the redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills

Following that time back in January I managed to write five hundred words about a backpack, A Materialistic Love-Letter to a Physical Object II: THE BICYCLE.



I’ve never actually had a new new bike. Various second-hand/hand-me-down/shared family bikes (and the tandem) have done me for most of my life and family cycling holidays, with a brief, memorable ride to the Giant’s Causeway on some ankle-shredding pieces of crap we hired from some Ulster wide boy, and a characterful little clunker once borrowed for a few euros to pootle around Tempelhof.  For the first year of uni, I borrowed my dad’s zippy Marin, but he took it back in the end.

At the start of second year, I was given a nearly-new second hand bike by my wonderful un-godparents, which served very well for nipping around campus and taking me to various hellish corners of Birmingham for my census work. It was my mainstay for a long time, the first machine I as an adult felt any ownership of, with aftermarket aluminium pedals I fitted when the plastic ones fell apart, and a little green zip-tie round the headtube identifying my right to lock it to things around Mason Halls. But it was quite heavy, and was never really the same after Dad jammed it into the back of the car when shipping out for third year: the derailleurs clicked in spite of endless fiddling with the levers and cables, and the brakes seemed to be useless despite one replacement after another. But it served well (if decreasingly frequently) over the next couple of years, until I locked it up in the city centre when going off to Ukraine, and came back to find it missing.

Feeling a bike-shaped hole in my life, I went around shops and poked listlessly at the internet – there’s a strong second-hand market on Gumtree, but it seems to move very fast, when the one thing I don’t want to do is rush. Demand moves fast at the various second-hand places in Bristol, too – everything I could find was some combination of the wrong size, the wrong shape, rather expensive, or fitted with those stupid sodding frame-mounted gear levers for racing hipsters. If I were feeling somewhat flush, my choice would have been a Bristol Bicycle, from local legends Jake’s Bikes, a wonderful setup which also happens to be right next door to my current office. They’re designed as city bikes, rather than mountain bikes or racers, and have a real thought-through appeal to them: you get a very strong sense that some blokes who work at a bike workshop have been making notes of issues their customers have for a long time, and set out to put together a bike which addresses them.

Not long after Ukraine, I started my temp job at the bank, and when I got made permanent recently one of the Proper Employee benefits I was keen to take advantage of was the Cycle Scheme, which lets you buy a new bike from pre-tax salary sacrifice – ie, you avoid paying income tax or NI (so savings north of 30%) – and which Jake’s happily offer. The process developed into a massive struggle, with repeated problems with their online form and, once I’d actually ordered the bike and attendant lock, pannier rack and mudguards, our idiotic work systems cancelled the whole thing and demanded I go through the process again – so, feeling a) flush from a tax refund, b) thoroughly cheesed off at the whole silly system, I just went down to the shop and bought the thing outright.


The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack

The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack.

It’s a “Park Street”, crisp black and silver,* with smaller wheels than I’m used to but excellent gears and a light, compact aluminium frame; the brakes are superb, the posture natural. I was struck on my first ride how odd it felt to have a bike all tuned up and silent, with no clicking or rattling anywhere, no stick in the controls or idiosyncrasies in the gear levers. It felt… nice. I don’t actually need it for my current trip to work – which is fairly hilly and takes exactly half an hour, my cutoff point for where the extra faff of cycling (especially needing extra clothes and kit, which you really do with these cold dark winter afternoons) outweighs the travel time saved. But it’s very nice to have, for the future, a machine which absolutely fits my spec and feels right, one which is, for the first time, something just for me.


* The Bristol Bikes are matte black with plain metal fittings, and no fancy or show-offy bits; Jake explained to me that he wanted them to be very un-flashy, to avoid attracting thieves’ attention. While I agree with the rationale, I think it’s gorgeous and would totally nick it.


in the present, nothing lasts

“True Detective” series 2: Everyone says it’s weaker than the first one. Everyone is wrong.

It has everything that was good about series 1, to be sure: the cinematography, production values and atmosphere of weird underlying menace are perfect, the leads are all brilliant in their roles, and the general sense of Place (both in terms of magnificently shot scenery porn, and in feeling as though this world is alive, and its characters are actually adrift among its modern troubles, rather than just being pieces in a narrative of convenience), though that Place is the California valleys and the interplay of dying industries and new high-speed rail, rather than Louisiana wetlands where everything is simply rotting.

But, unlike the first series it actually has a plot. Things happen (for a reason!), and while our characters ooze overwrought melancholy in every scene, there is more going on than character studies in grizzled manpain. S1 had lots of good things about it but also some huge flaws: it was one of those shows which tries to be Art through deliberate obscurity, and ends up as a chore to watch (while failing to come anywhere close to the actual artistic high water mark of HBO drama, The Wire); its overriding theme was “masculinity”, which, yeah, just read the Iliad instead, nothing has changed; its plot didn’t matter, and its final twist didn’t actually make any goddamn sense. The plot was there to service the manly grimaces, not the other way round.

Here it’s the right way round, and although it starts a little weakly and ends a little predictably, it’s a wonderful example of the density of plot, character and detail you can force into a show while still having a pace that is resolutely unhurried. The fare is a bit more commonplace (political crooks, gangsters and PMCs rather than sisterfucking bayou satanists) and the hardboiled stereotypes are more modern but just as broad (crooked cop with custody issues, hard-as-nails lady cop with one of Those backstories, closeted veteran caught between who he is and his sense of who he needs to be, gangster kingpin learning that nobody really leaves the game); but it winds its threads around each other with great skill and concentration, and succeeds in its real goal – which is having the audience take it seriously, though perhaps not quite as seriously as it takes itself.

the death of the ball turret gunner

“A ball turret was a Plexiglas sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two .50 caliber machine guns and one man, a short small man. When this gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret; hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he looked like the fetus in the womb. The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose.”

past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks

A very cool thought which occasionally occurs to me: in a world which contains both the Channel Tunnel and the Trans-Siberian Railway, I can hop on a train on any station in Britain and, eventually, find myself in any other station in Europe and Asia, without ever leaving the railway network. And Railhead, the forthcoming book from the explosively talented Philip Reeve, is that thought writ on an enormous scale, where you can get on a train and find yourself on the other side of the galaxy.

