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we do what we can, until we cannot
23 April 2012 @ 03:48 am
I'm mostly using my Tumblr for bloggery now, as it seems more suited to the rather bitty multimedia-y crossposting shit which is increasingly my online output; anyone with a Tumblr (you know, out of the three of you still reading this) feel free to link up or whatever it is people do there. I don't know if I'll keep posting the heavier university letter things here (now that I've applied for law school, there's definitely a season's worth of lifeposts to come in September) or abandon this blog and name entirely. I do feel vaguely attached to the old LJ, having maintained it for more than five years now. (Wow, I feel old.)

Disappointingly, I didn't get to spend that much time with the family over Easter; between having the first week in London, the last in Brum and lots of skating around England in between, there wasn't much time, though we had a good ol' family hill-climbing holiday in Shropshire. As a sidetrack on the way up to Brum I went to the 413 meet in Manchester, which was pretty cool daddio, and met airmyst for the first time in meatspace after an on-and-off internet acquaintance that we've shared for about... eight years. (Wow, I feel really old.)

She gave me a delicious cake, I gave her one of my old dumbphones to replace the hideously broken dud she was somehow using, and following this highly amiable Material Exchange we're now plotting post-exam Cultural Exchanges between Leeds (feat. Royal Armouries) and Birmingham (feat. Cadbury World... yes, this "exchange" is pretty much guns for chocolate.)

Exams are kicking off very soon, and despite the grotesque amount of my degree these four papers represent (a shade under 50%, diss and second year both counting for a quarter) I'm not hugely worried. For the first time in my life quite a while I'm actually revising seriously; fortunately I have a capable and highly amusing studybuddy in the form of Louis, by far the most... committed (intentionally loaded statement) student in War Studies. We've had so much fun revising the Peninsular War (ie, getting ourselves the thorough understanding which doesn't seem to have really emerged from the actual module) that we're putting the resulting notes online (ok, last tumblr link, this is getting obnoxious), for the amusement and hopefully educational reinforcement of our class. And huge thanks to Toby McLeod for his folder of Peninsular War tricks, which I sadly must get back to him asap.

As well as Bill giving me a huge pile of his old Nintendo crap to sell on ebay (which has been an interesting learning experience in itself), I've scored a very brief research job in Brum; interesting stuff on an old paper company. It's looking to be similar to the sort of homework I did on my diss, so all fun, and hey, something to keep me in baconburgers now the dissertation proofreading gigs have mostly dried up.

Despite the utterly schizophrenic weather, it feels like summer is here already. I am relaxed and confident, happy with how the days are going by.
we do what we can, until we cannot
15 April 2012 @ 10:10 pm
>Implying Demsale: why did no one tell me about hark a vagrant before
Brosencrantz: what? I thought you knew D:
>Implying Demsale: NO ONE TOLD ME
Brosencrantz: jesus christ
Brosencrantz: ok
Brosencrantz: tell me everything else you don't know about and should
Brosencrantz: so I can tell you
>Implying Demsale: i uh
>Implying Demsale: hmm
>Implying Demsale: tell me about history
>Implying Demsale: all of it
Brosencrantz: oh god, must I?
Brosencrantz: it's kind of a long storyCollapse )
we do what we can, until we cannot
I had my last lecture three weeks ago. Taught uni is effectively over, as the third term is nothing but exams (1x take-home essay for Tragedy and Farce, 3x bog standard exams for Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and Yah Boo Frenchy.) I don't feel particularly well prepared - gobbet prep in particular has been so fucking shambolic and contradictory that I gave up entirely in a fit of despondence and am resolved to teach myself the entire Peninsular War and wing it from past papers. But I didn't exactly feel prepared for the last set of exams, either, and they went just fine; I reckon letting my reading follow my interests and getting a good feel for the underlying themes beats any amount of structured revision and grinding out flashcards.

The adrenaline burn from diss is gone; so, too, is the weirdly horrible post-partum depression that comes from having something so central to my life suddenly vanish (probably exacerbated by the comedown from a week of almost zero sleep and criminal quantities of caffeine.) Replacing both has come the realisation that uni is essentially over; the last term is just a long, drawn-out goodbye.

They say you get out what you put in, and I've put my life into uni. Brum has been good to me. I have made dozens of friends, most of whom I'm not day-to-day with but who I know I'll be able to turn to for the rest of our lives, and I've met a couple of people whose graves I'll cheerfully piss on if the opportunity comes. I have written a novel (ish; won't feel fully comfortable saying that til Ten Ways is done) and discovered a career. I've gone from being a semi-closeted firebrand on various aspects of religion and politics to being utterly apathetic about both. I've discovered that I am genuinely talented and intelligent in a few specialised fields, which has been a heartwarming surprise, and become so good at the motions of self-confidence that even I can't tell if I'm faking it most days. I have had enough vague romantic failures and missteps for six seasons of a tacky comedy show and two straight-to-DVD features. I have turned from someone who's far too easily emotionally involved to someone who's far too detached and distant, but as a useful side effect of the process I really don't find that worth fretting about. I have been desperately miserable and cloud-high happy in peaks and troughs like a sound-wave graph of a battleship duel. I'm not going to close with a "most importantly", not because it's desperately twee but because there's no most importantly.

I have had a hell of a time, in all the best ways, and I'd trade the entire miserable litany of shit that was my childhood for just another month of it all. But I'm also more than ready for it to be over.

In my "consultation" shit-talk a year ago, I wasn't exactly kind to the department. Here and elsewhere, I've said worse; the often-laughably-bad administration, the essentially arbitrary marks, the gagging discrepancy between how much a humanities student pays and how little they get. But that's just my constant negativity: it really, really wasn't all bad. And if that last little paragraph of furious bravado turns out to be true, if you are actually some net-literate creeper researching War Studies at the University of Birmingham, let me say, here and now, I highly recommend it. The tutors are bros, the course is fascinating, the uni itself is wonderful. The organisation is frequently a hideous mess, and a thousand and one things will go wrong, but hell, things always do.

I'm not who I was when I signed up for this, but if I could go back and have a second stab at it all, I wouldn't change a single thing. (OK, some poor module choices and the cascade-failure clusterfuck of my second year house; but nothing important.) It's been a good three years.

Now onward, and upward.
we do what we can, until we cannot
So posting has been thin on the ground of late; I tend to blog about interest, and as university has gradually become more routine in the long inevitable slump towards graduation there's just generally less to say; going through the motions, ticking off the days. The only things of serious interest to me have been law and dissertation, neither of which I can really post about in detail. Writing about my experiences with law firms, in the age of HR staff with Google, is a balancing-act-over-a-minefield of candour vs employability, and the minor revelations so rarely seem worth the effort.

And diss - when I kicked off, I had a plan to chronicle the entire research process (hell, I even had a tag in mind - "disserting genuously"). But between the outside-of-uni small-arms-expert brofessor who's helped with research requesting general discretion, and my tutor straight up telling me "don't blog about this" (yeah, I'm pretty notorious in the history department these days) I've rather failed on that count.

But the thing is is finished now, after an all-week sleep-loathing burn of tea and adrenaline and months upon months of prep. It's very much been affected by its design process, has cut back hugely on the gun-fetishing pseuodacademia and technical language, bulked out hugely on the generic info-dumping history, and goes a little outside my comfort zone on the theoretical front; overall, it's absolutely not the dissertation I would have written for Rob. I don't think any of these are good things or bad things, just things. (OK, on reflection I guess the gunwank thing is probably objectively good.) It is not perfect - these things are never perfect! - but it's a fair reflection of my ability, and that's good enough for me.

Everything's gone a bit quiet, but I think that'll change soon.
we do what we can, until we cannot
05 February 2012 @ 03:14 am

in which Bill and I play Call of PripyatCollapse )
Current Music: Firewater - Dark Days Indeed
we do what we can, until we cannot

[17:43:21] Brosencrantz: It's like watching a game of soupcan2.
[17:44:27] Brosencrantz: I love that they're calling "we dicked around with teeny tiny helicopters and make them make cool patterns" "experiments performed".
[17:47:20] Hovercraft: at long last we will soon be able to wage war on the insects in their own domain
[17:47:35] Brosencrantz: ...the world?
[17:47:58] Hovercraft: the sky but close to the ground and making an obnoxious buzzing noise
we do what we can, until we cannot
24 January 2012 @ 02:35 am
Have been filling in job applications. Current mental state: seething whirlpool of morbid, indiscriminate revulsion. Suggestions for catharsis welcome, before I take advantage of this FANTASTIC OPPORTUNITY to EXPLORE the VIBRANT, CHALLENGING world of serial murder.

Also the next time I encounter someone who seriously, unironically uses the word "vibrant" to refer to anything connected to grey-suited office grind, I'm going to cut off their skin and turn it into muppets while whistling peppy show tunes. I have hopes that this sort of career is interesting and cool, but it's not some iridescent rainforest butterfly among jobs.

Notification mail from uni that my mailbox is almost full. Mailbox resolutely refuses to actually load. If my rage were hydrogen it would birth a constellation of hate-stars spelling out a cosmic FUCK EVERYTHING against an infinite nebula of loathing.
we do what we can, until we cannot
When I got back to Brum, the weather was best described as diluvian. Midway through last week it was so bright and sunny to almost qualify as sweltering. Today, building on icy encroachments yesterday, the entire lake froze over, and every blade of grass was lined with frosty filigree. Not that it isn't nice to have everything so gloriously clear and bright (well, and rather sad to see the sprinkling of bemused seagulls wandering around listlessly on the ice), but I am now firmly convinced that the sky just has no idea what it's doing.

Not that it's affected me that much, as most of the time since arriving at Mason could, with occasional breaks for meals, naps, lectures and all-too-brief human contact, be characterised as an all-weeker (like an all-nighter but... yeah). Almost eight thousand words of presentably coherent dissertation have been produced and submitted, and sufficient facts, references and cool things generated that the remaining five thousand will be generated by whittling my notes down rather than building them up. Having filled and emptied my tea caddy twice and averaged less sleep than Alte Fritz, I have spent most of the week thoroughly addled and fear I have made a bit of a fool of myself to several people. But now I am sane enough to make amends.

Most of the doubts about my diss have evaporated now. I think what I handed in wasn't particularly well structured, but the individual components, the concepts and the research, are good enough that a sustained process of rearranging and pruning will eventually yield A Decent Diss. That, and now that having handed it in I've finally managed to get a copy of the module handbook off a friend (the history office's provision of ancillary material being nonexistent, par for terrible course [hurr]) I'm clear on the fine detail. A meeting with my supervisor on Wednesday should help with the structure sufficiently (or, alternatively, throw me into a tailspin of terminal doubt) that the rest will be plain sailing.

This enormous press shitstorm about USMC corpse-desecration in the sandpit is depressingly absurd. I cannot understand the mindset that can sustain outrage at piddling on a dead man but not at the idea of attacking and killing him in the first place.

The night after handin, I went bowling with Redbrick at Star City (the West Midlands commercetainment megasprawl, not the secret cosmonaut-training town) for the first time since I was about twelve (my bowling skills haven't improved since then). A Good Time was generally had (I avoided spending my student loan on those appalling 10p sliding machines, and seemed for once to satisfy the usual "so what is it you actually do at Redbrick?" question), and I will very much miss the Redbrick crew. This has been something of a theme in third year: good times wistfully characterised as things to soon be lost, recent events tinted with surreal pre-emptive nostalgia.

But it ain't over yet.
Current Music: Firewater - Whistling In The Dark
we do what we can, until we cannot
Last flatmate left today. The perishables are all gone, and all that’s in the fridge is milk for my tea. Today, boiled rice, tinned tuna and frozen sweetcorn; tomorrow, canned ravioli. I descend by inches.

There have been a couple of academic kicks in the teeth of late; no lasting damage to my degree, but a wakeup call, which is probably no bad thing. Dissertation is well on track, with a solid plan for Christmas and a research trip to London to be made; I haven’t done a serious audit of how much I’m going to be spending on tickets, digitised theses and books for my dissertation - partly because it would horrify me, and partly because it’s worth it regardless.

The end of term parties are coming out of the woodwork, with a dual air of festivity and finality. Teasoc’s "Teas the Season" Christmas party was perfect; cake and fancy biscuits and mince pies, party games (pass the parcel, pin the spout on the teapot, musical chairs), a tea-themed pub quiz, and a raffle so defined by gentlemanly conduct (folks refusing to win a second time) that it took ages for the last prize to actually be handed out. Plus, natch, tea in unbelievable quantities. That evening, the Redbrick party, where I hobnobbed with the remains of last year's gang and did a decent job at remembering the names of the new breed, and with some like-minded bros indulged in much bah-humbuggery. I walked home along the canalside, pale moon above casting the world in clean cold silver.

Then the Law for Non-Law Christmas Networking Dinner; there's been so much buildup to this that I was put in mind of Eisenhower's D-Day speech; "we are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months..." Of course, everything that could go wrong did, from the taxi myself and half the committee were getting being half an hour late to my chair collapsing underneath me and crushing my leg rather painfully (it's still bruised) - but was ace nevertheless.

Year Three is vanishing all too quickly, but I can't say I'm not looking forward to Christmas.
Current Music: Homestuck - Cascade
we do what we can, until we cannot
07 December 2011 @ 10:56 am
"When in 1901 Prince Heinrich's squadron bound for China was not saluted by a British fishery patrol boat, Wilhelm's brother dispatched a cruiser to investigate this breach of naval etiquette. The logical reply by the British captain that he did not have a salute cannon on board was deemed inadequate, and the matter was followed up through diplomatic channels."
we do what we can, until we cannot
29 November 2011 @ 10:20 pm
[22:02:59] Anna: i served nick and louis reynolds in spar today
[22:03:04] Anna: and louis is so loud
[22:03:07] Anna: charming but loud
[22:03:09] Brosencrantz: he is a bit
[22:03:09] Anna: i sat next to him in my seminar on monday
[22:03:17] Anna: and i left deaf in my right ear
[22:03:20] Brosencrantz: I may be responsible for getting him excited though
[22:03:32] Brosencrantz: you know those like flat trolleys for moving big crates around?
[22:03:36] Anna: yes, nick did say he'd just seen you
[22:03:38] Anna: yes
[22:03:54] Brosencrantz: we were using one for moving out the last of toby's shit
[22:04:17] Brosencrantz: and we had to return it to the history department after
[22:04:19] Brosencrantz: and er
[22:04:27] Brosencrantz: louis got on it and I pushed him around while he pretended to be a tank commander
[22:04:58] Brosencrantz: there are those ramps outside the mason lounge
[22:05:02] Brosencrantz: dr b heard "TO THE RHINE" from his fourth floor office
[22:05:52] Brosencrantz: so um
[22:05:53] Brosencrantz: my fault
[22:06:06] Anna: THIS IS WHY I LOVE YOU

[17:14:13] Hovercraft: so russian numbers are mostly pretty logical
[17:15:13] Hovercraft: 23 is "dvadsat' tree", where dvadsat' is like "two-ten" and tree is obviously three
[17:15:16] Hovercraft: so similar to english
[17:15:31] Hovercraft: and all the teens follow the same pattern, including eleven and twelve
[17:15:36] Hovercraft: which are freak numbers in english
[17:15:41] Hovercraft: but then 40 is sorok
[17:15:49] Hovercraft: which doesn't follow the pattern at all
[17:15:55] Hovercraft: WHY
[17:18:30] Hovercraft: According to the most common version, the word comes from the term "bundle of fur skins" (sables, martens, etc..), Which accounted for the title number, represented the standard unit measures, trade and storage of these skins. Skins wrapped in tissue, "Forty" (a word akin to the word " shirt ", from the ancient" sorochka "Old Slavic" srachitsa "asshole, asshole) [1] .
[17:18:31] Hovercraft: WHAT THE FUCK
we do what we can, until we cannot
27 November 2011 @ 01:32 pm
Back to tiny, dingy, not-nearly-enough-marble-Lenins-around England, and things are going well; fears that academics would seriously mind my disappearance were allayed with a hearty "Welcome back, Jeremy! How'd the invasion of Russia go? Did you leave it as you found it?" in my first seminar back. Should've bought them souvenirs.

My first essay mark of the year (an unassessed about battle tactics in the Peninsular War) has come back - 68%, annoyingly short of the First I want will have come hell or high water want. But only 2% short, and one of the two problems with it (a poor footnoting practice that no other tutor has gigged me for in the last two years) is easily dealt with; the lack of specificity will be harder, though I think I can work on it. Dissertation wise, the thesis I really needed for my research has finally come through from the British Library, so I'm seriously getting to grips with that and hope to have an introduction and possibly chapter done for the week; so far, so good, though several of the sources I need will either have to be bought at considerable expense or visited in a library somewhere. But I was going to have to do a research trip to London at some point anyway, and if the sources are in Leeds I am totally happy with doing the Royal Armouries again.

Last weekend was spent visiting my doppelganger (a friend through Siz, who is disturbingly like me in practically every respect save for being a foot shorter and a lady) at her stable in Tonbridge. As she was laid up from a horse-related injury, we happily squandered the weekend lazing around munching popcorn and watching Venture Bros and Generation Kill. It's very nice just chilling in someone's company without feeling any obligation to do or be anything. The only cloud was that I managed to leave my flask behind, but I made do while it was in the post (accompanied by some sublime flapjack) - 'making do' included bringing a mug and teabag to my special subject lecture/seminar and begging some boiling water off Dr Snape. (Who gave us all teacakes that lecture; I've said "our academics are cool" before and you can be damn sure I'm going to be saying it again.)

You may recall [oh god has it really been] two years ago, me getting into a flat panic about my first ever piece of serious uni work. My first-year flatmate went through the exact same thing over her first essay this week. So I sat down with her, reassured her of the non-worthlessness of everything and helped cut 3k words down to 2k; there is a pleasing circle-of-life aspect to this. (Now, I am the master.) Besides that, Mason is crawling with wannabe RAs intriguing for votes and handing out sweets door-to-door in some surreal reverse Halloween.

Filming completed on the two GTV productions I got bit parts in; when the episodes go online, I may post links if they're not terminally embarrassing (chances are low). I went to see a student production of Trainspotting (starring a chap I know from school) which was very good and very grim, though there's a very strange dissonance when you facebook-stalk the cast after the fact and see people who you only know as a violent, threatening Scots psycho frolicking in happy-hipster duds or playing ukuleles. The future is so weird.

Redbrick won a Guardian Student Media Award for Best Website! While I'm very hesitant to claim any responsibility for that - pretty much everything I did on the site, Chris H came along and did better - the (mostly unspoken) consensus is that our coverage of the Birmingham riots was what put us on the radar, and I was part of the team that pulled that through. Also on the society front, Tea Society had their AGM this week; the committee were unanimously re-elected and the one contested position was a very close-run thing. All in all a thoroughly civilised affair with nice cups of tea everywhere. Law for Non-Law Society are tooling up for our Christmas Networking gig, inviting lawyers and attempting publicity everywhere.

It's coming to me now that this really is the beginning of the end; that I've got, essentially, one term left at university before real life comes. And that's vaguely terrifying.
Current Music: Firewater - Hey Clown
we do what we can, until we cannot
[01:47:37] Hovercraft: how is Ø pronounced in danish anyway?
[01:47:57] Brosencrantz: it's a sort of "euh" sound
[01:48:18] Brosencrantz: oeutoft
[01:48:25] Brosencrantz: but short
[01:48:48] Hovercraft: goddamn them and their multiple different vowel forms
[01:48:53] Hovercraft: how dare they remove ambiguity
[01:48:53] Brosencrantz: da
[01:48:59] Brosencrantz: I know
[01:49:01] Brosencrantz: it's fucking sick
[01:50:11] Hovercraft: it's been scientifically proven that 100% of the beauty of english lies in the fact that you haven't a goddamn clue how to pronounce a particular vowel in any word a priori
[01:50:40] Brosencrantz: that doesn't sound like science to me
[01:50:49] Hovercraft: I said a priori
[01:50:51] Hovercraft: that's latin
[01:50:52] Hovercraft: LATIN
[01:50:56] Hovercraft: AKA SCIENCE
[01:50:59] Brosencrantz: LATIN IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE CHURCH
[01:51:00] Brosencrantz: NOT SCIENCE
[01:51:04] Brosencrantz: PAPIST
[01:51:50] Hovercraft: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_priori_(languages) fuck
[01:52:14] Hovercraft: Examples of a priori languages include Ro, Solresol, Mirad, Klingon, and Na'vi.
[01:52:20] Hovercraft: kill everything
we do what we can, until we cannot
23 November 2011 @ 07:42 pm

Phone call to Ben, who constantly needles me re hats and TF2.
"Mr M! Are you responsible for the parcel that greeted me today?"
"Er... not that I know of!"
"It's a hat."
"No, that wasn't me."
"It's a pretty good hat. Not cheap. I thought it might have been you, given endless TF2-related hat shenanigans."
"Yeah. I rather wish it was me now. Damn, beaten to the hat-trolling."

Phone call to my littlest brother.
"Bro, did you send me a hat?"
"Er. What?"
"A hat came in the post for me today. No return address, no inkling of who it's from. It's a really snazzy hat, but... I'm just confused."
"Wasn't me."
"Damn. I ask because there was a small mistake on the address, which is the same as in an address I gave you before. Who've you been giving my address to?"
"Only Lene..."
"Doesn't seem her style; she sends me My Little Pony instead."
"Sorry bro, no idea. I can say it was me if you like?"
"Thanks for the offer, but no. Aight. Love to famille."

Tweet Philip (who is the first man I think of when I think of classy hats.)
Me: Mr Reeve, were you the source of a rather nice (dapper!) present that arrived on my doorstep today?
Philip: I don't think so... but maybe I should take the credit anyway. What was it?
Me: A hat. If it's not you I am plumb out of ideas.
Philip: You have a mystery hat benefactor! That's cool! Or possibly creepy. Oh, and 'pics or it didn't happen' as you youngsters say.
Me: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8641285/ihavenoidea.jpg It's too small for my comically oversized bonce, so perhaps I shall exchange it for a larger one...
Me: ..when I work out WHY ON EARTH I HAVE BEEN SENT A HAT.

Text my cousin, who's one of the few remaining people who know my uni address.
Me: Alright, I can't think of why you would have, but did you send me a hat?
Joey: Er, no, i definitely didn't. What sort of hat? Secret admirer maybe?
Me: Pork pie hat. Black wool. Well classy. Arrived anonymously. Deeply confused.
Joey: Wow, that is very strange. Sounds good tho. Hand written address?
Me: No, has been bought through some internet company.
Joey: Even weirder. Your bio bro? Mum? Does it fit?
Me: No no and not really :( my head is too big.

Hit my middle brother up on facebook chat.
Me: did you send me a hat?
Me: I can't think of why you might have but I've kind of exhausted the reasonable possibilities at this point
Olly: Umm... When?
Olly: I don't think I did...
Me: Today. Arrived on my doorstep. It's a cool hat but I AM SO CONFUSED.
Olly: umm... sure it's for you?
Olly: I've not sent you one
Me: it's addressed to me
Olly: umm, interesting
Olly: :\ No idea!
Me: hum
Me: oh well
Me: cheers
Olly: I want a hat now
Olly: what kind of hat?
Olly: Maybe you have a secret admirer?
Me: http://www.hatsandcaps.co.uk/Jaxon-Hats-Pork-Pie-Hat-P135065/ this kind of hat
Me: what kind of secret admirer sends you a fucking hat
Me: ...and knows my address
Olly: that's not a bad hat...
Olly: Maybe it's a TF2 related joke?
Me: that's what I thought, but I phoned up the chap I would expect that joke from and he denied all involvement
Olly: ah...
Olly: absolutely no idea then!
Me: that makes five of us
Me: so far

Me: bro
Me: forgive me if this is something of a left field question
James: ...right
James: continue
Me: did you send me a hat?
James: did you receive an anonymous hat?
Me: yes
James: well, i hate to disappoint, but it wasn't me
Me: well I'm just terminally confused now
James: ...what kind of hat was it?
Me: http://www.hatsandcaps.co.uk/Jaxon-Hats-Pork-Pie-Hat-P135065/
James: that exact hat?
Me: da
James: maybe it's someone who wishes to see your style evolve
James: equally, it could be an assassin's calling card
James: don't sleep
Me: ordinarily that wouldn't be a problem, but I left my flask in kent at the weekend and have been criminally undercaffeinated since
Me: hum
James: you're fucked m8
Me: it's a hat not a goddamn letter bomb bro
James: it has a hidden camera
James: it's covered with syphilis
James: there's a needle inside with HIV blood
Me: there's probably some perfectly innocuous reason for this, like someone asked me to post something to them, and I've forgotten about the whole affair with my retarded sieve memory
Me: oh
Me: wait
Me: yeah
Me: that's it
Me: well done me
Me: yeah it's for a friend who can't get things posted to their country
Me: I am middlemanning
Me: right
James: aah
Me: better take this to the post office
we do what we can, until we cannot
12 November 2011 @ 11:06 pm
There were some delays getting to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. One involved me forgetting my wallet; one involved giving directions to some hopelessly lost (but attractive) Chinese LED merchants bound, somewhat appropriately, for Elektrozavodskaya. But we eventually arrived at Park P-Body, deepest and shiniest Metro station of them all, to attempt on Friday what we’d failed to do on Tuesday.

There’s a giant obelisk in front of the big crescent-shaped museum building; working under the (as it turned out, erroneous) belief that its height was something to do with war deaths, we tried to work out what tiny fraction of a millimetre each dead Soviet got. (Actually, the needle is 10cm for each day of the Soviet involvement in the war; giving 10cm to each death would get you an obelisk several hundred kilometres tall.)

The basement was, I think, the best part; a U-shaped corridor ringing the "Hall of Memory and Sorrow", with passages fanning out like a five-pointed star and the figure of the Rodina mourning her fallen son beneath thousands of hanging chains. All around the ring were rooms containing lavish dioramas (which seem to be very popular in Russia) - giant, impossibly detailed paintings of battles, with a little foreground set made of genuine weapons and facsimile trenches; the real-world section was usually a bit dusty and tacky, but the paintings themselves are the sort of huge, epic war-glorifying vistas that could convince a generation of young men to march to their deaths, and the Siege of Leningrad diorama in particular was deliciously detailed and grim.

Besides that, the museum was the sort of solid, heroic stuff you'd expect. Few of the cases held anything we hadn't seen before at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces (Hitler/Mussolini puppets and weird political cartoons involving submariners and pigs notwithstanding) but the general presentation was considerably better, and most of the captions were duplicated in English. And there was some amazing stuff there, the weapons and set-pieces from so many iconic battles and historical photos; the Russians have not yet turned their museums into politically-correct interactive playpens with shiny feely-good lights and interviews from local drunks about the parish. It's a Museum, a great big building full of interesting, important artifacts chosen with care by well-informed historians, and that is just as it should be. Off in one wing was an art gallery full of heroic Soviet faces in various styles; in another, an exhibition detailed Nazi forced labour systems in such violently anti-German language that my first reaction was "oh now steady on Ivan, that's the pot calling the kettle a genocidal lunatic"; all the hating on Germany suddenly made sense when we discovered that the exhibition had been put together by Germans, with German government funding. Again like the CMAF, the centrepiece of the entire museum was a huge triumphal section; an immense sculpture of an idealised warrior, in a high-domed room ringed with bas-reliefs of the Hero Cities and great stone slabs bearing the gold-inlaid names of the motherland's champions.

I like the USSR's highest honour. No vulgar flash, no paeans to gods or sovereigns or abstract concepts; none of the noise or clutter or grandiloquence of the Soviet second-bests or the West's greatest honours. A plain red ribbon, a plain gold star, and the simple title HERO OF THE SOVIET UNION.

On the way out, wandering Park Pobedy in search of the railway gun pictured on the museum site, we found a deeply unpromising-looking outdoor military assortment; as far as we could see, the collection on offer was merely a set of generic field guns and a few banged-up panzers. But we coughed up the 75RU and were richly rewarded; beyond the hill there were two railway guns, an armoured train, a non-armoured train, an artillery park, an air wing, a shock army's worth of tanks, and a squadron of warships and warship bits, scattered across acres and acres of park in the snow (as with both previous times we found ourselves outside surrounded by materiel).

By now thoroughly footsore from a week of cumulative schlepping, we headed for the Tretyakov; we found the elusive bloody thing eventually, but by the time we did so there was barely an hour of opening left. I'm not against paying 450RU (£10+) for an art gallery, but for one hour's enjoyment that seemed a little steep, and doing museumy things in a rush is always awful anyway. We agreed to put it on the "next Moscow trip" list, and went to browse the Tret's official Shopful o' Arts, coming away with some gorgeous and aggressively reasonable posters. So we went hunting for the Tret Modern and its fabled parks-full-of-unwanted-ex-Soviet-statues, but that, too, turned out to be a bust: a pitch-black garden in which we could not possibly see anything, charging an entry fee. Sitting near the colossally ridiculous and ridiculously colossal statue of Peter the Great surfing the Russian navy, we decided to call it a day and fall back to Vladykino, packing up for the journey home.

The last day was really a half-day, as we were flying back, and the only item we had planned was Izmailovsky Market. Getting there (stopping en route to visit Elektrozavodskaya, not as polished as advertised but still a palace of light) was again somewhat troublesome, because it turned out that there are actually two Izmailovsky stations on the map - Izmailovskaya and Izmailovsky Park - and one of them (predictably, the one we actually wanted) is called Partizanskaya in the real world. Still, we made it eventually, to The Vernissage, a weird commercial fairyland made of wood and ramshackle stalls. Izmailovsky was the most touristy part of Moscow we encountered, full of loud, obnoxious English-speaking voices in contrast to the bleak silence or quiet, sullen Russian that had generally characterised the holiday.

