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I'd lost count a bit when I sat down to watch this, so didn't realise it was the final episode of the season until the continuity announcer said so at the end. I'd thought there was one more. Still, I did obviously notice the closure of the Tim Shaw / Stenza / stolen planets / Grace's death arc opened in the season's first episode, as well as the stirring programmatic speech about why it's important to keep exploring the universe at the end. It was a solid closer, with Ryan's success in persuading Graham away from his plans of revenge on Tim Shaw a particular strength. I enjoyed meeting the Uk (sp?) too, and the gentle exploration of both the potency and the vulnerabilities of religious faith which they allowed.

Overall I think this season has been a success. I like Jodie Whittaker's Doctor, I like the companions, the story quality has been strong overall, with some excellent ones and only a couple of duds. That said I do also know it hasn't excited me on the same level as the First Doctor's stories with Ian, Barbara and Susan, the Fourth's with Sarah Jane or the Tenth's with Donna. I'm not even quite sure why - it is something small and emotive, about taking time to enjoy the little things and engage with ordinariness in the middle of the adventure and the fantasy, I think. It is probably more important to have a solid platform which is open to plenty of new people to come in and play around with, which certainly is the case with the current set-up, than to have something exceptional now but resting on one person who won't be able to sustain it indefinitely, though.

So, I'm looking forward to the New Year special, and will certainly be watching next season.

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New phone, who dis?

So I got a new phone. My last two have been Samsung Galaxies (first an S4, then an S7), but after I had owned each of them for about two years, the microphone on the first started to fail and the battery on the second went rapidly downhill, so that recently it hasn't been able to make it through a full day without needing a booster charge. Nonetheless, I was familiar with what Samsung had to offer, and liked in particular their high-quality built-in cameras. That meant I did look pretty hard at the S9, and especially the S9+, on which the various extras include a larger battery. But then when I actually logged into EE to check out their upgrade deals, they recommended a Huawei P20 Pro as the closest replacement for the S7 I had, so I looked into it to find out more.

The real clincher for me was the 4000 mAh battery (as compared to 3000 mAh for the Samsung Galaxy S9 or 3500mAh for the S9+). But then it also turned out to have twice as much storage capacity as the S9+, to be available in a very pretty ombre colour called Twilight shading from dark blue to rich purple, and to have one of the best cameras (or actually set of cameras) currently available in a mobile phone. So I have kissed goodbye to Samsung and made the move.

This in fact turned out to mean I was setting up the new Huawei on Thursday evening while listening to news stories about their chief financial officer being arrested for breaking US sanctions on Iran and fears about them using 5G kit they have supplied to spy on western countries. I do wish I had known about any of that before I bought the phone, but it's rather too late now - I already own it, and besides I don't think there is really any such thing as an ethical high-end smartphone.

I've been getting used to it, and setting everything up the way I want it, over the last couple of days. All my contacts and apps transferred over very smoothly via my gmail account, despite the move to different hard-ware, although a lot of the apps have taken the change as permission to switch back on all the annoying notifications which I'd spent ages hunting down and switching off on the old phone. So I had to redo a lot of that, and I'll need to put my music back on it and make a new set of lockscreen pictures for it at some point - all Dracula-related, of course, just like on the old phone, but they need to be different dimensions now.

I hadn't quite got round to the camera until this evening, but I realised when I began thinking about it that I had an excellent opportunity to test out its supposedly-excellent low light settings. Just over a month ago (in fact specifically on Halloween evening), there was a power-cut in Headingley, which hit around 7pm and last for about half an hour. It was fully dark outside by then, so I lit some candles to provide at least some light in my lounge, took a picture with my Samsung Galaxy G7 and tweeted it:

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Actually, power-cuts have been a major feature of this week too, but only at work, so I didn't actually need to dig out the candles at home. But I realised that recreating the picture above, with the same conditions of five tea-lights and no other illumination, would be an excellent way to test out my new Huawei's capacities. So that's what I've just done and here is the result:

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It did something quite different from the Samsung while taking the picture, announcing that it was 'processing' for about four seconds and taking what I think were actually a series of shots that allowed it to calibrate and perhaps even stitch together the best overall picture by using different lenses and settings on different parts of the scene. Anyway, whatever it did, the results clearly are in a different world from the Samsung equivalent. Much better colour balance between the candles themselves and their surroundings so that they don't just look like balls of white light, and then much better colour and detail on things like the round table-top, the carpet, the items on the mantelpiece, the chair and the cupboard behind.

Oh, and meanwhile the battery is currently sitting on 56%, whereas by this time on a similar day I would have expected my old S7 to be plugged in getting a second charge. So apart from accidentally supporting China's efforts to destabilise the west (whoops!), I guess I'm pretty happy. Definitely looking forward to seeing what else the camera can do at least.

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New Who 11.9 It Takes You Away

Tonight's episode really made me realise how much I love it when Doctor Who does surreality and alternative universes - like the Fourth Doctor's trips inside the Matrix and into N-Space. You can't do it all the time. The series has to be kept grounded in reality, otherwise the sense of any real stake in anything would be lost and people would lose interest. But every now and then it's great. I especially loved the way they actually flipped the film footage for the mirror universe in this one, so that everyone's partings were on the wrong side and their faces looked familiar yet wrong.

That's all I really got right now, though. I am SOOOO close to finishing the first draft of an article that it's all I can really think of or want to do. Hoping to return from my own little zone back to the real world soon....

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New Who 11.8 The Witchfinders

This story raised the question of the Doctor's non-interference policy for Earth history early on, when Yaz asked "even if something's not right?", but it also found two ways to dodge really answering it. Graham's insistence that he has never heard of Bilehurst (sp?) Crag equates to the way Hartnell and Troughton's pure historical episodes were increasingly slotted into explicit gaps in the historical record (e.g. The Highlanders), while this one eventually proved to be a pseudo-historical in any case.

I'm afraid I found the Moxon hordes pretty underwhelming once they were released from their tree and able to speak through what had been Becka Savage - just another roaring monster, blithering about its plans and then being implausibly-easily defeated, really. There was also a bit of a stylistic mis-match between crisp, twinkling King James and the dreich, dismal atmosphere of the village - itself sometimes so muddy it threatened to tip over into Monty Python or Maid Marian and her Merry Men-style comedy territory. And I fully expected to hear at some point exactly what had happened to Mistress Savage's husband and why she had had all horses shot - some poor script editing there, perhaps, leaving unresolved loose threads?

