River walking

Went walking with Gordon and his dog Bruce this afternoon and decided to follow the Water of Leith in the other direction. After a long, meandering path through more leafy trees we eventually come out at the Visitor Centre which sits below a huge viaduct which the main Glasgow-Edinburgh rail line runs on and, parallel and only a few yards away an equally impressive aqueduct for the canal, enormous arches spanning the valley, 60, 70 feet above our heads, wide enough and strong enough to carry express trains and thousands of gallons of water respectively. Say what you like about our Victorian predecessors, but those guys knew how to build and how to build to last. We repaired to a nearby beer garden at the Tickled Trout and sat outside sipping cool beer beneath a shady tree listening to the river flowing by. Nothing to do and all day to do it.

Climbed the stairs from the river up to the aqueduct and walked back home along the canal towpath (the view from the aqueduct is amazing). This runs right by my home and I cycle along here regularly. Once it was overgrown and messy but now it has all been fixed up as part of the Millennium Projects. Closed sections are reconnected and you can now cycle along a wide, even path all the way to Glasgow (right past my parent’s home actually). And now traffic has returned to the water. Where before the only boats there belonged to the University’s rowing team now narrow boats ply their way along almost into the centre of Edinburgh for the first time in decades. Right along from my house there’s an entire dock for them where only five years ago all you could hire was a rowboat. A very pleasant piece of regeneration that everyone can enjoy.

Statues

I had a very pleasant Sunday afternoon’s gentle walk with Melanie and Gordon along the nearby Water of Leith. A small river which runs right through Edinburgh and, as the name suggest, goes all the way to the port of Leith. Once upon a time it was home to many mills with the river turning the water wheels of the industrial revolution. Now it is a long, forested river walkway. Gently running water (except during the floods), and centuries-old massive trees arcing over your head, the summer foliage creating a leafy canopy, softly filtering the strong summer sunlight. We walked along from nearby my home, passing right by Murrayfield Stadium the home of Scottish Rugby Union (League does not count as real rugby, it is heresy). Along past very expensive homes backing on to the river for a long, peaceful amble, then across a nice little wooden bridge and up some very steep cobbled steps cut into the side of the river valley which bring you up through heavy foliage and out eventually into a clearing behind the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, with a Henry Moore sculpture right there at the top of the stairs as your reward.

An enjoyable walk through the ground of the Gallery of Modern Art then across the road to the Dean Gallery opposite. The Dean Gallery is a recent addition to the National Galleries of Scotland and houses a large amount of work by the Edinburgh Scots-Italian artist, the magnificent Eduardo Paolozzi. At the moment it is also running a retrospective on the six decade career of Paolozzi just now and the entire gallery is awash with his multifarious works. Sketches, paintings, montages and, of course the amazing sculptures for which he is so famed. Right from his early work in the 40s and 50s there is a strong association with films and with science fiction in Eduardo’s work. The wonderfully colourful and starkly powerful graphics of Astounding Tales and other SF&F magazines and comics are a rich source of inspiration to the young artist. Now in his 80s Paolozzi retains this sense of child-like sense-of-wonder, still collecting magazine and film images, rummaging through the toy section of Woolworth’s or small markets for objects which take his fancy, spark his imagination. If you look around the fabulous recreation of his studio it is littered with found objects that his magpie eye liked, from 50s Italian scooters to a model Millennium Falcon.

His sculptures and his busts often have a semi-mechanical overtone to them. Not so much biomechanics like H R Giger more like an almost natural organic confluence of technology and art. Some bronzes are made form impressions of found material in old junkyards and all give the impression of organic growth, that he hasn’t just made a shape but that the shape has grown as he find new shapes to add to his work as he goes along. Even the semi-symmetrical busts have an SF overtone to them, recalling Maria from Metropolis and prefiguring C-3P0 and the Terminator. Many of them are fantastically tactile sculptures and the desire to touch then, feel the outlines and texture is almost overpowering. In fact it occurred to me that an exhibition should be arranged especially for the blind and visually impaired that allowed them to do just this. With these phantasmagorically twisted bronzes there is no reason a blind person could not touch them, feel them and enjoy the art as those with eyes do. I’m tempted to email the galleries and suggest this although I suspect the insurers would not be too happy about people touching the exhibits. Coming out afterwards I’m left with the impression that Paolozzi is still, at heart, a child, taking delight in all that is unusual and wonderful in the world. I suspect this is why his work is still so vibrant and fresh in a way that the victims of the Brit-Art fire last week can only dream of.

