The Count, Murray and some other guy

Because I’m a sucker for anything featuring the Count.

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Sign of Four (or is it Three?) – YouTube.

Wapping, as found in The Lost Valley of London

Londonist linked to this lovely thing today: the latest in The Lost Valley of London series is all about Wapping. It could even serve as a very good book trailer for my first two books, The English Monster and The Poisoned Island. Pirates, executions, river police, docks, tunnels – it’s all there. Lovely.

The man who loves books but cannot read

A beautiful story in the New York Times, that reads like the opening of  a gorgeous Indian novel:

On the banks of picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, sits the only library in the neighborhood, run by a man who loves books but cannot read.

In a single-story wooden house, carefully maintained shelves are filled with around 600 books in several languages, the prize possessions of Muhammad Latif Oata, a 44-year-old handicrafts seller who dropped out of school at age 10 to work.

Over two decades, Mr. Latif, a Kashmir native, has accumulated all these books through exchanges and donations from people who visited his shop, first in Goa, then in Karnataka and now here in Dal Lake, a popular tourist destination. His collection includes books written by authors from many countries, like the United States, Britain, Sweden, Italy and Korea, reflecting the donors’ nationalities.

Since the vast majority of those who visit the library are tourists, he has named it the Travelers Library. Anyone can take a book; all Mr. Latif asks is that borrowers describe the stories contained in the pages of the books they return. Many visitors, who are Indians from other states and foreigners who come to see Dal Lake, leave behind their own books to add to his collection.

via Illiterate, but in Love With Books – Thanks to Kate Mayfield on Twitter for this.

Bitcoin explained …. beautifully

This is a beautiful thing; a video by Duncan Elms that offers a three-minute explainer on Bitcoin.

Hat-tip to @moongolfer on Twitter.

Bitcoin Explained on Vimeo

via Bitcoin Explained.

Amazing things, people

This morning, I sent a whiny email to my local councillor about parking in my London street. Sometimes it’s, like, really busy and I can’t find a spot right outside my house and have to walk, like, a whole hundred metres.

And then I saw this amazing video, and stopped thinking about such trivial things.

A heart-stopping rendition of pre-Fire London

My friend Richard Davidson-Houston just sent me this, and it is the most gorgeous and thrilling visual evocation of pre-Great Fire London I think I have ever seen. I’ve just watched it, and am really not exaggerating when I say I held my breath at times.

It’s the work of Pudding Lane Productions, who are six students from De Montfort University (and there’s a name to conjure with, history fans). Find out more about the project, and the astonishing attention to detail that’s gone into this, at their blog.

Pudding Lane Productions, Crytek Off The Map – YouTube.

‘The most famous chord’

This is actually a few months old now, but I’ve only just listened to it and it’s put a great big smile on my face, even though Southern Gas Networks have dug up my street, my front garden and are about to rip up my living room:

The Beatles – The REAL First Chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” – YouTube.

Randy Bachman, of Bachman Turner Overdrive, unpicks the chord, which turns out not to be a chord at all, but two chords and a bass (so three guitars in total, as you’d expect). When they play it after the explanation, you can hear the delight in the musicians, and in the crowd. The Beatles weren’t just musicians. They were alchemists.

Ross Macdonald and The Underground Man

I wrote a little thing for Simon and Schuster’s Dark Pages crime fiction site, on Ross Macdonald’s Underground Man. I’ve cross-posted it here for archiving purposes.

I always like an author photograph on the back of a book. I like to look into the eyes of the person who spent so many weeks and months with the characters I’ve just spent a few days with. I like to look for clues in their expression as to how much of their own personality inhabits the people they’ve created. Stephen King’s eyes are gleeful and warm, James Lee Burke’s world-weary and lined. And Ross Macdonald, the subject of the words that follow, looks like the kind of man who could put up a shed, drink bourbon at lunchtime, talk a suicidal teenager off a roof after dinner, and discuss Shakespeare knowledgeably with Harold Bloom before bed. A true North American Renaissance man.

Ross Macdonald, creator of Lew Archer, wearing a straw hat

Which is exactly how I’d describe Macdonald’s hero Lew Archer. Across eighteen tight but elegiac novels, Archer strides around California like a well-read and ultimately-kind avenging angel. He writes fantastic women (unlike Chandler), and sympathises with those younger females who have lost their way (Macdonald himself had a well-publicised sequence of problems with his own daughter). He punches out bad guys, but has well-stocked bookshelves. And unlike Chandler’s Marlowe, who burned bright but sudden and seems frozen in a pre-war frame, Archer carried on investigating right through the 50s and 60s, while America changed around him. He never grumbles about that. I picture an ageing Marlowe downing martinis in a down-at-heel LA bar in 1968, snarling at the hippies, while Archer heads off to a Jefferson Airplane gig to see what all the fuss is about.

I’m going to recommend a late-period Archer novel for that reason. The Underground Man (not to be confused with Mick Jackson’s book of the same name) has a mysterious forest fire threatening a well-heeled Los Angeles suburb above the ground while family secrets threaten to undermine everything from below. It’s exciting and hard-boiled and tough, but it’s also warm, literate and ultimately kind. Which is how I like to imagine Ross Macdonald himself.


