Sunday, 9 December 2012

'Books ought to have good endings...'

Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

From Hobbiton to the Old Forest

With all of the excitement about The Hobbit at the moment, I decided to get into the action and re-read The Lord of the Rings (it makes sense to me!).  Although I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read, or been read, the story, it has been at least six years, and my memories have become clouded by the movies.  Also, this will make the first time I’ve read the book in Oxford (a.k.a. Tolkien-town). I don’t know if that is significant, but it might be.

So, I slid my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring out of the slipcase and got to work.  My copy is part of the tenth printing of the second (revised) edition put out by Houghton Mifflin Co.  It is copyright 1965, but I’m not sure of the printing date. I bought it while working in a used and antiquarian bookstore in Chapel Hill.  I don’t think it is in anyway valuable, but it is a very nice edition.  The dust jacket has only the title and author, in a runic box, on a mottled background.  The book itself is bound in cloth boards, with a foil embossed graphic of the ring and the Eye of Sauron surrounded by Elvish script.  Each of the three volumes has a roughly folded map attached to the inside back cover.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve managed to read the first hundred pages or so, and it has been like revisiting an old friend.  Many people, when they first read The Lord of the Rings, find the opening long and dull.  I can understand this. There is so much action to come, it is easy to get impatient to get there; but now that I’m a bit older, wiser, and more learned in the ways of Middle-Earth, I am able to take it as it comes and enjoy the beauty of Tolkien’s prose and his powers of creation.  This part of the book shares a pleasure similar to putting your feet in front of a warm fire on a cold winter’s evening.

Although I’ve been blessed with a pretty good memory, especially when it comes to reading, it is amazing how much I’ve forgotten in just six years.  Do you remember that at one point Gandalf actually holds the ring? Yup, he picks it up out of the fire to reveal the writing.  Do you remember Rory Brandybuck, the one hobbit at the birthday party who doesn’t take Bilbo’s disappearance as prank, but thinks there is something bigger at work? Do you remember that over seventeen years  pass after Bilbo leaves before Frodo sets off?  Well, if you don’t, it’s probably time for another reading!

I accept and understand why Peter Jackson left so much out of the movies, especially the sections set in Hobbiton, but there is a lot of richness there.  The first encounters with the Black Riders, the Hobbits meeting Gildor Inglorion, the generosity of farmer Maggot. I do also give credit to Peter Jackson for working back in little elements of pieces that had to be left out.  In The Return of the King movie, Pippin sings a song to Denethor, the words of which come from a song sung by the Hobbits as they are walking in Hobbiton.  In my opinion, it’s one of the best moments in the movie.

I'm only just setting out.  It makes me happy to know that I’ve got 300 pages more in this volume and two more volumes to follow.  I plan to finish The Fellowship before Christmas, and leave the other two for 2013.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Crashed Out

Well, I’m done cycling for the week and possibly for the rest of the year.

I came off my bike again this morning.  I was rounding a corner at the bottom of a hill when I hit a patch of invisible ice, and the wheels went out from under me.  My left knee hit first, followed by my hands, and I ended up sliding a on my belly for a meter or two. Thankfully, it was on an infrequently used backstreet, and there was no traffic.

My first thought was to panic over my recently healed shoulder, but a quick check seemed to confirm that it was fine.  My knee and right wrist, however, were not so good.  I dragged the bike off the road and sat down on a nearby bench, just as the shock set in.  For a few minutes, I was light-head and nauseous, but it passed.  Then I checked my parts. My knee had a serious bruise but seemed to work okay.  My wrist had full movement but hurt when I applied pressure. 

I pushed the bike the last mile to work, where I gratefully collapsed into my chair.  A few painkillers got me through the day, and now I’m safely at home, banged up, but I think uninjured.

For now, I’ve had enough.  Earlier this year I was very lucky that when I broke my shoulder it didn’t prevent me from going to Africa.  Considering how much I’m looking forward to flying home for Christmas in a few weeks, I just don’t want to risk it.  Even more than usual in the winter, Oxford is a very wet place at the moment.  At 7AM when I set off to work, there is a lot of frost on the ground, and thin sheets of ice everywhere.  My cycle route is mainly over back roads and little used cycle paths, which are prone to puddles and standing water. 

I will reassess if the weather warms up a little, but for now, I’ll grab my book and take the bus.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Postman by David Brin

While perusing the bookstore this weekend, I noticed that Orbit has released a new edition of David Brin’s The Postman. Since I have been meaning to read the book for years, I figured this was a good excuse to pick it up.  

While I enjoyed the book, it fell far short of the classic for which I was hoping. The first half of the book is a fun, tense story of survival, discovery, and the dawning of hope for new future, but the second half bogs down in a mish-mash of different themes and ideas that don’t completely seem to fit together. I got the impression that the author didn’t fully know where the book was going, and perhaps forced it to its conclusion instead of letting it fully develop.

Still, I read the book in less than three days, so it certainly pulled me along and kept me entertained.  In the rather thin sub-genre of post-apocalyptic works, it probably stands as one of the better ones, but in the larger world of science-fiction and fantasy, it certainly doesn’t crack the top 100. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Water, Water Everywhere...

As predicted, the Thames burst its banks yesterday and has made a mess of some parts of Oxford. On my cycle to work, I passed by vast fields which had become shallow lakes and the river itself, which had wiped away the footpath next to it, and spread wide in all directions. At one point, the road was flooded away, although thankfully at a point that I could easily go around. Several other side roads had been closed because of flooding.

Thankfully, it looks as though the Thames has peaked. No more rain is expected in the next few days, either here or to the west from whence the Thames originates.