We walked back over to the Gallery of Modern Art afterwards and relaxed for a little while in the peaceful environs of the award-winning Landform natural sculpture. I’ve watched this take shape over the last year or two, from raw earthen mounds, to sculpted shapes, to grass-covered earth sculptures with water. The long swoops and curves recall both the mazes of formal gardens in country houses and also the spirals which figure so prominently in the artwork of our Celtic and Pictish ancestors. The stepped embankments seen from the far side are reminiscent of more work by our ancestors, resembling Iron-Age hill forts, such as Trapairn Law near Edinburgh (famed in legend and poetry and also, along with the rock fortress of Dun-Eidin (where Edinburgh Castle now sits) one of the mythical homes for Arthur) while the still water mirroring the sky above suggests the Celtic belief in bodies of water as portals to the Otherworld. You can take all this from Landform, or you can just admire the curves and nature of it, or you can just lie back on the green bank and stare at the sky while the earthen curves hold you or you can, like some young children nearby, take the simplest of delights by sliding down the grassy bank with your dad.

Naturally the day was finished by some outdoor drinking.

This bronze in the gallery gardens is called Master of the Universe. Someone before us had placed a daisy right in front of his pointing finger 🙂

Googlewhack

According to an email I received from Chris Wood the ‘ole Woolamaloo Gazette is a Googlewhack. Does this mean Dave Gorman will come make a show about me?!?!?! heheh. So I tried it myself and actually got several results for ‘Woolamloo Gazette’. Only one proper hit for the actual site however, the rest were sites which either had links to the Woolamaloo or mentioned it, from other chums and random hits from people who had read a particular article. Does that count in Googlewhack or does it have to be only a single, unambigous result?

On the results I found there were alos utterly fraudulent ones such as financetime.co.uk which has nothing at all to do with me or the site, cheeky smeggers! They best beware less they feel the wrath of my sarcastic tongue and suffer a sever lampooning at some point in the future. There’s a hit on a page dealing in magic tricks because of my ripping the piss out of that twonk David Blaine last year. Another details quotes from reviews of MJ Simpson’s Douglas Adams biog I wrote for the Alien. A page detailing, of all things, sites of interest in Cleveland, Ohio has me listed. I wondered why then realised it was because of my mention of American Splendour. Another is a list of reviews for Ashok Banker’s Ramayana cycle.

Interesting the little ripples we make in the hyper-linked virtual reality of the web, isn’t it? And as an aside, if you just try ‘Woolamaloo’ on it’s own you get almost the same thing except you also get this Pythonesque link.

Troy

Went to see Troy on my day off. I suspected that as a mega-budget Hollywood take on one of the world’s oldest works of literature that it may take certain liberties. Then again, the director was Wolfgang Petersen who is the man who gave us the powerful Das Boot, which is famed for its accuracy. Well, right from the off it was obvious that it was bye-bye to pretty much everything except a few keys scenes from the Iliad. Right from the prologue history, or at least mytho-history, was re-written. Depressing – then again if Hollywood directors and writers consider they are able to re-write Shakespeare then watch chance Homer? Hey, he’s only the father of modern Western literature, responsible for the most important root myths of our culture…

Yep, a few scenes aside Troy is about as accurate and responsible as Braveheart or the 1950s sword’n’sandal epics which inspired Gladiator and Troy. It even cribs from modern ‘epics’ – the opening where the narration talks about men then as now being afraid of eternity and wondering if their name will echo though history is right out of Gladiator: “What we do echoes in eternity.” A later scene borrows from both Gladiator – ‘in this world or the next’ and Last of the Mohicans – ‘I will find you’. Agamemnon is recreated as a cartoon, power-hungry empire builder and Achilles is remodelled to fit current Hollywood expectations of heroism. The actions of the gods are absent. Talk about hubris, rewriting Homer.

That said, if you accept the lack of accuracy and respect for the source material and actual history – triremes centuries before they were ever designed and sailed! – it is an enjoyable spectacle. Brad Pitt does largely deliver a half-decent Achilles – a magnificent warrior but brooding, moody and obsessed with his own prestige. Eric ‘the Hulk’ Banna’s Trojan Prince Hector is pretty much spot on – a decent man, who doesn’t really consider himself a hero but who never shirks his duty to family and nation, playing his doomed hero with elegant understated ease so you feel huge sympathy for him. And wait, don’t moan that I just let slip Hector died! If you didn’t know that before seeing the film then don’t complain about me spoiling it – instead shame on you for not having read the Iliad! Why haven’t you?

Sean Bean is used sparingly but still manages to convey the craftiness for which Ulysses is rightly famed. Heavyweight Scottish actors Brian Cox and the always excellent James Cosmo add some seriousness to the proceedings although in truth neither are called on to do much more than be caricature characters but transcend this simply because of who they are. Special mention, of course, must be made of the legendary Peter O’Toole. It may have been a long time since he was Lawrence of Arabia, but O’Toole still knows how to play a heroic character, bringing the right mixture of dignity and tragedy to King Priam. The scene where he begs Achilles for the return of Hector’s desecrated corpse (a hideous thing to do to a Greek of the time) is one of the scenes to make it from the Iliad and retains the emotional punch of the original poem. And yes, ladies – and some men too I imagine – all of the leading young men (Bana, Pitt and Bloom) spend a fair few scenes in little clothing. For once a Hollywood movies has far more toned male flesh on view for voyeuristic enjoyment than female.

Use of CGI is both sparing and well-utilised. Despite some little acrobatic flourishes to his movements, the combat, even with Achilles, is free of wire-fu, gravity defying nonsense and grounded in more reality. Well, mostly – Bronze Age warriors wouldn’t do so much fencing as bronze swords aren’t up to it (indeed most weapons of the time are often almost un-edged – theses swords are stabbing weapons primarily) and Greeks of this period – and later Classical period Greece – would prefer to use their javelins more. And Hoplite style formation fighting is centuries out of it’s time period.

All in all, accepting the alterations/tinkering and remodelling of characters, compressing a ten year war into a few weeks etc I’d still have to say Troy is immensely enjoyable and well worth going to see. It’s still a gripping, powerful story of hubris, love and tragedy and the visual spectacle is stunning on the big screen. There’s even a small attempt to have individual stories as in the Iliad. Limited by the medium obviously but at least the attempt is made – I always considered the fact that the poem treats no character as disposable was one of it’s great strengths; each action or death scene is accompanied by details of the man, his age, his family, his past – the soldiers who die in the Iliad are not faceless canon-fodder, Homer makes you care about them and the people they leave behind when whetted bronze sends them to the Underworld.

Watching the landing scene, where a thousand Greek triremes beach themselves on the shores of lofty Ilium I was reminded of another titanic battle of more recent vintage and one which is much in the news due to the approaching 60th anniversary: D-Day. Once the Iliad and the mighty walls of Troy themselves were thought to be myth. As someone who has spent decades fascinated with both mythology, fantasy and history – Classical Studies at school allowed me to combine all of these (and win the School Prize, little swot that I was) – I am well aware that modern historians reject myth and folkloric traditions at their risk. There is no such thing as ‘just legend’. Exaggerated? Perhaps. Over-layered by centuries of re-telling and embroidering? Sure. But there is always an actual basis to all myth and legend.

But back to the point – watching the landing scenes made me think of D-Day. Surely one of the greatest – and riskiest – undertakings of any age of history? The largest fleet in human history and hundreds of thousands of ordinary ‘citizen soldiers’ who accomplished the impossible. These men were not scions of an immortal god, imbued with supernatural strength. They were ordinary folk who did the extraordinary. And I wondered, will people look back at D-Day in a few centuries and imagine it is mostly an inflated myth, based on a much smaller actual event? Would they believe the scale of the undertaking? As the 60th anniversary approaches and the men who took part slowly fade away into old age and death I’d argue that they are already well on the way to becoming legend, even to us only six decades later. We know it really happened and yet is already the stuff our national folklore and the ordinary men who did it seem, with each retreating years, to take on the stature of giants.

