31 August 2005

Lives Again

Another pleasingly enthusiastic review of Peculiar Lives has surfaced at Science Fiction Crowsnest (NB: You may encounter popups at the site). I must start collecting these links on a webpage.

29 August 2005

Normal Service...

...certainly isn't going to be resumed tonight. But it should be later in the week, with any luck.

Apologies to all my regular readers for the relentlessly God-bothering tone of this blog as of late. As you'll have gathered, the Greenbelt christian arts festival has been rather occupying my attention: now that I'm back this shouldn't be the case for much longer, at least until August next year. If you want to know what I did and how it was, then follow the links below -- but if you do, then you probably already have.

(For those of you who can't be bothered, the talk went very well. It was crowded out, in fact, with some 260 attendees. Doctor Who is a very big draw this year. [Edit: Full transcripts should be going up on the web at some point, and with luck Greenbelt will eventually be selling recordings of the event itself.])

I will at some point be producing a post about the festival generally, saying the things I couldn't really say whilst writing on behalf of surefish.co.uk -- but otherwise Peculiar Times should shortly be returning to its regular round of political and philosophical rumination, literary and televisual criticism, random autobiographical maunderings, unhealthy speculation about Nicole Kidman and gratuitous plugs for my books. How lucky you all are.

I have (at least) one reading-related post in particular which I really must write at some point soon, covering among other things The Time Traveler's Wife, Einstein's Dreams and the first quarter of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.

It's going to have to wait, though, because currently I am, quite honestly, absolutely bloody knackered. And I'm enrolling students again tomorrow morning.

Greenbelt Updates

Salvation through time travel
Festival Blog: Day 3
Festival Blog: Day 2
Festival Blog: Day 1

26 August 2005


Just a brief pre-emptive welcome to anybody who visits this blog over the weekend of Greenbelt 2005, either as a result of my appearances at Between the Lines or via my festival blog for surefish (to which, unless anything radically unexpected happens, my next post here should link).

So. Hello. Welcome to Peculiar Times. [Shuffles awkwardly.]

Please feel free to read, to browse the archives and links (especially to my homepage, where there's lots of stuff relating to my published fiction), and to leave comments if you so wish.

While I write this I am, in no particular order:

1. Trying desperately to research blogging and blog theory as preparation for the panel discussion in Between the Lines on Sunday at 6pm. (Technorati is proving helpful in this respect.)
2. Looking forward eagerly to my arrival at Greenbelt in roughly eleven hours' time, and to the subsequent festivities.
3. Supposedly (as in "supposed by my employers to be") working as a librarian. (No, really, I've just catalogued a book. Later on I'll be enrolling new students and issuing them with library cards.)

Greenbelt is, I'm sure, going to be wonderful -- the only issue being, as ever, how to divide one's time between the hectic mix of arts, seminars, worship and social interaction that's on offer. (The last of these has to remain unlubricated by decent beer, sadly -- not that Greenbelt's "dry" these days, just that the beer at the Cheltenham Racecourse bar is legendarily indecent.)

[STOP PRESS EDIT: I am informed by a reliable correspondent that this year there is, in fact, a Real Ale Marquee! And Richard Dawkins insists there's no such thing as a miracle...]

But if you're reading this as one of the people I welcomed above, you know exactly how wonderful it is, because you've been there already -- or, if you're particularly keen and net-addicted, are there right now.

I hope you're enjoying it as much as I intend to, and I look forward to seeing you there.

23 August 2005

Festival Flapping

My Greenbelt talk is still way too long. I think I'm going to have to cut references to the original series of Doctor Who down to a sixty-second mention, just to remind people that there was such a thing. Even then there's some decent material on the new series that I'm going to have to drop.

It's frustrating that the original plan, of doing one session on Old and one on New Who, had to be ditched. Admittedly it forces me to be ruthless, which is good -- but so far I've been struggling to get through my practice runs in 50 minutes, which (taking into account shuffling-in-and-out time for the audience) leaves no time at all for questions at the end.