Still, the early witch-ducking sequence was pretty good, as were the possessed revenants; there was just enough dialogue about systemic misogyny without it becoming preachy; and I enjoyed both Siobhan Finneran as Becka Savage and Alan Cummings as the king - especially when he was flirting with Ryan. I think I'd sum this one up as 'could have better, but definitely not bad'. Certainly better than last week's, anyway, which I liked less and less the more I thought through its implications over the couple of days following its broadcast.

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New Who 11.7 Kerblam!

I'll admit my heart sank for a moment as I realised this was going to be another story about a big corporation. I expected something similar to Arachnids in the UK, which had probably been my least favourite episode so far this season, and wasn't relishing a repeat of its pretty unsubtle message about corporate greed. In fact, though, this was a much more interesting story, with a nuanced perspective on automation that I genuinely didn't expectCollapse )

Looking forward to some folk horror next week! :-)

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8. James Blish (1957), Year 2018!

This book was my response to the 'Doesn't belong to me' prompt when I did the book a day meme back in June. I hadn't actually read it yet at that point, but had spotted it on my Dad's bookshelves, and felt it deserved to be read in this year of all years. The cover looks like this, and was at once promising and off-putting:

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I mean, on the one hand that's a great example of a hand-painted pulp SF cover; but on the other in my experience novels with that sort of cover tend in practice towards jet-packs and misogyny. Thankfully, now that I've read it, I can confirm that the latter expectation was entirely unfair. This is actually a very thoughtful vision of what the future might look like from the standpoint of 1957Collapse ) All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by this book, not to mention somehow comforted to find that as badly as we seem to be fucking things up here in the early 21st century, someone in the 1950s imagined nothing very different and possibly something worse. Glad not to have disappointed too badly...

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New Who 11.6 Demons of the Punjab

Gosh, that was powerful. I mean, I would totally defer to anyone from an Indian or Pakistani background about the details of it, and whether it did justice to the time and the people depicted. But it had me absolutely gripped and entranced, and often close to tears. It was a really good example of how history in microcosm, told here through just two families, can feel so much more immediate than Great Men and Great Events.

Really interesting, too, to see how that was incorporated into the format of Doctor Who. Rosa gave us fairly traditional pseudo-history, in which the Doctor and her friends had to fight to protect history from being derailed by an alien threat, but the aliens in this episode turned out to be spoileryCollapse )

One final, minor note. Obviously this was Yaz's story above all, and I definitely felt I had come to know her and her family much better by the end of it. (Though I would love to know when we were supposed to understand the final scene between her and her grandmother as happening - on a quick trip back to her home time? Or after all her travels with the Doctor are over?) But for some reason for me this was also the episode where I finally felt I had really clicked with Ryan. I've found him a bit difficult to grasp so far, probably mainly because the life experience of a young black man is pretty far away from mine, but maybe also because he is quite quiet and laconic anyway. But there was something about the way he took this setting and story in his stride, so respectful of everyone around him and ready to do whatever was needed to help people and ease tensions, that just finally made me get him and really feel warm towards him. So, glad to meet you properly Ryan. Here's to all of Team TARDIS' further adventures.

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It's almost a month now since I went to Brașov for the Children of the Night International Dracula Congress, but as I have also been away to Whitby and Warwick for the weekends since I got back, this is the first time I've had a quiet Sunday available for writing about it. This event was the successor to the World Dracula Congress which I attended in Dublin in 2016, and another is already planned back in Brașov again for 2020. It was smaller in scale than the Dublin Congress, with a core of about twenty of us giving papers, but also a pretty large additional audience of local students working on tourism degrees. The link here, fairly obviously, is that Dracula is such a huge tourist draw for Romania (whether they like it or not), with the conference timed to coincide with a local Dracula Film Festival, and those in the tourism industry in both Brașov and beyond are busy thinking hard about how best to present and capitalise on it. So the students came along to learn more about an unavoidably central figure for Romanian tourism, and I guess to experience the conventions of an academic conference.

Meanwhile, I found being part of a smallish core of academic presenters actually really enjoyable. After all, we all had a shared passion and a great excuse to talk about it almost non-stop for the whole conference, so we had all become very much firm friends by the end of the experience. Here we are in front of the conference venue:


We were a very international bunch, with a full ten nationalities represented across that line-up: Romanian, Russian, Polish, German, Dutch, Portuguese, British, American, Brazilian and Japanese. Classics conferences are of course generally international too, but with Classics conferences there is usually an clear majority of delegates from the country where the conference is taking place - so e.g. I went to a conference in Vienna a few years ago where the majority language was very definitely German. With this conference, no one language really had a distinct plurality amongst the core delegates, let alone a majority, and that meant that for the first time I really saw how English operates as an international language in these contexts. When a Polish-speaking delegate wanted to chat to Japanese-speaking delegate over coffee, they used English because that was their strongest shared channel of communication. Standing there with my Duolingo-level elementary grasp of Romanian and an awareness that I could have functioned perfectly well for the whole week without even that, it was eye-opening and humbling to see.

My own paperCollapse )

Other people's papersCollapse )

Bonus funCollapse )

Tours of Brașov, Bran and TârgovișteCollapse )

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With these two stories I feel the new series, new show-runner and new Doctor have all settled into a regular rhythm with discernable patterns. And the good news is everything seems to be running smoothly. The big hurdles of introducing the new Doctor, taking her companions on their first adventure and tackling a historical story which could very easily have been done spectacularly badly have been cleared, and we can now settle down to two fairly ordinary but reassuringly competent stories. I could see room for improvement in the Arachnids one especially, but both were enjoyable to watch and didn't leave me face-palming and wishing they'd never been written - which certainly isn't the case for all such ordinary-business stories in recent years.

