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February 25th, 2017

01:30 pm: Fifty-eighth parkrun
To Killerton for parkrun this morning. The route was much less muddy than last time and I managed to finish in 20:47, easily peeling a minute off my previous time and qualifying myself for a new PB. It's also enough to put me well within TN's assigned time, effectively laying to rest the ghost of my first attempt where I just missed my appointed cut-off time.

But my improvement was as nothing compared to E who blitzed round and finished exactly two and a half minutes faster than last week and precisely 90 seconds ahead of her previous PB. In some ways I'm not particularly surprised: she has more determination than almost anyone I know and I'm frequently amazed by what she achieves when she tries...

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February 24th, 2017

05:30 pm: A Festive Friday Overture
Feeling very energetic and Friday-ish — so much so that I've cleaned the communal hallway and washed the windows of the front door — so here's some cheerful Shostakovich to keep the feeling going. The piece, the Festive Overture, was written in a couple of days flat and is clearly channelling the spirit of Glinka's bouncy overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla:

The performers here are the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic under Yuri Temirkanov, recorded as part of the Nobel Prize Concert in 2009...

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February 20th, 2017

06:49 pm: Goodbye to Steve Hewlett...
The sad but not entirely unexpected news that Steve Hewlett has died. Always an excellent interviewer on The Media Show, he also turned out to be a brilliant interviewee and his conversations with Eddie Mair on PM were essential listening.

The interviews often felt like eavesdropping on two old friends having a chat, with Steve talking about his illness and Eddie keeping things on track with an occasional comment or a joke. A few weeks ago their interview was derailed when Steve's drip started beeping like crazy and rather than edit it out they kept the fumbling around in the background, and, once the problem was under control and the conversation resumed, they got back to talking about the state of Steve's failing liver and, I think, his sudden decision to get married.

With hindsight it's now clear that last week's interview, in which Eddie Mair asked Steve whether he had anything he still wanted to get of his chest was something of a swansong. As insightful and sharp as ever and with nothing to lose, Steve talked about his concerns for the BBC and gave the government both barrels; he didn't name names but it was clear who he was talking about and how he thought they'd fallen down on the job. He even expressed a hope to present The Media Show one last time. It's a real shame we're not going to get that...


February 18th, 2017

10:50 am: Fifty-seventh parkrun
A good time this week, finishing in 19:54 — two seconds off my PB and my first sub-20 run since the summer — despite having the remnants of a cold. I'm not sure I can take full responsibility for my time: I've got a new treatment regime for what the doctor suspects may be EIB; it certainly seems to have improved my aerobic capacity while I'm running and improved my recovery afterwards.

I've still had a little bit of post-run cough — the problem I went to the doctor about — but that might be the cold or it might the be the remnants of the untreated EIB from previous weeks or it might be perfectly normal for someone who has run a sub-20 5K. But despite that, I've noticed that my chest is much clearer, breathing is much easier, and there isn't anything like the same level of tightness that I've had in recent weeks.

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February 17th, 2017

06:17 pm: The Stars are Legion
I've been looking forward to Kameron Hurley's The Stars are Legion for a while and I've not been disappointed. A wide-screen baroque space opera of the first order, the story is set among a cluster of vast semi-organic worldships — the titular Legion — where are long-running fight for control of a rogue world called the Mokshi, which promises a way to leave the fleet of ships, is finally seems to be coming to a head.

We begin with Zan, the first of our narrators, awaking with a single memory: that of throwing away a child. Unable to remember the rest of her past, she finds herself dependent on those around her, mostly especially a woman called Jayd who insists that she is Zan's sister. Zan learns that she is on a worldship called Katazyrna, that she has recently returned from an attack on the Mokshi, and that of all the armies sent by Lord Katazyrna against the Mokshi, Zan is the only one who always returns alive, albeit without her memory. Before she knows it, Zan is ordered to lead assault against the rogue ship only to be intercepted by the forces of the world of Bhavaja and its lord, Rasida.

Jayd, meanwhile, finds herself treading carefully around Zan and her amnesia. The pair have a long and complicated history, but every time Zan manages to finally get aboard the Mokshi, she loses her memory and returns as a blank slate. Then, as time passes and she interacts with Jayd and with Anat, Katazyrna's lord, more fragments of her past come back to her until she experiences a mental collapse triggered by the events of her shared past with Jayd. Despite all this, it is clear that the pair have a shared agenda and that Zan, for all that she can't remember her role, is critical to the success of their plan.

