Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Invasion of the Squirrels

Mrs Oonagh Nutt, from Moira in Co. Down, has had her house invaded by squirrels. Far from being cute little fellows with cuddly tails, these squirrels are monsters. "Up close they are quite frightening", reports Mrs Nutt. "They look like puppy dogs with big hands, they growl and bark at you, they're vicious things. They'll go for you".

A member of the League of Red Squirrels has pointed out that Mrs Nutt's home has been invaded by sinister grey squirrels. "You'd want to watch your nuts with those b----s around", commented the red squirrel, speaking on conditions of anonymity.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Live: School of Seven Bells

I went to this on another's recommendation. School of Seven Bells proved to be somewhat enjoyable but not ultimately that great. As a band, they seem to be part of that shoegazing revival you hear about (and not the Krautrock revivals they were linked to in pre-publicity), but I felt that they were not really bringing that much to the table, straying worryingly close to Curve-tribute-band territory. Do not get me wrong, I love me Curve, and I love me shoegazing, but I am not really down with a total lack of innovation.

Looking up at what I have written and thinking back to the show, I am maybe being a bit hard on the School of Seven Bells (a band composed of two twin sisters, apparently from Argentina, and some bloke, all of them uncommonly small). The concert was in and of itself enjoyable enough, but the lack of that spark of originality stopped it crossing over into actual greatness. It was nevertheless interesting to watch how the band made music. Everything seemed a bit pre-programmed, with the guitarists strumming the same chord over and over to add a bit of texture).

You might wonder, then, why I bothered buying the band's album Alpinism. Well, they were selling it at a most agreeable price, and I thought maybe if I listened to them on record I would maybe get the point of them more. I cannot say that I have. On a first listen I was a bit wary off enjoying it too much in case my beloved gave me a pimp slap. It seemed a bit better when I listened to some of it in her absence, but still only in an a somewhat-average-electronica kind of way. I may try it on headphones in the future and see what comes of it then.

One thought that occurred to me later was that while they sound a bit like Curve, they also sound a lot like that well-known shoe-gazing outfit t.A.T.u.. Or at least I thought some of their stuff sounds like the production on the t.A.T.u. version of How Soon Is Now?.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Film: "The Good, The Bad, & The Weird"

This is a Korean-made film largely set in Manchuria during the 1930s, a period when that territory was under Japanese occupation. The film follows three rival Korean gunslingers (broadly modelled on the characters played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef*, and Eli Wallach in the famous Sergio Leone film) as they fight against each other and various other actors (including nomadic warriors, urban gangs, sinister criminals, and the Japanese army) to locate a map that holds the key to the location of unspecified riches. It features a number of incredible set pieces, of which the multi-factioned shoot out on a train at the start sets the scene. The Mad Max style chase that comes just before the three-way shoot out is also rather impressive. So I recommend this highly, if you like fun.

*Though in this film, it is like they got a Korean analogue of Prince in to play that role.

Live: Front 242

I almost expected old Frank's APA pal Nick Drage to show up at this, as it was the kind of event that featured a lot of people in shaved heads and black combat gear. Other members of the audience seemed a bit metally. I was there despite little or no familiarity with the music of Front 242, but I recognised them as a legendary name and hoped they would prove something like as interesting as the Slovenian industrial sensations Laibach.

It is interesting, I suppose to play compare and contrast with Laibach and Front 242. They are both from the continent*, both play industrial music, and both go for it with extreme visual appearances. Front 242 do rather look like the paramilitary wing of some dodgo movement, with their shaven hair, black garb, and dark sunglasses, the similarity of their appearances making them look like they are wearing uniforms. Musically, though, Front 242 are much more dance-oriented than Laibach. For all the supposedly scary industrialism of the Front, I reckon their music would go down great if played to people who were off their nuts on disco biscuits, something you would not really get with Laibach in toto. Visually, Front 242 seem a bit more camp than Laibach, though I am maybe just saying this because none of them are as scary as the Laibach guy who wears the tea-towel on his head.

So yes, this was a great gig for bopping around to, with the two Front 242 front guys doing their own amusing dances on stage to keep us all going. Some people, it is true, are not wholly down with the dance aspect of the band, with some punters going in for a bit of auto-pilot moshing. Trust me, though, this is dance music, even if it is a somewhat aggressive variant thereof. And dance we did. Fun was had, with the visuals, music, and onstage look coming very well together.

I bought a CD after the show, but have not had a chance to play it yet. Oh dear, I have just registered that it is not a compilation but a live album. I hope this does not mean that all the tracks will sound like shite and be drowned by crowd noise. Wor bird also got me a Front 242 t-shirt. It is in black, natch, and features an attractive picture of a scary Hind helicopter gunship coming towards the viewer.

*In that Little Englander way, I am implying that Slovenia and Belgium are essentially the same place.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Film: "Frost / Nixon"

Frost / Nixon is about some interviews David Frost did with Richard Nixon after the latter had left office. It presents the interviews as though this was some kind of key event in American history. I strongly suspect they were nothing of the kind, but this does not stop the film being rather entertaining. The interviews are, in fact, something of a Clash of the Shitans, with both Nixon and Frost portrayed as rather shady characters. Frost, as played by Michael Sheen (who plays all English people from the recent past), seems particularly slimy, to such an extent that Frank Langella's Nixon begins to positively demand our sympathies – when Frost gets aggressive in his questioning, you feel like shouting "Leave that nice old man alone, you English sleazebag!"

