Sunday, June 20, 2010

Expand, Contract (23)

Oh yeah - Transhuman Mysteries is now in editing.

Other stuff (that I may have mentioned in the past) is waiting on various necessary administrative things. Further updates will probably be posted when those bottlenecks are cleared (and not before). There are also some possible major projects coming into view; if they come together, they'll take much of my time for months, and I won't be able to say anything about them for a while. So don't worry if these posts turn infrequent.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Concert: Blondie

Cambridge Corn Exchange, 11th June 2010.

I was at university from 1978 to '81, so Blondie are naturally an important part of my past. However, I never did get to see them back then, so the discovery that they were going to be playing Cambridge (I think for the first time ever, although I may have missed something in the last few years) was an opportunity to fill that gap in my life.

The evening began in appropriate '70s style; first, everyone had to queue up outside until the doors opened at the concert's advertised start time, and then the support band (Little Fish) turned out to be a three-piece (guitar/vocals, drummer, keyboards) with a female singer-guitarist playing jagged, slightly punky little songs; they weren't bad, but I found I was old-fashioned enough to wonder if they'd be better with a bass player to round out the sound.

Anyway, one interval later, Blondie hit the stage, starting with the inevitable assorted thin, slightly anonymous male musicians and then - Debbie Harry, wearing a platinum wig, shades, a black dress with a conical layered knee-length skirt, and Doc Martens. In other words, she looked a bit like some kind of crazy cat lady, if your neighbourhood crazy cat lady was a living goddess of power pop - complete with the voice we all remember, that coolly amused New York drawl. Actually, the voice may not be quite the subtle power tool it once was; during "Atomic", the crucial repetition of the title was first spoken, then handed over to the audience, then replaced with an apocalyptic guitar solo. Still, there was no doubt who this was.

The set actually turned out to contain a fair amount of new material - the band have a new album coming soon (and the new material sounded very Blondie) - which is great; this isn't just a self-tribute act, although many of the classics were in there too, to varying effect; this was a rock band with decent keyboards, not a synthesizer band, so "Maria" and "Call Me" were fine, while "Heart of Glass" was, well, rockier than the studio version. I never did catch who the line-ups lead guitarist was (Chris Stein, the long-time mainstay of the band, seemed to be leaving a lot of the lead work to this other guy), but he was a little bit prone to axeman exhibitionism. But that wasn't the point, was it? The audience of forty- and fifty-somethings (and some of their kids) were there to see the cool, streetwise blonde who was there before any of your Madonnas or Gagas. And we got what we came for.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Recent Reading: Recklessly Yours

by John Allison

Well, I suppose that this isn't technically very recent reading, given that I first read these strips at the time that they appeared in Scary Go Round. And a lot of what it requires isn't reading so much as looking, Scary Go Round being a comic strip and all. But anyway, the book collection appeared recently, enabling one to re-read the contents more briskly than one page per day - which does, all else aside, sometimes enable one to follow the details of what passes for a "plot" a little more effectively. For example, I now understand why Desmond Fish-Man attempted to recite an obscene limerick at the climax of the Jeremy Kyle Show. You can't put a price on that sort of understanding.

Furthermore, these collected strips are accompanied by brief notes from the author, John Allison, which together help explain why they turned out to represent the final year of the strip. Allison comments that he started the period in a positive frame of mind, but the narratives show that his mood - always crucial to his quirky brilliance - was changing from very early on, and it shifted radically even towards the very end.

There are five "stories" (often a rather loose concept in John Allison world) in this book, and the first two, "Carrot vs. Stick" and "Extra Income", show Allison's tastes in subject-matter moving towards the low-key tales and younger characters that have turned out to characterise Scary Go Round's successor strip, Bad Machinery. The first, a school story about the stress of growing up and the difficulties of maturity, substantially expands the role given to such previously minor characters as Carrot Scruggs and Sarah Grote. The second starts out with The Boy, for some time an interesting viewpoint character, seeking a part-time job and becoming entangled with sleazy businessman Hamilton Percy, but Allison evidently got bored with that idea, and shifts the focus to an unexpected romance between Sarah and Ryan Beckwith, which in turn leads to a brief outburst of drunken idiocy from Carrot - and the story ends.

