Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Up to the rigs, down to the jigs : FAFing around in London

I was in London at the weekend. It was a silly thing to do. I’m off to Chicago in two weeks and should have beeen saving my pennies instead of gallivanting to the big smoke. I was enticed down to the bright lights by a couple of events connected with Folk Against Fascism, an organisation dedicated to keep the far right out of folk music. Basically Nick Griffin and his odious party the BNP are trying to co-opt English folk music to further their fascist agenda. Most folkies are not too keen about this so have formed FAF as a means to combat this.

The main event of the weekend was to be a Village Fête held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. There was to be face painting, a mystic fortune teller, a W.I. Cake Stall, a hook-a duck and lots of lovely folk music. It would all culminate in an evening gig starring Chumbawamba, Show of Hands and Bellowhead. It all sounded too good to miss.

Of course the organisers were asking for trouble holding the event on a bank holiday weekend as this ensured that it would be cold and rainy. I arrived (on a very crowded and slow) train around 3.00 in the afternoon to find that everyone was huddled in the foyer of the QEH sheltering from the showers and the bitter wind that blew across the Thames. The Oyster Ceilidh band were in full swing with Gordon Potts on calling duty. I met up with fellow Bellowhead forumites and we began folk musician spotting. We could have ticked many boxes in the I-Spy Book of Famous Folkies (if there was such a thing) there were so many about. Jim Moray was there, having been morris dancing earlier in the day. His sister Jackie Oates was in charge of the hook-a-duck and an almost unrecognisable Jim Causley was Kylie, the mystic fortune teller.

Later in the afternoon there was a free concert in the QEH foyer.Club Périphérique, a concert featuring folk artists who make use of the English tradition but season but with influences from world music. We missed most of this having to venture out for food but returned to witness the set from Dogan Mehmet a Cypriot-British fiddler and singer. He played both Greek and English tunes, his set climaxing with a great verson of Raggle Taggle Gypsies. I think he’ll go far and I’d love to see him again.

It was soon time for the evening concert. The first half started with a set from Chumbawamba. Those in the audience who only know them from their hit Tubthumping would have been surprised by the close-harmony singing and use of acoustic instruments. What won’t have been a surprise was their fierce condemnation of the BNP and their support for radical causes.

Next up was Show of Hands. I had never seen this band live before being put off by their albums which are not to my taste. It must be said that they put on a good show though. The trio are very slick and Phil Beer’s fiddle playing is brilliant. I won’t be hurrying to see them again though.

The second half was given over to Bellowhead punctuated by solo spots from Jackie Oates, Jo Freya and Tim Van Eyken. The band were on smashing form playing pieces from across their repertoire. As it was a seated gig excitement was kept to manageable levels. It’s not natural to listen to Bellowhead live and remain seated!

The evening ended with an encore of two songs sung by the whole ensemble and the audience who were given the words to Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy and another song whose name escapes me at the minute. It was a lovely ending but it would have been nice to finish on a rousing Bellowhead tune that we could all get up and bounce too but that’s not what the evening was about.

It was time to go home. I’d had a great evening but the best was yet to come.

Queering the Pitch

The other reason for my trip to London was to attend the Nowt as Queer as Folk day held at Cecil Sharp House on Monday. This consisted of two concerts which was described as a “reflection and celebration of all the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender artists performing today who have found voice through British traditional song and songwriting and the road journeyed to reach this point.” This all sounds a bit serious but nothing could have been further from the truth.

The afternoon started with Pimms on the lawn. It was still chilly out though so we stayed inside getting quietly merry! I’d never been to Cecil Sharp House and it reminded me of an old school building. Their library looked lovely and cosy with lots of old wooden shelving and that rarity, a microfiche reader-printer!

At 3.00 the afternoon concert began. It opened with a couple of songs by Stew Simpson, a name new to me. His songs were pleasant with intelligent lyrics. He also had a winning way with him declaring that he liked older men and was particularly keen on Roy Bailey!

The afternoon soon passed by with performances from some Newcastle folk degree students (fiddle tunes played with aplomb), Tim Van Eyken (what a great voice), Sam Lee (I loved his singing too), O’Hooley and Tidow (great songs and Belinda always make me laugh with her deadpan camp humour), Alexis Joshua (an acquired taste but his delivery was fascinating) and the ever lovely Jim Causley.

