Saturday, September 20, 2014

[Theatre] "Titus Andronicus"

During the summer I went to a performance in Shakespeare's Globe of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. That is the one with a pretty extreme level of violence that for a long time was considered more or less unperformable; as tastes have changed it has in recent year become a bit of a staple. The play follows the eponymous character, a Roman general, as he gets caught up in a vicious blood feud with the captured Queen of the Goths. This eventually features people being butchered and fed in pies to their parent and, most notoriously, the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, daughter of Titus.
Titus Andronicus was apparently Shakespeare's first big hit, and I can see why. It is loud and brash and never short of action. I can also see why it fell out of favour. Aside from its shocking violence, it seems to lack any obvious moral or intellectual point to it. People keep striking out at their enemies and in turn suffer terrible responses to past slights, with no great sense that there is any good person here. Nor is it offering us any obvious message about the evils of blood feuds. Titus himself occupies the central role that a heroic figure should occupy, but he is terribly tainted by the violence around him, violence that he too is happy enough to dish out for reasons that to us are somewhat bizarre (he kills one of his sons in a brawl and eventually murders his daughter to avoid being depressed by her crippled figure).

You can see, though, why this has become a popular play again. For all the high culture associations of Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus offers the violent thrill of a gangster drama or the brutal struggles of unsavoury yet compelling characters served up in something like Game of Thrones.

Music is a big thing in Globe productions, usually with some approximation to an Elizabethan ensemble playing in a box behind the actors. They went away from that for this, with the music being more based on drums and strange long pipes. And they were often played in the audience, combined with the banging of metal on the wheeled metal towers that they would occasionally push through the crowds, with actors on the back. Naturally I was standing, and having to continually jump out of the way of people who were playing the part of thugs a little too convincingly was all part of the fun. The dance at the end (all Globe plays end with a dance) seemed a bit wilder than usual, maybe deliberately designed to remind of one of those mediaeval dances of death.

All in all this was an engaging trip to the theatre, but I think Titus Andronicus could be filed under enjoyable trash rather than something that is actually good.

image source (Independent)

Friday, September 19, 2014

[Live] Matmos

Back in early summer I found myself in London. After meeting people in pubs for drinks and stuff, my friend Mad King Ken and I went off for some nosh and headed out to Cafe Oto to see Matmos.

Pro-tip - if you are going to Cafe Oto, go down early enough to get a seat or don't bother going. The flat floor and low ceiling makes watching from the back a disengaging experience. We enjoyed this occasion a lot less than the night we went to in January.

A support act was on when we came in, some geezer who was making connections on some huge analogue Bond villain computer from which noises approximating to music were emanating. It looked stunning, but the more of it I heard the more I suspected that it was all just noise with nothing of a truly musical character to it. I am sure there are people who like listening to unmusical noise, but I am not one of those people and I was happy when this fellow ceased his labours.

Matmos themselves we were seeing more or less completely on spec. We had enjoyed visiting Cafe Oto in January and "Ken" was interested by some of their music when he listened to it on YouTube. But in Cafe Oto, looking at them from the back of a crowded room, we wondered if they were really all that. The first tune seemed to be like some kind of art project thing, some recorded voice talking away about stuff (possibly gay stuff (not that I am against that kind of thing, in its own place, between consenting adults)) with some more unmusical noises associated with it. The next track was something a bit more dancey and I think maybe if I was i) not old and tired and ii) somewhere you could dance I might have enjoyed bopping to at least some of it. I can't remember the third track, but it must have been a real corker because after it I said to Ken "maybe we should split". And so we did.

But as we went on our way, we had to accept that we would probably have enjoyed all this a lot more if we had been sitting down, able to rest our weary bones while drinking a beer or two. Matmos themselves seemed like an interesting twosomes, one a bit of a New York Muscle type in his vest, the other demonstrating that making music is a serious business by dressing like someone who has important matters to attend to in the office. It might well be that their music would repay close attention, but stuck at the back of Cafe Oto we were not in a position to give it that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

[film] "The Double"

This is a film by everyone's favourite Richard Ayoade and is adapted from the 19th century novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The film is set in a strange retro-futurist version of the 1980s, but it is still easy to see its origins in the kind of novel that begins with a table of ranks of the imperial Russian civil service.

