30 June 2007

The Great Rock'n'Roll Dwindle

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I almost never write about music. Up to this point, I haven't even had a tag for it.

This is partly because music is a rather marginal art-form in my life, compared with my preferred media of TV and books (then cinema, then whatever we're supposed to call actual art to distinguish it from other types of art, then probably comics.) It's partly also because I can rarely afford to buy CDs, let alone attend concerts -- except at Greenbelt every year, where I occasionally find myself essaying momentary music criticism in my reportage for Surefish.

Doing so makes me uncomfortable because -- and this is the main reason why I usually never blog about anything remotely related to this -- my taste in popular music is notoriously dreadful, lacking any kind of coherence, sophistication or class. I'm partial to -- among miscellaneous other things -- '80s syth-pop and glam rock, a certain amount of strenuously heavy metal, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Lehrer, Dire Straits and Celtic folk-rock. These are not the preferences of someone whose opinion -- let alone whose CD collection -- anybody else wants to listen to at all.

Which brings me with crashing inevitability to last night, when B. and I attended the latest engagement in Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell III tour, just up the road from us at Ashton Gate.

(It was smaller than I expected. I always imagine football stadia as being bloody huge, but this one was almost cosy.)

The last time I attended a Meat Loaf concert was, not altogether coincidentally, also the last time I attended any kind of popular concert whatsoever, except for the free ones at Greenbelt. This was back in the early 1990s[1]: I was young, happy, in love (well, kind of, ish), and Mr Loaf, already in his mid-forties, sang like a portly, ill-kempt angel. His transports of cheap, theatrical sentiment, self-mocking yet so very sincere, spoke evocatively to the fierce romantic joy so recently and unexpectedly released in my buttoned-up public-school soul.

This time round I was fifteen years tireder. My back, legs and bladder ached from all the standing, and the gentlemen standing directly in front of me kept backing into my personal space, treating the quiet romantic passages as opportunities to chat loudly with one another or their mobile phones (with which they also filmed the more spectacular visual effects, thus impeding my view of same), and treating the loud apocalyptic passages as opportunities to do the same only VERY MUCH LOUDER.

Admittedly I'm still in love (and on a much more permanent and reliable basis than with my fondly-remembered companion from that concert half a lifetime ago), but otherwise it was a lot more difficult to lose myself in the moment, and the music.

I'm not the only one who's older, either. The problem with a rock icon nearly as old as your Dad[2] is that, however dedicated he is to touring, by the time you're wanting to recapture your lost youth he's bound to be getting on a bit. Meat Loaf has lost none of his enthusiasm, but his voice is a lot older and has trouble with the high notes: what was once an endearing shambling slouch when performing has become a bizarre bent-double posture as he strains to recreate the passion and power of his youthful lungs. To be honest, he looked a lot of the time as if he was in pain, which given his health issues did worry me a bit. But he's a trooper, and he soldiered on.

That said, the first half of the concert, a reprise of some of the songs from Bats Out of Hell I and II, seemed strangely enervated, as if even Loaf's heart wasn't really in it. I noticed that a lot of the songs had been arranged or abridged to allow for a reduced input from him, giving a lot of the lyrics to his (very good, and very nicely-shaped) female backing vocalists and playing up the role of the instrumentals.

Things picked up a lot when he moved onto the new material from Bat Out of Hell III.

I'm still undecided about the album, which I only got around to buying recently -- there's some excellent stuff on it, but it's a lesser album than Bats I and II to the precise extent that Jim Steinman was less involved in it. Meat Loaf without Steinman is a showman without a show; Steinman without Meat Loaf is "Total Eclipse of the Heart". Given that the original Bat Out of Hell only had seven songs on it, I don't see why Bat III couldn't have worked with just the Steinman songs and nothing else... but these days people like to feel they're paying for quantity rather than just quality. As it is, a good third of the album is irksomely bland and could be dispensed with.

Be that as it may, the performances of "Bad for Good", "If It Ain't Broke, Break It" and the astonishing "In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King" had all the violence and verve that had been missing from the first half of the concert (and which aren't nearly so apparent on the CD, either)[3]. And the finale -- a straight-down-the-line, album-template rendition of "Bat Out of Hell" itself -- was as gloriously, headbangingly rousing as it ever has been.

