Marillion (Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, 9/11/2013)

Marillion have played a couple of UK dates recently and we went to see them play in Aylesbury. This was, apparently, the first time in 29 years that the band have played at that venue, and as Aylesbury is where they’re based it was a sort of homecoming gig. The Waterside Theatre is relatively newly rebuilt, and Aylesbury seem very pleased with it – we drove into Aylesbury twice* from different directions & you’re sign-posted to the theatre right from the outskirts of town both times. It’s quite nice, and the staff were all astonishingly friendly and cheerful.

*On purpose – we were staying with my parents in Oxford and so drove round the edge of Aylesbury on the way there before returning for the evening.

Waterside TheatreMe, Pre-gig

The support “band” was Jacob Moon – who does guitar+singing. His most recent album is a collection of covers, and so as well as original stuff we were treated to his version of Kayleigh and also of a Rush song (I don’t know Rush well enough to remember what it was). He was good, and built up some quite complex songs by layering guitar loops. Obviously he got the best response to Kayleigh, as you’d expect.

Jacob Moon

Then it was Marillion. Overall they played two hours – a main set plus 3 encores. Apart from the very last encore it was a very recent setlist, heavily biased towards things off Sounds That Can’t Be Made (as you might expect). But the setlist had been shaken up a bit from when we’ve previously seen them while they were touring this album – in particular they started with Invisible Man (from Marbles) rather than with Gaza. There were also no A Few Words for the Dead this time. I put the camera away for the last encore once they started playing – this one was two Fish-era songs, Garden Party and Market Square Heroes (appropriately as we were right near the Market Square in question). And it was very bouncy πŸ˜€

MarillionMarillionSteve HogarthSteve HogarthSteve HogarthConfetti!

A good evening! I’ve got some more pictures up on flickr, here.

“Enchanted Glass” Diana Wynne Jones

History lecturer Andrew Brandon Hope has just inherited his grandfather’s house and field of care – but at the beginning of this book neither he nor we have any idea what the latter really entails. About a year later, as he’s beginning to settle into the house 12 year old Aidan Cain turns up on his doorstep. Aidan’s grandmother has just died & she’d told him if he was ever in trouble he should go to Andrew’s grandfather – so here he is. The rest of the story revolves around Andrew’s field of care, Aidan’s parentage, and the magic they both have (but that Andrew had forgotten due to being concerned with being a grown-up).

This book was published in 2010, the year before Diana Wynne Jones’s death, and I don’t think I’d realised before that she was still writing as recently as that. She was one of my favourite authors when I was a kid but I never ended up buying many of her books because they were all in the school library. In fact I think I only own Archer’s Goon, but my favourites were the Chrestomanci books and Homeward Bounders. I was actually looking in the children’s section of the library to see if Homeward Bounders was on the shelf, but this was the only one of hers that was there – so I picked it up coz I’d not read it before.

If I’d been the right age for the book, I’d’ve loved it – as an adult it felt a little too pat at times and everything wrapped up rather easily. Which is not a criticism as such, just an acknowledgement it’s a children’s book I’m reading without the rosy glow of nostalgia πŸ™‚ The tone of the book is fairly light-hearted – most of the secondary characters are broadly drawn & comic. And the antagonist is just sinister enough that you can tell, without being truly scary.

Which all sounds like it wasn’t a good book, but it was – it was a lot of fun to read. I liked the dopplegangers with one from the fairy world & the human world. I liked the servants Andrew inherits along with the house – a housekeeper and a gardener, a comic pair who’re quite determined to make sure that Andrew behaves as they think he should, but also both have their roles to play in the events of the plot. Amusingly both surnamed Stock, as are many in the village, it’s almost as if it’s full of stock types … πŸ˜‰ The one thing I didn’t entirely like was the final reveal about Aidan’s father – it felt like it grew out of the story, in that the clues were all there, but the relationship it implied it didn’t sit well with me.

