23 April 2016

High-Rise successfully captured the atmosphere of the book

I had wanted to see High-Rise for some weeks and I finally managed to get to a late showing on a Saturday night. My enthusiasm came from my love of the book by JG Ballard on which it is based.

High Rise was the third in his trilogy of contemporary dystopian novels Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975). I bought all of these as they came out and loved them all. Earlier novels had been set in dystopian futures, e.g. one with sever flooding (The Drowned World), but these were set in current times and twisted normal people and normal situations to create worlds that were both very recognisable and very strange. The opening line of High-Rise makes this tension obvious from the very start, "As he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months."

But this is about the film and not the book.

I was in the cosy Odeon Studios Screen 8 which my phone told me I was last in six years earlier to see Red. There were about thirty of us in there which I thought was a good turnout for a film released several weeks previously. When I saw V for Vendetta we were the only two people in a much larger cinema.

Ballard's dystopian novels are very much about how people think and the plot is a way of presenting his characters with different situations to contend with rather than a telling a story about events. The film took this approach too and concentrated on two characters Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and TV documentary maker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) with strong support from a stella cast that included Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy,  Keeley Hawes and Reece Shearsmith. An action film does not need a cast like that but a film about people does.

I do not know where they found the High-Rise block or how much of it was generated on a computer but the brutalist architecture and the interiors were perfect for the story. I would have wanted to live there too. I presume that at least some of it was false as the roof-top garden was unbelievably large. If it does exist then I want to go there.

It was a while since I read the book and while I think that there were some significant differences, possibly different emphasises rather than changes, I was pleased to see some of the original ideas appear, such as opening the film with the opening sentence.

The incidental music was a nice touch too and I nearly screamed with excitement when I heard Amon Duul's Fly United. This comes from their '73 album Vive La Trance which was right for the film. I've bought the album twice.

There were lots and lots of other nice touches throughout the film that either added to the psychological tension, highlighted some aspect of the period or provided a touch of humour. The horse and cheese-knife incident was but one example. 

Overall, like Crash had, I thought that High-Rise captured the atmosphere of the original book and that is what I wanted it to do. It was a highly entertaining film and the two hours flew by.

18 April 2016

I am loving the new Dr Strange

My relationship with Doctor Strange has been tenuous over the years and it has rarely been one of my regular books. Of course that is partially because it has not always been a regular book in its own right with Doctor Strange more often appearing as a supporting character in books like the Defenders.

When he has had his own title Doctor Strange has been reassuringly quirky rather than mainstream, more Tomb of Darkness or Werewolf by Night than Avengers and X-Men. This was particularly true in the late 70's when Tom Sutton was on pencils.

Now he is back in his own book as part of one of the many relaunches that Marvel and DC are doing these days. His reappearance has no doubt prompted by the upcoming film staring Benedict Cumberbatch which is giving this fringe character more publicity than ever before.

I subscribed to the new book, which means ordering a paper copy from Raygun Comics Richmond and then reading the free digital copy that comes with it on my iPad. I wish other publishers would follow Marvel's lead and let me have paper copies to collect and digital copies to read.

The main reasons that I subscribed were my historical interest in the character and the art work by Chris Bachalo who I have praised here a few times previously. It is written by Jason Aaron who has also been mentioned in dispatches before.

The result is every bit as good as I hoped it would be and I am loving every minute of it.

This is the Doctor Strange that I know, living on the edge of reality and being very comfortable there; he is the Sorcerer Supreme after all. He also deploys a lot of the old favourite spells from when he first appeared, spells to invoke the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak or to use the Eye of Agamotto. Fanboys like me like things like that.

The story is good too with the right mix of menace, weirdness and humour.

13 April 2016

BCSA "Get to Know You" Social (April 2016)

Another month and another opportunity to eat, drink and be merry at the Czechoslovak Restaurant West Hampstead where the gatherings of the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) "Get to Know You" Socials are held on the second Wednesday of each month.

This time I got there even earlier than usual, just before 6:30pm (the official start is 7pm), as we wanted to try out arranging the tables and chairs in different ways to see how many people we could fit in for a discussion event that we are planning. Once we had agreed we could seat 30 people in that format we moved the tables into their usual format for the socials, six tables arranged in a long rectangle. Experience has taught us that is the best format for conversations.

The only business of the evening done we settled down to our first drink of the evening. Sonia had decided to go dry for a while and went for a Czeck/Slovak lemonade with grape juice that neither Richard nor I were particularly impressed with - we both went for Pilsner Urquell, as always.

