Monday, 9 July 2018

Sunday bike ride in the woods and on the road

I've been on the road bike a lot recently, so decided to take my trusty Kona today to give me more variety - and, hopefully, stay more in the woodland shade. Out through Beeley Woods, then the climb to Wharncliffe and the cinder roads, which then joins the trail made on the route of the old rail line. I used to come out this way a lot, but the trail has been even further improved - the surface, far more seating areas and informational signage, a few "Wild Wood!" trails for kids through areas of coppiced birch. The main trail is mainly gravel packed into the dirt, which has worn away on some stretches and occasionally narrows to less than two metres. My 29" wheels eat it up whatever, and it's smooth enough that I lock out my suspension.





I suspected I'd get the 19 km to Penistone and head back from there by road ( I have an almost pathological aversion to returning by the same route if I can possibly avoid it ) but carried on out on the long curve of the Trans Pennine Trail section of the National Cycle Network until it hit road at Dunford Bridge and then a climb and drop to meet the A628 Woodhead Road.





It took a real effort of will to turn left toward home instead of taking the long, glorious loop above the Bleaklow Moor out toward Manchester, to circle back via Glossop, the Snake and Ladybower, but I sensibly turned left.





A phenomenal fast descent on the road - easily topping 50 kph on the mountain bike, I'd probably have reached seventy had I been on the Tifosi. Not a huge amount of traffic, but some drivers really have no idea about passing. The closest was one tiny hatchback whose wing mirror actually passed below my jutting elbow.





I decided against joining the trails that lead south a couple of km down, as from memory they get pretty extreme, climbing and dipping over the valleys formed by various streams, instead joining a gentler bridleway that lead to Langsett Reservoir, then a mix of trails and glorious back roads past Upper Midhope, Midhopestones and Underbank to Bolsterstone, again unfortunately missing the Male Voice Choir practice.





The long fast drop to Wharncliffe Side ( slightly held up behind a BMW being sensibly cautious inits descent ) and I'm all but home. Feeling it a little in my legs, but managed a final climb up Langsett Avenue which is quite pleasing after by far m longest ride in some years.





It's almost like my summer Sunday mornings as a kid. I'd rise early and head out on my Carlton racer to Castleton, Glossop, Wakefield - sometimes the same trans-moor loop that formed part of my return today - to get back for 2 PM and my mum's enormous Sunday dinner. No wonder people would joke I must have hollow legs from the amount I ate. I kind of wish I'd had this mapping technology then. to see the hours and distance I managed in my early teens, those three and four and five our rides, or other times exploring the city or heading down into Derbyshire. But, had these technologies been around perhaps I'd have been distracted by other things and those rides may not have happened.



Ride and pics at https://www.strava.com/activities/1688872959

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Book Review: Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson: Eco-punk, time-travel, business & politics

A wonderfully fresh, inventive, lively and thoughtful read.




We are at some point in the future where humanity seems to be rebuilding itself following various disasters, largely ecological one of our on making. I say "seem to be" because Robson never states this, just has the characters allude to things in their history - or, rather, things in their present that hint at the history. This naturalism is one of the things I loves about the writing, the way the ordinary interplay of the characters builds a vision of the world for us. Which works, at least in part, as the characters are so well drawn.




The two main characters are Minh, an old-guard ecological systems designer who moves around on six tentacled prostheses instead of her 'natural' legs and is of the generation who have gone through the hardships of trying to recolonise the surface after decades of subterranean life and Kiki, a young, ambitious engineer who initially idolises the older woman.




One of the conflicts of the book is that the banks, who had made money through investing in recolonisation and the surface habitats (and seem to hold everyone in massive debt; an ongoing theme is how all the characters just seem to accept crippling levels of ongoing debt as part of existence, a comment on student debt in the US and elsewhere I assume) are turning their focus to the lucrative business of time travel.




Minh and Kiki are part of a team hired to travel back to the Tigris basin, around 2000 BC, to take environmental samples to bring back to the present. There is conversation that this real work of time travel is being minimised due to pressure to take tourists (critique of the distorting effect of commerce on pure science), but i was never quite sure what the end-game of the mission was. I had thought it was to find hardy specimens to help restore the ravaged planet, but there was later reference to changing history.




