Sunday, 24 June 2012


4* Interesting idea

The idea of parallel earths is hardly original as it goes back at least ninety years in the history of Science Fiction to a story by Murray Leinster. Baxter and Pratchett do something a little different with it by firstly creating a potato-powered device which makes it easy to step into another world and secondly by having humanity non-existent in all of them but our own. Needless to say the two authors work well together and create a book which is different from either of their individual work but just as good. So don't go in expecting a Terry Pratchett story or you'll be disappointed.

It's highly readable and I could (have not other things got in the way) have read it in one session. There is so much potential in this scenario that it's inevitable the authors will end up surprising the reader as they take the story in unexpected directions. After finishing it I kept wanting to ask the authors about several things which occurred to me.

There's the (in)convenience that iron won't cross into another world with severe limiting effect (never mind that you can't take more than you can carry). This makes industrialisation exploitation very difficult. This is never explained but it suits the purposes of their story. Do they have a logical reason behind it?

The result of all this is that akin to a pioneering frontier type lifestyle similar to that of the colonisation of America only without the Native Americans. Some way into the story we learn that a fifth of the world's population have stepped over. Really? A fifth (or more -see a following point) of affluent societies have forgone their comfortable lifestyle to become pioneers. Sorry, but I for one like the creature comforts of a high tech society.

Also, while I know it's set a little way in the future and the device is relatively cheap. It would be difficult for those who would really need it to get their hands on it. I'm thinking of the majority of Africans who suffer from famine and oppression and lack of education. How could they get their hands on the electronics needed? Come to that, how could they get their hands on a potato?

None of this affects the story, it's just stuff that I thought of as a result of the story and doubtless there are numerous more implications or omissions to be found. This is actually another reason why you should buy this book -it makes you think. 

4* Is this man prolific or what?
This is the third book in the series in little over a year and shows no decline in quality. Instead, more secrets of London are revealed as seen through the eyes of Detective Constable Peter Grant (apprentice magician) our engaging narrator. This time, as the title suggests, the secrets are underground.

I started reading this around lunchtime and finished by early evening which tells you something about its readability. If you haven't read any of this series before, start with the first. But don't worry, it won't be long before you're reading this one. You won't be able to help yourself. Great fun series.

All right, Aaronovitch, when's the fourth one coming out you lazy sod?

Friday, 22 June 2012


Getting out of the Stadium of Light proved far easier than getting in. Seated at the end of a row itself adjacent to an exit ramp facing wide open doors meant I got out of there in less than a minute and I was hoofing it round the perimeter of the stadium, my short legs moving in a Flash-like blur (perhaps I exaggerate slightly) as I quickly overtook those who'd got out of there ahead of me. Then I reached the crowds who'd left by the south-facing exits and I was forced by their sheer density to slow to their pace as we walked, still briskly, down narrow streets. I passed two mounted policemen, beautiful dignified animals with sleek coats, so tall and majestic, they dwarfed me (okay, easy to do). The horses were impressive too. (Sorry.) The police were out in relative force, albeit not, I suspect, as many as for a football match. I doubt they had much, if anything, to do. Everyone, including the drunks, were on a good high and just wanting to get home, or to their hotel in the case of those who'd travelled from well outside the locality. Out on to the bridge where the police had closed two lanes of traffic to make it easier and safer for the concert-leavers to get across. Back in the town centre I was lucky enough to catch a bus immediately and landed back in the house at 10.40pm, almost exactly five hours after I'd left it.