This is a surprisingly funny film. The characters are something of a parade of grotesques, with Nixon & Frost themselves standing at the top of a pyramid of roffles. Frost is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, and there are many chortles to be had from his vain preening and demonstrable lack of intellectual substance. The early interview sessions are particularly chortlesome; Nixon runs rings around Frost, telling drawn-out and inconsequential anecdotes to avoid dealing with more troubling issues. The film also gets much humour from Nixon's barely hidden venality.

That said, this film has its funny moments but is not a comedy. There is a darkness to it, with Nixon being played like a Shakespearean anti-hero, a man with qualities of greatness brought down by his own terrible vices. I think this is what makes him so relatively sympathetic in this film – he seems cut from a different cloth to Frost and the lesser characters, a god-like figure (with god-like faults) in a world of mortals. Frost, meanwhile, is portrayed as a more subtle character than he initially appears. He does come across at first almost like an Alan Partridge analogue, vain and needy. Later on, though, he seems more driven, as he has to hustle for financing and struggle to prevent Nixon dominating the interviews. You start to see him as a man who will do anything to succeed, a man you would not like to cross.

Like Milk, Frost/Nixon is great on period detail and does rather make me think that it would be great to travel back in time to the 1970s. I also find myself wondering whether anyone is thinking of doing a slash film knock-off.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dead Cthulhu ootab unenäod Rlyeh kodus.

You know that bunch of God Hates Fags nutters in America? They were paying a visit to Chicago, and servants of the world's real ruler turned out to protest against them.

Chinese whispers

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Comics Roundup 23/3/2009

Air #7, by G. Willow Wilson & M.K. Perker

This one bills itself as a perfect jumping on point for new readers, and lines up a load of Vertigo (and other) creators to affirm this as one of the best comics they have seen in their puff. For me, though, it has proved a perfect jumping off point, as reading this issue has confirmed my suspicion that this title is nicely drawn but is going nowhere. I reckon this title had promise initially when it was about the weirdness of long haul air travel, but it seems to have rapidly lost any kind of narrative coherence.

Air was the only comic I bought this week. Nightmare. Is there good stuff out there I am missing, or has the supply of quality monthly comics dried up? One thing I am excited by is the sudden appearance of American Flagg collections. This early 80s title was Howard Chaykin's big comic, and I am curious as to whether it is any good or not. Skimming it in the shop reveals a lot of women in their underwear, which is basically what you expect from Mr Chaykin, but the rest of the art also looks rather impressive. I may yet give this a go. I think back in the day it was seen as one of the big serious comics of the early 1980s. Interestingly, unlike Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns (both of which I think it precedes*), American Flagg is not a superhero title. I have read that back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the supers did not have the stranglehold on mainstream comics they have now, with many people thinking that the long-underwear brigade was on the way out. I have started wondering if, perversely, the critiques of the form by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns actually breathed new life into superhero comics, by making them all edgy and kewl. What do you think?

image source

*or does it?

White One

Hey look, it's me in Berlin, four years ago.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Boring Weekend

I finished the weekend gone by with a dreadful sense of having pissed it away. In an effort to make my life seem more exciting to myself, I will now list the things I did when I was not staring into space or looking at shite on the internet.

On Saturday afternoon, I went to see a 1950s film called Gun Crazy in the IFI. It is a B-Movie about this guy who is obsessed with guns yet unable to hurt a fly. Sadly for him, he falls in with a bad girl who is also crazy about guns but perfectly able and willing to kill anyone who gets in her way. They embark on a life of crime. You can guess how it ends. The film has a very noir feel to it – great use of shadows and general noir shady-lady action, even if the plot is not really noir as such. For all that the story was maybe a bit slight, it was really well filmed, with some striking shots taken from the back seat of a car (one long tracking shot building up to a bank heist in particular). There was also a lovely tracking shot of the guy walking through a meat packing factory (past endless rows of cadavers) while on his way to do a job. I reckon the film is worth seeing just for the look of it, though I wish they had been showing The Big Combo, the originally advertised film by the same director.

On Saturday night, I watched a DVD of film Aguirre – Wrath of God. This was Werner Herzog's breakthrough film, and it starred Klaus Kinski as the eponymous conquistador. Together with Fitzcarraldo and The Making of Fitzcarraldo it forms a loose trilogy of films about nutters boating up and down the Amazon. In this one, Aguirre is taking part in an expedition to find the fabled city of El Dorado, which the Spanish believe to be located somewhere down the Amazon. The opening scene communicates the folly of this endeavour, as we see an army of conquistadors humping loads of crap down the side of a mountain into the jungle. It is easy to tell that this will not end well, and indeed it does not – by the end of it, Aguirre is trying to conquer the world with an army of squirrel monkeys. That is an odd thing about this film – it is a tale of madness and delusion, but it is oddly humorous. It also has one of the great spooky film soundtracks of all time, by the Krautrock sensations Popul Vuh.