So overall, fun, but probably better if you’re 10 or 11 years old.

TV This Week Including Congo, Evolution and Egyptian Mummies

Dan Snow’s History of Congo

This programme falls into the category of incredibly depressing stories about the state of the world. Dan Snow visits Congo and tells us about the history of this region of Africa – and how it’s been screwed over first by European colonial powers and subsequently by homegrown dictators & rebels (propped up by the West). Congo has vast reserves of natural resources, yet the people who’ve been in power over the last hundred and fifty years have all been very good at making the profits disappear into private hands, leaving the country one of the poorest in the world. Also depressing is how little I knew about the country before I watched this programme. Worth watching.

Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life

This programme was part a biography of Darwin, part a trip down memory lane for David Attenborough and part a discussion of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Rather surreally it was presented by current David Attenborough and co-presented by David Attenborough from 30 or so years ago. I mean that they re-used footage from earlier serieses of his, including Life on Earth (which I don’t actually remember watching as a child, but I remember getting the book out of the library multiple times). It ended up feeling like a programme which had a strict budget – not just the re-used old footage, but also an animation of the tree of life which had been made by someone else. There wasn’t really anything new to me in the programme, but it was a pretty good round up of the subject.

Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy

This programme was a cut down version of the two hour film that Chris Naunton made about Tutankhamun’s death, which we watched a couple of months ago while visiting J’s parents. I think this one hour version was actually a bit more coherent than the longer film – and it definitely had less of Naunton pretending not to know things so he could ask people leading questions. (Yes, I know that’s part of how you write the script for one of these, but it doesn’t mean I like it much when it’s obvious.) The programme looks at the mummy of Tutankhamun and presents a theory about his death and mummification to explain the physical evidence. As I said the last time I wrote about this programme “determining” the cause of death of Tutankhamun is always an exercise in deciding which wounds you think are real and which you think are artifacts of the mummification process and subsequent treatment of the mummy. Naunton & co’s theory was based around the significant damage in a straight line from Tutankhamun’s left shoulder to left hip, and the missing heart and sternum. They used modern crash simulation technology to show that a chariot crashing into a kneeling Tutankhamun would produce injuries consistent with those on the mummy – and suggest it’s possible this happened during a battle. But I’m pretty sure other egyptologists think those wounds are a red herring – there are also candidate wounds in one of his legs, for instance.

The more convincing theory they propose is the one that explains why the mummy is charred (hence the title of this incarnation of the programme). The basic idea is that the mummification of Tutankhamun was rushed and the oils used as part of the ritual weren’t allowed to dry out enough before he was wrapped up and put in his coffin. They suggest this would be down to the political situation at the time – Tutankhamun’s named successor was Horemheb, but his actual successor was Ay so there’s a suggestion that Ay seized power and buried Tutankhamun as quickly as possible (and they also suggest he was interred in Ay’s tomb, with Ay later being buried in a bigger tomb originally intended for Tutankhamun). But anyway, he was buried a bit too quickly, still damp from the oils – and some oils as they dry heat up. In particular linseed oil which Naunton did a test with and showed that oily rags bundled up as if they were in a mummy will very quickly reach over 300°C – sadly he didn’t say if linseed oil was one of the oils used in mummification, but I assume something similar is. So it is very likely that Tutankhamun smouldered away in his coffin after burial, and that this explains the charred appearance of the mummy.

Steven Wilson (Royal Albert Hall, 20/10/13)

Nearly a month ago J and I went to see Steven Wilson play at the Royal Albert Hall. As this was shortly after we’d got home from Turin we didn’t spend the day in London beforehand, just headed in in time for the concert. After meeting up with Paul and Ady we had dinner at Wagamamas and headed off to find our seats. Paul had bought the tickets some time before* and we’d all forgotten what we’d done about seats – just remembered we’d gone for fairly cheap tickets so assumed we were up in the nosebleed seats somewhere. But it turned out we’d got seats on the main floor seating area, only about 20 or 30 rows back from the front, which was pretty awesome.

