Tuesday, 13 February 2007

the threatened reflections on walking sticks

Not that I want to take a lot of your time up on this, but walking sticks are funny beasts. For reasons too simple, and yet too tedious, to go into here, I have a smashed up knee of great vintage. So for a while I was on crutches and then I graduated to a cane, and after a while I graduated to limping a bit when the weather was bad. Over the years, I moved to walking with a stick if I had to go any distance. I suppose it's been about a dozen years since I first had to buy a stick, when I was going to Africa from time to time and I needed something I could lean on when I worked my way through the undergrowth. Before that I'd occasionally used a stick at cocktail parties.

People, I discovered, don't really take in much about the people around them. I would go to cocktail parties, which are a straightforward hell of standing up talking to people who you wouldn't normally talk to, and the standing up would get tired pretty quick. So I learned to bring the stick. And I learned that people - the same people each time, as a rule - would ask me again and again what "I had done to myself?". Always that formula, as though any harm which had befallen me had been the result of some masochistic impulse. And no matter how many times I would cheerfully brush it aside with a comment about the source of the injury - or a joke, when talking to Britz, about how a lot of people had these injuries where I grew up - I would have some version of the same conversation with the same people a few weeks later at the next party.

It has become, over time, one of the things by which I judge other people. I don't always need the stick, so it's an intermittent presence in my life, depending on weather, other accidents intervening and how much I've pushed myself. And pretty much, I have divided the world into the people who remember that this is the case, and the people who don't. I don't tell myself that one group is good, and the other is bad, because life is neither so simple nor so built around my whims. But I do conclude that whether or not they're good people, the ones who remember are at least interested enough in me as a person to remember that I am an occasional gimp. They might be good, they might be bad, they might have my interests at heart or just their own, but they were sufficiently interested in me to recall from one meeting to the next something which is, after all, rather obvious. These are, for my purposes, serious people. I will treat them seriously. I will listen to what they say, for they are paying attention to me. The others - well I daresay it never occurs to them that I'm not returning their calls, let alone to wonder why it might be so.

I've been with stick more than without the last few weeks and I have to say that the people I find myself among are more serious people than I've been used to meeting. They notice, and they care. And I notice that, and conduct myself accordingly, but what is striking me these days is how very nice people are to you in Ireland when they sense that things are hard for you. I get a lot of smiles as I hobble my way around, and people hold doors open for me. It gives me some hope for when I'm old. Or are they just scared I will hit them with the stick?

There are two other reflections. I still have an ebonite stick which I bought precisely because it was black and shiny and looked nice. I will never forget the reaction it once got from a small child in a village in Ethiopia. She couldn't take her eyes off it, and it slowly sank in on me that she knew what it was for, but had never seen one so black and polished. There are very few things in Africa in which a child can see a reflection. It was one of a thousand sobering moments, but since I still have the stick, it's one which stays with me even now.

The other is funnier. Since the Africa times my preferred stick is a metal folding one, since it's easier to manage in a vehicle. The unintended corollary is that everyone, but particularly men, is fascinated to watch it unfold. They're a commonplace for old people and I think that people would be embarassed even to mention them to someone older, but someone my age with a stick is an oddity, and people feel permitted to ask. Inevitably it reminds everyone of that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the apparent torture implement which turns out to be a coat hanger. It's nice to give people a laugh. I wonder what we would say about it if that scene had never been filmed.

Monday, 12 February 2007

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Lord knows it's not a promising title, but it's the first book I've read in a while which made me feel like saying something about it in semi-public.

I have a problem with fantasy writing. With a few exceptions, it leaves me cold. Generally, it all seems to me to be variations on a single gag; draw a world which will fit conveniently into a two page map, and then drag your characters through it from one end to the other so that you can show it all off along the way. Always the man of destiny shows up with no clue, so that everything has to be explained to him, and no friends or allies, so that all the other characters can explain themselves to him, and above all, at the wrong end of the planet, so that he has to trudge through many adventures to get to the climax three books later and do the needful.

I blame Tolkien, or rather I blame the people who read Tolkien and like it so much that they want to do it all over again themselves, But just once it would be nice to read a fantasy novel where the man of destiny is already in charge, and right on the spot, on familiar ground and ready to do something immediately.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is not that novel. But it's good enough that it doesn't need to be.

Locke Lamora is a crook. So is practically everyone else in the book. He earns his dishonest livelihood in a city which resembles a Venice gone bonkers, and he is completely in control of his affairs and smarter than most of the people around him. The action does not really leave the city, and no-one goes to some place where things are unfamilar and where the quaint natives will have to explain what's going on. In other words, in terms of structure and logistics, this book couldn't possibly be more unlike the usual let's all go on a quest hernia inducing seven hundred page monster. For that alone, even if it was dreadful, it would deserve some kind of applause.

However, it's also quite well written. I'm not claiming that it's Dostoevsky (I'm not even claiming that I've read Dostoevsky), but the characters are sketched in at least as well as they would have been in a good detective story and the dialogue reads well - it's more clever than the way people talk, but not unbearably so. And the city is well imagined; nothing's too far over the top, there's never a moment when you find yourself thinking "But hang on, how would that really work out in practice?" and it's laid out for you cleverly - there are little flashbacks to give you back story on the main characters, and the explanations of the various parts of the city are handled straightforwardly by the narrator as he sketches in the mise en scene, rather than hammered down your neck for you by the characters explaining things to you. It's a sly narratorial voice, a simple idea which I wish more people would experiment with. After all, a book is a story, and it must have a teller. When there's a ton of background - and in an invented world there always will be - sometimes it's best, let alone easiest, to let the author's voice come to the fore and deal with things rather than cook up situations which will allow exposition to do the same job in three times the space.

But this is by the by. The important thing is that Locke Lamora works very well as a book. You care what happens, the characters are real enough for the job, and the author is neither too sentimental to shy away from moments of real unpleasantness nor so sadistic as to revel in him. He is telling a story of rough tough people doing rough tough things. People get hurt - often people get hurt who the usual laws of narrative would protect. There are a number of moments when you go hang on, that character's been built up way too much for that to happen to him out of the blue. But so it goes, and when the remaining cast respond their cruelty makes perfect sense without being any more comfortable to watch.

It's the first of a "sequence", which suggests an author with things on his mind but perhaps not a clear idea of what comes next. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens.

New cameras

With much smuggling and other insidious plotting, I finally have the camera I was talking about last year. It has come all the way from America, but I am such an incredibly stupid person that it did not occur to me to buy any memory to put into it, so I have an extremely high quality paperweight for the present. This is mostly because I am away in Galway and didn't get a chance in the brief return to Dublin to go and buy camera memory or UV filters. Still, in principle I am now in a position to return to the photography of old.

It's not really that worth commenting on, except that nostalgia or something had me dig out one of my old 35mm photography books and I was looking through the darkroom techniques it was laying out. I never had the capacity to do dark room stuff in the days when I carried a real camera, and so I had never really got any experience to echo back against when I first saw what Photoshop filters would do. Solarisation and posterisation seemed well, just part of the general purpose wonderfulness of computing - sure, of course the programme can systematically change the hue values for each pixel to create that effect.

Well, it genuinely is that "simple" for Photoshop, but as I read through the accounts of darkroom technique it sank in on me how very far from simple it was to do it in the pre-digital age. Solarisation - which is pretty much a single menu choice in Photoshop - involved a lot of very tedious intermediate steps in a darkroom. The same is true of a lot of the other filters. And the masking techniques and contrast improvement stunts you can do in Photoshop also have their analogues in the real world, and very laborious they were too.

All of somewhat academic interest for me. I'm a bear of little brain and my interest in photo software reaches as far as, "can this clean up this image?" and "how does cropping work?" It's not that I'm some disciple of the purity of the original moment, more that I don't have enough imagination to reach beyond it. I either get it right when I catch the shot, or I try to retrieve what I thought I saw - I don't seem to have whatever it takes to look beyond that. Which is perhaps all to the good. In the end, it's not the camera, it's the eye. You have to see the composition and the moment which make the shot worthwhile. And you should know enough about the basic physics of what you're doing to use the controls properly, so as to tweak the light a little bit when the simple mindedness of the camera insists on shooting what's there instead of what you see. I tell myself that I've spent a ton of money in an effort to get a tool which will let me do that without getting in my way. Time will tell if I was fooling myself.

Arms and the man I sing

The leg begins to mend. This is a violation of the karmic inevitability of my life, so on Thursday I slipped on the steps of the temporary command bunker and came down with an amazing crash. Although my back, my skull and an expensive latop computer were all available to take the hit, my weight all seems to have landed on my left arm - fortuitous, since I need my right arm to work my walking stick. One day of really quite distracting pain and then a weekend of mild pain and distraction in the shape of a streaming cold. Monday has dawned and the nagging suspicion that I may have done some damage to my elbow joint. It will be a while before I can really check. And perhaps it's just nerves.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

A month of silence

Surely I must have been off putting all my ideas on war and destruction into action? What other explanation could there be for the break in the unending tedious posts about painting models of things which don't exist? No, wait, the almost complete absence of unexplained regime change suggests that I've just been sitting on my ass doing a whole bunch of nothing at all.

Not much of a good explanation. I went back to work was a big chunk of it. Suddenly, less time needed to be filled with self-important meandering on things which attracted my gadfly interest. I was back at work. The day was full. Admittedly, the day was full of pointless typing and even more pointless efforts to keep a straight face as people with better educations than me said things which you'd just HOPE they were smart enough to regret later. But that can be tiring in its own silly way - and it doesn't leave a whole bunch of energy over for footling things like this blog.

Still even work palls after a while, and just as I was getting back into my stride and generally kicking ass and taking names, or at least avoiding the dreaded backlog, my new shiny career pulled an unexpected switcheroo.

In my previous line of work, there weren't many days when I felt I'd got ahead of the pack of wolves on my tail, but reliably, when those days dawned, bear appeared on the flanks.

Der neue arbeit, not so much. I came back to an ugly backlog thanks to the great knee crumbling incident, and it took about two weeks to beat it into submission. There then followed two weeks of perfect harmony as I maintained an almost zen like balance of work. In my old life, this would have been the signal for someone to drop dead, either there or in some sandpit someplace, triggering off a scramble to get on top of the new situation and well, work.

Here, it was the signal for me to sent to the colonies to bring modern high specification services to the undeserving natives. So here I sit in a hotel bar in Galway, having been more or less driven out of my hotel room by the cold. Forster Court Hotel, what is your insane heating policy? Enquiring minds want to know. Maybe I should ask at the desk instead of complaining here. No, wait, that would be counter to my national ethos. I should grumble and blame the Britz.

Although I haven't figured out yet how the Britz would be to blame for this, they have somehow rendered the quaint natives of this charming town curiously resistant to our improved and cutting edge service. With the result that eight people have come up to this burg, set up our tents in the local office and been greeted by a stubborn refusal actually to make us perform. I get paid the same way either way and it's not like my intellectual contribution to anything is a dealbreaker, but the guys I sit in front of are heavy hitters and bringing them all this way to sit in the inner office waiting for a call to action which is not going to come seems, well, a waste of resources. It also leaves me with time hanging heavy on my hands. And so to this.

The bike accident - well, it continues to have its wicked way with me. While ironically enough it's easy enough to ride a bike, walking is still the very devil. Watch this space for a wry reflection on the odd responses a folding walking stick can trigger off when people aren't used to seeing you with one and don't know you very well to begin with.