Archives » 2008 » December

Eyeless In Gaza

Not to mention limbless, headless and lifeless.

And on the part of the Israelis heedless, reckless and, more than likely, brainless.

I wasn’t going to post again this year but the events in Gaza are too saddening to ignore.

Quite how this action is going to ensure Israeli security rather than encouraging Palestinian ripostes I’ve no idea. If you were a Palestinian wouldn’t you react with outrage and a desire to get back at those responsible? Americans did after September 11th after all. (Though their government chose the wrong targets.)

I know Israel claims provocation through rocket attacks and so on. But the Israelis have been blockading Gaza for a long time. People under blockade become desperate – especially if there is no hope of succour. I can’t see that blowing some of them up will improve the survivors’ outlook any.
Some Israeli commenters have cogent criticisms. Thanks to Ken MacLeod for the link.

Hogmanay*

Got your steak pie, black bun and shortbread at the ready have you?

Me neither – except for the shortbread. (I was given a tin of shortbread as a Christmas present. It was for the tin really; I have a small collection of nice tins and this, a good example, was one of five tins I was given this year. Three even had things in them.)

Despite the tradition – which the good lady’s family used to uphold – there will be no steak pie at Son Of The Rock towers this New Year. I haven’t knowingly eaten meat from a cow or bull ever since I heard about BSE. Nor will there be black bun: I’ve never tasted black bun in my life. Were it not for The Broons I doubt I’d have heard of the stuff.

We now have to prepare for “The Bells.” The house is supposed to be clean and tidy; lots of hoovering and dusting to be done. Then we’ll lay out the booze, shortbread and cherry cake in case there’s a first foot.

For the last few years we’ve had some of our sons’ friends around to bring in the New Year but they may be going to someone else’s this time around.

Is it my imagination or is Hogmanay TV now utter rubbish? It was fine when we had Scotch And Wry but Rikki Fulton has long since gone to the great Last Call in the sky and taken I M Jolly with him. Instead we’re stuck with the BBC Scotland-given-right to watch Only An Excuse? for the single laugh it will provide and the awesome naffness of the show that ushers in the New Year – usually with an inappropriately dressed Jackie Bird, some pretty crap Scottish entertainers desperate for the exposure plus an extremely po-faced fiddler and an accompanying accordionist. But STV’s efforts are usually even worse.

I suppose everybody is too busy to notice. There are more organised events than there were in my youth. Edinburgh and Glasgow’s Hogmanay dos are no longer the only ones. They even had one in Kirkcaldy one year but I think they’ve given that up.

This New Year, what with Credit Crunch and recession, is likely to be a sickly child. Not much to celebrate really.

But celebrate we will. It’s what we Scots do to light up the dark winter and forget the troubles of the world for one night.

*Hogmanay

The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2007

Weekend cover

Ken MacLeod won instant critical praise and readership with The Star Fraction and the remainder of The Fall Revolution series of space opera type novels. He followed those with the equally celebrated Engines Of Light trilogy. All these books were noteworthy in that they had overtly political overtones of a type not often seen in SF, which is to say they engaged with left leaning perspectives. Lately he has moved away from series to stand-alone novels exploring other tropes from the SF firmament, in Newton’s Wake and the excellent Learning The World – where MacLeod gave us a generation starship and first contact novel all in one.
The Execution Channel, which is not done many favours by the somewhat misleading though enticing strapline on the cover, is another change of tack, an intricately plotted, tightly written near future type thriller involving bloggers, conspiracy theorists, MI5, the CIA, the French secret service etc. in an alternative world where Gore won in 2000 but 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan still happened – and, in contrast to our world (so far,) so too has Iran. Unlike End Of The World Blues, here the SF elements of the story – there is mention of Planck anomalies and Heim Theory spaceships – are integral to the plot and denouement.
The air bases at Leuchars and Lossiemouth have been given over to US forces. A peace-type camp monitors events at Leuchars. After a camp member, Roisin Travis, receives a cryptic message from her brother, a British soldier in Afghanistan, and she witnesses the arrival of a strange object, the campers leave hurriedly and attempt to send out the pictures she has taken to newspapers and other interested parties worldwide. An unconventional explosion producing a mushroom cloud then destroys the base and they become subject to a manhunt by the security forces.
In the meantime she has warned her father, an IT expert whose company has done work for the government, and who is now travelling to meet her at a prearranged rendezvous. Both get caught up in a ramping up of the emergency – motorway flyovers brought down, Grangemouth Oil refinery blowing up, aircraft flying into terminal buildings, with Travis senior also helping to deflect backlash attacks on Muslims, scapegoats for these attacks, along his way. In the course of this one wonders how much spy fiction MacLeod has read, or spooks he has spoken to, as his descriptions of tradecraft read well.
The convolutions of the plot are admirably worked out, the characters engaging and the SF twist came as an agreeable (if partially breaking suspension of disbelief) surprise.

