Month: March, 2012

The Uncanny Hills

The scenic Preseli Hills, a place of great natural beauty and notably the origin place of the bluestone used for the inner circle of Stonehenge. Were they, as usually thought, taken there by human strength and ingenuity? Hacked from the living hillside and painstakingly transported across untamed Bronze Age Britain at the behest of chiefs and shamans? Or, as some recent scholarship suggests, were they carried there mindlessly by the Irish Sea Glacier on it’s inhumanly slow scouring of the land?

What looks to be a small child’s waterproof boot, found sitting on a flat stone near the top of a hill. From it’s condition it must have been there for quite some time. An offering of some kind? Or the remains of one?

A little down the hill from the boot, one of many small stone circles found in the area. It seems almost as if the jagged rocks had thrust themselves out of the boggy ground, rather than the reverse; momentarily I thought of a mouthful of broken fangs. The stone at the lower-right of the picture appeared to have been broken, or perhaps eroded away, thus creating an gap in the sacred geometry.

A wooden signboard; I wondered what purpose it could have served amidst the rocks and some distance from anything that could be considered a path. Whatever was pinned to it has mostly been torn away, save a few ribbons of paper – as exposed to the elements as it was this could be no surprise. Out of sight a lonely sheep was bleating, calling I thought to it’s distant flock.

My colleague asked me to take his picture; as I peered at the screen it seemed as though the sun were sucking light from the bright earth, rather than shining upon it. I thought of the Schwarze Sonne of Migration Age Germanic occultism. No doubt it was a trick of the mind brought on by my unacustomed exertions, or else an artifact of my amateurish fumbling with the camera. We made our way back to the automobile in relative silence, save for snatches of birdsong and the rumbling of an aircraft overhead.


Five Bands Who Don’t Exist

I’m not including Spinal Tap because it’s too obvious. Also because the actors actually are by and large playing and singing the songs, subsequently released a couple of albums and have toured a few times, so in a way they exist more than some ‘real’ bands.

Ellen Aim & The Attackers
As played by Diane Lane in the greatly underrated ‘Rock & Roll Fable’ Streets of Fire. The film opens with their concert being attacked by a biker gang so that their leader, a seriously creepy looking Willem Defoe, can kidnap Ellen. Naturally, their manager reacts by hiring her soldier of fortune ex-boyfriend to get her back, resulting in brawls, things exploding and fights with hammers. Listening to the two songs which open and close the movie you can pretty much tell they were writtten by Jim Steinman1.

Sex Bob-Omb
Scott Pilgrim’s tremendously average indie band. They’re not brilliant, but they try hard! Well, maybe not all that hard, as the tedium of actually recording their album leads to them giving up practising and playing gigs . . . Still, they do manage to complete it in the end! All seventeen minutes of it. Before splitting up. In the film the songs were performed by the actors and written by Beck, which is pretty cool. Maybe not so cool as getting Metric to do The Clash at Demonhead though.

Girls Dead Monster
The musical wing of the SSS (roughly, the Afterlife Battlefront) in bonkers anime Angel Beats!2 Because when you’re a group of apparently dead teenagers in an afterlife modeled on a Japanese high school and run like a video game, forming a band is as good a plan as any. Showcased particulary well in the climax of the first episode, when they put on a guerrilla gig so their comrades can steal lunch money from distracted NPCs using giant fans. Meanwhile, the rest of the SSS desperately attempts to hold off the student council president with small arms and light anti-tank weaponry. . .

Midnight Riders
Four bad-ass Southern rockers from co-operative zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. You never actually see them, but during the game you come across the concert they had to abandon due to the zombie apocalypse, as well as hearing their music on jukeboxes along the way. Where are they now? Did they survive? Hell yes, you know they did. Actually, if Left 4 Dead 3 ever comes out there should definitely be a level where you play as the Riders.