It seems that the venue has shifted location this year, away from the central "Festival Village" area and into the fringes of the campsite, apparently along with several of the other seminar venues. Supposedly this is part of a general scheme to try to prevent talks being disrupted by loud music and / or D.J.ing from the other venues, which is in itself a pretty good idea, as that's often been pretty distracting for audiences and speakers alike. Whether the new configuration results in the seminars being less well-attended remains to be seen, but it's probably worth trying for the one year at least.

I'm looking forward hugely to this year's festival, although this is tempered by having to be back at work for the next three days (and therefore being unable to arrive in Cheltenham until mid-evening on Friday, grr). For some reason the upper echelons at St Brad's are of the opinion that making students come and enrol the moment their G.C.S.E. results arrive, will give the college a competitive edge... rather than, as seems rather more realistic, pissing off all their prospective registrants royally.

It certainly pisses off their staff, many of whom feel quite strongly that they should be entitled to have the time up to the August Bank Holiday off, even if they were expected back straight afterwards. And, as I've said before, this summer holiday has been hopelessly unproductive as far as writing's gone, to the extent that even getting the talk written feels like something of a triumph. So I'm actually feeling rather annoyed and unfulfilled, except when actively looking forward to Greenbelt.

Still, never mind. The weekend will, I'm sure, be fab, intensive workload and all.

I may not get the chance to update here again before I go, in which case the next things you'll see here will be the links I'll be putting up to my three-day festival blog at surefish. Enjoy.

Lives in Review

Richard McGinlay at Sci-Fi Online provides the first proper review of Peculiar Lives, excluding those written for mailing lists or bulletin boards.

(If I were one to quibble I might say that there's more of an engagement with relatively trivial details, and less with the actual story, than I'd ideally be keen on... but for obvious reasons, it's not the done thing to review one's own reviews. McGinlay is complimentary about the novella, and that is very pleasing indeed.)

21 August 2005

Blog Cabin

B. and I spent most of yesterday building one of these:

...and then eating one of these as a reward. (We chose the "Sun". Mm, halloumi.)

The Greenbelt talk is coming together reasonably nicely, now. Unfortunately there's a lack of people to practise it at -- my usual test audience, R. and M., are waiting for me to lend them the videos of 2005 Doctor Who before they'll actually know what I'm talking about.

This means that a week tomorrow will be the first time I've stood up to deliver it to anybody other than B. and the cats, which is mildly terrifying. Still, never mind.

I also need to do some proper research for Sunday's panel discussion on Blogging, which is kind of intimidating as well. Does anyone have recommendations for the following, all of which I need to read some of at some point:

1. Some interesting and/or high-profile Christian and/or literary blogs?
2. Sites which go rather more into the cultural (and preferably not too much of the technical) theory of blogging -- in terms of history, current trends, ethics, politics and the like?

Any suggestions gratefully received.

19 August 2005

In Other News...

...It seems as if I'll be even busier at Greenbelt than previously announced. In addition to writing a daily blog for surefish (don't worry, I'll link to it from here), they'll also be running an article to tie in with my talk about (all together now) The Spirituality of Doctor Who. Those pieces will probably be going up on this page, so keep your eyes peeled over the Bank Holiday weekend.

If you're going to be at Greenbelt, you'll be able to see me actually delivering the talk at 1pm on Monday 29 August at Between the Lines: with luck a full transcript will materialise eventually to join last years' talks here. If you'd like to hear me and a panel of other self-appoitned experts, wittering on about blogging, then you'll need to be at the same venue at 6pm on the Sunday -- coincidentally, two hours before the venue shows Greenbelt speaker Paul Cornell's Doctor Who episode Father's Day.

In other other news, my hardback copies of Peculiar Lives arrived from Telos yesterday, and are really rather nice. The cover is dark blue, with a textured leather effect (not real leather, obviously) and there's a ribbon bookmark, adding to the whole elderly-book feel. These publishers take real care over, and pride in, the physical appearances of all their books, and with these hardback editions it really shows.

If you're still considering whether or not to buy the novella, whether in hardback or paperback, then don't forget that a sample chapter of the novella is being hosted online at Outpost Gallifrey. Read it before you shell out (and then shell out, obviously).

