The Brown Wedge
“I’ll wager xwaxboz quatloos on the newcomer“: [v.long post alert]
Aliens in SF movies are mostly humans in rubber suits for a good practical reason. But since humans read books to find out about themselves, aliens in SF novels are mostly humans in quasi-rubber suits, too. The races in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories – the Kzinti, the Puppeteers, the Outsiders etc – are carefully non-human by look, but the embodiment as a culture of some human characteristic hugely amplified (Puppeteers = genetic cowards; Kzinti = too brave fr their own good etc). The Mesklinites in Hal Clement’s 1954 proto-New Wave classic Mission of Gravity are physiologically non-human – supertough little centipedes on a variable-gravity planet, comfortable at more than 200 earth gravities: the book is about cultural differences, but really the gap is that between a 21st-century human scientist-astronaut and a (let’s say) 10th-century human trader-explorer: Barlennan, the captain of the Mesklinite sea-vessel, is at least as clever as the humans he’s encountered, in many ways more courageous, extremely psychologically shrewd – he’s a kind of pirate-businessman after all – but just not learned enough to make the most of the encounter. He’s totally recognisable, though, culturally: Clement keeps reminding us he’s not human (“Barlennan extended his pincers in a smile”) but you forget just as quickly. It’s hard not to see him and his crew as humanesque centipeople.
The master of non-human alien characters is Frank Herbert, of course: and the pinnacle of his invention his two novels about the ConSentiency, his (far more demanding and subtle) take on Niven’s Known Space concept: Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment. The ConSentiency is the galactic society in which humans mix with Wreaves, Laclacs, Chithers, Preylings, Soborips, Palenki, Taprisiots, the Pan Spechi, the Gowachin and Calebans. Some of these are humanesque physically – the Pan Spechi specifically adopt this form – but Herbert works hard to create non-human cultures, bcz these stories are primarily about the drama of encounter with alien logics.
Dosadi is the second: it begins as a thriller about Dosadi, a prison planet whose occupants (despite being mixed-species) have deliberately been kept unaware of the existence of the rest of the galaxy. Dosadi is like the Gaza Strip mixed with Hongkong times a million: extremely brutal in conditions and spartan in resources; incredibly high-density in population. As a result the inhabitants, by Darwinian and Hobbesian cultural pressure, are vicious survivalist warriors-for-the-self, fiercely streetwise – so quick to read each other that to offworlders they seem telepathic – and they’re just about to be unleashed into the civilised settlement. Except at this point, oddly and intriguingly, the story switches away to a trial: those who set up this horrible experiment are to face judgment. The protagonist is McKie, a human (with a twist but I’m skipping many plot complications); but the court is Gowachin. The Gowachin are a highly civilised and cultured but also ruthless Frog-people: basic to their culture is the moment in child-development when Dad jumps into the tadpole pool and culls his tad-kids, so that only the smartest and swiftest survive. This adds a certain charge to proceedings: the court – or Court-Arena, as it’s more accurately known – is a bloody place, where advocates’ live are forfeit, and where judges can be killed as part of the, um, argument. The Gowachin prefer drama, subtlety and innovation to the establishment of mere truth: it’s a Nietzschean legal system, you might say. Anyway, the upshot is, that you read to the climax of this tale – and I’ve read it dozens of times – and it’s exciting and hugely entertaining and certainly feels like closure, and yet (actually) I don’t yet grasp Herbert’s (or the Gowachin’s) logic.
With Whipping Star, this goes double. Again there’s a good thriller plot: the Calebans are the aliens who brought the Jumpdoor to the ConSentiency (which allow you to travel across space in a moment, to wherever you want). Calebans have come under threat (more plot complications omitted), are dying or vanishing: and if they all go (or die) everyone from any species who used a jumpdoor (which is nearly everyone, countless trillions blah blah) will also die. The Consentient “World” – this galactic federation of species and cultures – will end in a moment. So far so James Spacebond obv: but what makes this one of my favourite books ever is the character of the Caleban, as she communicates and flirts with McKie. Calebans are VERY ALIEN INDEED (we learn how so in the denouement of the book); and the fun is the tricksiness of translation across cultural differences which really ARE differences [long extract follows, for flavour] .