With that, the market was everything we expected, a sprawling cornucopia of Russo-tat, with overpriced hats and Soviet-adorned hipster trash galore, stalls piled high with crafts and clothes and the flotsam and jetsam of a dozen wars. We browsed at length, but all felt that vague disappointment so specific to markets: they're full of cool stuff, but there's very little of it you actually want to own, especially at that price. Looking at the endlessly arrayed semi-cool vendor trash, I felt very much a product of Amazon and eBay: unimpressed by things I can just buy off the internet for less, and anyway rather disinterested in owning things, even mementos unless they actually do something useful or fun. Material possessions just aren't that great, and they take up so much space; maybe my tune will change when I'm rich, fat, insecure and desperate for anything to cling to mementos of the good years. Bill couldn't get anyone to sell him a VDV badge, Tom couldn't find any decent tools for his work (it was all just woodcutting stuff). I found the Mosin-Nagant bolt that Rob asked for, but even after some haggling it was still more than the 700RU left in my pocket, so I spent those roubles on some small gifts for friends and a winter hat. In the end, we bought very little, and chucked our small change at a pathside snack place on the way back to the station, for artery-clogging samosas and meaty pastry blobs.

Then we rolled back to the hotel to pick up our junk and some cheap(er) Aeroexpress tickets, and made one last stomp from the Zarya to Vladykino, one last Metro ride to the terminus. The flight, bracketed by the great long international grind of queues, baggage and passport control (according to Bill, Ottawa > Domodedovo > Heathrow, but airports and their rituals all seem the same to me, generically identical, like red top strip-malls with runways) was as expected; we had an amusing flight attendant who kept trying to get everyone to take more bottles of wine.

([All screens are showing a map of Europe, our plane slowly crossing it.]
"So yeah, this is a good movie."
"I wonder how it's going to end?"
"Dunno. Hope there's a twist.")

After a week of Moscow, London felt absurdly small and squalid and sweltering, Tube stations insultingly grimy and crude and their trains like grotesque little perambulatory Pringles cans. But we rode one back to Tom's, and up in his room in the Moscow-time small hours, cracked open my laptop and one of the cheap bottles of Stolichnaya to go through our holiday snaps with and toast to bro-holidays past and future.
we do what we can, until we cannot
11 November 2011 @ 09:13 pm
Unlike most other Moscow attractions, the Central Museum of the Armed Forces has a jolly nice little map on their site telling you how to get there, which we followed faithfully, and after a brief jaunt along Selezneveskaya Street, with lots of trams rumbling about, were rather perturbed to find that an entirely new metro station (Dostoevskaya) had been built right next to the museum since that map had been uploaded.

Oh well.

The biggest difference between Russian military museums and British ones is that the Russians remember that they actually won. The CMAF isn’t just a great annotated assortment of Soviet and Russian military junk – though it’s definitely that, with a huge park of tanks outside and a pronounced WW2 bent – it’s a museum of victory, with that famous banner that once flew over the Reichstag (surrounded by captured Nazi weapons and standards liberally scattered with iron crosses) at the centre of the collection. As soon as you enter the museum, you are greeted by an enormous mosaic of heroic, sculpted Soviet soldiers celebrating their triumph. (Alright, so there’s a giant scowling Lenin head just in front of it, and off to the side, there’s a statue of some soldiers kissing, but the mosaic is what catches the eye.)

The post-war military stuff (with the tanks gradually becoming more boring, the planes becoming boring and then suddenly cool again) had lots of fancy Russian small-arms and the remains of Gary Powers’ crashed U-2 spy plane as well as cases devoted to the VDV; the pre-war stuff included a number of wonderful murals and dioramas of the (Russian) Civil War, and one of those little horse and cart jobbies with a machine gun. Out behind the museum building, under a grey sky that turned to snow as soon as we went outside, there was the expected artillery park, tank brigade, fleet of armoured cars, wing of jet fighters/bombers and pile of v-launch ballistic missiles, plus an armoured train and a collection of interesting marine weapons (such as a depth-charge lobber and a small warship.) The whole collection was behind a simple iron fence, within fifty metres of a children’s playground. That would be a cool place to grow up.

The Metro will get a post all of its own because it’s amazing and warrants one, but suffice to say that the new Dostoevskaya station (it’s part of a recent extension) is absurdly beautiful. We went to its equally new and equally stunning sister at Mariyna Roshcha before changing to the circle line, changing again at Prospekt Mira and rolling up to VDNKh.

VDNKh (vey-dey-en-khai to Russians and Bill, vuh-doonk to cool people) was one of the things we’d been looking forward to most: it’s an immense, surreal, semi-abandoned exhibition park, a sort of Soviet Crystal Palace/World’s Fair built on an obscene scale. Outside the park, the Monument to the Conquerors of Space swoops skyward and the great "Worker and Kolkhoz Woman" shines stainlessly with the glare of banks of spotlights, and within the triumphal gate the grounds are lined with pavilions built by all the Socialist Republics to show off their wealth and grandeur. The Space Pavilion was perhaps the most amazing of them all, a beautifully engineered hall as big as St Paul’s Cathedral, with a Vostok rocket hanging on its launch gantry outside.

Now bad hip-hop blares from speakers zip-tied to hammer-and-sickle-adorned streetlamps and hawkers try vainly to draw punters to their lean-to dives or carny attractions, but more than anything the place feels empty; not abandoned, but so vast and so thinly populated that you can feel alone. The pavilions are now either home to clutches of small, squalid businesses or just falling down completely; the Space Pavilion is almost deserted, with a few stalls selling flower seeds and garden equipment huddled inside it at one end. Even after dark, with the whole park lit up and Ostankino Tower standing cloud-high underneath an aurora of its own creation, I couldn’t quite imagine the place when it had been great. VDNKh isn’t dead – there are plenty of sad little fairgroundy businesses scratching a living at its fringes. Every so often there’s an attempt to revitalise it and some huge structure is built or renovated, and a few hopeful capitalists still use its huge pavilions for actually exhibiting, but it will never be filled in the same way. It, more than anything else, makes post-Soviet Russia seem like a child wearing its parents’ clothes.

Hungry, we stopped at a stall selling blinis (crepes/pancakes). Unable to really read the menu, Bill and Tom plumped for the most expensive "Tsar Blini" (turned out to be ersatz caviar) while I picked a 75RU one at random (turned out to be jam) and a couple of mystery pastries from the stall next to it (one was meat, one was a sort of tasty Russian sauerkraut.) Thoroughly footsore, we wandered the park a bit more and took a closer look at Worker and Kolkhoz Woman and the Monument to the Conquerors of Space before going on the Metro-exploring trip we’d been mulling since ever.

I think, looking back, VDNKh might eclipse Monino as my favourite memory of the holiday; it is fabulous and decrepit, triumphant and mournful in equal measure, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Next: The Museum of the Great Patriotic War and the Tretyakov (sort of.)
we do what we can, until we cannot
11 November 2011 @ 04:59 am
On Wednesday morning we overslept, rousing ourselves only when it was twenty minutes before the end of breakfast, and filled up on buffet in a sleepy daze. Fortunately, once we finally got outside, it turns out that Moscow in November is a wakeup as subtly effective as being beaten with a pillowcase full of ice cubes.

Top priority was Lenin. However, due to some odd notions of being able to store our bags in the State Historical Museum cloakroom, and a number of inconvenient fences, we ended up going around the museum building about three times before finally reaching the mausoleum. But given the ridiculous grandeur surrounding us (and the street attractions, including a couple of chaps dressed as streltsy and a tubby woman with a megaphone heckling everyone in Russian) we weren’t too troubled. For those unaware, Red Square is neither red nor a square; it’s a huge, vaguely rectangular expanse between the Kremlin wall and a vast building that’s nowadays used for shops, with the majestic State Museum building at one end and the ridiculous, unbelievable St Basil’s Cathedral at the other, both bracketed by enough space on either side to drive a fleet of tanks through (and they have). If the Kremlin is a little too fairytale to look like a fortress, St Basil’s is full on Mushroom Kingdom trippy-insanity, an enormous, loopy conglomerate of randomly designed towers and rainbow-coloured cupolas. Lenin’s mausoleum is the only restrained building there, a blocky little Lego-looking thing of black and red marble surrounded by chain fences and unsmiling guards.

When we finally got to see him (sans bags, sans phones, sans cameras, sans everything), we descended marble steps into quiet blackness; the place has been perfectly pitched to inspire silent reverence. There he was, lying in a glass tank, tiny and plastic-looking, wrapped in black velvet and bathed in rosy light so that he looked like an expensive chocolate in a shop window. Seeing him was more than worth the hassle.

("So, there’s Brezhnev, there’s Kalinin... and hah, there’s Papa Joe. He seems to have more flowers than anyone else."
"There was this cool Superman miniseries about if he was Soviet instead of Ameri-"
"We are standing at Stalin’s grave and all you can talk about is fucking Superman?")

The State Museum (250 roubles) contained A (near-) Complete History of Russia, finishing in Tsarist times and starting from before the evolution of man. It had all the artefacts. All of them. I was very sorry we left the camera in the (finally located!) cloakroom; but I gawked at a thousand muskets and maps and arrowheads and fancy uniforms and strange, ancient bronze things; most rooms had at least one case devoted to the East, full of yatagans and mirror-armour and spice traders with unsettlingly thin taches. Items of particular interest included Vereshchagins and an eight-metre canoe carved from some enormous log, and it was of course all in the usual beautiful, solid and built-on-a-wildly-different-scale Russian architecture.

St Basil’s wanted another 250 roubles to get in, and we reckoned that once you’ve seen the insides of all the Kremlin orthodox cathedrals you’ve pretty much seen them all, so we gave it a pass and edged past building works and a van full of soldiers trying and failing to hide behind curtains, finding an unexpected (free) archaeology museum down a side street and spending ten enjoyable minutes looking at even more ancient Muscovite remains. Past a street of cathedrals, with something huge and demolished being picked over by machines beyond their onion-domes, and through bare, desolate Soviet parks populated only by fluffy sparrows, we came to the old KGB headquarters at Lubyanka, followed by the Bolshoi Theatre, both the casus belli for much pointing and photographing. They don’t make things like this at home; and even if they did, they’d be a quarter the size.

Having looped back round to Red Square, we bought a couple of burgers at the McDonalds there in tribute to the triumph of capitalism, and ate them watching the guards change at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, feeding our fries to yet more sparrows. (I’ve missed them at home in the last few years; where have all the sparrows gone?)

After that, we tried the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, on the basis that even if it was shut or wanted a fee it’s a pretty spectacular building from the outside. The present cathedral is unusual in that it’s brand new: the original was torn down by the Communists in order to build an immense “Palace of the Soviets” which was eventually cancelled by WW2 (afterwards, Stalin had the Seven Sisters built instead, and Krushchev had a gigantic open-air swimming pool [!?!] placed on the cathedral’s remains.) So the new cathedral, a mostly-faithful copy of the old with bronze reinterpretations, was built from private donations in the nineties, and it’s stunning. As with Metro stations, it’s just nice to see new things being built properly and tastefully; the closest parallel I can think of is Coventry Cathedral (which is still a bit clumsy from the outside). The cathedral is white marble, bronze, gold and (of course) vast; it’s got that very Moscow combination of expensive materials, inspired design, proper build quality and genuine care lavished upon it, and is crammed with Orthodox murals and icons as shining and beautiful as the day they were made, without the centuries of entropy that all the Kremlin’s classics have clearly endured. Outside stands a monumental statue of Tsar Alexander II, whose two-headed eagle medallion is lifted by the wind and clanks rhythmically against his great bronze chest.

We crossed the footbridge that sticks out from the cathedral's foundations, being blown about by the wind across the river, watching the spotlights on the Kremlin slant up into the gentle rain and the traffic glitter off the titanic (and I’m seriously going to run out of synonyms for “big” in a minute; Moscow is like that) statue of Peter the Great over the river. Then a wander through warehouse-districts-turned-nightclubs in the built up areas south of the river, hunting a metro station that turned out to be Polyanka, and back to the hotel for a dinner of borscht and dumplings.

Next: VDNKh and the Central Armed Forces Museum.
we do what we can, until we cannot

Myself in front of a prototype jet bomber.

N.B.: This is a really big plane... and not even close to the biggest there.

The plan for Tuesday was the Tretyakov Gallery and Park Pobedy (“Victory Park”, henceforth Park P-Body), home of the Great Patriotic War Museum. However, the plan was somewhat dashed by Bill feeling all fragile and lurgy-ish, and moping around the flat. By noon the day was going to have to be seriously cut down (we’ve been planning for, and having, 8am starts), and he still wasn’t feeling up to the Russian winter. So we replanned (“if he feels better, let’s forget the Tret and just go to the GPW museum”) and replanned (“well, it closes at 7, we should still manage to get some time out of this...”) and replanned (“he’s not getting better, is he; reschedule to Friday?”)

We had the Central Air Force Museum at Monino pencilled in for Friday, on the vague and tentative understanding that it could be scrubbed if something else came up (as it just had). This was going to hurt me more than it hurt Bill and Tom: the Monino museum is home to ALL THE COOL COLD WAR STUFF, including quite a few one-of-a-kind machines (among which the phrase “world’s largest” crops up with impressive frequency), and was the only thing outside the city limits we’ve planned at all. It was also the replacement for Kubinka tank museum, which seemed to be implausibly troublesome and expensive, and far too likely to end with us somehow banged up in Russian jail drinking chifir’ while we waited for my friends to graduate, get on to Fast Stream, get into the diplomatic service and get us out. When it became clear that it was rushed-now or never, now seemed preferable.

The only real guide we had getting to Monino was this one, written by some internet plane-nerd and found on Wikipedia. Fortunately, it’s amazingly comprehensive and detailed, and I loaded the relevant tabs, plonked my laptop and sammich-assembled-from-stolen-breakfast-ingredients into my bag, grabbed a Tom and left for Vladykino. We followed all the steps as detailed on the site, which went off fine (apart from a misread Metro sign which caused a double-back) and the train as we rolled out was exactly as I’d hoped: Real Russia, in a banging, creaking tub on wheels full of surly people in hats and random buskers - shortly after the train started moving, a duo with guitar and violin came onto our carriage, and played so amazingly well I gave them a fistful of small-denomination roubles and asked if I could take their picture; after determining that I was a tourist and not an oddly dressed undercover cop, they said yes. But no ice-cream sellers.

(“Ice cream? Seriously?”
“When in Russia...”
“When in Russia, wrap up warm and don’t do as the locals do because they’re fucking insane.”)

And I was very glad of the train journey and the not-being-in-a-city, because I got to see Actual Russia, which is exactly as I had imagined it, full of enormous pieces of gently decaying public infrastructure and the stereotypical huge blocks of flats surrounding miserable-looking public parks. Everywhere there were stunningly overbuilt residential districts, down-headed Russians heading on their everyday business, swish new Japanese cars rolling past crap, broken-down old Russian ones, and random power plants and factories looming out of the grey mist and adding to it from forests of red-and-white-striped chimneys. It was post-Soviet porn, and it was amazing. I saw a MiG-17 in a random garden and was convinced beyond all doubt that yes, This Was A Good Idea.