The news, however, is not as hopeful for the English Midlands.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Dear Santa Claus

by Thomas Nast

Dear Santa,

I know it is only November, but I figured that with the millions of letters you receive every year, it might be nice to get some early, so that you can get a head-start on preparing for the ‘Big Night’.
The truth is, I’ve been pretty good this year. Not perfect by any means. I’m sure I could have been more charitable, more helpful, and more understanding at times, but I’ve done my best.

I know the global economy hasn’t been great these last few years, and I suspect that even the power of Christmas magic might be going through a rough-patch, so I have tried to keep my Christmas requests small.  Any of the following items would make a great gift that I would be happy to receive come Christmas day.

1.  A really good Phillips head screwdriver. Standard size. Over the last few years, this has been my most used tool, and the head on the poor quality one I have is starting to lose shape. I’d love to have a proper one that will last me for a decade or two.

2. Midshipman’sHope by David Feintuch.  I read this book as a teenager and loved it.  I think it is time to give it another try and see if it has stood the test of time.

3. I’ve been on a bit of a Jason and the Argonauts kick this year, and I’d love to do some more exploration on the subject.  To that end, I’d love to receive The Orphic Argonautica by Jason Colavito and/or The Jason Voyage by Tim Severin.

4. Some rechargeable energizer batteries.  I already have the charger, but don’t seem to have quite enough batteries. I could use a pack of AA and/or AAA.

5.  Ungor Beastman Box Set. While I’m currently trying to reduce the number of miniatures I own, especially unpainted ones, I’d love got get a box of these guys to use as Satyrs to fight against my Greek Heroes.

6. Cross Refills. With my new, expanded editing duties at work, the red pen ink is flowing faster than ever!  Unfortunately, you can’t just pick up red cartridges for a Cross pen in most stationary stores.

It's a small list, but hopefully there are a few items you might have in stock.  If not, anything involving space ships will probably go down well.  Looking forward to seeing you.  Hope everything runs smooth this year.


Mr. R. Troll

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Quick Thoughts

- I've been playing around with the look of the Troll.  I decided it was time to give it a slightly more 'Renaissancey' look. At the same time, I wanted to make it a little easier to read and increase the size of the main body column so that I could display pictures a bit larger. What do you think?

- I missed Miniature Friday, so here's a little shot of 'Sharky'.  In my humble opinion, this figure is one of the best sculpts in Games Workshop's Lord of the Rings line. True, I think this little guy looks a little too cool to be 'Sharky', but instead, looks more like a classic depiction of Merlin. Either way, it's an amazing little figure and huge fun to paint.

- My last post, about sci-fi universes, has just gotten its 500th hit, making it the Troll's most popular blog. It generated a good bit of debate on a couple of forums, with people pointing out several universes that should probably be considered. There were two that really caught my interest: Perry Rhodan, a German sci-fi pulp/paperback series that is still running after 2,700 issues and Mobile Suite Gundam, a Japanese giant robot series has produced a huge slew of movies and television and is also still active.

It helped highlight how difficult it is to compare such things across cultures. As it turned out, the most controversial inclusion on my own list was Doctor Who. In Britain, Doctor Who is better known that Star Wars and Star Trek put together. In the US, it's probably on a par with Babylon 5.

- My post on the Space Battleship Yamato model has became a huge target for spam commentators. While I'm used to getting a spam comment every couple of weeks, this post has gotten about 8 in the last two weeks. I have no idea why this might be.

- The Thames has once again risen to the top of her banks. With more rain expected over the weekend, I suspect that at least some parts of Oxford will be underwater. Thankfully, we live on a hill.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Top 5 Most Successful Science-Fiction Universes

Yesterday, for no reason in particular, I began to think about the most successful science-fiction universes in film and television.  After a bit of internet research, I’ve come up with my top 5.

Star Wars
Feature Films: 6
Made-For-TV-Films: 3
Cartoons: 4
                Droids (1 season, 13 episodes)
                Ewoks (2 seasons, 26 episodes)
                Star Wars: Clone Wars (2 seasons, 25 episodes)
                The Clone Wars (5 seasons, 95 episodes, ongoing)

Although the Star Wars universe is not that far ahead of some of its rivals in terms of production, it is at least an order of magnitude above all of the others in terms of recognisability and market penetration. Also, with its recent purchase by Disney, its level of production is set to sky-rocket.

Star Trek
Feature Films: 12
Television Series: 5
                Star Trek (3 seasons, 79 episodes)
                The Next Generation (7 seasons, 178 episodes)
                Deep Space Nine (7 seasons, 176 episodes)
                Voyager (7 seasons, 172 episodes)
                Enterprise (4 seasons, 98 episodes)
Cartoons: 1
                Star Trek: The Animated Series (2 seasons, 24 episodes)

With five major television series, producing over 700 episodes, and an even dozen movies, Star Trek is a clear second place.  It is also the most ‘high-brow’ science-fiction universe to make the list.  While most of its competitors went down the action/adventure route, Star Trek tended to explore larger ideas of social mores, morality, and the human experience.  Although set for another major film release soon, the universe really needs a new television show to carry it forward.

Doctor Who
Feature Films: 2
Made-for-TV Films: 1
Television Series:
                Doctor Who (33 seasons, 789 episodes, ongoing)
                Torchwood (4 seasons, 41 episodes)
                The Sarah Jane Adventures (5 seasons, 53 episodes)
                K-9 (1 season, 26 episodes)
                K-9 and Company (1 episode)

The Doctor Who universe is the only entry in the top five produced outside of the United States, which means it might not be as familiar to a lot of Americans, but this is just one of its many unique features.  It is certainly the oldest of the Universes, having first aired in 1963, three years before the first Star Trek.  It contains, by far, the longest running television show (even if you separate out the modern incarnation of the show, the original ran for 26 seasons).   It is also the only one of the top 5 Universes currently producing a live-action television series.
Also, Doctor Who has permeated the culture of Britain far more than even Star Wars has done in America.  Included amongst the Doctor Who episode count is 5 Christmas specials, but not included are the numerous short specials that have been produced for charity events, nor the numerous radio broadcasts, the audio plays, the stage plays, etc.

Star Gate
Feature Films: 1
Made-for-DVD Films: 2
Television Series: 3
                Stargate SG1 (10 seasons, 214 episodes)
                Stargate Atlantis (5 seasons, 100 episodes)
                Stargate Universe (2 seasons, 40 episodes)
Cartoons Series: 1
                Stargate Infinity (1 season, 26 episodes)

The ten seasons of Stargate SG1 makes it the longest running, science-fiction television show produced in North America.  However, as none of the shows in the series were originally broadcast on a ‘mainstream’ channel, it never reached the level of profile of those above it on the list. While its last series, Universe, was essentially a failure, this science-fiction universe is still fresh enough, with a large enough fan base, to make a new series a possibility.

Babylon 5
Made-for-TV Films: 6
Television Series: 2
                Babylon 5 (5 seasons, 110 episodes)
                Crusade (1 seasons, 13 episodes)

While I doubt that too many people would argue that my first four universes belong in the top 5, I’m sure my last would generate some debate.  It is certainly true that Babylon 5 is significantly less successful than any of those above it, and its position over some of those below is more a matter of taste than quantifiable success.  Still, Babylon 5 deserves a lot of credit for its impact on science-fiction, being the first show to really attempt to tell one, epic, tale over the entire length of its run.  Unfortunately, television politics managed to make a bit of a mess of it at the end.  Still, there was a time when Babylon 5 was the best science-fiction going on television.
                Unlike the others on the list, it seems probably that Babylon 5 is essentially a ‘dead’ universe, with little hope of there ever being any new films or television series.

Honourable Mentions

Battlestar Galactica
The Terminator
Aliens and Predator

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Pauli's Life of King Alfred

Many months ago, I bought a beautiful book. I bought it from a little shop in Folkestone for £15, and, I admit, I bought it mainly because it was beautiful.  That said, I always intended to read it, and now I have done so. 

The book in question is The Life of King Alfred by Dr. Reinhold Pauli. It was published in London in 1852 by Richard Bentley of New Burlington Street*. The book is bound in green leather, with gold embossing on the cover, spine, back cover, and even the edges of the cover. The page edges are inked in strange swirling colours. It also has a ribbon, a sign of distinction among books.

On the inside front cover there is a very intriguing book plate, which I cannot fully understand.  It seems to say ‘Alfredo Puter, Harrouiensi Diligentiae Praemium Advidicavit (handwritten name) Praeceptor (handwritten name) A. S. MDCCCLIX'.  Okay – my Latin isn’t the best, and it isn’t helped by the font seeming to use the same character for both ‘v’ and ‘u’, but, as near as I can tell this book was awarded to a student, probably Alfredo Puter by his teacher in 1859. If someone with better Latin could make confirm or correct me, I’d certainly be interested.

It’s also interesting to note that the symbol on the bookplate is the same as the one embossed on the cover, which leads me to believe that the book was originally sold unbound (as was common at the time) and that the cover and binding was added by whomever purchased the book to use it as a prize.

So what of the text? The text is written by a German academic who studied in Oxford in the 1840s. He originally wrote the book in German, where I assume it was also published, and then translated to book into the English. Most of the book is a rather straightforward retelling of the life of King Alfred, and from what little knowledge I posses on the subject, I think most of it is still pretty accurate (unfortunately, there haven’t been any major finds in the last 150 years, that would dramatically alter the known chronology of the period). I was delighted to find, that despite its age, the text was generally easy to read and not overly academic.

There are a few peculiarities.  The author does seem totally infatuated with his subject, who takes our lack of knowledge of Alfred having any defects as defacto proof that he had no defects. He is also delights in point out that, as a Saxon, Alfred was basically German, which probably suited his original audience. However, my favourite quirk of the text is the occasional footnotes by the editor, where he actually corrects the author on a point or two.  Can you image that in a modern work?  The editor butting in to say – actually he’s wrong about that...

All in all, it is an interesting work contained in a beautiful book, and I’m glad to be able to put it on my shelf.

* Richard Bentley, it turns out, was a rather famous publisher of the time, and worked with a lot of the big name authors of the period, including Charles Dickens, who he apparently couldn’t get along with. The Life of King Alfred was published during a period when Bentley was suffering a series of bad financial reverses.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Miniature Friday: Space Battle Cruiser

Here it is – my first Battle Cruiser!

I don’t make that many models. While I can happily spend countless hours painting little metal miniatures, I have very limited patience when it comes to gluing together and painting plastic model kits. However, I recently stumbled across HobbyLink Japan, and my love of spaceships won out! I placed an order for three spaceship kits, which set me back about £20, including shipping from Japan! 

I finished up work on the first of the models earlier this week, and I’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy with the results. The ship is an Earth-defence battle cruiser from the Space Battleship Yamato (Starblazers) series, and measures in at about nine inches.  There is something about the combination of the classic rocket ship body, with a World War II battleship ascetic which really appeals to me. It is just so different from anything seen in Star Wars or Star Trek.

