Tuesday, December 30, 2014

[Live] Dabka and Trad: traditional music and dance from Ireland and Palestine

There is often a long lead time between when I experience things and when I finally post about them here. I went to this event back in April, before this summer's Israeli bombardment of Gaza and the simmering autumnal violence in Jerusalem. The evening was organised by the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, bringing together the Palestinian dance form of dabka and Irish traditional music. It took place in Liberty Hall, headquarters of the trade union SIPTU.

Dabka is a dance style popular in Palestine, though it also features in other parts of the Middle East (popular Syrian superstar Omar Souleyman is a dabka singer). There may be a split in the dabka world between people who dance to a more acoustic accompaniment and ones dancing to the kind of programmed high octane beats served up by Omar Souleyman's collaborators; this may however be a difference that means more to westerners than to people of the eastern Mediterranean.

This event was not solely musical and cultural, as it was also about reinforcing support for the cause of Palestinian freedom. This was done through speeches and the like from the stage and exhibitions of photographs outside, as well as the showing of films before the performance proper.

The compere was Robert Ballagh, a well-known Irish visual artist who used to design our banknotes back when we had our own banknotes. He mentioned once attending a peace conference in the USSR as a guest of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Despite his being a well-known figure in this country, I had somehow never heard his speaking voice before. He is very well-spoken and also possessed of a dapper demeanour. If The Chap ever come to Ireland in search of well-dressed men they could do worse than interview Mr Ballagh.

I was quite *tired* when I arrived at the event, but the first act lifted me out of my customary torpor. They were the Kilteel Comhaltas Youth Group, who were basically a small army of young musicians playing céilí band music. People with a more advanced appreciation of Irish traditional music can be a bit sniffy about céilí band music, but I liked its relentless full-on massed attack. I can see how one could get obsessive about this kind of thing.

Frances Black was on next. She is a well known singer in this country, a member of the famous Black family of singers and musicians. Her musical efforts are not really the kind of thing that appeals to me, but I can see why people like her. One thing that was amusing about her performance was that she had her son accompanying her on guitar. He had a great "Oh mum!" air to him whenever she started recounting anecdotes.

Ms Black's set featured that Labi Siffre number 'Something Inside So Strong' (actually '(Something Inside) So Strong'), part of the ongoing campaign to turn the struggle for Palestinian freedom into the 21st century equivalent of the battle against apartheid in South Africa. If this means that there will be an updated version of 'Sun City' then I am all for it.

Cormac Breathnach, Kevin Rowsome and Brian Fleming were on next. They were a pretty straight down the line Irish trad trio. I have the least to say about them but that should not be taken as an indication that their music was uninteresting or unenjoyable.

And then there were Eoin Dillon and Colm Ó Snodaigh from the band Kila. Kila are now a rather long established modern trad group. Despite their fame, I had not hitherto seen them live or even heard their music. They rather confounded my preconceptions, as these two players were nothing like the raucous rapscallions I was expecting. Instead the music seemed to contain some odd harmonics and the suggestion of a modern composition influence, so much so that I must seek out more of their tunes.

Donal Lunny and Paddy Glackin gave us more trad action, with Mr Glackin on fiddle and Mr Lunny on bouzouki and vocal. Mr Lunny is famous from his time in Planxty and various other important outfits. Mr Glackin is not so well known to me but I understand him to be a heavy weight in his own right. They did one song with Irish language lyrics sung from the point of view of a crazed stalker woman who is cursing the wife of some fellow for whom she is has an obsessive love. I was surprised that there is enough Irish lodged in my memory for me to suddenly register that at one point the song was about wanting to break the legs of the man's wife.

There were also non-musical elements to the evening. Robert Ballagh told anecdotes of the time he met Mahmoud Darwish at that Moscow Peace Conference, then a woman, possibly from the Palestinian General Delegation in Dublin, read some poetry of that famous writer. She read it in Arabic, but I find foreign language poetry oddly soothing so I was not complaining.