Josie & The Pussycats
Don’t look at me like that, it’s a good film! A satire, or at least a spoof, of the late 90s/early 00s teenage pop world of Total Request Live, identikit boy bands, logo-plastered consumerism, and lockstep dance routines. It’s not exactly Network but it is pretty sharp for what is ultimately an adaptation of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon aimed at 14-year-old girls. Possibly I enjoy it because I was in the States and watching a lot of MTV when it was wall to wall with that stuff. Plus the plot revolves around Don LaFontaine, aka the trailer voice-over guy, brainwashing teenagers on behalf of Alan Cummings and Parker Posey.


1 The man who produced Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler, amongst others.
2 I’m not over excited, the exclamation mark is part of the title.

20 Useless Personal Facts

1 – I’ve been beat up, I’ve been thrown out, but I’m not down. Wait, no I haven’t, that was The Clash. My mistake.
2 – I was born on April 3rd – other things that happened on that date include; the Crucifixion of Jesus; the Coronation of Edward the Confessor, last Anglo-Saxon king of England; the death of the outlaw Jesse James; the first mobile phone call by a researcher at Motorola; the arrest of Anarcho-Primitivist terrorist Theodore ‘Unabomber’ Kaczynski. It’s a lot to live up to, that’s for sure.
3 – I bought the famously bug-ridden, unfinished Battlecruiser 3000AD on it’s release in March 1997. Fifteen years later it remains the one purchase I regret most. I have kept the receipt as a reminder of my folly.
4 – I used to watch Dawson’s Creek religiously. I mean I used to watch it regularly, not that I was praying to it or anything. Although I’d probably have built an effigy of Katie Holmes if I’d been able.
5 – I’ve always had this fear that one day I’ll accidentally gouge out both my eyes.
6 – I quite like the idea of having a small tattoo, but I’ve never been able to think of anything I would want to keep on me.
7 – I love technology, but it doesn’t reciprocate. My previous PC went through three motherboards; the first two never worked at all and I’m pretty sure the third was the reason it started bluescreening regularly. The current one arrived with a dodgy video card. Every time I turn the thing on part of me is expecting it to go catastrophically wrong. My iPhone works fine although Orange did manage to charge me £10 for about 3mb of 3G usage on the first day.
8 – I like to walk round at night whilst everyone else is asleep. When I was in the first year at university I had difficulty sleeping and would end up rambling around for hours, or else standing on the footbridge over the A525 watching the nighttime traffic.
9 – Many of my favourite films feature prolonged sequences where people drive through cities whilst music plays and no-one speaks. It used to be that a lot of the TV shows I watched would have men with guns jumping out of an unmarked black 4×4 but I haven’t seen that happen in ages now.
10 – I have a profile on an online dating site but I’ve never actually contacted anyone on it. I did get a message once from someone who described themselves as a ‘pro-life conservative Dr Who fan’. One out of three isn’t terrible, but. . .
11 – I sometimes psyche myself up to go to work by playing the first minute and a half of Klendathu Drop from the soundtrack to Starship Troopers. You have to play it loud, but it does work quite well.
12 – I’ve had to reapply for online banking twice because I forgot my passwords and got locked out of the system. Whilst I was in the States I left my bank card in the machine and spent the next few months holding up queues paying for chocolate with my credit card.
13 – I often regret not drinking more.
14 – I’m not proud of this, but whenever I hear someone complaining about “‘elf an’ safety” laws my first thought is “I hope that person is involved in a terrible accident at work”.
15 – I think my right ear must be a weird shape or something, because whenever I wear earphones the right one keeps falling out. Is that normal? Also I have partial simple syndactyly, which is to say the middle toes on both feet are webbed. Maybe it’s the Innsmouth Look.
16 – When I first got a digital radio, back in 2004, I spent quite a while listening to a mysterious channel called D1 Temp. All it ever played was a twenty minute or so loop of ambient woodland sounds; at one point you could hear a plane overhead. I later found out it was a placeholder for a channel ITN bought but never used.
17 – The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me was when I was lying in bed in the early hours of the morning and realised that I could hear the first minute and a half of the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme tune playing faintly, over and over again. It went on for hours and for a while I thought I might be imagining it; eventually I realised the person in the room above had fallen asleep watching a DVD and I was hearing the menu music looping.
18 – I hardly ever remember my dreams, and when I do they’re almost always really bizarre. Like being trapped in a rabbit hutch in a garden shed in the desert bizarre.
19 – I feel like I should regret having spent huge swathes of my time at university playing games, going to the cinema and reading things utterly unrelated to my course, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.
20 – I used to play chess several times a week during lunch break when I was in Sixth Form. I won once. I haven’t played it since.
21 – I’ve never been very good at maths.