Was it this way once with a real Trojan War? Was there ever an Achilles or is he just an invention by the epic bards, added to real events to give a narrative edge to their oral re-creation of history? These events were ancient when Homer – if he really existed – wrote down these poems and almost certainly re-interpreted them for his contemporary audience. Actually viewed in that light perhaps modern tinkering with the Iliad is not without precedent, is it? Will a future writer create a future Achilles storming Gold or Omaha Beaches? So we give birth to legends. Our collective folklore moves in the modern world still – witness another epic battle of WWII, the Battle of the River Plate. One of the British warships who fought doggedly against the superior German pocket battleship Graf Spee was named Ajax. Even when we don’t know it we live in myth.

Bonfire of the inanities

A huge fire has consumed a building where Tory lickspittle Charles Saatchi was storing a large amount of his modern, so-called ‘Brit-Art’ collection, including works by Hirst, Emin and Turk. Tracey Emin’s beach hut and the tent listing the names of her former shags are gone as is ‘floater’, an empty Perspex box with chewing gum wads stuck to the top. Dear Lord, how will the art world ever recover????

At the risk of sounding like a philistine I can’t help but think this is no loss whatsoever to the world of art and is a disaster only to those blatant charlatans like Damien Hirst who have no artistic ability whatsoever but do have a prodigious flair for self promotion and pure bullshit. Turk on Channel 4 News bemoaned the fact that some of these artists may have been the Turners of the future generations, which strikes me as both ridiculous and utterly immodest in a breath-taking way. In fact it sums up much of modern Brit-Art for me – pure arrogance and little talent.

And before anyone has a go at me for attacking modern art, I am not – I’m attacking a bunch of self-obsessed wankers. Let’s face it – most of those gits may as well wank off over some fabric then nail it up in an installation piece. Come to think of it (no pun intended) Tracey Emin is probably considering mounting an exhibition of a new tent created from squares of fabric over which each of her former lovers has ejaculated.

Now if the fire had been in the Dean Gallery, across the road from the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in gorgeous Dean Village it would have been a disaster. Especially since they are now running a special exhibition taking a retrospective of the work of the excellent Italian-Scots artist Eduardo Paolozzi. The Dean already features his massive metal man sculpture and a wonderful re-creation of his studio (which is full of interesting toys he liked the colour or shape of, including a Millennium Falcon if you look closely). His work is irreplaceable whereas much of the art destroyed in the fire is symptomatic of the modern culture which produced it – hollow, meaningless, disposable and easily replaceable. Indeed some are already talking about recreating the same items again.

New Who

News on the Beeb’s website that bloody Billie Piper is to be the new Doctor Who assistant. Oh gods, no…. Suddenly my hopes for a glorious new interpretation of a Brit classic for a new generation are sinking fast… What are they playing at?

Blake

A few days after shaking hands with a real life astronuat (see excited blog below!) I served Gareth Thomas on Friday – Blake from Blake’s 7 of course. So this week I met a man who sailed into space in an early ship which was little mroe than a flying tin can then a man who ran around a cardboard BBC set of a fictional starship. Cool. Yes, my job is still crap and dreadfully underpaid but occassionally it can be fun. I wonder if I’ll bump into Sylvester McCoy during the Festival again this summer? He was quite friendly – he was in a good mood because Kath, our kid’s buyer had found him exactly what he wanted when he wasn’t too sure of his information. I was loathe to mention the ‘B’ word as I’ve heard he gets pissed off that after decades of acting that show is all anyone ever mentions. However, he was okay with it, saying he doesn’t worry about it now since, when he reflects back on it, it gave him recognition and job security. Nice to meet him.

Dry history

I’d have to agree with Ariel that far too may historians, in the elusive quest for ‘respectable, heavyweight’ histories can veer too far into detail at the expense of readability. Regardless of how accurate your historical facts or how insightful your theories, if no-one reads the book, it is useless. Personally I attribute this, at least in part, to the fact that many academics – in many fields, not just history – write books as if they are writing for a peer-group reviewed journal. Having worked through mroe than a few of those in my time as well I can say some of them have two main problems. The first is that they are so worried their peers will find holes in thei arguments or, worse still, consider them ‘lightweight’ that they drag in far too much detail an an effort to draw on overwhelming evidence to back up their viewpoint. This has the unintentioned effect of boring the reader to death and rendering the prose unreadable. Couching far too much in ‘academese’ rather than plain English does not help.

