Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Catch-Up

It seems that I haven't posted here much lately, doesn't it? I hope that nobody has been missing me.

Some time around the middle of the year, I got a bit busy for a short while, and then I didn't have a huge amount that really seemed worth saying, and then I just got out of the habit. Or maybe I just lost interest. Well, for the record, it's not that my life has been completely empty in that time. Aside from a few conventions and such, I've even managed another holiday.

At the end of November, Angela and I spent a week in and around La Orotava, in northern Tenerife. This might seem a strange time of year to head out that way, but hey, it's warmer there than here. We did end up getting rained on a bit, but we also got up a three-and-a-half-kilometre volcano to look down on a Dr Who gravel pit set the size of a county, saw surfers hitting a beach of black sand, and ate a bit of sea food. However, I seem to be recording that sort of thing more in photographic than in written form at the moment; I'm still updating my Flickr account with photos from the trip, but those pictures are all going into a collection there. Oh, and I'll thoroughly recommend the Hotel Alhambra, where we stayed.

Anyway, I may try to update this blog a little bit more often again from now on. It does depend on inspiration and energy, though, I fear. In the meantime, Seasonal Best Wishes to anyone who reads this in time.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Arts of Empires

Stuff gets left over from the past. And then we suddenly realise that it might be worth remembering, and we find ourselves scrabbling a bit, trying to reconstruct things, put our own interpretations on them, decide what was or wasn't significant.

I've neglected to blog about the 22nd of last month, until now. It was a moderately busy day, and I've fairly recently finished putting a bunch of photos from then up on Flickr. But actually, those only cover an early part of the day.

Specifically, we made a round trip to Cambridge to catch a couple of things, starting with a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum,  where for one thing, this year's Sculpture Promenade is in full swing. That was the point when I managed to capture a decent array of pictures. As in previous years, it proved amiably brain-stretching; we were mildly amused to run into a miniature prototype for the monumental Peter Randall-Page piece that we met at the Eden Project a while back.

But we had gone to the museum chiefly to catch something that isn't likely to come back often in our lifetimes; an exhibition of 2,000-year-old tomb treasures from China, loaned from two different Chinese museums - so to see all this lot would normally require a long round trip. There was ... a lot of jade, naturally, including two of the famous jade burial suits - not so much jade armour as full-body casings, the product of imperial wealth and the belief that jade preserved the body against corruption. There were also great bronze vessels and domestic bits and pieces, which had (just) survived two millennia of burial. But I guess that the things that spoke most effectively, as art, were rather inevitably the fairly small statuettes, figures from courtly life - especially some swirling dancers, their infeasibly long sleeves falling to the floor oddly like cartoons.

But a piece of art doesn't have to be twenty centuries old to be a period piece. That evening, we had tickets for Noel Coward's Volcano at the Arts Theatre, a relic of an earlier era, but not without amusement value. Actually, this play wasn't produced in Coward's own lifetime, initially because it proved impossible to get Katharine Hepburn on board to play the lead, but probably mostly because the sexual - and especially homosexual - content was a bit heavy for the period. It hasn't had much attention since, either; this is apparently its first-ever major production, complete with Jenny Seagrove gamely tackling the Hepburn maturely-repressed-sexy role. (No other cast members whose names I recognised, I'm afraid; I mostly ended up thinking that a Noel Coward play probably has to feature actresses with names like Finty Williams and Perdita Avery.) I can't say that it struck me as a major work of art, and it's probably not one of Coward's greatest pieces, but I laughed a bit, thought a very little, and reckoned that the staging was pretty good.

The sexual content was clear enough, incidentally, but obviously no big deal by modern standards. I suspect that it took a bit of effort from the director and cast to make the gay element even clearly noticeable, and it represented a rather small twist late in the plot even then. It was hard to avoid feeling that the volcanic eruption - however well staged - ended up as a bad case of the pathetic fallacy being used for emphasis.

But it was something to be seen. Still, it was the Chinese antiquities that were something not to be missed.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Views from the North

It's a peculiar thing that, in many years of holidays first with family and later not, I'd never actually made it to the English Lake District. Angela had, but it was a long time ago, and some of her photographs back then had accidents when being developed. So, in mid-May, we spent just over a week rectifying those omissions. I've just finished putting the better photographs we took on that trip up on my Flickr account.