Furious at Zan's latest failure Anat comes up with a scheme to cement peace between Katazyrna and Bhavaja: she offers Jayd's to Lord Bhavaja in marriage; a deal sweetened by the unnamed contents of Jayd's womb, currently held in stasis by a drug regime. But Anat, psychotic and controlling, has underestimated her opponent and almost before the blood used to seal the union has cooled, Katazyrna finds itself betrayed. This leaves Jayd a prisoner in all but name and results in Zan being cast down a recycling chute that leads to the heart of Katazyrna where hideous creatures breakdown organic matter, allowing it to be reused by the world.

From this point the two narratives separate. Jayd, now a member of Rasida's court on Bhavaja, tries to further her plan without doing anything that might get herself killed. Zan, meanwhile, finds herself on the long and hard way that leads out of hell and into light. Along the way she picks up companions who start as wary strangers and gradually transform into friends as their long trek back to the surface progresses.

The Stars are Legion is very unlike anything else, with its strange organic worlds full of peculiar grotesqueries. Although it goes completely unremarked in the narrative, everyone in the Legion is female — a feature which makes sense when you discover that each of them is somehow controlled by the ship into giving birth to the various creatures and components it requires in order to sustain its existence.

The central theme of the book is the voyage to self-discovery. Zan starts as a tabula rasa — a useful narrative feature which allows Hurley to build her world without too much awkwardness — only to form herself through her Dantean journey back up from the centre of Katazyrna, before eventually being forced to make a choice about who she truly wants to be: does she want to recover her lost memories and become the person she was before, the person who seems to be stuck in a perpetual loop, or does she want to embrace the new self she has created for herself from the cloth of her trials.

Jayd, meanwhile, knows the entirety of the joint plan, but finds herself required to suppress her knowledge in order to convince Rasida that her loyalty has truly shifted from Katazyrna to Bhavaja. But as Jayd throws herself into her role as a submissive wife, she realises that she has been so successful that she is in danger of losing her autonomy entirely. And when push finally comes to shove, Jayd must decide what to make of her troubled relationship with Zan and how the pair can build a future together.

Despite having some minor issues with the pacing of the opening sections — the build-up to Zan's first assault on the Mokshi feels a bit rushed — I absolutely adored The Stars are Legion when it settled into its stride. I liked its spiky characters — hyper-talkative engineer Casimir was a particular favourite — the visceral nature of the setting — especially in the hellish recycling pit — and the way Hurley stuck the dismount at the end.

Highly recommended.

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February 16th, 2017

08:21 pm: Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows
Following up on a recent review in the Guardian, I read James Lovegrove's Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows. The book opens with a framing prologue from Lovegrove himself: in 2016, out of the blue, he received a manscript from an American lawyer dealing with the estate of a distant relative of HP Lovecraft; despite concerns about the veracity of the narrative, Lovegrove agreed to edit it for publication. The resulting tale, The Shadwell Shadows, rewrites much of the accepted history of the man who is surely England's greatest detective: Sherlock Holmes.

The book proper opens with a second prologue, this time from the manuscript itself. Writing in the 1920s, towards the end of his life, Dr John H. Watson states that he has decided to write the truth about his time with Sherlock Holmes and to describe three episodes, set a decade apart, which go to the heart of the terrible things they dealt with together. But in order to do so, Watson confesses, he must set aside many of the accepted truths about the Great Detective's life and about his own.

Having lately from Afghanistan and indeed been injured, although not by a rifle bullet, John Watson is at a low ebb. One night, having sunk so far as to play nap in a dingy pub, Watson encounters a person from his past: Stamford, a fellow medico, attempting to buy a teenage girl from a pair of Lascars. Appalled Watson tries to draw his former friend back from the brink, only for the man to flee. As Dr Stamford runs, a second man, apparently an alcoholic middle-aged Yorkshireman, enters the fray and dispatches the two pimps with an elegant, eastern martial art. The man is, of course, Holmes, in one of his many disguises.

Lovegrove's re-writing of Watson's return is skilfully done, taking many of the established facts and putting them into a new perspective. Even Watson's conscious efforts to re-write his past make sense of the Holmes canon's inability to remember quite where he was shot: was it in the leg or the shoulder? The book is also clearly aware of and dialogue with Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald, right down to a deliberate reference to Holmes' mother's maiden name being Vernet. We also get plenty of atmosphere, from a London Particular to a run-down boozer complete with sinister foreigners engaged in the sex trafficking — a staple of British detetive fiction of a certain era.

Despite giving chase to Stamford, the man gives them the slip and the pair retire to Holmes' lodgings in Baker Street. There Holmes informs his new friend that he has been investigating a series of mysterious murders that occur around time of the new moon which have seen desiccated victim with a look of acute horror embossed on their features abandoned in Shadwell. When Stamford eventually turns up in a police cell, he is out of his mind and raving nonsensically. When he kills himself in a highly gruesome fashion, the duo follow up their only remaining lead: an opium den in Limehouse known to be frequented by the fallen doctor. Here they cause a scene, during which Holmes loudly mentions the name of the owner, Gong-Fen Shou. Sure enough, the feint works and the pair find themselves subject to a late night visit from the impeccably mannered crime lord.

What appears at first to be a fallen London doctor engaged in attempted child abduction turns into something else as Holmes introduces a series of apparently impossible murders, with the first hints of the supernatural introduced through a series of animate shadows. With the re-appearance of Stamford, Lovegrove immediately signals that we're in Lovecraft Country by having him come out with some classic phrases of worship associated with Cthulhu and, by having Watson react to them, uses it to impart something about Watson's buried past. The opium den, which might seem like a hackneyed location, is instead shown to be a sophisticated setup, a place frequented by the highest in the land, and whose existence owes as much to political resentment as to profit.

Gong-Fen, who seems genuinely intrigued by Holmes, holds out a hand offering enlightenment. Holmes accepts and the pair depart, leaving Watson to count the anxious hours until his new friend's return. When Holmes reappears, he is a changed man. Courtesy of Gong-Fen, he has been on a dream quest and seen the horrifying forms of the Outer Gods, barely returning with his sanity intact. This prompts Watson into his own confession: during his time in Afghanistan, he and some of his fellows slipped away from their regiment to search for a lost city; here he earned the terrible wound in his shoulder and first heard the ancient words that so shocked him when he heard them repeated by the deranged Dr Stamford.

In introducing the first full-on Lovecraftian elements, Lovegrove pays homage to a established technique: having the characters relate their events in flashback part-way through the narrative. Not for them the cosy safety of a Club Story; instead, through their mutual retellings, one recent and one older, the pair now finally begin to see what they may be up against, and that it might be more terrible than they can possibly having imagined.

Following their mutually reinforcing revelations, the pair realise that Gong-Fen was right: the world is far older than they supposed and its ancient gods far more real and more inimical to humanity than they had ever dreamed. The pair dedicate themselves to the study of esoteric texts, hoping to learn the secrets of the eldritch world, only to chance upon a lead which promises to help resolve the Shadwell murders.

Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows is highly entertaining and extremely enjoyable, mixing Lovecraftian horrors with a very fine take on Conan Doyle. Lovegrove's Watson is appropriately gruff and bluff and good-hearted; his Holmes cerebral and febrile by turns. Victorian London, with its fogs and cabs and low dens, comes across well. Lovegrove clearly possesses a detailed knowledge of Holmesiana which he skilfully uses to re-write much of Holmes and Watson's shared history to incorporate the fantastic, using the excuse that Watson found it necessary to alter the truth in his previous writings in order to avoid horrifying his unprepared public.

Given that Watson's framing preface explicitly mentions that he is going to relate three events, each a decade apart, which formed the key points in Holmes' shadow career, I think I've got a lot to look forward to...

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February 15th, 2017

09:07 pm: Gardner's B-minor mass
Before I leave JS Bach's Mass in B-minor, here's the first recording I bought: John Eliot Gardner's first version from the mid-80s. As Kenyon says, it's a bit frantic in places, but there's no doubting the commitment of the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir:

I used to listen to this every Sunday morning when I was a student as I waited for my laundry...