Now that the hardbacks are out, and following the release of Wildthyme on Top, the only fiction of mine that currently remains to be released is "The Long Midwinter" in Short Trips: The History of Christmas. Whether anything further will have been announced by the time that comes out remains to be seen... but frankly, I seem to be suffering from a certain amount of creative burnout just at the moment. The past month has been the least productive time-off-work I've had for years, and I've had to put a couple of hopeful-looking projects on the back-burner from sheer lack of ability to proceed with them.

I'm thinking I might take a bit of a sabbatical after Greenbelt, and spend two or three months without trying to write creatively at all. The hope is that depriving myself of the opportunity to follow through on my ideas will immediately result in a plethora of them presenting themselves, all of which I can jot down and save for later, when I can return to work refreshed and reinvigorated. This, at least, is the theory.

Don't Mention the Waugh

It's important I complete my epic write-up of last weekend's festivities before it all falls out of my head. As my fourth decade progresses, I find myself forgetting things remarkably easily -- I used to retain information without even trying, often without even wanting to at all, and now it's a real struggle. It's tragic really.

...Where was I?

Right. Yes. The Oxford reunion weekend -- and specifically, the DougSoc reunion weekend, which means that it wasn't terribly much like the floppy-haired cricket-whited unrequited Weltschmertzfest that the phrase "Oxford reunion weekend" suggests.

(To be honest, Oxford in the 1990s wasn't a particularly Brideshead place anyway -- except for a few unrequited-floppy-cricket types who insisted on perceiving it as such, and who for fairly obvious reasons tended to congregate around Christ Church, which as ill luck would have it was my college. I didn't tend to spend much time there.)

Anyway. Last weekend was well-attended, with some thirty or more DougSoccers, accompanied by partners and in two cases infant offspring, partaking of traditional activities ably organised by Silk and Pete, to whom enormous thanks are due.

Festivities began at Saturday lunchtime with a grimly determined picnic in the University Parks. This eventually succumbed to the inevitable downpour, and we decamped to The Lamb and Flag[1], one of the many highly decent real ale pubs in Oxford (and the only one, I believe I'm right in saying, which has its own dedicated beer, Lamb and Flag Gold, although it's not brewed on the premises).

After this we resorted to The Bear, the traditional starting-point for the now internationally-renowned DougSoc Role-Playing Pub Crawls. (Historically the reason for this has been the extensive outside seating, which is of course useless in a downpour. We crowded out the sweaty, steamy interior instead.) Enormous kudos points are due to Pete at this point for creating an all-new pub crawl (which hopefully will be getting archived at some point) -- a hugely ambitious crossover between the Hitchhiker, Prisoner, Sandman and Doctor Who universes.

The original DougSoc Doctor Who pub crawl (not archived) was called The Claws of Time and featured yours truly as the Master (bwa-ha-ha). The Doctor Who elements in this updated version were naturally based around the 2005 series, and pubgoers were given the parts of the Doctor, Rose, Captain Jack, Margaret the Slitheen (played by B.) and The Editor (played by me -- I'm evidently typecast. It's the beard, I think.) We were sent on a schedule from pub to pub, drinking and interacting in character with each other, and more surreally with characters from the other fictional universes.

All of which was enormous fun, even if it did involve wandering around in the rain (and visiting The Turl, which has gone enormously downhill and where the only remotely drinkable beer was Guinness[2]. For completeness' sake, the other pubs where I was sent were The St Aldate's Tavern -- formerly known as The Hobgoblin, and prior to that The Bulldog -- and the splendidly-named The Three Goat's Heads.)

After which we all went for a nice Italian meal, then to the Oscar Wilde Room in Magdalen College for your classic booze-up-with-comedy-sketches event. Booze consisted of beer, wine, Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters[3] and all the usual; comedy consisted of recycled Cruel and Unusual Punishment sketches, along with some other usual suspects like Fry and Laurie. A massively good time was had by pretty much all, although the children and most of their parents had vanished by this point.

Attempts to play Mao were abortive as far as most of us were concerned, since the (otherwise highly impressive and efficient) organisers had failed to take into account the need for playing-cards and the players had to trek back to someone's house. Plus it was late, and a lot of us lost our all-night-partying student stamina long ago, so went to bed instead. (B. and I slept at her old college, St Hilda's, which has a very nice S.C.R. guest room and rather less impressive cooked breakfasts.)

Sunday morning saw the most Bridesheadish activity of the whole weekend. I didn't partake of the punting, having a pathological dislike of any activity which stands a chance of resulting in any part of me being submerged in filthy river-water. Instead I wandered around the bookshops kindly provided by the entrepreneurs of Oxford for the purpose, and picked up a copy of the Hugo-Award-winning Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, which I'm looking forward to reading even as we speak.

I met up with the others for lunch at Magdalen College bar, after which we lounged around in Christ Church Meadow before in some cases progressing to the very best of Oxford's fine real ale pubs, The Turf Tavern, for a final round of beer before making our ways to our various homes.

The whole thing was generally a fantastic time, with the opportunity to catch up with some people I haven't seen for a very long time and many others who I don't see nearly often enough.

Plus beautiful surroundings, nice beer, good food, fun activities and, naturally, the universe going "foom". What more could one ask?

[1] Pub reviews courtesy of Colin, for nostalgic reasons, and therefore very likely several years out of date.

[2] A short history of Phil's drinking preferences over the years, for those of you whose curiosity was piqued by the tobacco rant:
1985 to 1990ish (aged 14 to 18) -- Pimm's and lemonade (the first thing I ever got drunk on). Dry Blackthorn or Woodpecker cider. Martini and lemonade, Bacardi and Coke. Lambrusco.
1990ish to 1999ish (aged 18 to 27 -- the Oxford years, frustratingly enough) -- Guinness and other then-mainstream stouts such as Murphy's and Beamish. Occasional mass-produced ales like Caffrey's. Tastes in wine becoming more acceptable, moving quickly from white to dogmatically red, with an exception made for retsina. Spirit consumption limited to ouzo and vodka, except at drunken parties when pretty much anything would do (see [3] below).
1999ish to the present (aged 27 to 33) -- Sudden discovery of real ale and consequent reformatting of the palate. Favourite beers now too numerous to name. Still ignorant about wine, but I know what I like and it's definitely not white. Not at all averse to a decent single malt whisky, either.

[3] The historic DougSoc recipe for a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster: take 2 parts Blue Curaçao to 2 parts vodka, 1 part tequila and 1 part rum. (In practice, just take 2 parts Curaçao to 4 of anything that pours.) Mix in a large mixing-bowl. Add orange juice in much larger quantities until the mixture is an opaque green colour. Slosh in a little of anything else that looks like it might be interesting, then ladle out to all comers. Garnish with a slice of aubergine (optional).

17 August 2005

Ad Nauseam

Every time I see or hear a mention[1] of the revolting British supermarket chain Asda (now a subsidiary of the much larger revolting U.S. supermarket chain Wal-Mart), their advertising jingle starts playing in my head. You know, the one they used to use in those incredibly cheesy T.V. adverts which would end with someone patting their back pocket in time with the jingle, to show how much spare change they had left after doing their shopping there. The one which they used to play over and over and over and over and over again on their stores' P.A. systems, before some international agreement or other on the use of psychological torture was invoked to stop them.

Is this an example of effective marketing?

Bear in mind when formulating your answer that as a direct result of the above I loathe Asda with a violent, psychotic passion, and that if a branch of it were the last grocery shop left on Earth, I would not only prefer to starve to death than to do my shopping there, but wouldn't intervene to prevent it burning down if it contained the final bar of chocolate in existence.

[1] Don't bother following that link, it's not very interesting. Just the springboard for a rant.

15 August 2005

Image Consciousness

The weekend in Oxford was very fantastic indeed, and I will be describing it at length.

For the moment, though, here's an experiment on my part in using Blogger's new picture-uploading facility. The photo, of a shop named Honey's on the High Street, exists courtesy of my fellow DougSoccer Alex and illustrates what a peculiar place Oxford is. There can't be many cities in the U.K. where a newsagent would pick on this specific publication as their primary selling-point.

Give Me Nicotine or Give Me Death

I'm pretty much entirely not a smoker. As a student I flirted with cigarettes, largely out of curiosity; but having established to my satisfaction that neither the flavour nor the high was fun enough to justify the considerable expense -- and, crucially, that smoking didn't make me look cool enough that girls were more likely go to bed with me -- I gave up on it.

These days the only tobacco I taste takes the form of a cigar on special occasions: weddings, usually, or when friends are celebrating the successful functioning of their reproductive equipment.

So the direct effect on my life of what, apparently, two-thirds of M.P.s want -- a total ban on smoking in pubs -- would be negligible. But the effect on British pub culture would be devastating, and that's something I do feel I have a stake in. As a member of CAMRA I'm entitled to pontificate about such things, at extreme length if necessary, whilst resting a full-to-the brim pint on the upper surface of my belly. So...

If the Government bans smoking in pubs, as many voters seem to want them to do, then pubs will at a stroke become less inclusive, friendly and welcoming. Students, old men with dogs and a fair number of affluent professionals will suddenly find it vastly preferable to go to a private members' club, or more depressingly to consume their fags and beer at home. Drinking in streets and parks, which the Government also frowns on, will certainly increase.

Under the legislation the Government is actually proposing, whereby it's only pubs which sell food where the ban will be observed, publicans will be obliged to decide whether they'd prefer to alienate the smokers or the eaters among their clientele. Whatever happens, pubs are going to go out of business -- and you can bet it's not going to be the ones with the financial backing of mainstream breweries or big McPubCo chains.

I understand the health benefits, just as I understand that... oh Lord, just fill in your favourite statistic about traffic accidents or marijuana or whatever. But speaking for myself, I would very much prefer to be considered an adult, capable of making an informed decision as to whether or not the risk of entering a mildly nicotine-laced atmosphere is worth the benefit of the nice beer I might find therein, than a mindless work-drone who requires to have all freedom of choice removed by governmental edict so that the difficulty of making a decision won't destabilise his brain, thus compromising his value to the state.

And as for those of us who actually aren't adults... well.

I'm honestly in favour of pubs accommodating families by providing, say, non-smoking rooms, outside tables and the like. I'm very glad to be able to go to pubs and have a drink with those of my friends who have, as previously mentioned, successfully undergone the parturitive process.

But a pub is, essentially, a social space for adults: this is its core function. The fact that many such establishments will also admit children is an additional benefit -- an optional extra which, at present, a reasonable number of them choose to offer. Myself, I didn't set foot in a pub until I was old enough (in my own estimation, if not that of the Government) to have a drink there, and I certainly didn't expect everyone else there to conform to what was at the time my fanatical disapproval of tobacco, any more than I expected them to share my taste for Dry Blackthorn cider.

Now that I'm older, I'm honestly very pleased that the opportunity exists for me to go to pubs and have a pleasant pint with those of my friends who have elected to become parents. And yet I would, in an ideal world, also like not to be deprived of the opportunity to go to pubs with those of my friends who are smokers -- and, if it seems appropriate, to eat a meal there with them -- without them moaning all the bloody time.

Is that really such an indefensible position?

12 August 2005

Lost, Not In Space

I watched the double-length pilot episode of Lost last night. At present I haven't read any spoilers for the series whatosever, so the following is a reaction to it completely in isolation. I don't imagine I'll be able to keep that up for long, though, so here, for the record, are those initial thoughts...

The interpersonal drama was all a bit dull and predictable, I thought, except for the odd behaviour of Daniel Dae Kim's character and the revelation that it's the bird-who-fancies-the-doctor who was actually the prisoner on the plane. The young-blonde-in-denial was becoming particularly irritating towards the end. This was compounded by the fact that hardly anybody's name seemed to be spoken, so that one was thinking of them as "the vaguely muslim-looking guy", "the sinister old guy", "the token fat guy" and so on.

Perhaps this is meant to make them seem more archetypal, though. Perhaps.

Furthermore, the setup is enormously contrived -- the plane being so comprehensively smashed up, while so many passengers and their luggage survive; the pilot surviving for long enough to hand out vital information; the menacing sounds in the woods; even the inevitable "one of us is not to be trusted" dynamic.

