Monday, June 10, 2013

RIP: Iain (M) Banks

I was very saddened to learn that Iain Banks died yesterday. I came to his books late, as I often seem to, not wanting to trust received opinion and waiting until other snuck him under my radar: a climbing friend told me the surprise ending of The Wasp Factory in the Partick Tavern one evening; a fellow PhD student talked of a gambler in a book he'd read who had his face removed and replaced with a metal plate so that he kept a good poker face (from Consider Phlebas); another climbing acquaintance keeping to himself in the Smiddy in Dundonnell, with just a copy of Use of Weapons projecting from his sleeping bag.

Sneak in he did, and reading a new Banksie novel became a special treat reserved for holidays. I still associate certain passages with where I first read them. The Bridge was read in Peanmeanach bothy and Against a Dark Background on Crete.

I am very grateful to him for starting me to read Science Fiction again. I had been a keen reader in my teens, but lapsed for years until I found his tales of the Culture. This may be his lasting monument: a wonderful counterblast to all those dystopias that I read in the 70s. In it, you can live (almost) forever, enhance your body, safely alter your mind as you think fit, change sex and generally have a lot of fun. He makes this all sound plausible and consistent, but none of it is taken too seriously. One thing that turned me away from a lot of Sci-fi was the po-faced bland seriousness of it. No fear of that with Banksie. One favourite moment has the protagonist (probably one of his very convincing female ones) entering a Ship when they are having a bit of a knees-up. The Ship's avatar advances in the form of a Teddy bear and announces "I need a hug!".

Monday, April 15, 2013

Margaret Thatcher

I've been staying out of the whole what-was-the-Thatcher-legacy? discussions, but it occurs to me that I have an anecdote to add if anybody is interested.

It's 1988 and my parents and I are visiting the Glasgow Garden Festival. We are all quite keen on this bit of urban regeneration and have bought season tickets. One day (I think it was a Sunday) we form a resolution to go up the Clydesdale Bank tower. We've noticed that it tends to have long queues and so decide to go immediately after the site opens in the morning. We are therefore in Anderston ready for the opening, but something seems to be wrong, as gates are not being opened.  Clearly, something is happening. The something seems to involve a helicopter that appears and lands on the site. We are let in (a bit later than advertised) and hurry to the tower, along with quite a few others with the same idea. However there is a discrete yet determined security presence, and we are held back. Something has not finished happening. Then, yes, there she was. Our Prime Minister appeared, only a few meters away. I think Denis was with her, though I may have added that fact. As I remember, she waved, or at least acknowledged us somehow. The reply was stony to say the least. After a silence you could have cut with a knife, she got her wee trip up the tower. I hope she liked the view.

After the famous people had gone, there was a squabble among the various people who had been held back by security over who was now first. I did get my trip to the viewing platform just after, about which I remember nothing.

I wasn't jubilant at her death, because I'm not like that. Despite being brought up in Glasgow in the 70s and early 80s and my dad losing his job as the market for textile machinery collapsed, and the family having a generally shitty time for much of the 80s, I find that I can still find things to approve of in Margaret Thatcher. (And if I told my 12-year-old self that, I wouldn't believe me.) There was something very wrong, not in trade unionism generally, but in British trade unionism. And, in that rather scary single-minded way of hers, she took it out. She probably did us all a massive favour there.

Her other main legacy was, ironically, on the Labour party, which had to pull itself apart and reinvent itself as New Labour (with a hefty dose of her policies thrown in) before it could be elected again.

PS: Google suggests to me that this took place on Saturday, May 14th 1988. So not a Sunday.
PPS: According to this blog (which I find fairly persuasive because of its nice use of statistics), Thatcher had less to do with the decline of unions than you might think.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Robot & Frank

Recently, Wednesdays have become film night for me. Last week it was Lore and before that Lincoln, but tonight I went to see Robot & Frank after being intrigued by the trailers. Tricky things to judge, trailers. Sometimes you can react with an instant yes or no. Sometimes, as here, almost anything is possible. In this case, I really enjoyed the film. It's a very skillful combination of buddy movie, science fiction piece and meditation about memory and ageing. If like me you spent a lot of your teens reading Asimov's robot stories, then you will instantly recognise the good doctor's rules being applied. As far I remember, there isn't an Asimov story about a robot being persuaded to assist in a jewel heist on the grounds that it is good for its owner's health, but I bet he'd have used it if he thought of it. The film does rather run out of steam towards the end. Having posed lots of questions it doesn't really resolve anything and ends on a slightly false note. I can't help thinking how well Stanley Kubrick would have made it (yes, that's true of a lot of films, but you know what I mean).

Friday, February 15, 2013

A nice print job

I've just got a new passport and can't get over how pretty it is. Those pages for official stamps are no longer blank but have elaborate scenes from the British landscape overlaid with weather symbols. It's actually not a bad primer of Britishness. This is how we see ourselves, but let's not make a fuss.  All this does make up for my terrible picture. They are so insistent now in the instructions about not smiling that I end up looking worried and miserable. But in the passport I have an irridescent compass rose over my face and some birds are flapping past so I just look a bit pensive.

I do think they could have a wider range of scenes. Maybe an urban centre late at night with a merry band of binge-drinkers.