Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from June 2006

It’s a telly phenomenon

In which we refuse to watch the football

Apparently there’s some sort of international football competition coming around again. I’m going to do my best, after this post, not to mention it. As I might have said in the past, I don’t care about football at all. Neither does Big Dave, even though if you met him you’d probably expect him to be a supporter.* If there’s one thing both me and Big Dave dislike more than football, though, it’s the assumption that even though we don’t like football we must be interested in the World Cup. We get funny looks just because we don’t give a toss whether England win or lose.

People do seem really surprised if you tell them you don’t care at all about it. Even people who aren’t football supporters, and who would never normally watch football. They say things like: “But it’s the World Cup!”

“Yes, I know! It’s football! I hate football!”

“But England are playing! You’re English! You have to support England! You have to at least watch the England matches.”**

“Um … no, I don’t. It’s football. I hate football. Just because I don’t want to watch football on the telly doesn’t mean I’m suddenly Not Really English.” And at that point they usually give up, and look at me a bit oddly for the rest of the day. They don’t seem to get that I just don’t care about football, any football.

So, I’m not going to watch it, or write about it. The only thing that will get me to watch England playing in it, is if somebody ties me up in front of the telly so I can’t get away from it. A cruel torture indeed.

* he would fit right into the traditional football-supporting demographic without too much trouble – especially if, like me, you only saw him in a shirt and tie at work, so didn’t realise that he doesn’t wear sportswear at home.

** all, ooh, three of them.

Books I Haven’t Read (part five)

In which we fail to complete Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross

Books I Haven’t Read was supposed to be a regular sequence of articles, but has been on pause since – ooh, last November, by the look of things. It fell by the wayside because of a post I never wrote, about a book I couldn’t finish because I came across a passage in it which seemed to have been blatantly lifted from an obscure Victorian memoir. I’ll manage to write about it, one day. In the meantime, here’s another book I haven’t read. Iron Sunrise by Charlie Charles Stross.

I’m not someone who reads much SF, but I do read some selected things. Iain M Banks, for example, because I liked his Iain Banks books* and wanted to expand. Neal Stephenson, because I liked his historical novels and, well, ditto. And Charlie Stross, because – although I don’t know him – we used to drink in the same pubs.

So, last July, I was heading down to London for work, for a week. Planning it all in advance, I bought an unread Stross book – Iron Sunrise – to read on the train. I was catching the train down to Kings Cross on Sunday, July 10th.

I got onboard my train at Doncaster and opened the book, hoping that it would distract me from worry. Unfortunately, it opens with a mass terrorism attack, one which destroys an entire planet. I struggled to read it until Peterborough, and gave up. I haven’t looked at it since then.

At the time, I didn’t even make the connection as to why I couldn’t read it. The planet-destroying opening was distressing for me to read, with characters in the midst of planning their lives, suddenly realising that their world is being completely destroyed. I didn’t draw the parallel, though, between the characters in the book, and the friend I was worried about.*** The thought would have been too raw at the time. Looking back, though, the connection is obvious.

I’m planning to go down to London again in a few weeks, and I’ve bought a different Stross book to read this time. Hopefully, I’ll be able to. Hopefully, too, I’ll be able to finish Iron Sunrise one day. I’m not sure I’m ready to try reading it again, though.

* in case you’ve never heard of him: he writes his SF books with his middle initial,** and his “literary” ones without.

** although you might think it would be easier to write them with a word-processor.

*** The characters in the book – at least, the ones who were worth writing about – realised exactly what was happening to them. I still hope, whenever I think about her, that the friend I’m talking about here didn’t know what was happening to her. Back on that train, it seemed certain that she must be still alive and in hospital unidentified somewhere.

