Monday, 26 October 2009

Concrete thinking

I finally finished the concrete and it looks awful. I knew it would. Stopping half way through because of teaching and Lois having the flu, means that the joins between the first bit and the last bit are very obvious. Add on the inescapable fact that nothing in this house was level to begin with, and it’s obvious that this bit of floor would have to be sort of bent, wiggly, and sloping, just in order to connect up with the library and the cellar and the corridor that leads into it. Even that sentence is bent and wiggly.

Fortunately I know what to do, so this is a sort of tip for any would be DIY floor repairer. You can buy some magic stuff called self-levelling flooring compound, various people make it but I always found the Evo-Stik version was best. It comes as dry powder that you mix with water so it feels a bit like custard. You pour it on and spread it around, and it levels itself, I suspect custard would do the same but this stuff wears better once it has set. I have to admit that last statement is a bit of a guess - I haven’t tried custard; it might go quite leathery I guess, but I suspect that the mice would eat it.

Having said that I’m not sure about our mice, they are very fastidious. A few Christmases ago we went away for a few days, leaving some presents under the tree; when we came home the mice had eaten some of the biscuits, but here’s the neat bit – they only ate the expensive ones.

So that just leaves, re-fit the skirting boards, remaking the first step into the cellar, hanging the door, putting the bookshelves back up, putting the books back. At the moment all those books are stacked in very tall piles on the window ledge in the library, which completely fills the window so the library is dark all the time. Putting them back will be difficult because it will raise yet again the thorny question of which books go where, and what these books have done to deserve being banished from the library. In some cases this can only be answered by reading them again. Is it any wonder that DIY takes forever to get done?

The one good thing about doing the concrete – apart from removing the damp patch at the bottom of the stairs - is that I feel pretty exhausted afterwards and so sit in a chair with the laptop, too tired to do anything except edit. So far this concrete has helped revise 19 chapters of Rag Doll Falling, 50,449 words. This is a major edit to work in a different beginning, which has knock on effects right through the book. After that, of course it will all have to be done again, and again…

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

More on Unseen Academicals

Thinking more about Unseen Academicals, having now read it twice in two days, such is the liberating effect of not being well enough to do anything else. One of the new characters is Mr Nutt. At first he appears to be a Goblin but later it emerges that he is an ORC, a sort of breed that has been manufactured as a kind of slave mercenary warrior. OK so anyone who can’t stand fantasy books now wants to stop reading, but if you can bear it, keep on to the end.

Gradually through the book we find that Mr Nutt is very clever and immensely strong, virtually a superhero in disguise. Normally this would be quite boring, lets face it this type of fiction is awash with supermen, but Pratchett is a much better writer than that.

Scenes emerge, usually driven by the actions of other characters, that reveal the talents of Mr Nutt, but running though the book is another story. Mr Nutt lacks self-confidence, and is desperate to discover himself and prove his worth. Instead of a fairly trivial story about the emergence of a new hero, we get a much more moving tale where we are drawn into being concerned about, even sorry for this poor individual, who believes he may be the last of his kind in the world. Other characters are drawn into caring for him, despite the fact that they know that his species, if that’s the right word for made up creatures, has a reputation for tearing people’s heads off.

The story of Mr. Nutt and Glenda, the brilliant cook who runs the night kitchen, is really a simple romance of self-discovery, but set against the improbable background of the reinvention of football it becomes a comedy. Scratch a little deeper and there’s almost no limit to what you find.

Football started out as a street game, but by now it has become a proxy for gang warfare, cue lots of minor characters, sketched in just enough detail to bring to life every unsavoury miscreant you’ve ever heard of.

The magicians, most of them familiar from previous books, could be any university group, they provide an opportunity for plenty of jokes about elitism, but a proxy too for any section of society that tries to run on its own rules, above or outside the law.

The law in this case is the Patrician, the appointed tyrant who is nevertheless a benevolent dictator. Lord Vetinari is subtle and so clever that he knows that despite his apparently absolute power he has only as much power as the population gives him. Power is in the mind of those who accept it in others. The same message comes from Glenda the cook; those who keep us in our place only keep us there because we know our place.

Like so many of Terry Pratchett’s books, it is a comedy on the surface, and often very funny, but underneath it could be ‘East of Eden’ or ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’. It seems obvious to me that he could have written classic novels anytime he felt like it, but somehow he went beyond that and created an imaginary world where all the deep complexities of the human spirit can blossom, safely wrapped up in exaggerated comedy so that the reader never realises that they’ve been exposed to literature.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Flu and laughter

This week we have flu. More to the point Lois has flu and I’m sitting here hoping I don’t. I had my flu vaccine shot on Saturday, but of course that is for last year’ flu, not the new one.

Lois and I spent the last week teaching, fifty students all week in a room that wasn’t ventilated very well. The university has some sort of system where all the ventilation is controlled from some central point, which of course takes a couple of days to track down. Even when we talked to the guy, nothing seemed to change much. Has anyone in the control centre ever sat though a whole morning of teaching in a stuffy room I wonder? Not very likely, I guess. I suppose it might be possible to have some sort of device that measures how often the air changes but one way or another I think Lois must have got the flu from someone in that room.

Lois tried out the online system run by the department of health so you can diagnose swine flu yourself. If the computer thinks you have swine flu then it gives you an ID number, and then you send someone else to collect the Tamiflu. So even if she doesn’t have swine flu, she at least has computer flu. Which ever it is, it comes with a cough and fever and feeling rotten.

This computer system is sensible of course; if all the people with the flu turned up to collect the supplies then it would certainly put the staff at greater risk. On top of that anyone with a wrong diagnosis who came to collect the supplies would probably get the flu anyway from the other people who were collecting. Making the diagnosis by wire and sending a friend must reduce spread to some extent. As it was when I collected the stuff for Lois I was the only one there.

Fortunately the new Terry Pratchett novel came out this week so a week sitting at home is less of a pain. For many years now I’ve been buying Pratchett’s as soon as them come out, plus going to book signings as well.

This one, Unseen Academicals, is as good as all the rest. Several new characters appear as well as a few familiar ones. This book is about football, sort of. A particular disc world kind of football, but I’m sure it draws on a lot of the history of the game in real life too.

Like all Terry Pratchett novels it draws on a deep understanding of humanity, but what he does is to make the messages a little lighter by giving some of the characteristics to dwarfs and trolls, or other sundry life forms. How we relate to strangers and how we cope with our deepest fears, is there in all his books, but it’s not heavy. Pratchett is very funny too; this new one is a tough book to read on a bus, because you are almost bound to laugh out loud at some point - actually at a lot of points.

I’m probably a little weird at the moment, not exactly feverish but something is operating a bit differently, either fighting off Lois’s virus (old people, like me, are supposed to have some immunity to it) or maybe just dealing with having the vaccine. Stuff like that makes me more emotional, when I’m sufficiently ill that all I can do is read in bed I find books make me cry a lot. Even the ones I laugh at a lot make me cry as well. I know I’m not really ill this time because Unseen Academicals just made me laugh and laugh.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Joan Baez

On Thursday evening, I did something I’ve been doing for about 45 years, I heard Joan Baez in concert, and it was as good as ever.

Birmingham Symphony Hall is a very special place. I used to have a season ticket at the old Town Hall in Birmingham, back in the days when Simon Rattle first came to conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Over the decade here was here they got better and better and it exposed the awful acoustics of the Town Hall. It’s a nice historic looking building but if you have a seat under the balcony then you get a pretty muffled version of events.

I first heard Joan Baez in the town hall in about 1963 or 64; I really can’t remember which. I do know I had to queue all night to get the tickets and I sat in the front row. I can’t remember all the songs she sang but she did lose her place part way through and had to ask the audience which ones she’d done, she had a list of songs such on the topside of her guitar. Maybe it was a trick to get rapport with the audience, but it worked, she had everyone in the palm of her hand and that almost instant bond with the audience has been there ever since.

After the concert, because I was sitting in the front row I was able to dash through the door into the artist area and interviewed Joan for the university student newspaper. I have actually washed the hand that shook her hand since then, but I know which one it is.

Years later Simon Rattle persuaded Birmingham to build Symphony Hall. It is a masterpiece of sound engineering. When they built it the architect said it was the biggest perfect hall he was prepared to make, any bigger, any more seats and the sound would have been worse.

It is so much better than anywhere else I have been that it is hard to explain. I remember once listening to Cecilia Bartoli, she doesn’t use microphones or anything like that. At the end of the concert she did a piece where she sang to the people sitting in the choir sets behind her. As she sang the song she turned though 360 degrees three times. The second third time I closed my eyes as she sang, and it was impossible to tell which way she was facing, the sound quality did not change at all, whether it was coming straight from her mouth or bouncing off the back walls.

As soon as the place was built I started hoping that Joan Baez would sing there one day, I just wanted to hear that voice floating through the upper air in that place. For a couple of years, every time Joan toured she played in places like Warwick university and didn’t come to Birmingham, but when she did it was magic. Her voice really just flew through the hall, like a banner flying in the sunshine; it just makes you feel good. Joan obviously liked it too; she kept talking about the hall as the concert went on and at the end she turned off the mikes and sang, just by herself, with no band and no guitar. I just loved it, her voice and the hall was everything I’d expected. She let it go a bit, singing a song that rally let the high notes rip, floating right up there, I’m so glad I heard it back then before I started to go deaf.

Last night, I thought, maybe she is getting older; she looks a little stiff when she walks on, but the rest is the same. The rapport with the audience is total and that makes the concert a great experience, being in the middle of a thousand people who are having a spirit lifting experience, is something you don’t get too often.

She sang a few of the old songs, like ‘The night they drove old Dixie down’ and Diamonds and Rust. That’s been fun over the years; I think when it first came out there was a line ‘Twenty years ago I bought you some cuff links’. Now it’s ‘Forty years ago’.

This time she had an assistant who kept taking off her guitar after each song and bringing on a new one. Usually Joan takes about a minute after each song re-tuning. She makes jokes about it but this time it only happened once. She must have a fantastic ear because most guitarist that I’ve heard don’t re-tune between songs.

We did have one minute of twiddling the knobs and plucking. ‘I’ve been tuning this guitar for fifty years’ she said. ‘I know some of you have been here through it.’ Yup that’s me – ever since her first concert in the UK.

Times change, though she didn’t sing that. In that first concert she sang ‘Don’t think twice – it’s all right.’ She did it again this time but it was jazzed up, bouncing along almost like a celebration not a lament. I remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan sing one of his songs to a completely different tune; it was a huge shock, but a revelation too. I guess it’s not a surprise that Joan can do it too.

She made jokes, about how much she likes mournful ballads where people get heartbroken and die all the time; in fact at one point she sang one verse of a spoof version of ‘Silver Dagger’ in which damn near everyone died.

There was a nice moment when she talked about her mum and dad getting remarried after a couple of decades of divorce. Her dad was ninety at the time and she sang ‘Forever young’. Given the ages of her parents, the same might apply to Joan; if she goes on like this we could have a few more years yet.