get a brief appearance by a Colonel von Ungern-Sternberg, which is of course a bad sign. Despite their rampant technophobia, the New Republic has somehow vaguely sustainable imperial ambitions, and a small handful of conquered or colonised worlds. In the prologue, one of these is invaded by the Festival, a peripatetic civilisation-thing which evidently originated in a human culture which the Eschaton dumped thousands of lightyears from Earth and thousands of years into the past, and which travels between the stars in small packages of computer technology, reconstructing itself as a wacky ultra-tech parody of the Edinburgh Festival whenever it arrives in a new solar system. The Festival starts granting wishes for the inhabitants of the colony world, scattering ultra-technological gifts around in exchange for new information (stories will do); the New Republic, objecting to having its colony occupied and forcibly kicked up by a millenium or so's worth of technological progress, launches a counter-invasion fleet, and the novel's plot is underway.

Except that Stross despises the New Republic too thoroughly to allow any of its citizens to serve as story protagonists on the fleet, so a couple of people from Earth attach themselves to it for various purposes - one engineer from an arms cartel which sold the New Republic some spaceship technology, and one diplomat/military observer. Both have hidden agendas, the engineer's being more arcane (for a very experienced agent, the diplomat/observer doesn't do much of a job of secrecy; she appears to be using her own, well-known name much of the time, even when she needn't); they also rapidly become a couple. Actually, they represent Stross's default protagonist-couple-type, as seen in Halting State and some of the "Laundry" stories, among other places - a geeky but technically competent man, and a tough, self-assured, sexy woman who can handle any butt-kicking that's required. Frankly, it looks like fan service, if not wish fulfillment, and hearts being in the right places doesn't excuse it.

But anyway... It should be said that there's a decent comedy somewhere inside this book, looking to get out; just for a start, the New Republic is a pretty good parody of the quintessential political reactionary mind-set. The trouble is, the book would like to say a bit moe than that, but it isn't sure how. The New Republic is a portrait of a bad society, crippled by its reactionary impulses, but once we've seen the secret police in action, the poverty in the streets and military stupidity - and once our protagonists have been repelled and appalled by the place for a paragraph or two - there's really nowhere more for that strand to go, and the joke has turned slightly sour. So we follow the military expedition as not a huge amount happens, except that some obnoxious products of the system plot not very effectually against the heroes and worry about the technological superiority of the enemy they're supposed to fight - albeit not enough, as it predictably turns out.

Meanwhile, the invaded colony world is going through a technological singularity - an explosion of wishes come true and strange and sometimes nightmarish things happening. But because the population suffers from their New Republic upbringing, they fail to handle this at all well; not one single inhabitant of the world thinks to ask for information rather than material goods, not even the relatively clued-in revolutionaries who've been dumped there as exiles in best Russian style. The trouble is, I'm not at all sure that Stross has a very clear idea of what's happening here either. So we get a string of scenes, some of them funny or macabre, and occasional conversations, but no great sign of changes that can't be folded away in an instant.

Then the New Republic's fleet shows up, and gets casually defeated, but some people make it down to the planet, and then the book shambles to an end of sorts in a flurry of speeches and very minor revelations, leaving a clutch of unresolved plot strands and unexplained stuff. It isn't a disaster, or even a disappointment; it just fails to gel.

I think I'll look at the sequel (Iron Sunrise) sometime, though, if only to see if Stross refines his technique a bit in that. Too much like this would lead me to give up, but one book might lead on to better things later - and the later Stross books I've read do also have their moments.