Just over five hours earlier I'd been checking that I had everything: Ipod, camera, ticket, umbrella, two bottles of fruit juice filled with Australian shiraz, a bag of processed fish tails to nibble on when I got peckish, a small amount of cash in case of emergency, and a shoulder bag to put most of them in. Sorted. Except when I got there I realised I'd forgotten the small pair of binoculars I'd picked up from our charity shop solely for use this evening. Bugger. The journey to the Stadium was a reverse of that leaving. With the new Patti Smith album Banga playing on my Ipod (there is a Bruce connection there), I got a bus straight away from the bottom of my street, into a quiet town centre where it only became apparent that the concert-goers were out in force, as I approached the bridge and the thickening fog, and en masse by the time I reached the end. Arriving at the stadium I looked at signs to find out where I was supposed to enter, joined a long snaking queue which proved to be the wrong one and had to go much further round the stadium's circumference before finding the queue for the correct entrance. Eventually I got inside to the outer circle, a tunnel which, I assume went all the way around the building's perimeter and was packed with food and drink concessions, and also plenty of toilets which was useful as I had to go. I got to my seat just over an hour after leaving the house. I didn't mention that it was next to four amiable but somewhat drunk Scotsmen with weak bladders. Worth mentioning is that, despite the forecasts, it stayed rain-free albeit still a little cold and damp and I had to pull my leather jacket across my Grateful Dead t-shirt to keep warm. Here's the view I had.

There are two Bruce Springsteens.

One is an enormously talented singer-songwriter who stands in the Rock pantheon along with Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and U2. In my own personal pantheon, you can omit the first two and add Neil Young and The Grateful Dead. Despite my love for Sandy Denny, she doesn't count because there's no way in hell she could ever be described a rock singer. Springsteen has recorded two perfect albums in my book -Born In The USA and The Rising- both note perfect from start to finish, all packed with memorable songs, the latter being an unbelievably dignified fine response to the tragedy of 9/11. But there are wonderful songs on all his albums and these two are just my favourites; I'm sure other Bruce fans would disagree. Bruce crafts songs about love, regret, disillusionment, working class life, oppression both social and economic. On his latest album there's We Take Care Of Our Own about how America looks after the weak in society except that the title and lyrics overflow with a sneering irony as Bruce knows America does any but take care of its own. And then there's the song Born In The USA itself which sounds anthemic and triumphant on first hearing but is the bitter story of a ground-down VietNam vet. Or try the wistful nostalgia for good times gone on Glory Days. And so many more, all sung with a rough-hewn sensitivity, perfectly arranged, everything done in service of the song. 

And then there's Bruce the entertainer.

He's there, trust me, looking half an inch high from where I was sitting. I'd watch the screens, wonder whereabouts he was on stage and only then occurring to me to actually look at it.

He started at 7.08pm and finished, without a break or encore, at 10.15pm. He started at full blast and hardly let up for three hours. When he wasn't singing he prowled the stage, doing a little dancing, interacting with band members while they soloed, at one point pretending to bang his head on the piano keyboard. Often he was at the very front, glad-handing members of the audience, racing along the stage in exaggerated steps. When he saw one fat guy with a sign wishing guitarist Nils Lofgren a happy birthday (it was his 61st) Bruce pulled the guy up onto the stage to dance next to an amused Lofgren. He whipped the audience up into a frenzy, getting them (us) to thrust our arms into the air and sing along. He made local references which went down well as you'd expect. A smile never seemed to leave his face as he poured everything into his performance.

About halfway through he asked, "Who's in the house?" and set about introducing every member of his 18-piece band. As you'd expect there were massive cheers for guitarists Nils Lofgren, Little Stevie (aka Sopranos actor Steven van Zandt), and drummer Max Weinberg. Then he asked, "Is there a pretty red-haired woman in the house?" Um, actually as it happens, no. Bruce explained that his talented singer wife Patti Scialfa " at home looking after the kids." A few days ago, they'd been papped coming out of a Paris restaurant where they'd celebrating their wedding anniversary but with Patti looking very upset and Bruce unable to console her. I hope her absence had nothing to do with that.