*We’d learnt from last time’s organisational fail!

I find talking about solo gigs for Steven Wilson a bit difficult – I don’t often (if at all) listen to the albums at home. So I don’t know the music particularly well, and often can’t name the tracks even when I do know them. There’s something about the atmosphere of him & his band live, in combination with the visuals, that makes the music work for me in a way it doesn’t really do on record. And I do like the videos that go with the songs. The concert even opened with a short video set to music about a busker who no-one notices (which is also the subject of one of Wilson’s songs – “Luminol”), which segued seamlessly into the start of the concert proper. I can’t remember the setlist now (and as I said at the beginning of this paragraph I likely couldn’t’ve told you it immediately after the gig either) – I do remember we got Postcard (which I like quite a lot, but J’s not that fond of), and Watchmaker, and The Raven that Refused to Sing, because I remember all the visuals for those ones πŸ™‚ And they finished up with Radioactive Toy as the encore, just like in March πŸ™‚

They were fairly strict about no photography during the show, so I don’t have any photos (and the one I tried to take on my phone to show where we were in the venue didn’t come out at all). I’ll finish up the post with a video from youtube instead, of Postcard as played in Mexico City last year:

“Crewel” Gennifer Albin

I reserved Crewel at the library after reading an excerpt from the sequel on because I was interested in the premise. Don’t read the excerpt if you don’t want to be spoiled for some of the revelations in Crewel btw, and there are some spoilers for plot points later in this post as well.

In Crewel our protagonist is 16 year old Adelice who has just gone through the testing to see if she can become a Spinister – someone who can spin the very stuff of the world. She’s passed – accidentally, her parents had been coaching her how to fail. Tonight they are coming to take her away if she can’t escape. The world is a heavy-handed dystopia, young adult style. Boys and girls are segregated till after they’re 16, then must marry by 18. Women have limited job opportunities with only very 1950s-approved professions available to them (secretary, for instance). Everyone must keep themselves groomed to the appropriate standard – which for women means heavily made up using appropriate cosmetics. The Guild, who control the Spinsters, turn up with overwhelming force and drag Adelice off to her fate … Spinsters are kept in luxury, with their own stylists & so on to keep the girls happy coz we all know that’s all girls care about. But not Adelice, she’s made of sterner stuff and the primary driving force of the plot is for her & us to find out why they haven’t just killed her like they would a normal Spinster candidate who was causing so much hassle.

As you might tell from the tone of that paragraph I didn’t much enjoy the book. I could say “oh it’s YA, that’s why” but I don’t think that actually does excuse the lack of subtlety. There’s quite a lot of anvilicious foreshadowing, and when Adelice does something that shows she’s special we get it referenced several times over a few pages to make sure no-one reading can miss that this is Special. It probably does explain the love triangle which had me rolling my eyes, but that appears to be de rigueur if you have a female protagonist in a YA book. And I’d probably have liked it more when 16 or younger myself, but nowadays I feel it’s rather overdone as a trope.

I found the secondary characters rather shallow. The love interests appear to appeal to Adelice because they’re the first boys of approximately her own age she’s ever met. The antagonists are cartoonish – the leader of the Guild isn’t just interested in Adelice because of what makes her special but SPOILER he’s also interested in her (genuinely? as a means of control? I’m not sure). So there’s a forced-marriage sub-plot that appears out of almost nowhere at the end of the book, with bonus threat of brainwashing if she doesn’t agree. END SPOILER. The other antagonist is a more senior Spinster who takes a hatred to Adelice because Adelice is special and also her pretty boy fancies Adelice, and she’s sufficiently psychotic that she “cleans” (i.e. kills, via the world weaving stuff) a whole handful of people out of petty spite at Adelice not walking into a trap she set (which would’ve ended up with said people dead by Adelice’s hand instead). She doesn’t quite cackle and rub her hands together while talking about her evil plan … but she might as well.

I finished it mostly because it was a quick enough read & I did still like the premise of where this world of Spinsters who could mould reality came from. But I’ve no desire to read further.

TV This Week Including Witches, Sir Gawain, Ottomans, Musical History, Plastic & 20th Century Britons

The King’s War on Witches: Revealed

This Channel 5 documentary was about the witch hunts in England and Scotland in the 17th Century. As context it talked a little about the witch trials in Europe, which hadn’t spread to England & Scotland until after James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) began to believe he was the target of a conspiracy of witches trying to assassinate him. As the programme pointed out he’d been the target of more physical assassination attempts several times by the time of his wedding, so when a fierce storm blew up on his & his new wife’s way home from Denmark it didn’t take much of a leap of imagination for him to believe it was deliberately raised to kill him. Once safely home he had several local wise women, or cunning folk, and healers rounded up and eventually under torture some confessed to the witchcraft and assassination attempt and were burnt at the stake. James went on to write a book about hunting witches – what they could do, where they got their powers, what to look out for, what evidence was valid in court of law and so on. This became the primary text used throughout both countries – the programme detailed a few specific cases where women ran afoul of witchfinders and were burnt to death. It also showed some recent archaeological evidence that practices that James VI & I would’ve defined at witchcraft were continuing until at least the 1970s. These were some pits excavated in Cornwall that contain animal or bird skins and eggs, and appear to’ve been ritually laid in the earth at various points in time – one included some plastic, hence the “into the modern day” part.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage has translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the original Middle English into modern English, and this programme was partly telling us the story of the poem and partly about translating the poem. Armitage walked through the sorts of landscapes mentioned in the poem, mostly in the pouring rain, to conjure up the world of the story. Gawain is one of King Arthur’s knights, and one New Year’s Eve a green knight comes to Camelot and challenges the knights – is one of them brave enough to cut off his head, knowing that a year later the knight must go to him and he will cut off the knight’s head in return. Gawain steps up to the challenge, and most of the poem details his journey a year later going to his destiny.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

The third and final episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire was mostly about the aftermath of its collapse, and the repercussions of that that are still being felt today. The Empire was torn apart partly by rising nationalist feeling, and partly by the Allies after the end of WWI – the Ottomans had been on Germany’s side. The first half of the programme was a catalogue of states & empires behaving poorly, and the horrific consequences. This included genocide of Armenian Christians by the splintering Ottoman Empire, brutalities brought about by the Greek invasion of Turkey (sponsored by the British, and leading to a “population exchange” where families with roots centuries deep in one country or another were deported “home” as defined by their religion), and the various problems caused by the British Empire promising the same land to multiple groups during WWI. In the second half of the programme Omaar concentrated on Turkey, as both the former heartland of the Ottoman Empire and as one of the success stories of the region. This was less unrelentingly bleak – although when discussing Attaturk Omaar did say that he “wasn’t as bad as Stalin or Chairman Mao” which strikes me as damning with faint praise! Attaturk and his successors strongly believed that the road to success was to Westernise, and that this meant secularise. The tone of the programme was disapproving of this, but some of the interviewees were much more positive (including a woman who’d been a child during Attaturk’s initial reforms and who felt her life was much better as a result of the rights given to women). Modern Turkey has managed to combine both democracy and being an Islamic state, and is also beginning to rehabilitate the reputation of the Ottoman Empire.

This was an odd series in some ways – there were several times when I thought Omaar was glossing over things in an attempt to make the Ottomans sound more tolerant than they actually were. And that continued with a blasΓ© handwave past the more recent protests in Turkey as not really important. However it was still interesting (and reminded me how little I know about the Ottomans in general).

David Starkey’s Music & Monarchy

In this series David Starkey is going to tell us all about the impact the English monarchy has had on English music. It boasts newly recorded performances of the various examples, all of which seem to have Starkey standing or sitting and listening in a pseudo-regal style … The first episode took us from Henry V through to Elizabeth I. Along the way he told us (and showed us) how English church music evolved into a complex (and highly respected) art form. Henry V was a composer himself, as well as a pious man who felt that the best way to get God on his side was to make sure His praises were sung in the best possible way. The story also covered how the foundations of both Eton & King’s College, Cambridge were due to Henry VI’s piety and desire for choirs to praise the glory of God. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was almost disastrous for English church music – although Henry himself kept music as part of church services his much more radically Protestant son wanted to abolish all of that. The day is only saved by Elizabeth’s return to a third way between Protestantism & Roman Catholicism – and her Chapel Royal performed a lot of music as part of services (and leading composers such as Thomas Talis & William Byrd flourished during her reign).

Plastic: How It Works

This is the second episode of Mark Miodownik’s materials series – all about plastics, which he’s defining broadly to encompass any and all artificially created materials. It was a mix of history and chemistry, and started with the discovery of the vulcanisation process for rubber. The first century and more of plastic creation was all about chemical reactions that were poorly understood – Miodownik told us about the atomic structure & properties of these materials but the people creating them often didn’t understand it. In the second half of the 20th Century materials begin to be designed, and this is when plastics made from oil start to be created – the key realisation was that what you wanted to do was polymerise carbon based monomers, and that oil is rich in these building blocks. And the last third of the programme was about the future – we’re turning back to look at biological substances and then trying to engineer new materials with those properties. For instance a sticky tape that uses the same structure as hairs on beetle’s feet to grip glass without glue – demonstrated by sticking a handle to a suspended glass panel & Miodownik dangled from it. He also talked about upcoming medical technology – scaffolding material that encourages cartilage regeneration, for instance.

A Hundred Years of Us

There’s still just enough interesting content in these that we’re continuing to watch – the fourth episode included some fascinating stuff about GI babies. They’d interviewed a woman who was the daughter of an English woman & a black American soldier – she was given up to an orphanage at birth, and subsequently adopted by a family in a Welsh mining village. She did eventually track her parents down – her mother didn’t want anything to do with her because her husband knew nothing about the child & would divorce her if he knew. And her father had died before she could find him, which was also sad. Another interesting segment was about the women sewing machinists who went out on strike for equal pay back in the 60s. The main guest on the programme was Gloria Hunniford who had various anecdotes about the different segments as they related to her – the one that sticks in my mind was when discussing rationing she talked about her mother getting caught smuggling a pair of shoes back into Northern Ireland (from Dublin) in her knickers. Which … how does that even work??

“Poltergeist” Kat Richardson

This is the second of Kat Richardson’s urban fantasy/detective series about a Seattle-based PI who sees ghosts & can walk in the ghost world (I read the first one a couple of months ago). The set up for this book is that a psychologist is researching how people react to the idea that they are interacting with the paranormal – he’s set up an experiment where a group think they’ve generated a poltergeist, but he’s got someone faking the ghostly actions. Only now he’s getting things happening that his faker hasn’t faked – so he asks Harper Blaine to investigate & find out which of the group is faking the new stuff. Obviously, given the genre of the book the poltergeist is in fact real and significantly more dangerous than the psychologist comprehends – and Harper must figure out how to get rid of it without letting on that it’s real, and what caused it.

My specific criticism of Greywalker – that Harper appears to’ve appeared fully formed from nowhere is addressed. In this book there’s more of a sense of roots in the city pre-dating her becoming a greywalker, in particular her friend Phoebe & Phoebe’s family. There’s also another improvement that Richardson actually mentions in her afterword – in book 1 Harper didn’t have a mobile phone instead she just has a pager, which felt rather odd and made me wonder if the book wasn’t as recent as I thought. It turns out that the first book was written several years before it was published, and Richardson decided not to entirely update it to the “present day” of the publication date. This second book has Harper get a phone and even lampshades it by having her dislike how it lets people call her too early in the morning.