Afterwards we walked home aching, and were too tired to interact sensibly, and went to bed. As far as recapturing my aforementioned youth went, it was probably less of a success for me than it was for Mr Loaf. But I had fun anyway.

In spirit he's as magnificent as he was when I was twenty, and in my memory he always will be. But I can't help hoping I don't manage to dilute that memory further by seeing him perform in person again.

[1] My life appears to have developed a continuity error at this point: for my personal chronology to work out properly, I must have attended this concert in 1990 or 1991. But I could have sworn that Bat Out of Hell II, released in 1993, was on sale at the venue, along with its related T-shirts. Did I perhaps go to more than one Meat Loaf concert in the early '90s? It's unlikely, but possible. At this remove, however, my brain remains confused on the matter.

[2] In fact he's eight years younger. But Debbie Harry actually is as old as my Mum, which I find disturbing to contemplate.

[3] Are these songs written for Loaf's new vocal range? It's possible, but I don't know nearly enough about how these things work to say.


Yet again, thanks to the never-ending (because never-beginning) devotion to customer service of bloody Onetel, all my email accounts are down except the one my spam comes to. So if you've emailed me in the past day or so, I won't have got it, and if you're emailing me now it's best to try anything whatsoever at infinitarian dot com.

God knows how long this is going to last this time. Could be tomorrow, could be the week after next. I really must get my alternatives sorted out properly.

22 June 2007

TV Update: Doctors, Lawyers and Political Candidates

Meanwhile, I seem to have been neglecting the usual reports on my TV-watching habits for, well, it looks like most of this year.

This Life remains excellent drama, although rewatching it after many years I'm a little puzzled as to how intensely I felt it was speaking to me the first time round. Admittedly I had a fair number of unfortunate house-sharing experiences in the 1990s, but I'm sure it can't just have been that which made me feel that This Life represented the authentic voice of my generation.

Oh, well. Whatever it was, it's gone now. Still a damn good series, though.

Not, admittedly, as good as The West Wing, which fluctuating access to TV-on-demand recently allowed B. and me to watch the first half of the seventh season of. I think we're going to have to rent it to watch the rest. (Please, no-one tell me who wins the election -- though frankly Arnold Vinick would be vastly preferable to the Republicans who are currently in charge of the United States and, in an offhand sort of way, the world. Indeed, I almost wonder whether that wouldn't make a better ending to the series, avoiding obvious wish-fulfilment fantasies while showing that Bartlett's true legacy lies in making the far right unelectable. Don't tell me, though.)

And don't tell me what happens at the end of Season Three of Battlestar Galactica, either -- the falling-out between Virgin and Sky has meant that we still haven't managed to watch all of it, which I'm still enormously frustrated by.

Semi-finally, we seem to be watching the first season of 24. Why? I mean, it's absolute rubbish. Utterly implausible, bereft of sympathetic or believable characters, distasteful in its politics and featuring the most repellent hero I've seen since The Talented Mr Ripley. And yet I seem to be hooked. If anyone can explain this to me, I'd be profoundly grateful.

What else? Oh, the first episode of Jekyll was pretty good. And current Doctor Who is, of course, ace beyond my wildest imaginings. The last time there were four episodes this good in a row, the Doctor had a crewcut. And if the final two episodes of the season manage to maintain the same standard... well, I'm not sure there'll have been anything comparable, in T.V. terms, since about 1963.

Books Update: Great Western Trains

After boasting back in May that I'd read 18 books in 18 weeks, I've since managed a rather unimpressive nearly two. This brings me up to 20 (nearly) in 25, suggesting that if I want to keep up my book-a-week-for-2007 score I either need to read a lot of very short books in the coming months, or else take some time off work.

I actually finished Iron Council about a week ago, and have since embarked on The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. (Weirdly, they both have golems in them.) Collapse I'm still working through, but I've very nearly finished the penultimate chapter, so I'm on the home stretch now.

Iron Council was splendid, all weird geography and earnest politics -- a return to form for China Miéville after the rather disappointing The Scar which I reviewed here. (Hmmm. I see I spent a large portion of last summer reading a Miéville book in parallel with a Jared Diamond, as well.)

Based on what others had told me, I was expecting Iron Council to be a fantasy Western, and it's true that there's a lengthy interlude in the middle of the book (in itself probably the length of a novel in pre-Tolkien terms) which conforms to that description. For most of the time, however, we're back in Miéville's byzantine / gothic / dickensian city-state, New Crobuzon, and it's this setting which is his true masterpiece. Returning there felt nostalgic, like visiting somewhere you spent some time a good many years ago (well, to be fair, Perdido Street Station is a bloody long book) and finding it different, but with its spirit of place entirely unaltered.

The story combines exploration and the frontier spirit with left-wing revolutionary rhetoric, which is an intriguing mix. The central image of a "free" train -- roving wherever its occupants decide, as they continually lay the track ahead of them and take it up behind -- is a powerful one, and a strong metaphor for a successful anarchistic society. Some of the action sequences could have been clearer (notably the big "golems vs elementals" battle, which would have benefited from a clearer definition of the difference between the two before it started), and the lack of resolution is frustrating (though intentionally so -- revolution, like resolution, is deferred indefinitely), but on the whole I found Iron Council a really satisfying read.

It was, however, an incredibly dense one. Miéville's prose is intense and convoluted, engaging the reader so urgently and passionately it feels more like wrestling than argument. Going from that to Michael Chabon's clear, calm prose is like stepping from a dark and claustrophobic closet into a light and airy attic room.

I should be able to review Collapse properly after I finish it, but I've found it a compelling read. As with Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond's fascination with the minutiae of agricultural production has been tiring at times, but the book's overall thrust (which is essentially oh god oh god we're all overconsuming and wasting our natural resources and polluting our water and air and soil and ravaging our natural environment and if we don't do something about it RIGHT NOW we're all going to die) isn't really the kind of thing I feel I can afford to ignore.


I'm still catching up with the Bristol Zoo photos, including these splendid penguins:
Penguins 2

Most of these are African penguins, but there are also some little blue penguins, as mentioned in Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine's Last Chance to See.
Penguins 4

We also offer some blurry pseudo-underwater photos of seals...
Seals 1

...plus yet more of my cats.
Scully 5

The baby gorilla's next, I promise. Full Bristol Zoo set here.

(Meanwhile I've changed my profile photo back to the well-worn previous one, at conjugal request. If you particularly enjoyed the inverse goatee, you can still admire it here.)

15 June 2007

Another Place on the Web Where You Can Read Me Banging on about Stuff

Just a quick note to say that regular readers of this blog may be interested in the latest issue of Paul "Brax" Castle's Doctor Who webfanzine, Shooty Dog Thing, which has a seven-page interview with me in it.

It also has a lot of interesting and witty things to say about Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom, which makes it worth reading in its own right. But I'm assuming that readers of this blog are at least vaguely interested in me and/or my writing. (If not, you're very welcome and everything but, er, why are you here?)

09 June 2007

Prairie Puppies!

I'm slowly getting through the remaining photos from B.'s and my zoo visit the other week. I haven't managed any of the baby gorilla yet, but here are some baby prairie dogs:

Prairie Dogs 4

Aww. Full set here.

Next time: penguins.

Flaming June

I hate hot bloody weather. People moan about the cold, but when it's cold you can just put on a jumper, or the central heating. What can you do when it's too hot and you've already discarded all the clothing decency allows? Lose weight, that's all. Bah.

That aside, it's been a pleasant couple of weeks. B. and I spent last weekend very enjoyably in London and St Albans, celebrating the respective birthdays of two friends, and staying at flat of the little-sister-in-law and her boyfriend.

Friday night in St Albans was a combination celebration for Not Invented Here's birthday and the 30th anniversary of Star Wars -- both of which we commemorated by watching this comedian act out a breakneck précis of the entire original trilogy in the space of fifty minutes.

I was less impressed with it than most of my companions (who were, in fairness, largely wowed). I felt he really needed a) better voice acting, b) more jokes and c) more visual texture, given that the show consisted essentially of a fast-moving man in a black boiler-suit and the occasional mildly clever lighting change. As it was, the experience was midway between being buttonholed in a pub by an entertaining madman whose company begins to pall after barely the first half-hour, and watching a five-year-old on a tartrazine high running around... well, acting out the entire Star Wars trilogy.