Being a cheap and inexpensive model, it wasn't too complicated to put together. In all, assembly took between three and four hours. I left off a couple of the smaller pieces, partly to make my life easier, but also, to keep the ship from looking too bitty. It took me another three or four hours to paint the model. I wanted a simple but striking paint job, and one that showed off the hull paneling. I only used five colours painting the model and two of those were black! (Flat Green, Ivory, Flat Black, Gloss Black, Grey).

The top two turrets are rotatable. The bottom one is not, for some reason. The stand is pretty ingenious. It’s a little ball mount that allows the ship to be pointed at a wide degree of angles. 

I am extremely pleased with how this model came out, which is a somewhat rare experience. I think it is best if I just bask in the glow of this success for awhile before picking up the modelling glue again. 


Wednesday, 7 November 2012


The ride to work and back went fine.  No problems, no pain, no disasters.  Of course, I practically dropped unconscious on my desk at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, but still, it was worth it.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Back on the Bike

Just over three months after I flipped over my handlebars and cracked my collar bone, I got back on a bike. It was just a short-ride: about 2.5 miles down to the science-park, around the duck pond a few times, and back home, but it felt good.  

I admit I had a few moments of jitters, but they passed quickly, and were soon lost in the resistance of the pedals and the rhythm of the wheels. I had hoped to get a few more short rides in before making the long ride to work, but life and weather conspired against it.  

I spent the first part of this evening getting my bike ready for the commute.  Amazingly, the only part of my bike that seems to have suffered any major damage in the crash was the bell, which lost its hammer. I replaced that. I also fitted a new ‘Lezyne Mini Drive’ light. This little sucker throws out some serious lumens and has to be recharged through my computer.

So, assuming it isn’t pouring down rain when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be saddling up the Ridgeback Meteor, and rolling on to work!

Wish me luck.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A couple of years ago, I discovered Jack Campbell’s LostFleet series, and it quickly became my favourite military space adventure series of all time. By combining ideas drawn from the Cold War, the Interstate system, Xenophon, and Arthurian legend, Campbell created a retro-science-fiction universe where his protagonist, ‘Black Jack’ Geary, could shine brightly by standing for classic values in the midst of a century long war.

After six books, Campbell wrapped up the Lost Fleet series, and, soon thereafter, launched two follow-up series:  The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, a direct sequel to the first series, and The Lost Stars, which would take a look at some of the characters who fought against ‘Black Jack’ Geary.

Earlier this month, Jack Campbell released the first of this second follow-on series, The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight. I picked it up a couple of days after release and had finished reading it less than four days later.

Essentially, it follows the story of two characters, a politician and a soldier, who lead a rebellion against the ruling communist government of their star system.  It’s an action-packed story that bumps along at a good pace, but suffers from two problems compared to the Lost Fleet. First, despite his best efforts, Jack Campbell dosen’t seem completely comfortable writing non-heroic characters. His protagonists are both members of the former Syndic (read: communist) hierarchy, and although both have been sidelined for not completely following ‘the system’, they are still very much products of that system. Most of their time is spent worrying about when or if the other conspirator will stab them in the back. Unfortunately, since the reader quickly realizes that neither is planning to do such a thing, reading about these worries grows a bit tiresome. Still, this is a minor issue.

A slightly larger issue is the lack of a driving plot for the book/series. The Lost Fleet had the brilliant premise of a battered battle fleet trying to bluff and fight its way home. Although this book has an interesting starting point of the revolution, it is not clear how, or where, the series could satisfactorily end.

Despite these problems, I still very much enjoyed the book. Even when Campbell is not at the top of his game, he has an easy writing style that draws the reader in and keeps him entertained. While I’m glad that Campbell’s next book is scheduled to be from the Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier series, I will certainly pick up the next Lost Stars novel soon after it is released.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Great Gifts for Geeks: Space Battleship Yamato Model

When I was around ten or so, I stumbled upon a cartoon called Starblazers. It was a Japanese import, and came with all the strange animation quirks for which old school japanimation is famous, but it also had, by far, the coolest space battles to be found on television at the time. In every episode, giant battleships and cruisers opened up on one other with laser batteries and missile pods, while sleek fighters dodged in and out.  I loved it!

For those not in the know, here is a quick summary.  Evil aliens attack the earth, sweeping aside our space defences, and bombard the planet with radiation bombs. The few human survivors are forced underground, to endure their last miserable years before the radiation kills them. But there is a glimmer of hope. A message pod arrives from a distant group of friendly aliens. They claim to have the cure for earth’s radiation; unfortunately, the humans will have to come pick it up. Included in the pod are plans for a super space drive and weapon system that should get the humans across the galaxy to pick up the cure. The problem is, humanity no longer has the construction capacity to build a new space ship – SO (here is the great part) – they retrofit the hull of the Super Battleship Yamato, that was sunk during World War II, with the new drive and weapon system, and blast that sucker into outer space! Booyah!

Using the power of the new ‘Wave Motion Gun’, the Space Battleship Yamato (called the Argo in Starblazers), shoots its way through the evil alien blockade and sets off on a journey to the far side of the Milky Way. But they only have one year to save the earth!

If like me, your favourite geek, remembers the cartoon foundly, you might think about getting them a model of the Space Battleship Yamato this Christmas. Thanks to the wonders of the highly advanced Japanese modelling industry, there are several choices available. However, unless your geek is a highly advanced modeller, might I suggest this one: Space Battleship Yamato from Hobby Link Japan. It costs an incredibly reasonable $7 (although shipping from Japan will nearly double that), and is relatively simple so that even casual modellers shouldn’t have too much trouble with it.