Unfortunately, we didn't pick the one week in May when the weather was actually passable, but we weren't there to walk long distances, and we were working on the principle that it's the Lake District; if you don't get rained on a bit, you're doing something wrong.

And my general conclusion; it's actually an advantage while up there not to be a particular devotee of the Romantic poets (or John Ruskin). It lets you take the area as it comes, admiring some superb scenery and general picturesque-ness as you stumble across it without feeling obliged to drag round a lot of peculiar little cottages or play spot-the-daffodil. (Though we did accidentally encounter the spot where Dorothy Wordsworth found a lot of nice daffodils, before her brother nicked her diary entry and put it in verse. We weren't there in daffodil season, though.) Also, Wasdale does the "magnificently bleak" thing superbly, and has a good pub at the far end.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Expand, Contract (38)

As something of an inevitable sequel to the immediately preceding post - e23 has now followed up GURPS Castle Falkenstein with my own GURPS Castle Falkenstein: The Ottoman Empire, which by the way is dual-statted for GURPS and the original Castle Falkenstein rules.
Like most Falkenstein game material, this book entangles a fair amount of authentic 19th century history with a lot of rather gonzo steampunk high fantasy. The difference is that I was working with the history of the last years of the Ottoman Empire, which got rather gonzo in its own right, by most rational standards, as well as being as depressing as a lot of history when you look closely. Ottoman Turkey really was an archetypal totally screwed-up ancient empire on the slide. That makes it an interesting place to visit, but you really wouldn't want to live there.
The book itself is almost interesting in its way, because it follows the original Castle Falkenstein standard presentation style of including a lot of first-person setting fiction. (That's not Steve Jackson Games' house style, but the book was originally written for R.Talsorian. The Designer's Notes explain.) Come to think of it, Ottoman Empire may represent the single largest work of fiction which I've ever had published, interwoven with the games stuff. Which is probably either cool or sad. Very possibly both.

I did have some fun deciding what to put into the "Cinema" section of the bibliography, I must admit.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Expand, Contract (37)

I nearly forgot to note ... I've just been away for a week (photos on Flickr and notes here to follow), and I got home shortly after Steve Jackson Games' e23 managed to surprise me very slightly by putting another of my old  books out in PDF form.

GURPS Castle Falkenstein was a little unexpected in this context because it's about a licensed third-party setting, and the company needs to renegotiate things with the IP owner to get those books re-released as PDFs. However, it may be less surprising that the company managed to negotiate an expansion to this license than would be the case with many; unlike, say, Conan (not one of mine, but one which recently made a similar, more surprising GURPS/e23 reappearance), Falkenstein was licensed from another games publisher, who'll have a realistic view of the possibilities, and who won't have many other uses in mind for the IP.

Anyway, it's a book in which I take a little pride, and it's a chunky volume with some nice art. (I should also point out that it was a collaborative effort - the one book I've done with the admirable Jim Cambias.) So I'm happy to see it out there once again.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Marvel Avengers Assemble

(Yes, that's what it's officially called in the UK.)

One newspaper reviewer referred to this as a Greatest Hits compilation of all the preceding  Marvel movies from the same studio, which is a little unfair to the film, but not entirely unfair to the Avengers the comic-book hero team, whose only reason for existing is really to be a bunch of popular characters, all together! The Fantastic Four are a family; the X-Men are a shared experience of prejudice, but the Avengers are ... Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Except when the rotating membership list takes the mightiest ones out and cycles some second-stringers in.

But the movie, starting fresh, was able to include a goodly collection of mighty fan favourites, while quietly avoiding the comics-founder-member but probably-nigh-unfilmable (on grounds of silliness) Ant Man and Wasp. Then it added Hawkeye, to up the human-identification and cool-gadgets factors, and Black Widow, to provide eye candy and avoid, as Joss Whedon apparently had to point out to the studio, having the whole thing look like a gay cruise. I'm not sure that Scarlett Johansson in a black catsuit lowered the testosterone level of the movie very far, but she probably ensured that Whedon could be brought aboard, which was the important thing.