On Sunday afternoon I went to visit the Dublin Jewish Museum, one of the great local attractions I had never hitherto made it to. Where I live is broadly speaking the heart of what was once the Jewish area of Dublin (with the Jewish community reputedly now concentrated out in Terenure). The museum is a great old-school museum, largely just a collection of random bits of stuff. At times I got the impression that this was a museum primarily aimed at the Dublin Jewish community, with the preponderance of old photos being so that people could see what their neighbours parents used to look like. There is some wonderful detail in it. The first mention of Jews in Ireland comes from some monasteries annals, where it records several arriving from abroad on a boat and then being sent away again*. I also liked the photographs of all the taxis some guy owned.

I have tended to think of Ireland as somewhere largely untroubled by anti-Semitism, for all that there were some unsavoury incidents**. The museum made me think again about this, as it has a section reproducing some rather crazy pamphlets produced the odder end of Irish life. I was also struck by several reproduced advertisements from the Dublin Tweed Company, who proudly boasted that no Jews were in their employ. That said, you do not really get much sense from the museum that Irish Jews led or lead now a sadface life of endless persecution.

One thing I thought the Jewish Museum could have done better would be to give out (or sell) some kind of local area map that would guide you to what were once Jewish community centres or businesses in the area. They could probably get sponsorship for this from the Bretzel, this being a local bakery, no longer owned by Jews but still making kosher bread and thus, apart from the museum, the only functioning link to the area's Jewish past. Sadly, the Bretzel's treats have been outsourced and are now non-kosher***, so eat them at your peril.

That evening I finished reading The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin's novel about weirdo androgynous aliens and their funny planet. I will talk more of this subsequently, but the many Le Guin fans reading will be pleased to hear that I enjoyed this book a lot.

*It seems like that was a particularly exciting time for the monastic chronicler. One of the four other noteworthy things that happened that year was the local bishop having a rest somewhere.

**of which the Limerick pogrom is the most notorious. Although nothing like the kind of pogrom you would get in Tsarist Russia, this early 20th century boycott of Jewish businesses did see many Jewish people flee from that city; given that this is Limerick we are talking about, some may say that the boycott was indirectly doing them a favour.

***what do you do to confectionary to make it non-kosher?

Transparent Radiation

One odd thing happened recently. Over pints, one of my old friends confessed that he no longer likes Spacemen 3, feeling that their sound is derivative and unoriginal. I am not one for apostasy, and I am sure that this fellow regretted his outburst after being horsewhipped up and down Camden Street, but I suppose he does have a certain point. I was struck recently by how the Spacemen 3's Sound of Confusion album features a shameless lift of the Stooges' 'TV Eye', only with the lyrics changed so that the tune is now about an overdose catastrophe. Now, it is a bit bizarre that they were able to get away with this. I know when I first heard the album I had never heard the Stooges track (because I live under a stone), but you would think that the various music journalist types who lapped up the Spacemen 3 sound would be sufficiently familiar with the work of Messrs Pop and Asheton to spot the lift.

An even odder thing is that Sound of Confusion has another track on it where they credit the tune to Iggy Pop – why credit one tune and not another? Maybe they weren't arsed throwing new lyrics together for that one.

But I still love Spacemen 3; originality is much overrated.

edited to remove names... I can't be having people fearing that if they confide in me their thoughts will be published to all and sundry on the interweb.

Live: Crystal Antlers

Frank's APA jefe "Eoghan" encouraged us to see this band. And he was right, they are completely awesome. That said, never before have I seen such a mismatch between the quality of a band and the place they were playing in. The Antlers found themselves treading the boards in the upstairs Whelans' venue, somewhere that is very much like a couple of rooms in someone's house converted into a place for bands to play. Unfortunately, the room layout is still largely in place, such that it does rather feel like the band play in one room and the audience stay in another. The curtain walls are such that unless you are able to get right up to the front you feel very separated from the musicians. I disliked this venue so much that I intend to never visit it again.

Nevertheless, this was an amazing concert. Crystal Antlers seem to be a bunch of scaldy young lads with moustaches from somewhere in North America, but they are not afraid to rock out in the kind of uncompromising manner beloved of forward thinking people. Pretty much every song they play feels like a testimonial, that is how good these fellows are. I had to buy their (mini-) album after they finished. They are, thankfully, one of these bands who can deliver the goods live and on record, with the untitled album feeling like a bottled version of their freaked out music. 'A Thousand Eyes' would have to be a particular favourite.

See them now before success spoils them.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Live: Buffalo Collision

My beloved and I saw these fellows in the Sugar Club. They are jazzers. The draw for us was that their line-up includes the New York saxophone sensation Tim Berne of Big Satan fame, but I gather the other fellows (members of the Bad Plus and a cellist associate of Berne) are big names in their own right. The full line-up, apart from Berne, was Ethan Iverson on piano, Hank Roberts on cello, and Dave King on drums. The music was maybe a bit less insane than the time we saw Big Satan, but it was definitely from the forward thinking end of jazz.