The dabka dancers themselves were from the Lajee Cultural Centre in Aida refugee camp. They performed to backing tracks of recorded music that was a good bit more restrained than the high speed mentalism of Omar Souleyman. As they came onstage the thing that immediately struck me was that the dancers were both male and female; given how gender-segregated the Middle East is, this was something of a surprise. I thought perhaps they might be from a predominantly Christian area where separating the sexes might conceivably be less common. Research however reveals that that the troupe is run on an inclusive basis that does not discriminate on the basis of gender or creed. That sounds to me like it might be a relic of the progressive-nationalist-leftist era of yore, even if the centre was only founded in 2000; or maybe it is a harbinger of a bright new future.

The dabka performers gave us two sets, dancing in formation with a lot of foot stamping by the men. The dancing was folkish rather than like anything akin to ballet or modern abstract dance forms. It is the kind of thing you could imagine people spontaneously doing at social gatherings. You could realistically aspire to learning the steps and having a not completely embarrassing crack at this yourself, in a way that would be inconceivable for something like ballet or Butoh. The dancers seemed to boast a range of body shapes, though the flowing outfits worn were less figure hugging than those of western dance. The men's outfits were somewhat reminiscent of the cossack outfits you see in films; the influence here could go in either direction.

Some of the dance pieces seemed relatively apolitical, but others had an overt political charge. One the dramatisation of an unfortunate incident wherein a youth was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while playing football, his funeral then transformed into a piece of political theatre. The grand finale saw a lot of Irish and Palestinian flags being waved on stage. My consciousness was raised.

Here is a YouTube video of the troupe performing on Grafton Street:

More images (Lajee tour/Dublin, a set on Flickr by Fatin Al Tamimi

See also: Lajee Center

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Everyone has a good side, including Mike Read

DJ Mike Read has been in the news recently in connection with his support for the anti-EU and anti-immigrant party UKIP. Mr Read had recorded a pro-UKIP novelty pop single in which he sang a calypso style song in a faux West Indian accent. Among other things, the lyrics complain about the numbers of foreign people who have come to the UK. The combination of subject matter and Mr Read's accent led many to dub the song racist.

Mike Read is no stranger to controversy. Older readers will recall that he instigated BBC Radio 1's banning of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax' back in the early 1980s.

Nearly all people have good and bad sides. Earlier this year, Ms Sarah Prior saw Mike Read's good side in action. She was out walking her six month old puppy Digby in Henley when the naughty dog decided to chase some ducks into the river Thames. Ms Prior called out in dismay as she saw Digby being washed away by the surging waters, with the dog showing no natural aptitude for swimming.

Fortunately for Digby, Mike Read happened to be passing. He immediately leaped into the water and rescued the bold puppy, earning Ms Prior's gratitude. Digby was none the worse for wear but his opinions on the incident have not been recorded.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast. Part 2

I am recounting my experiences at one day of this conference on folk horror held in Queen's University Belfast. You can read part one here.

After that dramatic interlude we were back into the papers for a session devoted to music. Clare Button's paper "See Not Ye that Bonny Road?": Places, Haunts and Haunted Places in British Traditional Song dealt with varying conceptions of place in British folk music, whether specific places (songs about events happening in a particular location) to a more general sense of landscape and the countryside etc.. That transition occurs in tandem with the British folk revival and folk music becoming more curated and less folkish.

Button talked also about the second folk revival (roughly situated in the 1960s). This was even less rooted in the original folk tradition but more overtly political. She suggested that The Wicker Man and popular TV series The Good Life are both contrasting products of it.

I took away from Button's talk a feeling that I really should get round to reading the copy of Rob Young's Electric Eden that has been lying around Panda Mansion for some time now. Of records she mentioned, the recent Visionary Seascapes album by Jen Finer and Andrew Kötting also sounded like it would be worth investigating, as would records by Sproatly Smith. The consideration of place in music also put me in mind of the brilliant Hirta Songs by Alasdair Roberts and Robin Robertson (this being a record about the people who lived on Hirta from neolithic times to the 1920s).

The other music paper was The Minstrel’s Grave: Hauntology and the Folkmusic Traditions of the British and Irish Isles and it was presented by Eamon Byers, one of the conference's organisers. Beginning with a discussion of the history of the recording of folk music, Byers moved on to talk about the so-called hauntological music of artists on Ghost Box, in particular Belbury Poly. The work of these people has a particular type of retro modernist focus, attempting to evoke Britain from roughly from 1950 to 1979 (i.e. from the dawn and to the end of the post-war consensus).

Ghost Box artists seem in one way very removed from anything to do with folk music, given their retro-futurist approach and heavy reliance on computer technology to make their music. However is a kind of shared impulse in play given their curatorial approach to the past. And there are more direct crossovers, with Byers drawing attention to Belbury Poly's sampling of very early folk music recordings from 1908. As used by Belbury Poly, Joseph Taylor's treated voice now sounds like one of those spectral recordings featured on the celebrated flexi disc given away with The Unexplained.

I was reminded here of Broadcast's Trish Keenan. Her voice has continued to appear on new records despite her untimely death. I was also curious as to why Byers' discussion of Ghost Box focussed solely on Belbury Poly, with no mention of The Focus Group, the label's other main act.

The next session saw two creative types talking about their own attempts to create work drawing on folk horror ideas. Christine Stanton talked about her novel in progress, set in the 17th century about a bloke from what is now Indonesia, who is abducted and taken to England to be included as a live specimen in some rich guy's collection of curiosities (this kind of did apparently happen). The first part of the story is told from the point of view of the Indonesian (to use a term that would have had no meaning in the 17th century), who does not understand what is happening to him and thinks he has been abducted by demons. Later there is a switch when he first encounters the villagers living near the rich guy's mansion, who in turn mistake him for a demon.

Stanton talked about horror fiction as we know it only emerging with the Enlightenment, possibly as a reaction to the loss or marginalisation of a superstitious world view. As someone who has dabbled in the fictional arts, I was interested by her discussion of how to write from a 17th century point of view but in a way that is understandable by a modern reader.

The second person in this session was one Chris Lambert, who presented the results of his own investigations into the Black Meadow, a mysterious site of unexplained phenomena in the Yorkshire moors. Eventually he cracked and revealed what we were increasingly suspecting: that the Black Meadow is a fiction. He was nevertheless trying to accentuate the sense of horror by being completely straight-faced about it all, with much of the Black Meadow stuff being presented as faux documentary and referencing real things to make people wonder if maybe, just maybe it might all be true (an old trick; I remember being intrigued at the discovery that some of the books mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft were not merely real but available in the library of my university).

This whole Black Meadow business has spawned a whole multi-disciplinary attack, with books being joined by film clips and also music (of, naturally, the hauntological variety). I think this might repay closer attention, if only to see whether any of it as good as Lambert's poem 'Beyond the Moor'. This tells the story of a woman accosted by a rogue who threatens to rob, rape, and/or murder her. She replies to each threat that she is unconcerned, because she has been "beyond the moor".

That was it for the papers. After a great wine reception (thanks Folklore Society!) we had a performance piece called by Nick Freeman and Dan Watt called If You Go Down in the Mythago Woods Today: A Sinister Excursion. This featured the two blokes lost in the woods, fearful of encountering every possible folk horror menace imaginable. It was chortlesome. I particularly liked the gastropub joke. The suggestion that the Teddy Bears Picnic is an event of existential horror, something fearful as much as it would be wonderful, rang true with my memories of being a small child.

After Mythago Woods we had a concert by Sharron Kraus and Clare Button. Kraus sang and played guitar while Button provided additional vocals. They treated us to some of the songs from Kraus's forthcoming album inspired by the Mabinogion, that cycle of Welsh myths and heroic tales that include some early versions of the Arthurian stories. Kraus's songs are not narrative so much as describing situations or presenting character studies. I particularly like the one about the Mabinogion character who is just a bad ass who likes causing trouble and provoking discord. There was also one about someone meeting the enchantress Rhiannon, which sadly or otherwise in no way referenced Stevie Nicks.

And that pretty much was that. After Kraus and Button finished, my beloved and I made our way back into the centre of Belfast to grab some food before taking the bus back down south.

One overall impression I had of the conference was that its focus was very English. That is not really a criticism, as England is the centre of gravity of These Islands, but as the event was billed as being about folk horror in British and Irish fiction and music, more non-English stuff might have been expected. In fairness, though, my sense of an English bias may have been a false one derived from only attending one day, as the Friday and Sunday programmes featured a number of items looking at Irish subjects or authors (including a paper on Kevin Barry's brilliant novel The City of Bohane). It may also be that folk horror is a product of the alienations from the countryside that comes with industrialisation and urbanisation, so England is a more natural focus for this than elsewhere.

Still, while walking back from Queen's to the centre of Belfast I passed by a residential street adorned with Union Jacks, the emblem serving as a reminder that people like me were not particularly welcome there. It did make me think about the possibilities of an urban folk horror, given how there are many aspects of urban societies or subsections of them that are strange, mysterious and threatening to outsiders. The Fiend in the Furrows event took place in the film theatre of Queen's, which seems to double up as Belfast's art house cinema. They had a poster up for a forthcoming film about a British squaddie lost in West Belfast in 1971, and I wondered if perhaps that might be a film that future folk horror conferences would find themselves discussing.

See also:

Tales from the Black Meadow image source (Bandcamp)

Songs from the Black Meadow image source (Mixcloud)

Tales from the Black Meadow

Sharron Kraus

Scarfolk Council

Ghost Box

Hirta Songs


Sunday, October 12, 2014

[folk horror] "A Fiend in the Furrows". A conference in Belfast

This was a conference held in Queen's University Belfast. What first attracted me to this was the poster, with its stylised image from The Wicker Man. The event was billed as "presenting perspectives on 'Folk Horror' in literature, film and music" and promised papers on various kinds of weird fiction and films like The Wicker Man and A Field in England, together with musical and theatrical performance. By folk horror they seem to mean horror fiction or films that draw on disconcerting folk practices. Anything with strange "old ways" would probably fall under this banner.

I only found about the event just before it was about to go ahead. Unable to find affordable accommodation in time, I could only attend one of the three days, taking the bus to and from Dublin. This involved getting up very early and listening to the bus driver's choice of dreadful music radio until we crossed the border and the more appealing sounds of BBC Radio 2 came on. For your delectation I will now briefly outline my impressions of the programme items I attended.

The day began with a plenary address by Stuart McWilliams on Aleister Crowley. He was introduced by another fellow whose name I unfortunately did not catch, who ran through the biographical details of Crowley's life. As you know, Aleister Crowley was a famous practitioner of ritual magic and achieved such notoriety that the tabloid press at one point dubbed him "the wickedest man alive"; he seems to have referred to himself as The Great Beast, among other things. He also appears to have signed his name so that the first A looks like a giant penis.

McWilliams himself adopted a somewhat droll approach, initially talking about the hagiographical bollocks put out by some of Crowley's biographers: that he anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity, that his political and economic ideas could transform the world into a utopia, and so on. He then went on to talk about Crowley's portrayal in fiction, which began even in his lifetime with Somerset Maugham's The Magician, whose villain is clearly modelled on Crowley, whom Maugham had met in Paris. McWilliams delighted us with some scenes from a 1920s silent film adaptation of The Magician, which featured a bacchanalian orgy where, somewhat unusually, everyone present seemed to be having the most terrible fun.

McWilliams' most fascinating point was that people should pay more attention to how conservative Crowley was. He seems to have been defiantly anti-modernist in his cultural tastes. Despite, or perhaps because of, his relatively humble background he adopted all kinds of faux noble titles and acquired a stately home in which to live the life of an aristocrat. He delighted in the company of people from old money backgrounds (especially impressionable young ladies). His professed political beliefs were a bit slippery, but he was happy enough to write a letter to Henry Ford congratulating him on the crushing of labour unions, affirming that union busting was in accord with his own esoteric principles.

This was followed by a panel pairing Edmund Cueva and Darren Oldridge. Cueva delivered a paper entitled The Wicker Man: Nothing to Do with Dionysus? The title played on an Athenian saying about the theatre and the paper itself drew a line of continuity from The Bacchae by Eurpides and popular film The Wicker Man. The Bacchae is the one about the cult of Dionysus arriving in Thebes; King Pentheus tries to resist the cult and suffers a terrible fate. You can do a great compare and contrast job on the play and film, with Howie and Pentheus mapping onto each other (both representing state authority and inflexibility), though the difference is that Howie is an outsider while in The Bacchae it is the new cult's priest (eventually revealed as the God Dionysus himself (spoilers)) who is the outsider.

One thing I always love hearing about is how the ancient Athenians related to theatre, which at the time was a very new thing. Herodotus recounts a story of a play about a Greek defeat by the Persians that so upset the audience that the entire city was given over to grief for days after the play's staging (Herodotus did not see this himself). Cueva mentions another such story. Apparently at the first staging of The Furies by Aeschylus, when the actors playing the demonic Furies first appeared on stage, audience members were so convinced by the costumes that they thought real demons had landed and so fled the theatre in terror.

In his paper Filming Magic: The Problem of Belief from Witch finder General to A Field in England, Oldridge talked about the problems we have engaging with folk magic beliefs in fictions when we no longer believe in such things ourselves. He cites the Witchfinder General film, in which the eponymous witchfinder is portrayed as a smarmy hypocrite where it might have been more disturbing to paint him as the sincere opponent of evil the historical character he is based on seems to have been. Likewise, for all its engagement with the strange to us beliefs of the 17th century, A Field In England somewhat cops out by introducing magic mushrooms as a partial explanation for the supernatural elements. In contrast, The Wicker Man presents the islanders as true devotees of their strange religion, not as sadistic maniacs or hypocrites.

We then broke for lunch, which was buffet style and included in the admission price. Jurassic Park! After some slight confusion over which items contained the flesh of dead animals I ate my fill, particularly enjoying the vol-au-vents. These edible treats were followed by a theatrical one, the Wireless Mystery Theatre's adaptation of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea, which marked this year being the 200th anniversary of Le Fanu's birth.

Green Tea is an odd beast (like the demonic creature revealed as its villain), alternating between psychological horror (the growing sense of the terror stalking the vicar at its centre, coupled with an ambiguity as to whether the whole business is the product of mental illness) and bumptious comedy (coming from the self-important and largely ineffectual Dr Hesselius, who narrates that story as a case history). I myself have always thought that the vicar's dread contrasts with the somewhat comedic nature of the monster that is tormenting him (as in I could imagine a demonic monkey being more of an entertainment than a torment). Like so much horror, the vicar's doom is the result of a seemingly trivial choice, in his case a fondness for excessive consumption of green tea.

This production was very enjoyable. Even though it was presented as a radio play, it still managed to have a dramatic quality, thanks to the quality of the actors' performance. The live musical accompaniment was also highly effective.

You can read the full horror of the afternoon programme of this terrifying event here

A Field in England

[exhibition] "The Vikings" in the British Museum

Earlier in the summer I paid one of my visits to London. While I was there I visited the British Museum and had a look at their exhibit on the Vikings. I was a bit underwhelmed by it, partly because it was far far far too busy and partly because it did seem to be an endless succession of coins and swords in glass cases. Also, how interesting are the Vikings really? At the end of the day they were just a bunch of smelly hessians from the far north who contributed little to the advance of human civilisation.

The one detail I was interested by was the revelation that the Vikings were not actually that good at fighting (or, rather, no better than anyone else). There are apparently any number of accounts of them being stuffed out of it when they found themselves fighting on even terms with their enemies. The exhibition illustrated this with a load of Viking skeletons retrieved from a mass grave where some of the less fortunate nordic raiders found themselves. In retrospect, exhibiting a load of dead people like this for us to gawp at may have been a bit tasteless.

more Vikings (Battle of Clontarf re-enactment)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"From Hell" Chapter 4: a re-enactment

When I was in London earlier in the summer I embarked on a strange adventure. This was an attempt to recreate the journey of Sir William Gull (Queen Victoria's physician) and John Netley in Chapter 3 of From Hell. In that book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Netley drives Gull around London in a carriage to a series of sites of strange historical significance; when the sites are joined on a map, they make a five pointed star. I did not have a carriage at my disposal so I made the journey by public transport and on foot. But I was not travelling alone, as I had two companions: Dr Kenneth Maher and Mr Chris Gilmour.

We assembled at Marble Arch. This is not a site mentioned in From Hell, but it made for a convenient meeting place. From there we made a short walk to the Mayfair house that in 1888 was the home of Sir William Gull. Our journey proper began here.

Our first proper stop was Battle Bridge Road, beside King's Cross station. Here the Romans crushed the rebellion of Queen Boudicca and with it the last vestiges of the matriarchal society that once dominated the world (or so Gull declares in From Hell, a work some have described as a fiction). There is a tradition that Boudicca herself is buried under one of the station's platforms, though I did not verify this myself.

From there we went to Albion Drive and viewed London Fields. This is basically a park in east London. In From Hell, Gull links London Fields to the Saxons and stuff, though I think the place may have been visited primarily to make a point on the pentagram. Iain Sinclair apparently lives nearby, which may not have given the place spooky London significance in Gull's time but does in ours. London Fields is also the title of the great novel by Martin Amis; I was disappointed not to see somewhere in the vicinity where the ancient game of darts could be played

We used the Overground to travel to and from Albion Drive, which ate up our time as that service is somewhat infrequent. It was therefore quite some time before we reached our next stop, Bunhill Fields. This is an old graveyard in the City in which a great many famous people are buried. Gull remarks on the obelisk that stands over the grave of Daniel Defoe, comparing it to that of the church of St. Luke's, but I think he is more interested in the plainer grave of the visionary William Blake.

While in Bunhill Fields we encountered a demonic squirrel who was rather forward in his attempts to beg for food, but alas we had nothing for him. We then walked on to and past the previously mentioned church of St. Luke's. The spire here was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, and Gull sees it as a clear symbol of worship of the sun and the male generative organ.

We walked on. This stretch involved a lot more walking than expected and extreme measures were required to maintain discipline. As we progressed, we caught a glimpse of the Shard in the distance. That did not exist in Gull's time but I suspect that the good doctor would have approved of its totemic power.

Our next actual stop was Northampton Square. Gull points out to Netley that this was named after a prominent freemason, seeing this as a matter of considerable significance. He does not mention that at one stage in history everyone of consequence was in the freemasons, to the extent that everything in London is probably named after someone who was "on the square"; I suspect this is another stop chosen simply to make the pentagram more convincing.

We broke for lunch in the vicinity of Angel tube station. We had burritos, which I do not think Gull would have enjoyed.

From there we made our way to another Hawksmoor church, St. John Bloomsbury. Its strange spire is said to be modelled on the tomb of Mausolus in Halicarnassus. It is one of the triumphs of 18th century neo-classicism and I encourage all London residents and visitors to have a look at it.

A jaunt west to Earls Court (site of an ancient occult event of some sort) brought us to a third point of the star. In the book, Gull and Netley stop here and have a kidney pie for lunch. We saw a branch of Greggs which may have been the very place where they ate.

By now we were conscious of the latening hour. We pressed on, making our way to the Thames Embankment to see Cleopatra's Needle (actually another obelisk erected to honour some Thotmese fellow a thousand years before Cleopatra was born). At this point Mr Gilmour had to bid us farewell: he has an inability to cross running water and could not join us on the next leg of our journey, which would bring us across the Thames.

Dr Maher and I do not fear water. We pressed on to Hercules Road in Lambeth, where William Blake once lived. The house is no longer there and a block of council flats sits on the site.

And unfortunately that proved to be the end of our journey. We had made three of the star's five points. The last two would have involved journeys out east as far as Limehouse and down south to Herne Hill (a place largely beyond the reach of easily understood public transport). Making it to these would probably have taken more time than we had spent on the others so far. The hour was getting late so we decided to call it a day.

Perhaps in some future time I will make the attempt again.

See also:

Pentagram image source

More of my pictures

From Hell Chapter Four Walking and Riding Tour (An American gentleman made his own attempt to complete the Star in 2008)

Stefani Chaney's Map of Chapter Four in "From Hell" (danger: there is at least one inaccuracy in this map, as it has the wrong St. Anne's church tagged)

Sir William Gull (Wikipedia)

John Netley (Wikipedia)

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.
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).
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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

12 Der Kaiserschlacht

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

The Russian revolution and Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with the Bolsheviks meant that the Germans could transfer a huge number of troops from the eastern front to France. Erich Ludendorff, the German commander, used these to launch a spring offensive, which he hoped would end the war before American forces arrived in strength. Spearheaded by highly trained stormtroopers using infiltration tactics, the offensive was named der Kaiserschlacht - the Kaiser's Battle. German soldiers were promised that this was the offensive that would end the war with German victory.

The attack began on the 21st of March 1918, preceded by a short but intense bombardment. The British defenders were shattered and fell back. The Germans made the kind of gains not seen by either side since 1914 and for a brief moment it looked like they were winning a decisive victory. But the Kaiserschlacht ran out of steam and the offensive ground to a halt.

Ludendorff launched follow-up offensives, capturing more territory but suffering increasing casualties and failing to achieve a decisive victory. With the failure of the last offensive in July, the jig was clearly up for the Germans. Their army was not the force it was and American soldiers were now arriving in increasing numbers. The greater resources of the Allies meant that they could easily replace losses in a way unimaginable for the Germans. At this point Germany should have sued for peace, but the war would continue to November.

image source (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

11 The French army mutinies

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

In 1917 the French had a new commander, one Robert Nivelle. He had led counter-attacks at Verdun and now he hoped to end the war in one bold stroke. He had the French army attack the Germans along the Chemin des Dames ridge, beginning on the 16th of April, expecting that his soldiers would smash through the German lines and win a decisive victory.

The Germans however had got wind of Nivelle's plans and were able to inflict heavy casualties on the French attackers. When Nivelle tried to order further attacks, disorder erupted in the French army. French soldiers had given their all in the defence of Verdun, but they were not going to throw away their lives on Nivelle's futile offensive. Units refused to move to the front and there was some circulation of pacifist and socialist anti-war propaganda. The mutiny was nevertheless limited, as soldiers did not assault their officers or desert en masse. Frontline units continued to hold their positions but refused to attack. The mutiny was more like a strike than an insurrection.

The military authorities tried to repress the mutinies by force, arresting and trying ring-leaders and carrying out of summary executions. There were rumours, probably false, of mutinous regiments being shelled by their own artillery. But ultimately the French army turned to the one man the ordinary soldiers trusted to lead them - General Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun. He replaced Nivelle as commander in chief and quickly introduced reforms to improve conditions for French soldiers (including an increase in the quantity and quality of the wine ration) and promised an end to large-scale bloodbath offensives.

Monday, June 23, 2014

10 The USA enters the war

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

The USA declared war on Germany on the 6th of April 1917. America was brought into the war by Germany's declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in January of that year. This meant that German submarines were authorised to sink any ship without warning if they thought it might be carrying goods to one of Germany's enemies (previously the quaint rules of war meant that submarines had to surface and send boarding parties to search ships for war goods); Germany's hope was that unrestricted submarine warfare could knock Britain out of the war. US opinion was also turned against Germany by the revelation that it was attempting to build an anti-American alliance with Mexico.

