Documenting the Damage

To complement Clare’s pics of our trip to Amsterdam, here’s the full Flickr set of my photos.

Genieten, alstublieft!

Dammed If We Didn’t Do That.

The last time I was in Amsterdam was a bit of a blur. It was for a conference/trade show, and I made the most of it. In fact, more than the most of it. One enduring memory is of wandering around the waterfront in a vicious rainstorm, completely lost, trying to make sense of a map that was starting to dissolve in the deluge. At five in the morning. Blind drunk. Not my proudest moment.

Visiting the city again with TLC, as I’d promised her years ago, was always going to be a different experience. We promised each other culture, and sophistication, and the occasional beer. And that was exactly what we got.

Our approach to a city is always the same. We’re walkers, preferring to pace out the bounds of our territory. It’s the best way to see cities like Amsterdam, which is particularly strong on both architecture and street art. The layout of the city is particularly good for this kind of flaneury. It’s built like a web, or half a dart board. It’s highly conducive to unfocussed rambling.

The bulls eye of the town is Centraal Station, a cheap and easy 20 minute train ride from Schipol Airport. From here you can pick up trams, buses or taxis to pretty much anywhere in town. I can seriously recommend the smartcards that give you unlimited access to all the public transport options – ideal for those moments when you’ve walked yourself to a standstill.

For a place that prides itself on it’s friendliness towards the pedestrian, Amsterdam can be treacherous towards the unwary walker. The aforementioned trams are everywhere, and they sneak up on you. They’re electric, and quiet. A real contrast to the thumping, shrieking gallumphers we rode in San Francisco.

Bloomin' typical

Then there are the bicycles. Boy, are there ever bicycles. Here’s a challenge for you. Take a few photos in Amsterdam, and try not to have a bike in any of them. It’s an impossible task. Bikes are chained to every railing, lamp-post and hydrant. And everyone rides them. They’re a cheap, simple and universal way of getting around Amsterdam and they absolutely have the right of way. Frame a lovely shot by the canal and I can guarantee that someone on a bike will spin through just as you hit the shutter.

They’re not pretty, either. People ride boneshakers here, and they’ve frequently been modified in ways that Heath Robinson would applaud. Carriers have been adapted from old crates, wine boxes, shopping baskets. Some machines have extended front forks with big boxes in them that tote everything from the week’s shopping to pets and children. Occasionally, the brave and foolhardy fit these contraptions with two-stroke engines. At least you can hear those coming. TLC and I were both nearly mown down by speeding bikes. It would have been our fault, too.

But the remarkable thing is how matter-of-fact people are on cycles in Amsterdam. No-one wears lycra and hi-vis. Hardly anyone wears a helmet. Everyone’s in their normal, everyday clothes and they rattle along without a care. Even the girls in the high heels and the tight, short skirts. The ones I definitely didn’t notice. It’s refreshing and cheering to see a whole town cycle in the same way that I do – without flash or attention, treating it as a cheap and easy way to get around. No need for special clothing or ugly fashion. Just get on and go.

That'll be thirty euros.

We were in town for National Museum Weekend, a chance to see some of Holland’s extraordinary cultural heritage for cheap or free. We discovered a little too late that the two museums that we specifically wanted to visit were not participating in the promotion. Not cool, really. It’s telling that one of the few capitals that allows free and unrestricted access to it’s treasures is London. I won’t be so blase about popping into the National for a lunchtime amble after reflecting on the thick end of €60 that we paid to see the two collections.

The Rijksmuseum has even more of a brass neck for opting out of the free weekend when you consider that the majority of the building is closed for refurbishment until 2015. This means that you’re paying full price for a limited look of what is on offer. I should be fuming. But the fact is that the curators have been very clever, and have put on show a beautifully compact version of the full range. For your money you get a concentrated burst of the best that the Dutch masters had to offer. All the Rembrandts that I wanted to see were there, and displayed at their best. I didn’t walk out feeling cheated, which is a testament to the carefully considered choices that have been made. In fact, in it’s current form I can heartily recommend it. Just try and get a discount if you can.

We took the advice of the excellent Time Out Amsterdam guide, which pointed out that the best time to hit the busy museums was towards the end of the day. This gave us plenty of time to stroll as we liked through the streets, across the bridges and down the canals of this most labyrinthine of cities.

