31 August 2006

Festival Blog: Day 3A

Still recovering from Greenbelt -- immense fun though it is, the persistent lack of sleep and constant need to wander aimlessly around the festival site destruct-testing your socks can have deleterious effects.

My reports from Greenbelt for Surefish are missing the actual, rather than speculative, events of my final day-and-a-bit of festival. So, after filing my copy for "Day 2" and (the entirely hypothetical) "Day 3", this is what I actually did:

1. Went back to the petting zoo, where B. and I cuddled a duckling and a guinea-pig, stroked a donkey and some goats and admired two pigs.

2. Spent a while listening to Reem Kalani at the main stage. Despite her astonishingly powerful voice, her wailing violin-accompanied singing was unexpectly soothing. Or maybe I was just very tired.


3. Attended Fundamentalism, Ikon's alternative worship (or rather "experiment in theodrama"). This was every bit as remarkable as I expected. Ikon's deliberately destabilising, questioning, deconstructionist approach to worship is oddly reassuring, in suggesting that God is present in doubt and absence as much as in faith and revelation. Some people (including, inevitably, some of its members) go so far as to describe the group's worship style as "pretentious", but its intellectual foundations are a good fit for my own current musings about God. And the group demonstrated that they're by no means humourless by picketing their own service with signs claiming that everyone involved was going to Hell.

I'm now reading Ikon founder Pete Rollins' book of theology, How (Not) to Speak of God, which I picked up at the Greenbelt bookshop. It is, again, remarkable. I may say more about it in due course.

3. Stopped briefly by a much less successful (read: "a bit bollocks, actually") experiment in "scripture meditation", then went to bed.

4. Got up early and went with B. to R. and J.'s wedding in Staffordshire. As I've said here this was generally lovely, but the high density of children in the congregation made it surprisingly difficult to hear what was going on. It was the first second wedding (as it were) of a friend that I've been to, and the minister (assuming I heard her correctly) said some very wise-seeming things about renewal, transformation and second chances.


R. and J. themselves were very happy, R. looking particularly gorgeous in a strapless silk wedding dress thing [1], and there were some people there it was lovely to see after so long. Unfortunately we had to scarper back to the festival after the Pimms and canapés, but our brief time there was very nice indeed.

5. Arrived back on site in time for the Othona Community's One World worship, which I came away having very mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I was delighted to find an even vaguely interfaith service at Greenbelt, which often seems to have a blind spot in its liberalism when it comes to learning from non-Christian faith traditions.

On the other hand, Othona's worship style seemed to revolve around improvisational chanting and interpretive body-movement, which I couldn't possibly participate in without feeling a complete knob [2]. This came as something of a disappointment, frankly.

6. FAFFED ABOUT and entirely failed to do any of the various other interesting things I could have done until about 8:30, when B. and I managed to stumble upon a very funny act by Paul Kerensa, who was on his way home from performing his comedy show Back to the Futon at the Edinburgh Festival. We particularly appreciated his account of being caught speeding at 88 mph in a DeLorean, and his use of (what he assured us was) his joint degree in Mathematics and Film Studies to prove that 99.6% of men were called Malcolm [3].

His warm-up act also had a joke which will entertain vigornian, if no-one else:
Q: Why are pirates called pirates?
A: Because they ARRRRRRHHHHH!
7. Went with B. and R. (NB: Not the R. who got married, of course -- that would have been mad) to Last Orders, the late-night magazine-show summing-up of the best of the festival, where we saw Paul Kerensa again. (His jokes were just as funny the second time. Or possibly I was just very, very tired.) Left when it became clear that none of us could keep our eyes open any more.

8. Slept in a tent. It's difficult to emphasise sufficiently what a huge achievement this was without sounding like a complete wimp, possibly for the obvious reason.

Suffice it to say that at Greenbelt in 1993 a combination of torrential rain, strong winds and calf-deep mud gave me such a horrendous experience of camping that I foreswore it, and Greenbelt itself, for the next ten years. Only the location of the modern festival at Cheltenham Racecourse, and the availability of bed-and-breakfast accommodation on a nearby student campus, succeeded in enticing me back.


Unfortunately, this year I'd booked my accommodation when I thought I'd have a job to get back to first thing on Tuesday morning, so when it became clear I could stay the Monday night, the only place available for actual sleepage was the tent B. was using.

The cramped space, muddy exterior and disturbing, almost organic softness of the walls caused me some minor palpitations, but I managed to sleep OK, which constitutes a personal milestone. It didn't persuade me not to B&B it next year, though.

9. Helped B. to pack up said tent, got a train home while she drove (there being no actual space for me in the car with all the camping gear), comforted two bereft cats and slept for not nearly long enough. Got up, went to bed and did the same again.

10. Typed this.

Now I'm going to eat some food, probably, watch some TV and go to bed again. With luck, I'll perhaps be not-tired-any-more in time for the Organic Food Festival on Saturday.

[1] R. was, incidentally, the bride.
[2] Ho ho, yes.
[3] Clue: His starting premises were "Malcolm X = 1992 film" and "X Men = 2000 film". You start by solving each equation for X...

29 August 2006


Now back home from Greenbelt, and utterly knackered. Had a very good time though (see below).

Came home to find that this had been announced. Fortunately I had this all prepared and ready.

I'll write more tomorrow, assuming I manage to wake up at some point.

26 August 2006

Greenbelt Updates 2006

Festival Blog: Day 3
Festival Blog: Day 2
Festival Blog: Day 1

Edit to add: You'll have to forgive the rather random subheadings and their weird placements. I don't think the editor was getting much sleep.

22 August 2006


You may be able to tell from the unaccustomed air of piety and / or sacrilege about that last post that it's very nearly time for this year's Greenbelt Festival. I'm due to be training up to Cheltenham or environs on Thursday, and coming back on Tuesday -- having detoured briefly via Staffordshire for the Bank Holiday Monday wedding of a dearly loved, but more than slightly inconvenient, friend. B.'s already at Cheltenham Racecourse, building a seventeen-foot-tall sculpture out of dustbins and chains.

For this reason I probably won't be updating Peculiar Times until lateish next week, except to link to my festival blog for Surefish. (If you're bored, you could always entertain yourself by reading last year's.) Entries should be going up on Surefish's Greenbelt pages on Saturday and Sunday.

As usual I'm looking forward hugely to the festival. As something of a floating worshipper, generally far too liberal / radical / heretical to fit comfortably into any of the traditional churches, I've found over the past few years that it's become my church community. It's a shame I can only be there for two-and-a-half days this year -- and, of course, that I have to spend some of that time working for cash -- but I'll be making the most of it nonetheless.

Beer, Games, Food, Wine, God

The past week's been a bit manic for some reason -- I'm not at all sure why, actually, as in retrospect I seem to have got very little actually done.

The weekend before last B. and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary, with a waffle / maple syrup / ice cream breakfast and a lovely trip out to The Swan at Swineford -- a Bath Ales pub we hadn't visited before, and which for some reason isn't listed on their website. We played the Settlers of Catan card game ("Politics and Intrigue" expansion) and drank much good beer.

In the evening we went out for an utterly damn gorgeous Lebanese meal. The baba ghanouch and batata harra were particularly excellent, but our self-selected vegetarian mezza was generally one of those communing-with-the-divine experiences that restaurants provide for the really fanatical food-lover. Nice flatbread, too.

We also tried Château Musar for the first time, and found it really good, in a surprising sort of way. The apparent taste of the wine is rather generic, but followed shortly afterwards by a much more violent aftertaste which I might -- were I experiencing unaccustomed levels of pretention -- compare to blackberries with overtones of gunpowder. It's quite something, although I'm not entirely sure what.

Thursday evening we experienced the Beer Festival at The Salamander, another Bath Ales pub (this one actually in Bath). We enjoyed various good beers, including the Lagonda I.P.A. we'd had in Manchester and something called Cream, but despite having my palmtop with me, I very laxly failed to take extensive tasting notes.

Last Sunday we played Settlers again -- this time the "Trade and Change" variant, which ended up being a little tedious. We decided that it incentivises mucking about with resources rather than actually building stuff (and thus gaining victory points), and that the cards would really only come into their own in tournament play. We also went to see A Scanner Darkly -- which deserves a blog entry of its own at the very least, but which will have to wait for the time being.

We also went to church twice -- indeed, we took communion twice, which I think is probably a personal best. The morning service was at St Mary Redcliffe, where our friend Simon is vicar (or technically "Priest in Charge", I think, as "vicar" implies a level of sinecurage which the Church of England generally doesn't run to nowadays). The service was high-church Anglican with whistles and bells, but more importantly we got to meet Simon's new son, and discuss high-minded theological matters chiefly relating to Philip K. Dick and Battlestar Galactica.

The evening service came courtesy of our local alternative worship / emerging church group Foundation. This time the communion was far more informal, with the congregation sitting in a circle and passing bread and wine to one another with the relevant words. Due to Tired Brain Syndrome I couldn't help seeing this as a game of Chinese Whispers, and imagining the this sort of thing going on as the elements progressed around the nave:
Communicant A: Jesus, the Bread of Life.
[Administers to B.]
Communicant B: Amen.
[Takes plate from A. Prayerful pause.]
Communicant B: Jesus's bread knife.
[Administers to C.]
Communicant C: Amen.
[Takes plate from B. Prayerful pause]
Communicant C: Jesus, this bread's nice.
[Administers to D.]

It's been a pretty good week for finding God's presence in food, in fact.

The rest of the time I've been working -- although, as previously mentioned, rather unaccountably failing to actually accomplish very much.

15 August 2006

I Feel Like a Newman

By an only slightly strange coincidence, I've recently read two unrelated books by horror novelist, media critic and occasional TV pundit Kim Newman. Although not up to the standard of such inspired works as Anno Dracula or the excellent Life's Lottery, both of them were readable, diverting and fun.

The first was The Night Mayor, Newman's out-of-print first novel which I spotted and picked up in a secondhand shop a couple of months ago.

It's easy to see how it comes from the same imagination as Anno Dracula and its sequels -- set as it is in a consensus fictional reality belonging to a very specific historical period and genre (in this case 1940s and 50s film noir) -- but it reads as a dry run for that novel. Where three years later Newman would be confident enough simply to assert the reality of Count Dracula, Dr Jekyll, Mycroft Holmes and (many, many) others in his late Victorian era, here he feels the need to justify his fictional world as a virtual reality in the context of a rather perfunctory cyberpunk future.

(There might be interesting points to make, incidentally, about cyberpunk's obvious indebtedness to the conventions and tropes of film noir, as observed by every film student who's ever watched Blade Runner. However, The Night Mayor doesn't make them, being much keener to revel in its subsidiary world.)

There's a hardboiled detective narrative, and plenty of postmodern play with genre conventions. One aspect which, though disconcerting at first, quickly becomes fascinating is that all the characters (except the handful of "real" people who wander in from the outside world) are referred to by the names of contemporary actors: thus the villains include Claude Rains and Otto Kruger, who has Peter Lorre as his sidekick ("Yiu keelled heem!" he wails at a climactic moment).

This is taken to deliberately silly extremes with Nazis who follow "the Führer Anton Diffring" [*], and historical artifacts like "the longbow with which Errol Flynn had driven the Normans out of Sherwood Forest" -- but mixed up irritatingly with in-universe references to historical / mythical figures like George Washington and Sir Lancelot.

The plot, too, is a rather perfunctory "defeat the bad guy in his own world by turning its rules against him" story of the kind that was already becoming a cyberpunk cliché. The book is, as I've said, good fun, but unless you're a real aficionado of the period it's evoking, its main interest is as a prelude to Newman's very worthwhile later fiction.

The second book -- which I've had for a while, but read as a preparation for braving James Chapman's much more substantial Inside the Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who, was BFI TV Classics: Doctor Who -- a necessarily cursory critical history of the 1963-89 series, with excursions into the 1996 TV movie and 2005- update.

I admire Newman's fiction very much -- including his own contribution to the Doctor Who mythos, his novella Time and Relative -- but as a critic he sometimes misses the mark, and this book contains a high proportion of examples. The things he has to say about 1960s Doctor Who are often very interesting, but his comments on the later episodes are hampered by lazy nostalgia and a glib adherence to fan consensus.

To be fair, he acknowledges the possibility that his perception -- essentially that Doctor Who went rubbish when K-9 arrived and didn't get better until the 2005 revival -- may be connected with his age (he was born the year Delta and the Bannermen is set, whereas many fans of the current series weren't even born when it aired).

It's still annoying, though, to see such aged fan platitudes as Davison being "blander than his predecessors" [p98] given the full majestic backing of the British Film Institute.

Newman's "bland" may be my "subtle and nuanced performance avoiding the comedy mugging and cartoon mood-swings of his immediate predecessor", but that's just standard critical disagreement. Unfortunately, he also shoots himself in the foot with poor research leading to factual inaccuracies.

It's perhaps understandable that he's confused about Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart's rank on his first appearance, twice calling him a Major [pp54, 66]. He was in fact a Colonel (as I could have told Newman when I was about ten). But his (overly caustic) footnote on Who fans and their attitude to the show's "canon" [p125] is fatally sabotaged by his inability, first to remember what year Bishop James Ussher's studies of the Bible led to him to claim that the world was created (it was 4004 BC, not 2004 BC -- real-world fact, not Doctor Who universe fact)... and then, distressingly, to even spell "Apocrypha" correctly (preferring to give it, rather fittingly, a terminal "er").