A few weeks ago, I made my first ever order from Hobby Link Japan, but I’ll leave that story for another day.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Miniature Friday - Crypt Shade

I love generic fantasy miniatures, especially evil ones;  they are just so versatile.  Take this guy, for example. I would have no qualms about using him as an adversary to my Greek Heroes, my Warhammer 40K Inquisitors, or my Dwarf adventurers. Heck, he wouldn’t even look too out of place, rising up to threaten my Confederates.

This guy comes from Reaper, and I think I picked him up at the Orc’s Nest in London.  He was exceptionally easy to paint, just a base coat and a whole lot of dry brushing.
It's a real delight when so little work, returns such a nice looking figure.

I believe he’ll be a menace for many years to come.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Hard Times

Confined, both morning and afternoon, to the bus, by my still mending shoulder, I do my best to pass these wearisome rides with a bit of enjoyable literature.  My current book of choice is Hard Times, the shortest, which is not to say short, novel by Charles Dickens.  Previously, my acquaintance with this man of letters has been brief: a couple of readings of A Christmas Carol, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and a force-feed helping of Great Expectations, which I most certainly did not.  After a week of bumpy rides, I am halfway through the book, and, despite its somewhat wandering plot, I am enjoying it.  Dickens had such an uncommon gift with words that it is easy to see why his works have survived, while most of his contemporaries have been forgotten (like so many of the words that Dickens uses!).

There is one sentence in particular that I thought proved a great example for the joys and trials of reading Dickens, which I thought I might share with you all now.

‘In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called ‘the Hands,’ – a race who would have found more favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs – lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.’

Wow.  I have no doubt that some literary critics could write an entire essay just on that one sentence.  Personally, I have just a few points to make. The first reaction by most modern readers will almost certainly be to the sentence’s extraordinary length.  Although I’ve seen longer (thank you James Fenimore Cooper), it is still an impressive work, containing, as it does: 17 commas, 4 semi-colons, and 2 dashes.  I have little doubt that any student who tried to turn in such a sentence in an essay or school paper would draw the ire of the red-pen and be told-off for using a ‘run-on sentence’.  Certainly such writing is no longer in vogue, in fact, his use semi-colons is most curious.  I remember a brief note from school that a semi-colon can be used in place of a comma, where the use of a comma might cause confusion, but I only ever saw this applied to lists, and never in fiction.

Leaving length and punctuation aside, it is a tremendous sentence.  In the first half, he paints a portrait of a horrible mill town in such imaginative strokes, that I almost felt myself choking on the smoke pouring out of the mill chimneys, while the ugly brick walls closed around me.  In fact, I got so caught up in this description, that when halfway through the sentence, he makes a grim joke about the population, I was momentarily lost.  Upon further reading, I believe the whole sentence is really one grim joke.  He goes on for line after line, clause after clause, about the town, before, finally, introducing an important character, with only a single, semi-useful fact.  Stephen Blackpool is forty. He might have well have said that Stephen Blackpool is grist in the mill, except that he's writing about woolen mills.

Well, that’s thirteen sentences I just spent, talking about one by Charles Dickens.  I suppose that says something pretty important right there.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Miniature Friday: The Warriors of Athena

The Warriors of Athena

Over the last few months, I have been reading a lot of Ancient Greek Myth, so it is not terribly surprising that I got a hankering to paint up some Greek heroes.  I spent several weeks researching the various miniatures available and deciding exactly what I wanted.  Since my love of Greek myth mostly comes from the old Hollywood flicks, Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, I am more interested in recreating the look of these films than I am in historical accuracy.  Thus, I decided I would base my heroes on Greek hoplites, even though these warriors actually date to many hundreds of years after the Heroic Age of Greece.

Phassos the cunning
After much searching, I finally decided to go with the Greek hoplites put out by Wargames Factory.  I have had my differences with WF in the past, but these figures ticked a lot of boxes.  They have nice details, most of which are pretty crisp.  Since the arms, heads, and weapons are all separate, there is room for a lot of variation among the figures.  Also, unlike hoplite figures from most other companies, these figures are easy to assemble in heroic action poses.

My only real complaint about the set is the lack of head variation.  There are only three different head types in the box, and all of them have helmets.  Then again, I want most of my figures to be wearing helmets and I found some suitable no-helmeted head replacements in my bits box, so I guess it wasn’t that big a deal.

As I was painting the figures, I thought about their story.  What brought these guys together, and for what do they fight?  I like my heroes to be just that – the good guys, but I needed a higher purpose, something that could hold them together and give them direction.  Well, in Greek Myth pretty much everything revolves around the will of the gods, and of these immortals, there is only one that strikes me as generally being good: Athena.  As the goddess of wisdom and war, Athena is the perfect patron for a group of wandering heroes.  Thus I named my heroes ‘The Warriors of Athena’ because they travel the world at her prompting, fighting monsters, defending the weak, and generally doing all of that A-Team/Magnificent Seven type stuff.

I’m not sure if this is the final team line-up.  I suspect it may change over time as I paint up new figures and retire old ones.  I’d like to add a centaur to the mix and maybe a warrior woman.  I also plan to get an Athena figure at some point for those times where the goddess decides to directly intervene.

 Now that I’ve got my team together, all I need is some baddies for them to fight!

Special shout out to Little Big Man Studios whose shield transfers add so much to the figures.

Hyrieus, son of Hermes, a lucky man

Palaimon, grandson of Poseidon

Dryas 'The Boar Hunter'

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Strike a Match

Before I became the proud owner of a stove with a non-functioning ignition switch, I never gave a lot of thought to the topic of matches.  However, over the last year of cooking, I’ve discovered that not all matches are created equal.

When I first started using matches, I bought long-stemmed cooking matches, because that is what was on the shelf at the grocery store.  However, it soon occurred to me that I might be way over paying for these ‘fancy’ matches.  Instead, I started buying matches from my local shop and newsagents, who stock them mainly for smokers.  These little boxes cost about 1/6 to 1/8 of the price of cooking matches.  True, they are much shorter stems, but they are still long enough to light several eyes on the stove.

There are two brands of matches that seemed to be carried in the shops around here: England’s Glory and Ship.  For several months, I used England’s Glory, but after picking up my first box of Ship, I think I’m a convert.  Ship matches are about £0.10 more per box, for an equivalent number of matches.  What makes them so much better is how much easier they ignite.  With England’s Glory, I often had to strike the box a couple of times to ignite the match, and occasionally broke off the match head.  Also, by the time I was down to the last couple of matches in the box, I’d pretty much worn out the rough strip on the side of the box.  Ship matches on the other hand, ignite with only the gentlest pressure.  Also the box has strips running on both sides, encase one wears out.

According to the boxes, both matches are manufactured  in Sweden, though England’s Glory gives a UK address in High Wycombe (pronounced ‘whickem’) , just down the road in Buckinghamshire. 

While England’s Glory is slightly cheaper, and comes in a more attractive little box, it is not enough to make up for the much better quality of Ship.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Livingstone Quarry

The old man sat on the dusty ground, a pile of broken stones between his outstretched legs. All around him, tall piles of gravel cast stunted shadows from the noon day sun, silently waiting for a buyer with a wheelbarrow to come and haul them away.  My wife crouched down, and asked the man his name and how long he had worked at the quarry.  In his slow, heavily-accented English, he said that his name was Joseph, the same as mine, and he’d worked here for the last nine years, breaking apart rocks with a small hammer.  He was sixty-five, an age at which many of us hope to retire, and he looked as tired and worn out as the frayed clothes he wore.  Still, he spoke with a smile, and his eyes gleamed as he passed his hammer to my wife, so she could have a try at breaking the stones.
This was Livingstone Quarry, on the outskirts of Livingstone, Zambia, a town best known in the Western world for its proximity to Victoria Falls.  Few tourists came here though, just poor Zambians, hoping to make enough money to survive by tearing rocks from the ground, breaking them into gravel, and selling the gravel to builders for $1 per wheelbarrow load.  I gazed around the shattered landscape, marvelling at a world I had never seen before, never really imagined. Down below, a man with a sledge hammer pounded against a rock wall, breaking stones free.  Then he grabbed the large stones and hurled them twenty feet above his head, up onto the lip of the quarry pit.  Nearby, a group of children carried a larger cooler amongst the workers, selling individual ice-cubes as a source of refreshment.

My wife thanked Joseph for his time, and we walked on.  The workers glanced at us with little curiosity, a pair of ‘rich’ tourists, invading their place of work.  In the distance we could see the tractors and machines of the newly opened private quarry that threatened to steal what little money these people could earn.  Close by, two teenage boys, possibly brothers, banged away at their own pile of rocks. Perhaps they were helping their families, trying to earn money during the school holidays, maybe they needed the money to pay for school, or maybe school was just a dream for them, and this was the beginning of their working life. I didn’t have the courage to ask.

As we turned to leave the quarry, we passed a middle-aged woman in a flower-printed dress, sitting on the ground, singing happily to herself as she smashed stones with a heavy, iron weight. 

‘That’s a lovely song,’ my wife said.

 The woman smiled up at us, as she pulverized another rock.  ‘I love my job’, she said.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Doctor Who: Creatures of Beauty

For over a dozen years, Big Finish Productions has been producing Doctor Who audio plays. Engaging the help of all of the living actors to play the Doctor from the original series, they have created over two hundred new adventures for the Doctor and his companions.  In my opinion, these plays have been the highest quality Doctor Who ever produced.  With their complicated, adult plots, unbound by the need for expensive visual effects, these stories have taken the Doctor on some truly fantastic adventures.  I really can’t recommend Big Finish highly enough.

Unfortunately, the latest title I’ve added to my collection doesn’t merit the same level of praise.  Doctor Who 44: Creatures of Beauty stars Peter Davidson and Sarah Sutton, a team that has produced good work in the past, and there is nothing to fault their performances here.  Instead, it is the script that lets everyone down. 

The story dives right into the action.  Or, perhaps more accurately, the action dives right into the story.  For the first ten or fifteen minutes, I really had no idea what was going on.  I even wondered if I had perhaps put in the wrong CD by accident.  Eventually, I realized that the story wasn’t being told in chronological order, instead the narrative was skipping around in time.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered such a narrative device, and I’ve got to admit, it always makes me sceptical.  There are (perhaps) legitimate reasons to tell a story in this fashion, but they are few and far between.  Instead, I find that such a technique is usually employed to cover up a lack of plot, and that, I fear, is the case with Creatures of Beauty.  If you actually laid out the plot of this play chronologically, it would quickly becomes apparent how little actually occurs.  Even more damning, it would also become obvious that neither the Doctor, nor his companion, do anything of significance within the story. This is actually pointed out by the Doctor himself towards the end of the play, right before a meaningless and rather obvious twist, fails to save the story.

While I will happily add this CD to my ever growing collection of Doctor Who audios, I highly doubt I will ever listen to it again.  

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Guest Mate Inn

Despite what some guide books say, Livingstone, Zambia is not a tourist town.  Sure, it has a few backpacker hostels, but these are basically self-contained units, that provide everything a traveller needs.  Even then, a vast majority of tourists who come to Livingstone skip the town altogether and head ten kilometres down the road to the swanky hotels that line the banks of the Zambezi river near Victoria Falls.  (Although these people are missing out on a lot, I don’t judge them too harshly.  Culture shock would soon hit me like a sledgehammer, and shake my confidence as a traveller).

My wife and I, however, had chosen to stay at the Guest Mate Inn, which had been booked by my wife’s friend who lived in Livingstone.  According to what little literature I could find on the place, it had once served as home to British Army officers back during the days of Empire.  The walled compound consisted of the main house, with an opened walled bar at the back and five or six detached dwellings.  One of these had been reserved for us. 

Upon check-in, we were told that we must pay for the room in advance.  It was only then that we learned about the recent law forbidding the use of any currency except the local kwacha. Bad news for my pocket full of US Dollars.  Thankfully, in true Zambian style, the woman behind the desk, just smiled and told me I could pay tomorrow, or the next day.  I did managed to pay the next day – 2,140,000 kwacha (about $400) for the nine-nights we stayed there.

Our little dwelling consisted of a comfortable bedroom, containing a mini-fridge, an air-conditioner/heater, and a television that received three channels.  We also had a bathroom, with a nice, hot shower.  Although the room looked a little tired and worn, at the time, we didn’t realize what kind of luxury this represented.  As near as we could tell, very few tourists stayed at the inn; its main clientele appeared to be passing businessmen.

Our room also came with a complimentary ‘continental’ breakfast.  This consisted of Roos tea and toast with butter and jam.  The butter and jam came on a plate, four rough lumps of butter around the edges, with a plop of jam in the middle.  A couple of mornings they were out of jam.  Sometimes, the toast was only toasted on one-side.  For $4 you could order a ‘Full English’ breakfast.  We tried this once, and although they made a valiant effort at sausages, eggs, bacon, and baked beans, we decided to just stick with the toast from thereafter.

In the nine nights we stayed at the Inn, our room was never cleaned.  One morning, one of the women who worked their asked if ‘today we wanted our room cleaned’.  Somewhat caught off-guard by the question, we replied that it wasn’t necessary.  ‘Maybe tomorrow, then’, she replied, and that’s the last we heard of it.  We did, once, have to ask for more toilet paper, and our bin was a bit overflowing by the end, but it was fine.

With all of its little quirks, the Guest Mate Inn quickly became a little home to us.  It was a wonderful retreat when the busy chaos of Livingstone town became too much for us.  At night, when we would wander in from the pitch black road outside, we would say good-evening to the gate-guard, and he would respond, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’

Should you ever find yourself in Livingstone, and there are many reasons to go, consider staying a night or two at the Guest Mate Inn.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Miniature Friday – Egyptian Avatar

Over the last couple of decades of miniature painting, I have tried out lots of different sizes and scale of miniatures, but I always come back to 28mm.  Not only do I find it the most ascetically pleasing size of miniature, but also the most enjoyable to paint.  That said, occasionally a ‘28mm’ miniature depicts something so large or so small, that it is essentially like painting a miniature in another scale.  Such is the case with this week’s miniature.

I can’t remember the official name of this miniature, but it comes from Reaper, and I purchased it at the Troll’s Cave in London.  I have no specific need or use for it, but it caught my eye, and it will make a nice center piece should I ever do any kind of Egyptian warband. 

It actually sat on my lead pile for quite some time before I worked up the nerve to tackle it.  Not only is such a large figure quite an undertaking, but it also requires slightly different painting techniques.  Essentially, the larger a miniature gets, the more subtle the shading and blending of the colours needs to be in order to achieve a realistic finish.  As most of my practice has been done on smaller miniatures, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with such a beast.

I use a lot of black-lining in my miniatures, and it perhaps came out a little too harsh in some areas of this one, where it is separating light colours.  Also, it would have been nice to get a subtler shading effect on the skin tone.  Neither of things are as noticeable on the actual figure as they are in the photograph.  Of course, neither is the nice subtle blending I managed on the beak.

All and all, I’m pretty happy with how my Egyptian avatar turned out, and he looks pretty darn menacing looming over the puny ‘normal sized’ 28mm miniatures.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Arriving in Zambia

This summer, my wife and I travelled to Livingstone, Zambia, partly as a vacation and partly so she could help the Book Bus charity on a new project working with local teachers on how to better utilize books in the classroom.  I had never been to any part of Africa before, so, despite my broken collar bone, I was greatly looking forward to the trip.

Our guest house can just been seen at the end of this road.
After much debate, we decided to travel British Airways the whole way.  We could have saved nearly £400 flying with other airlines, but BA have always proven dependable, and we didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances.  Our flight from London to Johannesburg was long, but uneventful.  On arrival, however, I got my first shock in Africa – it was cold! I mean, it was really cold.  In fact, the day before, Johannesburg had actually seen its first snow flurries in more than a decade. 

Apart from a couple of stores selling colourful African knick-knacks, and a decent bookshop, there is not a lot going on at the Johannesburg airport, and we were happy to board our small plan to Livingstone.  As we soared above the African plains, I looked out of the window and saw great plumes of smoke rising in several places, the result of large bushfires brought on by the dry conditions. We flew directly over Victoria Falls. The pilot even tilted the plane to either side to give us a better look, but from above, I was never quite sure what I was seeing.