With a huge back catalogue of great songs there were always bound to be someone's favourites missing. With me it was Born In The USA (no suprise there), though he included others from that album. From the recent Wrecking Ball, he left out my favourite Rocky Ground opting instead for the more anthemic Wrecking Ball, We Take Care Of Our Own, Shackled And Drawn, and if a song wasn't anthemic in the first place, he made it so. Song after song was a full band production, often dominated by horns and sax. Nils and Little Stevie did get their solos and very good they were too but for my personal taste I'd have preferred more guitar and less brass. All the band were excellent including the strongly featured Jake Clemons (Clarence's nephew) on sax. Towards the end Bruce featured a video collage of the late and much-missed Clarence Clemons to great applause. 

He slowed things down a little towards the middle of the set but it wasn't long before he and the band were in full everything and the kitchen sink mode and I'd begun checking my watch wondering when he'd take a break which, as I'd already mentioned, he didn't. I'd begun to feel Bruce fatigue.

It didn't last though. Not even I can resist the Power of Bruce. By the time he sang Hungry Heart and Glory Days I was on my feet and singing along with most of the rest of the audience. "Everybody's got a hungry heart/Everybody's got a huh-huh-hung-ery hahheart." I mean, it would have been rude not to do so.

I did not, however, pump my fist in the air, either of them.

And there you go. That's pretty much about it. Bruce Springsteen who loves writing and singing songs and loves performing for an audience. He's 62 years old, he's rich, he doesn't need to perform at full belt for three hours several times a week, he just loves doing it and you can see it in his face and in his body language. His energy puts people half his age to shame. I'm really glad I went to see him and it's something I'll never forget.

I just don't want to do it again.

Post Script.

Shortly after leaving the Stadium of Light, I switched on my Ipod and starting listening to an album by The Grateful Dead called So Many Roads. It's an authorised collection, compiled by some fans, of previously unreleased live and studio tracks culled from a variety of sources containing versions of familiar numbers but that are played somewhat differently from usual. Much of it comes in the form of long jams. After three hours of high intensity Bruce, I found listening to this a really pleasant way to come down.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


In 24 hours time Bruce Springsteen should have started his show at Sunderland's Stadium of Light and I'll be there.

Expect something like this (taken at the Emirates Stadium, London) only with less people. Apparently Radio Metro are giving away lots of tickets because the show is somewhat less than a sellout, though when I last checked, all the seats had gone.

Expect a report, plus some crappy photos taken with my phone,  on Friday.

Thursday, 14 June 2012


Amazon reviews

 5* "And the hits just keep on coming."

Wonder Woman is a character who is notoriously difficult to get right. I could argue that, with some justification, no-one has yet. Not even Gail Simone (acclaimed for her long run on Birds of Prey and her own created title Secret Six) could manage it, though she did it better than most. Part of the problem is her Greek myth-steeped origin and the damned stupid thing about her being created from clay. Many writers over the years have dragged in the Greek gods to absolutely tiresome effect, looking and acting as if they came out of a weak Greek drama with pompous attitude and heavy armour.

Now with the DCU starting afresh, writers have the chance to get rid of all the stuff that's dated and/or just doesn't work by replacing it with something new. Which is why I was so surprised when writer Brian Azzarello not only brings in the Greek gods, but he actually makes them work. The story opens with someone (whom we later learn is Hera) creating two savage centaurs to kill a girl made pregnant by Zeus, Hera's philandering husband. The girl is saved by Hermes (human-ish with odd eyes and bird's feet) who teleports her to Wonder Woman who's living in London. And that sets the ball rolling. Zeus is missing, Hera is trying to kill the unborn child (as she's done with most of Zeus's illegitimate offspring), other gods decide to vie for his throne and WW learns the real truth about her origins (quite early on in fact) and three cheers to the writer for getting rid of the idea of WW born from clay and making it much more interesting. The gods themselves are very different from previous incarnations and show a distinct Neil Gaiman influence. No-one wears armour. Hermes wears a tunic, Hera (when going out wears a hooded cloak made from peacock feathers and nothing else), two other gods wear modern clothes while still looking other-worldly, and Poseidon is great big grotesque amalgam of sea life. Diana (WW), while steadfast and true, is also violent (brutally so at times), likes head banging to heavy metal bands in seedy clubs (no, I'm not joking), but is also thoughtful and has regrets about past actions. Oh and you can throw in a new character who is at first sight a John Constantine knock-off but is in fact much more interesting.