Even in Newman's dismissive paragraphs about the show's last years ("Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy need not trouble us long" [p100]) there are worthwhile moments -- I was interested, for instance, to learn that he agrees with me about McCoy's best performance being in the generally derided Battlefield. But the book is sadly compromised by a stubborn refusal to compare sixties and eighties episodes on an equal footing, and a reliance on received opinion that I wouldn't have expected of a critic of Newman's stature.

Fortunately, like The Night Mayor, it is at least accessible and enjoyable to read. It's a decent brief introduction to the subject, provided you remember not to take the author's opinion as anything but that.

Having finished those -- and started the aforementioned Chapman tome -- I'm also reading British Summertime and Ada or Ardor. The Cornell is decent, if a little reminiscent of his earlier Something More, but I have to admit the Nabokov has me struggling a bit. I must be out of practice.

[*] OK, so perhaps the two books aren't entirely unrelated.

10 August 2006

You Can't Climb Twice Into the Same Attic

Discovered last week while sorting through a box found in my parents' attic (in approximate chronological order of initial acquisition):
  • A battered, shapeless, much-worn and extensively-repaired knitted toy of indeterminate species named Eggy, whom I loved exhaustively, and who's now sitting with B.'s equally shabby teddy bear on a shelf in the bedroom.
  • A commemorative coin from the wedding of that charming Windsor couple, whose marriage turned out to be such an example to us all.
  • A box of conjuring tricks endorsed by his eminence Paul Daniels (now en route to orphans in Romania or, er, somewhere).
  • A clutch of smurves, who I'm fairly sure used to belong to my brother (and were therefore left behind for him to claim).
  • Awards from my final prep school prize day, at which I seem to have pretty much swept the board. What a creep I was.
  • Two Zoids, specifically Slitherzoid and Slime. I'm fairly sure there's still a Krark, Prince of Darkness up there somewhere.
  • Various school exercise books, most of them now discarded but the English one (containing various bits of juvenilia) kept for novelty value.
  • An album of photos from approximately 1986-88, showing me and a number of people I know -- and, in one case, Toyah Wilcox -- all looking scandalously young. (I used to wear ties to parties -- sometimes even bow ties. The horror, the horror...) Now shelved with our other photo albums.
  • The poster and programme for a school production of Alan Ayckbourn's Woman in Mind. I was Gerald. (NB Ayckbourn's homepage is here, but Firefox seems to really hate it.)
  • A book of stamps designed by some artist I'd never heard of (and still haven't), which I bought and kept on the grounds that one day it might be valuable. I suppose one day it might.
  • Two bulging files of handwritten letters from various friends, showing how prolific we used to be as correspondents before we discovered email. These will, I'm sure, one day become an invaluable resource for a biographer of somebody I knew between roughly 1989 and 1994.
Except where noted, all of the above are going straight up into our attic.

Also acquired while with my parents: a noticeable paunch, courtesy of my Mum's culinary generosity. Oops.

Otherwise, and obviously aside from the wedding, the trip to Worthing was quiet. The parents took me, B., brother and sister-in-law out for a very convivial meal at a restaurant called The Fish Factory -- which appears to have an almost non-existent web profile, did much better vegetarian food than you'd expect from the name, and even had some vaguely interesting international bottled lagers.

Generally, though, the most interesting thing to do in Worthing is go to Brighton instead. So after a picnic at Devil's Dyke on Saturday, we saw the Rex Whistler exhibition at Brighton Museum, called in at the vegetarian shoe shop and wandered up and down the Lanes in a desultory sort of way. I always enjoy Brighton's bohemian ambience, and being there in the immediate aftermath of the Gay Pride march probably helped with that.

As I said to B., it's looking now as if the next weddings we'll be going to in Worthing will be those of our nieces and / or nephews, and they don't even exist yet. Hurry up and procreate, brother.

08 August 2006

Warning: Potential Double-Entendre Overload

And that other piece of information for which you've presumably all spent the week agog with anticipation:

My newspaper article should, God willing, appear next Saturday (12 August) in The Guardian -- specifically its listings supplement, The Guide. It's about one of my perennial obsessions, Philip K. Dick, the film of whose novel A Scanner Darkly is due out in the U.K. on Friday 18 August. I'm very pleased, both with the piece and -- as you might imagine -- with the fact of its publication.

Unbridled Pleasure

Until fairly recently -- when we decided it was altogether too much work when we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves -- B. and I had a system for scoring weddings.