("Yes, okay Joss, you can reenact the Buffy-Angel thing with Black Widow and Hawkeye.")

Because, if we're going to have compendiums of good bits and character grace notes and cliches from other movies, some in completely different genres, some of them cliches so new that Michael Bay has barely finished inventing them, then this the way it should be done. Whedon seems to be the Hollywood-acceptable name best suited to constructing these superlatively choreographed action scenes and intervening character angst-fests. Heck, he even manages to construct a justification of sorts for the team name, which is more than Marvel have ever managed in fifty years of publishing the title. (The fact that personal vengeance, while much beloved of Hollywood and Hong Kong action movies, is a rather sleazy motive for heroes, is neither here nor there.) And there's little arguing with the audience numbers, which say that we are going to get more of this sort of thing, whatever.

Meanwhile, Tom Hiddleston, basically unknown in Hollywood before Kenneth Branagh spotted his potential for Thor, makes sure of his options for a very profitable secondary career playing Hollywood villains with English accents. In this movie, Loki gets to engage in more spring-heeled physical violence than I ever remember him bothering with in the comics - where he's a generic smug super-mage - and more blue-eyed spitting villainy, and Hiddleston strolls it. Whatever happens with Marvel comics-based movies, I think that we have a worthy successor to Alan Rickman. Which I guess is a win.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Heading West (and Taking Pictures)

I recently finished putting the photos from a weekend down in south-west England up on my Flickr photostream. A moderately frenetic two days, that - we got as far as Cornwall, without Angela having to take any time off work - but fun.

To start with, it gave Angela an excuse to try a return visit to the Methuen Arms, in Corsham, which once upon a time was legendary among her colleagues as a place you booked to stay on business once, so you'd know not to go there again. Suffice to say that it's changed hands since then, and been changed completely, and now it's a very nice place to spend a Friday night, with a good restaurant and all. However, that was just a first-night stopping place, as the next day, the 24th of March, we were on the road again for a few hours.

The primary destination for the day was the Lost Gardens of Heligan, which we hadn't managed to fit into previous trips down west in recent seasons. For those who don't know of them, these are the gardens of a rather grand country house which fell into total decline and decay in the latter part of the 20th century, until they were rediscovered a few years ago by someone who has managed an extraordinary feat of horticultural resurrection.Nonetheless, and despite being quite rightly full of enthusiastic visitors, they still have a slightly wild feeling in places - one part is quite plausibly known as "The Jungle" - while having been restored to enclosed formality in other parts. A good place to see, even if you're not especially fascinated by gardens as such; there's a definite feeling of an old-time private estate, with everything from Italianate formality to woodland walks, poking through a thin layer of time. Plus some fairly weird sculptures.

We'd hoped to follow this up with a quick visit to the nearby Eden Project - we still had tickets from our visit last year which are good for twelve months, darn it! - but unfortunately, that was still on its winter opening schedule, and was closed by the time that we got there. So we rolled on, diverting a short distance for a brief visit to the real Jamaica Inn (just looking round the outside, really), before driving on to spend the night in Okehampton.

The next day (the 25th of March), we were heading back eastwards - but with a stop planned. We'd seen flyers for the Haynes International Motor Museum, and we thought it sounded interesting. We were right. I suspect that this is the biggest motor museum collection in the country, lurking in a giant shed or two in Somerset, and it probably deserves to be better known. It's currently undergoing a bit of refurbishment and expansion work, but even so, it combined aesthetically impressive experiences (some fabulous designs from multiple eras) with twinges of sometimes downright painful nostalgia (several iffy 1970s models that I thought were really cool in my early teens). Probably only a motor museum can do this quite so effectively.

(A note on the name and origins of this museum, mostly for the benefit of non-UK residents; the Haynes motor manuals are a very useful line of independently-published workshop manuals. The chap who founded the company was evidently a serious car enthusiast, and his collection formed the core of this collection.)

Among the aesthetic positives, by the way, was a real, honest-to-God 1931 Duesenberg. We stumbled across this early in the tour, although I think it's meant to be a bit of a climax for a visit, because the current building work means that visitors end up going round the place in the reverse of the usual direction. This name may not mean very much to Europeans reading this; it wouldn't have meant very much to me before this trip. But let's just say that this thing is unique in Europe, one of eight of its kind in the world - and if you were drawing a comic strip set in the 1930s USA, and you wanted to show that some rich or powerful character had some degree of taste or style, this is the car which he'd arrive in. It's an authentic work of art.

