30 March 2006

Beer Pressure

Had a thoroughly enjoyable time last weekend with Silk and his good lady Kate, who it's very lovely to see back together again after a recent period of dithering. We'd been planning, originally, to go to the Bristol Beer Festival, but unfortunately the tickets sold out in record time months ago. The centrepiece of the weekend was therefore a linear pub crawl from North Bristol back to our house, starting at about 1pm and finishing at 10:30pm because we wanted to get chips on the way home.

Present: self, B., Silk, Kate, my friend Anthony and Kate's friend Vaughn. Ants was with us until 7ish, when he had to return home to Petersfield and his wife and daughter. Vaughn joined us in a pub or two. B.'s stamina failed her at about 8:30 (well, she's been working hard recently), and she took a bus home.

Itinerary of pubs visited:

1. The Hare on the Hill. Very pleasant small pub owned by Bath Ales, whose available varieties we sampled all of between us. I had the S.P.A. Bath are my favourite local brewers' since Smiles went tits-up (of which more anon), and The Hare is one of their four pubs in Bristol, all of which are excellent. They do very nice crisps, too.

2. Micawber's Ale House. A solid traditional pub with some good real ales and musical tastes running oddly to 70s disco. I had a pint of Brains S.A., I think, although at this point I still hadn't had lunch and was getting a bit light-headed. We therefore repaired to...

3. Zerodegrees. Local branch of a chain of two microbreweries-cum-nightclubs (apparently a third is opening in Reading sometime soon), which I've had cause to mention here before. This was included largely for the excellent pizzas, of which we had several. On the beer front I drank the black lager, which is always Mmmmm, and the overly sweet mango beer, which I wasn't nearly drunk enough to enjoy.

4. A diversion to the recently-reopened Smiles Brewery Tap, which was deeply disappointing. Smiles closed down last year and has been bought out by Highgate, who don't seem on the evidence we sampled to be brewing the beers to anything like the same standard. (It's also no longer brewed on the premises, making the pub's name a bit of a misnomer.) They sold us chocolate, though.

5. The Bank. We'd never been here before, but it stood in at the last minute for The Three Sugar Loaves, which was unexpectedly closed. I can't remember what I had to drink -- whatever the guest ale was, I assume, but things were becoming pleasantly fuzzy by this stage. We played dominoes, and listened to Guns'n'Roses singing "Live and Let Die" on the juke box.

6. The Cornubia. One of the major highlights of Bristol's real ale scene. The Cornubia always has half a dozen different real ales on tap, and half of them are generally very obscure. I have no idea what I drank here, but it was bloody good. We ran into some loud refugees from the Beer Festival, and a random Doctor Who author was working behind the bar. Ants left and Vaughn joined us, after a certain amount of getting lost.

7. The Shakespeare. One of no fewer than four pubs of that name in Bristol. (B. and I used to go to pub quizzes at The Shakespeare when we lived nearby, and we occasionally met up for lunch at the daringly-named Ye Shakespeare when we both worked in town. I hadn't heard of The Shakespeare until just now, though.[Edit 31/2/6: No, I'm wrong -- we went there when we went to Glasnost one time. I hadn't realised that was what it was called, but under the circumstances I should probably have expected it. Anyway...]) The one in Prince Street has a banner outside boasting of its real ales, and does indeed do some very nice ones. Reconstructing my probable state of mind at the time, I imagine I had the Greene King I.P.A., but I can't swear to it. I remember crisps, though. Vaughn and B. both left us after this one. Personally I was impressed that any of us had lasted this long.

8. The Coronation. One of our two locals, in the sense that it's within reasonable walking distance of us and we go there sometimes. (They do a free cheeseboard on a Sunday.) Owned by Hop Back, and selling a fine selection of their splendid beers. Again, I forget what I had -- possibly the Odyssey. Distressingly, though, they'd stopped doing food.

9. The Tobacco Factory. Our other kind-of-local, and our last stop before the chip shop. They sell Bristol Beer Factory beers, which are very tasty. I drank the Red, which for some reasons isn't listed on the website, but is my favourite of their beers.

By this point I was feeling extremely hungry, so we bought chips and pasties, came home and watched as many episodes of series one of Look Around You as we could before we fell over.

We followed this up on Sunday with a relatively tame trip to The Boston Tea Party and Bristol City Museum.

24 March 2006


Just a brief post, to confirm that I haven't forgotten about this blog's existence. I've got an action-packed (well, pub-packed) weekend in the offing, so I probably won't get time to update it again until next week now.