I loved the layout of the book, each chapter beginning with a short segment from the viewpoint of the king and priestess of the small civilisation of the Tigris as they begin to see changes brought on by the technology of the visitors - the new stars of communications satellites, for example - followed by the building of the main tale.




Very much worth a read, and I look forward to more from Kelly Robson

Sunday, 1 July 2018

First 20+ km bike ride in far too long - and it was magnificent

That was not so early a start as planned, nor as long a ride, but it was glorious. It’s been some years since i swapped wheels for running shoes as my main form of exercise and recreation and, even then, I’d explored these lanes on a mountain bike rather than the slight, fleet frame of a proper racer



As usual, spoilt for choice I set out with little initial idea of where I was headed; I had a general urge to go out past Bradfield onto the roads with their race-smooth surfaces, but began by heading up toward Worrall before turning up Burnt Hill Lane, taking Onesacre Bottom and Onesacre Road to climb up into the hills.



It is stunningly beautiful; fields of sleepy-headed wheat are ripening toward bright yellow, the trees are almost shockingly green against a sky of white-smeared blue that makes the hedgerows seem listless, almost military olive drab and khaki by comparison with this wanton lushness.



There follows a wonderful 5 km stretch as the road drops around a hundred metres. It is all dips and rises and bends on amazingly smooth grey tarmac, bounded by walls of ferns in all their cool, frenzied verdancy. I move along at a fair clip, watching ahead as much as I can with the turns and sudden elevations for traffic coming the other way, or even walkers, though my only encounter is a farmer in his Land Rover on one of the straighter stretches. It would be glorious to close this stretch off for a race; hurtling along here would be better than any rollercoaster.



Reaching the wonderfully named Wigtwizzle, I’ve the decision between turning up toward Mortimer Road, where I could take the long circuit bordering the moors above Derwent Reservoir, but I’m not sure if I have the legs for that in this heat, so drop sharply to the right (again, resisting the urge to loose my brakes and plummet down the steep curves) down past Broomhead Reservoir and the sharp climb toward Bolserstone. Downhill again to Ewden Village - a road so steep that you almost feel gravity will  tip you over the handlebars, my caution with the brakes warranted by a family out for a stroll,spread across the width of the road as though a search party scanning the terrain.



Here I made an error. I couldn’t remember whether the semi-private road that follows the north shore of More Hall Reservoir was fully suitable for my flimsy wheels, so carried on rather than taking the turn. I’d completely  forgotten about Fairhurst Lane, possible blanked from my memory by pain, shorter though just as punishingly steep as te hill down which I’d just come. Even though I didn’t quite make it all the way up, it left my legs twitching and wobbly. That said, it lead to the stretch of Carr House and Thorn House Lanes, another couple of kilometres of smooth, winding, dipping joy, dropping me to Wharncliffe Side and the 5k steady descent by the River Don leading me home.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Book review: A Murder of Quality by John le Carre: Smiley goes Sherlock

This is an odd entry in the works of le Carre, chronicling the later life of George Smiley. Following the events of Call for the Dead Smiley, no longer with the service, is living a quiet life in London. He is contacted by an old colleague about the a letter she has received from the wife of one of the masters at a venerable Public School (that is, a very old, expensive and exclusive private school) in Dorset, in which she states the fear that her husband is intending to kill her. Smiley calls another master there, the brother of one of his late friends, to find that this woman has indeed been murdered, so travels down to hand the letter over to local detectives and becomes embroiled in the investigation.



So, this is George Smiley as a free agent, outside the Circus. It seems that le Carre may have been toying with setting his character up as a detective - more Father Brown than Sherlock Holmes, although there is something Holmesian in the way the plot unfolds, with Smiley's vast, if ponderous, intellect processing all the details and building a picture nobody else can see. There is also something of Agatha Christie about the layers of upper-class English manners and class distinctions, in this book those stratifications are precisely the point rather than being, as with Christie, simply the medium on which the puzzle of the plot is hung.



It is clear from early on that this is a blistering attack on the British class system and the snobbish, restrictive forms, rules and structures that protect those at the top - something the author confirms in both the original afterword and a new one, added to this edition in 2010.



