Picturing the Year

As another year ends time to have a look back through my now enormous Flickr photo stream (now well north of 17, 000 pictures) and pick out some of the favourite shots I managed to take during 2018:

Misty evening in Edinburgh – handheld shot walking home one night, amazed it came out:

Misty Evening 06

This poor chap was a rough sleeper, he had set up a small camp bed in Greyfriars kirkyard, his belongings in bags under a nearby tombstone, just a few feet away from the groups of passing tourists exploring the historic church and graveyard:

sleeping among the dead 01

Autumn but still some bursts of bright natural colours – this close-up was snapped in September in Greyfriars kirkyard, a bloom among the tombstones…

last colours of summer blooms among the tombstones

Another macro shot, playing with the close up facility on the camera, these autumnal berries and leaves came out quite nicely, I thought:

Autumn in the Colzium 09

Taken the same day in the Colzium at Kilsyth, these gorgeously coloured autumn leaves:

Autumn in the Colzium 03

Lady enjoying a burst of warm sunshine on an autumn day:

Calton Hill on an autumn day 06

The Church of Scotland Assembly Building on the Mound, at Blue Hour:

Church of Scotland Assembly Building, autumn evening 01

National Gallery of Scotland at dusk:

The Mound, autumn evening 05

Union Canal at Blue Hour:

Union Canal, autumn evening 01

The recently refurbished McEwan Hall at night:

Bristo Square at night 04

The brightly painted Victoria Street on a damp evening:

Victoria Street on a wet winter night 01

The photographer photographed:

The Photographer

Lovely young Fringe performer kindly posing for me on the Royal Mile during the festival:

Fringe on the Mile 2018 0121

Really pleased with how this came out for a quick street portrait, taken of a Fringe performer on the Royal Mile. It went onto Flickr’s Explore page, so the views for it went crazy, several thousand views in just a few hours:

Fringe on the Mile 2018 036

My chum Darryl Cunningham paid a return visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Darryl Cunningham 02

Relaxing in Charlotte Square during the Book Festival:

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Charlotte Square 02

Selfies on the Mile:

Sunny Smiling Selfie Stick Shot

One of the young animators at the McLaren Animation awards during the Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - McLaren Animation 015

Mike Zahs (with the beard) talking after the film festival screening of Saving Brinton, which is one of my favourite movies of the year:

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 02

Russell Jones reading some of his poetry at the regular Event Horizon evening held most months by the Shoreline of Infinity journal in Edinburgh:

Event Horizon June 2018 018

Some shots from the Processions parade which marked a century since parliament gave (some) women the vote. I took a bunch of photos that day, lovely atmosphere, but these two were my favourites, came out quite well for improvised street portraits taken as they parade walked by:

Processions Edinburgh 2018 051

Processions Edinburgh 2018 019

Found a nest of fluffy wonders: I’d seen a couple of swans with their new baby cygnets on the Union Canal, then a few days later found their nest among reeds by the canal side, the babies sleeping inside while the parent swans kept a watchful eye nearby. The little wonders you can find just walking home from work…

Nest of wonderfulness 03

On a warm spring day, down by Musselburgh harbour, these two little scamps had climbed along the wall – they were pretty high up, and I think their parents would have a fit when they noticed how high they had gone!

Wall scaling monkeys

Same hot spring day, some kids enjoying themselves in the sea just off Portobello Beach, caught the moment just as one jumped from his boat:

fun on the water 012

Woman enjoying the spring weather, changing the music on her phone as she sits in the outdoor cafe in Princes Street Gardens, the sun dappled by the trees creating a nice mix of light and shade that drew me to frame it like this:

changing her tunes

Spring blossoms:

spring petals 02

Enjoying some fine spring weather by the floating cafe on the Union Canal, climbed up on the nearby old Leamington Lift Bridge to get this overhead angle:

cafe on the canal 02

Avengers Assemble!! Cosplayers at the comic con at Easter, these guys were friends of my chum, they had been out earlier in their costumes having their photos taken in some of the Edinburgh locations used in the Avengers: Infinity War movie:

Edinburgh Comic Con 2018 036

Family of cosplayers at the comic con!

Edinburgh Comic Con 2018 014

2000 AD veteran artist Colin MacNeil with Indy comics publisher and creator Colin Mathieson at the Edinburgh comic con:

Edinburgh Comic Con 2018 05

Winter’s night in Saint Andrew Square:

Saint Andrew Square, winter night 04

coffee after dark 01

Crossing North Bridge on an icy, snowy, windy winter’s day:

winter's night 01

Browsing for vinyl at the music stall in the street market:

street market, spring day 06

We were hit by seriously heavy snow storms in March, for only the second time in the decades I’ve lived here the buses stopped running even in the city centre. I ventured out to take a few photos, this was a nearby cemetery – my coat was white by this point from the heavy snowflakes being blown by strong wind, so I snapped a couple of pics then retreated home to the fireside!

