Catherine Webb is only 19; she had her first novel published at 14. It makes you sick; though it shouldn’t.
Horatio Lyle is a scientist and investigator in Victorian times. He has a dog called Tate, but there’s a lot more to this book than bad sugar-manufacturer-related jokes. The blurb describes it as “Sherlock Holmes crossed with Thomas Edison as written by Terry Pratchett”, and that’s not a bad assessment; though it’s not as funny as Pratchett. I read it with my nine-year-old son, and he thoroughly enjoyed it: though not so much the descriptive passages, and he was disappointed by the ending.
I thought the descriptive passages were very well written and incredibly evocative, but there were rather too many of them; and while I enjoyed it at the time, actually the action was on the weak side, and she didn’t make as much of the plot as she could have.
And that ending: what a letdown. See, the story is that this ancient plate of great cultural significance has been stolen from the Bank of England, and various groups are trying to get it back.
It turns out that one of the groups consists of some sort of supernatural beings. They are a bit vampirish, but they have the traditional fear of, and vulnerability to, iron, of Faerie. They believe the plate has great power.
There are investigations and plots; but not really very many of them. It’s very well written, as I say, but kind of lightweight.
I see that there’s a sequel out already, so in time we might see whether her plotting skills have got any stronger.
I won’t reiterate the many general arguments against the death penalty here, but consider these. Collins tried to justify the execution of Saddam by citing the brutality of Saddam’s regime. The thing is, you don’t demonstrate the wrongness of a brutal regime by exercising the most brutal form of punishment. You don’t win that way: at best you draw, and who wants to draw with a dictator? You win by showing that you’re better than that; by behaving in a civilised way.
He went on to say that it’s “incoherent” that Britain should have nuclear weapons, but not have the option to execute terrorists. I see absolutely no logical connection between the two, and neither did Michael Portillo. Nor could Collins make the connection in a way that made any sense.
Using the death penalty isn’t a sign of strength: it’s a sign of weakness. The truly strong can both show mercy, and behave in a way that separates them from the caveman.
This is a very, very strange book. It’s strange in the spacefaring future it describes, but it’s probably even stranger linguistically.
What I mean by linguistic strangeness is this: you used to have to read his reviews with a good dictionary to hand, and if you were diligent you might learn three new words in even the shortest review. His erudition was legendary, and he liked to display it. At first that used to annoy me, because it seemed that he chose willfully obscure words: he appeared to be doing no more than displaying his vocabulary for its own sake. Showing off, in other words.
But as time went on I grew to appreciate the way he made us stretch, and I moved towards the conclusion that, yes, he had an unfeasibly large vocabulary — or was unreasonably quick to reach for the thesaurus — but he did it in order to achieve precision in meaning: why use a word that is nearly right, when there is one that is exactly right? Plus, it was part of his style, his reviewer’s voice, if you will.
So to his first SF novel, then. It is strange. It is very, very strange. It’s a space opera set in our galaxy a few hundred years in the future. There are humans and a range of aliens, plus various sentient AIs. Much is made of the fact that humans smell: they have to keep away from other species, and avoid getting emotional when they do meet others, to keep their pheromone production under control. No other sentient species suffers from this problem, it seems. Furthermore, when humans meet each other, it is very unusual — extremely rude, even — to make eye contact.
I don’t know if Clute is trying to tell us something about our own society, here, but it seems to me that, with the state of technology on display, something would have been done about the smell, if it was really that much of a problem. The eye-contact thing is just bizarre. Maybe (since they exist in a state of close integrations with their computers, intelligent and not) it’s a reference to the lack of direct personal contact that we get from our present interactions on the net.
Those are relatively minor matters, though: what of the story?
Our hero is Freer, who is a free trader, with his own ship, the Tile Dance. It is staffed solely by him and run by a sentient pair of artificial Minds: KathKirt. All AIs are bipartite; they manifest through Masks, which are said to ‘face’ ‘Jack’ or ‘Flyte’. I still don’t understand what these are supposed to mean. Did I mention that it’s a strange book?
The galaxy is in danger from something called plaque, which appears to be a kind of plague causing a dementia-like effect in artificial Minds (and maybe in biological ones, too; that wasn’t clear). As things develop, it turns out that a passenger that Freer Has taken aboard knows the route to a legendary planet which is the source of ‘Lenses’, the only thing that can cure the data plague.