I still like how the series is tending towards the horror side of the supernatural beasties – this poltergeist is dangerous, and the vampire necromancer that Harper needs help from to deal with it has his own less-than-human perspective on appropriate punishments for the mind that is linked to the poltergeist. I also like how Harper has to hide what she is otherwise people would think she was crazy – it’s like our world, the default is that ghosts and vampires don’t exist. It’s just that in this case Harper and a very few others know that’s not true. But her understandable desire to not be seen as crazy is probably making her miss out on potential allies, I suspect as the series goes on she’ll let more people into the truth of her world – there are various things in this book that made me think that Harper’s need to keep herself to herself is being framed as something she needs to move beyond.

I think this still falls into the fun-read-once category – so I’ll carry on getting these from the library. Sadly the library don’t have the third book, but I’ve reserved the fourth one instead.

In Our Time: Galen

Galen was a Greek doctor who lived in the 2nd Century AD and wrote an incredible amount about the practice of medicine. His works were still used as the standard medical texts in Europe & the Islamic world until the Renaissance era – and some parts even after that. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Vivian Nutton (University College London), Helen King (Open University) and Caroline Petit (University of Warwick).

Galen was born in Pergamon, Greece (the city of the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin) and was the son of an architect. At this time Pergamon was a rich city and was spending a lot of money on civic buildings, so Galen’s family were well off. Galen was bring brought up as an intellectual, but then when he was 17 his father had a dream where the god of medicine appeared to him and told him that Galen must become a doctor. His medical education began in Pergamon, and later he moved to Alexandria. There he learnt about anatomy, pharmacology and other areas of medical knowledge. Apparently he didn’t much enjoy his time there – Nutton said Galen wrote that he hated the country, he hated the people, he hated the weather, he hated the food. But nonetheless he stayed there for around 5 years, before returning to Pergamon at the age of around 28.

He began to practice medicine in his home town, where he became the doctor who looked after the gladiators. A couple of years later moved to Rome. It’s not known why he moved – maybe just for ambition, or maybe he had other reasons to wish to leave his home town. Once in Rome he gradually built up a reputation as an exceptional doctor. He did this in part by demonstrations, and in part by treating people who then spread the word about being cured by him. Eventually he rose to become the Emperor’s doctor.

Galen wrote a lot. He wrote primarily about medicine, but also about philosophy and about his own life. All three experts agreed that one of the problems with studying Galen is that the best and often only source for his life is himself – which obviously means that any exaggeration or shading of the truth is hard to detect. Galen’s medical texts were partly based on what he had learnt during his education, but they contained a lot of innovative ideas and were grounded in Galen’s own observations of diseases. One of Galen’s primary focuses was on prognosis (and one of his better known works is called On Prognosis) – he was interested in using his observations of the patient’s body and environment to predict what would happen next in the disease. He used a variety of techniques to treat disease – he followed the acknowledged path of the day to first try to cure via the diet of the patient, then use drugs (generally plant based) and then to try surgery. Unusually for an elite doctor of the time Galen did his own surgery, rather than regarding it as too “manual” for a person like himself.

Even by the end of Galen’s lifetime he was beginning to be regarded as the place to turn when learning about medicine. And this grew over the next few hundred years. His works were gradually streamlined into a canon, that weren’t necessarily the whole story, and then were translated via Arabic into Latin. Medieval doctors relied on the information in Galen in their medical education, even though complete texts were hard to come by. But in the Renaissance some of the fundamental underpinnings of Galen’s work were queried – Vesalius began to do dissections on humans and realised that much of Galen’s anatomical knowledge was derived from animals (a point I think they could’ve brought out more earlier in the programme). And Harvey’s work on circulation showed that the four humours theory of how the body works was clearly not the case. But even after this Galen’s pharmacology was still useful (and some parts still are today).

The programme seemed to run out of time a bit abruptly towards the end, so there wasn’t as much on Galen’s legacy as I might’ve liked to hear.