Boneyard in the snow 07

More snow, this time on the Royal Mile:

Snowy Edinburgh 08

This was part of the Lumen light art installations, several different pieces that came on between dusk and dawn during the winter nights, brightening up the darkness. This was my favourite of the installation, the strings of light hanging down as ambient music played, you walked through them and let the lights sway around you, it was delightful and magical on a dark, winter’s night:

Edinburgh Lumen 03

This year was the Muriel Spark centenary, and it started with these projections onto the National Library of Scotland:

Muriel Spark Centenary 04

Princess Leia cosplayer and Wonder Woman at the Capital Sci-Fi Con:

Capital Sci-Fi Con 2018 022

Capital Sci-Fi Con 2018 018

Blue Hour on the Royal Mile back in January, sun set but this last smidgen of blue in the western sky, my favourite time of day:

Royal Mile at Blue Hour, winter's night 01

View over Edinburgh from North Bridge on Burns Night:

Edinburgh on Burns Night

The low winter sun bathing the lighthouse on the mighty Bass Rock last January:

Bass Rock at the end of a winter's day 02

Each January the National Gallery of Scotland shows their Turner collection (a gift to the nation years ago on the condition they be shown in winter when the light suits them best), I try to go along each year to see them again. As I came out the early winter night had fallen and the Mound by the galleries was icy:

The Mound on a wintry evening

New Year’s Resurrection – this short story by acclaimed Scots writer Val McDermid was projected onto buildings like the Signet Library at the very start of the year:

New Year's Resurrection 01

The Labyrinth Index

The Labyrinth Index,
Charles Stross,
Orbit Books

The ninth entry in Charlie Stross’s fabulous Laundry Files arrives, and leads directly on from the events of The Nightmare Stacks and The Delirium Brief, which saw this most-secret branch of the old SOE, the intelligence service which deals with extra-normal threats (from vampires to unicorns – not as cuddly as they seem – to the increasingly likely Case Nightmare Green scenario which would see an unspeakable, Lovecraftian Elder God awakening and pushing into our world) exposed to the public after a cross-dimensional invasion of Britain reveals their existence. And then, worse, public scrutiny leads to meddling politicians interfering with the Laundry, neutering them just as a threat at the highest levels of government strikes, ending in a desperate deal choosing between the (slightly more approachable) lesser of two evils, leaving the British government now under The New Management – the Elder God N’yar Lat-Hotep is now the Prime Minister…

Now well into the reign of The New Management and his darkness summons Mhari Murphy to Downing Street. Despots are always hard to anticipate – underlings never know if they are still being favoured or summoned to be disciplined (and the new PM’s discipline includes planning a giant Mesoamerican temple to replace Admiralty Arch, all the better to show off the skulls of his enemies and those who have disappointed him (if you are lucky you will be dead by this point, if unlucky a still-living decapitated skulls), the old tradition of placing the heads of enemies of the regime on spikes taken to the max. In an impish move the PM has promoted Mhari to the Lords – creating her as “Baroness Karnstein”, a nice nice nod to her vampiric status. He has a special mission – in fact a pretty desperate, possibly one-way mission – for her and a small team in America.

It seems that while the UK – mostly unaware – has been slowly assimilated under the rule of a new Prime Minister who is just a human sock puppet for the Elder God, something else is going on in the US of A. Previous books had hinted at power struggles within the various agencies there which ran Laundry-style extra-normal intelligence services, and now it seems the main one, known to everyone else as the Nazgûl (which gives an idea of the sort of ethics they have) has pretty much cleared out agents of other services. But there’s something else – nobody has seen the President in weeks, not so much as a wave while boarding Marine One. And only those outside of the US have noticed this oddity, those in America not only haven’t noticed the absence of the President, they no longer even recall there was such a person or post. Somehow the entire nation has been enchanted into forgetting even the term “president”, and the PM sends Mhari and her small team covertly into the US to find out what is going on.