Dave King was probably the real star of this line-up, with his drumming being of such an astonishing quality that I found myself wishing for more drum solos. I found myself wondering what was different between him and the drummer with Jan Garbarek's group. The latter annoyed me greatly when I saw him a couple of year's ago, his solo-ing seeming like the showing-off of a musical peacock, bearing little relationship to the music his colleagues were making. King's solos, meanwhile, were very flash from the point of view of musical virtuosity, and King himself demanded attention with his total commitment to his instrument, but his work seemed more of a piece with that of the other Buffalo Collision players. Unlike Garbarek's drummer, King seems integrated with the rest of the band, even when playing on his own.

I bought a copy of Buffalo Collision's untitled album – from Tim Berne himself! I have listened to it enough to establish that it contains music of a forward thinking nature. Like the live band, it is maybe a bit less full-on than the likes of Bad Satan. I reckon that this music might even be enjoyable by people whose minds are only partially open to challenging new sounds of the most uncompromising sort. I wonder is this because of the influence of the Bad Plus on the sound of this band?

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I have been feeling a bit sadface lately because it looks like I will not be going to any music festivals this year, making it two years in a row without festival fun. I'm missing All Tomorrow's Parties because I will be moving while it is on, and I am missing Glastonbury partly because the tickets went on sale and sold out way earlier than normal and partly because all my friends are now too old for Glastonbury.

Because a year without a festival is like a day without a beer, I have been trying to come up with alternative festival plans. Some people have suggested Electric Picnic, but I have always been suspicious of camping festivals in Ireland, and it does at time seem like its main appeal is that it easy to get too and from. It has nevertheless had a reputation as Ireland's mini-Glastonbury, with a somewhat more eclectic range of acts than you get at the ungodly horror that is Oxegen. That all looks set to change. Irish Times journalist Brian Boyd reported today that the MCD borg has taken over Electric Picnic. He reckons this will be a good thing, as hitherto MCD associated acts have been blocked from paying it. As if to illustrate just how great the Electric Picnic is likely to be this year, Mr Boyd predicts that Fleetwood Mac are going to be this year's headliners. I suspect that I may be washing my hair that weekend.

One other festival that has recently appeared on my radar is Indietracks, which takes place in July in the British Midlands. As the name suggests, it features indie music – proper indie music, played by people in corduroy trousers, dufflecoats, and hairslides, not your faux indie shite. Initially I found the idea of Indietracks a bit off-putting, as I am not sure I could really face a whole weekend of indie music. Then I discovered some other key details about the festival, notably that it takes place in a museum for steam engines, that it will include discos on a moving steam train, that there are llamas near by that you can make friends with, and the whole thing runs on real ale. The more I think about this, the more I think that Indietracks sounds like total win, so I may find myself buying a ticket shortly.

Live: Arguelles/Rainey/Formanek

More Jazz action! Soon I will be acquiring a beret and buying a season ticket in Ronnie Scott's. This lot are three musicians who were playing on Sunday night in the pub J.J. Smiths, where they have a sunday night jazz club. My beloved and I are always talking about going to this, seeing as it is only just down the road from us, but we somehow never quite managed to make it – until now! The big draw for us here was the drummer, Tom Rainey, who is another member of Big Satan. We would have seen him previously when Big Satan played here as part of the Living Music festival, though with my sieve-like brain I remember little or nothing about him (apart from the uncompromising nature of his band's sound). The other two musicians tonight were Michael Formanek on bass, another New Yorker, and Julian Argeulles, an English geezer saxophonist. Arguelles may perhaps have been the big draw here, with the programme kind of leaning towards describing it as his show with the others heading in the direction of being backing musicians.

So anyway, the actual music. Well, it was great. I may be turning into the kind of person who is mad for the jazz drumming, but Rainey was the real jazz commander tonight, with his playing being rather mesmerising (though, to make a comparison, less deranged than that of Dave King). This was nevertheless jazz of the integrated sort, without any obvious sense that the musicians were engaging in some kind of childish competition to blow each other off the stage, so Rainey's playing did not seem like embarrassing grandstanding or as something that put the other excellent players in the shade.

Overall, this music was a bit more like normal jazz than the weirdo jazz of Buffalo Collision or Big Satan, though that is not to say that it was dull or uninteresting. The venue is also pleasant – the kind of small cosy place to go to if you want to hear cutting edge sounds. Interestingly, there seems to be music on there almost every night of the week, though some of the other nights seem a bit Leftover Salmon.

Horizon Concert: Benjamin Dwyer & Raymond Deane

It is not often that I get invited to a concert by one of the composers, so when Raymond Deane sent me a Facebook invite to this lunchtime concert I jumped at a chance to get me some of that modern classical action. This particular lunchtime event was focussed on Benjamin Dwyer, a composer, guitarist, and fixture on the local avant-garde musical scene, but Raymond Deane's Embers was also on the bill. This is an early enough piece, originally written for string quartet and then revised in 1979 for orchestra*. It features a lot of call-response stuff between the lead violin and the rest of the orchestra. It is also pretty slow as well, and features many moments of silence.

With those astonishing insights, my powers of musical description fail me, so I will now switch to talking about the audience. As you know, some people find it very hard to sit still, and the interludes of silence seemed to be a real trial for them. My sonic experience of this piece was therefore almost as much about crowd noise as it was about was about the playing of the musicians. Aside from the usual coughers and fidgeters, extra marks must go to the two babies who seemed to be calling out to each other from either side of the auditorium, or the old bint sitting near me who kept shuffling papers as she took no doubt fascinating notes. Raymond Deane himself was sitting behind me, and I kept wondering if he was going to deal out instant justice to those who were embellishing his work. No such luck.

The second piece was a Benjamin Dwyer piece, his Concerto No. 1 for Guitar & Strings, with the short title of Lorca. Dwyer himself took to the stage to play guitar with the orchestra, and introduce the piece – a piece celebrating the life of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and lamenting his fate (brutally murdered by Franco's thugs). To me it seemed more sadface than celebration. As a piece of music it was enjoyable enough, but I must confess to a certain scepticism about the guitar as a classical instrument. That the long title of the piece called to mind Deep Purple's Symphony for Rock Band and Orchestra did not help.

Crowd noise was a bit less noticeable on this one, but someone did manage to let forth some extraordinarily noisy coughs just as the piece was reaching its mournful finish.

The final piece was Dwyer's Rajas, Sattva, Tamas – Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. At the time, I only noticed the beginning of the title, and thought "Indian influenced music, excellent! Time for a nice snooze". How wrong I was. This was basically an all-percussion, all-the-time kind of piece, with lead percussionist Richard O'Donnell playing every kind of percussion instrument imaginable (though thankfully not all at once), and playing them very loud. So no lunchtime nap for me. This proved actually to be a most enjoyable piece, calling to mind that classic work The Weather Symphony from 2000 AD.

So yes, a musically enjoyable lunchtime, and (like all these Horizon concerts) free. My one big criticism, though, was that the length of the programme did not really make any concessions to those of us who have to work for a living. This would make me a bit wary of going near any future Horizon events.

* Astute readers will have registered that I am now doing that lazy writer thing of just quoting back the programme as though it was stuff I knew for myself.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Albino Elephant Must Learn to Adapt

A pink baby elephant has been caught on camera, living with a herd of some 80 elephants in Botswana. The pink calf appears to be an albino. To survive, it will have to learn to protect its sensitive skin and eyes from the harsh African sun. However, it already seems to be taking due care, hiding in the shade of its mother.

"I have learned that elephants are highly adaptable, intelligent and masters of survival", reports elephant expert Mike Chase, so the pink elephant may find a way to survive.

Concert: The Silk & Bamboo Trio

This was one of those free Sunday midday concerts in the Hugh Lane Gallery, with the particular occasion this time being the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Thus we had three Chinese musicians playing odd instruments – Chen Dacan on the erhu, essentially a violin/fiddle analogue, Wang Meng on the guzheng, a harp-like instrument also described as a zither (similar to the one that Wu Fei played at the 2007 DEAF concert I went to, though you have probably forgotten me talking about that), and the multi-instrumentalist Li Ming on the dizi(flute), hulusi (gourd flute), and yangqin (hammer dulcimer). The three played a number of tunes, sometimes all together, sometimes separately. I was struck by how many of these seemed to be fishermen's songs – fishing in China seems to be a very musical profession.

This is very much the kind of music I love to listen to on Sunday mornings – funny instruments and non-Western musical traditions. With this Silk & Bamboo trio I felt like I was getting this served up by virtuoso musicians, which made this concert total win.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

SF Book Club: "The Hammer of God"

I've started going to this Science Fiction book club that meets on the second Tuesday of every month in Dublin's Central Library in the ILAC. The most recent book was The Hammer of God, a late Arthur C. Clarke book set in a couple of centuries time, about an asteroid on collision course with the Earth. The book like a greatest hits of Arthur C. Clarke, with lots of stuff in it that would be broadly familiar from other works of his. Some of this had a certain wry humour, like a robot making a joke inspired by HAL in 2001.

I found the book initially a bit slight. Clarke's typical inability to write characters is a particular problem in the early chapters, because these focus on the development of social mores in the future. This became less of a problem when the asteroid shows up, and the people are flying around in (realistic) spaceships trying to do something about it. For all his commitment to the kind of scientific accuracy that could otherwise come across as being a bit boring, this all gets rather exciting, and you do find yourself rooting for all the interchangeable fellows who find themselves stuck in a rather sticky situation. Even with that, though, I suspect that this was a book that Clarke threw out fairly quickly, and it does rather betray its origins as a short-story extended to (short) novel length.

It is still the stuff about future social mores that I find myself thinking about now. Clarke seems to be a free love kind of guy, predicting that our future descendants will drift in and out of relationships with each other, staying together for a while to bring up a child, say, and then unproblematically separating to get some new love elsewhere. He partly puts this down to the invention of longevity treatments that greatly extend the span of human life, with people only being able to stick living with one other for so long. I am not completely convinced by this – it seems to me like having a longer life to live would, for a lot of people, mean that a couple would be bound together by a greater number of shared memories. That would make them more likely to remain together for longer, or else would make their separation something other than the carefree act that Clarke paints it.

The other thing that is not that convincing about Clarke's sociology of the future is the stunningly monocultural nature of the world. Like a lot of secular humanists, he does not really seem to get religion and largely has it disappearing over the next centuries, apart from some nutjob religion for incomprehensible bad guys.

So that's it for The Hammer of God. The book we are reading for next month is Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, a classic of brainy SF. Le Guin has largely passed me by up to now, though I know this book by reputation. Set on a planet where it is nearly always bloody freezing, it is about the planet's bisexual humanoid inhabitants. They spend most of their time being sexually inert, but every so often (once a month, or something) they become randomly female or male, and shag crazy. Then they go back to being inert. I am expecting lots of "makes you think" insights into the nature of gender and sexuality, perhaps conditioned by my advance impression of Le Guin as being a bit dry and overly intellectual.

The next meeting of the book club is on Tuesday the 14th February, 6.30 pm, in the Central Library, should you fancy coming along and offering your tuppence on The Left Hand of Darkness.

Live: Prison Love

We saw these fellows in Whelan's shortly before jetting off to Morocco for our winter adventure. This time the Love were missing Hurricane Barry (their usual frontman), meaning that one of the other fellows (we think El Nino, or maybe Beau Breaker) had to take over on lead vocals, with Lucky Charms helping out on backing vocals. Where could Hurricane Barry be? Could he be doing time in solitary, or had he been released early for good behaviour? Neither - he was just feeling a bit poorly and was in the prison infirmary.

As you will recall, Prison Love are this Dublin band who play old-timey American music with a tilt towards the Cajun. They dress in prison garb and have adopted prison nicknames like the ones mentioned above (others include Dancin' Pete (the accordionist – plainly the maddest of the whole band) and Soapy Mahoney). The band mix together actual examples of songs from that world and songs from outside reformed so that they sound like old-timey classics, so tonight as well as 'Rockingham Cindy' and 'Lacassine Special' they also treated us to versions of 'The Auld Triangle', 'Ace of Spades', and 'Teenage Kicks'.

There is not really much more to say about Prison Love except that they are awesome. You should really try and see them live sometime. Obviously, this is not easily accomplished if you live in the USA, as I do not think they tour over there so often, but if you live in Dublin or Ireland generally, I encourage you to check them out.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Good Dog Helps Recycle Plastic

Tubby the Labrador is doing his bit to help the environment. When out for walks, he finds discarded plastic bottles, crushes them in his mouth, and gives them to his owner Sandra Gilmore for recycling.

"It can be annoying sometimes as there is often something left in the bottle when he brings it over and it then goes everywhere," commented Mrs Gilmore.

Image source, further information

Untidy Details

Casual reading of the Wikipedia page for George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco who was murdered by demented former city supervisor Dan White, revealed the fascinating fact that he had appointed Jim Jones of the People's Temple to the city's Housing Authority. Jim Jones is of course more famous these days as the raving lunatic who orchestrated the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, in which some 900 members of his cult were induced to poison themselves, but he seems to have spent much of the 1970s involving himself and his movement in progressive San Francisco politics. Jones seems to have been a fairly big player, someone that many liberal politicians were, for a time, anxious to have onside. One detail the Milk film omitted was the People Temple's involvement in some of Harvey Milk's election campaigns. It is perhaps easy to make too much of this - for a long time Jim Jones and the People's Temple must have seemed like just another bit of leftover 1960s counter-culture stuff, but it is still a fascinating detail.

Wikipedia page on the People's Temple in San Francisco (with lots of citations)


Do you like pictures of baby pandas?

(thanks to Jennifer)

Film: "Milk"

Years ago I saw a documentary on television about Harvey Milk. I had never heard about him before, and it all seemed pretty inspirational – and then he gets shot and killed! OMG WTF! It was interesting to see Gus Van Sant's new feature film on Harvey Milk, then, and to remember the stuff the documentary had covered. At the start of this, Milk (played, as you know, by Sean Penn) hooks up with this younger man, and they move out to San Francisco together. As a city, the place is not particularly welcoming to the gays, but they start drifting there in ever increasing numbers, becoming through weight of numbers a considerable local force in the Castro area. Milk becomes increasingly politicised, and starts running for public office, initially on a gay rights and bearded hippy ticket, but increasingly as a serious candidate (signified by him appearing, all clean-shaven and short-haired, in a flash suit).

Although there is stuff here about Milk the man, with nods to his personal life and stuff, this is very much a political film, and you do get this sense of Milk as a master of the political arts. As portrayed in the film, he seems to have had an astonishing knack for coalition building, being able to forge links with groups you would not obviously think likely to rally behind a man for whom homosexual empowerment remained the centre of his agenda. Perhaps the most striking example of this occurs relatively early on, when he pals up with the Teamsters, assisting them in a campaign against Coors.*

The film ramps up a gear when Milk finally manages to get elected to something, becoming a City Supervisor (what I think in Ireland we would call a City Councillor). The election seemed to have thrown up a number of unusual local representatives. One of these was this Dan White chap, an Irish-American former fireman and policeman, played by Josh Brolin. He comes across a bit as the Taxi Driver candidate, making a lot of noises about wanting to get the scum off the street and make SF safe once more families and decent law-abiding people. At the same time, he seems open to political overtures from Milk – who knows, maybe Milk will build another alliance with this guy?

Of course, we know how this ends – White turns out to be a mentalist, murdering Milk and George Moscone, the city's mayor. The film is very good at capturing White's increasingly unhinged state, something I remember as being equally obvious from footage of him in the documentary. It does, though, perhaps make a mis-step when it implies strongly that White was a repressed homosexual, and that his self-directed homophobia was what drove him to kill Milk and Moscone. It seems like a bit of a cliché to say that all homophobes are repressed homosexuals, and I suspect that many homophobes are 100% heterosexual and not even remotely bi-curious. In any case, White does not even seem to be that homophobic, killing Milk more over jealousy that he was getting so much of the limelight (particularly after Milk managed to block a referendum proposal that would have seen homosexuals purged from state employment in California) and through pique at Milk not delivering his vote on some issues of concern to him.

That said, the film has a great scene where a drunken White gatecrashes Milk's birthday party and starts rambling about how he has issues too. If that has any basis in reality then the White=repressed-homosexual thesis has some evidence going for it (though White's issues could just as well have been that he was a mentalist).

This is a great film, with a wonderful sense of time and place, and a great ability to conjure its characters into being. Penn and Brolin deliver excellent performances, as do the various other people who show up here. It has also made me want to visit San Francisco again – it really is such a photogenic city, and it is nice to see a film where you can recognise so much of where the action takes place.

I found myself wondering a couple of things while watching it, though. First of all, I started thinking about what would have happened to Milk had he not been shot – would AIDS have taken him down a couple of years later? For all that you hear a lot about the decimating effect of AIDS on a particular cohort of gay men, I am a bit vague on the actual statistics on what proportion of that particular milieu were killed by it. The film does kind of answer this question, by doing a where-are-they-know bit about the other characters in the film. HIV had not killed anything like as many of them as I had casually expected, so a Milk who survived White would face rough odds that were not unfavourable.

Where he would go then is a very open question. I suspect that his instinct would be to go ever onwards and upwards, running for ever more significant public offices – mayor or state legislature, Senate or House of Representatives, state governor, etc. How far he could actually have taken himself is something I cannot really say, and there may be something to Powell's dictum about all political careers ending in failure. Dying as he did, he remains forever someone who overturned expectations and led a coalition that blocked a reactionary fight-back. Living longer, he may have become just another tawdry politician who started out as an idealistic figure with big ideas.

The other thing I was wondering was whether Milk really was such a great figure. I do not really mean that in the classic Irish begrudger way, but it is striking that you never really get anyone saying anything negative about him (or certainly not anyone from within the gay community). I wonder if anyone there felt that Milk's endless politicking and office-seeking was more about ego-tripping than about advancing the interests of the gay community. I am not saying, of course, that this would be a correct viewpoint, but it is the kind of thing that people say about those who run for every public office that comes up.

[edited to correct Mayor Moscone's first name]

*I can't remember what it is that the Teamster have against Coors, other than that their beer is piss.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Short Legged Horse Causes Consternation

Fire services in Hampshire are being repeatedly called out to rescue a horse reported as being trapped by mud into which it has sunk. However, Mayflower is actually just a horse with very short legs. From a distance, it looks like her legs have sunk into the ground, even though Mayflower's ability to move remains uncompromised.

Mayflower's owner is apparently planning to put up sign informing passers-by that he is not stuck but just has short legs.

image source, further information

Film: "Che, Part One"

I had heard that this film was long and boring, but I eventually saw it out in the Lighthouse. It is long, but I found it anything but boring. It follows Guevara's war against the Batista dictatorship, intercutting this with a visit Guevara made some years later to address the UN as a representative of the Cuban state. The film does cast Che in a rather heroic light, seeing his guerrilla war as like a succession of relatively easy victories against the shifty servants of dictatorship. At the same time, it does not present him as winning the war single-handedly – as well as getting a sense of there being other important commanders in the fighting (e.g. Fidel Castro himself, Raul Castro, some other guy with a beard, etc.), you also get a sense of how dependent the war effort was on the movement's rank and file. The rebels' base is portrayed as having its own inspirational figures, people motivated by a desperate urge to transform their lives and social situations.

I am looking forward to seeing Che, Part 2. That covers his Bolivian campaign – his failed attempt to export revolution from Cuba to the heart of the South America continent. The first film shows a guerrilla army that keeps winning, while the second apparently shows Guevara's band failing to make headway and then finding the enemy's screw tightening. So we see Che's triumph in part one and then his downfall, missing out any of the less appealing aspects of his life – his virtually Stalinist outlook, his embarrassing adventure in the Congo, his presiding over politically driven executions of Cubans associated with the former regime, and so on. But hey, I know about all that already – I do not go to the cinema for a history lesson.

I suspect that you could enjoy each of the Che films independently of each other, but I would recommend Part One to people who like cinema.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Elephant pleased by new leg

Elephant Mosha lost one of her legs in a landmine explosion. As often happens to amputees, she became depressed, also suffering from rejection by other elephants. However, doctors have managed to fit Mosha with an artificial leg, and she is now eating again and has been accepted by her elephant friends.

"She has grown in confidence and now likes to play with the others," reports Friends of the Asian Elephant worker Soraida Salwala.

image source

Two historical films: "Che, Part 1" & "Milk"

I saw these two relatively recently. Che, Part 1 (the title calling to mind Shakespeare's history plays) tells the story of Che Guevara's role in the Cuban guerrilla struggle against the Batista dictatorship. Milk, meanwhile, is not a film about a former head of An Bord Báinne, but rather a biopic of Harvey Milk, the guy who made history by being elected to public office in San Francisco while simultanaeously being openly homosexual.