“Connectives possess aspect of this constant you seek,” said the Caleban.
“What are connectives?”
“– referents!” McKie stormed. “Then why use the term?”
“Term approximates. Tangential occlusion another term expressing something similar.”
“Tangential occlusion,” McKie muttered. Then, “Tangential occlusion?”
“Fellow Caleban offers this term after discussion of problem with Laclac sentient possessing rare insight.”
“One of you talked this over with a Laclac, eh? Who was this Laclac?”
“Identity not conveyed, but occupation known and understandable.”
“Oh? What was his occupation?”
McKie exhaled a long held breath, shook his head with bewilderment. “You understand – dentist?”
“All species requiring ingestion of energy sources must reduce such sources to convenient form”
“You mean they bite?” McKie asked.
“I thought you understood dentist!”
Etc. There’s lots of this stuff (which I adore) and here the Caleban is relatively comprehensible. In fact I don’t think she’s ever just talking gibberish: I think Herbert could justify every sentence, every idea, every superweird round-the-houses locution. I think inventing a character both coherent (in the sense that you intuit an inner logic) and this alien (you just can’t lay the logic out, even after you entirely know what the Caleban is and why she sees the world the way she does) is a fantastic achievement. Whipping Star would be a terrific film, and actually it needn’t even be an expensive one (except for all the rubber suits).
Beware the floating eye — this book about the symbolism found in the various elements of the US dollar bill is sorta good, sorta not. There’s a lot of basic history about the design of the bill which is very interesting, along with details about the evolution of the Great Seal of the United States over the years, good easy reading stuff that leaves you a little more informed than before. But everything about the pyramid design of the letter A and the word America and the lines through the eyes and noses and slanting alongside letters and all that? It’s great if you love Freemasonry conspiracy, I guess — and trust me, they’re in here too. Still, on balance I’d rather read this than The Da Vinci Code.
Appliance Anniversary OK the list of wedding anniversaries is well known to be a bit lame – paper/cotton/fruit etc etc. – but Wedding Guide UK’s updated SPEND-MORE-MONEY-PLEASE list of ‘modern anniversaries’ is simply mental. “Oh darling, we’ve been married seven blissful years, here is the gift I have bought you for our Desk Sets Anniversary“.
Chris once said I was the only person he knew who tried to land on the brown squares on a Trivial Pursuit board. That’s true, without the brown I would be far less competitive. So, inaccuracies get my goat.
This question turned up the other night: “Which English and Spanish writers died on the same day, 23 April 1616?”
The answer on the card is Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Incorrect! The UK date is based on the Julian calendar and Shakespeare’s coil did indeed shuffle off on the 23rd. The Gregorian calendar (in use in mainland Europe and ten days ahead) would interpret the date as 3 May 1616. Cervantes died on the Gregorian interpretation of 23 April, ten days sooner.
The question should read ‘which date?’ instead of ‘which day?’
BROWN WEDGE QUIZ OF THE WEEK
You pick up useless facts when researching. Occasionally said useless facts stick. After spending yesterday speed reading all of the playbills of West End plays for the last seventy years, here is a nice little fact I gleaned.
Except of course, until someone guesses it you won’t know the fact. Such is the way of quizzes.
Q: Which famous British actress played the part of Sally Bowles (as protrayed in the film by Liza Minelli) in the origianl West End production of Cabaret in 1969?
Teetering on the Edge of the Precipice of Spannerism
I’d been to the London Transport Musuem and thought it absolutely superb. I wanted to know more, to feed my burgeoning (nigh maniacal) interest in transport. It was with excitement that I set off, and met two friends I’d managed to entice into coming. They didn’t need much encouragement though. I expected a collection of exhibits in museum style; a bigger version of the Museum in Covent Garden. I was wrong.
It was basically the attic of London Transport. Doubtless some really good stuff – but an awful lots of junk. Some was fascinating – ticket machines from the 1930s for example. They could be contexualised as ‘human’. But old bits of trains just didn’t cut the mustard really, and there were an awful lot of old train bits.
There were also an awful lot of enthisiasts. Mostly old men it must be said, and so we were somewhat feted as young people. The enthusiasts, who were acting as tour guides knew their stuff, but they didn’t have (how best to say this?) the social skills to truly communicate the interest. After listening to the history of ticket machines for 10 minutes with an increasingly strained ‘how-very-interesting’ look on my face I could take it no more. I think I might have been considered rude as I bruseqely said thansk and walked off. The alternative was being trapped for an eternity in a transport version of Avenging Angel. Or so it seemed.
My abiding image was of a family of four – mum, dad and two young boys. Dad was the enthusiast, and one son took after his Dad, gleefully rattling off the bus names. The other son and the mum trailed 10 yards behind with an obvious weariness. But son and dad were oblivious – there were lots more aisles of train junk to view.
The whole thing marked the end of my ‘hot’ phase of transport luv. I saw my future and it was that Dad. I didn’t want that. I like buses and transport like I like beer – good to drink, but no CAMRA membership thanks. It’s like the difference between watching a sport and then going to watch people practise it. It’s the same thing, but utterly different.
PS – Here’s a picture of the bus with an external spiral staircase.
yes yes but can he write?:
For years I have loved almost everything abt Alexander Cockburn’s The Golden Age Is In Us: Journeys and Encounters, 1987-1994, from the cover inwards: it’s kind of a blog, actually – snippets of pieces published in print, thoughts abt pieces he failed to write, replies to reader letters, diary entries – and reflections on the three deaths which shadowed the time covered: his mother’s, the Soviet Union’s, and his close friend Andrew Kopkind’s.
The last part of the book also dwells a lot on Kopkind’s own collection of his radical journalism, The Thirty Years’ Wars: Dispatches and Diversions of a Radical Journalist 1965-1994, which wz being put together in the last months of Kopkind’s life. I’ve planned to read the latter for ages, but always put it off: I think unconciously anticipating being disappointed by the tastes or allegiances of someone whose writing I admire (esp. when I don’t always admire his politics). Anyway I finally did a month or two back: and it’s a lovely book. He writes as if he were Cockburn’s grown-up brother – by which I mean that they share certain stylistic flourishes (and Kopkind was the elder by a decade) – but where AC is funny and debunking and playfully unreverential and psychologically shrewd, Kopkind, a genuinely radical leftist in US terms (though far from party-minded) is – despite the elegant belle lettrist clarity of his position – endlessly fascinated, understanding, even gentle with the rank and file of the other side, a gay Jewish East Coast semi-brahmin writing peerlessly, unpatronisingly well about (for example) sex-disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker. He was close enough to the Weather Underground that he calls the collective by its own name for itself, ‘Weatherman’ – he knew personally two of the three Weathermen who blew themselves up with a bomb in the New York Townhouse in 1969 – but he had begun covering Civil Rights agitation in Selma for Time magazine, before travelling to Hanoi with Susan Sontag: this is where he discovered his own politics. In the 70s he covered the rise of Gay Lib, Glam, Disco and the ‘New Age’, and is good on all of them: particularly sensitive, I think, to the growing sense of alienation many in the anti-war movement had from the organisations, strategies, tactics and language which had grown up as a late 60s conduit for this generation of dissident politics, and how many fled for psychic shelter or nourishment under the cultural umbrellas which sprang up as the monolithic counterculture (always a bit of a fiction) came to pieces.
In its desperation and frustration the American left – the left everywhere – has convinced itself that writing like a bunch of snidey daleks is proof of the best intransigent militancy. But actually arguments and anecdotes which show how a politics springs out of and expresses a lived life – Cockburn’s loyalty to and love for friends and family, the tenderness with which Kopkind moves down into the psychosexual subcurrents of friend and foe – seem to me fifty times less frightened and more political.
A little bitter, a little sweet, that’s how he likes his life to be: being a Marc Almond fan has actually been good fun over these many years now…half my life, I think, more if you count hearing That Soft Cell Song from an early age. Still have only seen him twice live, but both shows were spectacular, and man, all those albums and all those songs and all those performances, it’s endless. Not to mention the fact that he’s a very good writer of his own life, as the mighty fine autobiography Tainted Life showed a few years back.
