Tag Archives: culture

Art for Christmas

300I’ve never been particularly interested in art. When I was a kid, visiting the UK with my family, I remember near-terminally long visits to the National Gallery – the principle purpose of which always seemed to be to buy prints from the Great Masters (Van Gogh, Constable etc) for our house in Malaysia. I was always hopeless at actually creating anything, which I think served to dim my interest and aspirations in that direction, despite Mr Kwan and Miss Genting’s best efforts at our art classes – at home and at school.

However, in my Urusen fan-dom (of which you’re no doubt familiar), I grew quite fond of the artwork on the album covers, done my my friend Ben’s cousin, fellow band member and professional illustrator, Peter Beatty. Amanda bought me a print for Christmas which now has pride of place in our living room, and suddenly (alongside the comic book art I’ve long since been a fan of) I have slightly more engaged artistic appreciation. Is that what I needed to kick me off on a trend of artistic collection and appreciation?

We’ll see…

The Emperor of America at the Jewish Museum

Reading of The Emperor of America at the Jewish Museum

My brother had a play read at the Jewish Museum tonight. Idiot that I am, I got stuck in traffic and missed the opening scenes, but caught the vast majority of it superbly read by the assembled cast, which included Chinese Elvis amongst their number (seriously, that’s his alias). I’m afraid I’m rubbish at names so couldn’t help with the rest of them, but they did a remarkable job, notwithstanding the fact they had read the play together for the first time at 2pm the same afternoon.

It was a fantastic experience – I felt the usual sense of brimming pride I have whenever I see something my brother has produced or written (in this case the latter), but amplified by the sentiment expressed in this story, which despite being very alien to my practical experience of the world, captures something universal and wonderful about identity, about sympathy, about humanity, about loss and redemption, about love, about friendship.

The story – which Arvind and I discovered in the same place, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel ‘Fables and Reflections‘ – is based on the historical character Joshua Norton, an erstwhile resident of Britain and South Africa. On failing in a massive series of investments in rice, young Mr Norton went off piste and reappeared a half dozen years later in San Francisco, proclaiming himself ‘Emperor Norton I’ and – on gaining the support of a local newspaper and various local businesses and people – became a champion of the American dream. Opportunity for all – rights for all – equality for all. A second chance, your ‘caste’ washed away. Proclamations follow about slavery, about prejudicial treatment of the Chinese, about the Civil War, about a dozen other social issues (and several arguably less significant ones, including prohibiting the shortening of the name of his adopted city to ‘Frisco’). Particularly poignant in the years leading up to the Civil War. It follows his years as Emperor to his death, and the remarkable relationships he had along the way.

Arvind David and David Baddiel

Norton’s a fascinating Character. Arvind noted in the Q&A (ably hosted by his friend, writer David Baddiel) that in many respects he imagined the character Norton was running from something and the persona of Emperor that he created was his way of recovering from his earlier losses and failure – in the business world, certainly, but in the story – from a lost love as well. On feeling that the moment of destiny was upon him – he seized the totem of his redemption (a tall beaver-skin hat) and embraced the salvation of the American dream in his role as Emperor of America. His visions of Universal Suffrage, of heavier-than-air flight, of a bridge spanning the San Francisco Bay – were remarkably prescient. 20,000 people attended his funeral and there is a plaque to his memory at the base of the Golden Gate bridge.

Astonishingly, a distant descendant and family historian of the Emperor attended the reading and gave my brother some vital pointers on the facts behind the story in the Q&A – which Arvind duly appreciated and will no doubt incorporate some of into his next draft – but minor factual inaccuracies aside, it was a wonderful and entertaining performance, and a great story well told. Rough edges, to be sure, but that’s what this sort of thing is for.

Look for it next summer – it’ll hopefully have had the few bits of rewriting it needs and the production support it warrants and be on at a theatre in London somewhere. The Jewish Museum people were lovely and offered to host the after party (it’s a great venue), so that part’s sorted.

Proud of you, Arvind.