I said earlier that Amsterdam is weblike in layout. In practice, this means that if you’re not careful, a canal path that you think is leading you north-south can be leading you west-east instead. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of streets in the old centre, and we did. But somehow, it’s ok. Getting away from an accepted plan or route often means you find things you wouldn’t be looking for. We tripped over the cool shopping district of Nine Streets entirely by accident, and blundered across the amazing art design shop Droog while looking for something else which has completely slipped my mind. For the most part, we were content to mosey, or amble, or stroll, soaking up the atmosphere, gaping at the astonishing architecture that seemed to be around every corner, and finding mind-boggling examples of street art proudly displayed in places which would have British councils sending little men out with buckets of whitewash.

Did we indulge? Well, depends what you mean. We ate and drank royally, which is hard not to do in a town so stuffed with bars and cafes. If you’re on foot, it makes sense to take plenty of rest breaks. I love the Dutch way with coffee, short and strong without being an espresso. And of course, beer is a passion. The trick is not to drink in the English way, in pints. It’s prohibitively expensive. A large Heineken will set you back four and a half euros. Best to stick to halves, and savour the flavour of the stronger, more esoteric brews. I’m rather partial to Chimay, which packs an 8% punch and is not designed to be sloshed back like mouthwash. The point is to sit, linger, chat and observe. Once you get that slower pace into your head, everything else makes sense.

So, did we indulge? Well, no. We’re not smokers, hate smoky rooms, and wouldn’t know where to start in a coffeeshop. We had too much to do and see to waste a day getting baked. I know I sound like a prude but, sorry, not really interested.

As for the other side of Amsterdam – it’s everywhere and nowhere. The newsagents all have hardcore porn openly on sale, but then that’s the same all over the continent. I still remember a French school trip where Color Climax books were racked with the comics. Now that’s a way to spin a 14-year-old’s head off his shoulders. But unless you know where to look, or you wander down certain alleyways, you’re unlikely to see much smut.

The funny moment for me was approaching the Ould Kerk, Amsterdam’s equivalent to St Paul’s, only to be waved at by girls in glass-fronted stalls in the courtyards behind the massive old building. It’s like putting booths up in Paternoster Square. It’s that mix of the sacred and profane that makes Amsterdam such a great place to visit. It’s relaxed and uptight all at once, deeply religious and wildly secular. And it’s as tolerant a town as any I’ve ever seen. We had a brilliant, if exhausting time. Am I glad I went to Amsterdam?

A few recommendations. We stayed a little out of town, on the Vondelpark, and more by luck than judgment ended up a two minute walk away from one of the main tram routes into town. This is a good thing, and means that we ate at more local-style bars than the touristy joints.

We tended to breakfast at Brasserie de Joffers, on the Willemsbergweg at Cornelus Schuystraat. It has high white ceilings, and a calm, easy air about it that smooths you into the day. Further down Willemsbergweg, Bar Gruter is a tiny ramshackle place with bags of charm and a good line in strong Belgian beer.  In town, Locaal ‘t Loosje is right by the Ould Kirk, and a cool place to rest your head after being confronted by women of negotiable virtue. Prinsengrach is one of the prettier canals, and we were lucky to get seats at Cafe Prins on Prinsengrach. Their croquettes are delish.

The shopping streets around there are part of the Nine Streets district, and there are plenty of design gems. If you’re really into that kind of thing, Droog on Staalstraat is as much an art gallery as a shop, and filled with good and strange pieces.

The Labbits wish you well.

Speaking of which, Outland, heading back towards Centraal Station on Zeedijk, has a brilliant range of urban art and collectibles. I picked up a couple of incarnations of my spirit animal, that help sustain my inner life and make me smile. But Amsterdam is so full of sights and experiences that my recommendations only serve to show you the things I enjoyed. Everyone has their own inner Amsterdam. You should find out what that is for yourself.

(All pics have been taken from Clare68’s Flickrstream. Check the rest out here. Leave comments. She loves getting comments.)

The Amazing Derek

When I was a teenager, a couple of friends and I used to jump on a train and head over to the bright lights of Clacton-On-Sea if we had a sunny school holiday with nothing better to do. It was a good place to get away from the parental units for a day, and generally misbehave. We’d hit the arcades, egg each other on into buying cheap lagers from the Spar on the esplanade, and try and desperately fail to talk to girls.

One event we always managed to fit into our itinerary was a visit to the Alhambra. This was a shabby cinema/theatre, tucked away in a side street. It had a bit of a reputation for showing obscure horror and sci-fi, and my friends and I made a habit of checking out what was on.

But if we were lucky, we would be in town while the management of the Alhambra made one of their regular attempts to pick up some of the spill-over crowd from whoever was playing at the pier theatre (Bobby Davro normally, if memory serves.)

Now. The management of the Alhambra had some strange ideas as to what constituted good live entertainment. Downright … bizarre ideas. Which was why me and my mates were always enthused when we crossed into Harold Road from the Marine Parade, to see signs up announcing the triumphant return of the Amazing Derek.