I’ve loved the Laundry Files since the beginning – they are an intoxicating mixture of spy thriller, supernatural horror and some wonderfully dark humour (you may be battling inter-dimensional dark gods but you are still in the Civil Service, so you need to fill out a Risk Assessment form and properly document any expenses claims). Over the preceding eight books Charlie has built up the world of the Laundry Files and its characters, and with the most recent few books there has been a strong sense of events spiralling ever more rapidly, the tempo is increasing, any victory may be short-lived, the darkness is spreading. It makes life hellish for our characters, but it makes the series ever-more engrossing for the readers. Covert espionage missions, power plays between different Dark Elder Gods coveted our world greedily, vampire agents, humans with special powers, Men In Black and even our old chums from the secret 666 RAF Squadron making an appearance again. As gripping as a hungry anaconda.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading science fiction journal

Night-time at the Museum

Normally I like visiting the main hall of the original part of the National Museum of Scotland during the day, as the Victorian glass and steel roof means this large space is flooded with natural light, even on an overcast, cloudy day (several galleries along the railings are well served by this light, especially a row of sculptures). Still, it has a certain charm after nightfall too:

National Museum of Scotland at Night 01

I was zooming in on this handsome old wrought-iron drinking fountain with its elaborate surround. I had the camera on a tripod and used a (fairly short!) long exposure, the result was this very clear image of the fountain while the visitors around it were all motion blurred ghosts. It wasn’t a deliberate plan but I quite like the sort of quality it brought to this pic:

National Museum of Scotland at Night 02

Looking straight cross the main hall to the stairs ascending and descending at the opposite end:

National Museum of Scotland at Night 04

Meanwhile, a little earlier I had been on the roof terrace of the modern part of the museum, a free to visit spot that many seem to miss, but which offers splendid views out across Edinburgh’s Old Town in all directions, including eastwards to Athur’s Seat, the huge extinct volcano which sits in the Royal Park of Holyrood (by the palace) and gives us a chance for a country hill walk without leaving the town. Here is Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags catching the final half hour of golden light on a winter’s afternoon:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 01

Flocks of birds swooping around in tight formation over the rooftops of the Old Town as dusk falls on the short winter day:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 03

Spires and minarets of Heriot’s School silhoutted by the setting winter sun:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 05

Looking north from the roof terrace across the Old Town:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 06

And of course you get a terrific view of the Castle:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 07

And Outlook Tower, part of the Camera Obscura, which has been a visitor attraction in the city since the 19th century and still draws them in, sitting right in front of the entrance to the Castle Esplanade, again catching the last few minutes of winter daylight:

Blessed by the last light of an autumn day 08

And this one was an impulse shot – the east side of the roof terrace has a white wall, with a large section cut out. As the sun was rapidly reclining in the west it cast a gorgeous golden light, throwing shadows onto the white wall and that lovely, warm colour. Along with the cut-put viewing space in the wall acting like a picture frame with the dome of Old College (a distinctive landmark on the Old Town’s skyline) I thought I’d try a pic, quite pleased with how it came out, given it was a spur of the moment thing when I noticed how the light was hitting the wall:

Sunset framed and shadowed

Aardman: An Epic Journey

Aardman, An Epic Journey, Taken One Frame at a Time,
Peter Lord and David Sproxton, with David Gritten
Simon & Schuster

Aardman Animation has, rightly in my opinion, become a national, and indeed international, treasure, a bastion of quality animation – most especially the fine art of stop-motion animation – all the while maintaining their warm, Indy, quirky, lovably eccentric British humour and sensibilities. Aardman, An Epic Journey follows the two founders, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, across more than forty years of history, and what a story it is – from schoolboy chums playing with a parent’s old cine camera, making simple animations on an old kitchen table to first early forays into television in the 1970s through to Creature Comforts, award-winning adverts that helped the young company thrive with a decent income through to BAFTA and Oscar glory and beyond to the contemporary internet era. All this from two young friends playing with an old camera and cut-out animation on a kitchen table…

The book is chronological, essentially a biography of David and Peter and Aardman itself, starting with their school friendship, a new hobby using an old camera, a home-made rostrum mount for it on a venerable kitchen table that was now surplus to requirements. What started as fun and experimentation rapidly becomes something more as the young lads find they can create their own animated shorts. In this they are hugely encouraged by their parents and others – encouragement and nurturing of talent will be a theme throughout this book, right from the start – and they are also inspired by various art books and some of those unusual children’s programmes of the early 70s, such as Vision On (a very visually-rich series aimed to cater for hearing-impaired kids).

(above and below, the book also comes with several pages of photos and illustrations from throughout Aardman’s forty-plus year history)

A family connection to the BBC and their home-made experiments gets them their first paying work with some brief animated snippets for Vision On, and then the follow-up, Take Hart. For the latter they would move away from their 2-D basic animations and start using a substance found in most children’s toy boxes, Plasticine. This time the idea wasn’t just for animated interludes but to have a character who could riff off the iconic Tony Hart, a foil to the much beloved art presenter. That wee Plasticine creation was, of course, Morph, and it would change not only the direction of their animation style but their entire career, the first of a number of Aardman characters who would become embedded in and beloved by popular culture.