The other problem is a much simpler one – many of these people simply don’t know how to write! Not everyone can do this well and all too many history books have grown out of a well-researched but poorly written doctoral thesis. Since one of the first rules of all kinds of writing is to know what audience you are aiming at, the author should know to make alterations from a document meant for academic research, to be read by a few experts on a panel and a book which many are meant to read. In modern academia there is an enormous pressure to publish. This has, along with the DTP revolution, lead to an explosion in the number of specialised journals and the articles to fill them, then even mroe articles refuting those articles by other academics. Indeed half of academia seems to spend it’s time refuting the other half in print. I’m all for peer review in specialise journals but certainly in my academic field I foudn it was becoming ridiculous – lecturers were publishing for the sake of publishing, not for valid academic reasons.

If you look at most job decsriptions for academic posts now you’ll see that they almost always expect the applicant not only to have a good degree or higher, research skills etc (teaching ability is low down the list – you only have to study to teach at secondary level, not higher it seems) but preferably (ie you better have it) a record of having been published. Once this meant only in said journals, of which there were many. Now it also means in book form, which frequently takes the form of basically publishing your doctoral thesis with a few pictures and hopefully a catchy title. While I am all for a range of books on many subjects and at many levels I have to say I think an awful lot – and not just vanity publications – are published for the wrong reasons and with too little editorial oversight.

Headsplitter

On a Sunday which lived up to it’s name I spent several happy hours walking along the beach all the way from North Berwick to the neighbouring village of Dirleston. Sipping some beer on a long, sandy beach with an arching sky of blue above you must be one of life’s simple pleasures. A 99 cone and shucking your shoes for a spot of paddling in the surf add to the pleasure. Warm sand underfoot contrasting with cool tidal water from the Forth and North Sea washing over my tootsies, sloshing over and back, little grains moving between my feet. How deep can you wade before the waves hit the bottom of your shorts? Always a fun game. Then lounging like a wee lizard on a rock to let the sun dry off your feet.

Today I am paying the price for spending far too many hours in the bright sunlight. Nope, no sunburn – I had slathered on sunblock all over before leaving the house and my shorts-encased legs are still the pale blue-white (Daz legs!) they were before I left. No, I found my eyes were very tired after nearly five hours of beachcombing. I figured last night it was a combination of lots of fresh air, miles of walking, sand getting in my eyes (the breeze blew dry sand across the wet in fascinating patterns) and the glare of bright sunlight from sea and sand.

But this morning my eyes were still rather painful. When I opened the blinds the early morning sunlight was like hot pokers in the eyeballs. I made it as far the end of my road but even the morning light, filtered through my very dark shades, was causing me a lot of pain. And I could feel the pressure building up in my head, like a balloon inflating behind my forehead. Fearing a migraine I retreated back to my flat and phoned in sick before entombing myself in my little boxroom study/library. Having no windows I could sit in total darkness surrounded by the scent of hundreds of books. All the better to watch the fascinating spirals and zigzag patterns which played out on my eyeballs… Major ouch. Alas, nothing to do but ride it out like a storm. It didn’t last too long but as any migraine sufferer will tell you, you’re washed out for hours afterwards. Even when I could venture back into my living room which is very airy and light I had to wear my shades as my eyes were still far too sensitive. Now the sun has finally gone down and my eyes feel a lot better. Who needs vampiric blood to be overly sensitive to bright daylight? You just need Celtic blood. Still, it was a fun day the day before, so it was worth it.

As I watched the coloured patterns play out on my eyes during the migraine though I was reminded of a passage in Stephen Baxter’s challenging Evolution. An early modern human suffers from migraines, but obviously her primitive hunter-gather tribe have no medical knowledge. She begins to attribute the images the headaches cause to spirits and gods and begins drawing the spirals and patterns in the dust, then later in ink on her face. Before long others too begin to copy these basic tattoos and it becomes a cultural signifier, showing who belongs to their group. Pure supposition but it would be nice to think the pain would cause some good.

Blues

Gotta say, the Blues series on BBC Four – utterly top stuff. Modern practitioners and classics Blues right out of the Mississipi Delta in the 30s. Born of Jazz, the Depression and racial intolerance a fantastic, blue-collar music, accessible to listen and to play for ordinary folks on a mass scale for one of the first times in history, spreading on new-fangled recording devices and early radio stations. Without it there wouldn’t be any Elvis and rock’n’roll. That means no Sixties revolution of pop and rock and without that would we have had the Sixties social revolution? Doubt it. No punk, no rock and the self-empowerment these home-made musical movements gave to kids. Just as well some guys decided to head down to that crossroads at midnight, isn’t it?