Other people started to trickle in, including the ubiquitous Ruzena without whom these socials would not really work as one of her roles is to welcome new Czechs and Slovaks into the room, something which Richard and I are incapable of.

The other people who came had either not been there before or had only been once and the new people gave Richard the opportunity to retell many of his stories from our time in Prague over twenty years ago. I managed to stay awake for most of them.

The beers kept flowing, possibly a little too well, and around the same time we all decided to order something to eat. I had Smazeny Syr (fried cheese in breadcrumbs) because I had decided that having had it so often I was now determined to have it every time. It is somewhere between a tradition, a ritual and an obsession.

Towards the end of the evening the draft Pilsner Urquell made way for bottles of Zlaty Bazant. Another tradition.

There were fewer of us than usual which was nice in a way as it meant that we could have one conversation, rather than splitting into groups as we normally do. What most of those conversations were about is lost to me now due to the ephemeral nature of casual conversations and it is possible that the drink may have had an impact here. Such is the randomness of memory that the one hard point that I remember is a brief discussion on GRAD (Gallery for Russian Arts and Design) that two of us there had a fondness for.

We were politely thrown out at closing time, 10:30pm, which was probably just as well. It had been a great evening and even the signalling disaster on London Overground that forced me to go home via the Jubilee Line and Waterloo (after a long wait for trains that were clearly not coming for quite some time) did little to dampen my good spirits.

12 April 2016

Walking around Kings Cross with a camera

I will soon be leaving CGI and that means that I will soon stop working at Kings Place. I'll miss the Kings Cross area far more than I will miss CGI and I took advantage of a sunny lunch break to walk around some of the interesting places that have excited me many times in recent years.

These are all within a few hundred metres of my office in Kings Place. Several are part of the massive redevelopment that is still going on just north of Kings Cross while others are historical and there is even a patch that has escaped all attempts at industrialisation.

This is Lewis Cubitt Square, one of the new spaces on the Central St Martin campus. It is on the quiet north-west corner and has building works on one side so it is not very busy at the moment but I am sure that its time will come.

The graveyard and gardens next to the old St Pancras Church are somewhat unremarkable except for the one remarkable monument. Even more remarkably, it is a sundial.

Camley Street Natural Park is an oasis of natural calm amidst all the construction and usual city bustle. There is a loop walk around the edge of the small park which makes it an ideal place to take in during a walk.

The newest addition to the area is the Gas Holder Park which is based on the rebuilt and relocated Gas Holder No. 8. The steelwork is rendered almost invisible by the circle of mirrors that make walking around there slightly discomforting.

There is a little basin between the lock and the railway line that is home to a few colourful boats.

St Pancras Lock is small and I have never seen a boat go through it in all the many times that I have passed it while walking along the towpath. The trees at the top are in Camley Street Natural Park.

Just off Copenhagen Road, which parallels the Regent's Canal as it flows east from Kings Place, is Edward Square and by the entrance is the Tolpuddle Martyrs Mural on what was the wall of a pub. This is only a small section of it.

Granary Square is the centre piece of the area's regeneration and the fountains there are its main feature. There are four grids of fountains and each one if programmed to make interesting patterns. The square is always swarming with kids when it is hot, as it should be - public squares are for the public.

10 April 2016

The Character of Ham and Petersham

The Ham and Petersham Neighbourhood Forum (H+PNF) is a neighbourhood forum (as defined in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) and so will have a big impact on the area that I live and so I am very interested in what it is doing.

What it is doing now is holding a number of consultation workshops with residents on various aspects of the neighbourhood plan that the Forum will produce and then oversee its implementation. I have been to all of the sessions so far and have submitted several comments at each of them.

The next consultation is on the Character and Heritage and heritage of the area. I was asked to produce a poster showing what I liked about the area to prompt some ideas. They asked me because of my Ham Photos blog in which I have been documenting the area for the last nine years through a collection of photographs that now numbers over 2,000.

It took a little while to come up with a format that I liked but once that was done it was a simple matter to find the 16 photos required to tell my story. I am quite pleased with the final result.

It occurred to me once I had done this poster that it very much focused on open spaces and said little about the buildings, so I did another poster of just that and they are going to use that one too as a reminder to people of the variety that there is locally.

This one was very quick to do as I could reuse the format from the first poster and the only challenge was deciding which 20 buildings to choose.

The top row are some of the many grand lodges and manors in the area, dating back to when kings hunted in Richmond Park. The second row shows some of the estate-like development in the area, including the standard 3-bed brick built social housing, the iconic Parkley's development and the Wates Estate. The third row shows some of the more exotic new buildings and the final row shows some of the old cottages that are littered across the area.

