there are power lines in our bloodlines

Let me just set the record straight: The Dreyse needle gun was a bad weapon.

Yes, it introduced quick breech-loading fire to the battlefield and was one of the most important early steps in the development of bolt actions. Yes, the Prussians used it to very impressive effect against the Austrians in ’66, especially at Königgrätz. But it was a fatally flawed gun.

The needle system that gave it its name, based on having a primer inside the cartridge rather at one end (that was struck by a needle penetrating the cartridge) was inherently incredibly flimsy, and the needle broke all the time; the muzzle velocity (and thus range) was miserably bad; the obturation seal on the bolt was flawed, so that after a few rounds it spat hot gas into the the face of the user and set him firing from the hip, turning a nineteenth-century rifleman with a bolt-action masterpiece of fine engineering and mass production into a blindly flailing seventeenth-century musketeer.

It was a Bad Gun, never mind that it could briefly, occasionally do what nobody else could, and that such a device got standardised knowing its massive flaws says things that aren’t really surprising about how much the Prussians really cared for their men. The Chassepot left it, deservedly, in the dust.

None of you will ever have heard of the Dreyse needle rifle, but I need to get this off my chest. Now, back to Ian Hogg’s superbly written illustrated history of ammunition (aka The Big Book of Wargasms.)


a wolf in a sheepskin coat

Addenda! These are things I meant to say last time but didn’t because a) it would make the previous post apocalyptically long, b) I forgot.

– History department foolishness, in apparent response to my unnecessarily tetchy email to Lynne Brydon (if you’re stalking my blog now, hi! I’m still not convinced!) has reached new heights for second year, combining miserable self-contradicting stupidity in paper returns (I got my ROMW essay back; the following day everyone else couldn’t, and then couldn’t for a week), mislaid papers (the model essays for Group Research, which were going to be pretty much my only salvation; the exam scripts from LAST YEAR which I’ve given up on ever seeing) and levels of spam that they barely reached last year. In order to get to the latest few pieces of meaningless, inconsequential crap that the office is spamming us with, I had to scroll past 888 email addresses, either because the office’s clunkily ancient software is incapable of BCCing or because the department itself is. THIS IS 2011, HOW IS THIS SORT OF IDIOCY EVEN POSSIBLE. <3 having programmed "end" onto one of the buttons on my fancy gamer mouse.

– I have been locking my bike on the outside of the totally unfit-for-purpose increasingly-frayed wooden porch support beam in order to avoid accidentally crushing the daffodils/narcissi that have poked their heads above the ground of late. However, I now have to put it back in the flowers' faces, to avoid Alex accidentally crushing my bike, as he ever-so-excitingly has a NEW CAR. Sorry, daffodils! Your lot in life was to end up the punchline of a lame ham-handed joke about technology and the environment.

– I went to a Birmingham GDL Open Day, and while the first two people were miserably bad at making either the subject sound good or Birmingham a nice place to do it, the third launched into an impromptu lecture on contract law which was – seriously – enthralling. More certain than ever that this is a subject I am suited for and will enjoy. Pursuant to this, am getting involved with the excellent new "Law for Non-Law Society" (created because the Law Society hates potential GDL students as outsiders, and apparently the first of its kind in the country). May be going for a committee position at the AGM soon; may not.

– I hate Group Research. This has been my catchphrase pretty much since we started Group Research, but I hate Group Research. Presentation is, surprisingly, going okay (mostly), but I can't help but feel doomed about both it and the attendant essay, because it's been hideously badly explained to us. What is it? Academic essay requiring academic references? Original research claiming salience and significance? "we went here and dun this" travelogue… thing? What even is the style for referencing "random bits of paper found in a box at the archives"? They didn't cover this at the library inductions. Stuart has told us that he will give us plenty of leeway. He has also told us that there will be a second marker. I'm so glad I have a lot of good marks banked for this year already, because I don't see any way anyone is coming out of this well.

Wholesome living on Reservoir Road.

hear you found a lynchpin to keep it all from falling apart

The British, as we have seen, had already developed a clear concept of their unique nationality, one based more on xenophobia than on the brotherhood of man. For them the conflict was simply another round against the old enemy, France, and the fact that the French proclaimed the rights of man was, for many, a good enough reason for rejecting them.
– Michael Howard, “The Invention of Peace.”

On Monday morning, the sun rose bright and hot in a cloudless steel-blue sky, and the birds sang, and the day felt tailor-made to make me feel better.

Uni is going well enough. I learned something about nuclear strategy that came as a surprise to me, and was equally surprised (but pleasantly so) to realise that having (not to blow my own trumpet) a superlative knowledge of weaponry does actually really help in understanding the driving forces behind a lot of military policy and decisions – though, of course, it’s what the decision-makers thought their kit was capable of, rather than what it actually was. More of that in a side post. Also, it says a lot about Rob Thompson that he can make logistics fun.

James texted me to say that the Royal Mail had let us down, and our tickets to the Decemberists hadn’t arrived. I called back, quite angrily, to say that was bollocks and that if we’d paid for them we should have them, and to call up various ticket lines; and he did, and so we got in his car and rolled down to the HMV Institute to listen to Colin Meloy singing nasally about dead girls’ ghosts/indentured miners/doomed love-affairs with spies and wood spirits/riverside towns/the end of the world. They didn’t play many of my favourites (half of which then DID show up at the Bristol set they played the following day!) – but we sang along to The Engine Driver with heartfelt collective melancholy and Don’t Carry It All with boisterous defiance, and screamed like drowned men being eaten by a whale for the second encore as the band swayed madly to the mariner’s waltz.

I have jumped through the numerous hoops the census has so far put in front of me (first online test: 78%, second: 99%), and will hopefully have a job come Easter; if not, I fancy a long slow summer of kicking back and actually read all these dissertation sources I’m accumulating. I guess there are exams, too, but eh.

I’ve been hanging with Redbrick folks much more often; from the pub quiz (at which Online swept the floor with everyone – hell yeah, knowing where Tashkent is) to general chilling in the office of a Thursday, chatting with the excellent people of the Redbrick Jewish Media Conspiracy (most of the online team seem to be of Jewish ancestry one way or another), sneering at Sam’s iPad and occasionally even uploading articles like I ought to. The really rather good new website at (good in style, rather than the substance that I don’t really read) has so far not fallen over on its face and required my attention. It’s been suggested I run for online editor next year, but don’t think I will; it sounds like a rather terrifying amount of commitment, and my days seem to be getting inexplicably swallowed up at the moment anyway.

I don’t give a damn about student politics, the stupid slogans, the election garbage that’s turned the front of the library into a rubbish dump haunted with politically inclined muggers – the only good thing the whole sorry process has brought us is Louis Reynolds’ quite vicious parodies (“You don’t understand the guild. But I’ve got sweets, a pseudonym, and I’m dressed like a tit. VOTE FOR ME OR THE TERRORISTS WIN.”) But Sam invited me to help with the online reporting of the Guild elections, so I did, bringing boatloads of doughnuts.

We set up our laptops, and begged a lamp off the tech people in the bowels of the Guild. Up in the gallery of the Deb hall, among all the lights and rafters, the Redbrick crew affected button-down shirts and scholarly pullovers; next to us, the BURN FM (university radio, as we are the university newspaper) team all sat in identical black t-shirts, deploying expensive-looking audio equipment. The hall was lined with light-spangled black curtains, the testing routine included dry ice and garish flashing lights, and while I was still resolutely apathetic about student politics, I couldn’t help but love the pomp and circumstance.

My duty was moderating the comments on the live feed in realtime, as they came in at a rate of about one a second, which was like leaning into a firehose spray of internet idiocy. The crap Guild wireless kept breaking, the BURN FM servers keeled right over under the unexpected pressure of large numbers of people actually tuning in; most things that could go wrong did. I was learning a job I had never done before, making decisions at ridiculous speed. The thermos-load of strong tea and the sugar-dressed, jam-crammed doughnuts probably helped, but it was an incredible rush sitting there in the dark with fingers flicking madly across laptop, no matter how inconsequential my work really was, no matter how divorced I was from caring about the actual issues. I’m now fairly certain I get high off pressure, and was buzzing with exhilaration and adrenaline by the end of it. Rather than ride it out and crash hard, I dropped my kit off at home and spent the evening walking around in the dark cooling off, before coming back to Reservoir Road and falling soundly asleep to the slightly-too-appropriate strains of a Corb cover of Sunday Morning Coming Down.

overwrought overeducated overthinking

I always think of rainy nights as dull and gloomy, but every part of this one shines before me, glittering and brilliant. The lights of streetlamps and rocket-motors and swishing headlights glance in angled pieces off the wet glimmer the rain paints across every surface, like fragments of a broken mirror, an infinitely fractured panoply of light.

The rain isn’t heavy, but it’s everywhere at once, in falling streaks and slashes dancing at the periphery of my sight, placing an unearned halo on every streetlamp’s head as the sodium-vapour bulbs creak grudgingly from red to orange. It turns the landing lights of jetliners above into glowing cones of white as they fall below the clouds, and the jets chase after them like backwards comets. On the water of the bay, the wind-ruffled waves reflect the floodlights of the port in a flickering, uncertain zoetrope as they rise and fall.

Every time a rocket goes up from the port, the sun-bright flames of its motors are solid fire, their sharp definition unique among the rain-shaken uncertainty of the night. The rockets rise, atop a billowing column of exhaust lit white-gold from within, and the rain brings out a nimbus, brighter than bright, that makes everything else feel insipid and ethereal. It grows as the rocket rises, casting black shadows along the coast-road bollards and just as quickly shrinking them to stubs. They live and die in those first staggering seconds before the rocket punches through the cloud-cover, and the clouds all light up with its passing; a dull, bruised glow that fades, imperceptibly but inevitably, like the deceptive solidity of the exhaust plume or the afterimage of the flames.

If I could stop time, I would watch the rocket held there, see it hanging in the sky on its pillar of frenzied, frozen flame. If I could hold that moment forever, I would see the world caught in every raindrop, each one a reflected universe in distorted detail, a trillion points of light made infinitesimally different by the raindrop’s place in space and time. Too much to see in a frozen lifetime; enough detail to be lost in its fractal beauty, forever finding new intricacies, until they flooded my consciousness and overwhelmed my memory so that even the familiar seemed new, until all I had ever seen was their twinkle.

I wonder what people back on old Earth would make of this, back before any of it was a glint in inventors’ eyes. I wonder how they felt as they looked at all the lights in creation and gave them names and legends, whether they wondered at the silver-ripple of moon on sea, what magic it was that they thought animated the simmering stars. Before rockets and arc-lights, there were glimmers in the night. Before fire and language, there was rain and reflection. And darkness is older than light itself.

I know there’s no magic there. The waves shimmer because the water’s surface moves and changes angle faster than my eyes can perceive, the reflections coming and going in strobe-flashes of perception like the sweep of a ladar beam. The streetlamps wear saintly halos because the raindrops catch their light, and reflect it back to the world in fleeting, broken scatter. Reflection and refraction, intensity and incidence, particles and waves bending and stretching, passing and bouncing at different speeds and angles before they are at last contorted by the lens of my eye, and photon acts on retina, nerve winds round nerve and neuron touches neuron.

I understand all the processes and I know all their names, and still I can feel that little touch of magic, that certain sense of wonder, that last shiver of perception as the final pieces coalesce into the rain-slick totality of understanding. Perhaps because there’s so little wonder left to find that every time I feel the magic it leaves an indelible memory, a unique touch above all the mundane, scientific certainty that other men have felt and known and written down, and stared at until they couldn’t see it any more. Clarity, wonder, lucidity, call it what you want. Magic; its rarity itself makes it precious, the slimmest supply in a world of depthless, desperate demand.

Even a faint light shines brightly, against a dark background.