It’s a return to more grown-up books for Mr Reeve, whose work over the last few years has been aimed at younger readers, with the jolly good (if snot-focused) Goblins series and the even younger, wonderfully illustrated collaborations with Sarah McIntyre (Oliver and the Seawigs: recommended even if you aren’t 8). Mortal Engines, which came out a bit before either the “YA” or the “steampunk” trends really took off, has been retroactively pigeonholed into both of them; arguing about genre is the dumbest thing ever and I won’t do it, but Railhead is Proper Sci-Fi by anyone’s definition (and presumably to be marketed as YA, because there’s murder but not sex), set in the future with spaceships and robots and stuff. A lot of modern science fiction trying to set space opera in The Future has been caught slightly flat-footed by how, between various bits of microtechnology and the internet, the modern world has basically become science fiction, and so needs to make up alternative histories to keep things analogue enough to force Star Wars into – but Railhead deftly builds on what we have now (drones and miniaturised terminals, the Datasea and its “spam-sharks that would hack your mind and fill your dreams with adverts”) without letting it get in the way of being a great big space opera where things explode excitingly and the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

There’s a great cast of major and minor characters: our hero, Zen Starling, a thief trying to be tough but who really doesn’t mean badly; the magnificently named Threnody Noon, a thoroughly sympathetic spoilt-heiress type who develops hugely over the story; Flex, a gender-fluid graffiti artist who reminds me of Tim Maughan’s fantastic very-near-future science fiction; terrifying killer trains (you read that right), burned-out cops, monks made of insects, nuanced aristocrats, a man in black looking to pick a fight with the gods themselves. And the sense of detail and texture is superb: every concept has an underlying story, every glum little failed economy sits on a well-told history of how it ended up that way. This is (thankfully) not one of those books which has capital-T Themes, but touches quickly and convincingly on lots of them – automation and androids destroying jobs and livelihoods; great economic forces washing over worlds and societies, chewing through them and abandoning them; a power vacuum and the subsequent politicking between factions, shot through with the uneasy relationship between civil legitimacy and military force. Which makes it believable, because even when it’s about galactic emperors and hyper-intelligent close-to-goddesses, you can see echoes of the real world underneath.

And it’s full of great little Reeve-isms, double meanings and references to books and old bands and everything else. Robots are called Motorik, which sounds good in its own right, has a lovely double meaning if you know what it means in German, and an even better triple meaning if you know far too much Krautrock-related terminology. (Or Google it, as I did.) That sort of namedropping often comes off as a bit smug and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in books (and especially games), but here, like in Mortal Engines (with “is this your first time on a harvester?” and an airship called Idiot Wind) it all fits seamlessly into the worldbuilding and adds texture and detail despite being a reference. A logo consisting of a pair of rails crossed by a lightning bolt carries a joke that will sadly be lost on non-Brits, but is still a perfectly good symbol for a future police force patrolling the rails. What I’m getting at is that this is a universe where trains are the most important form of transport, ruled by someone nicknamed the Fat Controller, and it’s a good nickname and gives the reader something even if they didn’t catch the joke.


I won’t spoil the plot (any more than the above vague allusions already have) but it’s very satisfying, twisting and turning without losing momentum, and culminating in the best sort of climax, a great explosive set-piece of resolutions and revelations where you can’t be sure, from page to page, who will come out on top – or who you really want to.

It’s due to arrive for real in October. I hope there’s another one along soon.

the trees can’t grow without the sun in their eyes

Finally watched Elysium. Ambivalent about it. Aesthetically, it’s perfect: almost every shot feels like a classic sci-fi novel cover, shining primary colours and blocky-but-detailed buildings and spaceships with big numbers on them, but all realised in lovely modern HD and with odd bits of characterful South African flair rather than the usual American boilerplate. (And the guns were great, which is always a plus.) There was a definite feeling of fanfic-y wish fulfilment underlying it (“so now Sharlto Copley the grizzled mercenary villain with the regenerating beard is dramatically leaping, katana drawn, over a precarious walkway in the underfloor refinery district of a giant space station. Reckon we can shoehorn in some drifting cherry blossoms? Also, combat droids with tacky golden bling”), but that’s fine when coupled with a decent imagination and production values (see: why Jupiter Ascending was not a completely worthless film.)

But the worldbuilding is just a bit too OTT and silly, and it all ultimately falls flat, because taking a Hot Button Issue, dressing it up in loads of sci-fi and turning all parties involved into absurd caricatures of themselves doesn’t actually count as “commentary”, even less so with a panacea ending. District 9 had the same problem, but halfway through it gave up on the documentary premise and the “aliens are here, but they’re really shit and we have no idea what to do with them” social metaphor to turn into a brainless but solid action flick with an Afrikaner twist. This… doesn’t manage it, not because the action is weak, but because space is a lot less compellingly new and weird to the Western moviegoer than Johannesburg.

Also, it’s an obnoxiously Tumblr look-how-right-on-I-am thing to say, but why would you write your Spanish-speaking working-class-hero, who was raised by Mexican nuns, who represents Mexico in the agonisingly obvious metaphor (“undocumented spaceships”, really?), whose pals (including the cute one from Y Tu Mama Tambien) are all Hispanic gangsters… and then cast Matt Damon, the most generically Aryan man ever?

“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

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I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt