Friday On My Mind 101: On the Road Again

I’m away from home, so this song’s title seemed appropriate.


Canned Heat: On the Road Again

The Well at the World’s End by Neil M Gunn

Polygon, 2008, 333 p. First published 1951.

 The Well at the World’s End cover

The book starts off at a well, which appears to be dry but whose water is so transparent it is invisible. This strange encounter reminds Peter Munro and his wife Fand of an old Gaelic legend of the well in the land beyond ours, the Land of Youth. Munro sets off on a quest to see if anything remains of this well at the world’s end, to go through the human boundary (which may be an illusion.)

The novel treats of two of the triumvirate of literature’s perennial concerns – love and death, but not the third, sex – and in part reads like a series of short stories bound together as a travelogue. On his journey Munro sees The Wild Man, meets a shepherd, hears of a practical joke played out in a supposedly haunted house, is knocked out by illicit whisky distillers, witnesses a woman reinvigorating her marriage in a traditional way, facilitates young love and encounters rivalries (and a reconciliation) in neighbouring seaside towns.

While the book skirts round fantasy territory, things appearing out of mists etc, the overall treatment is realistic. The denouement brings the whole round in a circle and reintroduces fantasy overtones, inviting the reader to identify Munro with the Wild Man he glimpsed earlier but in one sense wriggles out of the conclusion which that entails.

Memorable phrases included, “A man should get away from everything occasionally, even from his wife,” “There are two things the Gael likes naked and one of them is whisky,” “We don’t drink alcohol for its reality. We drink it for the effect it creates, the illusion it engenders,” “A nod’s as good as a blink when there’s a blind salmon on the back doorstep,” and the reflection, “Every village in the Highlands, every crofting area to the farthest Western Isle, had kin in the ends of the earth, and long before world wars were the fashion.”

The text employs those impeccably Scottish words kist (spelled as cist,) widdershins and deisil (sunwards) and has Munro muse on the fact that alcohol is known as water of life in several languages, uisgebeatha, eau de vie, aqua vitae, but the Sasunnach (not having a water of life of his own) struggled to pronounce uisge and so deemed it whisky. At one point Gunn touches on the phenomenon of dual personality which has echoed through Scottish literature down the years since the Act of Union when he has Munro reflect, “as though in oneself were two quite different men, who were yet the same man.” Even without these indicators the book could not be mistaken for anything other than emblematically Scottish, though.

I confess I had to look up the phrase “agenbite of inwit,” which I had never seen before.

Pedant’s corner:- Sasunnach is an unusual spelling. “Shore up” was used in the sense of “rise up.” There was a barely brew (barley,) an unpredictible, doppleganger, genuiness and a failure of subject to verb agreement in “his knees, his whole body, was trembling finely.”

Interzone 251, Mar–Apr 2014

Interzone 251 cover

Ghost Story by John Grant1
An interesting take on the ghost – or possibly parallel worlds – story. Nick is happily married to Dverna when he receives a phone call from the daughter of family friends who says she is pregnant and he’s the father. Except both Dverna and he know he can’t be.

Ashes by Karl Bunker2
In a world where AIs have allowed all sorts of useful developments but also the technology that drove the Dust Wars the very few humans who remain live in scattered enclaves without contact for fear they’ll kill each other. The AIs are prone to winking out of existence. Narrator Neil, accompanied by an AI, sets out to bury the ashes of a former girlfriend.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa3
Another post-apocalypse tale. An old man inhabits a wrecked room. He is frightened of the mummers who roam outside. One day a surgeon knocks on the door.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer4
Set on a mining asteroid run by a woman-hating theocracy which holds its workers in bondage till they pay off their debts and/or fines for misbehaviour. Fari is unique, a female miner – but she is the best – and has her own reasons for paying back credits. Things come to a head when a new Rep takes over.

A Doll is not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser5
Yopu, a robot dumpling seller, is kidnapped by activists for non-human rights (one of whom is a dogboy.) Yopu is given a bigger vocabulary and a mission.