11.4 Arachnids in the UK

Unusually by recent standards, this was a present-day Earth story featuring no extra-terrestrial threat - only giant spiders caused by a combination of toxic waste and careless lab practices. As such, it sits particularly closely alongside The Green Death1, complete with the same environmental and corporate greed themes. On the whole I thought it was done pretty well, and I certainly enjoyed Chris Noth giving us his best villainy, although I didn't find the way the problem of the spiders was resolved very satisfactory. The idea of luring them all into a panic room with food where they would be shut in to die what the Doctor called a 'natural' death reminded me way too much of the ancient practice of walling up people you don't actually want to execute (Antigone, Vestal Virgins) with a token bit of food, so you could tell yourself their subsequent death was nothing to do with you. Also, purely on a editing level, I felt that we jumped way too quickly from that solution being talked about and Noth killing the giant spider to everything being fine and all over - reflecting the same feeling as the panic room 'solution' of the script washing its hands of the spiders without facing up to their real fate.

This story allowed Yaz's character to develop a bit, reflected through the lens of her family, but for precisely that reason her decision to continue travelling with the Doctor at the end of the story felt a bit strange. It made complete sense for Graham and Ryan to choose life with the Doctor after their loss of Grace, which has clearly left Graham in particular feeling empty and purposeless - at least when he has to face up to living a normal life on Earth without her. But while Yaz's family might have been mildly annoying, they were there and loving and functional - in fact, they seemed pretty decent and likeable to me. So her situation just didn't feel equivalent to Graham and Ryan's in the way that the script was trying to tell me it was.

11.5 The Tsuranga Conundrum

The monster in this story was basically Nibbler, except that it wanted to eat anti-matter rather than excreting dark matter (as far as we know). Indeed, the name of the hospital-ship which the characters find themselves on may well be a slight tweak on Turanga, Nibbler's owner's family name - and given that Leela from Futurama is reputed to have been named in the first place after Leela from Doctor Who, there's a pleasing back-and-forth resonance around all that.

There are a lot of characters and situations to get to grips with in this story, and as a result I felt a bit confused and disoriented for the first few minutes - perhaps partly because I had missed the prelude scene with the junkyard and the mine due to just finishing up cooking dinner, but probably also because the script-writers meant me to feel that way, just like the Doctor and her companions. By the time the Pting showed up, though, things were beginning to crystallise, and once I realised it was basically going to be a cabin-fever story I relaxed entirely and let it do what cabin fever stories do best - develop its characters and bounce them off one other in the face of an inescapable threat. Probably the best of the guest characters for me was Mabli, the woman with the blue bunches who had to learn to trust her own abilities after her senior colleague is killed, and I appreciated the fact that the problem of the Pting was solved both logically and humanely this time (unlike the spiders in the previous episode).

Next week, we get to learn more about Yaz's family history, which I'm looking forward to based on the trailer and the competence with which the Rosa Parks episode was handled. I assume part of her character arc will be for her to discover things which allow her to return to her own family in the present with a deeper sympathy and understanding - although again I do wish that whatever her reasons for finding them annoying were supposed to be had been better developed in the Arachnids episode if this is indeed the case.

1. I think, anyway. I find I can't accurately remember now whether the supercomputer in The Green Death turns out to be of alien origin or not.

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New Who 11.3 Rosa

I have been around and about all over the place lately, racking up a week-long trip to Romania followed by two successive weekends in Whitby and Warwick. Weekends are when I tend to write LJ / DW posts, so I now have a huge backlog of things to write about caused by being busy doing interesting things in exactly the time I might otherwise be writing about them. But things are calming down now, I am back on top of work and my first weekend at home in almost a month approaches. So I'm ready to start catching up on myself, and step one in that is apparently getting up to date with Doctor Who posts. Obviously Rosa in particular is long past now and many people have written lots of interesting commentary on it, so I will just stick to a few points which particularly struck me.

I spent quite a lot of time thinking about how Doctor Who deals with history in the run-up to giving a Classical Association paper on the topic in 2010. I never published that - indeed, it was never really intended for publication - but I covered the core points in this post on my real-name blog. Broadly, the series has always operated on the unspoken assumption that the Doctor cannot be seen to be changing known Earth history, because that would break the fantasy that it is taking place in our real world. But the character's development, by the time Troughton took over, into a hero who travelled the universe helping people was incompatible with this, because such a figure would naturally seek to right historical wrongs on Earth, thus changing the course of our history. Hence the evolution of the 'pseudo-historical' story, in which the Doctor saves the Earth from an unrecorded alien threat and preserves the history we know - see e.g. The Shakespeare Code.

That's essentially what we have here, but the reason for preserving the core historical event of Rosa Parks' arrest is emphatically not the abstract one of preserving history for its own sake, but the socially-driven one of wanting to preserve the improvements for BAME people and their status which it brought about. Likewise, Krasko, the 79th-century time traveller actively wants to undo those changes, and has targeted a pivotal moment of historical change as a way of achieving that. That makes this episode all about contested histories. In real life we debate the details of what happened at a particular moment in history, what it really meant at the time or later on, or (in extreme cases such as holocaust denial) whether it really happened. And where people's rights, status or identities are contingent on the historical interpretation chosen (as is almost always the case with history, in fact), those debates can get very heated. In this episode, with time travel added into the mix, we essentially had a heightened allegorical version of those debates - what would happen if one way of 'winning' the debate would be to go back in time and change the actual history to suit your line of argument?

As a historian, I really liked that idea, but precisely because I found it so powerful and so close to many of the issues I see and engage with professionally, I would ideally have liked it to be given a bit more space. I wanted to know more about Krasko's social and cultural context and his thought processes. Was he an entirely lone wolf, or did he see himself as acting on behalf of a large fascist contingent? What is it about 79th-century society that has given rise to his actions, and what in particular does he anticipate will come of undoing Rosa Parks' arrest back in his own time-line? Has he even over-fetishised Rosa's action, to the extent that he is in fact entirely wrong that erasing that one act will undo all of the progress which collectively came out of the Civil Rights movement? The effort which the Doctor and her companions put into stopping him from changing anything implies he is right about the significance it will have, but I would have welcomed a line or two somewhere about social and political change not being entirely contingent on a particular person on a particular bus at a particular time.