The film features Jesse Eisenberg as an office drone in a large company. His life is not one of success, either professionally or romantically. One day finds that a new employee has joined the organisation, one who looks exactly like him (and is also played by Jesse Eisenberg) except that the Double is suave, confident, popular and a go-getter. They are initially friends but soon become rivals, as the Double starts stealing his ideas at work and moving in on the attractive lady colleague (played by Mia Wasikowska) that the main character has been ineffectually dreaming about. As is the case of films and books about doubles, there is a certain ambiguity as to whether the Double is a real person or the product of the main character's fevered imagination. Either way, Eisenberg is great in both roles, especially when he is playing one of them impersonating the other.
Some have compared The Double to Brazil, and it is not easy to see why. Aside from retro-future settings (albeit different retro-future settings), both films have a distinctly paranoid and borderline dystopian air. The Double also has a claustrophobic feel, with no exterior shots (or no exterior daylight shots). But I think the film is still its own thing. It does not really have Brazil's conflict between humdrum reality and the romantic world of the imagination. Instead it follows more in the tradition of its source material through such 20th century writers like Kafka, presenting us with the surreal tale of a put upon man ground down by rules and the need to conform. I liked it, but maybe that is because in many ways it resonates with my life.

image source (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

[Live] Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson: "Hirta Songs"

This was an event organised as part of the Dublin Writers Festival, one of those things that always looks interesting but with which I never properly engage. It was the presentation of a song cycle about people who used to live on Hirta, an island in the St. Kilda archipelago. Alasdair Roberts is the Scottish folk singing sensation with whom I am increasingly fascinated. Robin Robertson is a poet who visited the island and who may have been the initial driver of the project. I think maybe that Mr Robertson must have written the words of the tunes with Mr Roberts then setting them to music, but they left their writing process opaque. At the event, Mr Robertson introduced each song and talked about the general subject and then left Mr Roberts to sing it, accompanied by his astonishing guitar playing; the only exception to this was when the poet read some of his own poems that had not been set to music.

St. Kilda is very remote. Apparently it takes several hours to get to it from the Outer Hebrides. The evening presented a portrait of the life lived by the St. Kildans from neolithic times to the 1930s. The people on Hirta lived not by fishing or farming but by predating on the gannets and other seabirds who nest on the other rocky islands of the archipelago. They would boat out to the bird island and then climb up the rock face to catch the birds in their nests. The first song tells the story of a man who lost his footing on the cliff, falling hundreds of feet into the water below. The St. Kildans never learned to swim, but the faller's death was delayed by all the dead seabirds stuffed into his belt, whose buoyancy gave him a temporary reprieve from drowning. His friends could do nothing but watch as he bobbed up and down in the water before eventually going under. What was striking about all this was that the song ran against the grim subject matter, with Roberts being characteristically jaunty in his singing and playing in the face of the awfulness. This would not surprise anyone familiar with his work.

Other tunes evoked different aspects of life on the islands. Something of a tension is created between the pagan ways of the islanders and the god botherers of the Presbyterian Church (or the Kirk, as it is known in Scots English). The Kirk did its best to stamp out pagan practices and enforce conformity to reformed Christianity. This conflict is explored in the song 'The Drum Time', about the Kirk's successful extirpation of the islanders' traditional musical practices. That is one of the few tunes on which Roberts' jauntiness cracks and the music mirrors the sadness of the lyrics.

Roberts' music also goes a bit sadface on 'Exodus', about Hirta's final evacuation in the early 1930s. By then the population of the islands had fallen below a viable level. Increasing awareness of what the world had to offer made the islanders less inclined to remain on a rainswept rock in the middle of the Atlantic, and they petitioned to be taken away to the mainland (which in this context might still have meant an island in the Outer Hebrides). 'Exodus' gives a sense of how terribly wrenching it must be to forever leave somewhere that has been the home to your forebears since the dawn of time. For me the sadness of the parting was conveyed by the grim detail that the islanders had to drown their dogs before departing, as they could not take the animals with them (for reasons that were not explained).

I have said more about Mr Roberts than Mr Robertson here, which is not too surprising as it was the singer's past musical form that attracted us to this event. I am also not known for my love of poetry. However, Mr Robertson deserves his own praise for the lyrics he has written to this. There were also a couple of poems he recited himself that were very effective; the unaccompanied spoken voice suits the bleak subject of life on Hirta. 'The Well of Youth', an account of a haunting, was particularly striking.

We bought the record after the concert and it is as beautiful listen, with the tunes featuring a slightly expanded line-up. But beautiful as it all is, I am glad that I am not living on Hirta.

map (St. Kilda, National Trust for Scotland)

Hirta Songs record cover (Stone Tape Recordings)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

[Live music] The Sisters of Mercy

This is a concert I went to back in July.

You know these people. They are a famous goth band from the past whose heyday was the 1980s. They have not released any records since the early 1990s. I refer to them with plural pronouns, yet the passage of time has seen the Sisters of Mercy become just the one person, Andrew Eldritch. He recruits various session musicians and the like whenever he decides to go on the road. Mr Eldritch does not tour very often which makes me think he must be independently wealthy or something. Or maybe he has a job in the City and just tours as the Sisters as a hobby.

The last time I saw the Sisters, they were playing in the Olympia. I was up in the Gods, which made for an alienating experience. The sound was not great either (not a surprise for Olympia concerts). Together these made for a less than satisfactory night out. This time they were playing in Vicar Street, a venue famous for its excellent sound and for its open floor plan that allows anyone determined enough to get up to the front. So I decided to give them another go.

I met my gothic friend Angela in the Lord Edward for a pre-concert drink. It was not busy. There were folk-trad musicians playing there in an unobtrusive manner. It was nice.

As expected, the crowd in Vicar Street was a load of people in their 40s with who don't get out much. There were some younger sexy goth ladies, or maybe it is a wonder what extreme make-up can accomplish. But mostly it was old people like myself.
Mr Eldtritch is himself getting on a bit. He has now lost his hair and seems to have compensated by growing a little goatee beard. He was entertaining to watch. Belying his austere reputation he eschewed static poses and did a lot of posing around and jokey working of the crowd. In some ways this led to cognitive dissonance (I would have expected him to have remained stock still, surrounded by dry ice), but it was amusing.

The sound however was disappointing, with most of the songs sounding very thin and like the palest shadows of their recorded versions. Given how reliant the band are on programmed bits and bobs this did seem a bit poor, suggesting a certain laziness on their part. There were some odd choices about the band's line-up too. With Eldritch were a couple of session guitarists, at least one of whom was a bit of a pretty boy. They had no bassist; classic Sisters tunes are very bass-heavy, so this must have played a large part in making everything sound a bit thin.

The crowd was surprisingly stinky. The hot weather must have caught people unawares and they had not adjusted their bathing habits accordingly. As the event went on, many became over excited and tried to relive their youth by aggressive moshing. It seemed a bit too much to me and it was noticeable how almost uniformly male the moshing zone was. As is the way of these things, I don't think the intention was to push women from the front but it had that effect to at least some extent.

Overall I was underwhelmed by the experience. The weak sound and lack of bass made many of the songs almost unrecognisable, or recognisable only as thin and ineffectual versions of their true selves. This did not come across as a band trying to reinvent their old tunes, more as a band making a pig's ear of them. Having now definitively filed the Sisters of Mercy under bands who have duff live sound, I cannot see myself going to see them again in the future. It also put me off seeing the reformed Jesus & Mary Chain, who played here recently.

The Sisters of Mercy in the Olympia

Eldritch Panda (Giant Panda Zoo)

Monday, September 15, 2014

G is for… Gary Glitter

In the pages of Frank's APA we are running through the letters of the alphabet. I am somewhat behind.