The Amazing Derek’s shows were short, sharp, and to the point. They were free to get in (the management made money off the concessions stand. We certainly ate our bodyweight in Revels whenever we pitched up) and lasted no more than ten minutes. It was closer to a sideshow in a fair than any proper theatrical venture. None the less, we scampered up, bought our chocs and settled down in the worn red velvet seating for the show.

The Rocky theme would blare out of rattling speakers, and Derek would stride out on stage. He was a short, wide man with a curious ruff of ginger hair nestling round the base of his skull. He wore a red silk dressing gown. On the back, wonky gold lettering proclaimed “THE AMAZING DEREK NOBODY DOES IT BETTOR”. The crowd, well, the three teenage boys in the front row, went nuts.

His stunning assistant, whose name I never did find out, then stepped daintily onto the stage. As daintily as you could do when you were dragging a heavy wooden sawhorse, anyway. She placed this in front of Derek. Then she dug in a hidden pocket of her costume (way too small and tight for a woman of her effusive dimensions, but she had our undivided attention while she struggled with her bustier) and after much drama and groaning of tortured fabric, produced a blue sateen bag. With much ceremony, she took three walnuts out of this bag and placed them carefully on the sawhorse in a line.

She withdrew. The lights dimmed a little.

Derek slipped his robe off.

I could describe the explosions of ginger hair that blazed over his chest and back. I could describe the taut firmness of a belly that had clearly made good friends with the Hofmeister Bear a long time ago. But really, all anyone was looking at when Derek disrobed was his gigantic penis. He was enormous. I mean, jaw-droppingly huge. His cock was as thick and wide as a police truncheon. It swung gently from side to side as Derek paraded across the stage, making sure the whole audience got a really good look at it.

Inevitably, this was the point where there were walkouts. We always stayed. We knew what was coming.

Derek positioned himself in front of the sawhorse, and grasped his manhood firmly. Then he lifted, and swung. CRACK. The walnut on the left shattered. Derek swung again. CRACK. There went the walnut on the right. CRACK. The walnut in the middle, sending nut-shards all over the delighted teenage boys in the front row. He stood back, to let us admire his feat of strength and dexterity, and then the curtains came across again. We would be on out feet by then, applauding wildly, but he never came out for an encore. We didn’t really need it. The act was perfect just as it was.

Last summer, I was at a loose end on a day off, and quite out of nowhere decided to visit Clacton. Have a wander around, have an ice cream, watch the sea. An aimless, nostalgic kind of a day.

Quite by chance, I found my route led me back along Marine Parade to Harold Road. I smiled, and thought I’d take a look and see if the Alhambra was still there.

It was. Not only that, but a faded banner outside declared “!!!TODAY LIVE IN PERRSON THE AMAZING DEREK!!!”

It couldn’t be, could it? I had to find out. Entrance was 50p, a concession to straitened times. The spotty girl at the concession stand seemed uninterested in my stories of past visits, and had no idea if this was really the same Derek. I slipped into the cool dark interior of the auditorium. The seats were a little more worn, but just as I remembered, and the seat I always took in the front row was free.

As I sat, the Rocky theme crackled out and the curtains opened. The Amazing Derek strode out on stage. He was a little plumper, and the ginger ruff had gone white. But it was clearly the same man I had seen twenty-five years earlier. The assistant, also the same, dragged out the sawhorse. I could hear her costune complaining from the immense strain it was under. But now she ducked back into the wings, bringing out a Tesco carrier bag. Out of this, and with great ceremony, she produced three coconuts, which she placed with the same care on the sawhorse.

She withdrew. the lights dimmed a little.

Derek slipped his robe off.

The ginger explosion had gone white, the belly had a bit of a sag to it. But Derek’s cock was as long and thick as ever. The damn thing could have qualified as an offensive weapon.

He took up position, and grasped his manhood firmly. Then he lifted, and swung. BAM. The coconut on the right exploded in a shower of white flesh and juice. BAM. The one on the left did the same. BAM. The coconut in the middle burst into pieces. I was picking coconut out of my hair all the way home. It was extraordinary. He stepped back, and the curtains fell.

I couldn’t help myself. I snuck backstage, and introduced myself as a lifelong fan. Derek was charming and polite. His voice was Essex gravel, but he was intelligent and erudite, if a little amazed that anyone would have remembered him. His stunning assistant Charmaine, his wife of thirty-seven years, made us all tea.

“I’ve got to ask,” I said eventually. “When I was a kid, it was walnuts. What made you upgrade? I mean, it makes for a better show, but what made you think of it?”