When America declared war on Germany it had a tiny army and it would clearly be some time before it could raise and train forces that could be sent to fight in Europe. But the German leaders would have known that the USA's declaration of war had set the clock ticking. The Americans had a bottomless reservoir of manpower and it was just a matter of time before the USA was ready to send a vast force to France. If Germany was to have any chance of winning the war, it had to do so before the American armies arrived. And when it became apparent that unrestricted submarine warfare was not bringing Britain to its knees, Germany's leaders realised that they would have to win the war on land.

The declaration of war on Germany also marked the moment when the USA became a world power.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

09 The Russian Revolution

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

The Russian Revolution was a long process that began on the 8th of March 1917 when Petrograd, the Russian capital, erupted in strikes, demonstrations and riots. The Czarist regime was overthrown and replaced by a provisional government. That tried to keep Russia in the war against German and Austria but its army began to disintegrate. Domestically the provisional government saw its authority ebb away and in November 1917 it was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, who eventually negotiated a humiliating peace with Germany.

Aside from being an event of world historical significance, the Russian revolution is important in the First World War because it shows the price of defeat on the regimes of the belligerent nations. The Kaiser may have chortled as they watched the Czar being hustled out of power in 1917, but they must have realised that if Germany did not prevail then he would be next. In the short term, thought, the Russian revolution was a godsend for the Germans, as the removal of Russia from the war allowed Germany to transfer huge numbers of troops to France.

image source (Wikipedia)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

08 The Somme

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

If you are an English-speaker and know anything about the First World War you have probably heard of the Battle of the Somme. This began on the 1st of August 1916. It was a huge offensive by British and some French troops against the German army in France. In part it was intended to draw German forces away from Verdun but it was also hoped that the onslaught would smash through the German lines. Unfortunately, the fighting on the first day went disastrously for the British, who suffered 57,470 casualties (of whom 19,240 were killed).

The fighting continued sporadically until November, with the allies giving up on their plan to break through the German lines. Instead the focus was on attrition, trying to fight a bloody battle that would exhaust German manpower before the British and French well of blood would run dry.

Friday, June 20, 2014

07 The Brusilov Offensive

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

By 1916 the Russians had endured two years of battering at the hand of the Germans (whose Austrian allies were more of a hindrance than a help). But in 1916 the Russians went back on the offensive, with General Alexei Brusilov leading a broad front attack on the Austrians. The attack began on the 4th of June and shattered the Austrians. Brusilov's forces used innovative tactics — short artillery barrages followed up with attacks by shock troops rather than the human wave assaults favoured elsewhere.

The Brusilov Offensive brought the Austrians to the brink of collapse and the front line could only be stabilised by the infusion of German reinforcements. But ultimately the offensive achieved nothing. Brusilov had wanted it to be followed by more offensives elsewhere in the east, to keep the Germans and Austrians reeling, but the Russian commanders instead kept sending more reinforcements to Brusilov after his offensive had run its course. Russian soldiers were left feeling that they had suffered for nothing. Still, the offensive showed that it was possible to stage a successful attack against entrenched defenders, if the right tactics were used.

Despite his impeccably aristocratic and conservative credentials, Brusilov himself would go on to serve in the Bolshevik army during the Russian Civil War.

image source (Wikipedia)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

06 Verdun

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

In February 1916 the Germans launched an offensive against the fortified French town of Verdun. The aim was not to take the town but to inflict such terrible casualties on the French that they would not be able to continue with the war. The French did come close to cracking, but the Germans themselves also suffered nigh unendurable casualty levels. The battle continued until December 1916. It made the name of Philippe Pétain, the French commander during the battle's most desperate phase; he would go onto become a Marshal of France, though he would end his life in ignominy.

In the anglophone world this battle is less well known than the Somme or Passchendaele, but for the French Verdun is the quintessential meat-grinder battle of the First World War. As a horror that could never be repeated it would haunt the imaginations of French decision-makers in the 1930s, as they faced a resurgent Germany.

image source (Wikipedia)