In the meantime, and following on from the Invisible Cities meme, allow me somewhat belatedly to commend to you the blog of the incredibly gifted Simon Bucher-Jones, complete with songs, poetry and his own entry in that same pseudocartographic canon. Some good people -- nominally including myself -- are also attempting to collect, index and create material of this general ilk at Blind Atlas. There should be more exciting stuff arriving there at some point soon.

15 March 2006

Luton Beds England

...So how many U.K. county abbreviations are also verbs? I can think of Bedforshire (see above), Wiltshire ("Swindon Wilts"), Huntingdonshire ("Ramsey Hunts"), Buckinghamshire ("Aylesbury Bucks") and I suppose Staffordshire (er, "Lichfield Staffs"). Including homophones allows for Hertfordshire ("Watford Herts"), Lincolnshire ("Boston Lincs") and, just possibly, Worcestershire ("Malvern Worcs") and Warwickshire ("Kirsty Kingsbury Warks").

Yorkshire only counts if you believe The Meaning of Liff ("Jasmine yorked politely, loathing him to the depths of her being"), which is obviously cheating.

It's only the shires that even have abbreviations, isn't it? Except that I think Glamorgan may be "Glam". Ironically.

I'm ashamed to say that there are entire counties in Scotland I've never even heard of. They made Kincardineshire up, surely?

I'm really tired.

13 March 2006

Masks and Machines

I've made a smallish update to the website today, adding to the A Life Worth Living pages my rejected story submissions for Big Finish's most recent follow-up volume, Something Changed. There are plot spoilers for the book, but as it's been out a while now I'm assuming that that shouldn't be a huge problem for anybody, given the appropriate amount of warning.

While I fully respect the editor Simon Guerrier's judgement about which submissions were going to fit into the volume and which wouldn't, I do feel slightly wistful reading these again, as any of the three would have been huge fun to write. Ah, well.

You can read the first chapter of Something Changed online at the Big Finish site.

B. and I went to see Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's stunning Mirrormask at the Watershed on Saturday. It's a mindblowingly good film -- if you've ever marvelled at the visual texture and general bloody weirdness of McKean's art, then seeing it translated into a fully realised animated world with actors walking around in it is unmissable. Gaiman's schizoid fairy-tale of a script was equally magnificent, although I'm not entirely sure about the ending.

[SPOILERS follow -- highlight the whitespace to read:]

During her time in the otherworld, Helena has been watching the Shadow Princess living her life for her: arguing with her father, dating unsuitable boys, burning her artwork and generally acting out. Helena's trapped sensation as she gazes out at this, helpless to intervene, is a powerful metaphor for the the tiny trace of rationality left in our psyches during our years of hormone-fuelled teenage excess -- which in Helena's case we know to be exacerbated by her mother's illness.

Unfortunately, the metaphor is de-clawed, and the plot rendered somewhat nonsensical, by the revelation at the end that only a night has passed while Helena has been in the otherworld, and that her mother is recovering fine from her operation. I couldn't help feeling that a more fitting, more emotionally honest and generally more Gaimanesque ending would have had Helena returning to a world where her mother's operation had been a failure, and where the Princess's actions had consequences for Helena to deal with.

[SPOILERS finish.]

Still a marvellous film, though, and one I'd recommend to more or less everybody likely to be reading this.

11 March 2006


You get a better class of meme with Mr Chapman. I don't know where Neath is in relation to Polopolis, Spindlemarch or Velocester (and I can't remember whether Calvino already did this one). Nevertheless...

Neath is a mining town, a city build by those who toil in the ground. Beneath the surface of the plain where it lies, broad thoroughfares and narrow back-alleys warren the earth, thronged by people and vehicles. Manholes above them provide access to the upper world: during the last century, ventilation holes were also added, fitted with powerful fans, to draw away the fumes of cars and motorcycles.

Houses and shops are bricked-off caverns next to these thoroughfares, each with its windows to the surface letting in the sun: from the air, Neath is a variegated tabletop of earth and glass.

The grander, more imposing structures burrow further beneath the city. The cathedral is a vast, vaulted cellar, hundreds of metres deep, its steeple a spike thrust far down into the earth. Tenement slums and office blocks, artificially lit and ventilated, delve many stories downward, the grimiest apartments and most prestigious meeting-rooms down in the depths. The mining magnates lounge, bloated and pallid, deep down in their geothermal penthouse suites.

The city’s squares and plazas are roofed with earth and stone, held up with many pillars. Civic statuary in Neath tends to be modest in stature, and Atlas a common subject for sculptors. Along the boulevards and avenues flap stunted pigeons, flashing in and out of lightwells, avoiding obstacles.

The few significant regional roads which run through Neath plunge down ramps as they reach the city’s outlying suburbs, buses and lorries entering these subterranean streets to drop off or pick up their loads. Popular goods in Neath include televisions, fans and light, airy clothes: there is little market for heaters, scarves or rotary washing-lines. The city’s major exports are iron and root vegetables.

Neath is a city in reflection, a city flipped head-to-toe. Above the ground, electric cables, water-pipes and phone-lines mesh and interlink: broad channels carry sewage down to the lake. Municipal workers, dressed in waterproof coveralls, blink myopically as they wade the length of them. Here and there wine-racks and storage-cellars stand exposed to the air.

Overground stations, accessed by escalators from the streets below, send trains hurtling along specially-constructed superterranean rail-lines from city-block to city-block. Inside them, the passengers huddle, agoraphobic and exposed. Neath’s inhabitants are diminutive, timid and nervous with prominent ears. Their noses twitch compulsively, as they inhale the unfamiliar scents of the outside.

09 March 2006

Who in Review

I'm a little baffled by the mention given to my short story "The Long Midwinter" in the latest Doctor Who Magazine's review of Short Trips: The History of Christmas.

Matt Michael obviously feels under pressure to mention every story in the collection, which given 24 stories and a 500-word review is naturally a bit of a challenge. Under such circumstances, it would be understandable if he chose to skip most of them, instead concentrating on a paragraph or so about the four or five that have obviously fired his imagination.

Rather gamely, though, he tries to cram them all in, with the result that some of his comments are somewhat... elliptical. The sentence which mentions "The Long Midwinter" does so in the context of it being one of four stories which, like Richard Salter's "Callahuanca", employs "the theme of the Doctor fulfilling a promise".

I'm certainly not offended or annoyed by this -- just puzzled. Because the Doctor keeping a promise isn't a theme in "The Long Midwinter". As far as I can recall, it isn't even an event in "The Long Midwinter". The Doctor does some people a favour -- which is the sort of thing he tends to do anyway -- but there are no promises involved. I'd love to know what Matt had in mind here.

He's kind enough, though, to say that there "aren't any stinkers" in the collection, which is pleasing. And it's good that he finds the space to praise Jonathan Clement's lovely story "Ode to Joy", which fully deserves it.

08 March 2006

Game Plan

OK, so the brief political thought which follows would probably count as a conspiracy theory, if it were well enough thought through to count as a theory. And as such someone else may have thought of it already anyway.

But... I was reading this story in The Guardian, and I came upon the following quote from the U.S. ambassador to Iraq:
Mr Khalilzad suggested the situation [in Iraq] was so dangerous that without a substantial US presence, a civil war could suck in other Arab countries on the side of the Sunnis and Iran on the side of the Shias, creating conditions for a regional conflict and disrupting global oil supplies. "That would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play," he said.
And the self-centred Westerner in me thought, "Well, at least that would keep them all occupied."

And then the aggressive war-game player in me thought, "That's a damn good strategy. Set up a contained arena far away from your own territory, provoke your most dangerous opponents into killing each other there, and then withdraw and leave them to it. Sure, you'll need to take on the victor eventually, but by that time you'll be in such a strong position they won't stand a chance."

Admittedly it involves some American fatalities in the meantime, but it's always been clear that this was an acceptable risk in achieving whatever the long-term goal actually is. The disruption of the oil supply might be considered a more serious concern (and it's one which Risk doesn't model, although as I recall Supremacy has a decent stab at it), but the U.S. has been making some serious effort recently to identify sources elsewhere, especially in its own oil-rich states of Texas and Alaska.

Taking it as read for the moment that George Bush is a man of -- at best -- short-sighted morals, who is advised by people very much more intelligent and ruthless than he is... how implausible is it, honestly, that this might be the long-term plan they have in mind? In these days of militant, outward-looking Islam, statesmen of Bush's father's generation must look back with some nostalgia to the good old days of the Iran-Iraq war.

Hell, it's what I'd do. Assuming, of course, that this was a board game.

05 March 2006


I'm reading two first novels at the moment, from authors whose later work I admire, and finding them variously disappointing.

Well, actually David Mitchell's Ghostwritten isn't all that disappointing -- in fact it's very good. It's just that his later Cloud Atlas uses many of the same ideas, but takes them very much further, so that Ghostwritten feels a bit seen-it-all-before. If I'd read this in 1999, when it came out, I'd probably have been captivated.

Like Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten is divided into sections, each with a different first-person narrator, with a large number of subliminal, but very few overt, connections between the narratives. Ghostwritten takes us on a geographical progress, from an outlying Japanese island off Okinawa right the way across Eurasia to an outlying island off the Irish coast, and thence to the U.S. I'm currently on the eighth of the nine main narratives (the tenth being a coda which returns us to the narrator of the first), with an Irish physicist who holds in her head the secrets of quantum computing, and possibly also a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, returning to the Gaelic-speaking rural island of her birth and her blind harpist husband.