Anthea Bell and Asterix

I came across a nice little interview with Anthea Bell, who along with Derek Hockridge translated the great Asterix books I grew up with (she translates the latest ones on her own, but I stopped reading them after Goscinny died).

I’ve always been fascinated by the extent to which the books ‘changed’ in the translation, because I remember reading them in French for school and not finding them nearly as amusing. I’m sure they are to native French readers, but the wordplay in the English translations was spectacular. Bell talks a a good deal about this in the interview:

Goscinny spoke good English – which comes through in the funny English-style expressions the characters use

He spoke excellent English. While he was alive he was the one who gave the go-ahead to all of the translations and I visited him in Paris to discuss what to do about the British accents.
I am not completely happy with it, but the only solution seemed to be to adopt a dated style of vocabulary such as you might find in the novels of PG Wodehouse, set in the early 20th Century. It couldn’t be as good as the French, but Goscinny approved of it. I had them say a lot of “I say old chap, jolly good, what ho! Old fruit…” he laughed at “old fruit” and said he wished he’d thought of that – “vieux fruit.” The book laughs at the idea that the Britons knock off battles at 5pm for a cup of tea, things like that. I think the rugger match is a brilliant scene.

One thing about Asterix that is similar to English humourous writing is that it tends to be kindly. You see the Romans bashed about, but there’s no bloodshed.

How long would it take you and Derek to do a typical album?

There is no answer to that. The jokes would sometimes come overnight. You puzzle away thinking of references and allusions – and you’ve got to fit the length of the speech bubbles and it must fit the expressions on the characters’ faces and if there is a pun or an extended passage of wordplay it’s no good doing it literally because then it’s not funny anymore.

Some of the later ones by Goscinny have long passages of extended literary allusions. In Le Cadeau de César [Caesar’s Gift] Asterix duels with a Roman soldier and he does it in the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s wonderful, it goes on for almost a page. I sat looking at that and thought “the most famous swordfight in English literature is probably Hamlet and Laertes,” and the whole thing was done with quotations from Hamlet in the end.

When you make a change because the British won’t understand a cultural allusion, are the French publishers OK with it?

Yes, we don’t do anything without permission from the French. Uderzo only speaks French, so he has the books checked by a lovely Englishwoman who lives in Paris. Her mind and mine work very much alike.

What happens when you are going to do a new translation – do you get a script?

In the latter ones, it’s been a script or lately a CD, labelled “confidential.”

Translating the character names must have been a challenge

Yes – there are 400 of them now. The druid Panoramix could have been kept as Panoramix in English, but the name Getafix presented itself as if on a plate. Some people say they are shocked, but I have a perfectly good explanation, which is that there is a theory that the ancient peoples used standing stones as an astronomical observatory to “get a fix” on the stars. In a way I regretted losing the dog’s name Idéfix [idée fixe - an obsession], which could have been understood in some circles in England, but not universally and there again Dogmatix presented itself on a plate. There are many English words ending in “ous” and those come in handy for the Romans – we had two soldiers called Sendervictorius and Appianglorius.

I love that idea of a ‘lovely Englishwoman in Paris’ who checks the cultural allusions. The whole process seems incredibly civilised and rather lovely. Which is what you’d expect from a project that produces characters with smiles like these:


What people mean when they say “I hate the Eagles”

I am, as I write this, listening to Genesis. Early-to-mid period Genesis (and this is important). Selling England by the Pound. Gabriel and Hackett still in place. But there, on track four, a sign of something to come: a track written, and sung, by Phil Collins. A simple little love song, in amidst the tales of crackpots and monsters on the rest of the album.

It has always been fashionable to mock Genesis. But there are categories of mocking. Early period Genesis is mockable, but not as mockable as the Collins-Rutherford-Banks era. The Lamb Dies Down On Broadway is less mockable than any other album. And obviously Marillion are much more mockable.

Why is this? Why do certain bands and musicians attack a certain derision? It’s the kind of derision that was on display at the weekend because there was a programme about the Eagles on the telly. Some people really, really hate the Eagles (or say they do). But when you ask them why they hate the Eagles, rather than dislike them or simply disregard them, you don’t often get a thought-through answer. Normally, the answer is some variant of because they’re shit. For some people, disliking the Eagles comes as naturally as drinking water. They could no more give it up than they could give up food.

Here’s the thing, though: The Eagles aren’t “shit”. Neither are Genesis, or even Marillion. They’re all very, very good at what they do. What people mean when they say “I hate the Eagles” is this: The Eagles offend my worldview. That type of band playing that type of music should still not be as popular as they are. And my own sense of who I am is informed by my worldview, and my ability to say some things are “shit” and some things are “worthwhile”. The intrinsic value of these things is beside the point, and who can say what intrinsic value is, anyway? My saying “I hate the Eagles” is as much a part of me as my saying “I love Louis CK”.

To put it another way: I’m too hip for the Eagles.

To which I say: why shut yourself off to something which might be brilliant?

If I’d spent as much time saying I hated the Eagles as I did when I was 20, I might never have discovered that they recorded this: