Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: My Reading Year

This year, my reading rate was much reduced - a mere 71 books - although some of those have been quite hefty ones.  The last one I read was  The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and is due out in the UK in a couple of days.  I highly recommend.  It is about a scientist who goes to a remote island and encounters their people who are extraordinarily long-lived.  The character of the scientist is revealed through his journal, which is being edited by one of his acolytes, so the reader knows from the outset that the account is likely to be biassed.  The evocation of the academic scientist is well done (and satisfyingly nuanced), and descriptions of the tropical forest are poetically economic and vivid.  An impressive debut novel.

I've read quite a bit of experimental fiction this year too: Umbrella by Will Self and A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.  The Self I'd tried before and although I'd been taken with the writing had become distracted by some other reading and not finished it.  I decided to give it another go and I was glad I did.  The story twists around various viewpoints, sometimes in mid-sentence, which gives the narrative a unique vigour (as well as keeping the reader (or in my case, listener) on her toes.  I always enjoy a good asylum story, and liked the way this one dealt with the angst of the psychiatrist as well as the patient and covered new aspects of the phenomenon described by Oliver Sachs in  Awakenings (when Dopamine proved to be effective (to varying degrees) in waking people from a infection-induced coma).  Excellent stuff. 

The McBride book I'd bought after reading something written by another man called Self - this time the blogger 'John Self' in Asylum.  It took me a little time to warm to A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.  At first I thought it was a modern day version of the Irish MisLit (the stream of consciousness style was surprisingly easy to read) but it grew to be more than this - well written, unusual and moving - about a sister's relationship with her dying brother.  

I've also read some very interesting non-fiction books on history and also genetics.  I learnt a lot about genetics from a meaty textbook: Introduction to Genetic Analysis by Anthony J F Griffiths et al (which I'm proud of myself for reading)

and also The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey 

and My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank - both fascinating and well worth reading.

Perhaps the most unusual book I read was Silkworm Rearing by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations which I enjoyed so much I bought and read its companion volume Silkworm Diseases and now have my eye on another in the series on silkworm egg production to savour later.  I recommend all these books to aspiring silkworm farmers everywhere.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Winter Watch: Chester, December 12th 2013

We caught up with the Winter Watch Parade in Eastgate Street: a snow man and a Father Christmas

out of scale.  Out of time, perhaps.  And what followed - the Round Heads and the Cavaliers -

were out of time too.  For the Winter Watch  stems from medieval times (1400s) before there was any question of divine rights, or friendly men in red suits and children were too busy perhaps to spare much time for snowmen.  The world was filled with strange, unknowable things back then, and in the Winter Watch Parade they come back to haunt us again.  A Gothic band, for instance

and further on, at the top of Bridge Street,  a man eating fire.

Sometimes it was hard to tell where the audience stopped and the parade began.

The parade marched down Bridge Street and then marched back up again.  Had the keys of the city passed from the Watch to the Lord Mayor by then? Was the city safe?  For this was the point of it all: a final tour to check the gates before Christmas.  Once more around the walls to check all was well.  And here comes a drummer

And here a ghostly angel and a knight in sharp focus

And here a procession of angels leading to the cross and the medieval church beyond.  St Peters occupying the same site as it would have then, when the first keys were exchanged.

Behind the angels, a dragon looking for his knight.

And then the stars and moon: those, at least, are constant,

red-clad children

and sinister dark beasts - apparent only because of the light they stole before the band at the rear.

A dash up Northgate Street and there is a chance to see it all again, and catch up with the part we missed:  the dragon's head

the snow queen

a conversation between some ice people and the master of ceremonies.

And here are Father Christmas and the snow man again, like two incongruous Christmas cake decorations brought out year after year, waiting while the rest of the parade pass into the Forum shopping centre

while the drummers play - loudly and ever more frantically

until, at last, the snowmen and Father Christmas are upended too.  Into the box with the tinsel, the lights, the dragon-heads, stars, angels and drums.  Ready for another year.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturnalia: Chester, December 19th 2013

Last Thursday Roman legionnaires took over the city again.  We heard them first along Pepper Street

marching through the 'Newgate' (an Anglo-Saxon edifice south of the Roman wall).  Musicians in bearskins led the men away from the ruins of the amphitheatre - this was not a night for fighting-

for them to assemble in the blue glow of the Cruise nightclub on St John's Street

before marching back through the Eastgate onto the site of a real Roman road, the via principalis, nowadays known as Eastgate Street

with its appropriately-named shop illuminating a modern-day Bella Italia.

The soldiers were called to order

under the regard of a well-chosen caesar

their torches lit

the great god Saturn proclaimed

and the Lord of Misrule (captured on camera by Hodmandod Senior)

 ('Watch out, he's mad!) released to the crowds

and the procession of soldiers,

Romans and barbarians continued to the cross and the via praetoria (Bridge Street) for the start of the feasting.

This was the last of the Christmas processions though the streets of Chester.  Now that the keys of the city have been transferred in the Winter Watch, the streets lit in the lantern parade and even the Roman god appeased, the citizens of Chester are free to enjoy Christmas in peace.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Saving Ripper Street

Ripper Street is an unusual drama.  It is a crime series set in Victorian London, and each episode features some gruesome murder and a scene or two of violence. A few of the actors could do with enunciating their words just a little more clearly because Hodmandod Senior and I find ourselves guessing our way through some of their conversations - but that is just like real life, I guess, and maybe adds to the authenticity.

Despite this, Ripper Street has become a highlight of my week.  The characterisation is complex, interesting and convincing, the plot is absorbing and I like the way some of the more weird Victorian-age motifs are incorporated e.g. the elephant-man and the introduction of electricity into London.  I also like the way the people speak - when I can hear them, that is - their vocabulary is slightly off-beat and sounds like it could be how people spoke just then.  In other words - excellent writing!

Unfortunately, few people seem to have heard of it.  The first series was shown on a Sunday night, and this series is being shown on a Monday - against the incredibly popular 'I'm a Celebrity...' It therefore had very little chance to draw an audience - and hasn't, apparently.  The BBC are therefore cutting it - a big shame!

Here is a clip

and here is an on-line petition to the BBC to save the programme. Please sign it to save some great writing.