View from the office window [Haiku]


Moorhens by the pond
Built like dinosaurs, they stalk
Chasing the blackbirds

Caesar, beware the monotheistic religions of March…


I recently finished reading Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg.  This is an alternate history, asking the question ‘what if Rome never fell?’  Or it purports to ask that question.  The real ‘what if?’ is ‘what if the Exodus never happened?’ – the main effect is that Rome doesn’t fall, and at various points during this alternate history, the theme that a monotheistic religion would be dangerous to the Roman Empire is hammered home with all the subtlety of a herd of elephants walking across bubble wrap.

It’s an absolutely fascinating concept for a book, and it contains oodles of intriguing ideas and situations, but it completely failed to grab hold of my imagination or to excite me, and I’m not entirely sure why.  In the end, the whole thing is just rather dull, falling far short of my expectations.  History is often cyclical, but the repetition of situations and stock characters throughout the ten snapshots from 1500 years of Rome’s history soon becomes tedious.  Ooh, look, here’s another supposedly idle prince who reveals greater depth to his character.  And heavens, is there an old retainer who thinks that Rome is slipping into decadence?  Why, yes, there is!  Yawn.  Civil war, assassination, conquest and romance all blend into an insipid, unsatisfying soup of unfulfilled potential.

I like alternate histories.  Fatherland is a particularly fine example.  And I often like stories based in Rome.  But this just bored me.  Too many ideas and too little execution.  I think the problem is that the author got ever so excited thinking ‘ooh, ooh, ooh, wouldn’t it be exciting if the Romans had trouble conquering the New World’ and forgot to put any excitement in.  Ah, well, never mind.  Hopefully, my next read will redress the balance and exceed expectations.  Fingers crossed…

My library runneth over


Everyone knows that libraries and bookshops share something in common with the TARDIS – they are much bigger on the inside than on the outside.  This is particularly true of dusty second-hand bookshops and old libraries with idiosyncratic shelving systems.  However, even those places with the stretchiest hold on the usual laws of space and dimension can only stretch so far, and it seems to me that the Library of Doom has reached that point.

Second-hand bookshops can get away with having books lined up along the window sill, or in teetering piles on the floor, but this doesn’t tend to be very acceptable in the world of libraries. Health and safety people tend to have a fit if there’s anything on the floor, and library patrons naturally start to complain if the books start encroaching on non-shelf territory.  I was intrigued to see what the state of play was in my crazy library, so I wandered round with a tape measure, a pen and a piece of paper yesterday morning before starting work, and here are the the thrilling results.  Subject area, followed by the number of shelves-worth of books that won’t fit on the shelves and are decorating the floor, trolleys, windowsills or study desks.  Or in one case, the top of a radiator, so I hope we find somewhere for those before the winter.

From least impressive to most: literature (4 shelves), sport and art (5 shelves each), music and policing (six shelves each), general science (7 shelves), media (10 shelves), history (13 shelves), languages (14 shelves) and social sciences (20 shelves).  I have a feeling that I missed the geography section accidentally which would add a few more.  Plus approximately 12 shelves-worth of periodicals and don’t even mention the DVDs, as it’s liable to make us all cry.

That’s a lot of books without a home, and sadly no spare space to erect any new shelves.  In approximately 30 months, there will be a brand new Library of Doom, but in the mean time, if you here of any tidal waves of unshelvable books engulfing unsuspecting students, you know why!

Has anyone got a book-shrinker?  I’m sure I saw several boxes of books arriving just before I left this afternoon…

Noise Ensemble


On Thursday, I attended a performance of Noise Ensemble, a ‘percussion spectacular’ by local composer Ethan Lewis Maltby.  This was the show’s final stop on a British tour taking in over 20 locations.  One of the major reasons for attending was that I was involved with Ethan’s musical Courtenay a few years ago, which was immense fun.  I was in the chorus, and absolutely loved the music we were singing.

The show was a lot of fun.  It was, as advertised, jolly noisy. And there was indeed an ensemble, of ten incredible percussionists, one of them occasionally doubling up on bass guitar and another once on lead guitar (I think – he was at the back, and I couldn’t quite tell what he had in his hands!).  It contained a number of pure theatrical ‘wow’ moments – the sort of thing that makes me go all tingly even when I know how it’s achieved.  The opening had the ensemble appearing from nowhere, and there was a wonderfully funny bit featuring a couple of ‘flying’ drums.  In terms of technical wizardry, the production really outdid itself.  Lots of moving lights, plus smoke, bubbles and a video screen which shows excerpts from ‘Noise TV’, a group of channels devoted to drumming.  Several of these excerpts were very funny.

The show really opened my eyes to what could be achieved with various percussion instruments.  The second act contained segments featuring triangles and tambourines, which were both amusing and impressive at the same time.  And the tuned percussion numbers were absolutely beautiful.

Some of the louder, more drum-based sections were less my cup of tea, but I was consistently impressed by the performers’ energy and Ethan’s compositional skills throughout.  The whole piece was dynamic, with movement being a key component, complementing the rhythms and sounds of the instruments, creating dramatic and comedic moments.

A most enjoyable evening at the theatre, and I’m very glad I went.  If it hadn’t been by Ethan, I would have overlooked it, which would have been a real shame.  Note to self – take more risks in theatrical attendance in future!