Postscript: Just discovered at least three Emperor Nortons on Twitter. The legacy lives on…

Old Basing village show

show hallAs a kid, I devoured every PG Wodehouse novel I could find and got through the Blandings books in not much time at all. There was something wonderful about both the comedy and the setting – London in a simpler time, and all you needed for drama was a country house and the right mix of people. Even murders weren’t required!

A feature of the Blandings books in particular, and occasionally the other Wodehouse novels, was the country fayre, and/or the village show, in which produce, baked goods and animals were displayed in an attempt to win the much coveted accolade of ‘best big’ or ‘best soft fruits’. Of course, living in Malaysia, such things were far beyond my experience, and even now, after 5 years of living in a big country house (boarding school) and 18 years living in the UK, I haven’t actually been to a village show. OK, one country fayre (in which my mother-in-law’s dog one a rosette at the dog show), but certainly no produce competitions.

And after a summer of growing things, the produce competition was actually quite interesting! Photos follow.

mini gardenmarrow monsterveg creature

Amanda’s asked if I’m going to put myself forward for it next year. I’m not sure – I’m reasonably confident that we produced more impressive yellow courgettes and more impressive Apples than some that were on display, but — it’s all in the timing for the courgette, and we did only succeed in growing two apples (yet to be tasted) – so unlikely.

The boards were swept by a single master-grower, though, so think things will be stacked against me if I do decide to compete. I think I’ll stay happy growing food for our own consumption…

Batman Live review–a great experience


OK, so as many people have sniggered as looked on enviously at me for going to Batman Live at the O2 with Arvind on Friday. An early birthday present – Arvind was due to be in LA for my birthday this year – it was my first trip to the Dome in the 11 years its been open for business and the first time I’ve been to any kind of live show in a while.

It was fantastic.

I really didn’t expect it to be that good, and indeed, elements of it were oddly done. The combat sequences – particularly the wire-fighting ones – were slow and laboured, the accents felt vaguely forced (and Bruce Wayne had a bit of a lisp), and the costumes were accentuated with fake muscles to the point that Batman looked ridiculous on the few occasions he had to run.

But the staging was inventive and immersive, the acrobatics were suitably impressive, the story actually worked – despite a proliferation of rogues endemic to the franchise – the pacing was perfect and the humour appropriate. It was quite child-oriented – and indeed, that lent to its charm – a kid sat around us somewhere provided an amusing commentary on the content: On Batman kissing Catwoman: "Eww, that’s disgusting." On Robin’s entrance: "WOW LOOK AT ROBIN HE’S GOING TO GET THEM!" On the Batsignal: "Mummy mummy it’s the Batsignal!!!"

The Batmobile, btw, is a real highlight. Very, very cool on stage.

Anyway, I think its left London as it continues on its Arena Tour – if you get the opportunity, go and see it! But avoid the Bat-merchandise, it is a massive rip-off!

Here’s a clip:

The O2 – Batman Live Performance on MUZU.TV

Emperor Norton reigns supreme at the Jewish Museum

emperornortonMy brother regularly diversifies from his role as a movie producer to try his hands at other things – that’s what you get if you have the brain the size of a planet, and a work-rate as fast as The Flash.

This time, it’s a play: “The Emperor of America" -  based on the life of Emperor Norton I, a South-African/British immigrant to the US in the heyday of the American dream. Losing most of his money on an ill-fated set of investments in rice imports, he loses part of his mind – but the story that follows is a charming one of delusion, romance and sympathy as Emperor Norton makes his declarations, befriends a local journalist (One Samuel T Clemens) and charts out the remainder of his life.

There’s a read-through at the Jewish Museum in Camden on Thursday, at 8.30pm. Do come along if you are in the area, keen on this sort of thing generally or actually know something about Mr Norton – the play is funny and tragic in equal measures and entertaining in the extreme, regardless of my obvious bias.

Local UK nerd days out

Pike leaving the field of battle

love this, from resident good science champion Ben Goldacre – it’s a map of nerdy days out, from miniature steam railways, “dead Victorian racecourses, decaying infrastructure” and the like – all things Ben loves. I’m not generally as passionate on the extreme geek front, but I love that people have done this, and will remember it as a reference point for interesting day trips when travelling the country.