"The Estate", on the other hand, sees Allison developing an almost social-realist interest in the actual community of the characters' home town of Tackleford, and making some vaguely thoughtful comments on its underclass - albeit with a plot centered on the moronic and obnoxious Desmond. While this is all a long way from the sort of story that made Scary Go Round popular, it's often very very funny indeed. The story also introduces Charlotte Grote and Shauna Wickle, two child characters for whom Allison evidently developed an affection, as they would become central to Bad Machinery.

Then, Allison made one last attempt at the kind of wide-screen-rococo, junk-movie-tribute tale that web comic fans like his so often love, and which he'd often started well and then ended rather abruptly as he ran out of the necessary bubbling energy. Actually, "Looking for Atlantis" is pretty good of its kind. Starting with a completely futile attempt to discover Desmond's origins, it brings in a dubious ex-Nazi researcher who takes Desmond, plus central characters Shelley and Amy to, yes, lost Atlantis. There, Shelley's idealistic optimism (plus some general human stupidity) causes chaos and destruction, despite Amy's desperate attempts to balance it with cynical realism. Allison claims that this story showed him that the plan he'd been developing, to replace Scary Go Round with a strip about Shelley's adventures as a time traveller, wasn't going to fly because he just couldn't face writing about Shelley's sunny sociopathy - although it appears that he kept the idea going until quite near the big break point.

Which comes, not surprisingly, at the end of "Goodbye". This brings back The Child, previously a quasi-supernatural agent of chaos, but here redrawn as a more mundanely manipulative brat, whose previously shadowy and Rasputin-like father-figure turns out to be a Michael Jackson doppelganger. Allison's notes say that this story was massively revised in the wake of Jackson's death and the ensuing public hagiographising, but it's hard not to see this as more of an excuse, because the original plot outline which he discusses here (with rough sketches) looks out of kilter with his shifting mood - and also uncharacteristically bitter as well as dark. Personally, I'm glad that he didn't use that plot, although this may be sentimental of me. Admittedly, he was planning to end things with a story involving a high school prom (not very traditional-British, that, though) and both Shelley and Esther going into action in Tim Jones/Matsushita Corporation battlesuits ("It's the Matsushita Gothnaut 1 - it can only be driven by someone Very Dark") - but he was also going to kill off a number of major characters, for one or two of whom I felt considerable affection. Instead, we get a lower-key precursor of the gentler wit of Bad Machinery, entangled with some life changes for other characters, with shifts and closures that almost verge on the moving. Mind you, the hopeless Carrot gets to suffer to the very end.

After this, Bad Machinery started slowly, and while I've stuck with it, I wasn't too surprised to hear that it had some trouble keeping the old strip's audience. It's a new angle on Allison's odd, sweet, dangerous, skewed world (which I haven't even attempted to describe in this review, because, well, you have to get to know it for yourself), suggesting a maturity which Allison shows largely through the eyes of child characters - although Amy and Ryan, once among Allison's least responsible adult characters, have survived and attained their own peculiar form of maturation. Hopefully, there'll be printed collections of that strip, too, documenting that rebirth into adulthood as this one documents the end of one era for one eccentrically brilliant writer.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Going West (Temporarily) - Sun, Sand, Fossils, Food...

Note: some photos relevant to the following are up on my Flickr stream.

It must be about forty years since I last visited Lyme Regis, and Angela had never been there - and in those forty years, the place has gained a twist of enhanced fame thanks to John Fowles (assisted by Meryl Streep) and Jane Austen (assisted by the BBC drama department). So when we wanted to take a long weekend away, we decided that we ought to head down there and see how many flashbacks I might suffer.

But first we had to get there, and the drive down involved a stop for lunch. Fortuitously, Angela looked at the map and realised that a service area on the way, at Popham, happened to be the location we'd seen on TV when Heston Blumenthal attempted to kick-start the Little Chef chain towards higher quality in front of the cameras. It's not often we structure our itinerary around a Little Chef... Fortunately, Blumenthal's efforts at this place turned out still to be working. I don't think that I'd ever tried ox cheeks before, but the dish I ordered had the texture (literally) of a fine piece of slow cooking. Everything else there was competent at the very least, and often very good. I don't know if the chain have tried or are trying to extend this approach to other branches, but if they managed it, they could in theory accomplish a mind-boggling improvement in image.

Anyway, yes, we did eventually reach Lyme, checked into the hotel, and went out for a walk. And yes, bits of it trawled memories up from the depths of my brain - not often too bizarrely, although I'm pretty sure that a shop called "The Toby Jug" was there in the '60s, with the same sign, and the aquarium out on the Cobb definitely was. Mostly, though, and I suppose predictably, it was the smell of the seaweed cast up by the tide that felt so familiar, along with the beaches full of soft grey tide-smoothed pebbles.

Lyme itself is attractive enough, and the paeleontogical importance and the Jane Austen connection give it ways to draw in tourists. It doesn't half cash in on those options sometimes, though, especially the fossils - there's ammonite imagery everywhere, and multiple shops selling the things, (with stock drawn from all over the world if you look closely - the beaches near the town have been picked clean, absent any recent landslips). The town museum holds maybe more historical stuff - a dense clutter of local history, in fact - and that was where I discovered that Charmouth, the village along the coast where my family used to stay, was where Harriette Wilson stayed while working on her memoirs. That's rarely mentioned. Personally, I think that the tourist trade ought to make more of it.

Oh, and the seafood is good. By Sunday, though, we were ready to head further afield. We paused briefly at Charmouth, but my memories notwithstanding, I didn't see enough there to justify spending time and parking charges. In fact, we'd decided to take a look at the Royal Signals Museum, over at Blandford - which is a pretty good museum, especially if you can enjoy a fair-sized collection of vintage motorcycles and other vehicles, though there's plenty on military signals generally if you're enough of a tech-geek. Heading back from there, we took in quick looks at the Cerne Abbas Giant and Dorchester, and then stopped off at Maiden Castle nearby - another location I remembered from childhood holidays; a great wind-swept sheep-field surrounded by earthworks, the biggest Iron Age fortification in the UK. It's impossible to capture the scale of the place in a ground-level photo, but it was worth a stroll.

Anyway, we got back to Lyme in good time for the booking we'd made to treat ourselves at the Hix Oyster and Fish House. This is, well, a very good restaurant, and a part of what makes it is actually the location, overlooking the bay and the coast through floor-to-ceiling windows; eating while the marine horizon fades to darkness is definitely an experience. The cooking was good, too, if quite militantly rustic-local; my nettle soup was, I think, rendered pleasingly oleaginous by the snails, while Angela vouched for her deep-friend sand eels... My main course of hake seemed a bit salty, and the service seemed relaxed to the point of being off-hand at first, but overall, the treat was a treat. One local ingredient that was definitely used well was Somerset cider brandy, incidentally, especially in the "shipwreck tart" that I hit for dessert - a Hix creation of pastry and nuts where the warming glow of the brandy provided a definite twist on the standard walnut/pecan pie formula.

We headed home the next day - but by the scenic routine, taking in a few more sights, starting with Abbotsbury Swannery (a tourist attraction that knows what will attract tourists; the roads for miles around were dotted with signs saying "Baby Swans"), and then going onto Bennets Water Gardens (very pleasant to stroll around in the hot weather), and lastly reaching Portland Bill. This last was one more location I remembered from childhood; I think that it was the first lighthouse I ever visited. What I didn't remember was how windswept, almost bleak, it was; it's the last low slope of a lump of rock projecting south into the Channel, and was probably always pretty austere, but by the looks of things, the Victorians turned into into a quarry for Portland stone, and it's never quite recovered. Still, on a hot day, it has a sort of blasted charm - and the lighthouse looked much as I remembered.

Anyhow, we made it home. And I didn't suffer any catastrophic flashbacks.