They have to run from the forces of the Insort Geront, who want to stop them getting the Lenses. These are spacefaring luddites, in the form of multi-bodied (or at least multi-headed) quadrupeds (possibly) who are constantly eating live prey, including the younger members of their own families.
On the way they dock at an artificial moon, which turns out to be a legendary lost world. Or something.
There’s an awful lot going on in this book, and I can’t honestly say that I understood all of it. But it’s a fascinating read in many ways, and is worth the effort. Recommended.
He may do so again: I’ve allowed my subscription to lapse in recent years, but in the latter years that I did subscribe, he had stopped reviewing there almost completely. ↩
This is a reissue in the Fantasy Masterworks series, of all - or nearly all - of Harrison’s ‘Viriconium’ stories. Four of the collected works are novels (though short ones) and the rest short stories. I had read only one of them before, the last-written and last presented here: ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ appeared in Interzone a long time ago. I don’t think I understood it then, though: it doesn’t really make much sense out of context.
Though as it happens, the context of that one story is different from that of all the others. The others are all set in Viriconium, or in the lands that surround it. This final one is set in our world; it tells the tale of some people who dream of Viriconium, who believe that it is real, who believe that they might be able to reach it one day.
Whether anyone would actually want to get to Viriconium if they could is another matter. It is a sort of dream city at the end of time. It has a constant feeling that the world has run down, that time is running out. Humanity has fallen from the great technological highs of the ‘Afternoon Cultures’, and now survives on scavenged technology - machines so advanced that they are still running after millennia - and on traditional crafts.
So most of the weaponry, for example, consists of swords, but there are a few prized energy blades, or baans. People travel on horseback, or walk, to get around, especially after the last few aircars are destroyed in the War of the Two Queens, which is part of the subject matter of ‘The Pastel City’.
Did I mention that this doesn’t belong in the Fantasy Masterworks line? Just because people fight with swords, and the technology is advanced beyond their understanding into Clarke’s (Third) Law territory, doesn’t make a book sword & sorcery. This is science fiction, where the science is breaking down; or at least, the knowledge of it is.
Despite all the stories having been published before, there are copyright dates for only a few of them, and previous-publication details for none. Which to my mind detracts slightly from the collection.
Also, the first story is listed as ‘Viriconium Knights’ in the contents and on its own title page, but as Viriconium Nights” (which is the title I recall having heard of before) on the copyright page. This could, of course, be deliberate, as I have a vague recollection of having heard that this is not a simple collection and republication, but that there has also been some reworking.
It is not easy reading: it is a 500-page book, and it took me over a month to read it. Now, I’m not that fast a reader these days, but that is slow. But at no point was I thinking, “This is heavy going,” or, “I can’t be bothered with this.” Rather, it’s just that some prose styles are denser than others, and Harrison’s is dense. In a good way. Highly recommended.
To Glasgow, then, and a weekend visit to my Mum. The kids and I caught the train to Stansted on Friday afternoon, to find the security theatre in full force. Although we made EasyJet’s last checkin time with a good ten minutes to spare, I really thought we would miss our flight when we joined the back of one of two or three giant, slow-moving queues. Especially so when, after a few minutes, we realised that we were in fact at the back of a queue for another checkin desk. We weren’t alone in this error, though: the queues mingled, and quite a few others had made the same mistake.
But in the end it wasn’t that bad. The queue began moving fairly quickly — or smoothly, at least — and while it was frustrating, it was bearable, as long as you didn’t let yourself get frustrated. The passport/boarding-pass-control desk looked a right mess, though, covered as it was by abandoned bottles, cosmetics containers and what have you.
To be honest, I’m not actually sure why the queues were so long. The only things that have changed in security terms compared with a few months ago are the prohibited items in hand baggage, and the enforcement of the “only one item” rule (I’m sure this has been the rule for decades, but it just wasn’t strictly enforced). Both of those issues should be dealt with at checkin, so when you get to the security gates you should be ready. Every bag and coat is x-rayed, as before: but there should be fewer bags; everyone goes through a metal detector, just as they always did. There was a “please take off your shoes” section after the metal detectors, but as we paused at it, one security guy called, “Not everybody, not everybody,” and waved us on. I suppose people were randomly chosen, and incidentally, everyone I saw taking their shoes off was white. This may, of course, just mean that people who look like terrorists (whatever that may mean) are not travelling, from fear of being hassled.
I conclude that the only reason for the giant queues must be stupidity: there must be people who, even though they are asked about prohibited items at checkin, and even though this stuff has been in the news for weeks, still have drinks in their hand luggage, and then have to stop to abandon them at security. Or who try to take more than one item on, even though they’ve been told not to. And yet, I didn’t see much of that happening. I really don’t understand why the queues got so big. There were plenty of security staff on duty, too.
Coming back, things were much less fraught at Glasgow Airport, as they generally are at smaller airports, in my experience.
Throughout, I have to say, all the security staff we encountered were cheerful, polite, and helpful, while doing a largely thankless, probably quite dull, job, filled with seemingly-arbitrary rule changes handed down from above. I can’t really fault them, no matter how daft some of the things they have to enforce may be.
A last thought: we are being conditioned to accept travelling with photo ID, even within the country. It was strange to see everyone queuing up to get onto a flight to Scotland, with their passports ready. Now I’d be quite happy to see EU passports issued by the Republic of Scotland (as long as it was a republic), but for now, it was still a journey within the UK.
And the strange thing is, it seems to be the airlines that are driving this, not the authorities. I have had to show photo ID on RyanAir and EasyJet, but a few months ago — this year, certainly — I flew to Scotland with BMI Baby, and not only did they not ask for ID, but I didn’t even have to see a human to check in: hand baggage, a credit card, and a self-checkin machine, and there I was. That was before all the recent fuss, true, but RyanAir (and possibly EasyJet) have been asking for ID for years. Are they secretly being used by the government to get us used to carrying ID cards? And if so, why is it only some airlines?
Or am I being unreasonably paranoid? ‘Cos I only want to be reasonably paranoid, you know.
So here I am, all ready to write about my day for the History Matters - Pass It On site’s One Day in History project, which has been much hyped of late. But before I started writing I took a look at the terms and conditions, where I found this little thought:
You agree, by submitting such material, to grant the Partners jointly and severally a perpetual, royalty-free, non-exclusive, sub-licensable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, play, make available to the public,
That’s fair enough, right? You’re granting them a non-exclusive licence to use the material. But it goes on to say:
and exercise all copyright and publicity rights with respect to, your material worldwide and/or to incorporate your material in other works in any media now known or later developed for the full term of any rights that may exist in your material.
Umm, “exercise all copyright”? Now I’m not so sure. Let’s see what else there is.
you waive any moral rights to your material for the purposes of its submission to and publication on the Site or for the general purposes specified above.
Ouch. I don’t like the sound of that. Now the thing that got me looking at this was this, which is not in the Ts&Cs, but right on the submission page:
The History Matters partners own the copyright of any materials that you submit and be free to use them in any History Matter related materials such as any media stories, published books etc.
Not just overbearingly copywrong, but ungrammatical, too. Ouchy, ouchy, ouch, ouch!
Then, as if to add stupidity to a lack of concern for people’s work, there is a section entitled, “Links to this Website.” It includes the following paragraph:
The Partners reserve the right at their discretion to prohibit any link from another Internet site or equivalent entity to materials or information on the Site.
Ok, so they’re not banning deep links, they’re just warning you that they might do so.
Furthermore, no page or pages from this website may be framed by or with any third party content or otherwise made available to the public in conjunction with any third party content without the prior written consent of the Partners
So it’s all right to take thousands of random contributors’ work away from them, but we can’t in turn reproduce or reuse your work (or that of the random contributors)?
C’mon, guys, this is the web: linking is what it’s all about.
And as to copyright: The History Matters project is founded, according to its FAQ, by:
National Trust, English Heritage, The National Heritage Memorial Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund, the Historic Houses Association, Heritage Link, the Civic Trust, the Council for British Archaeology and Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings
All publicly-funded and/or charitable bodies, if I’m not very much mistaken.