Sadly there’s not much on there in my area, but I may need – in a break from my normally self-centred contributions to social media – to add the annual Old Basing Cavaliers vs Roundheads summer battle re-enactment. Whilst it may not reach the same spectacular heights it did in 2010 when the organisers spent a TONNE of council money on making it huge, every year the loyal re-enacters gather to fake duking it out. As anyone who saw Slingshot’s Faintheart may remember, this is a true Sport of Nerds.

Internal consistency in a world full of zombies

The Walking Dead - Comic Artwork 10I was talking to a former colleague about ‘trash fiction’ and he was lamenting that he didn’t enjoy it as much as he used to when he was younger. By ‘trash’ fiction we both meant slightly different things – popular action/thriller novels for Dazzla, my staple of tier 2 sci-fi and fantasy for me.

My comment was – as long as the stories are internally coherent and the worlds interesting, I still enjoy them. That’s part of the joy of being a sci-fi/fantasy fan – you get to suspend your disbelief and take some time off to dwell in a totally different universe.

Sometimes, what’s compelling is the similarity with our own universe. This is the case with the Walking Dead – there’s very little supernatural mysticism in the way the tale is told. Something – indeterminate but presumably natural – has caused the dead to walk, but it relates to the brain stem and you have to stop it with a physical intervention (i.e. destroy the brainstem). You can’t banish it, or exorcise it, or cast a spell and make it go away.

Unfortunately one of the things rooting stories in the real world does is allow for semi-rational analysis. For example…. the zombies are moving, movement takes energy. The zombies might draw on latent energy stores in their own bodies, but beyond that they need nourishment to replenish energy stocks. Nourishment for zombies comes from humans. The humans are (mostly) dead – ergo no food for zombies. Therefore in time, zombies must surely run out of energy and stop moving (as indeed happens in 28 Days Later)… And yet, in the comics, nearly two years has passed since the Zombie apocalypse and there’s still herds of them moving around. So that jars, slightly.

The second issue seems to be that whenever someone falls victim to a zombie or two, they get eaten alive. That being the premise – humans are food. So the question emerges – where do new zombies come from? If a new zombie is only spawned when an old zombie gets full, then the apocalypse would likely be less complete and have been more controllable.

Perhaps this is overanalysing the situation. Or perhaps it all feeds into the inexorably drawn out exposition plan for the authors of the Walking Dead, who’ve spent 7 years telling the story and never given a hint away as to the cause of Zombie-ism…

Comic-con, someday

Comic-Con LogoI don’t have a long list of places I’m itching to visit. I’m not one of those people that has 40 things to do by the time I’m 40. But there are a few things I’d like to experience at some stage, and, foremost amongst the ‘selfish’ desires would be to hit the San Diego Comic-con one year.

I’ve been following the news more closely than normal, thanks to Topless Robot and Geekologie, and hearing the inside track on things ranging from the new ‘Avatar’ series to rumours of Dr Horrible 2, seeing Andrew Garfield deliver his heartfelt geek speech on the wonders of Spidey, seeing the posters of the Avengers movie appear, knowing that the people making these things happen are wandering a giant exhibition stall with thousands of like minded people… well, it sounds intriguing, if faintly sweaty.

My brother and I have a non-specific plan to make it out one year. I’ve never had a lot of friends into the whole comic/fantasy/sci-fi/animation thing with me, but it is something my brother and I have always shared, and a select few other fellow geeks. Thanks to my brother’s career (he makes movies) I’ve met one of my favourite contemporary comic book writers virtually, Mike Carey, and that is a pretty heady feeling. Geek star struck, natch.

Anyway, if you’ve ever gone I’d love to know what you think and if you think I’d enjoy it. I’m not sure how I’d find the crowds – have always found that aspect of exhibitions unspeakably tedious…

Speech patterns and adoptive phrases

Steve Irwin

My parents have been visiting and were amused to hear me use the word ‘crikey’ the other day. My mum’s a professor of socio-linguistics so finds all this stuff fascinating.

Now I happen to remember exactly why this particular word is in my vocabulary – I used to try to do an impression of the inestimable Steve Irwin (it was terrible) for no reason other than I thought he was occasionally hilarious – and say "crikey, don’t troy this at home, kids. if he boites me Oi’m dead."

Given that the majority of that phrase doesn’t have much cause to enter every day conversation, ‘crikey’ is all that remains. By the same token my brother, over the years, has taken to saying tomay-toes instead of tomatoes – he picked a way of saying something, liked it, and it stuck.

Is this how linguistic drift happens? Or this, and the OED adding acronyms to itself?

Cultural differences in kinship terminology

I’ve been trying to work out to describe how our daughter Emily is related to the various people she’s been meeting over the last several weeks. To my Mum and Dad’s siblings, she’s a great-niece. To my cousins, she’s a first-cousin once removed. To my cousin’s children, she’s a second cousin.

This is all right and true, as established by the common European kinship relationship system, drawn out here.

A few people commented that “[East] Indians have a different way of doing it,” and indeed they do. As to various native American tribes, the Chinese, the Scandinavians and everyone else. As Emily has claim to several of these traditions, I thought I’d look into it to see if there was anything in the Dravidian kinship system (on my Father’s side) or Indo-Aryan (on my Mother’s) or Danish (on Amanda’s mother’s) side to bear this out.

Turns out, not so much. The Danish tradition looks pretty similar to the standard European one as far as I can tell, although there is gender-attribution in the kinship terminology – you reference whether the relationship is on your father or mother’s side.

Similar things hold true as far as using gender to reference relationships in the various Indian traditions, but truth be told, it gets mind-bendingly confusing and no-one in my family uses these terms to mean what they mean in common English usage. From Wikipedia:

The Dravidian kinship system involves selective "cousinhood." One’s father’s brother’s children and one’s mother’s sister’s children are NOT cousins but brothers and sisters "one step removed." They are considered "consanguinous" ("pangali") and marriage with them is strictly forbidden as it is "incestuous." However, one’s father’s sister’s children and one’s mother’s brother’s children are considered cousins and potential mates ("muraicherugu"). Marriages between such cousins are allowed and encouraged. There is a clear distinction between "cross" cousins who are one’s true cousins and parallel cousins who are in fact "siblings". Like Iroquois people, Dravidians refer to their father’s sister as "mother-in-law" and their mother’s brother as "father-in-law."

As Amazing as Amanda is, I think she’d struggle with the idea that I had 8 mother-in-laws when we got married, and indeed I find the idea that half my first cousins were “potential mates” based on random gender bias more than a bit bizarre. There’s even more explanation of this perspective here. Given that I know how genetics work, I’m going to dismiss this kinship terminology as inappropriate for our purposes, especially given no-one I’m related to uses these relationships to have these meanings or consequences.

On the Aryan side, I’ve struggled to find freely available web resources explaining how the various North Indian groupings view kinship. Similarly to the Danes, there are gender specific biases (my mother is technically Emily’s “Dadi” – ‘Father’s mother’, although she doesn’t like the term so we arbitrarily use something else). Most people of my generation, rather than reference their “mother’s sister’s son or daughter” just use the word “kәzin” to cover all of these (in the Sindhi tradition, according to this – section 3.2.1). Which makes it seem vaguely similar to the European tradition.

So that’s it. There’s no “grand aunts”, second cousins are what the children of first cousins are to each other and first cousins aren’t “uncles” to each others’ cousins’ children, but first cousins once removed. I’m sticking with that until I read anything obviously and heroically contradictory :-)

Of course, it’s been abundantly clear that this issue is anything but simple and a number of academic papers have been authored on the subject, including some by none other than my own professor mother. But what is clear to me is that the desire to attribute “aunt” or “uncle” ship to everyone is little to do with kinship – rather it is steeped in the culture of respect for elders and the titles are used for that purpose alone. Which, for me, is no bad thing.