Thursday, 14 July 2016

Winter is coming ... to the beach

Every year, at around about this time, I take a number of books off shelves and stack them in a corner of the flat.

Then, over the following period, they are shuffled, increased one day and decreased the next, as I debate whether or not this is the right selection for holiday reading and whether there are enough books or too many.

Every year, I am told by people that I should get a Kindle. Every year, I explain that:

I do not actually like reading books on a tablet;

if I drop a book on a damp beach, the damage will never be greater than a single lost book;

I distrust The Cloud and continue to prefer to actually have my ‘stuff’ under my control and my control alone.

The first part of this usually occurs a month or so before a trip. This time around, it has been just a few days – which possibly suggests how welcome the trip itself is going to be.

And while there is therefore little adjustment time, the pile itself reveals a considerable jolt in my reading habits over the last eight months or so.

Back in ancient times – okay, the end of the 1970s and beginning of the following decade – I ‘discovered’ horror and fantasy fiction.

In the case of the former, it was largely Stephen King and, in the latter, Tolkien and, a few years later, Terry Pratchett.

I read Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels avidly, plus works by William Horwood.

But then, Sir Terry apart, I drifted away from fantasy because it all really rather seemed to be largely inferior Lord of the Rings. This is possibly the point at which to state that, for vaguely complicated reasons, in my mid-twenties I did a series of commissioned illustrations of places from Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit for a hotel owner in Torquay who just happened to be called Tolkien and was a nephew of JRR.

Unfortunately (or not – I don’t recall them being stunning, and they took me an age) I have no record of them. Hey ho.

Be mother to your own Funko Pop dragon
Late last year, it seemed the time to pick up LoTR once more. Reading the first part again, I found myself thinking that Frodo is still wet and irritating, but I also enjoyed the poetic stuff much more, including Tom Bombadil.

And I moved from that to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy – works I’d been promising myself I should read for some years.

Thus far, I’ve only read the first book, Titus Groan: I didn’t find it a quick read, but it is a stunning one, and it reawakened by interest in fantasy. Surely there had to be works out there that didn’t just slavishly echo Tolkien’s formula?

One of the first books I found was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods – a sure fire hit given my predilection for Norse mythology (I have also been reading more extensively than before this year).

Half a dozen of the Sandman graphic novels sit on my shelves and there is also Dark Omens, a copy of the novel he co-wrote with Sir Terry years ago, but I had not dipped into any of his own novels.

Sure enough, I loved American Gods. I love Gaiman’s version of Odin and all the other gods from around the world that he brings to life.

The Other Half read and enjoyed it too, so his Anansi Boys is going with us on holiday.

The discovery of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks has opened up a wonderful variety of works, including Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, which is a slow burner, but draws you inexorably under its spell.

What is not a slow burner, however, is George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones – the first book in a series that seems to have spawned a little TV show.

Now I haven’t even watched a trailer for the TV version, but the first 800-page volume utterly gripped me.

This is masterful storytelling – not least given the number of threads that Martin develops at the same time and his ability to ensure that the reader never becomes confused or loses track of what’s going on and who is who.
... or your own direwolf

I still haven’t watched any of the TV version, but I am now aware of the look of it and the actors playing the main characters – and also some of the collectibles that are available. It is, as you may gather, my new favourite thing (just in time to be able to join in with all the comparisons between the stories and the state of British politics) .

The second book was the first thing into this year’s book pile – followed a short while later by the third – or to be strictly accurate, part one of the third instalment.

TH White’s The Once and Future King – his series of novels about King Arthur, including The Sword in the Stone – makes the pile: another that The Other Half is also likely to indulge in. I’ve spent years thinking that I should read some version of Arthurian legend and the time has come.

After a recommendation from a delightful Polish barista in a local coffee shop, I have just been reading – and thoroughly enjoying – The Last Wish, a collection of short stories featuring Geralt, the witcher of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Blood of Elves, the first full novel, is already waiting on the shelf, but that is for another time.

For a change of flavour, the holiday fantasy is joined by two Maigret novels and one collection of three modern Italian crime fiction novellas.

But I already know that, as we head south on Friday, it will be A Clash of Kings that will be the first tome to be opened. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Music to go

I believe that young people call this sort of thing 'skull candy'
Technology, when it works, can be brilliant. When it doesn’t work … it can make you wonder, with growing frustration, what happened to the idea that it was all supposed to make life easier.

I’ve written before about the travails of being a classical music listener dealing with iTunes, but it is getting no easier.

Last year, given both its age (and thus a sense of its limited life drawing inevitably toward an end) and the prices old ones were fetching online, I made the decision to mothball my classic iPod and get a new generation one.

Mistake. The new one is a pain – the biggest size at that time is barely able to hold my classical music collection, let alone anything else, and has not allowed for any growth.

It’s irritating to have it insisting on showing everything I’ve bought digitally so that I play it from ‘the cloud’. I’d barely bought any classical music digitally and stopped buying any music at all digitally some time ago.

I’ve stopped buying comics digitally too, because I’m bored with discovering that, when I want to read or listen to something, it is no longer where I had downloaded it to upon purchase, but I have to download or stream it again, from … The Cloud and possibly with additional costs.