The Execution Channel in the book is the product of a kind of spy software in CCTV cameras feeding captured images of pain and death through secret conduits in widely disseminated relay satellites to the eponymous broadcasting outlet. The concept – while an intriguing comment on “reality” TV trends in our world – is neither overplayed nor gratuitous. At one point it serves a plot function.

There is an “Extras” section at the end of this paperback edition, missing from the hardback I note, which includes an interview with Ken Macleod – no problem with that – but also an entirely superfluous extract from a book by a different author entirely. (I know publishers want to promote their books but this is simply an annoying way to go about it.)
Ignore that though. This book is in my top three reads of this year.

Aberdeen’s Art Deco Heritage 2. Northern Hotel, Aberdeen


NORTHERN HOTEL BALLROOM SIDE ABERDEEN AT DUSK

I was meaning to put up some more examples of Art Deco from Glasgow but haven’t been able to find blog friendly photographs of them on the net so they’ll need to wait till I get across to the West to take pictures of them myself.

In the meantime I recently read someone saying that Aberdeen didn’t have any Art Deco buildings.
Obviously they had never been inside the Bon Accord Baths.
And this hotel looks pretty Deco to me. Reminiscent of Rothesay Pavilion in its circular sweep.

NORTHERN HOTEL ABERDEEN AT DUSK

Also something like an ocean liner which all good Art Deco buildings should be.

You Must Be …ing Us

Apparently counterfeiters no longer bother faking money or expensive perfumes and watches. They make fake Ferrero Rocher instead. £208,000 worth! That’s a lot of (chocolate) balls.

When I saw this story I had to check the date. But it’s not April 1st.

33,000 boxes of the stuff were seized at what seems to be Paris’s equivalent of the Barras.

Why would anyone want to fake Ferrero Rocher? They’re horrible.

The Guardian story continues, “After laboratory checks the fakes were not found to be dangerous, but they were poor quality.”

How on Earth could they tell?

Christmas

I’m old enough to remember when the 25th December wasn’t a holiday in Scotland. My dad went to work in the morning, as I recall, even though he had a “white collar” job.
I don’t remember if the shops were open – local and paper shops likely were, I should think, but not the others.
It was the influence of radio and more especially TV emanating from England – with its different from normal programming at this time – that tipped the balance towards Christmas and away from New Year – which always was a holiday here, but not in England, then – as a focus of celebration.
As kids, of course, we always got presents, though not the floods some children may receive now (which the Credit Crunch may have stemmed a bit.)
Sometimes the good old days weren’t so good.

Certainly by the time I was a teenager, however, the present arrangements were the norm and Christmas was the juggernaut we all know and lo……

New Year was made a holiday in England by Ted Heath’s government, recognising the fact that there was so much absenteeism on Jan 1st – hangover induced or not – that making it a holiday would make little or no difference.
In Scotland we therefore got Jan 2nd – “Ted Heath’s day” as it was called for a while – and the tradition of the New Year’s Day football derby withered on the vine.

Despite its drawbacks and burdens, all the more so for those who’re struggling financially, the prospect of a holiday and respite from the daily grind is welcome at this dark time of year. Perhaps if Christmas didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent it. Oh, wait a minute, Saturnalia…

(My thoughts do go out to shopworkers who have to ramp it all up again on Boxing Day.)

Seasonal felicitations to one and all: especially those who have been kind enough to comment on here in the past half year or so.

The Blind Geometer by Kim Stanley Robinson/The New Atlantis by Ursula K Le Guin

Tor, 1989

For those of you unaware of the concept this is one of those Tor Doubles books that twins novellas (puffed as double novels on the cover) by different writers and puts them between the same endpapers; except one story is read from the “front” of the book and the other – upside down in relation to the first – from the “back.” You therefore also get two covers for the price of one. Unfortunately there’s not an easily available picture of either on the internet and Amazon has no copies!

Robinson’s The Blind Geometer was a delight; an example of a story that illustrates one of the reasons why I read Science Fiction. In what other area would you find a piece of fiction featuring n-dimensional geometry and turning on Desargues’s Theorem? The sections are headed by letters (A, AB, AC, BA, O, A´AO etc) as if they are points or lines in a geometrical drawing. Robinson makes extensive use of (parentheses) [brackets] and {braces} and makes a point of relating this to the language of Geometry. The story even has diagrams. Fantastic.
Okay, the characterisation may not be all that rounded, but the story makes up in brio for any lack in that department. It features a blind narrator, Carlos Oleg Nevsky, a mathematics professor working in the above mentioned field of geometry. This allows Robinson to explore the world view of an unsighted person and the compensations they make, the enhancement of their other senses. An acquaintance asks him to help out with a problem involving a woman who has language difficulties but draws diagrams to communicate with him. This leads Nevsky into a trail of intrigue and danger in which he turns his blindness to advantage in the denouement. I loved it: but it’s not for those who are put off by Maths.