Brings back memories of a fantastic Blues concert I went to with some mates years back in Glasgow. The legendary Bo Diddley with his famous square geetar. Now Bo was getting on a bit by then, so he had brought along on tour a whole bunch of other, younger Blues players to play sets – three or four bands for your money, pretty good value and a good way for an old master to give young newbies a chance on the tour circuit.

It was in the City Chambers in the Merchant City part of Glasgow. This old arena had been converted into a venue and had a weird stage design which had steps which lead directly from the end of the overhanging gallery right down to the stage. We were sitting on the gallery, practically hanging over the performers. Next to us, seated next to the steps down were an older lady, some younger ladies and a bunch of kids. Bo’s family as it turned out. In between his sets he’d wander up the stairs to sit with them and watch his younger comrades stomp out some kickass Blues. And he chatted away to us, asking us what we thought of the performers and the music; a Blues legend just sitting there enjoying his family, the music and shooting the breeze with some music fans. Goddam cool.

The series is a collection filmed by famous directors – Wim Wenders tonight – including Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorcese. The Beeb’s web page on it has times, dates and even record listings.

Justice for once

Bush’s government has been trying to fight the environmental movement again. They used a trumped up charge using a law from the 1800s to try and make Greenpeace responsible for the actions of a couple of members who had already had a trial for their actions intercepting a ship with illegal hardwood on board. The idea is that if they were found guilty as a body they would go on probation – every violation would involve new court cases and automatic fines. In other words Bush’s lackey John Ashcroft, the Principal Denier of Civil Rights in America (used to be the Attorney General’s office – how Bob Kennedy must spin in his grave after the civil rights they fought for in that office 40 years ago being used thus today) would effectively shut down Greenpeace’s ability to stage protests. A dirty trick to silence all opposition to the corrupt regime in Washington, just like the one exerted on Disney to pull Michael Moore’s new film from US distribution. Except the bastards didn’t win for once as a Florida judge (brother Jeb’s home no less) found it ridiculous and it was dismissed. The fight goes on.

Purple rain?

Nope, powder! Yes, I know (he says, adopting serious expression) this has serious implications for the security of our elected representatives (or those smegging arseholes as they are more commonly referred to). But let’s be honest, it was also funny as hell! I’ve heard of Purple Rain but this was ridiculous. Perhaps it was, as one commentator quipped, a case of Purple Haze? From the same militant father’s action group who brought you a bunch of middle-aged guys in Superman and Batman costumes on top of a suspension bridge. Groovy.

French film

After extolling the virtues of French cinema a few days ago (see earlier) I had the pleasure of watching Bon Voyage the other night, the new film from Jean Paul Rappenau. He only makes a movie every few years because he takes so long to pick and set up what he really wants to work on, so it’s always an event for cineastes. Rappenau, of course, directed my favourite film and best movie of all time, Cyrano de Bergerac back in 1990 as well as The Horseman on the Roof with my beloved Juliette Binoche.

He again uses the magnificent Gerard Depardieu as a cabinet minister taking up on an affair with the incandescent beauty of Isabelle Adjani (well into her forties and still one of the most stunning women on the planet – can’t believe her perfume house dropped her for a younger woman. Good complexion always wins out regardless of age). Adjani plays a femme fatale movie star who manipulates the men around her but finds events moving too fast as France lurches into war and finds itself over-run rapidly by Hitler’s forces in a matter of weeks.

Rappenau re-creates a glowing nostalgiac vision of the 40s, without being syrupy, beautifully photographed with, as always, great attention to detail and mise-en-scene. A secondary plot has the lovely (where do the French find these actresses???) Virginie Ledoyen (best know to English-speakers as the girl from The Beach) as a gamine, nerdy student assitant trying to help her professor to escape to Britain with his heavy water experiments while the fleeing French government, including Depardieu’s minister, flail around in panic and ghastly German agents move amongst them… Utterly wonderful and the sort of film that everyone will love and come out feeling great after. In Hollywood hands it would have been syrupy, but Rappenau is a master and working with the best.