The train journey was, however, long, and when after an hour and a quarter of journey the urban wilderness had turned into just plain normal wilderness (though peppered with little abandoned and semi-abandoned allotments and settlements) Tom and I were getting a little worried that we had the wrong train. Checking the map on the train (as we probably should have done at the start), we found that we were on the right train and one station away.

Monino was again one of those stereotypes; past the big, empty station and the excuse for a shopping strip it was all just broad avenues through grey, miserable Soviet tower blocks, some abandoned, all suffused with an atmosphere of general neglect. I didn’t get the feeling that anyone really lives in Monino, though I have no doubt a lot of people exist there. As we got to the edge of the military academy and double-checked our directions next to a great big sign praising Yuri Gagarin, wondering how much further it was, it began to gently snow.

Helped in the last stage by a Russian woman who took one look at our greatcoats and vaguely lost expressions and said “musee?”, we got to the airbase in what was by British standards already a blizzard, and coughed up the entrance fee. What happened next was a sustained kid-in-candy-store period of me gleeing all over Soviet nuclear bombers, jet fighters, giant helicopters and insane historical curios I’d never even heard of before, in a developing blizzard. Suffice to say IT WAS AMAZING; masses of pictures will be up when I’m back on a decent connection.

("So what proportion of the stuff at Monino did you photograph?"
"All of it."
"Thank you.")

When we got back, after lots more Monino-exploring and camwhoring in a snowbound derelict construction site, Bill was feeling much more alive, and we all got on the Metro down south of the river to see the University proper and fill up on dinner; the chap in the same kebab-making cube as Monday recognised us, so we didn’t need to explain the concept of “vegetarian” twice, and we strolled up to Moscow State University in the listless slush and gaped at its endless glory. It really needs pictures to explain, but after Moscow I am ruined for all universities.

Tomorrow (well, today, as I’m writing this a day after the fact): Red Square.
Current Music: Boney M - Rasputin
we do what we can, until we cannot
08 November 2011 @ 06:45 am

Myself at the Kremlin.
N.B.: This is a really big wall.

The Zarya is immense and empty in that somewhat stereotypical hotel way – in our triple room we were unsurprised at the lack of Bibles, but the absence of a Gideonovich Communist Manifesto was a letdown. We ordered some terribly overpriced dinner in the bar and sat pondering navigation and listening to some loud Americans talking politics before it arrived (my dumplings took forever, but were amazing.) Then to bed, to rise at 7:45 (which in our jetlagged minds was 3:45, and in Moscow time falls into that roughly-24-hour period each day called “Really Cold O’Clock”.

Fortified by all-you-can-eat brekky at the Zarya (which is going to be exploited massively this week, I feel), we rolled down to the Kremlin (Lenin is shut on Mondays, so we’re doing Red Square later in the week) on the Metro to Borovitskaya, popping out at the library and muttering some half-hearted Metro 2033 references before wandering towards the enormous fort. There’s something slightly surreal, slightly fairytale about it all: the walls are immense and ancient, the equal of anything I’ve ever seen (Kumbhalgarh aside... mostly), but the towers and crenellations look like elaborate toys. The palace blocks inside are stunning and ridiculously big, but something about the combination of white trim and flat, pastel colours makes them look a bit too much like cakes to be taken seriously. And the cathedrals! I’m used to English churches, which have a generally defined anatomy of sections building on each other logically, but these mad Russian godholes start vertical and just go up and up and up, great cereal-box things capped with clutches of golden onions. Inside the walls are vast murals and endless little pictures of beardy saints and biblical scenes, and inside the onions are gigantic scowling Jesus faces. And don’t get me started on the retardedly huge cannon in the impossible solid-iron carriage, or the sundered bell big enough to live in. Every part of the Kremlin makes me think it was put together from a slightly breathless description by someone completely colourblind: it’s too clean, too cartoonish, the proportions are too odd. I see it, but I don’t quite believe it.

I suspended disbelief long enough to go on the bell tower tour (one of the guides, who was very jolly in the way stereotypes insist that sober Russians aren’t, took one look at Tom and told him he looked like the last Tsar [he does]). We saw lots of sculpted bits of history and listened to a long, glib-voiced history of the Kremlin down the ages. Sadly, even the freezing air wasn’t enough to keep me properly awake and I can’t remember half of it; hopefully I will recover soon (insomnia is fine but I am fundamentally out of sync with Russia).

After the Kremlin, we went on a long, aimless meander along Arbat, being handed spam by people dressed as hamburgers and marvelling at how amazing all the buildings looked. Moscow architecture is something else; I always thought the Scots were past masters in large, solid, tastefully adorned public buildings, but Moscow makes the combined work of Scotland’s best look sick. Even the brutalist Kruschev-era nightmares had a style and a substance unmatched at home, and the Seven Sisters I want to steal and take home and hide in forever. Say what you like about Stalin, he encouraged some nice buildings.

After a stodgy potatoey lunch at some random snack bar (food, sadly, costs almost as much as in London) we found our way back onto the Metro, and headed for Sportivnaya in search of the Metro Museum. We went up at the wrong vestibule (metro stations almost without exception have two entrances, one at each end, with quite a distance between them) and so had to pay another ticket for the privilege of going back through the station, but Sportivnaya station is glorious so that wasn’t a problem. The museum was very well hidden, behind a side door, through an abandoned locker room and up a staircase past a locked door with children’s voices behind it. It was somewhat creepy and also felt like the opening to every Soviet-era low-dialogue drama you’ve ever seen. Once there, we met a very amiable Russian trainspotter with excellent English and a fantastically encyclopaedic knowledge of the Metro (it was only at turfing-out time that we found out he wasn’t actually an employee of the museum) and saw lots of old maps and metro stuff, including some great big public parades in the thirties cheering the building of the system (even if they’re all posed and there’s a commissar with a revolver just offscreen, it would be nice if every once in a while we had people with placards actually praising our public infrastructure improvements).

Pushkinskaya was full of communists when we arrived, with big red banners flying around and lots of nervy looking cops stopping punters getting too close, and it turned out that Google Maps had lied to us about the location of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. We spent quite a long time wandering semi-lost around Metro streets hunting for it before finding a convenient Marriott hotel; the reception gave us proper directions, which told us we had been heading in entirely the wrong way. It wasn’t a complete loss: we saw many fine buildings, a trollface in one shop’s Halloween decorations, and a policeman with an AKS-74U. Schlepping along the right route to MMMA, with cloth-covered lorries full of police going by, we found that both it and the cafe beneath it were closed until Nov 28, but managed to locate a terribly overpriced tea shop to drown our sorrows, go to the loo and plot our next move.

Our next move was the University, which like Birmingham has its very own station, all the way down the red line (past Sportivnaya again). Around the vestibule was a street market, with lots of sealed glass stalls (all Moscow street vendors hide in glass cubes with tiny pop-open windows to squeeze goods through, which seems incredibly sensible) and old women wandering around vaguely trying to sell balloons and melon gratings. Bill was feeling queasy and didn’t fancy the walk (the university seemed quite distant, especially given how massive it is) so after some fantastic 90RU kebabs from a happy little food-selling glass cube (the kebabs reminded me a lot of something similar in Granada, many moons ago) we Metroed back to Vladykino, warmth, weird Russian TV, and bed.

Day 1: success.

Next (hopefully): The Tretyakov and Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Current Music: Tschingis Khan - MOSKAU
we do what we can, until we cannot
06 November 2011 @ 09:08 pm

The holiday got off to an inauspicious start: as soon as I arrived at New Street and started hunting for my train to London, I was informed that something had broken somewhere down the line and no trains were getting in or out of Euston (I have also found garbled, slowly-loading internet scuttlebutt that other unlucky passengers may have been menaced by a lion) so I was advised to go to Moor Street and take the slower train to Marylebone. Upon doing so, I found that a) the Moor Street trains had both power sockets and free wifi, b) someone had left an unopened packet of chocolate coins in the luggage rack. This seemed a fair trade for an extra half hour on the train.

London, as we headed to Tom’s after a rendezvous at the Cock, was gradually turning into the traditional Fifth of November warzone, thunder-flashes on the skyline and spouts of flame rising from every back garden. Although Islington Council sadly haven’t reinstated the Highbury Fields bonfire after calling it off twelve years ago (skinflints), Tom’s dad got into the spirit of things by firing some maritime distress flares off into the sky (you can tell he used to be a rock star) before cooking us all a scrummy veggie dinner. Then we watched the final episode of Generation Kill, which Bill hadn't seen for some inadequate reason, and all went off to bed twitching with anticipation.

Up at 5:30 for toast and tea and traipsing through still-dark streets, riding down to Paddington in a bus that was congested in every possible sense of the word. Past various fine gasworks on the Heathrow Express, through all the usual tedious airport clichés and formalities, we found ourselves on the correct plane at the correct time, and mostly fell asleep. The flight was meant to be four hours, but runway tomfoolery at both ends stretched it out. Stacked up in a holding pattern above Domodedovo, watching the horizon burning that utterly beautiful red you can only get with serious air pollution, we descended into a dark purple haze scattered with cobwebs of city lights. The plane banked hard towards the dying sun on the last run, splashing red light across the wing beside me, and as it evened out I watched the shadow line run from the knuckle of the engine pylon all the way down the wingtip, vortex-fins glinting for a moment with my own private sunset.

It seems so far that everything is big in Moscow; the Aero Express certainly is. It’s a broader gauge than in Britain (though I think still not as huge as if Brunel had got his way), and the trains are massive in all senses. On the 45-minute run into Moscow proper, the train didn’t sway, it didn’t roll, and while it ground and vibrated it was in the same implacable way as massive factory machinery. Through the window I could see great stripy chimneys pumping out white smoke, and hundreds upon hundreds of semi-lit tower blocks.

The Metro deserves its own post and will get one, but is about the only part of the journey that went as quickly and efficiently as hoped, but after considerable navigation-confusion and traipsing around freezing Moscow streets in the darkness, we found our roost for the week, the Maxima Zarya hotel.

Tomorrow: The Kremlin.
Current Music: Alexander Buinov – some fruity nineties shit about the mafia
we do what we can, until we cannot

So the original plan for The Bro-Holiday between Bill, Tom and I, back in the mists of time, was The Great American Road Trip. That sort of failed for lots of reasons, mainly revolving around the "road" aspect and the "student poverty" aspect. Less of an issue for Bill, who has a driving license, and is a comparatively loaded PhD wanker, but Tom and I are mere BAs stuck in the sculpture/gun mines, poor and incapable of operating a steering wheel. Moscow was originally an area of interest for profoundly geeky reasons, but as BROMERICA 2011 gradually became less and less likely, its somewhat briefer, somewhat cheaper, other-side-of-the-Cold-War counterpart became more and more so.

Short story shorter, we fly to Russia tomorrow.

We have advice and recommendations from such luminaries as the great Sarah Mcintyre and an awesome Russian student I kept bumping into at law events. We have an itinerary, a soundtrack, a camera, a pre-Kennedy phrasebook, a post-internet phrasebook, and bitchin' winter coats.

where doing this bros

for additional brosterity & possibly panicked fact-checkingCollapse )
Current Music: Alexander Buinov - VDV
we do what we can, until we cannot
30 October 2011 @ 10:41 pm
The week after my 22nd I had a belated birthday party, and everyone insisted on buying me a drink, with the result that I got Somewhat Drunk for the first time in my life. Which was... well, interesting, but not something I'll repeat often. Turns out that inebriated me is actually very mellow and carefree, as opposed to normal hopped-up-on-caffeine-and-nervous-energy me, and rather than spitting out my words at 1200 rpm I speak so slowly that I can be easily be mistaken for yawning. I can understand the appeal in feeling so completely detached from the world.

My principal third year modules appear in university material as "Writing the History of Warfare", "The British Army and the defeat of Napoleon" and "Warfare at Sea from the Armada to Overlord". However, they appear in my calendar as (respectively) "it is cruelty and you cannot refine it", "YA BOO FRENCHY" (thanks, Louis) and "Rum, Sodomy & the Lash 1588-1945." I am, thus far, really enjoying everything.

I brought my dissertation plan before my replacement supervisor and he told me that, in short, my proposal was far too broad and far too ambitious, and that I didn't have a hope of doing it properly in 12,000 words. Options for continuing were a) a very much cut-down version of the original, focusing on Vietnam infantry tactics, and b) an alternative proposal that had come up in my initial research, involving a small-arms controversy in the early late 40s and 50s (.280 British). He gave me two weeks to gather enough material to justify it, and in the process of following leads, I was pointed at one Dr F, the premier small-arms man in the British Isles, who suggested to me a somewhat-related area of research I hadn't even considered. This, and the offer of some advice on the understanding that I'd send him my primary research in return, grabbed my interest completely, and I bashed together a bibliography and proposal for my supervisor, who went for it, and I think it'll be an even more interesting, rewarding and intellectually stimulating piece of work than the last two. So that's all right then.

Due to the relative lack of shariness in my flat, and the niggling feeling that I may have left some pots and pans in Reservoir Road, I've felt myself a bit short of various cooking items: no large saucepan, no chopping board, and no baking trays capable of flapjack. So, when the time came to make flapjack for the L4NL event with BPP, I visited Soraya to avail myself of her baking trays. Unfortunately, the flapjack still turned out too crumbly, and on the way home I experienced a syrup related disaster: the jar came open somehow in my pannier, coating all my shopping in a thick gloopy layer of Mr Tate and Mr Lyle's finest. I have been up to my wrists in syrup. I cannot see the word "syrup" any more without shuddering. I fear I am going to end up like Lady Macbeth, except with syrup instead of blood. The day after, my phone unexpectedly autocorrected "stripy" to "syrup" and I collapsed in a flood of tears.
Current Music: Mumford & Sons - Little Lion Man
we do what we can, until we cannot
18 October 2011 @ 05:40 pm
I really haven't been posting enough. I have been crazy busy round the clock, and while I love it, when I get home I feel more "tea -> collapse" than "tea -> blog -> bed". And I have been seeing so many people and having so many different impromptu conversations that my wit, such as it is, is being spread out among so many conversations and so many itty-bitty online and text exchanges that by the time it comes to write these things I feel quite drained. But for anyone out there (does anyone even read this any more? - it does seem that the demand side of my net interactions has gone over to FB, as well as the supply) - I am well.

Tis the season for legal events, and applications. I've been to such Events with four firms; at Baker & McKenzie's dinner at the Mailbox, everyone had a wonderful I-want-to-work-with-these-people vibe, even if their applications are utterly, viciously competitive, and everyone was incredibly encouraging except the actual admissions person, who once told I'd got a C at A-level Computing started advising me to apply for regional firms (the hell; my academic record at university is literally first-class, and if this one bad A-level is an albatross round my neck I'm going to be vexed.) Hogan Lovells was a very last-minute thing as another L4NL person bailed, but I'd got a good feeling off the associates I'd met at Cousin Jonathan's wedding partner, and this was further confirmed: the associates there were delightfully competent and personable and the partner was really genuinely fun. Linklaters, by contrast, seemed rather unpleasantly polished and soulless, an event put together carefully by a marketing committee according to some synergistic leverage algorithm, and I excused myself after scoffing a few canapes. I didn't even bother asking them about the A-levels. Finally, the lunchtime with Berwin Leighton Paisner was the smallest and most low-key of the events so far, but very warm and welcoming, with two extremely friendly trainees and presentation so comprehensive I was (for once) without anything to really ask at the end.

Plus, free sandwiches. I have to say, as a student, providing free food at these events is about the best way to get people interested. I am as convinced as ever that this law business is a good idea, something that I can do and something that I want. I have so far applied to four firms (Burges Salmon, Herbert Smith, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Slaughter and May) and am planning several more.

Being one of the few who seems to actually pay attention to the my.bham feed, I scored a brief part-time JOB from the university - the Space Utilisation Survey, ie wandering around the Arts block sticking my head round doors and counting students. Basically, a sort of civilised, academic version of the census, sans the slum-exploring, spitting, and threats of random violence, and the hourly pay worked out about the same. Even the feeling of large institutions as facelessly incompetent and corrupt was the same: it was worrying to see how many 60-person lecture theatres had 15 people in them, and how many 12-man rooms contained 20 student sardines breathlessly trying to avoid mutual sexual harassment. Not that it didn't have the odd smart aleck, as on my first shift:

Lecturer: Yes?
Myself, holding up my clipboard like a shield: Just taking a head count, please ignore the interruption.
Lecturer: Well, that's a logical contradiction, isn't it? I can't ignore an interruption, it's like-
Myself: Please pay as little attention to the interruption as possible. (unspoken, but thought so hard everyone probably heard it anyway: Wanker.)
Current Music: The Decemberists - Burying Davy
we do what we can, until we cannot
Year three; the home straight, the beginning of the end. I start as I mean to go on, and I mean to go on damn well.

Address to all the history freshers went just fine. So did War Studies stall; so did the L4NL pre-term bollocking planning (and, reportedly, the turnout at the first meeting, though I missed it). In fact, everything is pretty swish at the moment. Went to Zoe's birthday party and reconnected with some BGS chaps that I'd never really known before but am jolly glad I connected with; when I went to the Shackleton pub quiz with Mike Howie, it was almost exactly a repeat of the same trip with Block 12 two years ago (which is to say, not great, but the company made up for it.)

As in second year, I have gone straight for the modules I know the least about; I find I learn much better when arriving without preconceptions or prior knowledge, as it's all learning, and learning is FUN. So: my 20cr, essay-and-exam option is "Seapower from the Armada to Overlord" which is something I know pleasingly little about, with the new and seemingly very good War Studies tutor who has won early infamy and many exclamations of "lad!" by (reportedly) telling a student "send my regards to your mother" when their phone went off.

Along with that is the 40cr special subject (really two modules masquerading as one): "The British Army and the Defeat of Napoleon", which is something I know basically nothing about, and is half to be handled by Dr Snape and half by my first year Jacobite tutor. It's half exam, and half open paper, both of which I am entirely confident about. It sounds fun - really genuinely interesting stuff, and I've heard from people I trust that Napoleonic is a great period. The final module is "Writing the History of War," a new, militarised version of third year Historical Reflections; just from the name I feared it might be a dud module, but it also looks fun. I'm to present for one of the early seminars and aim to make an argument about heroic warfare in ancient Greece; early topics include Homer and the Bible, which is all a bit English Lit but is a pleasant break from seapower (rivet-counting!)

Finally, my dissertation, which is... "hmm" is probably how I'm thinking about it. I have been assigned a replacement tutor; I sent him a state of play email today which included the admission "basically, this is a gunwank dissertation", and now I really, really hope I haven't misjudged his sense of humour. It will be done, and when it is done it will be good, but I fear it'll be more of an uphill struggle than the rest.

Mason is quiet and civilised, basking in this late summer. The only cloud has been a mob of paintball scammers who almost foxed my flatmate Ruchi out of £60, and I've heard of various other attempts to scam Masonites (who are, let's face it, the most obvious target for the doorstep short con for miles around) out of daddy's money; we got an extremely long and poorly worded email from accommodation services warning us not to buy discounted hi-fi equipment from blokes in white vans. For real.

Olly and Lizzie came round for dinner, and to pick up the various things he'd left in the car at Leamington; the walk back along the dark towpath was more than a little surreal. ("Are there any muggers? What do we have that they want?" "A solid brick of iron, a 22" monitor, a bag of clothes hangers and five smartphones.")

It's fun being a third year; it's a bit like the last year of school, only more so - there's this great sense of familiarity with the tutors and each other, and the camaraderie among warbros at this point is a palpable thing. ("And if you all write down your SRNs, I'll have you signed up to a resources site on WebCT-" "We'll believe it when we see it, sir.") Snape told us all at the start of Historical Reflections that, after two years, War Studies had yet to produce a First. And that he'd be really chuffed if this year one or two of us managed it. Significant glances at myself and the seat where Louis Reynolds ought to have been. The game's afoot.

I begin third year enthused and confident, head held high.
Current Music: The Decemberists - Sleepless
we do what we can, until we cannot
28 September 2011 @ 12:31 pm
I am 22!

(...it's all downhill from here, life has peaked, just ticking off the days til I die, etc...)

From my dear loving family I have been given an enormous Russian novel, a new foil for my shaver (which was a first year gift, so the circle is complete), a fresh pair of deep-blue Old Man Slippers (I go through a set a year, and it's that time of year again) and DELANICE. Delanice is a beast of a smartphone (I'm convinced the design spec included "capable of beating a man to death"), and Pope, who has his fingers in more techie pies than I can keep count of these days, invited me to review it for MobileFun. So I did, and as a result will be scoring a snazzy new case. I know cool people.

(Delanice is a Dell Venue Pro; my previous phone was a Samsung Taylor called Tay Tay. Watch this it you're raising an eyebrow at the names.)

On my last run down to London, to send Eli off for her year in Japan, Tom gave me a remote control helicopter (soon to be used for trolling Mason and promoting Warsoc once I've scored some batteries for it), and various lovely people have sent various lovely cards with several variations on the theme of "holy shit you're old." Thanks, guys. While I totally failed to organise anything on the day, I ought to be having an OHGODSOOLD party next week. (On the off-chance that a) you're a friend in real life, b) you're reading this but not my facebook, come along! Also, what is UP with you.) There will be a toast to absent bros.

Also, not-exactly-a-gift-but-may-as-well-be-one, and very cathartic (and rewarding, in all senses), has been working with Philip on SECRET PROJECTS, which I will post about once they come to fruition and once I've had another look at the exact details of the non-disclosure clause in the contract.

I count my blessings, and they are many. Life is good. More on uni soon.
Current Music: The Decemberists - O Valencia!
we do what we can, until we cannot
21 September 2011 @ 12:46 am
Today the Mason residents’ association ran one of the few non-alcohol-related events of freshers’ week: a bus tour around Brum followed by all-you-can-eat Chinese. The bus was open-topped and I was on the top deck; the weather could conceivably have been worse, but it would have to work at it. The tour was excellent (Birmingham, to my surprise, has a huge and wonderful selection of good first-floor-and-up architecture from all periods), and the Chinese was not only varied and tasty, but they gave us takeaway bags (which I just had for a late supper); so really, two meals for the price of less than half.

(To one of the RA people: “How is this financially viable at £2 a head?” “Eh, we don’t really have to worry about that. Mason RA is loaded.”)

So, with most things apart from books unpacked and littering my room, I feel properly moved-in now. I have many minor quibbles with the flat itself (Mason flats seem to have been designed for illiterate party-animal students, and there are no bookshelves; a single half-broken sliding door is meant to service both the wardrobe and ensuite and does neither very well; the wet-room shower is very poorly engineered, and you end up with, well, a wet room) but no major ones; and the advantages (the excellent views, the reasonably spacious flat, the general not-having-to-fret nature of halls) certainly outweigh them.

And everything about halls is at the moment pretty academic because I’m hardly in them: I am thoroughly enjoying the term-start feeling of being as busy as a caffeinated bee. Meetings, plotting and webdesign for L4NL, event plotting and absurd guild paperwork for Warsoc, emails back and forth to cool Scholastic people. I am manning stalls on Thursday and Friday, and tomorrow I am to give an address to all the history freshers about SSC. I predict three riots and a torching.
Current Music: Rainbow Factory
we do what we can, until we cannot
eQ JulieT: hey, do you want a cheap big country ?
Brosencrantz: depends, is it an AIDS-ridden shithole?
eQ JulieT: dunno
eQ JulieT: i guess thats relative
eQ JulieT: relative to team captain - yea
eQ JulieT: relative to hatless engy, not so much
Brosencrantz: oh - big country as in the hat?
eQ JulieT: ye
eQ JulieT: lol
Brosencrantz: sorry, I got confused, thought you were trying to sell me libya or something
eQ JulieT: lol
eQ JulieT: i don't own libya
Brosencrantz: well who DOES?
we do what we can, until we cannot
30 August 2011 @ 03:33 am
starbreakers, inc.Collapse )
we do what we can, until we cannot
22 August 2011 @ 06:26 pm

Have you seen some of the crazy improvised shit that's going on in Libya? I thought the rocket pods bolted to the backs of pickups for technical Katyushas were pretty operator, but they've even scaled that down to man-portable levels - ground-attack rockets in homemade panzerschreck tubes. The little remote-controlled UGV is brilliant, though I'm not sure about the homemade rifle grenade launcher...

Hmm, I have an idea for a reality TV show. "We rounded up the disaffected yoof from deprived inner city districts, turned them loose on a chop shop and a couple of old Cold War arsenals, and are now sending them to battle unspecified foreign enemies... neatly solving both the social problems that led to the riots, and the defence budget cuts of recent years. Every Friday at 8pm."
we do what we can, until we cannot
22 August 2011 @ 01:47 am
When this Libya shitstorm started, I heard about it first on /k/ (let me just get the embarrassment about that over with here and now. Yep, I go on /k/ occasionally. I'm a vile person. Moving on.) It had, unsurprisingly, the best weapons analysis apart from Chivers, but the various bits of news and analysis (in among all the cursing, racism, trolling, stupidity and black humour; the signal to noise ratio is always vile) were not only much better informed in terms of military understanding and tactical insight, they were also up to the minute. When the Khamis Brigade started thrusting vaguely in and out of Ajdabiya like a drunk, armoured rapist, I heard it on /k/ first, and they were right. The time-lag between something actually happening in Libya and it being reported was something like fifteen-thirty minutes on the chans, an hour or two for Al Jazeera, and six to twelve hours on mainstream Western news media, with speed correlating directly with quality of reporting and analysis.

It looks - not to speak too soon - like we may be coming to the end of it. But the Beeb is, as usual, just clumsily rephrasing trending hashtags with no actual idea what's going on, the rest of the mainstream media is flailing in various degrees of officious cluelessness, Al Jazeera is infodumping masses of politics that I don't have context for, and most people reporting from the ground are trying way too hard to be gonzo.

There's something terribly, terribly wrong about a world in which I go to 4chan to be informed.
we do what we can, until we cannot
22 August 2011 @ 01:45 am
I haven't posted anything real in months and months, despite having oodles of drafts dicking around my computer. This is the state of play/Y2 retrospective as I wrote it about three months ago (!).

So! This year, I averaged a First, wrote a novel(la), decided on a career, escalated my tea consumption to apocalyptic levels, and still managed a good sixteen hours' solid procrastination each and every day. That's a pretty good round, I reckon.

I am very, very glad that I’ve ended up friends with the explosively talented Mr Reeve; it’s been one of the great unexpected blessings of the last few years. Writing-wise, I discovered that, just with essays, what brings it out is pressure. After far too many rewrites of the first three chapters, I contrived an outside deadline with him, then sat down and actually bashed out 43,000 words of Blood on the Tracks. The only issue with the story now is that it doesn’t know quite what it is; it was from the (incredibly distant-seeming) beginning a love-letter to Mortal Engines, and while it’s exactly the Mortal Engines fanfic I would write, it’s not the stand-alone novel I would write at all. So now that I’m rewriting and retrofitting it to be Its Own Thing, it’s in a sort of limbo of creative doubt. As an example, the mostly minor but occasionally drama-critical Mad Science aspects, like Stalkers and electro-zap thingies, just become contrived deus ex machinae if the world is no longer established as Fever Crumb’s weird ruined-future blend; so for the sake of verisimilitude, either I need to go back and establish a greater presence of Mad Science in the generally mundane, blood-and-iron technology base (which runs the risk of turning into overly campy steampunk bullshit), or I need to totally rewrite the scenes based around things blowing up, which is a shame, as I think they’re among the best (yes, I know, murder your darlings). Still, doable, I just need a kick of inspiration (or pressure) to finish it. The vague distant dream of being a writer is still very much there.

Something much more concrete, though, is the six-month-old wish to get into law. I have direction in life, drive for the first time ever, and it’s a nice feeling. There’s a lot I need to do with it this summer, particularly for the Law for Non-Law society, but it’s all doable, it’s all good.

Academically, it's been a complete success. I was surprised as anything when I got my first 77 (my best mark in first year having been a totally unexpected 73 at the exams) for Critical Analysis, and continued to be surprised at my second and my third, particularly when I realised they between them made a good 33% of the year. After that I could only go down; but further essays in the 70s, and 71 and 73 in exams, reduced my average without hurting the grade boundary. Most importantly, there's consistency there; I've got 70s from at least five very different academics (and their second markers!); and the essays which were below par, I was doubtful about knew they were shit before handing them in. I need to keep this up - I certainly can't afford to be complacent in third year - but I've gained with it a confidence in my academic ability I never really had before. I've come a long way from the totally uncertain wreck who first begged essay advice off Siz almost two years ago.

The house is done and dusted, without financial penalty or the loss of any friends I wanted to keep. I had planned a sort of house-retrospective - possibly a long, embittered screed that I would probably friendlock out of embarrassment - but it all seems pointless now. We have all made our beds now, or had them made for us, and we will all lie in them.

Romantically... let's just gloss entirely over the interactions-with-girls side of second year.

I am alive. I am awake. I am in control. I am full of hope and optimism. And I have a long free summer ahead of me.

More details on all points later.
we do what we can, until we cannot
Ways in which the real world is not like pulp SF:

FICTION: Brother, may I borrow your portable transceiver? As you know, it's a small single-function radio beacon optimised for mobility, designed to convert long-distance microwave signal to short-distance for the benefit of portable systems that, for whatever illogical manufacturer-enforced reason, do not have that capability.
REALITY: Bro, lend us your wireless dongle.
we do what we can, until we cannot
17 July 2011 @ 12:59 am
Great Vidya Moments: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl.