All of that makes me sound a bit grumpy about this episode, but only really because I felt it was actually a very impressive approach to a sensitive historical event, and would have loved to see it nudged just a notch or two further along towards excellence. For a family-oriented TV entertainment show, though, it did about as well as could reasonably be expected with both historiography and of course the primary focus of racism. I thought it was particularly important to have included the conversation between Ryan and Yaz behind the bins about the racism they personally experience on a regular basis in the 21st-century UK, which did acknowledge that a single act by Rosa Parks didn't magically solve all racism, not to mention hopefully prompting some white viewers who haven't done so before to empathise with the everyday experiences of BAME people.

Overall very good, and because of the point at which it came in the series, very reassuring for those of us who have been worried about how this sort of material might be handled in a show which doesn't have a particularly brilliant track record with minority and underprivileged characters.

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New Who 11.2 The Ghost Monument

I think we can chalk that up as another cracker. I don't have time to write much about it, as I'm going to Romania tomorrow and need to prioritise prepping for that, but a few thoughts.

God, I love stories about a small band of people trapped in an adverse situation. I believe I have mentioned this before - e.g. it's why one of my favourite early Classic Who stories is The Edge of Destruction. They are so good for character development, and just as The Edge of Destruction really helped to seal the main characters for the Hartnell era, so also this was a very good choice of format when we were getting to know a new (and by recent standards unusually large) TARDIS team. There's still more development to go, but we have moved forward with them. I think I still love Graham the most - probably largely because the other two are (sadly!) a bit too young for me to relate to these days. He did something particular which really made me *heart* him part-way through this episode, but I already can't remember what. Feel free to write suggestions as to what I might have like in the comments!

Angstrom's response to his comment that the Stenza had killed his wife - can't remember the exact words but something like "Mine too" - gave us the first explicit moment of queer representation under the new regime. Good - I'm pleased that that is still in place.

That first location they found for the ruins - the crumbling concrete with the green paint - was absolutely spectacular. Judging from the opening credits, it was somewhere in South Africa, which speaks of a commitment to high production values.

The whole thing felt gritty, serious, and sometimes outright scary - and in my book those are good things. Angstrom's references to her world being cleansed, and both her and Epzo's willingness to undergo huge hardship and almost certain death in order to win a better life for their families (in her case at least - I think his motivation was more self-centred), both felt like parallels for the desperation of real-world refugees from war and persecution, and I'm pleased again that the new regime continues to see it as part of Doctor Who's role to raise and explore these issues.

The burnt-edged papery, fabricy, snakey things (according to Wikipedia they were called the Remnants) were quite M.R. Jamesish! And I liked how the set-up for defeating them worked through, from what seemed initially like the Doctor just finding a way to help Ryan find the courage and focus he needed to climb the ladder, to a scientific solution which he had contributed to. Though I'm not sure I fully understand why they didn't just attack everyone straight away, and although I probably didn't catch it fully, I didn't much like the sound of prophetic stuff about a 'Timeless Child' either. That's exactly the sort of thing I was pleased not to be hearing last week. :-/

Finally, the new TARDIS interior genuinely was awesome, and I'm glad I saw that completely unspoiled. Hexagons, circles, an organic crystalline feel, and custard creams to boot! Judging from next week's setting, though, it looks like her time and space calibration is a bit off-kilter. It could take a while before the Doctor can get her chums back to where and when they actually came from. :-)

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New Who 11.1 The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Ooh! That was good, wasn't it? Good enough to make me want to write about it here, anyway, which I haven't managed for the last season-and-a-half.

Jodie Whittaker definitely gives good Doctor. Just the right balance between warm and human and strange without being too mannered. And I liked how the extended episode time allowed plenty of space to develop and introduce all the characters. I'm not sure I was wild about the alien threat, who felt a bit two-dimensional, but then again I get how you need a fairly simple villain when the real business of the episode is introducing a new Doctor and her companions, and I did enjoy the stuff about how he was cheating his way to get power, and what kind of leader did that mean he was going to make? Definitely felt like a broken-state-of-modern-politics reference to me.

I like how the Doctor built her new sonic screwdriver / Swiss army knife out of actual Sheffield steel, and chose her new outfit from a charity shop. And I liked the use of the cranes, too. As someone who regularly drives through Sheffield (on my way between Leeds and Birmingham), they are very much one of the major icons of the city to me. In the run-up to Christmas, they string lights along them. Oh, and the drunk guy mocking the alien dude by saying "Halloween's next month, mate." That felt like a shout-out to all the Goths - and perhaps also a sign that the original plan was to broadcast this episode slightly earlier in the year, as of course Halloween is in fact now later this month.

I could really have done with Grace not dying, partly because she was just awesome and I wanted her on the TARDIS team, and partly because it felt like a rather token, deliberate mechanism for signalling how High the Stakes are in the Doctor's world. But at least, if that was going to be the case, they gave time and space to the consequences of her death, to the extent of showing her funeral - have we ever even had a funeral in Doctor Who before? I can't think of one. Anyway, of the team that's left, I'm pretty sure Graham is going to be my favourite as we go on. He seems very kind and good-hearted, and I just loved his very relatable and human focus on the threats they were facing - like the way he was the one who kept going back to the issue of the DNA bombs, and how long did they have?

It's too early to be sure how this new era will pan out, or what Chris Chibnall has lined up, but I certainly didn't get much sense of any Big Arc being established - I mean, no Crack in Time or Impossible Girl or anything like that. Just the Doctor and some randomly-collected people off for an adventure into space. That actually makes it feel fresher and more exciting than I think all Moffat's Big Arcs generally did, so I hope things stay that way. Here's to a new era.

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Back in April I got a request via a friend who works in the British Library to translate a few words and sentences into Latin for Ben Aaronovitch's latest Rivers of London book (LJ / DW). I knew squat all about the series then, but agreed to the assignment and, with help from a couple of colleagues, supplied the requisite text. A few weeks later, a signed copy of the first novel in the series arrived with thanks from Ben's agent, and now I have read it.

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It's very good, as I know many friends who have been reading them for years are already well aware. The basic premise of the universe is that magic is real, and in Britain was codified and systematised by Isaac Newton in the 1770s. In the present day, a magical institution resides in a building called The Folly on Russell Square, and although it has no official standing or even openly acknowledged existence, in practice the Metropolitan Police work with its enigmatic Master, Thomas Nightingale, on cases involving supernatural beings. We, the readers, are introduced to all of this through the eyes of Peter Grant, the book's main character, a trainee police officer who meets a ghost one night and shortly thereafter finds himself signed up as Nightingale's apprentice. He spends the rest of the novel painstakingly learning basic magic while trying to solve a bizarre string of paranormal murders and intercede between the two major gods (each with a coterie of secondary water-spirits) whom he learns have charge of the Thames - Old Father Thames for the upper, rural stretches and Mama Thames for the lower, urban-coastal ones.

I could probably have taken or left the actual plot, which turned out to be about a sort of revenant possessing people and making them commit violent acts. For all that this was packaged up as a murderous retelling of the story of Punch and Judy, it could have been any old Big Bad really, and it was probably a mistake to take on this, the feud between the river gods and the initial world-building of an opening novel in one go. If the feud between the river gods had somehow underpinned the revenant plot, causing the problem through the disharmony between them, it might have worked better, but I don't think that was the case - although I may have missed something to that effect, as it all got quite complicated and surreal towards the end.

The world-building was good, though, belonging squarely to my favourite genre of fantasy - that is, where magic and the supernatural are real, but still directly connected to the world we actually live in. And of course Ben Aaronovitch being who he is - i.e. a British cult / SF writer whose CV includes Doctor Who - there were plenty of references neatly calculated to make a reader like me go 'squee!'. I believe my favourite was the following, coming as Peter Grant first encounters The Folly:
Russell Square lies a kilometre north of Covent Garden on the other side of the British Museum. According to Nightingale, it was at the heart of a literary and philosophical movement in the early years of the last century, but I remember it because of an old horror movie about cannibals living in the Underground system.
Yes, yes, Bloomsbury Group etc., but more importantly, Death Line! He's talking about Death Line, which is one of my absolute favourite horror films in the history of ever (LJ / DW). There are references to midichlorians and John Polidori, too, but that was the one I enjoyed most.

Peter himself is mixed race, which created some useful space to show up some of the on-going structural flaws with the police. There's one direct reference to the Macpherson report, reminding us that the Met has only fairly recently become an environment Peter can comfortably work in, and in the present day of the novel (its 2011 publication date) he still needs to navigate various micro-aggressions. In much the same way that the characters in Being Human were all very real as well as supernatural Others (the vampire was Irish, the werewolf Jewish and the ghost mixed race), it also reflects his liminal position with one foot each in the ordinary human world and the magical underworld, as well as putting him in the perfect position to mediate credibly between Old Father Thames (who is white) and Mama Thames (who is black).

As a female reader, though, it did irritate me that Peter seemed barely able to look at half of the female characters in the book without appraising them sexually. I mean, maybe that's just an inevitable part of a young male character's internal viewpoint, and it doesn't necessarily mean he can't respect their intelligence or professionalism as well, but it was just so relentless and indiscriminate that it got kind of tedious. I don't really want to have to sit on a character's shoulder watching them objectify every woman they come across - and especially not when that included Mama Thames, a literal goddess. Again, I get that you might want to convey the experience of a goddess' immense power partly in terms of sexual allure, but what we get is Peter narrating how much he wants to put his face between her breasts and gets so hard he finds it difficult to sit down by the time she offers him a chair. Even within the book, she and her coterie laugh at him for the inappropriateness of this, but I'd have preferred not to go there in the first place.

In the end, my own favourite character was Molly, a being of indeterminate nature (when Peter asks Nightingale what she is, he just replies "Indispensable") who lives in the Folly and appears to be its entire domestic staff. She never speaks, Peter catches her at one point eating dripping chunks of raw meat in the middle of the night, and she has a brilliant scene at the end where she comes over for all the world like Sadako out of Ringu and bites him in the neck as a way of sending him backwards through time so that he can defeat the troublesome revenant. But she is a model of efficiency around the Folly, and clearly fiercely loyal to Nightingale and his endeavours.

I will probably read some more of these books in due course, and rather wish I'd done so before I attempted to translate the Latin I was given in the first place. I certainly understand much better now some of the things which puzzled me as I struggled with the initial text, such as why Father Thames seemed also to be called Tiberius Claudius Verica. I'd like to know more about his back-story, as well as Molly's. That said, I've got two entire bookshelves' worth of unread books in my house at the moment, none of which are Rivers of London books, and at my current average rate of no more than ten leisure books per year, it's going to take me a while to get through all those. :-( So it may be some time before I'm back in this particular world.

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26. Maurice (1987), dir. James Ivory

This one I saw a week ago with the lovely [personal profile] glitzfrau at the Hyde Park Picture House, in all its newly-restored 4K glory. I love Forster, and his work always seems to inspire excellence in screen adaptations, but this one has always meant the most to me I think. I saw it first some time in my early teens - I'm not sure exactly when but I would guess aged about 14 - when it was broadcast on Channel 4, and remember sitting up for hours afterwards on top of a chest of drawers which sat in the bay-window of my bedroom, looking out through an open window over the dark, quiet street while summer rain dripped in the trees and climbing plants outside, and wallowing in the feel of it. By then I'd already had multiple powerful crushes on other girls or teachers at school, but I had never before seen anything at that time which presented queer attraction as openly as this, let alone suggested that it could be good and fulfilling or might turn out well. It seems the film has had a similar sort of impact on many people over the years.

I've watched it at least once since, but not for a long time now I think - a good fifteen years, I'd say. But it's always stayed with me, and coming back to it now I am not at all surprised. It's not just the subject-matter, but how incredibly well-crafted the film itself is in every possible respect. Almost every shot in it is absolutely iconic, not a line of the dialogue is wasted, and although the musical soundtrack is beautiful and well-deployed, it also gets so much out of silence - still, high-angle shots of Cambridge, lingering on characters' pained faces, etc. Above all, though, I was struck by how well-structured the whole thing is. It's inherently a film of two halves because of the way it tells the story of Maurice's two successive relationships - one ultimately unhappy, but also leading the way towards the other, where he finds his fulfilment. Actually, in that respect it reminded me very much of the 1963 Cleopatra, with its Julius Caesar half and its Antony half, though Forster laid down that structure for his book long before that film was dreamt of.

But anyway, what that allows, and what Merchant & Ivory really brought out of the book, is an incredible series of resonances, so that almost every scene throughout the film resonates with and calls forwards or backwards to a fellow in the other half. I mean things like Maurice having his boxing gloves with him from the start in Cambridge, to be followed up by his efforts in the East End boxing club later; Maurice climbing in through the window of Clive's room and then Scudder later doing the same to Maurice; Maurice writing to Clive that he gets no sleep and begging him to answer his letters while he's in Greece and Alec later writing exactly the same to Maurice from his boat-house; Maurice saying in the tutorial at the start, when Risley is arguing that words are the only things which matter, that no, it's deeds which matter, and then at the end coming to tell Durham what he has done and being full of joy at Alec's deed of not getting on the boat to Argentina.

A lot of this is there already in Forster, as I established during a hasty skim through the book after I got home, but not all of it. It's very clear that every line, every shot, every moment in the film was incredibly carefully thought through with the eyes of fine craftsmen so that it would convey the maximum amount of meaning - like the water dripping though the ceiling of Clive Durham's house to reflect the rotten sham of his marriage, or the final scene of him carefully and purposefully closing and bolting his windows to the memory of Maurice. Yet it never feels hokey or Oh So Symbolic - there is enough room for the characters to breathe and to be three-dimensional to prevent that.

One interesting choice is that the film is very deliberately and specifically set in the run-up to the First World War through repeated on-screen captions which date each stage in the development of the story so that it finishes some time in 1913. My skim through the novel suggests this did not originate there (though [personal profile] glitzfrau, who somehow read the whole thing that evening, may know better than me). The novel was originally written during 1913 to '14, but it doesn't include any explicit internal dating, and could take place any time in the late Victorian or early Edwardian periods. In fact it's tempting to read the scenes in King's as based on Forster's own undergraduate years - that is 1897 to 1901, when the Provost there was one M. R. James, then at the height of his own Platonic friendship with James McBryde.

Going back to the film, repeatedly reminding the viewer that war is approaching perhaps casts a pall over the happy ending, since it implies that whatever Maurice and Alec may have built will be shattered to pieces in the trenches within a year. (In the book, by contrast, they simply fade into a sort of unseen fantasy-Arcadia.) But I suppose it is an inevitable element of how we now look back to that period, and especially its upper classes. Merchant and Ivory put enough casual snobbery and misogyny into the mouths of both Maurice and Clive to mean it is a world which has to fall.

Meanwhile, the image of Maurice and Clive raptly imbibing Monty's ghost stories isn't the only enticing inter-text to be had from watching the film now. Merchant and Ivory clearly knew what they were about when they casually dropped Helena Bonham-Carter into the audience at the cricket match, for all the world as though Lucy Honeychurch had called by from A Room with a View. But they could not have anticipated that the scenes of Hugh Grant lurking at the back of the court-room while the verdict is read out at Risley's trial would now look quite so much like a young Jeremy Thorpe seeing a vision of his future - right down to the hat he is using to try to hide his face. They did know what they were doing when they cast him, though, as well as everyone else in the film. Very, very well done, Merchant and Ivory. Thank you profoundly for everything you put into this film.

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Obviously I've watched this a few times before. I've done a 'proper' review of it here: LJ / DW, and I also recently read and reviewed the novelisation: LJ / DW. This watch, though, was with my sister during her recent visit. It was a logical follow-on from watching Dracula (1958) with her and her husband last Halloween (LJ / DW), in that this is the next entry in the series, she had never seen it before and I had seen it more than enough times a) to long to know what it might look like to fresh eyes and b) to be quite confident that I wouldn't miss anything crucial because someone was speaking to me during the film. I therefore encouraged her to tell me what she was making of it all as we went along, which she was very happy to do.

Three main things came of this. Firstly, although I think the screenplay does work quite hard to plant the suspicion that the Baroness might be a vampire (she arrives at night, everyone's scared of her, she doesn't eat anything at dinner), this wasn't enough to make my sister actually think she was one. Well before it was made explicit, she correctly surmised that her son was the vampire, and she was protecting / shielding him. I guess the trope of the sick / mad family member in the attic is too well ensconced - although it may also simply be that she knew because she'd already seen David Peel befanged, becloaked and snarling vampirically on the DVD title menu. Once you know he's definitely a vampire, it doesn't really make sense for his mother to be hiding him away if she is also one herself anyway.

Secondly, she remarked that Father Stepnik, the local priest, seemed to know all about vampires when he was telling his flock that the (unnamed) village girl can't be buried in the local churchyard because she is "not like all the rest", but then proceeds to be told all about them in his turn by Van Helsing. I don't think this is a 'plot hole', 'goof' or whatever - just the result of it being quite difficult to convey clearly that a character knows enough about vampires to know what they are but not enough to destroy them, coupled with the fact that Van Helsing needs to be given a lot of dialogue about vampires (and probably more than the specific character of Father Stepnik really needs) in order to establish his authority and inform the audience of the 'rules' for this film. Still an interesting observation, though.

Thirdly, she was really quite surprised when Van Helsing got bitten towards the end of the film, and couldn't guess for a few minutes how on earth the story was going to turn that around. This was the point where I was most grateful for having her fresh eyes on the screen alongside mine, because I have for so long known how he deals with it, and have therefore come to see the bite as nothing much more than the necessary prelude to the real business with the brazier. But of course she's right - we should be shocked when Van Helsing, seemingly humanity's greatest defence against vampirism, falls victim to one, and presumably that's how the original audiences would have reacted. A helpful insight.

Always a pleasure to revisit this, and all the more so in company with my sister. I'll look forward to Prince of Darkness when she next comes to stay!

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24. Vertigo (1958), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Seen a couple of weeks ago with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 at the Hyde Park Picture House. I don't think it needs a hugely long review from me, because it is obviously a very famous and much-analysed film which I really doubt I'll have anything very original to say about. But a few points which particularly struck me:

1. It's in colour! I was honestly quite surprised by this, because I'd just assumed that all Hitchcock films were inherently in black and white, even though I've seen (for example) Rope and The Birds, which aren't, and I had seen stills of this sequence as well:


I guess I just assumed the stills were colourised? Anyway, my real point is how incredibly well the colour is used throughout the film to convey character through signature palettes, create a sense of fear or unease, make sure we notice connections etc. Pretty impressive, if sometimes maybe slightly overdone in the way that many film-makers overdid colour once they had it available to play with.

2. It has two major moments of revelation: one when the audience is shown that Judy Barton doesn't just resemble Madeleine Elster, but had been impersonating her, and one when the nun stands up at the end and says "I heard voices" (I'm deliberately keeping that one a bit vague to avoid spoilers - but you will know what I mean if you've seen it). Learning the nature of Judy and Gavin Elster's conspiracy at least explained how Jimmy Stewart's character had got away with being the Worst Trail Ever in the first part of the film. Of course Madeleine had never 'spotted' him, despite his habit of pulling up very blatantly only a few yards behind her car or staring at her openly in museums, once we understand that she was stringing him along the whole time. As for the final twist with the nun - what a head-fuck! It seems obvious to me that Scottie must jump after Judy just after the credits roll, as there is no way he is psychologically going to survive losing her that way twice. It is only his destiny, really, given the entire theme of the film, to finally surrender himself to that vertigo after all.

3. Jimmy Stewart really is exceptionally good in it, especially when he is in shock after 'Madeleine's' death. His badly-dyed hair is quite distracting, though, and his character is not at all endearing - especially his dismissive treatment of Midge. It is very noticeable that she simply disappears from the film once her plot value (mainly as a sounding-board for Scottie) expires.

I'll probably want to watch it again some time, knowing everything that the audience knows by the end. I suspect it is a better watch that way. But for now, that's it - I'm done.

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I watched this because it is a Hammer film with Christopher Lee in it. Well, I mean and Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed and Marie Devereux (too briefly!) and Andrew Keir and Desmond Llewellyn and a bunch of other favourites - but mainly because of Christopher Lee. It isn't a horror film, though, but rather one of Hammer's swash-buckling adventures, as the title suggests. And for all the pirateyness, it involves the minimum possible amount of screen-time set on board ship, because obviously Hammer couldn't have dreamt of affording that. Rather, they bought in some stock footage for the beginning, built an interior cabin set, commissioned a matte painting of a sea-scape for the end, and set the rest on an island which is very obviously Black Park with a few half-dead palm fronds stuck around the place.

This means that the plot feels more like a Wild West adventure set on the Pitcairn Islands than anything else - although in fact both the islanders and the pirates who come to attack them are French. The islanders consist of a Huguenot colony who have been living in isolation for several generations now, and a fundamental tension has developed amongst them between the strict and traditionally-minded elders of the community and the younger generation who want something different and less oppressive. The analogy here for the real-world contemporary tensions between the pre- and post-war generations is obvious, and there's some interesting stuff about how both sides have their own competing interpretations of what the colony's original founder (old Symeon) stood for. But ultimately this aspect of the story rather peters out, eclipsed by the attack of the pirate gang (led by the lovely Mr. Lee) who come to raid the settlement and abscond with the treasure which they are (rightly) convinced it must be hoarding.

The sexual politics are very typical of Hammer during this period, in that they are playing around with the flouting of traditional values, but ultimately don't quite want to condone their overthrow. Early on, we are invited to sympathise with a young woman (Marie Devereux's character), who is afraid of her brutal husband (one of the traditionally-minded village elders), and has fallen in love instead with one of the young idealists. But ultimately these two cannot be allowed to have a sustained relationship or happy ending, because that would be to condone adultery. Instead, she isn't quite killed directly for her sins, but in trying to escape a crowd of villagers bent on punishment, she runs into a river where she is devoured by piranhas (hence the 'Blood River' of the title). Effectively, then, she is punished by God - or whatever divine agency you might want to imagine.

Christopher Lee is of course absolutely great as the pirate captain, who obviously has enough education and breeding by comparison with his men to convince the same young idealist that he will help him to overthrow the village elders and create a better community, but is in fact utterly ruthless and ready to sacrifice anyone at all in pursuit of the treasure he desires. In other words, it is the perfect Christopher Lee role. He gets a good death scene towards the end, which involves him being pinned to a tree with a sword (though it was obviously cut in the version I saw on Talking Pictures), which along with the piranhas and some sadistic punishments dished out to the young idealist after he has been sent to a prison camp by the village elders would have delivered the sorts of thrills Hammer audiences came to see. It's a pity, though, that Lee was obviously asked to play the captain as having one shrivelled hand. Nothing ever comes of that plot-wise, and indeed I don't think it was ever mentioned in the script, but obviously it's another one for the Evil Cripple file. Similarly, there are a couple of black pirates in his gang, presumably to help convey the exoticism of the settings, but they never get to speak.

The dullest parts of this film for me were the fight sequences, which I am Just Not That Into - especially an extended blindfolded fight sequence between two of the pirates, which just seemed to go on forever to little effect, and was ultimately only over which of them was going to be allowed to rape one of the village women anyway. In fact, this never happened as a rescue party arrived in time, but it gave an already very boring fight an unpleasantly icky edge. It also seemed to me that a lot of the strategies employed by the pirates were downright stupid, such as attacking the village en masse from the front, rather than sending a small party round the side while the villagers were all busy holding off the main attack; or stopping to sleep in the forest after they have seized the treasure and thus allowing the villagers to catch up with them, rather than just ploughing the hell on through the night to reach their ship and escape. But whether this was 'meant' to appear stupid, as a way of characterising the pirates as a not particularly effective force, or was simply the result of insufficiently careful script-writing, I'm not sure.

Anyway, worth watching overall as part of my general long-term exploration of both Hammer's oeuvre and Christopher Lee's, but I would be surprised if I found myself rushing back to watch it again.

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Oops, I've let a bit of a film review back-log accrue again... Let's see what I can do about that this afternoon.

I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 at the Hyde Park Picture House. I found it OK, with some good performances, period settings and nice camerawork conveying an appropriately Gothic atmosphere where relevant (as in the Villa Diodati) but without undermining the basic realism of the film. Unfortunately, though, it plays pretty fast and loose with the actual facts of Mary's life - which was part of my complaint about The Happy Prince and Oscar Wilde (LJ / DW). Overall, it didn't irritate me anything like as much as The Happy Prince, because Mary simply wasn't a smug, entitled arse in the way that Oscar Wilde was, and nor was the film quite so intent on portraying her life as a tragic work of art. But it definitely did want to suggest that absolutely everything which happened to her before the publication of Frankenstein was all systematically and almost divinely destined to culminate in the production of that book, which didn't actually leave much space for her agency as a human author rather than a passive cork, tossed on the waves of life.