Traditionally art on WW tends to be rather detailed a la George Perez but Cliff Chiang's style on the first four chapters is more sketchy, well laid out, and with only as much detail as needed. While initially feeling not quite right, it didn't take long for me to appreciate this edgier style. Tony Akins work on the last two isn't bad it just isn't as interesting.

In summary: the plot hangs together well; good cast of characters, appealing artwork. Best Wonder Woman ever! 

 4* "Sh, don't tell anyone but it's actually The Authority."

If you wanted to write an article on how to introduce a new super-team then you couldn't do better than use this 6-issue compilation as a basis. This title has had some criticism in the fan press but as far as I'm concerned British writer Paul Cornell has done a technically excellent job.

Against the framework of a super-secret super-team having to fight an enormous and enormously powerful enemy (in the tradition of the Authority, and in this case it's a suddenly sentient Moon -yes, ours), Cornell introduces all 7 members of the team plus 2 new recruits. He easily provides, without characters standing lecturing each other, all the background info about the setup that you need to know and makes each of the characters (old and new) and their powers clearly different and differentiated while also providing inter-team discord.

The old characters are as follows: Apollo and the Midnighter (similar to the old A&M but they've never met before and have new origins); Jack Hawksmoor the God of Cities (who can now talk to anthropomorphic manifestations of the cities and isn't the first GoC either; Angie the Engineer (who is either English or lives in England. New we have: the Projectionist, a woman who can access and manipulate all forms of media; leader Adam One, a seemingly confused hippy type who is aging backwards from the beginning of the universe; Harry Tanner, a swordsman who is the world's great con artist; Jenny Q, a twelve year old Chinese girl, the spirit of the 21st century with as yet undefined powers. And then there's one of my favourites: J'onn J'onnz the Martian Manhunter who has a differently shaped skull from his prior incarnation and despite insisting on his loyalty to Stormwatch may well have his own agenda. Stormwatch itself has been in existence for centuries, possibly longer, and regards superheroes as annoying johnny-come-latelies.

All this (and there is more I haven't mentioned), which could have been confusing to both old and new readers, is made deftly accessible by Paul Cornell's skill in this very entertaining team book. Sadly there's new writer next time around and I'm hoping he can maintain this highly promising start. Another success in the reinvention of the DC Universe.

Art by Miguel Sepulveda is an acceptable George Perez-lite.  

Monday, 11 June 2012


3* "Same old, same old."

This is the fifth trade paperback I've bought of DC's The New 52 and it doesn't match up to the standard of the previous four -those being Justice League, Batman, Catwoman (all 5*) and Animal Man (4*). There's just nothing really special about it, though it's reasonably competent. What it doesn't do is pull any surprises. Booster Gold, Guy Gardner (the usual bolshy I'm the greatest), Rocket Red, Batman, and Vixen all behave as you'd expect them to. Only Godiva and August General In Iron have anything interesting or new(ish) about them. Godiva feels outmatched and outpowered (she has super-hair and has only fought ordinary criminals until now) and overcompensates by trying to pull Booster. August General In Iron, when not arguing with Rocket Red (who's interchangeable with all previous Rocket Reds), is more sensitive than you'd expect. Also he's not DC's Chinese answer to Iron Man but to a very different major Marvel hero (who's been in at least one movie, and that's the only hint you're getting).

The most boring part is that they're up against a villain almost as powerful as Darkseid but even less interesting.

It you want a bog-standard DC superhero group then you'll probably like this. It's just not in the same (and I'm sorry for using this word) league as the other titles I've read. 

 4* "Not easy to watch"

This isn't a thriller or an action movie or a police procedural. Instead it's a portrayal of a cop in LA slowly drowning in a mess of his own making.