I've been clearing the facility under Red Forest for at least ten minutes now, and I haven't seen anything. I could just charge in mob-handed and trust to firepower and reflexes to save me from whatever's lurking here, but instead I've been creeping slowly and quietly through the abandoned lab, sweeping each room in turn with my suppressed VAL. This is the beauty of a good game: you create your own dramatic tension.

Then, after what must have been a kilometre or so of taut, silent infiltration, I come into a generator room slightly larger than the chambers before, and see something dark and not entirely human squatting half-hidden behind a pillar. It's a bloodsucker, one of the more dangerous mutants in the Zone of Alienation. I've killed bloodsuckers before, but it's always a fight, and as soon as the mutant is aware of me it'll cloak and sprint from cover to cover, erratic and almost invisible, until it's right on top of me.

I look at the awareness bar. It's jerking up, heartbeat by heartbeat. In a second or two, the bloodsucker will be aware of me. And, holding my breath, sitting frozen in my seat as if the thing might hear me through the screen, I reach up, switch my VAL to full auto, and savour the last second before hell.
we do what we can, until we cannot
16 July 2011 @ 08:58 pm
Neshaan: I'm in the mood to go out roller blading
(0v0) Brosencrantz: I... haven't gone rollerblading since I was like 12
(0v0) Brosencrantz: :(
Neshaan: then your skates probably won't fit anymore
Neshaan: ohh I'm being silly, weren't you 12 last year? :P
(0v0) Brosencrantz: oh come on, surely you can do better than that
Neshaan: look, it's a million degrees here, I've been out hiking all day because I'm bored and right now I've got noms that need to set in the fridge for several more hours and I'm impatient - what do you want from me?! I can't work like this!
(0v0) Brosencrantz: GRACE UNDER PRESSURE
(0v0) Brosencrantz: ah excellent
(0v0) Brosencrantz: that's much better
(0v0) Brosencrantz: have a sugar-free biccie
Neshaan: *crunch*
(0v0) Brosencrantz: ...ow
Neshaan: *spit*
(0v0) Brosencrantz: pah, I was expecting you to *obvious dirty joke*
Neshaan: this tastes of the bitter tears of your failure to breathe life into a hopeless dream and career
(0v0) Brosencrantz: eeeee
(0v0) Brosencrantz: more!
(0v0) Brosencrantz: HARDER!
Neshaan: next time wear a goddamn facemask when you slave in the kitchen
Neshaan: preferably the one you're forced to wear out in public so you won't scare the school children
Neshaan: then it'll cover your scabby head as well, I expect it's flaking a lot now that I pulled out most of your tupee
(0v0) Brosencrantz: TAKE ME
(0v0) Brosencrantz: NOW
Neshaan: oh god why oh why did I put that in my mouth
(0v0) Brosencrantz: <3333
Neshaan: *bows* thank you, I'm here all week
Neshaan: except possibly on monday, I might be out then
(0v0) Brosencrantz: damn, I'm a glutton for punishment
Neshaan: you are a glutton for only one thing, cocksucker
Neshaan: ....cock
we do what we can, until we cannot
09 July 2011 @ 12:54 am
The job hunt thus far: thirty-something applications, twelve rejection letters (most saying "lol you're too late, the position went in two hours"), one interview with door-to-door snake oil merchants, and one dubious job offer from a dataminer which may end in Nigerian thugs cutting off my balls. God, I hate this country.

The only vaguely promising lead - which is to say, the only one that actually emailed me back not saying "nope" - had me phone their HQ, which while evading all questions about what the job actually was, set me up for an interview in Brislington, specifically on one of Bristol's dying commercial estates. The company was something called "HI Marketing", and if you googled them like a suspicious fuck, you will come to the same conclusion as I did - especially if, like me, you'd come forewarned by the likes of this.

Still, beggars can't be choosers, so on Monday I showed up to a crummy one-room operation at the wasteland end of Bristol, walls lined with too-good-to-be-true cheques and cheap plastic chairs full of awkward-looking kids. The only other candidate past 20 was a fellow student from China looking for summer work, and we immediately hit it off and started muttering suspiciously about commission basis and door to door. Then our prospective employer, a jovial wide boy in a button-up shirt, started exulting to us about how good the money was, at length, without actually going into detail about pay or conditions. Turned out "HI" stood for "Home Improvement", and we got shown a video about an Innovative Home Improving Substance which was about as cringeworthy and patriotic as old school chemistry videos from the 80s, except rounded off with doomsayer stuff about how everyone's houses were going to explode in the coming apocalypse. Were I a) suggestible, b) a homeowner, and c) as dumb as plankton, I might have been taken in.

(Side note: The substance in question is caulk - sealant - to put on your house. The video demonstrated its amazing waterproof abilities in a tank of water, sealed completely against the liquid but through the air bubbles pumped through it - which the commentator said "proves it breathes" in among exulting about how BRITISH an innovation it was. Correct me if I'm incorrect, but the point of "breathing" is to let water vapour through. Craigievar Castle sweated itself to death and cost thousands upon thousands in restoration costs because they used the wrong sealant. Don't clingfilm your house, kids.)

By that point, it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to sell this shit door to door, meaning commission, meaning oh god Glengarry Glen Ross vileness. To reassure us, they then told us that pay was on an OTE basis, which apparently gave us the best of both worlds and was wonderful. When I tried to ask a question about what the rates actually were or what we'd actually be doing, they told me questions should wait for the interview. The individual interview, not in front of all the kids where awkward questions would cause them to doubt that their first job was the wonderful opportunity it seemed.

For the individual interview, Del Boy's fat cousin took me aside and asked me about being a student. Still wouldn't explain the actual rates of pay (those would be sorted out if they "selected" me for the followups the next day) but confirmed that it was, yes, door-to-door. After this the interview was going unenthusiastically through the motions, and the entire exercise confirmed as pointless; the only upside of it was the bus journey back into town with Zimou, the other student, in which we bitched at length about Britain, Mao, working sales, China, communism, economic regulation, the state of the world and stupid iron-foundry techniques.

I wasn't expecting to get a call back, and didn't; he did, however, and followed it up to confirm for me that the OTE was bullshit and it was basically all commission (without even a contract). After being fucked around, driven to the dark wilds of Gloucestershire and sent marching around areas that had apparently already been picked dry six or seven times by various other hapless kids selling various other flavours of snake oil, he quit today, unpaid.

There being no jobs at all in Bristol, the various online freelance/copy-writing things I applied to having next to no work available, and the concept of paid employment for young people having become some sort of strange anachronism in the last few years, my options for pocket money (or, well, food next year) are pretty limited. However, yesterday I got an email regarding a project which a) I'm probably best qualified in the entire world to do, b) will pay £500 for something I'd have quite happily done for free. (More on that later, but this one isn't actually a scam.)

A confirmation of the way of the world, I fear: it's not what you know, it's who you know. But I am pretty damn lucky in the people I know.
Current Music: Bellowhead - Widow's Curse
we do what we can, until we cannot
05 July 2011 @ 08:45 pm
[20:39:41] Brosencrantz: I set up a wobsite all by myself \o\
[20:41:48] Brosencrantz: it has
[20:41:49] Brosencrantz: NO CONTENT
[20:42:20] l3v5y: I quite like the theme though...
[20:42:35] Brosencrantz: nice, innit?
[20:42:54] Brosencrantz: and very easily customisable
[20:42:58] Brosencrantz: no fucking around with CSS for me
[20:43:45] l3v5y: :D
[20:43:48] l3v5y: I like CSS
[20:44:35] Brosencrantz: you can do it for me then
[20:44:37] l3v5y: it's like self harm, but with less blood
we do what we can, until we cannot
21 June 2011 @ 09:50 pm
Clifton is a vertical place. Not in the up-down plate-glass-canyon sense that immediately brings to mind, not like Canary Wharf or Manhattan. Hardly anything around here is more than six or seven floors high. But the combination of tall buildings and towering hillside give the place a definite steepness, like a hilltop village plus white-limestone gentrification. Which is, I suppose, exactly what Clifton is. Storey upon storey upon garden upon hill upon high stone wall, veined with roads that twist up at unbelievable angles and little leaf-covered passages full of dappled shade and snail trails. And it's well built. This is important, after too much time among crappy run-down semis and the mongrel architecture of inner cities: these are real homes. The terraces loom high and solid like window-speckled castle walls, with moats of areas or promenades and perimeters of black-painted iron railings, the doors tall sally-ports with tarnished brass doorknockers. The windows shine black and half-reflective, the high rooms behind them filled with old, expensive things. This is architectural snobbery, not social snobbery - the people here are certainly not intrinsically "better" than the residents of Bartley Green and Weoley Castle I brushed up against while census-collecting, who live on a tenth the income of Cliftonites if they're employed at all. But I like the houses here a lot more.

It's beautiful, under a sky like a Florentine ceiling, scattered by clouds with grey bellies but backs of fluffy white and gold. The air is skin-temperature, not hot or cold, scattered with random birdsong and the smell of flowers whose names I wish I knew. There's hardly anyone about.

I feel the emptiness of the pavement beside me, and I wish all of a sudden that she were here. Something like this should be shared. My eyes skate across the stone and tarmac, but the pictures I see are half-fantasies of beautiful days and sunlit laughter, stupid, surface fantasies of shared love and shared understanding, conjured up far too quickly by a mind far too used to making up such nonsense. Cynicism, leaning on memory like a crutch, is back with a knowing sneer. The roses all have thorns, and the perfect summer fantasies are full of forgotten awkwardness and miserable lacunae of loneliness. There's no understanding when you walk side by side in silence; even sickly-sweet in love as if you've just stepped out of a sonnet, when you walk without speaking, you walk apart. The understanding is fiction, or maybe a dim truth for people whose heads are too slow for self-doubting turmoil (but I don't think many of those actually exist). There's too much that can be thought but not shared, thoughts that die on contact with air when you beat them into ugly, lumpen words and try to push them out of your mouth.

The terrace ahead has risen to cut off the horizon, and the cloud directly above is grey. The air is chillier, but I don't mind the solitude, and when my head goes up again I'm smiling. On I walk, towards the bridge and the sunset.
we do what we can, until we cannot
21 June 2011 @ 12:51 am
I am back in Bristol, and looking for a job! One of these two is an agreeable state of being.

Dad picked me up from Reservoir Road on the 11th, and with the car brimful of more stuff than I can ever remember owning we staggered back to a town I haven't spent much time in lately. Absence makes the heart grow fonder - maybe it's that I've been spending too long in some spectacularly run-down pieces of suburbia, but Clifton never looked so beautiful.

My house - my parents' house - is still too big, too cold and too messy. The taps run chill, the washing-up implements are grimy stinking hives of infection, most of the rest of the kitchenware could be swapped out for random rocks without any loss in sharpness or functionality. At night, the lights are broken or too dim or my parodically energy-conscious family just plain don't turn them on. The internet is a wreck, sputtering fitfully and incapable of sustaining a connection for five minutes straight. The hills are steeper than I remember (perhaps I'm getting old), and half the time it's pissing rain. I am convinced that April and June have swapped places this year; April was nothing but perfect summer, whereas this month has been riddled with grey misery and storm showers. But I am home and dry, and it's not just nice in comparison with Reservoir Road: it's just nice, objectively.

I need a summer job. I need it for several reasons. I promised my parents I would, upon getting bailed out over Mason; we still haven't established how much I owe them, but several grand would not be impossible or unreasonable. I need the discipline: without something to actually do, even something as insubstantial and undemanding as three contact hours a week plus Redbrick and library, I seem to sleep all day (this is possibly making up for how I was averaging 4-6 hours at uni, but as far as I know "sleep debt" doesn't work like that.) And I need the money. I'm not living hand to mouth, but I'm close than I've ever been.

However, the world of work is not a friendly place to the underexperienced, overeducated and overexpectant. I don't have any aversion to proper physical work; my last couple of jobs being the chip shop and the census, anything which doesn't get me verbal-and-gob-related abuse/13-hour suicide shifts/200-degree grease burns is a step up. I would very happily take on any really awful, minimum-wage dogsbody job (not being a sanctimonious bib-wearing charity-mugger, though, fuck that forever). Unfortunately, practically every "fantastic opportunity" to work for a "national/world-leading business" (or "up-and-coming franchise") in a capacity that barely requires a pulse wants six to twelve months of relevant experience and the sort of superhuman qualities Heracles would blush to admit to.

My CV is not bad at all. I have actually worked with the public, and I'm pretty good at it. I'm solid on computers, thoroughly tech-literate and with grand-sounding extracurricular positions to prove it. I'm intelligent and pick things up fast; I've been in closer contact with the grimy side of the world than most of my peers. I'm enthusiastic and serious, can be friendly on demand (though smiles that reach the eyes cost extra). I do work well in a group, and I do work well individually. I want money, and while I have no particular allegiance to any of the soulless corporati as something other than a potential money outlet, I do see that the best way to stay employed and be rewarded is to do as good a job as I can - and I would do a damn good job.

The trouble is, when I come to actually write this down as succinctly as I can, it's the same old litany of bullshit that everyone everywhere puts down because their careers advisor told them to. Motivated, people skills, excellent communication, versatile, good in a team, good individually. That it's actually true makes no difference.

The mutual insincerity of it, the utter, gagging mendacity, is painful. The recruiting side can't really believe that they're offering anyone a "fantastic opportunity" or that this job requires more than basic English, two hands and the ability to breathe. Nobody is "passionate" about customer service, and certainly nobody's life's dream was being a tiny part of some parish business or generic soulless mid-tier corporation. (And if there are actually demented creatures out there who are "passionate" about bringing their customers "great value", then they're fucked by the system too because all the normal people are crying wolf.) All the meaningless superlatives like "exceptional" and "fantastic", they're vile, buzzword chaff, believed by nobody - but everyone seems to need to go through the motions, because everyone else does. The system of structured, ritualised lies we've created boggles the mind. Most of the most absurd and vile social constructs tend to have, at heart, a good if distasteful reason to exist, but I can't see how any of this helps anyone; the only explanation I can see is an arms race of self-promotional disingenuity, run way the hell out of control.

So! I've handed my worthless collection of buzzwords in at various village shops with WARM BODY WANTED signs up, applied on more job sites for more dogsbody positions than I can remember with more fulsome enthusiasm than any of them deserve, and a couple of more specialised and better paying things that are well within my capabilities. I've signed on with a couple of temp agencies and mean to look for a few more in the near future. I have thus far had no positive feedback from anyone. However, I am maintaining a cheery, optimistic outlook. Ask again in a week.

(What do you mean, "bad attitude"?)
we do what we can, until we cannot
13 June 2011 @ 01:42 am
Two exams is what the third term of second year boiled down to; thirty-four credits between 'em, most of the Vietnam option module and the entirety of Operational Art. Just shy of a third of the year, enough to be worth a grade boundary - a degree classification - or two. Second year is 25% of my final degree, so not the be all and end all, but important. In particular, if I'm aiming for the type of sharp-eyed legal practice who'll study my individual marks - and I am - it's worth keeping the numbers up across the board.

The first was Op Art, for which I'd reread my various notes and powerpoints, and read a pile of interesting books on operational theory Toby lent me (if anyone's remotely interested in the subject, I wholeheartedly recommend Shimon Naveh's "In Pursuit of Military Excellence" and the multi-author "Effects-Based Warfare" and "Introduction to Strategic Studies"), as well as a revision session followed by an afternoon with some warbros going through a (huge!) ream of flashcards produced by the scarily organised Louis R. Three essays; three hours (which is to say three and three quarters, with the Learning Support allowances for my useless spaz hands.) I took my thermos in, unscrewing the lid for the invigilator to demonstrate that I wasn't hiding any notes in there. The multiple loo breaks this induced raised eyebrows. The tea it provided proved wonderfully useful.

Ten questions, of which we needed to pick three. Let's see. One hour on airpower in Desert Storm, why and how superior technology and operational doctrine decapitated and comprehensively crushed a technically inferior and hierarchically organised enemy. One hour on the absurd cross-Caucasus cascade failure that was Fall Blau. One hour on the effects of railways on strategic thought in the 1860s (conclusions: Prussians good, Americans silly). And forty-five minutes of conclusions, rewrites, proofreading, and doubt. Coming out, I was struck by the standard post-exam dread, the worry that what I'd done was silly and overwrought and didn't really deal with the question - but that was, as always, quelled by the standard post-exam resignation.

Vietnam, I'd again done fairly little for, apart from going through old notes, meeting some classmates for revision sessions (mainly consisting of me explaining bits of complex war nonsense to Normal History People who don't fetishise military technology) and putting my library card and ebook channel through their paces on likely-looking titles. I'd tried to do a couple of practice essays, but they turned out mediocre. A very well-run revision session by Rob gave me some confidence for the exam. Unlike Op Art, I tried to look at particular subjects rather than general theory; my particular areas of focus were the Tet offensive and counterinsurgency. While I was confident I could bullshit improvise pretty much anything that came up, these subjects I wanted to be solid on.

Tet was fun as hell, full of great allegories, divided historiography and potential sweeping statements to pick apart. COIN, starting with Kennedy and special forces, dealing with the hideous failure of Strategic Hamlets, the more overtly military approach Westmoreland adopted, and the great results CORDS was showing before Tet killed US willingness to continue, was even more educational than I had been expecting. One of the interesting ideas that came up looking at that was that, because the French colonial administration had actively discouraged the rise of an educated Vietnamese middle class, there was no politically involved section of the populace to create and support a legitimate government - only US-backed military autocrats, their corrupt and tooled up ARVN minions, and an oppressed, easily-suborned-by-Maoists peasantry, with little middle ground. Despite all the successes of CORDS, it could never establish the South Vietnamese government as legitimate in the minds of the peasantry.

Question time: Tet! Delicious. There was a question about COIN, too, but it was annoyingly phrased, so I did airpower instead; it's something I pretty much knew by heart, though as I knew everyone else would be doing it and wanted to be a unique and special snowflake, I didn't read much on apart from the bombing-related chapters in a weapons book I'd picked out for my dissertation. Two hours passed in an instant, and then I was out, blinking in the sun, shivering off the adrenaline.

With the Group Research essay that just came back a 75, I need a 64 or better overall in those papers combined for my First (or 33 for a 2.1, but I'm fairly sure I didn't get a fail grade). I did pretty well in my exams last year, but I still have a little nagging doubt. It's not even (false) modesty here; while my self-confidence when it comes to most uni work has got (dangerously) high this year, exam doubt is much harder to quash. Having so many things able to potentially screw you up makes me nervous; so does having so much resting on so little (but the alternative, of having five or ten of the bloody things, doesn't appeal much either). But nothing went wrong. There were no panic attacks, no twisted curveball questions; if I don't do well, it's because I didn't write a good enough answer, and while that's not overall a cheering thought it is at least a morally satisfying one.

Over now; time for the real world.
Current Music: Being A Dickhead's Cool
we do what we can, until we cannot
08 June 2011 @ 04:52 am

(This is slightly related, and really interesting; I'd say it's worth the hour, but for an excellent precis go here.)

I can't grind revision. I haven't done that much in the way of "proper" revision, certainly not in the making-up-notes-and-going-over-them-again-and-again sense, not since A-level and not really even then. I have made and remade notes, but I've always believed (based on hearsay and a stunningly shallow understanding of neuroscience) that the value of the notes is in the process of creating them, rather than in actually going over them.

Related to this, I only seem to remember things I'm actually interested in (I recently discovered I'm humiliatingly bad at the geography of the British Isles, because while I've probably been exposed to plenty of county maps I've never really given a damn.) I am quite lucky, I think, in that I still love War Studies and find it fascinating, while a lot of people I know who've taken their subject to degree level have come to hate it. I'm far from conscientious about reading lists; I don't grind through the books because I'm supposed to, I read them because they interest me. I like to think that helps, because I never remember anything I've learned "on demand". Forcing myself to learn, through grinding notes, or picking up a book I don't care about, just doesn't seem to work as well; it doesn't stick.

Detail is a funny bugger. I have a head for detail - especially pretty finicky detail, especially that to do with weapons and mechanisms - but that I can give you a description of the inner workings of every weapon involved in any battle since 1860, is, while interesting, irrelevant, because there's no way to bring it all out in an exam. Judicious use of detail adds texture, believability, historical verisimilitude, but that's all. Toby advised us to try to give the impression of an iceberg: enough knowledge to make the tip of the iceberg, used adeptly enough to convince the examiner of a much broader and deeper understanding beneath the surface. There's never enough time or enough space to show off every last tidbit; drop a few appropriate facts, confidently, and be damn sure they're true.

I think what matters most in history is understanding the broad sweep of the topic, not so much what as why, having a picture in my head which is detailed enough to be believable but abstract enough to be understood in its entirety, so that a question with unexpected phrasing or which picks on an unexpected part can be dealt with. And I find getting bogged down in the minutiae, especially too close to the exam day, is actively counterproductive to that.

I believe that ultimately - and I'm staking quite a bit on this belief - what works best is demonstrating that I understand that broad picture, backed up by enough fiddly detail to sound authoritative. That understanding is something I can only seem to get by thinking about the subject at length, and having the space and the time to do so, unencumbered by piles of frantic notes.

Disclaimer 1: Different people's minds work in different ways; many of my friends have very different approaches, which seem to work for them. This particular way has worked for me, for writing a fairly small number of widely spaced essays, and a novel(la). Applying it to a real subject, something that requires genuine factual knowledge rather than eloquent prevarication, or something that actually matters, may result in waste and tragedy. When the GDL kicks off I'm going to be doing a lot more grind and some serious personal re-evaluatin'.
Disclaimer 2: That this entire post is basically a smug, self-serving and generally despicable post-facto justification for my pathological laziness and "brief, blinding panic after sustained, intense procrastination" approach has, yes, crossed my mind.
Current Music: The Decemberists - Record Year
we do what we can, until we cannot
05 June 2011 @ 04:23 am
Nothing spurs adaptability like a genuine lack of planning.

There's a feeling - and I'm going to steal and terribly mutilate a great line from Dear Esther here - a feeling you get in the morning an hour or two before an essay deadline, where you stare at the work in front of you and realise that there is nothing more that can be done. It's over. You're done. The caffeine and adrenaline are still pounding ragged through you, sleep deprivation has the world bending and blurring and barely making sense. And there you sit, lost in a vacuum of fatalistic calm.

I've found myself addicted to that feeling this year.

During the first of last year's exams, the Late Modern history module that for various syllabus- and incompetence-related reasons I'd basically come to despise, I had a panic attack, comprising twenty or thirty of the shittiest minutes of my life. That was partly the total uselessness and foolishness that surrounded the exam (as detailed there), and partly the pressure. I felt the world bearing down on me; I felt the overwhelming fear of failure (foolishly, really, as first year doesn't count for jack), and I wasn't equal to it. I curled up into a useless, worthless, sobbing ball and was led away.

I can't tell if it's some sort of response to that, some determination for it not to happen again (after the panic attack they prescribed me diazepam and counselling, both of which I tried but found useless and quickly gave up) but I've discovered this year that I seem to get high on pressure. And never more than the manufactured pressure of an essay done in not quite enough time. There's something about having worked very hard and very fast that has me coming out of the history office grinning sunbeams (before going home, crashing completely, and feeling sick for a week.)

I've done what I promised not to in first year, and made a habit of all-nighters. And the worst part is, it works. The marks come out best when I'm writing them locked in a vice marked "deadline". The essays I do properly, with all plans laid and time to spare, are competent but not great; but the best marks I've got this year have been balls-to-wall all-night panicfests, written in a night of tea-sloshed adrenaline with barely time to print. Vietnam option essay, two thousand words, written conscientiously in good time (with a last-minute rewrite, which can't have really helped) on a subject I was fully comfortable with? 67. Critical Analysis, four thousand words on four books I wasn't sure I understood, started twelve hours before the deadline (having already spent two days straight without sleep working on Rise of Modern War)? 77.

My dissprep essay was not, by my standards or in my estimation, that good. In particular, I was worried about the last third or so, which was written pretty much in blind panic (even more so than the rest, which was done under standard "oshit 20 credits in 12 hours, GAME OVER MAN, GAME OVER" conditions) as a planned twenty-minute nap with twelve hundred words to go and plenty of time to finish them off accidentally became a two hour snooze and an absolute blur of panic up to execution hour. When Rob and I were talking over the essay, he asked me what happened to the last third of it; as I launched into some impromptu excuses, he took me completely by surprise in saying that it was so much better than the rest.

Not only do I find a horrible adrenaline joy in pressure, it seems I work at my very best when the world's squeezing me. And exams bring all that out at once. There's nothing, no distractions, no way out; only the pressure of how much this exam means to my life, and the fear of failure, and, as each second in turn flies away, the knowledge that it cannot be regained. And my hands fly across the keyboard, and I think: some fools pay for this kind of high.

Yep, I'm the lamest adrenaline junkie who ever lived.
we do what we can, until we cannot
16 May 2011 @ 11:24 pm

The other day I got an email from the great Rob Thompson, containing this link. It's my old house, 10 Vincent Terrace, an address mentioned on my old London-nostalgia post. From practically anyone else, that would have been creepy bordering on stalkerish. From one habitual archive-molester to another, it's about the coolest thing possible.

And that was the first port of call when Beth and I went on a day-trip to the big city as a wind-down from Group Research. Off at Angel, after a superbly cheap train from Moor Street to Marylebone and a tangled switchback of tube changes, rounding the City Road and strolling through the grid of quiet white-faced Georgian terraces. The old playground down by the water hadn't changed even slightly since I was last there; Anderson's warehouse had been torn down and replaced by expensive apartments back in 2001, the Diespeker building was the same half-brick-half-plate-glass yuppie-haven as it had been when I last saw it converted. We looked across the water at Hanover Primary and heard the sound of kids playing on the roof over the ripples of City Basin; Beth ruminated on what different childhoods she and I must have had. I don't know how much inner-city life has really shaped who I am, but while I was a wretched, bullied kid who fucking hated that school and never want to see its insides again, I'm not sure I want to be anyone else.

Then down to Camden Lock to eat the great big picnic I always make and drain my thermos in a haze of hipster-exhaled marijuana smoke, and explore the various mad, wacky, over-the-top markets that infest the place. Camden, for all its myriad fascinations, doesn't really impress me the way it ought to: I was far more interested in the history of the old stable-blocks and warehouses and the lock than all the weird gimmicky bong shops, nom shops and places trying to be somewhere out of Tron. There's a weird sort of desperation to it, all these creative types trying their very hardest to outdo each other in off-the-wall weirdness and overcoiffed "counterculture", but I'm glad places like it exist. As premeditated, Tom showed up, fresh and elated from having just scored an internship at Tussaud's (waxwork eyelashes: squirrel fur. The more you know!) and we two highly connected children of the digital age eventually managed to locate each other in a hundred square metres of Camden ("We're under the weeping willow by the lock." "There are four weeping willows by the lock!" "AND WE'RE UNDER THIS ONE.")

Then we pootled off to Canary Wharf, mainly because Beth wanted to, and sat by the fountain judging the various businessmen and tourists around us, making bad Wire references and wondering how to salvage dropped change from the pontoon bridge over West India Quay. I saw them building that bridge; I remember frogmen in the water around the pontoons as they inflated them and the bridge gradually rose from the water like an overburdened sea serpent. I wonder if this makes me Old. We made an interesting discovery: the Canary Wharf Tesco, which we expected to be a massively overpriced bijou nomshop for people with cufflinks worth more than my father makes in a stereotype stereotype blather blather, turned out to be hellishly cheap. (Maybe this is how the rich stay rich: unlike students, they don't get messed around with on groceries.)

"Tom, you're carrying like fifteen different knives.")

Thus fortified with 10p donuts, 60p cornish pasties and 75p cartons of soup (all of which would have cost at least twice that in Selly Oak, let alone most London shops), we wandered back to the station, nabbing along the way a copy of Canary Wharf Magazine, all glossy, poncy adverts for thousand-pound wristwatches and bizjets and polo, reeking of the insecure nouveau riche trying to assert themselves. This - this city, maybe even this particular plate-glass-and-rebar money machine - is where my ambitions are aimed at the moment, if I'm good enough - and I hope when I get there it's not as pathetically superficial and image-conscious as it seems to believe.

The DLR extension goes down to Lewisham now, and there's a station nestled in Greenwich near the now-tragically-reduced Cutty Sark, but the way we always went when I were a lad was the old under-river foot tunnel back when the railway stopped at Island Gardens. There's nowhere else quite like it. Once we were done gawking at the Old Royal Naval College the maritime museum was long closed, so we climbed up the hill to the Royal Observatory and watched the sunlit city and all the tourists messing about with meridian lines.

On the way back, we stopped in a little off-alley tea shop in Greenwich Village, and wondered about cities over far too many cuppas. My answer was "something that's too big to really personally connect to, too complex for anyone to properly comprehend it in a lifetime." I can't for the life of me remember what the question was, but the answer was satisfying enough in its own right. Then the DLR to Tower Gateway, and we wandered onto the great bridge and stood for a while at the base of one of the bascules, looking over the Tower, HMS Belfast and the lapping Thames under a newly overcast sky. Tower Hill station, one last comparison of maps to planned outages, one last beep of Oyster cards and slam of barriers, and the train from Marylebone whisked us back in gathering darkness and gently streaking rain.

This is London, the place I grew up in, a place I know well enough that all the good parts are tinted by distant memories. I belong there, and I'll be back there one day.

By the by, we got 62 for the GR presentation. Having looked at the rest of it (and published the marks online myself for fellow students, because the university is as ever criminally incompetent at getting our marks to us through the giant, confused, overengineered tangle that's WebCT) I can see very little correlation between the good presentations and the actual marks they get, which has led to a few people being very pleasantly surprised and a lot of people being bitterly disappointed, myself counted. But we always knew Group Research was a bullshit module; better roll with it. I've done some spreadsheety number-crunching and concluded that in order to get my First this year I need to average 66+ in the Group Research essay and the two forthcoming exams. Which I think - I hope - I can do handily.

Speaking of which, I'd probably best revise...
we do what we can, until we cannot
11 May 2011 @ 12:45 am
Group Research. Oh, Group Research, if I had a penny for every time I complained about it I could afford to put myself through law school without a TC. Well. Alright, maybe if I had a tenner each time.

Group Research is a bad idea. Leave aside that the organisation and communication are, as usual from the history department, a bit* disjointed and shambolic. Leave aside that we had limited guidance because our highly competent and willing tutor wasn't allowed to see us regularly. The module is worth 20 credits (ie, 1/6th of the year, the year itself being worth 25% of the degree.) 50% of the marks are from a 2500 word essay (which we'll come to), 50% are from the group presentation. This means that, fundamentally, 10 credits of my degree are relying on other people. And not to lapse into lame misanthropic wank which so disrupts the standard lame self-deprecating wank, but I don't trust other people to do my degree for me.

Last week was the culmination; essays were due in on Tuesday (except, as we most of us learned after handing in slightly rushed essays on Tuesday, they were actually due in on Wednesday. Oh, History office. Oh, you.) I did my essay, which was (like dissprep before it) marred by nobody being perfectly sure what the hell to do having been told fifteen things going in different directions. In the end I just worked to Stuart's pretty-good-actually email spec, more or less finished the day before, and reworked it in the bog standard all-nighter that's become basically habit. Then presentations, in morning/evening sessions, with each group required to go to one session presenting, one session assessing and one session as "audience" (for which read: meat in the room.) We were assessing on Wednesday morning, presenting first thing on Thursday.

Seeing other teams' work was, surprisingly, a confidence booster. There was one featuring a friend from Practising History last year, which was very competently done despite the subject being the sort of tedious parish history nobody could really give a damn about, a couple middle of the road things, and one which had a rather clever presentation on the screen but was let down by a group who said so little of substance in such a mumble (and did such a terrible job of answering questions afterwards) I was convinced they were reading wiki printouts after a night of heavy drinking. It became swiftly obvious that nobody on either side of it cared much about the actual content. But some of the stuff we saw was basically media studies; not to be a history snob (HEAVEN FORFEND) but it felt good to have a presentation based on actual facts which we'd discovered from actual archives and primary sources, rather than watching a couple of movies and issuing sweeping statements of questionable integrity.

Sam Lear tells me that his default question after a presentation was "tell me why this is important/historically relevant", which is the best damn question you can ask, really, though it also got him a rep as a total dick.**

Despite excusing myself from an amusing Northern Soc karaoke night (which I attended with some trepidation, worrying that as a southerner they might only want me as a blood sacrifice and/or ingredient for pies; totally wrongly, Northern Soc are lovely folks) in order to get pre-presentation sleep this, too, ended up as an all-nighter. For no actual reason: I designed and printed a couple of handouts (one map with the Messines-Wytschaetes Ridge as placed against, one with a 9000hoursinMSPaint diagram of the British Army chain of command (for non-war plebs), rewrote my script and fiddled a bit with the presentation. None of this took much time at all. But it seems I can't live without fatigue, insomnia and a good hard tea/adrenaline kick before a piece of work. The actual day of the presentation came up, sunny and bright, and I was buzzing like a hummingbird.

We started presenting at 10. Thirty minutes later, we sat outside, grinning stupidly in the comedown, and one of the professors assessing came and shook our hands to congratulate us on what he reckoned was good work well done. The first presentation of the day, I'm convinced, gets marked most leniently (such was certainly the way when we were marking). Afterwards, we all went to Joe's for a hideously early pint and discussed music and methods of execution.

I'm convinced that there's no way that could have gone better, and that we probably deserve whatever mark we get from it; mostly I'm just glad it's over with. But I can't deny it's been pretty interesting as a module, and some real CV-boosting nonsense along the way. Challenges! Teamwork! Productivity!

Group Research: it sucked hard until twenty hours before crunch, but when I'm all withered and ancient, looking back on uni through the rosy tint of distant hindsight, I think I'll remember it kindly.

* Where "a bit" = "completely."
** He tried it on us; another member of the team said something nice and common-sense-y while I was still mouthing "how fucking dare you", then I recovered and said something disjointed about challenging popular perceptions.
Current Music: The Decemberists - Don't Carry It All
we do what we can, until we cannot
05 May 2011 @ 01:03 am
So tomorrow (or, well, today now, hoorah for pathetic sleep schedules) Britain goes to the polls for a referendum on the Alternative Vote system. For Yanks and other foreign creatures, this is on whether we want to make the voting system by which each small constituency across the country votes for their Member of Parliament slightly more sophisticated and slightly more fair.

AV is better, however marginally, than FPTP. FPTP is the primitive product of far less egalitarian years, an undemocratic, shitty system which results in undemocratic, shitty governments, and anything which can make it less so is an improvement, up to proper proportional representation. Disagree that representation should be proportionally based? Then you are disagreeing with the fundamental "votes should matter" principle of democracy, and you've probably got a good right to, but that's another debate entirely. AV is objectively more democratic, and PR more so than that.

There's no real argument against AV, not that people haven't tried to fabricate one. Comically, a poster up in Selly Oak showed a sad soldier and claimed - probably mendaciously - that it would cost A WHOLE £250M to implement AV; defence spending probably has me rather jaded as to what a billion pounds can buy, but for context, we spent more than £250m on jet fuel, maintenance and cruise missiles in Libya in a matter of days, and that same sum would get us two Eurofighters without any weapons. It's just not a lot of money; it is utterly insignificant in government spending terms. And it's not exactly "too complicated" to rank preferences, you condescending pricks.

The biggest reason not to vote for reform (apart from party loyalties, but those are for stupid people) is that AV is a really pathetic improvement. It makes the matter that bit more democratic, it will shift slightly from the two-party system we have in all but name, but it won't save the world, and it won't really make British politics less crap. Both sides have been making some hilariously outlandish claims in an attempt not to address how basically boring this referendum is.

It feels like a catch-22 for people like me, who (ideologically at least; but I am the very model of a basically-apathetic, limp-dicked-optimism champagne humanist, and the reason I never blog about politics is partly because I don't think my arguments are substantial or educated but mainly because I don't care) support serious electoral reform, something that may start with AV but won't be done until we've got PR. Which is that in this binary referendum, whoever wins, we lose. If it goes through, then the argument by the anti-reform crowd will be "you've got your reform, stop causing a fuss." If it doesn't, then the wholly reasonable argument will be "nobody wants this, shut up and sit down."

Rome wasn't built in a day, though. Every step in the old battles to extend suffrage to women(/the young/the poor/the landless/Catholics/people who aren't really our kind of people) probably felt like this. Regardless of how crap AV is, it's still an improvement, a step.

I'll be voting AV, but I'll be doing so with a heavy heart and a lingering feeling that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't really matter because our elections don't really matter. It changes nothing except very slightly altering the manner in which we elect the same crowd of assorted idealists-turned-to-scum-by-the-system, and as long as British politics remains the lame, dickless, self-absorbed comedy of errors it's been for my whole life (and, to be fair, probably forever) it still won't matter. We're not polishing the brass on the Titanic with this referendum, nothing so dramatic; we're polishing the brass on a beached dead ship on Alang waiting to be blowtorched apart and turned into rebar.

But it's still a step - a faltering, feeble, baby step! - in the right direction.
we do what we can, until we cannot
02 May 2011 @ 02:16 pm
Take a fission bomb. (This is, fortunately, the hardest part.) Salt it - bolting cobalt jackets to the casing is one of the simplest and best ways - and, for preference, blow it somewhere nice and high up.* No matter where you set it up, though, you will kill a lot of people, due partly to the jackets producing years of massively radioactive fallout, and partly due to the fact you've just set off a goddamn fission bomb.

This is a scary device.

Take a briefcase full of TNT or some other conventional explosive. Pack some isotopes around it, the meanest, most radioactive shit you can obtain. (This is even more difficult than it sounds.) Leave it in the middle of a busy city; blow it when it's surrounded by people, if you can, because blast aside, you will kill nobody.

This is a device capable of causing scares.

To be precise, this is a crappy, worthless weapon, capable of causing scares when gossip-mongering rags know what sells to gullible tech-illiterates who assume that anything involving "nuclear material" will cause a mushroom cloud and a sea of glass, rather than an expensive cleanup and a very mildly elevated cancer risk.

A "dirty bomb" is not a nuclear weapon. It is barely even a conventional weapon. It is a car bomb with media-supplemented delusions of grandeur. Even the most ferocious radioactive material you can put in one is incapable of doing serious damage to anyone or anything in the short time between detonation and mass evacuation, and it is not capable of causing any kind of nuclear reaction. It's a spectacularly stupid, expensive and ineffectual way of poisoning people, worse than just dumping a wheelbarrow of caesium into the reservoir and watching it fizz. If you really seriously want to kill people, probably the cheapest, easiest and most effective way is a crate of AKs and a few men who can fire from the shoulder and aren't afraid to die.

The world had pretty much forgotten about Osama bin Laden until today. His death changes precisely nothing; he could have died ten years ago and it would have made no difference whatsoever. This time around, can we have our bomb scares with a little less bullshit?

* Hell, if you can get it up a decent way in the sky you can get an EMP out of it and cause the ever-more-cliched, ever-more-potentially-crippling internetpocalypse in addition to your straight fission bomb and cobalt-salted storm of ions - though if you have both nuclear weapons and that sort of delivery system, why is this even a question, and why are you reading my blog?
we do what we can, until we cannot
I warned my census coordinator a week ago that I would not be in Brum Tuesday-Thursday this week; as I’m on 15 hours a week (ostensibly, it’s taking almost twice as long now we’re in Phase 2) we are not expected to be constantly on-call (which was implied by the job description and confirmed in the classroom; “very part time” was chosen so that I *could* take some days off to go home; I would have signed up for a full-time contract otherwise.) She did not particularly like it but agreed to meet up Friday for the workload. She is now saying I’ve breached contract and claims that discussion did not happen. This is horseshit, it really is. I really hope there are no long-term repercussions; that aside, I won’t really mind if I lose the last week of the job. It has become not enough fun and was never enough money, probably less of both than if I’d taken up waiting tables over Easter, and anyway I could probably use the time on revision and uni work. Ugh. Texted her back as politely as possible. Back in her court.

The reason for this absence, a three-day jaunt as hired hand, secateur monkey, food-sponge, strimmer jockey, laptop tech support and walking encyclopaedia of military hardware at Castle Reeve, was exactly as fun as expected, which is to say: fun on a bun. I had booked (terrifyingly expensive, even in advance) train tickets down from Brum a few days before I learned Mum and Dad would be bringing Olly up to Cov on the Monday. Derrrrp. But! My train went through Bristol, so after coming out for a massive all-I-could-eat at the Coventry branch of Cosmo (which I didn’t realise was even a chain), they gave me a lift home, and I got a couple hours more of what turned out not to be nearly enough sleep anyway.

Then on Tuesday morning, a long train journey through idyllic sunlit south coast to Newton Abbot, and from there to Castle Reeve, where there were days of ruminatin’ on stories and creative processes and writing by committee and the internet and media and publishing, and afternoons of interesting Reevefriends to provide conversation on law/acting/music/careers/COMPUTERS, and evenings of tea and hobnobs and Victoria sponge and strawberries & cream. Also Gainful Employ, mainly involving one form or other of violence towards plants.

I shredded bamboo and brambles with wild and gay abandon while Mr Reeve pulled up bulrushes in the more Passchendaele-esque end of his lake, rooted up dandelions and such with a trowel (which held some strange fascination for Frodo the Reevepoodle), chopped up thistles with a thistle-chopper-upper (one particularly glorious specimen got held up like the head of Medusa), and, as a highlight, turned unruly overgrown banks into nice grassy knolls with My First Strimmer. I love machines like this; I like the petrol-stink and the ponderous heft, the whir and torque and heat of the motor, the shoulder harness that makes me feel like Vasquez with a smartgun rather than a glorified 21st-century reaper with a glorified 21st-century scythe mowing down small green xenomorphs. Most of all I loved having its half-controlled power in my hands: feeling rather than hearing the motor’s thrum and fighting the weight and torque of it, seeing grassy verges and patches of reeds dissolve as chlorophyll-coloured plant viscera spatters on my hands and face like a palette-flipped splatter film.


So that was all good wholesome fun, and a shining beacon of shiny beacon-ness in what’s otherwise been a pretty shitty Easter. Could be worse; at least I didn’t get nailed to a cross or anything.
Current Music: The Black Angels – Young Men Dead
we do what we can, until we cannot
22 April 2011 @ 06:17 pm
I got spat on by a census pleb today. The arse-end-of-nowhere Bartley Green AO* with the nonsensical street layout (people who had lived there decades couldn't tell me how to work out where the next one along was logically. I grew up on terraces, this place is a COMPLETE MINDFUCK) was supposed to be one hour; it took me two hours of legwork, an hour of travel time, and will be another hour of filling out dummy forms. I'm not really getting paid enough for this. On the other hand, the AO on my own street which I've been given 6 hours to complete will likely take only 3, with no travel time, and I can run home for tea whenever I like. Swings and roundabouts.

Uncouth expectorators aside, I think I prefer Phase 2. I'm in the groove I was hoping for, and though we now have to visit every house three times and fill in a dummy unless we actually get the form back, we get allocated more time for doing so (which is to say still not enough, in most cases.) It's much more binary than Phase 1, which I like in grunt work: the workload is heavier, but tighter, with less need for improvisation. I like brain work, but when your workspace is a clipboard in a broken-glass-littered slum, simplicity is nice.** And there's a very satisfying air of finality to having each house Checked Off, even if it's a giant mass of dummy forms and not a returned questionnaire in sight: as collectors, we are done with these districts now.

Thunder, the first I've heard in ages, was starting to murmur on the western sky as I finished up in that AO. The best you can say of the place is that it's on a big hill, so home is downhill almost all the way, and downhill I rode, jouncing over the potholes and the tarmac creases of Weoley Castle. The sky just above and ahead was blue in the swirling grey, the boundary between cloud and open sky almost directly above me, and I raced the weather all the way home, the first drops of a summer shower lapping at my heels.

*That's "Area of Operations". The actual approved Office for National Statistics technical term is ED, for "Enumeration District", but I can't help trying to be operator.
**Also, now that we're not issuing any replacement forms the load is lighter, even with the requisite paintbrush and, uh, jar of fresh lamb's blood.
we do what we can, until we cannot
22 April 2011 @ 02:13 pm
Crikey, my blog's got pretty sodding long and disjointed lately. Maybe it's some subconscious practice for essay season? I need to learn brevity again and stop overthinking things quite so much, damn.