Now you may think that I’m being unreasonably cautious about this. I’m just some guy in London writing about his day. It’s not like they’re stealing what I write, or as if what I write matters that much in the grand scheme of things. And that’s true enough. I have absolutely no problem with them using what I might write. Indeed, all my writing here is Creative-Commons-licensed, so you don’t even have to ask if you want to use it. The problem is this: if you follow the letter of the agreement, then I lose all rights over what I submit to them. That means that if I write a description of my day, submit it to the project, and then post a copy here, on my blog (as I intended to do), then I’ll be in breach of copyright.
And that is madness.
I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt: I’m working on the assumption that this is just carelessness; that the terms and conditions are just poorly thought through, rather than deliberately evil. But really, someone there has a duty to take care. When you’re a public body soliciting material created by the public, you have no moral right to claim the exclusive intellectual rights over that material.
In which I make a CD compilation, and blow whatever vestiges of my credibility remained
I’ve been a bit invisible on here for a while. First I had two weeks camping in France, during which (among much else) I managed to grow a beard (not that I was particularly trying to: it just kind of happened). In the first couple of weeks after getting back I spent much of my free time on preparing a CD for a special occasion.
The occasion was the golden wedding anniversary of my beloved’s parents. They had asked me to provide some music for after the dinner. The brief was to get the grandkids dancing. The theme we chose was to cover all the decades from 1956 to 2006.
Now, strange as it may seem, I’ve never actually made a compilation CD before, despite having had the technology to do so for several years. I was never really very big on making compilation tapes, either. So the first thing to do was to check that the technology worked.
Our CD writer hasn’t written under Windows since we got Dell to replace the whole drive when it broke down. It’s doubtless some kind of driver problem, but I haven’t bothered to try to fix it. I know what you’re thinking: CD writers are as cheap as potatoes these days; but never buy a new one when there’s a way to get the old one working, I say. The logical solution, then, was to use Linux, where the same drive does work; and which is my preferred working environment anyway.
I’m currently using the Kubuntu distribution, and as it is KDE based, the logical CD creation tool seems to be K3B. This is essentially a graphical front end to various command-line tools, which is a fine approach. Unfortunately the GUI is a bit clunky. Still, nothing I couldn’t live with (once I had dowloaded and installed the plugin that allows it to recognise MP3s, at least).
So the next thing was to consider how to get the tracks we wanted. We already had quite a lot, of course, but inevitably there were plenty that we wanted that we didn’t have. I briefly considered the iTunes Music Store, but rejected it because a) I was using Linux, so couldn’t use iTunes; b) my MP3 player is not an iPod, so it (ITMS) would have been little use to me after this project; and c) most importantly of all, I didn’t want to have to struggle with DRM(Digital Restrictions Management, thought they’d like you to believe it’s “Rights”.).
I already use eMusic, which is good for relatively recent, independent stuff, but is not really a source of classic tracks. I did get ‘Rock Around the Clock’ from there, though. As well as that, Frances bought a couple of new CDs: a Paul Simon collection and a disco compilation.
But for the rest, and for the maximum flexibility, there was only one solution: I would have to enter the murky grey-area waters of AllOfMP3.com.
If you haven’t come across this site, it’s based in Russia and a legal grey area. The people who run it claim to be following the copyright laws of Russia; and presumably that is true, because the site continues to operate. However, they are able to offer a vast collection of albums for mere pennies per track. And all in a selection of formats, and without DRM.
The grey area is that we may be breaking the law by using their services in other countries, such as the UK.
It’s still running, though, so let’s work on the assumption that it’s OK to use it.
I set up an AllOfMP3 account, and by a daft number of steps of indirection, got some money into it, and downloaded a few tracks.
It’s good stuff: they have a huge selection of tracks, and the prices are so cheap. I think it has something to teach iTunes and the other legal download sites: the less you charge (and the less encumbered the files) the more people will buy.
I don’t think there was a track, or at least an artist, that I couldn’t find on it.
Oh, OK, there were two, but they’re both a tad embarassing. We got a late request for the following tracks: ‘Summer Holiday’; ‘Y Viva España’; and ‘Remember You’re A Womble’.
Yes, I know. But since novelty hits (and songs from kids’ TV shows) were by no means outwith the scope of the project (and since we aleady had both ‘Crazy Frog’ and the Bratz TV theme), I attempted to comply.