Dompadompadompadompadompa

Gary Glitter was already a bit past his prime when I first became aware of him. I think he may have had a hit single called something like 'Bring On The Dancing Girls' or 'Dance Me Up' or something, but he was a figure from the past. From the perspective of my youth, anyone whose prime hits were from a couple of years previously was a figure from another age. He was a pop star growing old, and his public image seemed to play on this. There was an advertisement for British Rail in which he was desperately smearing some kind of anti-wrinkle cream on himself in an attempt to be eligible for a young person's rail card.

Dompadompadompadompadompa

It was only really in the later 1980s that I began to look back on the hits of his heyday - tracks like 'I'm the Leader of the Gang' (in which he helpfully offers to put the bang back into gang), 'Do You Wanna Touch Me?', and both versions of 'Rock and Roll'. The gateway for my re-exploration might well have been The Timelords, with their Glitter-sampling 'Doctorin' the Tardis' and their having Glitter join them on Top of the Pops for 'Gary in the Tardis'.

The classic floor-fillers from Mr Glitter are hypnotic stompers, driven by his band's two drummers and boasting a line-up more brass-heavy than is normal in rock music. Listened to as music, without thoughts of Mr Glitter's later troubles with the law or rockist conceptions of this music being kitsch or lacking in credibility, it is impossible not to be swept along by their insistent rhythms.

Dompadompadompadompadompa

Of course, when you start talking about the musical greatness of Gary Glitter, you get into questions about what it means to like a pop star like him. I was going to say that he did not write his songs, though I see now that actually he co-wrote them with producer and manager Mike Leander. Even so, the appeal of these tracks is not the songwriting or Glitter's vocals. It is the production and the unstoppable rhythm of the two drummers. And yet, if you listen to songs recorded without him by the Glitter Band (in particular if you watch performances on YouTube or the like), it is clear that they are lacking a certain something. The swagger and flamboyance of the Leader makes the songs he fronts something more than just the sum of their parts.

Dompadompadompadompadompa

As time passed, Gary Glitter stopped troubling the charts but remained something of a live draw, with his Christmas tours being events that would always draw in the crowds. The songs still attracted airplay, with 'Rock and Roll Part 2' acquiring a strange afterlife as the soundtrack to sporting events in the USA, a land in which Glitter's music had never shifted many units.

But then came Glitter's arrest, trial and imprisonment. It turned out that he had been an avid collector of child pornography. Overnight a well-loved entertainer was transformed into that great folk devil of our time, the nonce. On release from prison he left the UK for Vietnam but was convicted there of sexual offences with a number of underage women and eventually deported back to the UK, where he now faces further investigations arising out of historic accusations arising from the Jimmy Savile case.

Glitter is now one of the most hated men in Britain, far more so than many other ageing rockers who ignored age of consent laws back in the day. One hears apocryphal stories of people having their faces punched in if they sing a Gary Glitter song in karaoke bars. I have always been keen to separate artistic endeavours from the person undertaking those endeavours, but I am aware that for many saying that you like the music of Gary Glitter is an act of unacceptable transgression.

Dompadompadompadompadompa

He may not have much of a musical legacy. Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow were probably copying the Glitter Band's twin drum attack, for all they were cool pop entryists of the post-punk era. Lawrence from Denim recruited at least some of the Glitter Band to play on his awesome Back in Denim album, with the twin drummers being most noticeable on the iconoclastic single 'Middle of the Road'. I think any band with two drummers owes an unacknowledged debt to Glitter, with memories of 'Rock and Roll' or 'Do You Wanna Touch Me' leading to musicians' thinking: "Why don't we have two drummers?"

It is not a direct influence, but Glitter also indirectly gave us the great Luke Haines song 'Bad Reputation'. In that Haines imagines an embittered and somewhat delusional Glitter railing against the bitter fate that has brought him down, blind to any thought of his own role in his downfall, while his former bandmates curse the fact that his sins have taken down their livelihoods with his.