This was a percentage grade, based on numbers out of ten awarded for the following:

1. Ceremony venue, including decoration and the like
2. Ceremony
3. Appearance of principals, including costuming (with points deducted for any bridesmaids below the age of 12, and any page-boys whatsoever)
4. Unobtrusiveness or nonexistence of photography
5. Reception venue
6. Quality / quantity of food
7. Quality / quantity of drink
8. Wit and brevity of speeches
9. Quality of entertainment
10. Company

This was always subject to alteration and refinement -- there were certainly times when we conflated 1. and 5., and others when we expanded 6. and 7. into four independent categories. We may have sometimes included inappropriately faffy criteria like "general ambience".

Indeed, part of the reason the system didn't work terribly well in practice was that we could never keep our criteria consistent from one wedding to the next, and that unless we wrote the scores down at the time (and before we'd come to a full appreciation of point 7.), we'd never remember those either.

In any case, we didn't grade either of the two weddings we were at last week. At the first it wouldn't have been appropriate, since the bride and groom had done the whole thing on a shoestring, squeezing in at the nearest church on a Tuesday, hosting the reception in their flat and garden, and asking all their friends to contribute food, drink, flowers, hairdressing etc according to ability.

And at the second we'd been very strictly forbidden by the bride to do anything of the kind.

But -- and this is the point towards which I'm rather vacantly meandering -- both events would have scored highly, according to any version of the system.

If we had been scoring. Which we really weren't, honestly.

Tuesday's bride, Z., was one of the very oldest of my old friends, whom I've known since we were in the region of six (me) and ten (her), and to whom I apparently endeared myself for life by telling her her leg-warmers looked like "mutant tights". Indeed, I was down on the order of service (I read the prayers of intercession) as "Read by Phil Hallard [sic], Z.'s oldest friend". Amusingly, her husband W., whom she met through their mutual passion for Civil War battle reenactment, is about eight years younger than I am.

I'm not going to detail Z. and W.'s performance in each criterion, but all were pretty impressive given the circumstances, and some (the decoration of the garden, for instance) were remarkably accomplished. The veggie food was limited in scope, but not so in quantity (and B. and I had managed to find a rather nice Lebanese café round the corner for lunch, so we weren't desperate). I'm the only friend from those days whom Z. has kept in touch with, so people I knew -- her parents aside -- were a bit thin on the ground. And we had to leave to get a train back to Bristol before the entertainment got under way... but still, the whole occasion was very wonderful.

It was also one of the gayest weddings I've been to, with the best man, numerous guests and (not particularly covertly) one of the clergy all being of the dorothyophilic persuasion. Apparently W.'s stag night involved his friends taking him to a gay club "to keep him out of trouble" -- a potentially risky strategy, I'd have thought, but one which evidently paid off.

As I've said, Z. led us in procession through the streets of North London in her bridal gown, receiving appropriate honks and whistles from spectators en route. Which is very her.

Friday's bride, M., was another old friend (but not as old as Z., and also younger). She's still in touch with many people I ought to be better at keeping in contact with myself, and whom it was desperately lovely to be able to see and get drunk with again. The ceremony was in our home town of Worthing, with the reception afterwards within sight of Arundel Castle, so that added nostalgia value as well.

M.'s new husband is a very nice chap (as indeed is Z.'s), so it was pleasing to see them so happy to be together. And M.'s father suffered a very severe stroke a few years ago, so it was very heartening to see him able to walk up the aisle with her, and later to propose a toast.

The food (veggie included) was very nice indeed, and either the disco was a particularly splendid one or else I was in an almost unprecedently good mood. I spent large swathes of the evening dancing, anyway, which as B. will testify is generally something I do only if a medium-to-high voltage is being run through me. The rest of the time B. and I spent sharing a table with the next couple who are due to get married[*], with frequent congenial visits from the Chief-Usher-cum-M.C., one of the bridesmaids and various others.

Anyway. I realise most of you don't know any of these people, and I don't mean to bang on. The point is, both were hugely enjoyable occasions, where I got to see people I love being very happy, and was therefore happy myself.

And all without any need to run a sweepstake on the duration of the speeches.

[*] Of the three weddings I'm going to this year, all are this month, and all are on weekdays. I'll let you know how the last one went after Bank Holiday Monday.

03 August 2006

Inter-Nuptial Stopover

Well, the London wedding went very well -- the happy couple led us all in a procession through the streets from ceremony to reception, which I think appealed to the bride's innate theatricality. We're off to Sussex shortly for the second hitching of the week. I'll blog them in more detail next week sometime.

The article is now written and accepted. I'll go into more detail on that next week as well, but suffice it to say I'm very very happy on that score.

Have a good weekend, all.