Finally, after about twenty hours of travel and waiting, we touched down in Livingstone, Zambia.  At immigration, my wife and I were each charged $85 for a double-entry visa. I don’t begrudge the country its money, but there is something a bit odd about charging money in a currency that can no longer be legally used in the country (more on this in a later post).

One of Livingstone's nicer side streets
Outside of the airport, we were met by a smiling cab-driver holding a sign with our names on it, a welcome sight arranged by the woman who runs the Book Bus.  Our cabby spoke to us in heavily accented English as we rolled out of the airport.  At first, I was impressed by the quality of the roads and the infrastructure, but this was an illusion that quickly vanished.  The Zambian government has obviously put a lot of resources into this initial impression to tourists, but the closer we got to the town of Livingstone, the more things started to fall apart, quite literally, in fact.  The roads became worse, sometimes crumbling around the edges, sometimes bulging in the middle, as though squashed by giant trucks.  The buildings, which dotted the road side, went from nice, to run-down, to dilapidated.  Everything, good and bad, was covered in fine, orange dust.

By the time we turned off the main road up the hill to our guest house, the road had nearly given up.  The surface we drove up had once been paved, but appeared to have been smashed with the hammers of giants, leaving gaping, rubble-strewn holes, and jagged, crumbling edges.  Even dodging the biggest holes, the taxi bounce up and down as though the road were a speed-bump testing zone.  It was with the greatest relief to my pounding head, and aching arm, that we pulled into the dirt drive of the Guest Mate Inn.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Bruised and Broken on the Bypass

Two days before my wife and I were due to fly to Africa, I broke my collar bone.

The day started innocently enough.  I cycled into work along my normal route and had a busy day getting items cleared up in preparation for my lengthy holiday.  I didn’t finish everything, but I still had a day of work to go, so I left work in good spirits.

It was a nice day, cool but clear, and free from the rain that had washed away most of the Oxfordshire sporting season. My legs felt good, and I found an easy rhythm on the bike.  It would have been nice to cycle straight on home, but I had one errand to which I need to attend. I had decided to that my tennis shoes were just too old and too worn to face an African safari and would have to be replaced. So, somewhat reluctantly, I pulled into the large Go Outdoors store, a few miles from my house.  As luck would have it, I quickly found a nice pair of shoes, for a good price, and was out of there in record time.

It was then that I made a very poor decision.  A few weeks earlier, I had bought another pair of shoes from the same store.  Unable to fit the shoebox in my bag, I had discarded the box.  However, when I latter determined that the shoes didn’t fit nearly as well as I had thought, I was unable to return them because I didn’t have the box.  Unwilling to risk that happening again, I decided this time I would cycle home with the shoebox bag dangling from my handlebars.  After all, I had cycled with bags on the handlebars a dozen times before and never had any problem.

Back on my bike and feeling good.  As I came up onto the large cycle path that runs next to the southern bypass, I gave the pedals a few extra kicks to get my speed up – and disaster struck.  As the bag bounced around underneath my handlebars, the bottom of the box hit the top of my knee.  Had the bag contained something soft, or a lot of small items, probably nothing would have happened, but since the box was solid, my knee drove it up into my handlebar.  This caused the handlebar to jerk to the left, turning the front wheel nearly perpendicular to my direction of travel. I can’t say exactly what happened next, other than I tumbled off the bike and landed hard on my left shoulder.

This was probably the third or fourth time I’ve come off my bike and every time it has hurt, a lot.  At first, this crash didn’t feel any different.  I got up, walked around a second, and then picked up my bike.  As I lifted the bike, I felt a disturbing ‘grating’ in my shoulder. For a second, I thought I had dislocated it, but then I reached up and felt a bump of bone that hadn’t been there before...

I called Steph, my wife.  By this point, I was sweating so profusely that the phone was slippery in my hand.  I asked her to come pick me up from the nearby parking lot.  She said she would, but that if I was really hurt, I needed to call an ambulance.  Hanging up, I tried to push my bike, but the chain was so badly mangled that the back wheel wouldn’t roll. It didn’t matter; I couldn’t stand up for much longer anyway. Sitting/laying in the grass, I called an ambulance. Steph found me before the ambulance, either because she came so quickly, or because I gave the ambulance bad directions.  By that point, I was in enough pain, that it was hard to think.  Steph called the ambulance again, and eventually they found me.

The paramedics made a sling for my arm and gave me a canister of laughing gas to suck on.  The gas made me dizzy and sick, but it did help control the pain, which was necessary on the bumpy road to the hospital.  They dropped me off in the A&E ward, where Steph eventually found me after loading my bike, bag, and new shoes into the car.

At the hospital I was given some proper pain killers. My shirt was cut off so they could have a look at my shoulder.  After an hour or more of waiting I was x-rayed.  An hour or more after that, a doctor confirmed what I had already suspected; I had broken my collar bone.
Although I was in pain, my real worry the whole time was that I had just ruined our trip to Africa.  However, this was not the case.  They can’t put a cast on a broken collar bone. They just put it in a sling and let it heal itself.  Thus, there was nothing to prevent me from flying.

So, feeling ‘lucky’, Steph drove us home, some five hours or more after I had left work.

In a final stroke of irony, my newly broken collar bone meant I couldn’t tie my shoes.  Thus, I ended up taking my old shoes to Africa, as I could slip these on and off without untying the laces.

* * *

It is three weeks later now.  My shoulder seems to be healing nicely.  I have nearly a full range of motion in the arm, although it has no strength and still spends most of the time in the sling.  The doctor said it would take 4-6 weeks to heal.  I have to go back in another three weeks for follow up x-rays to make sure it has healed correctly.

All and all, it could have been a lot worse.