Derek smiled, and dug in the single pocket of his robe, producing a small pair of glasses which he perched on the tip of his nose.

“Thing is,” he said, “my eyesight’s not what it used to be.”


Oh, dear. Lou Charloff tells it better anyway.

Flash Stance


I should write more flash fiction. It’s a great way of keeping up your daily word count, while at the same time not having to commit to a bigger project or challenge. Lord knows, I don’t need the encouragement to get involved in those (hel-looo, Script Frenzy).

The format, for those members of the Readership unaware of the concept, is what I used to call a short short. A short story under 1000 words, frequently coming in at well under that count. I could, if I had the idea, knock out a piece of flashfic on my train ride to work in the morning. It can be a way of writing a quick joke, or to map out a concept, or simply to fire out a character piece. The choice is yours. The only restriction is the word count.

Yesterday I hammered out my first piece of flash fiction in at least a year. I had, for once, a proper reason to do so. I submitted the story to a new incentive, The Campaign For Real Fear. This is a competition jointly created and judged by horror authors Maura McHugh and Christopher Fowler. The aim is to find stories that tap into 21st century terrors, rather than simply rehashing the same old monsters and tropes. The limit is 500 words. As Maura and Chris say in their intro, “If you can’t scare us in 500 words, you won’t manage it in 5,000.” It’s a great idea, and one I’m happy to both participate in and endorse.

Closing date for entries is 16th April. I know there are members of The Readership who would excel at a challenge like this one. Gentlemen, start your engines.

(Flash fiction is a very different deal to slash fiction, which I can’t write. I’ve got no interest in writing about other people’s characters, and I’m no good at sex. Writing sex. Sex scenes. I can’t do sex scenes. Shut up.)
(That’s probably why I’ve never got on with LiveJournal. I keep trying to explore it, and end up mired in some Russian teenager’s Farscape/Stargate mashup. Which turns into an orgy. Topless Robot have a great thread of the worst slash fic on the web, which I applaud and view as a public service. They go there so you don’t have to. It’s a dark mirror to the excesses of the human imagination. The Pokemon abortion fetish story is especially eye-opening.)

(I shudder to think what that last sentence is going to do to my Google stats.)

(image from Flickr user degan’s stream.)

Script Frenzy


Because I believe in making life difficult for myself, I am doing Script Frenzy this year. Hence the badge over yonder.

This is the script-based version of the Nanowrimo challenge that I’ve done for the past 4 years now. Same challenge, different discipline.

The idea is to come up with a 100 page formatted script in a month. That’s as restrictive as the challenge gets. It can be film, stage or comics based, and on any subject. As long as you get those hundred pages out, the rest is up to you, foolish writer.

This year, to add to the firsts, I’ve decided to write a graphic novel. My love and respect for the form knows no bounds, but it’s been a while since I did anything creative with it. It’s about time I put out and got some words on paper which is, after all, the ethos of Nano and Script Frenzy. Their logline should be Just Do It, but I think a plimsoll company got there first.

Just to make things even more complex, I’m trying an experiment in form. A couple of members of the Readership have been bored to oblivion already by me banging on about the transformative nature of the comic I’ll be writing, and you can probably figure out what I’m going to try if you look up my recent comics posts. I don’t want to say too much, because I think I’m onto something genuinely new here. Let’s just call it an old school response to the idea of digital comics.

It begins, appropriately, on April Fools Day. I’m prepping like mad now, working on format and structure. I did some sums last night, and realised that to do the story I have in mind properly, I will need to write 112 pages instead of the hundred required. Seven blocks of sixteen pages. I’m breaking the task down into managable bites, figuring out page counts for each day and week. This, to me, is the only way to do it. The breakdown works out to just under 4 pages a day. A hundred pages of script might not seem like much, but I’m planning on getting 25 panels into some of them. (Any comics professionals reading this just winced at the last sentence. Comics generally have between six to eight panels per page. Watchmen was notorious for sticking to a nine panel grid that is a pain to write and draw.) At some points, I think it’ll be pushing it to get a page a day done.

I’m nervous and incredibly excited about this project. It genuinely feels like a leap into the unknown. If it works, then I think I might just have hit on a new way of getting comics onto the page.
If not, then hey, it’s only a funnybook, right?

How A Geek Rolls


There seems to be a visual shorthand that film-makers employ when they want the viewer to quickly get the idea that their lead character is something of a geek. Oh, sure, there’s the usual sartorial (glasses, trousers that run slightly too high above the ankle, slogan tees) and home furnishing cues (retro SF movie posters, computers front and centre, toys EVERYWHERE), but there’s another, slightly more subtle method.