Blind Irish harpists in literature are always a step too symbolic for me, I'm afraid, and in general Ghostwritten is just that shade less subtle and more obvious than the sublimely wonderful Cloud Atlas. In its favour, its narrative progress is tighter and more controlled, with characters from certain narratives turning up in later ones, and events in one having consequences, of one kind or another, in the next. Cloud Atlas feels more like a series of interconnected short stories, although its grand historical sweep -- running from the South Seas in the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic far-future -- is concomitantly more ambitious and impressive. Cloud Atlas is a story about the slow failure of human civilisation, in which reincarnation may play a part, while Ghostwritten, though not without millennial and mystical overtones, focuses on the personal more than the political.

That said, many of the individual narratives are engrossing, and their human stories involving: the descriptions of cities, islands and mountains carry effortless conviction. The S.F. elements of Cloud Atlas -- which it would be difficult to describe as belonging in any sense to an S.F. novel -- are prefigured by the matter-of-fact treatment given one of Ghostwritten's more eponymous narrators, a walk-in spirit who possesses a total of nine human beings in the course of its narrative, before reaching its own variant of closure. (As with most of the closure in this book, though, it leaves you eager to find out what happened next.)

I'm clearly not in a position to assess Ghostwritten properly until I've finished it, but all the evidence so far suggests that it was, indeed, a very fine debut novel. It's just that the author is fortunate enough to have surpassed it since, and that I've been unfortunate enough to read the two in the wrong order.

Wanting a touch of the exciting and exotic whilst reading Ghostwritten, I turned to one of the S.F. novels I picked up recently from my Dad: Four Hundred Billion Stars by Paul J. McAuley. This one was the real disappointment: so far I'm just over halfway through, and really struggling with it.

I'm a big fan of most of the McAuley books I've read. Pasquale's Angel is fantastic, a really exciting and convincing alternative history. Red Dust is an outstanding evocation of a future Mars as a long-established colony of China. Eye of the Tyger is similarly impressive, and for my money one of the best Doctor Who novellas Telos published, although strangely underappreciated by Doctor Who fans[1]. The only novel of his which has left me rather less whelmed has been Child of the River, which somehow failed to engage me and left me with little desire to read the other two books in the Confluence trilogy.

In all of the above, however, setting and character are central: each (Child of the River not excepted) explores a vivid and well-thought-out environment through the viewpoint of a convincing and engaging protagonist. Four Hundred Billion Stars (henceforth 4×1011S) seems to be trying to do the same thing, but founders on the unfortunate facts that its setting is dull and leaden, and its protagonist lumpen and unlikeable. In theory it's a planetary romance, in that a planet is being explored, but the exploration it describes is so flat and uninvolving that I'm getting the impression even the author found it difficult to engage with.

The novel is self-consciously in the hard S.F. tradition, and -- perhaps because the first-time author was too diffident about his intended audience -- seems to be downplaying the possibility that its characters might have any actual character. There've been some heavy-handed hints that a revelation concerning the protagonist's last parting with her family is planned, but on the whole I find it difficult to see why I should care. Perhaps I'm meant to be getting excited by the science (mostly biology and astronomy) of it all, but so far that's provided barely a glimmer of interest.

Naturally one doesn't expect every successful author to hit a home run on their first attempt as Mitchell did... but evidently 4×1011S tied with Rudy Rucker's enormously better Wetware to win the 1988 Philip K. Dick Award[2]. Failing a breathtaking upturn in the second half I'm frankly baffled as to why, unless the judging committee saw signs of future promise which have altogether passed me by. There are Doctor Who books not even by Paul McAuley which are vastly superior to this.

It does, however, share a universe with at least two other McAuley novels (Secret Harmonies and Eternal Light) and sundry short stories. On these grounds I feel that I probably ought to persevere with it, although it may prove to be the equivalent of reading Rocannon's World in order to understand The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

[1] It also contains a character called "Tx", hence my somewhat eccentric choice of title.
[2] You know, I really hope they call those "The Phils", rather than... never mind.

02 March 2006

Phil: My Head, With Nonsense

Occasionally -- generally after partaking too liberally of caffeinated beverages -- I find my cranium invaded by thoughts which would seem more at home inside Colin's head.

For instance, what part of a rat is the zinger? Is it the same as the dinger? And what are the similarities between a rat and a schroe?

(The Head wouldn't have provided the explanatory links there, of course. I should be more disciplined about leaving these things as an exercise for the head-reader.)

Sadly, the River Exe and the River Wye turn out not to be at right angles to one another at all.