Would anyone really accept buying a book from a bookshop and then finding, when you actually want to read it, the bookshop has taken it back and you have to go and get it again.

Why would I want to do any such thing with, say, a three disc opera while I’m on holiday, for instance?

So, the iPod classic has come out of mothballs and, over the last couple of days has polished and plugged in to the computer, after yet another struggle uploading the music I’ve bought in the last year (not actually a vast amount).

At over six years old, my computer works wonderfully. Well, sort of. Because it’s two months ‘too old’, it is no longer possible to upgrade the operating system and, therefore, much other software.

The classic un-mothballed, with Music Angel
In other words, it is becoming obsolete and I face having to buy a new one later this year. And because of changes to tech – and concomitant efforts to get people to store their stuff in The Bloody Cloud (or somebody’s else’s computer, as it actually is), I shall also need to buy a disc drive and then a multi-USB block so that I can have more than one peripheral attached at any one time.

Ah, the joys of consumerism and the ways in which, having conspired to ensure that we now need tech, we have to keep buying it (and more).

Anyway, all this makes adding in new music to my library just a bit more complex. No album cover art ever imports automatically; I have to do it manually, finding it on the internet. And then, of course, there’s the perennial problem of re-writing information so that you get some sense of organisation.

It makes sense with classical music to organise a collection by composer for the most part. In which case, every opera, for instance, needs retitling so that it reads: ‘Composer: opera; [disc number]’, otherwise your Puccinis are all over the shop and nobody wants that.

It’s worth noting that my music listening has been improved of late with the purchase of a new pair of headphones.

Now several years old, my Sennheiser plugs had taken to crackling madly on orchestral brass and percussion sections once I hit any sort of volume.

But here’s where the internet is wonderful: inevitably, there was a guide to be found to headphones for classical listeners – indeed, the one I found was at and is regularly updated.

After a detailed read, I ordered a pair – and although it’s meant moving away from plugs (but big ones are so on trend these days), the sumptuous quality of sound is more than enough compensation.

Something old ...
Interestingly, the new ones are Audio-Technica ATH-M50X studio monitor professional headphones – designed very much with DJs in mind – but the definition when listing to an orchestra (you can almost pick out individual instruments) is superb and makes you feel drawn right into the heart of the music.

In addition, I found a Music Angel – a diminutive speaker for an iPod, smartphone or tablet. It needs no batteries, running off the gadget itself, and while the sound is hardly earth-shattering, it’s a great way to ensure that you can play your music when you’re away from home and there is no need to keep your music to yourself.

And since it just jacks into your gadget, it's less likely to be rendered worthless by Apple changing stuff again. 

So now I’m musically set for the holiday – kitted out for travel and for our temporary residence.

Of course, having got such things working again, the temptation has been to buy some new music.

And something new
And the most recent additions to the collection include Hildegard von Bingen’s Canticles of Ecstasy from the Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music, conducted by Barbara Thornton, and the Danish String Quartet playing pieces by Thomas Adés (Arcadiana from 1994), Per Nørgård (Quartett Breve from 1952) and Hans Abrahamsen (10 Preludes from 1973).

You might suppose that, separated by ticking on for a thousand years, these lie at opposite ends of the musical spectrum.

However, they share a certain quality in their sparse, rather purifying sound, which creates an introspective, meditative state of mind – a musical cleansing after too much (if that’s possible) 19th century symphonic richness.

As such, both make very welcome additions to my collection.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Break out the Bolly – Ab Fab's back

If the film version of Absolutely Fabulous isn’t the greatest comedy ever made, then at the end of a week in which the UK went completely bonkers, it was pretty much perfect Friday evening entertainment.

It’s extraordinary to remember that the TV show first saw the light of day in 1992, but it’s been with us, on and off, ever since.

Now, finally, it reaches the big screen.
Essentially 90 minutes of sketches, all written by Jennifer Saunders, we see Eddy (Saunders herself) and Patsy (Joanna Lumley) fleeing to the south of France after apparently killing supermodel Kate Moss.

This time, they have to rely on Saffy’s daughter, the street wise Lola (Indeyarna Donaldon-Holness), to help them work out how to escape, since the intervening years have not made the duo any more sensible.

It has some laugh-out-loud moments, but is mostly at the level of inspiring a wide grin while watching.

A few brief existential moments from Eddy are probably the weakest aspects of the film, which is also incredibly indulgent in terms of the guest stars and cameos.

But the script has plenty to enjoy, with plenty of jokes about modern life, from people who say ‘totes’ or ‘O.M.G.’ to the problems of social media and being ‘trollied’ to sex changes. And of course, the world of fashion is a gift to comedy.

Julia Sawalha is back as Saffy, along with June Whitfield as Mother.

It moves at a pace and ends with a nod to Hollywood’s greatest comedy, Some Like It Hot.

If the sum of the parts is not entirely fabulous, one of those parts most certainly is.

Lumley lights up the screen every time she appears: gurning and sneering her way through increasingly improbable situations, bolstered by Bolly, fangs, drugs and self-injected Botox.

Thank goodness the years have not taken a toll on Patsy – a new dose of her sheer awfulness is worth the admission alone.