Never mind the excellent support from Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Robin Wright, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube, Sigourney Weaver (and what a cast that is) and others, at the heart is an astonishing performance from Woody Harrelson as Dave 'Date Rape' Brown (the nickname coming from the widespread, and probably accurate, belief that he once murdered a serial date rapist), an equal opportunity bigot who hates everyone. Living with two ex-wives (who are sisters) and a daughter from each wife and despite trying to keep his family together, he's a compulsive womaniser. When he's not doing that or smoking heavily, he can be found beating suspects to extract information. But when he's caught on camera giving a vicious beating to someone who rammed his car and ran for it it, things start to really go downhill. This is made worse by his own stubbornness and a knack for making the wrong decision, despite a basic sharp intelligence.

This isn't a film to like, though it will certainly have its admirers of which I am (an uncertain) one. Also a lot of people will hate the end. The script was co-written by director Oren Moverman with cult crime novelist James Ellroy who can both be found talking about the film in the reasonably substantial making of. Whether or not it ultimately succeeds in what it was attempting, there's no doubting the ambitiousness of the project.  

3* "Oh, here's another one."

Unauthorised live albums by Neil Young and (sometimes credited, sometimes not) Crazy Horse seem to be crawling out of the woodwork this year. This single hour-long disc is from the same tour as the much better Cow Palace 1986, along with its barking dog and phone calls. Apart from an acoustic Needle & The Damage Done, it's a high octane electric collection with several standards like Mr Soul, Cortez the Killer, and if you think you know what the others are, apart from Opera Star, you're probably right.

It's not bad and the sound quality is acceptable, but unless you can't live without every note Neil's ever played, then this is nothing you haven't heard before. If you haven't got an unauthorised live Young album then go for Cow Palace. You can safely skip this one. 

 5* "Best Catwoman yet."

This is the fourth trade collection of DC's new universe The New 52 that I've bought and it maintains the high standard.

The character of Catwoman (Selina Kyle) is complicated. She has depths and a past which she thought she'd left behind. Sure, she's a criminal, a thrill-seeker, and sexually active -wait till you see what she and Batman get up to at the end of the first chapter, a scene which raised the roof when the original comic appeared- but she suffers from strong feelings of guilt which is no surprise when you see what happens to one of her friends.

But okay, the story. She goes up against the Russian Mob, mean Gotham ganglords, a super-powered villainess, has a complicated relationship with a protective Batman and, even worse, accidentally takes on some corrupt Gotham cops which really gets her in trouble. The dialogue is sharp, the art is sexy with low cut dresses and bright red lipstick. This is great stuff from the writer/artist team of Judd Winick and Guillem March.

Not to be missed. 

It was suggested by a friend of mine that the goggles actually look like a bra, which is true. However, on an uncoloured copy inside  they are clearly goggles. Just poor colouring then.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012


Am I missing something here?

A couple of days ago I was watching BBC's News 24 and an economist was being interviewed on the financial effects of the Jubilee. Hold it, hold it! No, this isn't another excuse to have a dig at the monarchy.

The expert reckoned that around £700 million was being spent by people on the Jubilee -bunting, flags, celebrations, etc- thus injecting that amount into the economy.

On the downside, the expert reckoned that over £2 billion would be lost in production -the two bank holidays and people taking three leave days- thereby taking a total balance of £1.3 billion out of the economy.

Now I am emphatically not an economist, finding it an arcane obscure science at best, and having given up on it after a few weeks of an A-level course back in the days of my youth. Despite that, however, there seemed to me to be a glaring flaw in the argument.

The three days leave that people were taking are a normal part of their annual entitlement and happen to be taken now rather than later so surely this annual leave would already be factored into the equation. 

The Spring Bank Holiday is a regular occurrence, not a one-off, and again has surely been factored in. (Aside: Britain has the lowest number of public holidays in Europe.)