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February 14th, 2017

09:03 pm: Two very different masses
Inspired by Saturday's episode of Building a Library on JS Bach's Mass in B-minor, two very different versions. The first is the Herbert von Karajan's take on the opening Kyrie:

The second is the entire piece courtesy of Concerto Copenhagen — Nick Kenyon's ultimate choice in his survey — in a one-voice-per-part version:

Each is lovely in its own way — I have both of them — and each seems to emphasize a different aspect of Bach's dazzling writing...

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February 11th, 2017

12:27 pm: Fifty-sixth parkrun
Back to Riverside this week following last week's excursion to Killerton. Although it wasn't quite as cold as last week, the wind was biting and the snow was falling but not settling. The run wasn't too bad, although the return leg into the wind was a bit tough and there were some epic muddy patches in the playing fields. Managed to finish in an adequate but not exceptional time of 20:33 but came in 16th over all. Not too aweful.

With D doing the tail run this week and none of the rest of the gang there to cheer on, I took refuge in the workshop cafe at the Quay and defrosted with some tea. It was nice to catch up with some of the other runners, although taking the opportunity to warm up after the cold. D arrived just as I was finishing up, having finished her tail in a very fast 41 minutes.

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February 4th, 2017

01:51 pm: Fifty-fifth parkrun
With Duckes Meadow flooded and Riverside Parkrun cancelled, I finally had a good excuse to try the run at Killerton. With D&P away for the day, I talked E into going for her first parkrun. Unsure how long the journey would take, we arrived massively too early and hung around talking to the volunteers while they set up their scanning gazebo. We got an early briefing on the course, complete with a couple of hints as to what line to take and including a dire warning about the mud. Checking out our footware, my Fellraisers got the thumbs up but E, wearing slick-soled ASICS, got advised to take care on the very slippy downhill section around the 1K mark.

We wandered up to the start with both of us wondering what we'd let ourselves in for. I was worried about the mud while E was concerned that she wasn't going to be good enough. There were plenty of familiar faces in the crowd, mostly Riverside regulars and fellow climbers, while E bumped into a friend who was doing her second parkrun and aiming to finish in 35 minutes. Given that this was E's target time too, I think it buoyed her a little and convinced her that she really could do it after all.

Video of Killerton run on 28th JanuaryCollapse )

It was nice to have a relatively open start after the logjam of Riverside, but thanks to the mud, my ignorance of the course, and my lack of a warm-up run, my pace over the first couple of kilometres was a solid 50-60 seconds off my usual pace. I started pulling things back towards the end &mdsah; thanks to the slower pace, I had buckets left in the tank — but I didn't push hard enough going along the road where traction was good, so I found I'd kept too much back for the final field where the going was too soft and uncertain to accelerate hard — although, thankfully, I remembered the hint from one of the volunteers who told me to keep out of the gully and run along the top of the bank instead.

In the end, I finished in 21:42 and 19th over all. Which seems respectable for a first attempt in poor conditions, even if it was just outside TN's suggested goal of 21:30 — I can imagine him even now, shaking his head and, in best primary teacher fashion, expressing his disappointment. I was very, very cold by the time I finished — my lips were so numb I could barely talk! — so I got myself scanned early and then started jogging back down the course in search of E. We met up around 500 metres from the finish and I ran back with her as she got to the line, finishing in 31:30; well within her assigned goal of 35 minutes.

Afterwards we stopped to warm up with tea in the National Trust cafe before spending the rest of the morning wandering round the grounds. Going through the gate E, as a member, breezed through; I, as a non-member, had to be a wince-inducing sum. As I was paying, the woman on the desk asked me if I'd considered joining. I said that we'd just been talking about it and I was certainly thinking about it. She pointed out that if I was going to do the parkrun regularly, I'd need to pay for parking unless I was a member. I just smiled, put my arm around E, and said, "It's OK: she's already a member and I don't have a car!"

The grounds were very pretty with plenty of snowdrops and daffodils and the start of crocuses planted around the larger trees. Quite a lot of small branches had come down in Friday's storm — the parkrun volunteers had run the trail ahead of time to clear the windfall — while the area under the Davidia involucrata was covered in soft and squidgy nuts.

With lunch rapidly approaching we headed back to town ready to take on the rest of the day. Even just crossing the road to my place I got some funny looks and, when I finally made it to the shower, I realised why: my legs were still completely coated in mud. So much so that the water running down the plughole looked like nothing quite so much as a muddy version of the Psycho shower scene...

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