This is How You Die by Gareth L Powell6
A very short story narrated in the second person about the effects of, and a personal response to, a devastating flu-like pandemic.

Pedant’s corner:
1 It’s androgynous not genous and any Scot I know uses either bairns or weans to describe children, but not both.
2 The two info dumping sections are intrusive and the story is written in USian.
3 Had been “sawed” apart, fit for fitted, the surgeon made no “more” to interfere (misprint for move.)
4 Written in USian.
5 Written in USian plus two instances of failure of agreement between subject and verb, epicenter, and a “lay” for lie.
6 “wet orange leaves” is ambiguous. Well, I had to read it twice to get Powell’s meaning.

Edinburgh’s Art Deco Heritage 11: The White House (Craigmillar Roadhouse)

I first knew about this building a while back (east Edinburgh’s answer to the Maybury Roadhouse in the west) and had found this photo on flickr:-

The White House had obviously been “let go” and was badly in need of attention. I had always meant to seek it out but never got round to it.

However, when we left the Great Tapestry of Scotland we headed for IKEA. Not too familiar with the roads on Edinburgh’s east and south sides I got into the wrong lane and ended up traversing parts of the city we had never seen. I turned on to a main(ish) road and suddenly saw a stunning Art Deco building. I stopped at the first opportunity, leapt out of the car and photographed it. It wasn’t until I got home I discovered The White House is the Craigmillar Roadhouse newly refurbished by the local community. And marvellously so.

That curved corner sweeps pleasingly. Pity the modernised windows don’t quite look the part.

Here we have the frontage. Note triangular(ish) chimney column:-

Main Entrance. The angled stepping on the canopy support here is good and note the sweep of the far corner:-

The detailing around and above the side door here matches that of the main entrance:-

This view shows the double chimney at front and stepped chimney stack to rear matching the stepping on the frontage:-

And… Just over the road from the White House was this minor piece of thirties architecture. Now a Londis I think.

Reelin’ In the Years 91: Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)

This is an absolutely pitch perfect pop song. It’s the sort of thing that (for a while) was swept away by the advent of punk rock.

Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel – Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)

On The Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds

Poseidon’s Children 2 Gollancz, 2013, 483 p
Reviewed for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

In Blue Remembered Earth, the previous volume in Reynolds’s Poseidon’s Children sequence, the Akinya family was instrumental in the development of the Chibesa-drive engine which drastically increased the maximum speed of space travel. On the Steel Breeze is set a very long generation or so after the events of the previous book and the family is now much less powerful. Chibesa physics has allowed hollowed out asteroids dubbed holoships to be sent out in strings – Reynolds nods to history by using the term caravans – to various promising destinations in the stars. These holoships are each large enough to be able to house herds of elephants as well as the emigrating humans. Life prolongation techniques are so far advanced that withdrawal of such treatment is used as a punishment for crimes – a generation’s life span is now measured in several hundred years. Chiku Akinya, great-granddaughter of Eunice Akinya the begetter of the Chibesa drive, has an unusual triple identity. A process called Quorum Binding has stamped Chiku’s personality and memories on three indistinguishable bodies (her original and two clones) which are able to communicate almost telepathically deeply. Chiku Red set out after Eunice Akinya’s ship; Chiku Green is on the holoship Zanzibar, en route to Crucible, the extra-Solar planet with the enigmatic structure known as the mandala, discovered by the telescopic array Ocular; Chiku Yellow stayed on Earth. The novel intertwines the fortunes of the three Chikus. Making a reappearance is the artilect of Eunice – an AI in human form, as close an approximation to the human original as possible – which Chiku’s mother developed in the earlier novel. “She” is in a hidden chamber on Zanzibar tending a set of enhanced, “talking” elephants known as Trantors.

Much of the initial action takes place on Zanzibar, in whose caravan experiments to develop post-Chibesa physics have been proscribed. Travertine (who for some reason has a set of personal pronouns, ve, ver, vis, all to verself) has caused hundreds of deaths by an illegal but vital experiment. The holoships have been accelerated too much to be slowed down effectively enough by their Chibesa engines. The caravan’s politics, though, are set against the necessary research.