Website: http://www.noiseensemble.com

Batwoman returns…


My earlier blog on the reaction to Batwoman ‘coming out’ was quoted on CBS News’ Blogophile column.  I followed the link to the column and had two reactions, one of amusement and one of sadness.

Amusement first.  I was quoted thusly: ‘ “Blah blah blah,” she writes. “Blah blah.” ‘ Unfortunately, I’m a he rather than a she.  This has now been corrected, but it did make me chuckle and reminded me just how anonymous the net can be!

Then the sadness.  I had a look at some of the other reactions to the news, and was appalled by the ill-informed venom and hatred poured out in some cases.  People saying that lesbianism is abhorrent.  People saying it’s terrible to have such a thing where kids can read it (attention people, this particular series isn’t aimed at kids, who don’t read that many comics these days anyway).  And further, much more extreme instances of homophobia and general unpleasantness.  This surprises and upsets me.

There’s now a part of me that hopes the character catches on sufficiently to gain her own series, and a smash-hit one at that.  Hey, if Will and Grace or Brokeback Mountain can be mainstream successes, why not a superhero who happens to be a lesbian?  Go, Batwoman, go!  Make the bigots look stupid.  Please?

Higher education = Big Brother?


It has occurred to me that there are disturbing parallels between my work in the Library of Doom and the world of so-called ‘reality’ television. Both provide a vital social service, but the populace at large is probably blissfully unaware of this. We keep strange people out of the workforce and off the streets for a period of time, contributing to the overall sanity of the nation.

I do not watch reality shows very often, but it is sometimes unavoidable due to friends, relatives and housemates who devour them greedily, thrilling to the exploits of the publicity-hungry folks these shows tend to attract. Increasingly, the cast list of these shows (I’m looking at you, Big Brother) largely consists of strange, unpleasant people who I’m very glad I’ll never have to meet. For anything up to three months, these people are locked away in a secure environment, meaning that their interesting social skills are only inflicted on a dozen or so people. Thankfully, it seems that the British public decides en masse that nice people should win these shows as often as possible. And also, I have to admit (grudgingly, mind you) that Big Brother has probably done wonders for tolerance, acceptance and inclusion, in that the past winners have included a gay man, a male-to-female transsexual, a working class chappie and even, of all things, a practicing Christian.

Higher education performs many roles, but at least where I work, it fulfils the same vital function as reality TV. I see disturbing numbers of people every day with bafflingly low levels of knowledge, intelligence and common sense, people who surely could not function in the workplace. For three years, or possibly more, we shield society from these people and attempt to teach them the skills they’ll need to survive. We try to show them how to think for themselves, demonstrate how to interact in polite society and force them to fend for themselves without mummy or daddy to cook, wash and clean for them. “How long can you borrow a 7-day loan for?”  “Have you got any photographs of the Great Fire of London?” And of course the brick wall people, who make you feel like you’re either talking to or bashing your head against said edifice. Don’t you feel glad that the valiant staff of higher education institutions are keeping these people away from the rest of the world and at least attempting to turn them into functional members of society?

Maybe the analogy’s not valid, but it struck me recently, so I thought I may as well share it.

Batwoman, or a bat-storm in a teacup


Last weekend, DC Comics released a press release regarding a character who is going to pop up in their series ’52’ (more on this series in a later post, I expect).  This character is a reinvention of Batwoman, a crimefighter who notched up around 50 appearances from her debut in 1956 to her last significant appearance in 1979.  So hardly a major player in the comics world, although some remember her fondly.

However, the story has been picked up by most major news outlets, with varying degrees of outrage, due to one word.  Lesbian.  Shock, horror, Batwoman is going to be Kate Kane, a wealthy lesbian from Gotham City who had a previous relationship with Renee Montoya, a female cop who’s been floating around in comics and cartoons since 1992.  ‘Batwoman reinvented as a lesbian!’ they cry.  ‘Whatever happened to the heroes of old?‘ asks the BBC website.  It’s all too bizarre for words.  Why do they care?  Comics rarely make the news.  Gay and lesbian characters, and indeed heroes, have been around for years.  Very few people have even heard of Batwoman (I suppose some might assume she’s the same character as Batgirl).  And yet, you combine the Bat-prefix and homosexuality, and suddenly it’s a story!  And yet my initial reaction was ‘so what?’

I like comics.  I like DC comics.  I may like this Batwoman, I don’t know, I haven’t read any of her appearances yet (as she won’t appear until July).  Whether she is gay or straight, black or white, wealthy or poor, young or old really doesn’t matter.  They only thing that will matter is this – is she a compelling character?  Do I care about her?  Do I want to read more about her?  I don’t know yet, but I suspect many comics fans have already made up their minds.  ‘Batwoman as a lesbian is an awful idea’ or ‘Batwoman as a lesbian is a fantastic idea’.  Comics fans can be a bit scary, refusing to read things for very bizarre reasons.  I hope they give the character a chance.  I hope the writers have come up with a decent character.  And  hope the media don’t forget what they seem to have stumbled across – comics are a diverse medium, with a range of styles and characters.  Sometimes they could even be mistaken for ‘real’ literature. 

As far as I’m concerned, a greater number of heroes who are not straight white males has to be a good thing, as long as they are characters rather than walking labels.  We shall see.

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