Still, it was entertaining enough, and the company (and the split-level meal before and afterwards) were fun.

On Saturday we met up for lunch with my old friend Z. and her husband W., whom we saw married last August, and who seem very happy still. We then had to climb into 1920s costume (which in my case involved shaving off the goatee bit of my beard to give myself a fine set of muttonchop whiskers [1]) and proceeded hither for my godcousin-in-law's 30th birthday bash [2]. There were canapés and beer, and many more old friends, and a lovely view over the Thames, and it was all thoroughly splendid.

Since then I've mostly been working in one manner or another, though with a brief break on Thursday night to visit some of the better class of drinking establishments in the Bristol area. Lunchtime today we spent with some Australian friends who are sadly about to move back to Australia. Tomorrow we're meeting up with my parents somewhere near Romsey, for some reason. It's all a manic social whirl.

Meanwhile, the borderline-insane idea for a Doctor Who reference book which I mentioned way back when has borne slow-growing contractual fruit. I'm not allowed to say very much about it at present, as the publishers don't want to spoil the surprise, but it'll likely take up a substantial chunk of my attention for the next year or so. I've spent most of my writing time in the past fortnight sorting out preliminary research and assembling a team of experts to help out with the fact-checking.

And speaking of Doctor Who -- as I usually don't, or try not to, or at least not very much, or at least not too much, here -- Paul Cornell's Human Nature and The Family of Blood were both stunningly good, to a degree approaching, with disturbing proximity, actual perfection [3].

You may recall that I'm not a big fan of David Tennant's Doctor, and indeed I'm not -- but I do think that Tennant's a fine actor (not as excellent as Christopher Eccleston, but frankly who is?) when he's not playing the Doctor, as he wasn't for most of the two-parter. It's beyond question the best story since Eccleston left, and I'm not sure it wasn't the best thing the new series has done altogether.

And tonight we have another episode from Steven Moffat, the writer of The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace. And supposedly the Doctor barely appears in it. Which, if all goes well, could make Human Nature through to Blink the best three-episode run of Who since Season One's Cornell-Moffat-Moffat hat-trick.

[Edit 8:25pm: ...Yes, wasn't wrong there.]

And now I'm talking about Doctor Who altogether too much, so I'll stop there.

[1] To be precise, according to this handy spotter's guide to facial hairstyles, they were somewhere between "Friendly Mutton Chops" and a "Franz-Josef".

[2] Godcousin-in-law [n.]: Person whose uncle is one's wife's godfather, but whom one's wife (as she then wasn't) got to know well at university without either of them being privy to this information, until it emerged later with consequences altogether too hilarious to recount here.

[3] We long-term fans were expecting this, of course, given that it was an adaptation of Paul's equally exceptional Doctor Who novel from 1996, Human Nature. ( And if for any reason you feel reluctant to take my word for it, you can read it online here...)


With luck and a prevailing wind, I should be posting a proper update on what I've been doing later today. In the meantime, may I draw your attention to the following:

1. My latest column is now up at Surefish, on the spirituality of aliens. I'm slightly disappointed that they've toned the title down from my original "I Baptised a Monster from Outer Space".

2. Dave Stone's novel The Two Jasons, which reprints (and is partly a sequel to) my short story "Sex Secrets of the Robot Replicants", is out now.

3. Big Finish have announced a few more details of my next-to-be-published project, Nobody's Children -- to whit, the titles of the three novellas in the collection. They're "All Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Kate Orman, "The Loyal Left Hand" by Jonathan Blum and "Nursery Politics" by me. No cover as yet, but I'm sure it's just a matter of time.

Pressing Linguistic Questions of Our Day, No. 41,684

Shouldn't "piss-poor" be the opposite of "piss-rich"?
FIRST ROMAN MATRON: Ooh Livia, you mustn't go to that tanner to have your cloth bleached, they're piss-poor.
SECOND ROMAN MATRON: All right, Licia, I'll go to the one round the corner. They've got vats of the stuff.