Sunday, January 22, 2012

Views Over Sydney

I've finished posting another day's pictures from last October's big antipodean holiday, specifically those from the 21st of October. Which was basically a day spent wandering around central Sydney. The morning was spent grabbing some breakfast in the Rocks area, taking a look around the vicinity of the hotel, then heading down to the main shopping area - largely for practical reasons, but we did get to discover things like the Strand Arcade and the General Post Office there.

Then, after lunch in an Italian place on Circular Quay, we worked our way back around to the Rocks, and eventually up the Bridge Stairs - which put us on rather than under Sydney Harbour Bridge for the first time. Which meant that we could walk over the bridge and get into north Sydney, with some superb views on the way.

(In case anyone wonders; we considered paying to climb to the very top of the bridge, but when we looked at the small print, it seemed to us like you spent money, a few hours, and some effort to get a marginally better view - but then, you weren't allowed to take a camera with you in case you dropped it on someone. So we passed on that. The views from the walkway were actually plenty.)

Having reached the north side of the harbour, we mostly just strolled around for a bit, but that strolling did take in Luna Park, the dramatically-sited 1930s amusement park that we'd been glimpsing every time we looked north across the harbour since we reached Sydney. We're not really amusement park people, but this one did score some points for authenticity of feel and lack of tackiness; instead of tired Disney characters (or even more dubious copyright-skirting images), this one actually looked like a colourful, well-maintained period amusement park surely ought to look. Okay, the clown-face gateway that acts as the park's landmark verges on the scary, but that's all part of the style, isn't it?

Then, as dusk approached, we headed back over the bridge (glancing over and down and up at various sights of Sydney on the way), and wrapped things up by finding our way up to Observatory Hill. It was too late by then to look round the old Observatory itself, but this gave us another set of variant views of Sydney as darkness fell.

And it even left us not too far from the hotel, so we could head back there for a short while before heading out for a good Thai dinner at a place nearby.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Expand, Contract (35)

As Sean Punch has already mentioned, I turned in the final draft of the new-edition Discworld RPG yesterday. Not that I expect that to be the last I'll see of it before publication; there will be stuff arising throughout the inevitably lengthy editing process, I'm sure. Plus, there will be the illustration to discuss, and maybe more pullquotes needed than I've supplied...

(I'm trying to ensure that all the pullquotes come from Terry's writings, by the way. With those available, quoting myself would seem vain, in many ways. I just have to persuade the layout people to contact me when they need one, so I can burrow into my bookshelves.)

But still, I can step aside for now, take a deep breath, tidy my office, and see about editing Wings of the Rising Sun.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Views Over and Under the Mountains

Most of our trip to Australia last October was quite consciously pre-planned. I'm not saying that we knew exactly what we were going to see before we got anywhere, but there were a lot of things that we knew in advance we did want to see, and we made sure we fitted them in.

The trip to Jenolan on the 20th of the month, though, was a bit of serendipity. When we were booking various segments of the holiday, we discovered that we could get another coach trip for not much extra, on something like a buy-one-get-one-free deal, and Jenolan caught our eyes in passing. Which just goes to show something, I suppose. Okay, these caves are one of New South Wales's major tourist attractions, it seems, but I don't think that they're really known in the UK. They should be.

The coach journey out to the Blue Mountains had some good stops and sights on the way, too. After a moderately early start, it took in a flying visit to the Blue Mountains Scenic World, at Katoomba. This is basically an old coal mine close to a town up in the Blue Mountains, which, as it's no longer working as a mine, has been converted to a kind of mini-theme park, with the old mining track down the side of the mountain converted into a ride that claims to be the world's steepest passenger railway. Or an angled elevator, if you prefer, really. Whatever. The views of the mountain scenery were great, including the "Three Sisters" (a striking triple rock formation with a couple of supposed aboriginal legends, probably fake, attached), and the tree-fern forest was wonderfully subtly alien.

Then it was back up the hill by cable-car, back on the coach, past the Hydro Majestic Hotel (which we'd seen a week or so before from the train), and down a narrow winding mountain-valley road to Jenolan. Which would just be a striking little Edwardian resort hidden in the mountains, until one discovers why the hotel was built there; the caves. And by "the caves", it turns out we mean "some of the oldest publicly-accessible caves on Earth, possibly as much as 400 million years old, with limestone formations that have clearly been developing all that time".