A bonus in this Tor Double is a further Robinson story, The Return From Rainbow Bridge, which could be interpreted as a ghost or doppelganger story or, more science-fictionally, as a two-places-at-one-time story. It is set on a Navajo reservation (Robinson spells it Navaho) and concerns the strange experience of its narrator who tries to take an off-trail short cut back from Rainbow Bridge (the largest natural arch in the world and important to the Navajo in a sacred sense) on his own but eventually receives help from his Navajo guide. Or does he?

Ursula Le Guin’s The New Atlantis is no more than a longish short story set in a corporate state America where marriage is illegal, in a world which is mired in environmental catastrophe, with volcanic eruptions, the old continents sinking and new ones rising from the oceans. Curiously, Le Guin also mentions Navajo (with this spelling.) The protagonist is, of course, married and nothing good results. Le Guin is never less than interesting, though.

This Tor Double’s print size is rather large so you don’t actually get that much content but what a relief to polish off in short order a volume from my not-yet-read shelves.

Annan Athletic 2-1 Dumbarton

Galabank, 20/12/08

A 100% record at Galabank, then. 100% defeats. We go there again on the last day of the season proper. Gloom abounds at Son Of The Rock towers.

Another away loss. It’s getting to be a habit.

With Stenny’s defeat at Forfar this was an opportunity lost – especially since Cowden grabbed theirs with both hands and the Montrose result went our way.

It looks like we were playing 4-2-4 again. In this division, on tight away grounds, that may not be too wise.

A play-off place at best, methinks.

Weekend by William McIlvanney

Sceptre, 2007

Weekend cover

McIlvanney is one of the lauded lions of Scottish literature, his early novels winning awards and praise in equal measure. He then veered off a bit into writing about a detective in Laidlaw and The Papers Of Tony Veitch, though these novels were also well received. I wasn’t taken so much with The Big Man, even if others were, and thought Strange Loyalties (again about Jack Laidlaw) plus The Kiln a return to form. It was a long wait – ten years – before Weekend was published.

The Sceptre paperback comes with a variety of encomia on the back cover; McIlvanney’s star is still high – and deservedly so. His ease with prose is again in evidence but there is more than a hint that he may be striving for literariness too strongly. Weekend is yet another multi-stranded narrative (I seem to be reading little else these days.) However, this one has so many changes of viewpoint it would be easy to lose track. These shifts are exacerbated by the fact that many of the segments start with no clue as to which character’s the point of view is. Moreover some of the segments (there are no long passages that could be regarded as chapters) are extremely brief; one of them is less than a line long. The novel also loops back on itself; as if it were written by one of its own characters. A conceit too far?

The action of the book, as its title suggests, is compressed into a short time scale. The main setting is a study residency in a converted mansion on a Scottish island. Again this is a touch recursive, literary figures doing and discussing literary things in a piece of literature. Is the general public as fascinated by writers’ doings as writers are that it wants to read about them all the time? Compare A L Kennedy’s Everything You Need which I reviewed recently and which also featured writers on an island – though for longer than a weekend.

I should talk, though. I do occasionally attend Science Fiction conventions. (I’ve not yet stooped to writing about one in my own fiction, however.)

In Weekend, talks are given at the residency, assignations are made or happened upon, a virginity is lost, a marriage falls apart, another ends naturally but devastatingly, lives are altered, decisions made. Within all this some of the characters are more fleshed out than others and the events are latterly interspersed with disquisitions on the meaning of the Oedipus story and the exact nature of the riddle of the Sphinx, or, rather, its unravelling. Not a simple read, then, but one which rewards close attention.

Clocks

This week I have left the house each morning in darkness, and returned to it in the evening, also in darkness. Since I don’t usually leave my workplace even for lunch it makes it feel as if daylight hasn’t happened.
Still, it is deepest, darkest winter and less than a week to the shortest day; after which it’s all uphill till June in terms of light.
Well, not quite. Sunrise and sunset times do not change in step with each other throughout the year so one – I forget which – changes faster than the other at this time of year. But the trend is in the right direction.
I was going to post about this anyway – as an upturn and signal of hope for a new year.
But yesterday morning there was some numpty from the South of England moaning in the Notes & Queries section of The Guardian about the change to British Summer Time (BST) not being done in February.
Now, I was at school in Dumbarton during that three year experiment when BST persisted through the winter. It was awful. Morning upon morning of unremitting gloom with no real benefit at the end of the day. Darkness is much, much worse to endure in the morning than in the evening. What those further north felt about it I can only imagine.
I quite like the clocks changing. It is one of the few ways now – since food of all kinds is available in supermarkets all year round – that we are still connected to the rhythm of the seasons.

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