After a lovely home made meal it was back into the hall for the main evening event. Hosted by Tom Robinson the concert started at 7.00 and was meant to finish at 10.00. In the event we didn’t get out until past 11.00 but I wouldn’t have missed a second of it.

All the artists who had performed earlier in the day came back to do another slot. We also saw sets from Jo Freya, Gina Le Faux, Louise Killen and Roy Bailey. All these musicians had something to say about being gay and the attraction of singing folk songs.
It was lovely to hear Tim Van Eyken talk about how this gig felt like coming home to him as finally he could bring together two aspects of his life that had always been kept apart. More moving still was Gina’s story about how her life fell apart after a nasty homophobic article was written in The Sun Newspaper. Her songs were simple and direct with a touching honesty about them. She can also play a mean fiddle tune.

The most courageous performer there though was Louise Killen. She used to perform under the name of Lou Killen and sang with such folk legends as Peter Bellamy and Martin Carthy. This was her first public performance since her gender reassignment. Her voice may be a little weaker than it used to be but it was great seeing a living legend of folk sing traditional folk ballads.

The penultimate turn was Roy Bailey who at 75 is a little unsteady on his feet. Age has not dimmed his intellect or his radicalism though (if you ever get the chance, go and see him perform with Tony Benn). He talked about the early days of the gay liberation movement and being too scared to walk into a gay pub (a thing many of the audience there could relate to).

It was left to Tom Robinson to end the evening with a couple of songs before inviting the who company back onstage for a rousing version of Glad to be Gay. The evening ended with the sea shanty Haul away which was given modified gay friendly lyrics by some of the performers (Tim providing a very filthy couplet). It was most amusing to see Roy Bailey get all in a tizzy after being kissed on the lips by Stew Simpson.

And then it was all over and time to go home. I really enjoyed the evening it was a lovely supporting atmosphere. Everyone was very friendly and I came away feeling very empowered and I’m a right cynical old bugger.

Can we do it again next year?

(Apologies for the lack of pictures, I forgot my camera!)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Gratuitous Doctor Who Blogpost

A work colleague told me that, as a rule, blogs containing Doctor Who content get more hits than those that don't. So I have an ulterior motive for writing about the new series of the programme which started last Saturday on BBC1.

Actually there is so much written about Doctor Who on the web that I don't really want to blog too much about it. If you want good reviews of both new and classic Who as well as discussions about other cult and vintage TV programmes may I suggest you bookmark Frank's Cathode Ray Tube blog. It's an excellent site with meaty, informative articles which discusses old TV and film from a cultural and historical perspective.

I'm a big fan of Doctor Who. I was born the same year the programme began and I watched it from an early age. I was never really scared of the monsters (although I wasn't too keen on the Axons) but loved the SF and horror aspects of the show.

The recent revival has been a joy and it's very gratifying to see Doctor Who mania sweep over the country again. I'm pleased to say that the golden age continues with a wonderful new Doctor in Matt Smith, an intriguing new companion (I'm sure Amy Pond isn't all she seems) and a fine script by Steven 'I-never-think-in-a-straight-line' Moffat. It was dead good.

This will be my last word on the matter.

Unless I need to improve my hit count.

Monday, 5 April 2010

As the World Dies: The First Days by Rhiannon Frater

As I've bought an ebook reader I thought it might be a good idea to review one of the very many independent novels to be found on the web which bypass the usual publishing formalities. These books are usually genre novels and can be downloaded for very little money at various internet bookstores.

Riannon Frater's zombie trilogy As the World Dies first appeared as a serial novel on various internet forums before being revised and edited for ebook publication. Since then the books have appeared in hardcopy from Createspace books. It looks like the only ebook now available is in Kindle format.

The First Days begins with a haunting image of a small child's fingers pushing through the gap underneath a door desperately trying to reach for his mother. It turns out that the child is dead after being bitten by his undead father and now wants to do the same to his remaining parent.

His mother Jenni is rescued from the clutches of her zombie family by Katie who happens to be driving by in a truck. We soon learn that Katie is escaping her wife who has also turned into one of the living dead.

The first part of the novel deals with the two women coming to terms with the zombie outbreak and their picaresque adventures driving through Texas. It also chronicles the growing bond that develops between Jenni and Katie. In the second half of the book the couple find themselves holed up in a small town which has been fortified against zombie attacks. There they meet Travis who Katie realises she is falling in love with.