And now In Search of the Pleasure Palace, something of a sequel to that book combined with a travelogue of some of his favorite haunts worldwide — or so it was initially intended. Indeed, what’s actually a bemusing and ultimately satisfying surprise about the volume is how Almond spends much of the time questioning the project even as he’s embarked on it — talks with the publishers are mentioned more than once, it’s not entirely clear whether he goes to every spot willingly or not, how often it’s tied in with other work, musical or otherwise, of one kind or another. He very carefully and cleverly seems to say all without saying everything — much like in Tainted Life, he’s definitely sharing a lot, but he is careful not to tell everything, either noting what’s missing with quiet allusion or more commonly simply not saying anything unless absolutely necessary, and only then does one realize that a trip throughout Rome with a couple of guides has also meant he’s with a ‘travelling companion’ of some sort, for instance.
There’s a strong undercurrent of bitterness and frustration running through the book too — not something off-putting as you might think, though at the same time it’s something which perhaps will only produce sympathy in those who know his earlier work. Without fishing for reassurances that all is well, Almond is sometimes quite blunt about his future prospects, grateful for the fanbase he still has but more than once talking about dwindling audiences on tours and speaking with a brusque clarity about (generally speaking private or corporate) shows and PA appearances that he’s done for the money, and doing so with a take-it-or-leave-it ‘this is the situation’ attitude which says a lot more than whatever remnants of the art-vs.-finance debate still exist.
It may seem like the lament of someone burdened with the kind of complaints we all want to have, but more so than the random stories one can encounter with all sorts of younger bands or performers who have hit the brass ring and live it up every night, this is the voice of someone who has moved beyond both that and the typical Behind the Music ‘yeah man, back on the road again, that tour I don’t remember too much of’ soft-focus reminiscence, someone who is saying, “This is my life, what I do and am known for, a performer and singer, and a lot of it is as much a drudge as any other job might be.” Which may also be a cliche on first blush, but the trick is this is the testament of the lifer, someone well into his third decade as an adult doing this work, who is adjusting to the change of career and the change in his age — his version of a mid-life crisis being another running thread throughout, whether prompted by memories of places he once knew gone forever or discussing the prospects for who might be able to hustle who in a Paris club. And so his words are laden with doubt and consideration, self-analysis and often worry — again, he knows what not to give away, to not tell everything or to hide away (part of his description of the book is ‘part fact, part fiction,’ and it’s pretty well impossible to say where the dividing line is at any one point), but he still focuses on those subjects to a striking degree.
And yet it is indeed a travelogue, with names and addresses and locations and advice for the traveller, whoever the traveller might be — no formal three-star rankings or the like, but plenty of description and sketches, of pagan parades and lost swimming pools in Barcelona, of shopping amid religious artifacts in Mexico, of a brilliant description on how in the world to get a fresh fruit breakfast in Las Vegas (and of being thought a weirdo for doing so), and certainly of erotic encounters or the potential for same. He knows his potential readers and is a perfect tease, saying only so much and never talking about whatever he might have brought to a successful conclusion — merely of conversations and moments of research in dark bars or in semi-empty fields where the most aggressive transvestites ever will have done with your wallet, valuables, and you if you’re not careful.
Perhaps his discussion of Russia is the most fascinating of all, a country he’s increasingly become involved with following an initial tour in the early nineties, a situation retold via diary entries that made one of the best entries in Tainted Life. Here he speaks first and foremost of a solo album, his most recent, Heart on Snow, mostly a collection of traditional and more recent Russian songs done partially as collaboration and partially as celebration — how it was originally supposed to be a small vocal-and-piano album done thanks to a rich Russian patron (easily one of the book’s best characters — a voluble Russian hyperpatriot convinced of the West’s corruption but also one of the most successful businessmen in his country, claiming to fight capitalist fire with fire) but turned into a near-endless series of recordings and more ambitious work at the patron’s request. Legendary singers are met and size him up quickly, inspired performances suddenly spark new life for all the performers, concert appearances in Moscow give Almond some of his best receptions in years, and eventually he gets an apartment in the city itself. For all that, he is refreshingly blunt about the nature of what faces the tourist in Russia — the corruption, the poor service, the awful food, much more besides. He loves the place for all of that but the most telling detail is when he says it’s best to have a friend with you for any museum you go to, and perhaps by implication wherever you go in the country — and to keep silent and never let on you aren’t Russian yourself, because then all the prices mysteriously increase.