The Audience (part one)

Or, you are reading these words

When I write things here, I don’t think about who might be reading them. Most of the time, I write posts to entertain an itch in my head. I get it down in words, and then I forget about it. The readers, if I do think about them, are the crowd of maybe 20 people who I know personally, who I know read this site fairly regularly.*

It’s a bit of a surprise to realise that other people do read and follow what I write. The other day, for example. I was sitting around in a club, one of those places where there are lots of people whose faces look somewhat familiar, but you don’t actually know them. One of those people – I’m sure I’ve seen him somewhere before, but it would take me a few minutes to remember where – joined in the conversation. Before long, he said, to me: “I remember you blogged about that.”

All I could do was nod, in a slightly surprised way. But, really, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. These words are out in public, after all. There are a couple of sites on the net that have both a photo of me** and a link to this blog; and nearly all the customers of the club we were in have an account on one of them. Nevertheless, I was rather surprised, because I’d never have dreamed that some random stranger who I’d barely talked to before would have seen my photo online, read the blog, and remembered it well enough to then recognise me in a dark nightclub.

This is all extra-silly, though, because I do the same thing myself. So I shouldn’t be surprised when it happens to me. In fact, that same night, I had a conversation with someone else I barely know, where I was the one saying “oh, I read that on your blog.” That story, though, can wait for another day.

* either because they have linked to me, or because they know me in real life, or because I know they follow the links to this site from other places I’m active online.

** although I am very used to people saying “ooh, you don’t look like your photo at all!” There is even a photo I’m in somewhere on this site, but it’s not captioned.


In which we refuse to get superstitious about the date

I like to think that I’m a sensible, rational, clear-thinking person.

It’s not always the case, though. For example, I’m the sort of person who likes to watch their car mileometer trip over to a nice round number. I’ll spend half a mile looking from the road to the clock and back again so I can watch it change from 15,999 to 16,000. And, similarly, there’s a nice symmetry about today’s date: 06/06/06.*

That’s all it is, though. Symmetry. I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently bad about today’s date, just because if you take out the zeros it looks rather like a number mentioned in one of the stranger parts of the Bible. In the news, there are reports of superstitious mothers desperate not to give birth today, just in case they give their child bad luck – or, even worse, if he turns out to be the Antichrist. If they believe in all that, they should probably avoid watching the remake of The Omen that comes out today too.**

The apocalyptic parts of the Bible – particularly, Daniel and the Revelation – are cryptic to read. They were written for two very specific audiences, who would have understood the references and the context. They weren’t written for believers of a radically different religion, a couple of thousand years later. Naïeve, literal readings are always going to be misreadings, because they are impossible to do sensibly – a literal reading of apocalyptic literature cannot be done unless you believe that the world will suddenly change into one of magical fantasy. I wonder if, in a couple of thousand years’ time, C S Lewis’s The Last Battle will in the same way become misunderstood religious doctrine, because it, too, is an apocalypse, in both senses of the word.***

* If nothing else, it means Americans can’t get it the wrong way round. I’m still wondering why they keep going on about November 9th, because I don’t remember anything interesting happening then.

** Not just because they’ll believe it all, but because it’s probably not as good as the original anyway.

*** Plus, it’s got a better plot.

End of the week again (no, really)

In which we set up something geeky

It does come around fast, doesn’t it? Here it is, a beautiful day outside, a clear blue sky, and here I am sat inside updating the blog. Still, it’s almost too hot and sunny to go out. What I could really do with: a laptop, a wireless card, and a deckchair, so I could sit in the shady bit at the bottom of the garden, surfing the web with a nice big G&T. I can’t sit in the sunshine, I burn too easily.

I’m actually going away for the weekend. Well, I haven’t gone away yet, but I’ve booked an exotic hotel for the night, in the hope of getting to bed before dawn. I’m off out for the day tomorrow, you see, and I thought I may as well spend £50 on a headstart.

Geek news: I’ve been having fun setting up MRTG on the home computer network. NB: if you do not know what this means, do not worry – that is probably a Good Thing. The main thing it means to me is: lots of pointless graphs to look at.