The film geek will not go to work or school in the usual means of transportation. No, we’re looking at grown men on bikes. Or cars that are falling to bits, strangely decorated or just plain don’t fit the landscape.

The humble bicycle is a great way of letting your audience know that your character is a bit … well, different. You will see them on their contraption within the first ten minutes of the film, frequently within the title montage. If your protagonist lives in a college town, or god forbid Oxford or Cambridge, then it’s a cert that they will be cycling to work. Steve Carell’s character in the 40 Year Old Virgin hits all these notes, negotiating rush hour traffic with an aplomb that he simply can’t apply to his love life. The fact that he doesn’t drive actually becomes a plot point later in the film, but nevertheless he’s easy to pick out of a crowd.

This trope doesn’t just apply to the movies, of course. Uber-geek Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory hasn’t been behind a steering wheel since driver’s ed. This again becomes a plot point in the season three episode “The Adhesive Duck Deficiency” when he has to drive Penny to hospital after she slips and falls in the shower. Hilarity ensues.

There’s a message here, of course. Geeks ride bikes because the rest of us drive cars.* If you choose not to drive, then there is by pure deductive reasoning something a bit odd about you, and the writer can use that off-key note for comic or emotional effect. Just look at John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, reimagining the universe while spinning through Princeton on a Shwinn.

If the geek can pull him or herself together and get behind the wheel of a car, then [deity] forbid that they are put into a Ford Focus. No, although the cues are a little more subtle, the geek choice of ride will be either an old banger or a wilfully obscure choice of marque. Take, for example, the Ford Pacer that Wayne and Garth cram into in Wayne’s World. Molly Ringwald drives a beautiful, if somewhat battered, VW Karmann** Ghia in Pretty In Pink. And of course, let’s not forget the geekiest transport of all – Professor Emmett Brown’s time-travelling Delorean.

I watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs this week, and was heartened to see my theory in action. The circusy recyclers of the title use a fine array of old lorries and that peculiarly French method of transport, the lawnmower-engine powered truck-trike, to get around. It’s a neat juxtaposition with the villains of the piece, who smooth about in high-end Peugeot limousines. In fact, it seems to me that the quirkier the transport, the more heroic the driver. Their ride seems to reflect their personality. Just look at the Munstermobile.

But to my mind, there is one car that rules them all. The car that belongs to fiction’s alpha geek. The quintessential loner, a technological whizz who has trouble with girls and spends more time in front of a computer in his basement than he likes.

But MAN, does he ever have a sweet ride…

*I ride a bike. This has nothing to do with anything.

**Due to poor research, I initially had Andie’s ride down as a Carman Ghia. Cheers to Charlie, the Readership’s motoring correspondent for setting me right.

A (Quiet) Word In Your Ear


In the process of wandering the great and echoing halls of the interwebs over the past few days, I’ve come across several posts and a whole site dedicated to the subject of the introvert. You know the type. Shy, retiring. Doesn’t talk much. Bit of a downer. Clumsy in social settings. Keeps himself to himself.

Well, that’s the common conception, anyway. My reading on the subject have brought up a very different conclusion. One that had me bookmarking pages in delighted relief, as I recognised myself more and more in what was being said, and the discussions afterwards.

The epiphany came at the end of this post in The Atlantic by Johnathon Rauch. I realised that being an introvert was not a choice, but an orientation. This was simply who I was.

So, Readership, the time has come to out myself.

My name is Rob Wickings, and I am an introvert.

Let me explain myself. I came across the Atlantic post, and the astonishing reaction to it while I was at work. (ahem. On a lunch break, of course.) My job ensures that I spend large portions of the day alone, and in relative quiet. Visitors often wonder whether I have been driven mad by the isolated nature of the work. Not so. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. I’ve always been completely comfortable in my own company. I can think, perhaps play a little music. Mostly, though, I’m just happy to sit quietly and watch the images flow across my screen.

The good part of the job is it’s shift-based nature. I get time off in the week. This is a rare delight, padding around the house on my own, cooking, writing, maybe wandering into town to browse bookshops or catch a movie. I’ll chat amicably to shop assistants or passers-by if approached, but otherwise I’m fine just to be quiet and do my own thing.

This is starting to make me sound like a bit of a hermit, which could not be further from the truth. On a day off, I’m happiest at the moment that I hear the key in the door that tells me TLC is home. I have a tight circle of good friends, who I see regularly. I’ve even done karaoke, furfuxache. The one thing I am not, is shy. (OR entirely conversant with sentence construction, it would appear. Hi ho.)