In this, le Carre also acknowledges the book's shortcomings as a thriller (although, by modern terms, I would not class it as a thriller at all, but a mystery) and this is indeed true, perhaps largely as it comes between his excellent debut and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which may be the finest spy thriller ever written. The novel is very old-fashioned, some of the supporting cast are fairly flat sketches, and some of the attitudes - especially those toward women - are very much of their time (although that balanced against some very progressive notions) but he already shows his eye for detail and ability to infuse a scene with colour and meaning (even if most of colours are the shades of grey of post-war Britain) and, despite the flaws, this gripped me enough to read in three sittings.



Now, I am very much looking forward re-reading The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Book Review - Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, edited by Bill Campbell

In recent years I've been making an effort to read more broadly, and my encounters with Octavia E. Butler, Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin have brought me into the sphere of Afrofuturism. I'd been yearning to delve deeper so this seemed the perfect find



I'm aware there is much debate about what exactly Afrofuturism is, and the "and Beyond" of this title should have suggested to me that editor Bill Campbell trawls his net widely; there are the kind of thing that I might have expected (although somehow I expected nothing in particular, and thought myself wide open, clearly I carry the cultural baggage of of a certain age and ethnicity and gender and geography and class and experience, so the stories that showed a standard SF future but with a Afrocentric slant, or some variant from a past less dominated by European colonialism - or simply from a point of view not rooted in that history.



That would have been plenty to both sate and whet my appetite, but there is more here. It is almost misleading to call this anthology Afrofuturism (if that is the use of a fashionable term for attention, it is forgivable); this is a collection of fictions of inclusion, of voices of groups marginalised in art and culture, their voices and viewpoints. This collection is a shining example of the joy of exploration beyond one's usual boundaries. The standard of the stories is superb (not every single one to my taste, for instance the few ultra-shorts, but I am not really a fan of flash-fiction) and there are a handful of tales that took my breath away - those by Victor LaValle, N.K. Jemisin, Ernest Hogan, S.P. Somtow, Junot Díaz - and I'm sure others I'm leaving off- were the highlights.



One of the joys of anthologies is finding writers I may not have otherwise come across, and this has certainly opened my horizons. It is a perfect illustration of two of my favourite quotes:


"Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else's shoes for a while." Malorie Blackman

“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.” Neil Gaiman



So read widely. Read people who are not like you. Read people who have different experiences, different histories, different outlooks. Read colour, read gender, read sexuality.



Read difference.





( originally posted at https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2396430194 )

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Mental health update

I've had my worst day in some time, since my time off work last year. After returning to work on progressive hours to get me back into the flow, I was finding full time too much; the energy it takes to get through the work, of focusing and the performance of dealing with clients and colleagues, of worrying whether I am up to doing this or should even be trying, was just leaving utterly drained. Outside of work I hardly had the energy or inclination to do anything at all.



So, I requested reduced hours, backed by my manager. After initially trying to fob me off with half-hour shorter days, that would have been no help at all, I've gone to a four-day week of normal shifts. I'm only a month and a half in, but I can tell it's helping; the three day break gives me time to recuperate, so it doesn't just feel like a downward spiral from which I'll never recover. I'm beginning to gain the energy to do things out of work, although it takes a hell of a lot of effort.



There are still some really hard days, of course. It's not unusual to have a workday where I feel like I'm struggling early on, where I'm having trouble drowning out the thoughts that I just can't do this and You're fighting an uphill battle that you're going to lose anyway, so why not save the effort? but I push through this and it tends to settle down and I actually end with something of a sense of achievement.



Monday was one of these. Right from the start I knew it was going to be tough; I was having problems focusing and felt outside myself and wanted to give up, but stuck with it until these feeling subsided, and it was a good day. On Tuesday I was fine, hammering away at the coalface and getting lots done. In retrospect, perhaps I was having a little trouble concentrating at times, but that might be entirely post hoc. Suddenly, right after a phone call with a client - which was lovely, no issues at all - it was like being hit by a freight train. The volume level in the office had risen suddenly, as it sometimes does, but it seemed so loud I could hardly breathe. Everyone seemed to be shouting into their phones or across the office to each other. I was having trouble writing up my notes, the world spinning around me. I actually thought I was going to throw up.