The 1980s sees growth and the arrival of a young Nick Park, the arrival of Channel 4 (with a budget and remit to include more unusual works, including animation aimed at older viewers and not just for kids) and the huge expansion of well-funded advertising. Aardman had already crafted some interesting animation based around some free-range dialogue recorded by simply leaving a microphone at a homeless shelter, then working around the real-life dialogue, and this approach of using real-world, everyday people’s dialogue then building the animation around it found expression in Creature Comforts, the humans’ words now put into the mouths of animated zoo animals, to huge effect. Not only did this go down well and remain warmly regarded by many animation fans and inspire more advertisers to use Aardman (the ads being a great bread and butter income source for animators and artists between their film projects), it lead to an Academy Award nomination – and a win (amazingly A Grand Day Out was also in contention, so Nick both won and lost the same Oscar!). Aardman’s first Oscar and not their last…

As the 80s and 90s roll on Wallace and Gromit make their bow and soon become one of the studio’s most recognised and most adored set of characters (come one, who among us doesn’t love the humour, the craft that goes into those W&G films, the beautiful attention to detail, the multiple references to classic Brit films? How many of you are hearing the W&G theme music in your head just thinking about them?), feature films and co-operation with major US Hollywood studios like Dreamworks. This doesn’t always go smoothly – the smalller-scale, eccentric, people-driven Aardman style is very different from the big Hollywood system, and the book explores the ups and downs, although refreshingly there is no back-biting or snarky gossip here, just acknowledgement that the Hollywood studios and their approach didn’t really mesh with Aardman’s way of doing things, but also that those joint adventures taught them a lot about the business and helped Aardman.

Given the huge range of famous thesps who have lined up to voice an Aardman character it will not surprise you to learn the book also contains quotes from a number of famous actors about their time working with Aardman. Most, as Peter and David acknowledge freely (and almost gleefully) say their painstaking attention to details can drive actors up the wall and across the ceiling, requiring endless re-takes and re-recordings of slightly different voice techniques as the animators have a particular idea in mind to fit their characters, and they have to work the actors until they strike that note (also, as the duo admit, at first they simply were not used to directing actors). However this is all tongue in cheek – while I’m sure the endless re-takes for the voice talent does drive the actors mad, they all seem to understand that it is because of the perfectionism of the animators, and that the actual animation itself requires even more time and more excruciatingly painstaking work. And clearly they still all want to be a part of it.

There are lots of fascinating little sidebars to enjoy here too – those of you of a certain age will recognise some of the adverts Aardman made in the 80s and 90s and perhaps never knew it was their work (remember the animated skeleton advertising Scotch Video Tapes, “re-record, not fade away” or Douglas the wee man who came to life from a packet of Lurpak butter? All Aardman works). Or the fact that the Hawes Dairy in Yorkshire was struggling, until in Wallace and Gromit: a A Close Shave Wallace mentions Wensleydale, and the dairy finds demand soaring. Cheese-makers accidentally given a huge boost in sales by animated characters, there is something wonderfully Aardman about that, isn’t there? And I am sure Wallace and Gromit would approve.

(Above, the Aardman-created animated skeleton for Scotch Video Tape’s advert, below, another 80s boom for animators with the arrival of MTV demanding more visually interesting music videos, including the now iconic Peter Gabriel Sledgehammer video, shot in a remarkably short period of intense work and featuring among the crew very young Brothers Quay, now revered as giants of Brit animation)

I mentioned the encouragement very young Peter and David received right at the start of their animation experiments, even before they had made anything actually for sale. That becomes a theme running throughout this book, starting with the nurturing of teenage Peter and David’s interests and talents, then they in turn paying that forward, encouraging new animators like Nick Park and Golly, trying their best to make sure all their staff feel valued, encouraged, running mentoring schemes, becoming heavily involved in charity works, especially in their much-loved home-town of Bristol (even those Bristolians who aren’t animation fans love Aardman because they put back into their city and community).

This continues right up to the design of their latest HQ building and – as many of you may have read in the news just before the book came out – Peter and David, with one eye to how Aardman will run when they choose to retire, have put the shares for the company into a trust, effectively making all the Aardman staff shareholders of their own company, empowering the staff and rewarding them while also heading off any larger media company simply gobbling them up and changing them.

(above and below, the book has some lovely attention to detail, including these gorgeous end-papers, with original Wallace and Gromit sketches at the front and Shaun the Sheep at the back)

That note of encouragement and having fun is perhaps one of the nicest aspects of this book, perhaps even more so than the fascinating history of how this beloved company came into being and grew, of how its characters conquered our hearts. It gives this book a warm, smile-inducing quality, an utter delight, much like Aardman’s films themselves do. A lovely, open, friendly history of a great British film institution.

You can browse Aardman’s own YouTube Channel here.