Since I wrote the above, Mr Glitter has been charged with a number of sexual offences against teenage girls in the late 1970s.


image source (Imgur)

See also:

The Timelords 'Doctorin' the TARDIS' (YouTube)

Gary Glitter 'I'm the Leader' (YouTube)

Denim 'Middle of the Road' (Spotify)

Luke Haines 'Bad Reputation' (Spotify)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

[Film] "Frank"

Hello Inuit Panda readers. I have largely been neglecting you lately. I have been in the throes of an interminable house move, while my Important Project (a real time blog of the First World War) has been eating my time. Now I am playing catchup, posting some things I wrote ages ago for print media. Apologies for holding them back for so long, I know I have let everyone down and promise to try better in future.

This film has long been and gone from the cinemas in Dublin but it is now about to come out on DVD. It might also be hanging on in the US multiplexes. Its makers are a great pains to point out that, although it features a man with a papier-mâché head whose name is Frank, it is not in any way a biopic of popular entertainer Frank Sidebottom. Rather it is centred on a character with a papier-mâché head as a way of looking at outsider artists and creative people with issues.

The film starts off with the story of a guy called Jon (played by Domhnall Gleeson and clearly modelled on scriptwriter Jon Ronson) who finds himself caught up in an unlikely sequence of events that lead to him joining an indie band called Sonorfbs, whose frontman is the papier-mâché headed gentleman called Frank (played by Fassbender). Much of the film then follows the band as they try to record an album in the middle of nowhere in Ireland. The band are all oddballs and most of them actively dislike the more normal Jon. However he finds Frank to be a more open figure. To Jon, Frank is a visionary and some kind of genius. Jon becomes convinced that the world needs to know Frank and tries to push the band in a direction that will bring them greater success, ultimately with disastrous consequences.

This is an Irish made film, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the famous director of Adam & Paul. Most of it was filmed in Ireland, which is amusing when you have a very recognisable Bray standing in for the generic English seaside town in which the film begins.

All the music in the film is by Stephen Rennicks, visual artist and musician. That includes both the incidental music but also all the music played by the characters in the film, which is in a range of styles and sometimes quite affecting. I particularly liked the song sung by the band's manager when he says to Jon "Yeah, I used to write songs too", before singing a song of delicate and affecting beauty (of which he then says, "as you can see, complete shit, that's why I gave up songwriting"). The song from the trailer introduced as Frank's most catchy and accessible tune ever is also a work of genius.

The scenes where Sonorfbs play their music in the film are very convincing, with the actors having played their instruments themselves in these scenes. Several of them are actors who double up as musicians, while the drummer is a musician dabbling effectively in the world of acting.

The film deals with a number of themes, one of which is the relationship between mental illness and creativity. Jon is convinced that it was Frank's psychiatric problems that make him creative, imagining that his spell in a psychiatric hospital (where he met some other members of the band) must have been a formative experience in spurring the development of his aesthetic imagination. Ultimately, though, the film suggests that the line of causality may be reversed and that (shocker) mental illness could actually be a block on creativity.

We also get a sense that it is not merely fame that corrupts but the very desire for fame. Jon effectively destroys Sonorfbs by trying to bring Frank to a wider audience. And in compromising their artistic integrity he destroys what makes them appeal in the first place. What the film does not do though is look at whether there is a middle ground, whether it is possible to remain true to your own muse but still bring your work to more people than just your own friends and family.

So I would recommend this film. There is a certain sadness to it, but it is both funny and affecting.


At some future date I will talk about Jon Ronson's short book Frank, which is actually about his time in Frank Sidebottom's band.

image source

Monday, September 01, 2014

Loncon3 - I Was There

Being an account of my visit to the World Science Fiction Convention in London in which I describe various things I saw there and furthermore mention the controversies that surrounded the Hugo Awards of this year.
Police Box
This year the World Science Fiction Convention was held in London. As this was the third time this has happened, the event was known as Loncon 3. I was there. This was only the second science fiction convention I have ever been to. The last one was 20 years ago and had attendees in the hundreds while there was apparently something like 10,000 registered attendees of Loncon. Two things drew me to this event: my interest in science fiction and my curiosity as to what a big convention of this kind would be like.

The programme included screenings of films and SF TV episodes, performance of theatrical events, awards ceremonies, readings, book signings, talks and panel discussions. For me the talks and panel discussions were the heart of the convention, though the beauty of a large event like this is that attendees can make their own choices as to what they get up to… there probably were some attendees who spent the entire thing boozing in the Fan Village (which actually seems like a great idea, why did I not do this?).

The talks and panel discussions appealed to me because they presented at least the possibility of hearing interesting people putting across interesting ideas, almost like attending an academic conference (and many of the speakers were academics). Some of the discussions I went to were more interesting than others, such is life. Presentations by academics often turned out to be the best, simply because the format of letting the academic deliver a short paper allowed for a more structured exposition of ideas. With the talks generally it was often what they did not deal with that was most fascinating. I will do a separate post where I list all the talks I went to and make comments on them. The one big disappointment for me with the talks was the apparent cancellation of all the music related talks in the programme that I tried to go to.

The convention featured a surprising amount of theatre. I went to two things, an adaptation by Ruth Pe Palileo of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers and The Cancellation and Re-imagining of Captain Tartan by David Wake. The Anubis Gates was performed by professional actors with high production values, while Captain Tartan seemed a bit rougher round the ages. The Anubis Gates was more like something you could imagine people paying real money to see in a proper theatre (if theatre-goers were inclined to see plays about time-travellers and body-swapping magicians). Captain Tartan was more fannish, in that it was about both science fiction and fandom rather than just having a science fiction or fantasy theme. I enjoyed them both, in different ways, and was sorry that I did not catch more of the convention's theatrical offerings.

There was a fair amount of film and TV stuff being shown at the con, which I largely avoided on the basis that I can see that kind of stuff anywhere. One thing I did go to was the 1950s BBC production of 1984, with Peter Cushing as Winston Smith. This was a great piece of work, capturing well the grotty war-damaged London of the book and the sense of everything being completely rubbish even aside from the in-your-face totalitarianism of Ingsoc. This production seemed to have every role played by the best possible actor for the part. The programme was made by the same team that produced the BBC Quatermass programmes and it made me very interested in tracking down the DVD compilation of those.

The other thing I saw was the first two episodes of The Changes, a cosy catastrophe story for older children based on the books by Peter Dickinson. In it people inexplicably turn violently against machines and technology, smashing up anything that seems even slightly modern. When I was small I was so frightened by the first episode that I had to stop watching half way through and made sure I would never see any of it again. Seeing the episodes now was like an exorcism for me. I could see why they would terrify the sensitive child I had once been but they no longer hold any fears for me. Definitely not.
Cosplayers
One thing non-SF fans associate with conventions is people dressing up in funny costumes. There was a bit of that at Loncon. I did not go to the Masquerade, a competition for cosplayers (as people who dress up in funny costumes are known), mainly because it threatened to go on for a lot longer than my interest in cosplay would last. But I did enjoy seeing people wandering around in costume. My favourites were probably Thor, Loki (played daringly by a woman, well I never etc.), the two Jawas (who had the actions and voices as well as the looks), or the woman who dressed as a Dalek and posed fetchingly beside the TARDIS (there was a TARDIS).
Dalek lady
A strand of the convention I should really have engaged with more were readings by authors. I stayed away from these partly because I do not know that many contemporary writers. I went to just one reading, randomly taking in a writer called Tobias Buckell who read an excerpt from a work in progress he billed as kind of a science fictional retelling of Treasure Island (one of those books I have never got round to reading). I found this work quite intriguing. I did wonder though whether someone like myself would be better off just reading Treasure Island, while someone who had read Treasure Island would not really see the point of reading a new version of the story. Mr Buckell did seem to be doing more with the transition than adding the word "space" before "ship" wherever it appeared or turning cutlasses into "laser cutlasses" and so on. I did like the wreck-tech aspect of the excerpt and will be curious to see how he progresses with it.
Passing for Retro
Loncon also featured awards ceremonies for the Hugos and Retro Hugos. I did not vote in either competition and have not yet read the items sent to me in my voter pack (though I did try to nominate things in each, notably Upstream Color, which failed to secure enough votes to be nominated for best dramatic work in the Hugos #fraudatthepolls). The Retro Hugos were for works written in 1938. This event was on the first night of the convention and was hosted by Mary Robinette Kowal and Rob Shearman. The event was done as though it was actually taking place in 1939, complete with a live swing band with which Ms Kowal sang a big number (a song called 'Retro Hugos', to the tune of 'Anything Goes', my only exposure to Filk at the entire convention). Orson Welles' War of the Worlds had been nominated for an award and they turned the awards ceremony partly into a pastiche of that radio play, with cuts off to worried correspondents reporting on a Martian invasion (that ended with the Martians dying and their war machines being mistaken for the disused cranes lurking outside the conference centre).
Oolaa
Fewer people voted in the Retro Hugos than in the real Hugos, probably because people who like SF look forward rather than backward. But the Retro Hugos were probably of more interest to me, because I had at least heard of things that were nominated for it. I was pleased to see Welles' War of the Worlds win; having listened to it for the first time recently I can confirm that it is a stunning piece of work. It was also nice to see T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone collect an award; maybe it is time I went back and re-read that much-loved book of my childhood.

The real Hugos this year were marked by Controversy. The first controversy I became aware of was that over who was going to present the awards. Earlier this year it was announced that Jonathan Ross was going to be the master of ceremonies. But then the Unpleasantness ensued, with many people getting very angry about Mr Ross being chosen, mainly out of a fear that he would leer at female award winners or make unkind comments about their appearance. As you know, the controversy forced Mr Ross to step down as the Hugos' host. In retrospect, my feeling is that the anti-Ross people over-reacted terribly and may even have made fools of themselves, though I do have some sympathy for their concerns. But the whole business is over now, as is customary with the past.

The Unpleasantness meant that at a late stage the Hugos were without hosts. It may also have made it very difficult to attract new hosts, as any prospective candidate would have feared an eruption of Twitter outrage once their selection was announced (I gather this forced Robin Thicke and Roy "Chubby" Brown to decline invitations). But in the end the event was hosted by Geoff Ryman and Justina Robson, who were so good at it that I feel bad even mentioning the Unpleasantness again here.
The Bone Chair from "Use of Weapons"
The other Hugos controversy was something I only started hearing about at Loncon itself. Apparently some grumpy people had become angry that SF fandom has been taken over by pinko feminist leftists and they decided to try and get some writers of true blue fiction onto the ballot. An organised campaign grew legs and writing by some rightwing authors was nominated in several categories. As I heard this I assumed that by rightwing, what was meant was Ayn Rand inspired libertarian bollocks, but I started hearing that in some cases we were talking about borderline far right stuff; apparently one of the nominees has been known to refer to black women as "subhuman" (though I did not hear him say this myself).

The main organiser of this rightwing slate for some reason started referring to his gang as the Sad Puppies, which must have been very upsetting to the world's many leftist puppies. My only knowledge of all this is what I heard at the convention, but the Sad Puppy people seem to have made odd choices as what they wanted to push onto the ballot. As well as fairly respectable militaristic SF (one of those genres largely beloved of neanderthals, I fear, but such neanderthals are not necessarily racists or far right gobshites), the Sad Puppy people did rather dirty their bib by arranging for the nomination of the (alleged) racist bloke. They also seem to have had to scrape the bottom of the SF barrel to find material to nominate, as in one category they had to put forward a piece of war game tie-in fiction, whose author was probably bemused at finding himself up for a Hugo.

As someone who loves chaos I was secretly hoping that the far-right guy would win an award. I imagined him sweeping up to the podium while the Imperial March played, flanked by supporters in SS uniforms, there to receive his prize and present a speech in which he thanked all born men of Aryan stock for rallying to the cause of science fictional racial hygiene. But the liberal elite who run SF fandom ensured that this did not happen and the rightwingers were drubbed out of it in all their categories. This must have made the Sad Puppies especially sad. As previously mentioned, I am very behind the curve with contemporary SF, so I knew next to none of the winning authors. I was pleased to see that Retro Hugos host Mary Robinette Kowal won in the best novelette category, but mainly because her hosting those awards had made her familiar to me.