But I’m not especially gregarious. Large parties bother and worry me. I’m terrible at small talk, lousy at gossip and a little bit deaf. This makes clubs and pubs with loud music a bit of a nightmare, unless I’m with a core of people I know and trust. I’ll do them, and can have a good time, but you’ll find I want to go sooner rather than later. Dinner parties, smaller gatherings, barbeques – yeah, fine, no problem. I love people … in small doses. Big gatherings just fluster and exhaust me.

My main bugbear is the telephone. I want to apologise to everyone I know who have ever felt that I have rushed or needlessly cut short a phone conversation. It’s not you. It’s the vector of communication. It cuts off at least half of my chatting skills. If I’m on the phone to you I can’t pull faces, flap my hands about, sketch in the air, shrug, flinch or mime. I tend to think before I speak, which means there’s usually quite a bit of dead air. I just can’t chat on the phone the way I can face-to-face, and it drives me nuts. It should not, then, be a surprise that my choice of phone is one that puts texting and email capabilities front and centre. In fact, the argument that the iPhone’s telephony is it’s weakest feature was just another plus for me.

And yes, I am embarrassed to say, I do screen my calls, and if I’m not in the mood to talk I will let that call drop to voicemail until I’m feeling more chatty. It’s nothing personal. Honestly, it’s not. I’d just rather talk to YOU, not some ghostly approximation. (There are exceptions, of course. Get me on the phone to my best mate from school, and I will happily yak for hours. I think that’s mostly because this is the only way we’re able to talk at length is on the phone. On the rare occasions we DO meet face-to-face, well, then it is kind of difficult to shut us up. And I don’t let calls from TLC purposefully ring out. That’s one voice I don’t tire of, ever.)

The internet has liberated the introvert. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I spend so much time on it. I can express myself in subtle, rich and expansive ways. I CAN SHOUT or whisper. You can always tell when I don’t really mean that insult ;-). Plus, I love to read, and I’m insatiably curious. Frequently I will have a laptop and a book open at the same time, and often the telly will be on as well. My headspace is the place where I feel most comfortable, and the web has given me access to the world and lots of new friends, meeting socially when I feel ready, and on my own terms. It’s a win-win for me, and for a lot of people out there just like me who have absolutely blossomed without all that tedious mucking about in clubs, bars and cafés. Does this make the introvert socially inept? No, of course not, and screw you if you think that. We simply socialise in a slightly different way.

So, what have we learnt? Well, we’ve learnt that I can’t shut up when I get the bit between my teeth, certainly. I’ve discovered that I’m not quite so much of a weirdo as I thought I was, and that’s incredibly liberating.

Your required reading for the day is The Introvert’s Corner, in which Sophia Dembling talks wittily and insightfully about living a quiet life in a noisy world. I can recommend the comments thread on each post, by the way. Typically for a site full of introverts, they tend to be erudite, clever and funny. Features of the persuasion in general, I have to say. We may not be loud, but we’re as sharp and bright as a box of new pins.

And the mailbox for Johnathon Rauch’s original article is well worth a look, too.

Thank you for listening. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a little quiet time.

Hail To The Ale

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Ah, beer. Stuff of life. One of the first foods. Made from pretty much the same simple ingredients as bread, and it’s been with us for just as long. Grains, yeast, flavourings and time. That’s all there is to it. There is an argument in ecumenical circles that if Jesus Christ truly was of the working-class, then he would never have touched wine, and the Blood of Christ at Holy Communion should be a nice drop of IPA instead.

My enthusiasm for the holy brew knows no boundaries. A decent beer is one of life’s finest ingredients. It speaks to me of community, of friendship, of good times. Too much will give you problems, but that is an argument that can be levelled at … well, anything. If I was forced to choose, I mean, really gun-to-the-head-of-a-loved-one choose, I believe I would rather drink beer than anything else. OK, it’s not going to replace the first cup of tea in the morning, or the flat white served with a smile from one of the AMT girls at Reading station, but on the whole… Well, let’s just say I look at historical records that tell us that everyone drank beer instead of water up until the mid-nineteenth century because it was safer, and wish vaguely that I was a time-traveller.

Before this turns into the confessions of an alcoholic, a little bit of focus. My love of the saintly sup has turned me into an activist. I am a member of CAMRA, and have signed petitions and written to my local MP regarding the perilous state of Britain’s pubs. The pub should be a cornerstone of British society, up there with the red phone box and the double-decker bus.

Of course, both of those are extinct, and the humble British boozer is going the same way. A pub a day is closing. These are terrible times for a vital part of English culture, and I try in my little way to support and encourage the public house and everything about it.