Back on Earth Chiku Yellow, with the aid of the merfolk of the United Aquatic Nations who reunite her consciousness with the returned Chiku Red’s, acts on a communication from Chiku Green to seek out a woman who can facilitate contact with their founder, Arethusa, who in turn may have knowledge that not all is as it seems on Crucible. This necessitates a journey to the surface of Venus (and, later, Mars and Hyperion.) Here the plot, as in Blue Remembered Earth, comes dangerously close to pulling the characters around the Solar System to show off the author’s research or to provide a set piece drama. The inevitable disaster with the space elevator connecting to Venus’s surface demonstrates the Chikus have a dangerous enemy. This is the “machine distributed consciousness” called Arachne which oversees the data produced by Ocular and has infiltrated the aug, the controlling agency of the Surveilled World familiar from Blue Remembered Earth. The secret Arachne is protecting is the presence in orbit round Crucible of over twenty enigmatic pine cone-like spaceships dubbed Watchkeepers.

Plot aplenty to be going on with then, and the above merely sketches the set-up. The playing out of the politics of Zanzibar’s caravan, involving the clandestine construction and launch of a scout ship to reconnoitre Crucible, the repression and conflict which ensues, the true situation on Crucible, fill out the story. The scout party’s meeting with Arachne’s avatar on Crucible verges on fantasy territory, though. While any sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, in Science Fiction some degree of explicability is generally thought desirable.

Despite the space travelling elephants (and the light aeroplane able to fly within their hidden chamber in the holoship,) the mandala and the Watchkeepers, Reynolds doesn’t quite hit the sense of wonder button squarely with this one. The scale fails to register. (That may just have been a jaded reviewer’s perception, though.)

Yet with his holoships Reynolds has – much as he did in Pushing Ice – re-imagined the generation starship trope, albeit with less of a focus on the ships’ passengers than in novels of yore. Also in the mix, though such is the detail of Reynolds’s future that they have not yet been explored in any detail, is a Big Dumb Object in the shape of the mandala and a kind of first contact (the Watchkeepers.)

An example of the possibility of avoiding what the Watchkeepers apparently think is the inevitable conflict between organisms and artilects, Eunice poses the question of what it actually means to be human – highlighting a typically human tale of stupidities, betrayals, love and duty.

The following did not appear in the published review.
Omitted “a”, a for an, doubled “the”s, “had”s and “was”es, “assesment” “compliated” a “breaking” mechanism for slowing down, an “I have strode,” “on my behalf” instead of “on my part” plus the interesting coinage “programmemes.”

Another Anniversary

Barely a month after the hundredth anniversary of Great Britain’s entry into what became known as The Great War, today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the similar joining (more a sidling in than any sort of assertive entrance) of what would grow into the turmoil that overshadowed not only the lives of its participants but also the childhoods of the generation born just after it, my generation; to wit the Second World War – an altogether more vicious, horrific and all-encompasing meat-grinder than its earlier counterpart, despite the perceptions of the two conflicts in this country.

I noted its seventieth anniversary five years ago. Five years gone in a flash.

The war was later described as six years of utter boredom punctuated by ten minutes of sheer terror. That would be a British perspective. I think the Great Patriotic War as fought in the Soviet Union was pretty much sheer terror all the way. The soldiers there would have considered World War 1 trenches a doddle by comparison.

My father was in the Territorial Army and so was called up immediately and travelled into France, without benefit of passport, and Belgium on the end of the Phoney War. Like the rest of the BEF he was soon back in France again (briefly, before being evacuated at Dunkirk) after at one point being a field away from an oncoming German tank. In later 1940 he spent days jumping off a ship into the North Sea in what was apparently a ruse to con the Germans into thinking we were going to invade Europe that year. (I doubt it worked.)