The one bit of actual controversy at the awards ceremony was provided by Kameron Hurley, who won two awards for fan writing. I gathered from things said at the convention that she had written a piece called "We have always fought", in which llamas become a metaphor for something to do with women and gender (I have not yet read this piece myself). Ms Hurley was not present to accept her awards, but she wrote acceptance speeches delivered on her behalf by others. These speeches seemed rather combative and almost to be insulting of the Hugo Awards ceremony attendees, who were after all the people who had voted to give her the awards. I thought this a bit churlish. It contrasted with the speech given by John Chu when accepting an award for best short story; he came across as another outsider figure but one pleased at having overcome obstacles to break through rather than using the occasion to berate his audience.
"We have hanky but no panky"
I should also mention the Chingford Morris Men (some of whom were women). I am guessing they were here to show foreign visitors a bit of traditional English culture. I love morris dancing and was very pleased to see them.
TARDIS and Robot
One final thing to mention was the other attendees. They ranged in ages from people who looked quite young to ones who have probably been going to these conventions for many many years. There were far less blokes wandering around with rucksacks than I expected. Like most things I go to, the attendees were pretty white looking. The gender balance was less skewed than might have been expected. The most amazing attendee for me was this guy who was physically at a robotics conference in the USA but was using a remote controlled robot to attend the conference.

So that really is that. I found the whole event very enjoyable and stimulating of further interest in the great literature of ideas that is science fiction. I also found myself thinking that I should really start engaging with fandom and going to conventions and stuff like that. Maybe one day I will even travel to another Worldcon happening far away in the USA or somewhere. I also note with interest that there is a bid in for Dublin to host Worldcon in 2019, which would be held in the Convention Centre. If the Dublin bid wins then this will be an event of great excitement.
Convention Centre

More of my Loncon pictures

More Loncon pictures, mostly not by me

Puppies (University of St. Andrews)

Worldcon 2015 (Sasquan. In Spokane)

Dublin 2019 Worldcon bid

Loads of other Loncon reviews

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Live blogging the First World War

I had the great idea of doing a few blog posts on the anniversary of events in the First World War. Then I decided to turn this into a dedicated blog. This grew legs and now I am looking at having a blog with lots and lots of posts on the anniversary of things happening a hundred years ago.

You can see this here: World War 1 Live

You can follow it on Twitter here: @ww1liveblog

At the moment it is covering the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the beginnings of the initially imperceptible slide into war.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

13 The Armistice

I continue my quick journey through some key events of the First World War.

By October 1918 things were looking pretty rough for the Germans. The Allies had launched a series of offensives in France that were driving the German forces ever closer to the border. The German forces were increasingly close to breaking point, though some units were still capable of dogged resistance. Elsewhere, Germany's allies were beginning to collapse. Turkish forces in the Middle East had been shattered in a series of battles that left British forces advancing towards Anatolia. Allied advances against Austria-Hungary were hastening the end of that ancient empire, which opened up the prospect of Germany being invaded from the south.

When the German fleet was ordered to sea to stage a suicidal attack on the superior British, the sailors mutinied. This triggered an outbreak of strikes and insurrection throughout Germany that overthrew the monarchy and brought a civilian regime to power. Civilian politicians went to sign a ceasefire deal with the allies, though it was the General von Hindenburg who ultimately ordered them to sign, which they did at 5.00 am the 11th of November. Fighting was to end at 11.00 am that day. By this point Germany's allies had all thrown in the towel.

The armistice was notionally just a ceasefire rather than a permanent end to the war, but its terms left the German armed forces in an impossibly weakened position. Germany was to hand over aircraft, submarines and artillery pieces to the allies and the German fleet was to be interred at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. German soldiers withdrew from France and Belgium; the Allies occupied the west bank or the Rhine and bridgeheads across that mighty river. The allies were now in a position to dictate peace terms to Germany, which they did at Versailles in 1919.

image source

This is the end of my blitz through some key events of the First World War. If you fancy a more drawn out approach to the Great War, why not check out my live blog of the war's events. You can see it here.