Charitably, it seems to me that there's going to turn out to be a reason for this (although probably not for the clichéd behaviour of the characters themselves). Perhaps it's having read a Guardian article which compares the series's premise with that of the reality show Survivor, but I couldn't help thinking -- even before the polar bear turned up -- that this was not a "real" environment. I don't imagine that it's actually a virtual reality, but it seems pretty clear that someone is stage-managing everything. (Either that or all the above is just a symptom of poor writing.)

So far we have a wreck on an isolated island due to bad weather, and the revelation of another plane-crash sixteen years earlier. Plus, of course, an invisible monster in the undergrowth, which is probably intended to make us think of The Lost World, but put an altogether different association in my head.

So -- would I be going out on a limb if I suggested that future episodes may just possibly throw up an elderly castaway and his sixteen-year-old daughter living on the island? (It isn't clear at this point, incidentally, whether the sinister backgammon-playing old man was actually a passenger on the flight.) The only question is whether this character's mastery over the local environment -- which will naturally turn out to be responsible for both the plane-crash and the monster -- will derive from books of magic or giant banks of ancient alien machinery, and whether his sidekick will be an aery spirit or a cute robot.

So, the situation is intriguing, and possibly archetypal 'n' that, but the actual drama is, so far, bordering on the banal. Plus the English guy is rubbish. Perhaps I've been spoiled recently with watching proper quality drama like The West Wing and Firefly, but I'm not entirely sure Lost is going to keep my attention for long enough to deliver on its promise.

09 August 2005

Inn Transit

Sorry about the reduced posting rate on this blog recently. I have been frantically trying to get work done, and to a very great extent failing, but in a manner which is taking up most of my time and creativity. Argh.

The Greenbelt talk is largely "written" now, but will need extensive practice to turn it from notes into something that's actually deliverable, and the other things I've been trying to do are in various half-formed stages. I have, however, found the time to give lots of constructive help and advice to other people about their creative projects. www.infinitarian.com, for all your displacement-activity needs.

Things I actually have done recently have included a very nice weekend in London, attending B.'s much-delayed birthday pub crawl. A spurious narrative justification based on Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next novels meant that everyone was invited to come as a character from 19th-century literature, so that the denizens of Southwark, Borough and environs were treated to the sight of -- among others -- Bill Sykes, Lorna Doone, Jane Eyre, Doctors Jekyll and Van Helsing, a slightly out-of-period Leopold Bloom and a rather impressive Bride of Dracula, all wandering around getting increasingly plastered and arguing about where to eat.

B. had arranged some particularly fiendish clues to direct us between venues, which for easily-guessed reasons became subjectively more difficult as the evening progressed. I drank lots of very pleasant beers in lots of very pleasant pubs with lots of very pleasant people, and saw more Londonian backstreets than I have in a long while. I also had time for a brief trip to the Tate Modern in the morning.

Next weekend we'll be attending the equally exciting, and even longer awaited, reunion of the Oxford University Douglas Adams Society, where we plan to revive some fine old DougSoc traditions including role playing pubcrawls, partying where Oscar Wilde used to live and playing Mao, and which therefore promises to be fun on a stick. Watch this space for a full report.

05 August 2005

Greenbelt Update

This year's Greenbelt is beginning to look rather busy. Early evidence suggests that in addition to my talk on The Spirituality of Doctor Who -- which, incidentally, I should be writing at this very moment -- I'll be participating in (but fortunately not chairing) a panel discussion on blogging. (Both of these sessions are at the Between the Lines venue -- see here for their full programme.) If you're at the festival and coming along to either session, do come and say "Hi" to me afterwards.

Greenbelt appears intent on elevating me as some kind of Christian Blog Guru, as I'll also be blogging from the site on behalf of surefish.co.uk, the web-magazine run by Christian Aid's internet-provider subsidiary. The relevant entries -- summaries of my day-by-day experiences at the festival on Saturday, Sunday and Monday -- will be going up at the surefish site, but I'll naturally be linking to them from here. Since this effectively means that I get paid for doing something I'd be hoping to get round to doing anyway, it gets a big thumbs-up from me.

It does mean, though, that Greenbelt 2005 is going to be substantially less restful than usual for me. I think I may take next year off, and spend my Bank Holiday weekend relaxing instead.