My PC's CPU activity

All that information is completely useless, and unnecessary to have, but when you’re a geek that’s not the point. It will be useful if I ever bother to get it set up properly at work.

Plans of going away for the weekend reminded me that I don’t have many good luggage bags. I could really do with a nice multi-purpose over-the-shoulder bag that I can stuff with luggage when I’m setting off, and then use as a day bag when I’m off doing touristy things. If I could also use it as a makeshift gadget bag when I’m out with the camera, that would be an extra too. Something like a record bag would be good, but they’re an awkward shape for anything apart from 12″ singles – good for carrying about an A-Z, a couple of books and a notepad, but I couldn’t fit much camera kit in one. A proper photographic gadget bag would be expensive – and they’re mostly either rucksacks, or a bit ugly-looking – and a magical chest with lots of little feet would definitely be overkill. So, any better suggestions gratefully received. And now, I’m off away to pack.


In which we look at the concept of eternal rest

In the news recently: the government is making moves to reuse old burial plots, to deal with the problem of overcrowded graveyards. People are, naturally, a bit shocked at the idea of disturbing one’s eternal rest, especially given the synchronicity between this news and the reburial of Gladys Hammond.

However – and I bet you could tell I was about to say this – the idea that the grave represents your eternal rest is a relatively new one, dating from the late 18th century. It’s in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that all the world’s great cemetaries were opened – Old Calton Hill in Edinburgh, designed around David Hume’s mausoleum; Highgate; Kensal Green; Père Lachaise; the Glasgow Necropolis. Prior to that, the grave was normally a temporary place of rest, unless you were an important person.* After noone around could remember you, up came your skeleton, to go into the local charnel house.** In The Name Of The Rose, set in the 14th century, a charnel house (of sorts) plays an important part in the plot.*** The most famous example, nowadays, is probably the ossuary near the Czech town of Kutná Hora.

All this seemed to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people started to think of the grave as the eternal resting place. Possibly this was connected with the rise of rationalism – people started to care a lot more about the treatment of the body after death, when previously they’d been confident that the treatment of the soul was more important. It led, in turn, to the modern funeral industry, described by Jessica Mitford in The American Way Of Death**** and Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One. The body has become the overriding focus of funeral rituals, and we forget that only a couple of hundred years ago, exhuming the skeleton and reusing the grave was the normal way of life and death.

* If you were important enough to be a saint, of course, bits of your body could end up all over the place.

** Somewhere I have a book of traditional English folk-tales, in which the parish charnel house often plays an important part – persuading someone to go inside at the dead of night, with someone in there already pretending to be a ghost, and that sort of thing.

*** Spoiler: it’s also a secret passageway (highlight to reveal).

**** Originally published in the 1960s, but with a sequel written in the 1990s.

Grace and favour

In which we give people free houses

There’s been an awful lot in the news recently about John Prescott and Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour country house he’s just given up. Which set me wondering: why do we have to have state-owned mansions for ministers anyway?

It’s not as if it’s an ancient tradition. Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country estate, has belonged to the government since the First World War. Dorneywood was given to the government in the last 1940s, and Chevening, normally the official residence of the Foreign Secretary,* has only been used by the government since 1980. The whole idea – giving ministers stately homes to play with, so they can look suitably upper-class when they want to,** is very much a modern one.

Now, I can see why ministers might need somewhere to go and relax, to entertain visitors. Do they really need their own mansions, though? The German federal government owns a big hotel just outside Bonn for that reason.*** The Scottish First Minister lives in a National Trust for Scotland place,**** a Georgian townhouse in central Edinburgh. Why does the British government need a whole portfolio of country houses for its ministers to live in?

* but, at the time of writing, the official residence of Jack Straw; he got to stay on there when he was demoted.

** see also: playing croquet.

*** Pointless boast: I played in a concert there once. It’s a lovely place, if a bit ornate for my taste.

**** note that the National Trust for Scotland is completely unrelated to the English, Welsh and Northern Irish one.