The whole book is punctuated by many lovingly described zombie attacks. As in most zombie films and novels the creatures can only be killed by destroying their brain. Graphic details are not spared and Frater doesn't flinch from scenes of carnage and gore.

So far, so good then. Except that it isn't at all. The book is so badly written that I found it a chore to get through. Frater doesn't use one word when five will do. A sample paragraph:

Katie and Jenni looked at each other and that (sic) gaze steadied each other. They were ready. Backpacks adorned both their backs. Katie slung the cooler by its long strap over her shoulder. Each had a gun in their hand. In Jenni's extra hand she carried another backpack, that she would drop if she had to. Katie held the truck keys.

There's far too much description too. Characters never just smile, they do it 'affectionately' or 'goofy' (sic). Jenni doesn't draw her gun, she does it 'dutifully'. A man's voice is full of 'disbelief, despair and terror'. None of the characters in times of stress say 'God' but use the word 'gawd'. It becomes apparent that Frater doesn't like to use too many contractions when writing dialogue giving conversations a painfully stilted air.

If I wasn't writing this review I would have closed the book on page 100 and moved on. I wasn't even going to blog about it for another few days but after doing a little research on the internet I actually find that this book is well liked. The novel gets four and a half stars on Amazon. It's been described as an "awesome read" and "a must have zombie novel". Only a few brave souls have talked about the abominable prose or the poor characterisation.

So I must be wrong. Do people not care about good prose any more? Is plot all that matters to them? If that's so we might as well bypass editors and conventional book publishers and have a free for all.

For a first foray into the world of independently published fiction this was a disappointment to me.

P.S. Reading Frater's blog it seems that Tor books have picked up the trilogy and are going to publish a revised version. I'm sure an editor will improve matters but I can't help thinking of silk purses and sow's ears.

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Ebook: Or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the pixel.

I can be a bit of a Luddite when it comes to new technology. It took me years of holding out before I bought a mobile phone and even longer until I fathomed out how to use an mp3 player. I now love both and wouldn’t be without either.

However, I was always against using an electronic device to read material. Like most avid readers I love collecting books. There’s nothing nicer than stepping into a well-stocked bookshop (or even Waterstone’s) and having a good long browse. Modern book covers are so enticing that they practically beg to be bought and added to the ever growing ‘to be read’ tower by my bedside.

So there was no need for an ebook reader in my life. Early models were ungainly and slow to use. They also had a backlight which made lengthy reading uncomfortable, at least for me.

All this was true until I got my hands on a Sony Pocket Reader. This small lightweight device uses a newish technology called E ink which basically allows you to read a book in available light and dispense with a backlight altogether. As I had a bit of money in my turnups I plonked down my cash and bought the thing.

So, how does the e-reader work and is it easy to use?

You load ebooks on your reader by means of a small program that runs on your computer. It’s a matter of minutes to upload a small library of books onto your reader via the supplied USB lead (which is also used to charge the sealed in battery). The pocket edition holds around 150 books but this depends on the size of the files you are importing.

Once loaded you can start reading a book which you select from the main menu screen. One of the advantages of the reader is that you can alter the size of the book’s font making it easier to read if you have problems with small print. You turn the page by means of a small wheel underneath the screen.

Personally I found the reader very easy to use. It’s lightweight to hold and, now that I’ve bought a cover for it, even looks a little like a book. Any worries I had about eye strain have vanished, as I’ve had reading stretches for more than an hour without any problems.

The main advantage about owning an ereader is portability. It’s no longer a strain to lug about War and Peace or Infinite Jest on the bus or train with me. The small font sizes of print volumes are obviated by the magnifying feature of the Reader and the device even remembers what page I was up to when I stop reading.

Battery life is excellent. My Reader usually lasts two weeks on one charge. The only downside being that when the battery eventually runs flat the Reader will have to be sent off to Sony to have a relacement fitted.

There are disadvantages though. E ink only produces greyscale print which means that illustrated material doesn’t look brilliant. There will be a while to go before non-fiction heavily illustrated technical material will look good in this format. It also takes a while to get used to the way the screen goes black momentarily when you turn the page. It can also be annoying to find that the book you want to buy isn’t (a) available at all or (b) only downloadable in another propietary format. Hopefully this situation will change soon.

Having an ebook Reader has changed the type of material I read. There are many places on the internet to download free, legal ebooks. These are mostly out of copyright classic novels. It’s great to be able to download a book by Dickens, Chesterton or Eliot and know that if you don’t get on with then it hasn’t cost you any money to find this out. (Libraries are another handy way of trying before you buy!)

Since buying my Reader I find that I’m reading a lot more than I used to and trying new authors and genres of fiction. I’m currently in love with American pulp hardboiled crime fiction of the 1940’s and ‘50s. It’s very difficult to resist a book called Blonde Bait (“She had to buy protection-and her payment was her body”)!

In a forthcoming blogpost I’ll talk about the best places on the web to download free fiction and how you can use your Reader for more than just books.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Demonic Toys 2 (2010)

Those of you of a certain age with a fondness for cheap horror films will remember the straight-to-video movies produced and directed by Charles Band. During the mid-1980's his production company Empire churned out a plethora of mid-range horror and SF titles to supply the growing movie rental market. Such titles as Trancers (1985), Ghoulies (1985), and Puppetmaster (1989) were very successful. They spawned numerous sequels and a cult following.

With his latest production company Full Moon,Band continues to make movies today and Demonic Toys 2 ( aka
Demonic Toys: Personal Demons) is the, somewhat belated, follow-up to the 1992 original. (It's slightly confusing that there have already been two sequels to the first film, Dollman Vs. Demonic Toys (1993) and Puppet Master Vs. Demonic Toys (2004). Both are Marvel team-up type movies pitting the toys against other Full Moon franchises).

Shot, and set, in Rome this sees a number of disparate people stranded in a supposedly 13th century castle reputedly haunted by a Bulgarian Empress, Fiora Borisoff. The reason the dolls are there is that Dr. Lorca wants to add a 14th century doll (the devil-like Divoletto) found on the premises, to the two he already has. Unfortunately Divoletto wakes up and revives the other two creatures. Terror and mayhem ensue.

Or rather boredom and ennui ensue, at least to this viewer. I'm quite partial to a creepy doll movie (there's the creepy clown-doll in Poltergeist (1982) and the very scary Zuni fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror (1975)) but these toys are not scary but silly. The baby doll, called Whoopsie Daisy is a foul-mouthed joking brat and Divoletto just giggles a lot and lurks in a non-threatening manner.

Most of the doll movement is achieved by puppetry with many pov shots as they skitter across tables or walk on the floor thus obviating the need for a lot of cgi effects. It's hard to suspend disbelief when you know that your killers are operated in the same manner as Sooty and Sweep!

The acting in the film is variable from awful to mediocre. The two lead characters are American student-types who you're meant to root for but are so bland you wish they would die. There's a middle-aged gay toy dealer played by Leslie Jordan who makes as much as he can of an underwritten part and a midget-medium called Lillith (Selene Luna).

The direction by William Butler (who also wrote the confused script) is pedestrian and staid. My favourite bad scene is the opening one where our characters meet for the first time. Shot outside the castle it's notable for its length and the fact that it was shot on a very windy day. All the actors are constantly battling with flyaway hair whilst trying to deliver exposition. Inside the castle (supposedly abandoned yet it has a well stocked kitchen and working fireplaces), there's little improvement with boring set-ups being the norm. For a horror film there's a distinctive lack of tension. As for the ending, the word anti-climax springs to mind.

My suggestion? Go and watch the earlier Band movies or try The Gingerdead Man (2005). surely you can't go wrong with a title like that?

Friday, 19 March 2010

Get branded!

"You should do a blog", I was told. "Get branded, publicise yourself".

So here it is, my first blog.

Actually, that's a lie. I attempted a film blog many years ago but, like many things in life (and on the internet) interest soon waned. This one will be different ,oh yes.

Why the title? Well,I'm a librarian and I'd always seen myself wearing a nice cardie or a tweed three-piece suit. It's what male librarians are expected to look like and I do so hate to disappoint.

I'm going to write about things that interest me. Whether that includes what I'm reading, a film I've just watched, a folk gig I've attended or something on the internet that caught my eye.

Eclectic is the word I'm looking for. Which, in this case, might just be a synonym for unfocused. We'll see.