Books I Read In February 2012

The Drowning City – Amanda Downum
Fast-moving low fantasy, the first in the Necromancer Chronicles trilogy. The setting is an unusual one – a delta-spanning city called Symir in the jungle on the slopes of an active volcano, in a region clearly modeled on Asia. Unusually it’s based on Southeastern Asia, rather than the more common China or Japan1. The city is occupied by an aggressive, expansionist empire from the South, with various rebels fighting against the foreigners, native collaborators and each other. Another empire to the North sends the protagonist, a necromancer and a spy, into the city to foment dissent and encourage the locals into open revolution. Everything starts to kick off more or less immediately, with assassinations, bombings, demonic possessions, militant ghosts. . . It wasn’t until I finished this book and thought about it a little that I realised just how well-written it is; it manages to clearly portray an interesting, original setting without resorting to pages of narrative exposition or lecturing characters, and has a plot that revolves around politics but is also action-packed. It definitely helps that all the main parties have clearly defined, plausible goals and act accordingly, rather than being all mysterious and occasionally knifing someone to surprise the audience. Highly recommended, I look forward to reading the follow-up.

Fast One – Paul Cain
Hard-boiled gangster fiction from the golden age of American Noir. Gerry Kells is a professional gambler in ’30s LA; he begins the story by turning down a lucrative deal because he doesn’t want to get tangled in other peoples business, before being sucked straight into a maelstrom of shootings, frame-ups, armed robbery, city politics, blackmail, drug smuggling, car chases. . . The plot should be complex, what with all the betrayals, bluffs and reveals, but there’s so many of them it’s actually the reverse. Kells is constantly reacting to the chaos around him as he pinballs across the LA underworld, and every time he starts to get a grip on what’s happening someone pulls a gun or hits him over the head with something2. There is clearly no point in even trying to work out what’s going on or why, the only thing to do is to ride the chaos and see what happens. The novel was originally published as a monthly serial in Black Mask magazine, which may explain why it’s both fairly episodic and very quick on it’s feet. Nothing earth-shattering, but entertaining and a good example of the genre.

The Destruction of Lord Raglan – Christopher Hibbert

Partly a history of the Crimean War and partly a biography of Lord Raglan, the man who commanded the British forces and who was subsequently made a scapegoat for it’s near-disastrous performance. Hibbert makes a strong case for Raglan being at worse no more incompetent than his contemporaries and at best one of the few people who recognised the monstrous inefficiency of the system and attempted to at least mitigate it’s failings. The book felt a little odd because it seemed to be trying to repair the reputation of someone I’d never thought needed it; it was published in 1961, so perhaps the consensus view was different then. Although it doesn’t outright state it’s thesis, it’s pretty clearly that the Crimean War was a modern war; with most of the fighting revolving around trenches, heavy artillery and supply lines it resembles a dress rehearsal for World War I. Most of what went wrong can be therefore traced to the fact that Britain tried to fight it with a military system that hadn’t been changed since Waterloo other than to have it’s budget slashed radically. With the newly influential press reporting on the war in great detail, someone had to take the blame and Raglan was the most convenient fall guy. Well written narrative history that makes it’s case simply and clearly.