Which was harder than you might have expected. AllOfMP3 had the first, but the second was slightly harder. I did find it, though, squirreled away on somebody’s MP3 blog (which seems to mainly consist of tracks ripped from old tapes found in the Dalston branch of Oxfam: the ripper/blogger is practically a neighbour).
Those Wombles, though: they’re hard to find.
There is a strange class of sites out there that list the contents of albums, and appear to allow you to click through and buy the the tracks; but when you do, you get a screen saying, “That track is not available”, or “This album is not available”. Which makes me wonder why they bother to list it on their sites; or at least, why they list it with live links that make it look as if you can buy it.
Anyway, somewhere on the deeper, darker recesses of the net, on the very last page of sites that, as far as Google knew, contained the string, “remember you’re a Womble”, I found it. Or at least part of it: it ends very abruptly. But in the context of the compilation, that didn’t actually seem to matter too much.
The party was a great success. The music went down very well, with only one slight problem: we overran our time in the hotel’s function suite, and never got to play the second disk. Too much eating, not enough dancing, I suppose.
Still, now that I’ve done one, making other compilation CDs should be a doddle.
Oh, and the beard (I mentioned it earlier, you weren’t paying attention) came off before the party. The kids complained, but some things just have to go.
The track listing? Oh all right then:
- Dean Martin - Memories Are Made of This (1956)
- 2 Unlimited - No Limit (1993)
- Elvis Presley - Jailhouse Rock (1958) 4 Cliff Richard & The Shadows - Summer Holiday (1963)
- Crazy Frog - Axel F (2005)
- The Wombles - Remember You’re a Womble (1973)
- Queen - We Will Rock You (1977)
- Pink - Get the Party Started (2002)
- The Rolling Stones - (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (1965)
- Typically Tropical - Barbados (1975)
- Busted - Year 3000 (2003)
- Bill Haley and The Comets - Rock Around the Clock (1955)
- Bratz - Bratz TV Theme (2006) 14.Paul Simon - Me and Julio Down by the School Yard (1972)
- Rednex - Cotton Eye Joe (1994)
- Blondie - Sunday Girl (1979)
- Don McLean - American Pie (1972)
- Black Eyed Peas - Don’t Phunk With My Heart (2005)
- Bob Marley - Three Little Birds (1980)
- Dusty Springfield - I Only Want to be With You (1963)
- The Pogues & The Dubliners - The Irish Rover (1987)
- Bhundu Boys - Tamba Wega (1997)
- The Beatles - She Loves You (1963)
- The Dixie Cups - Chapel of Love (1964)
- David Bowie - Rebel Rebel (1974)
- Thin Lizzy - Whiskey in the Jar (1973)
- Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983)
- Sylvia - Y Viva Espana (1974)
- Dexy’s Midnight Runners - Come On Eileen (1982)
- Sly and the Family Stone - Dance to the Music (1968)
- Spice Girls - Wannabe (1996)
- Earth, Wind and Fire - Boogie Wonderland (1979)
- James - Sit Down (1991)
- The Crystals - Da Doo Ron Ron (1963)
- Chubby Checker - Let’s Twist Again (1961)
- Gnarls Barkley - Crazy (2006)
- Pulp - Common People (1995)
- Joan Baez - The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down (1971)
- Doris Day - Whatever Will Be, Will Be, (Que Sera, Sera) (1956)
This, you won’t be surprised to hear, was a re-reading. I started out reading it to my nine-year-old son. He, of course, soon zoomed ahead on his own, leaving me to finish more slowly. I think that makes it three times for him. Definitely just the two for me. And he’s read it at least once more between me first drafting this post and finally getting round to publishing it.
So, how is it? In particular, how does it hold up to a re-reading? The short answers are “great” and “really well”.
I’m a sucker for Rowling’s work, an unashamed big fan. And obviously, I wouldn’t have been reading it again if I hadn’t liked it the first time.
So, yeah, it’s great. Probably not the best of the series (though I’m not sure I could say what that is), but not the worst, either.
I have a view on the major plot spoiler, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice to say that I’m largely convinced by the arguments of the site whose very domain name is a spoiler (though I see that it has changed its name, now).