He re-entered Europe some time after D-Day (again without benefit of passport) spending the winter of 1944-5 in Holland but never actually saw action. I was perhaps lucky there. If he had he might have been killed in which case I could not have been born. A sobering thought.

He finally obtained a passport in the 1980s.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Picador, 1998, 280 p.

Kay is mainly a poet but has published three novels, of which this was the second.

Trumpet cover

Trumpet starts in the aftermath of the death of famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. His wife, Millicent, has travelled to Torr, a remote Scottish location, to escape press attention following the revelation of the couple’s secret. The story is told from various viewpoints starting with Millicent’s memories of their relationship. We are with the doctor who examines the body, see their adopted son Colman’s reaction to the news, the sensitive registrar’s concern for the proprieties, the indecision of the funeral director who prepares the corpse, the glee of the journalist, Sophie Stones, who interviews Colman for a projected book, are given a feel for Joss’s engrossment in the music, shown the memories of Moody’s drummer who will not hear a word said against him, of the cleaner who “did” for the Moodys, and finally meet Joss’s elderly mother, whose ongoing existence he had kept from his family.

As the book goes on we return intermittently to Millicent’s, Colman’s and Sophie’s viewpoints, charting Colman’s journey from initial disbelief to a gradual coming to terms with his upbringing.

There are several aperçus (not that you have to agree with all of them,) “Sex is always better if you argue before,” “Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence,” “When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive,” and lots of Scotticisms to savour; tattie scones, square sausage, Irn Bru (as irn bru), shortbread, black bun, chapping the door and the wonderful to see in a literary context, “His brain is mince.” (Mince = rubbish or useless.)

I confess not to have read any of Kay’s poetry but her ability as a novelist is without question.

Pedant’s corner:
In Millicent’s narratives – windowscreen for windscreen, reeking havoc, grizzly for grisly, Greyfriars bobby (Bobby,) asterix for asterisk – but these may be the character’s spelling choices. What may be a continuity error, “I’ve never locked the door and I’m not starting now,” where a few pages before on arrival at Torr she had locked the door can be attributed to Millie’s disorientation.
Similarly in Colman’s viewpoint we had mowed for mown, regigged for rejigged and Barr’s irn bru. It’s a proper noun, so Irn Bru.
“There has been some sympathetic murmurings.” (have) “Something about the eyes that draw you.” The subject of the verb here is “something” not “eyes.” That would be something draws you, then.
The registrar office should have been a register one – and capitalised – and were there branches of Menzies in London railway stations back in the day?
Twice we had ass for arse and twice asshole for arsehole and there was the strange construction, “She sat put with the girl.”

Great Tapestry of Scotland and Edinburgh’s Art Deco Heritage 10: TSB Bank London Road

A couple of weeks ago, mostly on the good lady’s volition, we travelled to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland which was on show at the Scottish Parliament building. Its exhibition there finishes sometime in September and it will eventually end up in Melrose when the new rail line to the borders is complete.

It’s quite an impressive collection – of embroidery rather than tapestry but Hey-ho – of over 100 panels stitched by volunteers from round Scotland each one illustrating a piece of Scottish history.

I may get round to posting other views of the panels but this one featured Dumbarton Rock, which in 870 AD (or 870 CE if you prefer) fell to the Vikings:-

on the way back to where we’d parked I captured the building below on pixels. I’d passed it many times before in the car but never stopped near enough by. It’s the TSB bank in East Norton Place (London Road) Edinburgh.

The pillars on the corners are good. The street sign on the bank also says East Norton Place. From the other side the pillars are again stand outs. The style of the number 30 is nicely deco too.

Shore Coal

Many Fife coastlines bear the marks of past coal mining. A ribbon of coal particles can be found on Kirkcaldy and Burntisland beaches, whether washed there from mines or eroded from rocks I don’t know..

At Lower Largo the deposits are larger. Here are some seen through the shore barrier.

And these are lumps.

The industrial landscape of Methil can be seen from Lower Largo beach, wind turbines, oil rigs and all.

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