I've posted a fair number of the photos we took on the tour (which only covered a partial segment of the whole complex - there are several tours available), but it's really very difficult to do these things justice with a camera - it's all underground, with restrained but effective lighting (not many garish coloured lamps, I'm happy to say) reflecting off masses of damp textured limestone. It comes out weird with flash on and grainy and orange without, and it's very hard to convey the scale of the thing. Let's just say there's cave after cave of stalactites, stalagmites, sheet/curtain formations, and bizarre textures, plus some areas of jumbled broken rock for variety. The result is bizarre, almost Lovecraftian at times but strangely beautiful and fascinating.

Then, just after the coach had set out back towards Sydney, the driver announced that, if we didn't mind a brief diversion, there was a place where we'd have a good chance of seeing some wild kangaroos, if we were interested? Funnily enough, on a coach full of tourists in Australia, this didn't need much of a vote. (Cry from the young female British tourists at the back: "Yay for Skippy!") So we pulled over to the side of the road, and the driver took us for a short walk through the woodlands to a clearing with some chalets that are rented out to holidaymakers. And the kangaroos didn't let us down; there was a mob of what I gather were eastern grey kangaroos, sitting or standing around casually grazing and entirely happy to be photographed. (I assume that this group are very used to people; apparently, the species normally avoids humans.) They were even happy to live up to the full stereotype; there was a mother with a fair-sized joey in her pouch, its head sticking out cutely. So our Aussie-experience meter ticked over another notch.

Then, once we'd been back to our hotel, we went out for dinner, strolled past a sight or two, and ended up eating in a place on top of the Customs House by Circular Quay. Eating out on the balcony was a little cool that evening, but the view more than compensated, and the food was good.

 So, yes. Serendipity.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Fragments of 2011 (and earlier)

[[Oh dear. Oh dear. Time to clear out some old junk.]]

[[I've been quite busy over the last year or so, and highly prone to displacement activities. Which has meant, among other things, that I've left a whole bunch of draft posts never being completed or posted. Well, we now have a new year, so I'm resolving (despite the fact that I do not do New Year Resolutions) to clear house a bit. These posts are highly incomplete, and they're going to stay incomplete - I'm just going to post them all in one go, as fragments and sketches falling out of my brain over that year or so. I may or may not have tidied, revised, or edited parts of them. Take them or (perhaps better) leave them.]]

[[The first actually goes right back to October 2010, oh dear...]]

Recent Reading: I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's "Tiffany Aching" books, in the "younger readers" sub-category of Discworld stories, have always suffered from the danger of falling into a fixed pattern. While wandering around her home chalk downlands area and developing her skills, young witch Tiffany Aching encounters a supernatural threat ...

... But Pratchett is too canny a writer to fall too deeply into too rigid a pattern, and this fourth and latest book in the sub-series appears - probably - to show him quitting while he's ahead. Tiffany has aged as a character through the series, and now she's sixteen ...

[[By June 2011, I noticed that I wasn't getting everything I meant to do, done:]]

Catching Up: Late June (Going to Extremes)

I've fallen way behind on my blogging, to the point where the next few entries won't represent diary entries so much as notes made before I forget everything. [[Hah!]] My Flickr photostream is quite a bit more up to date; tinkering with photos seems to work much better as a displacement activity than jotting down text. Yes, I seem to have been keeping busy.

Anyway, the first un-diarised event in question was a trip westwards. I hadn't been to Cornwall since childhood holidays; it didn't feel as personally resonant as Charmouth and Lyme, but it still felt odd not to have seen the place for quite so long. So we booked a few days in Falmouth.

Okay, so we were in a boutique hotel within sight of a branch of the Rick Stein empire. That wasn't terribly reminiscent of childhood caravanning holidays, but it did permit a few very nice dinners. (The first being very, very good fish and chips. I get the idea about good fried fish melting in the mouth, but this is the first time I've had to use the same phrase for chips.) The hotel was good, too, apart from a shortage of parking, and also the seagulls in the morning, which showed the limitations of the place's sound insulation. ...

[[A little after that, I barely started another post:]]

Theatre: All's Well That End's Well
Shakespeare's Globe, 30/6/2011

On a very occasional theme of trips to the Globe Theatre for lesser Shakespearean drama (i.e. plays by him that we haven't seen often if at all before) ...

[[In July, we got back up to London.]]