Even with 20 pictures there was much that I had to leave out but I think I met my personal objectives of showing the variety that exists and of covering the whole area. I hope that the people at the consultation workshop like it too. I will find out on Wednesday 13 April!

9 April 2016

Who Are You at the Fox and Duck (April 16)

I had seen Who Are You? at the Fox and Duck a couple of times previously and while they had entertained me they were never going to make my "A" list simply because they only play Who songs and I was never a big Who fan, I never bought a Who album. That said, live music is still live music and so I wandered down there to see them again.

This was a very different and a much better Who Are You? I did not catch all of the band changes but the most obvious one was that the lead singer had changed and had also been joined by a lead singeress. They both had good strong voices and made a very passable substitute for Roger Daltry.

I thought that the sound that the band made was more solid than previously which may have been because of the other band change, or the sound system, or my failing memory of the last time.

Whatever the differences were, they sounded pretty good to me and the numerous Who fans in the audience, easily identifiable by their t-shirts, were impressed too. There was much singing along and even a little bit of movement that was as close to dancing as 50-something men indulge in.

I still only knew about half the tracks, typically the singles though thanks to a roommate at university I also knew Squeeze Box all too well (it's from the '75 album The Who by Numbers), though that made little difference as most of the ones that I knew were pretty good, as always Won't Get Fooled Again stood out (some people were paused by the quiet bit and clapped too early), and the unknown songs were not bad either.

I was also pleased to hear so many of the early songs from the mid '60s, songs like I'm a Boy and, obviously, My Generation and Substitute.

They got their timing right and finished near enough spot-on midnight. By then we were all very happy as the end of evening group picture proves.

I do not think that I am ever going to fall deeply in love with a Who tribute band simply because they will play Who songs so it is something of an achievement for Who Are You? to entertain me as much as they did.

Revisiting Jim Steranko's Captain America

Timed for the release of the second Captain America film, Marvel are having a sale of Captain America comics. I learned about this on Saturday morning via a tweet from ComiXology and went to their website to see what was available, hoping to pick up some Jack Kirby copies leading up to issue #200 which I bought when it came out in August '76.

I might still do that but my casual searching first uncovered the short Jim Steranko run (issues 110, 111 and 113) from 1969. I was not reading the original American comics then, only the black and white UK reprints in comics like Pow!, and I have only managed to acquire one tatty original for my collection. I have bought most of his work in some form or another since then, sometimes more than once, and this was an opportunity to buy his Captain America issues in a digital form.

A few clicks later then all I had to do was wait for them to download onto my iPad. So much easier than going up to the top floor to look for a pint copy in one of the bookcases, I did not even need to get out of bed.

Jim Steranko is a genuine comic book legend, despite working on so few comics, because of his distinctive and original drawing style. Even today these comics look fresh even though they were drawn almost fifty years ago.

The obvious things to note are the use of panels, cropping, varied viewpoints including at an angle, heavy shading and rich detailing of machinery etc.

One thing that has changed, and for the better, over fifty years is the storytelling. These issues, written by Stan Lee, are verbose (note the additional text in the top right corner of the page above) and the story is full of gaping plot holes, such as when all the baddies leave Captain America alone in the assumption that one robot would finish him off.

Perhaps with another artist the story's weaknesses would have made it unreadable now (it was good for its time) but the Jim Steranko artwork did more than rescue the books, it made them classics that I was delighted to read again. A wonderful start to the weekend.

7 April 2016

Celebrating 150 issues of the BCSA Review

Probably the biggest reason for joining the British Czech and Slovak Association (BCSA) is to get the Review magazine which comes out six times a year. The Review provides information about recent developments in British Czech and Slovak relations i.e. the sort of coverage that rarely features in the mainstream media in the UK. It has a trusty circle of expert contributors who report on and analyse important events.

And it has just celebrated its 150th issue.

The celebrations were held at the Czech and Slovak National House in West Hampstead which I know well as that is also where we hold the monthly BCSA Get to Know You Socials. I like the place and I like the people at the BCSA so I accepted my invitation to the party.

It was a good evening for much the same reason that the monthly socials are. I had lots of interesting conversations with interesting people during which, amongst other things, I learned about a scenic railway route in Slovakia that could well feature in my holiday plans for later this year.

Some cheesy and eggy nibbles were laid on which, with some chocolates, sufficed as my evening meal and kept me away from my usual smazeny syr. I did, of course, have a few pints of my usual Pilsner Urquell, preferring that to the free wine on offer.

The BCSA Review reaching 150 issues was a significant milestone worth celebrating and we celebrated it in the appropriate style.