Which leads to my arrival at Clapham Junction yesterday, to meet some friends and enjoy the Battersea Beer Festival. This was our second attempt. Last year we were unable to gain admittance, faced with massive queues that refused to subside even in the face of a vicious snowstorm blasting down Lavender Hill. That night we ended up in The Falcon on St John’s Hill, just down the way from the station. This is a beautiful pub-in-the-round, with a lovely long bar, a couple of snugs, pretty decent food and a fabulous selection of beers. We had our own mini-festival that night, and The Falcon seemed the ideal place for our little group to form before heading up to the BAC, home of the festival.

This was a very wise move. There was a CAMRA stall, and kegs had been set up in the back room to entice punters into trying some slightly more esoteric brews. That, along with the food that Nicholson’s pubs like the Falcon specialise in (very good pies and sausages, ideal for soaking up booze) meant that we headed up Lavender Hill in high spirits, and in the mood for more.

We got into the venue without problems, issues or any kind of a wait. A token entry fee and £2 dropped for a commemorative beer glass, and we were in.

Now, a word on the beer glasses. You buy one at the door, and hang onto it through the session. You can buy half and pint glasses, and these are oversized and lined in third, half and pint measures. We always drink halves in beer festivals. It seems pointless to bloat out with a full pint of something you might not like. Plus with halves, you get to try more over the course of a session. One trick is to order halves in a pint glass. Inevitably, you will get more than the measure, especially as the day wears on and the worthies behind the bar, volunteers and enthusiasts all, become more and more tipsy and loose-wristed at the kegs. For the most part, we were getting tooths (two-thirds of a pint) for the price of a half. At £1.50ish a shot, this represents VERY GOOD VALUE FOR MONEY.

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The venue is pretty impressive. The Great Hall at the BAC is a big old woody church hall, complete with high stained glass windows, and the booming echo of a decently crafted acoustic. That room, which must have been fifty feet long, is filled with a central, double-sided bar stacked high with kegs. By 6pm, that room will be stuffed to the gills with drinkers of all shapes, sizes and levels of beardiness. And that’s just the girls, kathudTISH.

I’m always surprised by how many females of the lady-type persuasion turn up to these gigs. Although the day is normally heavy on rotund hairy gentlemen of a certain age and the occasional dashing handsome interloper such as me and my crew, come hometime and whoops look out, it’s like a Boots advert in the Great Hall. Here come the girls, and they’re all after a half of insanely strong Belgian lambic, or a decent porter. They go for the strong dark stuff, ales with flavour, body and character. None of your cheap lager here. These are classy birds. Although they’d whop you one for telling them that. I am far too much of a gent/coward to try.

Eventually, we felt the urge for something different, and ventured downstairs to the cider and perry hall. This, we decide later, was a Big Mistake. The room is dingy and airless, and entirely populated by twats in stupid hats, urging each other on to ever more foolish feats of stunt alcoholism to the strains of (this is the godshonest truth) the refrain of Gary Glitter’s You Wanna Be In My Gang. We have a glass of something (Newton’s Hereford Perry, very nice) and do a runner before things turn nasty. C’mon, C’mon? No, f’anks.

After that, we took the advice of the marvellous Ciaran, who lives just round the corner from the BAC, and headed to another pub, The Eagle. This regularly wins awards, and no wonder. It’s a warm, cosy place, filled with locals, and the beer is clearly sourced, stored and served with care and pride. It’s a perfect place to finish the evening before the long drag home, and the pint of Loddon Hoppit that I sip is a clarion call back to the West. But I shall return.

So, recommendations. The Twitter stream I generated through the day is here. Yes, I tweeted the beer I drank. I’m 21st century, me. The hit of the fest for me was Black Hole Brewery’s RED DWARF, an unbelievably moreish toffee-flavoured treat. I was generally in the mood for milds, porters, stouts and other dark beers, so the list is by definition skewed that way. The Falcon is here. I’m not telling you where the Eagle is. I’d like to keep that one a little bit secret.

Windows In SF

No, not the Microsoft version, and you’d like to hope that the systems on board the Enterprise and the like are not based on an underpinning that’s liable to blue-screen on you halfway through a transporter cycle, or need to download an important security update before you can fire those photon torpedoes.

I'm not sure that's the best way to clean windows...

Windows in SF tend towards the panoramic. They are great floor to window room-width panes, around which your crew can gather to goggle in wonder at each new wonder they encounter on their impossible mission to the gates of forever. More recent iterations of The Big Window have embedded graphics. Just in case you weren’t sure about the exact designation of the Klingon Warbirds moving into battle configuration in front of you, handy pop-up windows, scrolling text boxes and spinning wire-frame models tell you more than you needed to know.