It’s a quick read if you let it carry you away, a portrait of a life and a state of mind and successes and failures and in the end, of course, triumph — no new hit record or mansion on a hill, but a statement to keep enjoying life and what it has to offer, to make new discoveries while still celebrating old loves, and to see what happens next, wherever or whoever or whatever it might be. Right now, perhaps he feels differently again — but that can be a subject for a new book.
Franz Ferdinand’s Car
The material remains of my childhood library rest in a dank loft in my parents’ garage. Whenever I visit, I rummage. My favourite book (as a kid) was a Pan paperback called Stranger than Science. Last month I found it, bottom of a mouldy pile. “Frightening stories of real life horror” reads the blurb. In a blood-dripping text effect. Most were nonsense, even my pre-teenage mind knew that. But one story lingered into adulthood, the legend of Franz Ferdinand’s car.
Basically, the car was cursed, that was the story. A succession of owners met with grisly deaths, most following this formula: car breaks down, baffled driver peers under chassis, car reverses over baffled driver. Sitting in the back or even crossing the road when the ‘demonic motor’ hit the streets was unwise. After several ‘horror filled’ adventures the car fell into the hands of the Hapsburg Court and in 1914, claimed its most famous victim, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The story adds a fleeting reference to Serbian terrorists, but suggests the car was the evil mastermind. It emerged unscathed and carried on the maiming and killing after the war.
By 1997 I’d lost interest in this sort of thing. I was in Vienna, on holiday, trying to fill a drizzly Sunday. I sat down with a guidebook, flicking through museum write-ups looking for a diversion from the Austrian weather. And there it was; Franz Ferdinand’s car! In a museum.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a cursed car. It certainly appeared innocuous. In fact it looked in better shape than several cars I’d owned. There was no mention of the ‘curse’. I asked at reception. They thought me a fool.
Strangely, that very night Princess Diana died. Of all the stupid conspiracy theories that followed, no-one suggested the car was cursed.
Routemasters in Finsbury Park
“Basically, it’s a tank without a gun barrel” said a man in a white shirt with yellow armpits. This was considered insightful judging by the nodding it produced. Routemasters are being phased out, replaced by long bendy buses that are difficult to overtake and occasionally explode.
You’d have been ill-advised to mention bendy buses in Finsbury Park yesterday. This was a golden birthday celebration of the Routemaster and lined up smartly in the sunshine were dozens of the things. Old ones (with external spiral staircases), Jubilee ones, green ones, Harry Potter ones, bizarrely adapted ones. Rows and rows of buses each surrounded by packs of badly dressed middle-aged men. The more sophisticated had digital cameras, but most had plastic bags full of old-school slides. I saw 60 year olds doing Panini style swapsies, childlike with enthusiasm. Many brought their kids along and some their wives; sleepy grey women feigning interest.
I eavesdropped on two red-faced men, “No, Martin, it terminated at Holborn.” Martin wasn’t having any of it, “John, the 14 terminated at Holborn, the 27 went to Ludgate Circus.” John looked like he wanted to punch Martin and punch him hard. I walked over to the ‘market stalls’ before the bloodshed began. “Jonathan Clay – Transport Art” was doing good business. Framed watercolours of bygone London buses were flying off the shelf.
From the caf’ terrace, struck brightly by the afternoon sun, the buses looked quietly impressive. The family opposite had come down from Sheffield for the day. The husband wore khaki shorts and socks with sandals. His prim wife and their restless daughter were bickering. I stereotyped them immediately. Then the wife stood up, said “right I want to talk to the driver of the Green Line bus and then we can go.” The husband rose reluctantly from his seat and followed her down the hill.