Anyway, having finished there, we were able to get home in reasonable time, even stopping briefly on the way to take a quick look at Stonehenge over the surrounding fence. So I ended up with a lot of photos.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

It must be nice to be an Aardman casting director - to know that, when you're making a silly little fun movie about a bunch of plasticine pirates fighting a plasticine Queen Victoria, you can not only get Hugh Grant and David Tennant for lead roles ("you should wind the Scottish accent back for this one, David, you're playing Charles Darwin"), you can get Salma Hayek to do a cameo alongside Lenny Henry, just because. (Of course, you've also got to schedule the recording of the Pirate King's scene for when Brian Blessed is free, as it'd be illegal to cast anyone else there.) Mind you, this being an Aardman film, you have to remember that it'll all be stolen by a wordless nonhuman character; Darwin's chimpanzee butler is no Gromit, but he does his best.

Anyway, being an Aardman movie, this is definitely enough fun to catch in the cinema, although you may also want to purchase the DVD, not for the Primer reason of having to work out what the hell was going on, but for the simple pleasure of freezing every frame to catch all the little visual jokes that the makers overdo at every opportunity. Whether there's more to it than that may be an open question. It is very silly, and laden with anachronisms of all sorts, mostly no doubt derived from its source material in children's fiction.

Like a lot of pirate movies, it has small pretensions to be about the end of an age of romance in the face of the onset of the modern industrial world - here symbolised by the contrast between the pirates' ship (a proper pocket galleon) and Queen Victoria's yacht (a rather magnificent steampunk creation incorporating the domes from the Royal Pavilion). But that doesn't really fly; the heroes' secondary foes are pirates who are even more old-school than themselves, they ally with Charles Darwin, and they make good use of an airship.

As I said, it's fun. I'm not sure that it's quite up there with Nick Park's best work for the company - perhaps the anachronisms, or the touches of outright visual surrealism, or the slightly plonking use of familiar songs on the soundtrack, jarred with me too much - but it had some good jokes and excellent visuals, and the celebrity voice cast were used well without dominating things too much. Clay and CGI are quite deftly merged, too. Just don't ask me what the ham obsession is all about.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Uses of Marinades

Marking a birthday yesterday, I was in London for the afternoon. Working on the principle that a birthday demands some small new experience, I decided to try a Peruvian restaurant I'd recently read about; Ceviche, on Frith Street. Turned out to be a good move. Yes, I tried some Peruvian ceviche (raw sea bass, lime, chilli, coriander, toasted corn as a garnish); I also think I (knowingly) ate beef heart for the first time in my life - I'd assume that it could normally be rather tough, but sliced quite thin, marinaded in chilli, then grilled on wooden skewers, it was simply toothsome.

The chocolate mousse claimed to come with "guanaban (soursop tropical fruit)" cream. Umm, seemed like pleasant whipped cream to me. Maybe my palate had been a little too well blatted with lime and chilli. However, it was an excellent chocolate mousse. The coffee didn't mess about, either.

I definitely have the place down for a return visit or two. It's one of those "share lots of small plates" set-ups, and I need to try a few more of the options.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

And ... Home (Views Over Asia)

So now - at last - all the photos from our three-week, thirtieth-anniversary holiday of last October are up on my Flickr photostream.

The last day of the trip - an extended version of the 29th of the month - involved a 4am start (which is no great fun), a drive through the small-hours but nonetheless well-illuminated streets of Hong Kong, and the discovery that even Hong Kong airport doesn't really get moving that early. It took a little while for the catering to open up, but eventually we managed to find breakfast, and decided to try some local paper-wrapped rice-based thing.

Hmm. Possibly an experiment too far. Let's just assume that it's a taste which locals acquire from childhood, shall we?

So we boarded our Qantas 747, and spent the next few hours largely on a route that Marco Polo might, I guess, have regarded as familiar (assuming, modern theories notwithstanding, that he didn't just make stuff up), just a few miles higher up, in much greater comfort, and with some watching of movies and TV on the back of the seat in front. Were those the Tian Shan mountains down there, and if so, where was Shangri-La? And was that the Taklamakan desert? Not sure, but anyway, does flying over count as going in?

Ah well, those are not modern concerns. Modern concerns are things like Qantas grounding their entire fleet for a few days due to a large-scale row with their air crew union, which we only later discovered happened while we were in the air. Hmm. Dodged a last-minute problem there.

Which brings me ... back to where I was months ago.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Views of Hong Kong

The photos from our big holiday last year are nearly all up now; I've just finished putting up the biggest day's worth of all; the 28th of October. That was the one full day we had in Hong Kong. Fortunately, we had planned to cram a fair amount into that time.

Still, it was just one day, so it's probably stupid of me to draw conclusions about the city. On the other hand, this is my blog.

What I almost said is that Hong Kong is extraordinary. But that's just not true, really. In a very important way, it's the most ordinary place on Earth. (Except perhaps in the small matter of scale.) Human beings have been building cities for the last five or six thousand years, I guess, and Hong Kong seems to me to be the modern quintessence of the city. It's not actually the biggest, it's certainly not the most beautiful, but it does the thing that cities have done for almost all that time, but which cities in the West have largely given up doing - and it does it much better than most of the developing world mega-cities. That thing is partly make money, or perhaps just make some people rich, but even more important is being seen to make people rich. Which is why Hong Kong - bustling, plutocratic, adaptive - is still sucking population out of its rural hinterland (relatively backward, almost feudal) at a formidable rate - the ancient power of the promise of The Big City. However, as modern Hong Kong has modern medicine and sanitation, it doesn't kill those immigrants or its own children especially fast, unlike most cities in history (although it's managed slightly more in the way of plague in recent years than most developed-world cities), so it grows instead. And the smart and the lucky get rich, and flaunt their wealth, and buy showy gold ornamentation - gold stuff that would barely look out of places if it emerged from a Sumerian archaeological site.

Anyway - in the morning, of our day, we had a coach tour planned. So after breakfast in the hotel's previously-mentioned multi-ethnic buffet restaurant, we grabbed a taxi to the starting point, got ourselves onto the right coach, and set off. The coach promptly headed out of town past a couple of minor landmarks, and took us away from the urban parts of Hong Kong Island and into the rather greener south. This is an area with a fair amount of, essentially, very expensive suburban development, but it also encompasses places like Aberdeen Harbour, our first stop. This is a working harbour and home to a fishing fleet, but it's also a tourist destination with a giant floating restaurant, and a location for scenes in James Bond movies and the like. Also, according to the guy on whose boat we took a brief tour of the harbour, one of the big yachts we saw moored there belongs to Jackie Chan, and the big house overlooking the harbour is also his, so I guess the place has multiple sightseeing options covered.

Then we were  back on the coach and along the coast, past Repulse Bay (evidently a serious plutocrat playground) to Stanley, which would pass as a pleasant small seaside resort in Britain, apart from the thing for which it seems to be most noted; Stanley Market, a mass of stalls selling a lot of the sort of stuff that people come to Hong Kong to buy (silks, souvenirs, and so forth). However, we weren't shopping much, so we found a local restaurant and grabbed an early lunch of dim sum.

And then we rolled back over the hills at the centre of the island, admiring some views on the way, to catch what was probably the most dramatic view of all - the one from Victoria Peak, above the city. (Okay, I also managed to find a green tea and date ice cream there. I could get used to that stuff.) Readers will note that we took a fair number of pictures. The other thing about the Peak - apart from its status as an up-market residential and recreational area - is that access to and from the centre of the city below can be by a specialised tram, and we rode that down, passing the upper floors of skyscrapers as we went, to meet our coach and return to our starting point.

Which basically gave us the afternoon and evening to explore the city for ourselves on foot. To start with, we found ourselves in Times Square. (Yes, that's what it's called. Hong Kong displays an unlimited willingness to nick ideas from other cities if they seem saleable.) We then wanted to make our way from there to the waterfront, so we looked at a map and set off in the right direction. And within yards, we were out of the realm of shiny skyscrapers and expensive shops, and in a bustling street of grocers and fishmongers, the latter of whose wares were so fresh that they were often still flapping around.

This brought home to us something that we'd already begun to register on the shuttle from the airport the night before; Hong Kong really doesn't seem to have "neighbourhoods" in the sense that those of us used to Western cities think of the word. We were staying in a moderately swish hotel, and had cause to pass even fancier places - and yet, within a few yards of the door, one could be passing shabby cafes and very ordinary residential blocks. We didn't encounter anything that felt threatening, but the shifts in urban atmosphere over a few paces could be startling. It seems that, when something is needed in Hong Kong, it gets put where there's a space, regardless of what else may be around - and presumably the land prices are just high everywhere.

Anyway, we found the waterfront, and most importantly, something that had rightly been recommended to us. A ride on the ferry between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, on the mainland, costs about 20p per person, and may be the best tourist trip for that money anywhere on Earth. Hong Kong sprawls along both sides of the straits that it uses as a harbour, and looks pretty good in late afternoon light. (Actually, I suspect that it looks good from that viewpoint in most lights.) And so it was that we came back to the mainland of Asia. Gawping a little, in my case, perhaps.

(Other observations when looking round Hong Kong harbour areas; well, a "typhoon shelter" turns out to be a bit less dramatic than the term makes it sound. Basically, it's a bit of harbour that's reasonably sheltered from bad weather.)

The area where the ferry docked had a few tourist sights of its own close to hand. To start with, there's a clock tower, which is actually all that's left of the old Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus of colonial times. Then there's the old Marine Police Headquarters, now a luxury hotel; this used to be perched on a small hill, but that's now been dug away to accommodate a shopping centre. Then, heading back to the waterfront, we took a stroll along the Avenue of Stars.

I mentioned that Hong Kong happily pinches ideas from other cities, didn't I? Well, it pinched this one from Hollywood, obviously. Yep, hand-prints of famous Hong King movie stars in cement, plus a couple of only-slightly-tacky statues.

Working back round from there, we hit Nathan Road, Kowloon's big shopping street (with jewellers selling some of the previously-mentioned gold), before getting up as far as Kowloon Park. That was a bit of an accidental discovery, to be honest, but worth the time, with not only a range of greenery but a sculpture walk and a pool which serves as the home for a range of bird species, including a flock of flamingos.

After which, we crossed a major road by a footbridge and had a brief look at the glittering skyscrapers of a modern waterfront development. (Okay, yes, another one.) By this time, dusk was falling, so with some difficulty, we found our way down to street level through a slightly maze-like covered shopping area, and wandered back down to the ferry terminal.

Another trip across the harbour later, we were looking for dinner on the evening streets of Hong Kong. The guidebook pointed us at the Luk Yu Tea House, a handsome establishment, all wood panelling and slightly old-fashioned style, where we had what was certainly a very decent Chinese meal... Perhaps not anything I'd have been surprised to get in the UK, though. Perhaps we should have ventured into some of the wilder parts of the menu (I just didn't feel up to trying frogs' legs), or perhaps we should have gone their in the afternoon (their dim sum are supposed to be excellent).

By then, though, we really needed to be getting to bed - we had an insanely early start the next day - so we added our last Hong Kong experience; a tram ride back to the vicinity of the hotel. Actually, we got off too early, and spent a few minutes noticing that no-specific-neighbourhood-atmosphere effect, but in due course we found the place and crashed out.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Views Over the Southern Seas

I've got a few more pictures up on Flickr from our big holiday last October, but the 27th was mostly a day of travel. Still, if you're going to be travelling between cities, there's something to be said for travelling between Sydney and Hong Kong.

So we woke up in central Sydney, made our way by shuttle bus to the airport ... and spent several hours in the air, with the occasional glance out of the cabin window to see, first the northern Outback, then the Indonesian archipelago sliding past below. I forget which films I watched on the back of the seat in front... Anyway, in due course we landed in Hong Kong and took a bus to our hotel. By that time, it was quite late, so we ate in the hotel's pretty good multi-ethnic buffet and crashed out.

Notes and reflections on Hong Kong will accompany the next day's photos. But there are a lot of those to sort out and polish up.