Literary Sources and Resources

British devotees of SF sometimes like to think that this country has a special place in the history of the genre. Well, it's true that we did produce Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Mary Shelley, and H.G.Wells, so we have little to be ashamed of - but the "special" role of British SF is ultimately defined by a negative; we didn't create the pulp magazines (or their contemporary successors, the big-screen Hollywood FX action movies) that still define SF to so many people outside of fandom. Along with those founder-figures, though, we have also produced some extraordinary visionaries in more recent times. The British Library currently has a pair of exhibitions that illustrate all this, and on the 9th, we went along to both.

Why does the BL run such things? Oh, they have the resources - and we also took in their permanent exhibition rooms, which we'd missed out on before ...

[[The two exhibitions were a small one about Mervyn Peake and a large one about British SF in general, by the way. And they were interesting.]]

[[In October, I started blogging about our big antipodean trip. My Flickr photostream is covering that better, actually, albeit long after the event.]]

To the Far Side
October 7-???

... The trip began, on the Friday: taxi (to the coach stop)-coach (to Heathrow)-747 (to Singapore). That was with an afternoon start, so it was a night flight,  on which I finally got to see Green Lantern (some smart revisionism regarding goofy Silver Age comics conventions and metaphysics, fuzzy FX visuals in an attempt to get the Green Lantern power to look right, plot all over the shop thanks to Hollywood Oedipal obsession) and Paul (current British ubergeek auteur possibly slips over the edge into self-indulgence, certainly shows rather painful media-geek tin ear for the subtleties and niceties of written SF and its exponents). I also managed an hour or two's sleep before arriving in the future in mid-afternoon.

Well, I suspect that some people would like Singapore to be their vision of the future. It's a bit hot for me - but then, it does have plenty of air conditioning to compensate. The difference between indoors and outdoors is ... extreme. ...

... Tuesday was our one full day in Perth, so we tried to work out our personal highest priorities in the city. First stop was the Perth Mint, a former outpost of the Royal Mint set up to process gold from the gold fields. These days, it's been handed over to the Western Australian state government, it no longer handles gold coinage provision for much of the British Empire, and the refining and casting operations have moved out of town, but the city centre building still has some impressive-looking machinery and a few museum features - including the world's largest collection of gold bars. (Okay, just a couple of rooms' worth - but still.) It also has the facilities to cast a single gold bar, as demonstrated by one of the staff several times per day (using the same gold every time). Okay, so this is basically just a short fireworks display - but an expensive one.

Then we moved on to the city's museum district, to discover that the big Art Gallery no longer opens Tuesdays. Hey ho, the big Museum was open (some good info on the history of the region, Victorian stuffed animals, a pretty good collection of meteorites), and then came lunch in the Gallery cafe, then a short bus ride to big Botanical Garden ...

Wedenesday was packing, checking out, and heading out to the rail terminal to get on the Indian-Pacific rail service, departing eastwards just before noon. This is a pretty comfortable way to spend three days crossing Australia, albeit in a compact cabin ... but the food's pretty good. So we spent the afternoon making our way up the valley of the Avon River, and that night, the train stopped for a few hours in Kalgoorlie, so we took a one-hour coach trip in the dark. Much of this was about the driver being flippant about this mining town, but we did get to stop at the biggest hole in the ground in the world. Sadly, this open-cast mine wasn't very active this night, so all we got to see was a couple of distant (very distant) giant (very giant) trucks in patches of spotlight as they went about their gold-gathering business.

Then we hit our bunks to try and catch enough sleep before Thursday, when we were set to cross the Nullarbour plain. Okay, so I was a little disappointed on principle to see a few trees when I woke up, but we moved into a zone of arboreal nullity soon enough. ...

[[Then I got through to November before I started another post.]]

Vermeer's Women: Secrets and Silence
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

... We must have seen many of these pictures before - they're on loan from museums we've visited over the years - but ... Among other things, we must have Vermeer's Lacemaker in the Louvre, but seeing it in the flesh felt fresh - and showed (or reminded) us that it's actually rather small; the reproduction print we have on the wall at home is actually twice as big. (Banners outside blow these pictures up to huge size; actually mostly rather small.) The Fitzwilliam clearly know what the selling point of this exhibition is ... despite title, only a couple of Vermeers in the show, but plenty of other good stuff ...

[[And there, I leave things and make a fresh start. Hmm, I never even started posting about the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival open air Macbeth, which was good, but which featured one big curious inversion of effect. The evening we went, the first half got played in daylight, while the second half was played in darkness. But the first half is where you get most of the serious plot darkness, as the two lead characters plunge into evil; the second half is basically a political thriller in which light is restored.]]

[[Oh, and in the unlikely event that anyone's wondering; I can no longer be bothered to even say anything about Doctor Who.]]