Here are just a few examples of the departures from reality which I noticed, based on the pre-holiday reading I did for our DracSoc trip to Geneva in 2016, and the exhibitions we saw while we were there (LJ / DW):

Mary meets Percy Shelley while staying with the Baxter family in Scotland, after she has been sent away there by her stepmother.Mary literally missed meeting Shelley for the first time because of this stay, as he came to London while she was away after securing the patronage of her father, William Godwin. They met only after she had returned, during his regular visits to the family home.
Neither Mary nor any of the Godwin household initially know that Percy has a wife and child, and Mary finds this out to her shock when they turn up outside her father's bookshop to ask where he is.All of them already knew all about the wife and child well before Mary became involved with Percy, because he had brought them to the Godwin family home to introduce them to everyone (though Harriet did turn up demanding for Mary and Percy to be kept apart once the relationship had begun).
Mary and Claire first set eyes on Byron at a theatrical demonstration of Galvinism, complete with experiments on frogs' legs.It was actually at a lecture on Milton delivered by Coleridge. Mary's knowledge of Galvinism came later, through conversations at the Villa Diodati.
Percy's friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg sexually assaults Mary in their home, in a move which comes as a complete surprise and (obviously) a shock to her.Percy had suggested to Mary in advance that she and Hogg should sleep together, and although she hated the idea at first, they corresponded about it. In those letters Mary seems interested but wary, but nothing ever came of it in the end.
Byron invites Percy and Mary to stay in his villa in Geneva and welcomes them as soon as they arrive.Claire conceives of the whole notion of tracking him down there and persuades the others to follow. They arrive two weeks before Byron and spend the intervening time in a hotel, waiting for him to turn up.
Mary writes the bulk of Frankenstein in run-down rented rooms in London.She wrote most of it while travelling onwards through Switzerland and into Italy after the Geneva stay.

Many more things are omitted, such as Mary and Claire's other siblings, Shelley bursting into the Godwin family home to propose a suicide pact with Mary as a way of escaping Harriet, and an earlier elopement to the continent by Mary and Percy (taking Claire with them). I am less concerned about omissions, which are necessary to convey a story coherently in the length of the film, but the distortions of reality here actively worked against one of the central claims of the film. On the one hand, it kept trying to show us how her life fed into her work, but on the other it wasn't even presenting her real life, but another fictionalised life which did not in fact lead up to the novel we know.

I could appreciate and give credit for some of what the production team were trying to do in the course of this, such as showing clearly how difficult it was for a woman to be taken seriously as an author in the early 19th century, as well as the brutal and disastrous consequences of the patriarchy generally and Byron and Shelley's notions of free love particularly for women with no access to contraception. But I felt that some other narrative decisions made for serious missed opportunities, and that applied particularly to the real complexities, drama and evident intellectual calibre of her relationship with Shelley, all of which were largely thrown away in favour of a pretty conventional troubled romance story.

In short, I'm glad I saw this (because I was always going to want to) and it's certainly better than The Happy Prince, but it could still have been an awful lot better than it was.

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Electoral Services questionnaire

Interesting. I've just reconfirmed my eligibility to vote in elections in Leeds, prompted by a letter about it which arrived yesterday. I did the actual confirmation online, and after I'd done so a text popped up asking me to fill in a survey on my experiences of the election process in Leeds. Naturally, being geekily interested in these things, I took the opportunity. Most of the questions were, as I expected, on fairly simple / basic things, such as how easy I find postal voting, how regularly I vote, and what experience (if any) I'd had with contacting our local Electoral Services Department. This one, though, really made the electoral reformer in me sit up and pay attention (click if it's too small to read, and you should get the original):

ERS election questionnaire.jpg

I'd already said in a previous answer that I always vote in all elections, so I couldn't say that any of those would make me more likely to vote, but I hardly wanted to anyway. What a dreadful set of options! Thankfully, they offered a box underneath so that I could explain my answers:

ERS election questionnaire answers.jpg

The people administering this questionnaire are Electoral Reform Services, whose business is precisely this - to provide the voting apparatus for surveys and elections. They happen to be partially-owned by the Electoral Reform Society, who know all about STV as their primary purpose is to campaign for it, and indeed share my concerns with online voting and voter ID too - but they won't have had any input into the questions for this. Rather, the questions seem to have come from the Electoral Commission, who are responsible for running and ensuring the fair conduct of public elections in this county, and have here employed Electoral Reform Services to conduct the survey. Since some of the questions referenced types of elections which don't apply in Leeds (e.g. mayoral contests), I assume the same survey is being offered to people confirming their electoral eligibility online all over the country.

Given all that, it worries me a lot to see these questions, as it suggests a very real risk of the methods listed being introduced (or extended, in the case of voter ID which has already been piloted to poor effect) in this country. And yet still no prospect of any actual improvements to our electoral system, such as STV. :-( I only hope they get a lot of responses along the same lines as mine, basically saying "All these ideas are rubbish - STV NOW!"

If you share my concerns and get the chance to fill in this questionnaire yourself, please feel very free to use my answers as inspiration.

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June #bookaday meme

At the end of May, my friend [personal profile] rosamicula posted this image on Facebook for a book meme designed to be played out during the 30 days of June:

Bookaday prompt list.jpg

Although I could see from the image that it had originally been designed as viral advertising for a publisher, and a poke around on Twitter revealed that it was four years old, the prompts instantly sparked lots of thoughts and ideas, so I decided to go for it. With a bit of careful forward planning, I managed to keep it going faithfully on both Twitter and Facebook every day throughout the month, despite the fact that I spent about a third of it away from home (on holiday in Scotland, visiting my family or in Swansea doing external examining), and I felt that it captured quite a faithful cross-section of my academic and personal selves. A little belatedly, and before the posts entirely disappear down the drain of social media, I'm now transposing the results here, so that a few different people can see them and I stand some chance of finding them again in future.

Lots of books under this cutCollapse )

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