In reality, of course, the sort of panoramic window that you’d see on the bridge of the Enterprise or the command deck of an Imperial Destroyer could never happen. That much glass, under atmospheric pressure on the inside and the constant risk of micrometeorite impact from the outside, would be far too dangerous to install. On the International Space Station and the Shuttle, windows are tiny, quadruple-glazed portholes of thick crystal. You want a peek outside? That’s what video cameras are for.

The guy in red doesn't realise he's up for window-cleaning duty yet...

Which is why most “windows” in SF are actually really big projectors. They have zoom functions. They can hook into communication circuits, so that looming close-up of the approaching enemy warlord demanding your immediate surrender and the handover of fifty of your most fragrant ensigns can be really threatening. You can even show that things have gone really badly wrong by having the screen just show that fuzzy analogue static that is somehow still a signifier of lost signal even after ten years of fizz-free digital telly.

I’m a fan of The Big Window in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which started this whole SF decor riff in the first place. That window is a way for the crew to have a look at the approaching sun in all it’s fearful magnificence, and it’s tunable to filter out all but 3% of the light. This, for once, does just seem to be a portal, albeit one with some really smart sunblock. But it fulfills all of the rules I outlined earlier – it’s a Really Big Window, probably twenty feet square, and at one point the whole crew do gather around it to gawp in wonderment at Mercury passing across the surface of the sun. It’s a lovely moment, and sums up for me the important thing about SF set design. It should always be there to help the story along. Let’s face it, that bit of the film wouldn’t have had the emotional impact if the crew of the Icarus II had been crowded around a foot-square porthole.

We're gonna need a bigger tube of Factor 50.

One word you should never hear in an SF movie? “Budge up a bit, let me have a look.”

The Chair In SF

The humble chair. A little spot designed for rest and relaxation, right? An item of furniture for you to take the weight off your feet, to switch off a bit.
Not in SF, it isn’t. In our favourite genre, the chair becomes a place of action.

Consider The Captain’s Chair in Star Trek. In The Original Series, it is a slab-sided, poorly padded lump of alloy on a swivel. Kirk spends a minuscule amount of time on it, and for the most part he perches on the edge of the seat cushion. Mainly because if he tried sitting back the rotten thing would dig a hole in his lower back. It wasn’t surprising he couldn’t wait to get out of it. It seemed to be a focal point for James T. to bark at Scotty through the communicator whilst leering at leggy ensigns.

It’s interesting to note that The Captain’s Chair becomes more comfortable the less outwardly aggressive it’s occupant. In the later seasons of Star Trek – The Next Generation, The Chair is better described as The Recliner. I swear, the thing has a footstool. I’m also certain there are opening shots in some of the later episodes where Picard can be spotted having a sneaky snooze.

Standards are slipping at Starfleet

SF chairs are not static objects. They do things. They move about. They are multi-purpose. They are dramatic objects. They are not designed for settling into with a mug of cocoa and a thick paperback.

A lot of them are on gimbals or tracks and whizz backwards and forwards with exciting whines and buzzes. They frequently incorporate communication devices, video equipment or in some cases, something more destructive.

pewpewpewneeeowwwkaboooom

Let’s do the Star Wars thing. I’m thinking specifically of the gun emplacements on the Millenium Falcon. These are fantastic. They’re ceiling-mounted. They have headsets, cool video screens and OH DID I MENTION THE GUNS?? I wanted one of these so badly when I was a kid. Oh, who am I kidding? I want one now.

Clearly I’m not alone. The gun emplacement bit in The End Of Time, the last Tennant Doctor Who episode, is a clear homage to the Falcon gunfight. Behind the scenes footage shows Bernard Cribbins having a whale of a time behind the sights of the lasers. I want to see the out-takes where he goes “pewpewpew” and makes exploding noises through his cheeks.

To confuse matters even further, let’s look to The Matrix. The gateways to the virtual world on the Nebuchennezar are accessed through couch-mounted plugs and circuits. You take a seat to dial into the Matrix. Let me just reiterate that. In the Matrix, chairs can be doors.

In Iain M. Bank’s Use Of Weapons the chair becomes something more potent. I would argue that the events of the book revolve around the sourcing of materials and construction of a simple white chair. This might seem a bit of a strange thing to say when talking about a novel that chronicles the adventures of an interplanetary mercenary. And it’s a difficult thing to properly talk about without ruining the big wallop at the end of the story. I recommend reading the book, but if you must, there’s a spoiler below.

The chair is made out of the bones of the main character’s sister, complete with a cushion fashioned from her skin. Iain Banks’ SF is not cheerful. Although it is somewhat chairful. Sorry.

After all that, I need a sit down. Someone send me over an armchair…