What with Harry Potter, the Lemony Snicket books, the Artemis Fowl books and others, we are truly living through a golden age of children’s literature (or at least, publishing).
I was surprised, when I asked my son whether he was more eagerly awaiting “Seven or Thirteen,” that he said, “Thirteen.” Perhaps he sensed that Mr Snicket would be finished before Ms Rowling; and it turns out that he was right: the final adventure of the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans is coming out next month (on Friday the thirteenth, suitably enough.
Such is Dave’s posting frequency that it has already rolled off his front page. But such is his site’s popularity that it went straight in at number 10 on a Google search for my name; and it has now risen to number 3, I see.
Ironically, since I close the piece by being cruel and dismissive about cricket, yesterday’s news made cricket interesting. Who ever thought that I would know the name of a cricket umpire?
But pop over and read my ‘This Is England‘. Oh yes, and: you need to scroll down to my comment to get a correction to the intro.
This Knife of Sheffield Steel
When you grow up in Scotland (or at least, when I did so during the sixties and seventies) you pick up a fair amount of anti-English feeling. It’s mainly to do with football, but it is linked to what is seen as several hundred years of oppression. Although the Act of Union was, in theory, a mutual act between two independent nations, it is clear which was the dominant partner.
I’ve lived in England — in London — for nineteen years, though, and am unlikely to leave (or not to go back to Scotland at any rate: if I left London it would be to escape the UK’s ubiquitous surveillance state and paranoid anti-terror laws). It should be obvious, then, that I harbour no great dislike of England or its people. Indeed, to harbour such a collective dislike for fifty-odd million would be bigotry of the most ludicrous sort.
However, I have long been bothered by the apparent inability of many English people to distinguish their country’s identifying features from those of the larger nation-state of which it is part. And I’m further disappointed by what seems to be a similar difficulty that many of Dave’s Big England guests have had: finding things to love that are uniquely and explicitly English.
On A Catwalk Jungle
John Lennon was sadly mistaken when he sang “The English army had just won the war” — and not just because he was ignoring the contributions of Canadians, Poles, the Free French, and of course, the USA.
That is poetic licence, and it would be churlish of me to complain. But it is perhaps the most famous example of the casual use of “England”, when the speaker or writer really means one or other of “Great Britain”, “The United Kingdom”, or even “The British Isles”.
Some would say that it doesn’t matter. However, I believe it is always worth taking care with language, to try to say precisely what you mean: how else are others to understand you? Also, it’s bloody annoying to us Scots (and probably to the Welsh and Northern Irish, too). Maybe that’s why they do it, of course.
Where the Well-known Flag of England Flies
It used to be that the English also seemed confused about which country they meant at football matches. All through my childhood and well into my twenties I wondered why English football fans supported their country using an emblem that contained representations of two other countries as well as their own. I’m speaking of the Union Flag, of course. Stadiums used to be draped in it, even when England were playing Scotland in the old Home Internationals (just as an aside: can you think of another country which has such a tautologically-named event?)
What did they think the blue part with the white cross represented, I used to wonder?
In recent years, though, football fans at least seem to have worked out which country’s flag they want to fly. Which brings us back to why Dave started this whole thing.
Land of One Thousand Stances
I guess I like England; but it took me a long time to realise that I don’t have to like it in opposition to anything, particularly Scotland: I can (and do) love London, and still love Edinburgh.
London is something of a special case, though. While it is undoubtedly in England, there is a sense in which it is not of it: it is not really part of England, or of any country. Perhaps all great “world cities” are like that. The old song goes, “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner,” not, “Maybe it’s because I’m English and London is the capital city of my country”.
So where does all that leave me? In a word, I think, ambivalent. All the things that I might list that I like about this country, I don’t see as uniquely English (except by geography), but rather as British: music, literature, scenery, beer, the BBC…
Maybe the thing to do is turn it on its head. While I would claim The Beatles or The Clash as “British bands”, rather than “English bands”, I would claim Iain Banks or Irving Welsh, say, as “Scottish writers”. So maybe I’m being unfair to England.
But then, I’m in the oppressed minority.
And cricket’s still the most boring thing imaginable.