One of these films was directed by Steven Soderbergh, the other by Gus Van Sant. I got a bit confused as to which was which while watching the Che Guevara film. Van Sant is known as someone who bats for the other team, but it is not like all his films are ones with homosexual themes, so it is not, on the face of it, completely ridiculous to imagine that he might have made a film about an Argentinean revolutionary deep in the jungles of Cuba. And, you know, the Che film does feature a lot of blokes running around in uniforms being manly, and when a young lady appears and starts hanging around with Che (played by hunky Benicio Ben Toro), you can tell he would rather be crawling through undergrowth with the guys. The lack of any scenes in which Che says to his fellows "Comrades, it's time we all had a bath", coupled with the end-credits, conclusively revealed that Che was in fact directed by Steven Soderbergh. You probably know this already.

I don't know what a Soderbergh-directed Milk would have been like.

Stay tuned for further comments on both of these films

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Comics Roundup 10/3/2008

Superman: World of New Krypton #1, by James Robinson, Greg Rucka, and Pete Woods

Even if you do not read comics, you probably get the basic idea of Superman – he is the only survivor of the planet Krypton, and he lives on the Earth as reporter Clark Kent and has superpowers. If you know slightly more than that, you may be aware that he was not the only survivor, because his dog, Krypto, and cousin, Kara, both also escaped their homeworld's destruction, making their way to the Earth and also becoming superpowered (the latter as Supergirl). One thing you probably would not know about unless you have ever read Superman comics is that actually an entire city of Kryptonians escaped, because supervillain Brainiac had shrunk down the city of Kaldor to tiny size and stashed it in a bottle, where its inhabitants continued to live their tiny lives. Superman subsequently recovered the bottle city, but was unable to bring the Kaldorians back to normal size.

Until now. One of the odd things about DC these days is that they seem to be intent on running loads of Big Crossover Events simultanaeously. So, together with the dreadful Final Crisis* and possibly overrated Batman R.I.P., they have recently also been doing this New Krypton thing. I missed the start of it, but basically the Kaldorians all seem to have grown back to normal size. Like Superman, our sun's yellow rays have given them astonishing powers. The world is suddenly overrun with supermen, some of whom view humans as little more than monkeys.

I found this idea interesting enough, and started buying DC titles that involved it, but then I registered that it was going to be affecting a zillion different super comics and was going to go on forever. That seemed too much like work, so I gave up. Now, though, DC have launched this title, which looks like it might house all the essential action. Two things seem to have happened. First, that General Zod guy you remember from the Superman 2 film has been busted out of the Phantom Zone, and now seems to have quite a following among the Kryptonians. The other thing is that someone (possibly Superman) has set up a new planet for the Kryptonians, orbiting the sun diametrically opposite from our world. Superman has decided to leave our world and go live with his own people, but is starting to find that maybe life among the Kryptonians is less idyllic than he had hoped.

I must admit, I feel faintly embarrassed to be enjoying this title, given that it does kind of lean towards being the sort of undemanding superhero crap that gives comics a bad name. That said, it is nicely drawn, and the plotting suggests that this story is progressing in a direction that promises thrill power.

The Age of THE SENTRY #6

I think this may prove to be The Sentry's final battle. In it he discovers that he is not real, or something like that. It is nothing we have not seen before (several times by Alan Moore), but it is still pretty well done, with the up-and-at-'em Marvel explosion pastiche contrasting well with the weirder stuff. My one big complaint, though, is that although Watchdog appears on the cover, he is nowhere to be found inside – what's that all about?

Unknown Soldier #5, by Joshua Dysart & Alberto Ponticelli

If you were being mean, you would say that Dysart really just wants to tell people about the recent history of Uganda and is using this comic as a vehicle for didactic exposition. On the other hand, if someone like me is starting to find the local politics in this a bit confusing then you really would have to wonder about how this title is going down with the general Vertigo reader (which might explain its less than prominent positioning in my local comic store). Anyway, as you know this is set a couple of years ago in northern Uganda, and is using the insurgency of the mentalist Lord's Resistance Army as a backdrop. The main character is a Ugandan-American doctor who has suffered facial injuries and who somehow, for reasons yet unexplained, seems to be turning into some kind of super-soldier type. It could be all part of some CIA mind-control experiment, you know what they are like.

I am hovering on the brink of giving this up. I am only so engaged with the story, but it keeps coming across like something that might go somewhere. The Ugandan setting makes for something a bit out of the ordinary, and the art is great, so I will hang on with this for a bit longer.

*the absolute last ever time there will ever be a crossover event with Crisis in the title, 4Real

Sitting in parked cars

"The dead man and his partner were sitting in a parked car outside a house at Tymon North Park just before 8.30pm when a gunman got out of another car, approached their vehicle and opened fire with a handgun."

Here in Panda Mansions, we are struck by the frequency with which gangland figures are murdered by their fellows while sitting in parked cars. Is sitting in parked cars some kind of exciting leisure activity common to all car owners, or just mobsters?