Battle For The Abyss – Ben Counter
The eighth novel in the Black Library’s excellent Horus Heresy series, which is for my money some of the best current pulp fiction. Whilst Horus betrays the Emperor in the Isstvan system, the traitorous Word Bearer legion prepares to fall upon the unawares Ultramarines. As their main fleet heads for Calth, a single monstrously-powerful warship named the Furious Abyss is sent to destroy the Ultramarine homeworld of Macragge. A handful of Ultramarines, Space Wolves, World Eaters and Thousand Sons3 discover the ship and set off in desperate pursuit. Probably the weakest of the Horus Heresy novels that I’ve read so far, it’s nonetheless entertaining even if it doesn’t live up to the high standards of the series overall. The action scenes are suitably savage and the plot, though pretty predictable, moves at a fair old pace. It’s this predictability that is the main problem – you know from the start that Macragge is not going to be destroyed, because it still exists in the main Warhammer 40,000 timeline. The format of the story is such that there’s really only one way the Furious Abyss is going to be stopped in the end – with a desperate battle aboard the ship at the last minute. Obviously this kind of issue is inherent in any prequel, but unlike the previous Heresy novels Battle For The Abyss is more of a side-story; it doesn’t really add anything to the overall plot. I did think the tensions between the different legions were done well, especially considering the inclusion of marines whose legions turned traitor. If you’re working your way through the Horus Heresy sequence then it’s worth reading, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it as a one-off.

Black Money – Ross Macdonald
Private eye Lew Archer is hired by the jilted boyfriend of a beautiful heiress to investigate the suave Frenchman she ran away with. Of course, it’s not that simple4, and as Archer follows the threads he finds connections to a supposed suicide, some very large gambling debts and a great many secrets. In the end he finds the truth, but it doesn’t really help anyone. . . From the wealthy society families to the desperate chancers, nearly everyone he meets is hiding something from the outside world and from themselves; they’re all trying to live out a fantasy rather than accept the reality of their lives. Unusually for this kind of novel, Archer is a humane, philosophical man who seems genuinely sympathetic to the people he encounters on his case. He’s affected by what happens and he wants to help, even though he realises there’s little he can do. There’s no cynicism or macho posturing, just the sad spectacle of people falling apart on the inside and desperately pretending to be fine. The writing is sparse but effective, with no wasted words or unnecessary flourishes. The best crime fiction I’ve read in a long time.

The Island of the Day Before – Umberto Eco
In 1643 Roberto, a young Italian noble, is shipwrecked in the Pacific and finds himself washed up on a deserted ship lying just off an equally deserted island. To begin with the story cuts back and forth between Roberto’s exploration of the ship and his reminiscences of how he got there, via war, the salons of Paris and the Bastille. To complicate matters he also his his increasingly detailed fantasies about the imaginary brother he invented as a child and whom he has blamed for everything that has gone wrong in his life, and his equally fantastic love for a society beauty he has barely spoken to. He convinces himself that if only he could reach the island, which is on the other side of the international date line, everything would be alright; sadly he can’t swim. As with most of Eco’s work, a lot of the book consists of various characters expounding on the philosophy, theology, and science of their time. You could argue that the novel is basically a platform for the author to lecture the reader, though that would be an exaggeration, and in any case it’s always a privilege to be lectured by someone of such learning and erudition. A lot of the book is concerned with the idea of meaning and truth; Roberto is someone who treats the real world like a story, by creating his evil twin to blame for his misfortunes, treating a woman he barely knows as if she was the eternal feminine from a courtly romance, and finally inventing a fantastical story to explain how he came to end up on the ship and how he could leave it. To add another layer to this, the book is told from the perspective of an unknown editor telling Roberto’s story from the letters and manuscripts he left behind him; this editor himself is clearly imagining things he couldn’t know in order to fill in the gaps, and in places openly admits to deliberately interpreting the evidence in a way that will fit in with the narrative he wants. It’s not quite up there with Eco’s best work, which of course is an incredibly high standard to apply, but nonetheless a good book. Of course, a lot depends on your interest in and your tolerance for the long digressions and tangents on history, critical theory, philosophy, etc. that make up most of the book.


1 I though it was like Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, though I don’t know much about that part of the world.
2 In keeping with all noir detectives, he’s knocked out so many times he should be brain-damaged by half-way.
3 Actually only one of the latter – what’s the singular term? A Thousand Son?
4 Is it ever?