So that leaves the Jubilee Bank Holiday. Now that is extra and should be counted.

By my reckoning (and I am also bad at maths), fourth fifths of this so-called £2 billion shortfall has been accounted for. This leaves a total of £400 million in production lost to the economy. On the other hand it is offset by the money spent on the Jubilee so by taking one figure from the other and we are left with an overall injection of £300 million pounds into the economy, not a deficit at all. 

You could also argue that the feel-good factor engendered the celebrations (except among cynical curmudgeons like myself) is likely to boost production when people return to work.

Anyway, on simple monetarist grounds alone, the Jubilee has provided a boost to the economy rather than the opposite.

Or am I missing something here?

Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Thank God that's all over.

I occasionally contribute to Amazon Vine forum which isn't all about the freebies we get but can cover pretty anything anyone wants to raise and, inevitably, someone raised the topic of the jubilee on which I posted a comment. The comment resulted in a reply which went roughly: For someone who isn't interested in the royal family you spend a lot of time time writing about them. Actually it was only a couple of sentences but I replied that: I find writing about why I'm not interested in the royal family more interesting than being interested in the royal family.

Truth be told, my attitude is more ambivalent than that. Were I to be dogmatically left wing I could say that the queen represents a pinnacle of an archaic class system which should be done away with. To a certain extent this is true but it isn't all the picture. 

What is also undoubtedly true is that the monarchy gives Britain a certain cachet abroad. It possesses an aura which fascinates those who aren't British. You just need to look at or read the news about various overseas visits by senior members of the royal family to verify this. They also symbolise the long traditions of this country -I'm think here of it represented by the various historical paraphernalia and the history of the country itself -nearly a thousand years of independence, of freedom. (Yes, of course I'm grossly oversimplifying but the this is a blog post not an historical thesis.) We have a long proud history of technological innovation, of adapting to social change, of tolerance, of bringing a unity spread across many parts of the world. Yes, I am talking about the British Empire with all its many flaws and horrors but, compared to other colonial powers, we have a far more enviable record.

So I am emphatically not a republican. I do believe the monarchy serves a useful purpose. A drastically slimmed down monarchy would serve it even better. And this will happen because the seeds have already been sown. The monarchy has changed a lot already in the 60 years Elizabeth has been queen and it will keep on changing through the two princes who are far more in touch with modern Britain than those who came before and will probably end up more like the royal families of Holland and Sweden.

As for the queen herself, on her ascension to the throne she stated she would dedicate her life to this country, the commonwealth, and to their peoples. I believe, by her own lights, she has done this with grace and dignity and it would be churlish of me to deny it. Despite the weather and the inane BBC commentaries, the jubilee has been a great success among the people of this country and my respect to them for this. It has been a wonderful celebration of unity in a society that is far more open, far more diverse, far more tolerant than it was when I was a child.

Not that I think Elizabeth had much to do with it except as a symbolic figurehead. I can appreciate what's happened this weekend but I'm simply not interested in the royal family. They are irrelevant to my life.

I took a break after writing that last paragraph to help Susan sort out dog food in the garage which is to go to the Greyhound rescue at Wingate (the food not the garage). Then I went off the Sainsburys and Morrisons to empty the donated pet food bins. When I got back, Susan was watching the queen in a car slowly returning from Westminster or St.Paul's or wherever. There were shots of cheering crowds, barricades, police, the queen waving, streets, repeat, repeat, repeat. I mean, who the fuck would want to watch more than five minutes or that? Interminably tedious. I can understand the crowds being there to cheer but I also imagine that once the procession had passed by them, there'd be a collective sigh and a chorus of: right, off to the pub.

I dunno. Clearly, for better or worse, I'm missing something. But whatever it is, I honestly don't care. Once I've finished the mug of coffee I'm drinking, I back out in the van again and away a few miles down  the coast to pick up a stray kitten which someone has found. Stuff the royal family, rescuing cats and kittens is what's really important to me.