I managed to finish my notes and practically sprinted away from my desk. I just needed to be somewhere away, somewhere quiet. I locked myself away in one of the disabled toilets - a room instead of cubicles, and there's nobody in our organisation that would be more inconvenienced by me blocking this than any other loo.



And I couldn't leave. I just had to sit there, on the floor, trying to gather myself. Not even gather my thoughts; when this hits it feels like a tornado in my head, everything whirling around so much that I am aware that thoughts are there but they just flash past like snowflakes, barely visible as individual things, never mind graspable.



I must have been there for 45 minutes, by which time it was lunch so I walked around in the fresh air and winter sun for half an hour, went into Waterstones, although I have no idea what I looked at.



Back at my desk, I was aware I was away from the phones for the rest of the afternoon - admin and casework I could do at my own pace, but I found myself just staring at the screen. I couldn't make sense of anything. Not like I imagine severe dyslexia or alexia is - I could read the words, but just couldn't hold any meaning in my head. What was I meant to be doing?



Even though the office had quieted and it had been almost two hours since I left my desk, I knew I really couldn't do this. The inner voice was right. My manger was away from his desk and the deputy manager seemed in high demand elsewhere - besides, he didn't know about it and I felt suddenly so embarrassed, and didn't feel it was worth troubling him. I just wanted to slip quietly out, but some part of me knew I couldn't so I sent a quick email to the boss - I'm sorry, I'm really struggling today I can't do this. I need to go. I'm sorry - turned off my PC and left.



I jumped on my bike and took a circuitous route home to try to clear my head. I curled up in bed for awhile, in the warm womb-like comfort of the duvet. It was a nice afternoon and I'd thought to go for a run, the rhythm and exertion and serotonin release of running is one of the was I keep going, but I was so tired I could hardly move. I felt drained, probably not more drained than I ever have but that bone-deep weariness which, like severe pain or cold, is difficult to comprehend if you've never felt it or to remember accurately when you have.



This morning I slept through my alarm (although I'd only slept fitfully during the night, I vaguely remember rising enough from slumber to silence my phone) and woke again after 8.30. I'm not sure whether I'd planned on not going in, but that sealed it, so I texted my manager an apology and curled back up, trying to ignore the light of day. Tomorrow would be the last day of my working week, I guess I'll just have to take it as it comes.

Review: Dirk Gently season 1

I’ve just watched the first series of Netflix’s Dirk Gently, and I enjoyed it a great deal.


But.


But I have many problems with it. Let’s start with the positives. Some good performances, nice script (way better than the Will smith movie Bright, that Max Landis also wrote), along with lots of wackiness and a good plot, which reflect the source material, along with a violence and darkness that doesn’t necessarily, but was well handled. I really loved Bart the Holistic Assassin, superbly portrayed by Fiona Dourif.


And, I confess, most of my problems are in other ways that the series diverges from the Douglas Adams books on which it is loosely based, so can be viewed as purist ire which I am not denying.


The first is actually fairly minor, in the annoyance level anyway. The character of Dirk Gently is played wonderfully by Samuel Bennett as an wide-eyed innocent, socially inept almost to the level of autism (although the innocence part is slightly punctured at the very end). This is so very at odds with the character as written I found it to be quite jarring - a problem I recognise someone not coming to the show via the books wouldn’t have. Adams’ books have Dirk as an amoral, conniving - if charming - huckster - saved by the fact that his madcap theories of Holistic Detection actually work out (mostly), but who is nonetheless entirely in it for the money and seems to take pleasure in conning people. I can see why here they went for the safer option, but it does take away from the depth somewhat.Some of this amorallity was transferred to the sidekick - but, even then, only as something in his past which became a rather sick-making and obvious moment of character growth, completely with strings in the background music.


Another divergence is to make Gently’s powers, well, almost like a superpower while In the books (I am sorry, I know I shouldn’t compare different media) it is a talent he has that he can more-or-less stumble onto the right thing. I know that sounds like a minor change, but the way this is presented in this TV show makes it much grander, and also emphasis a kind of intractable fate while Adams, an arch-skeptic, makes it quite clear that it is NOT fate, merely chance, that ties everything together. Dirk just ‘has the knack’ of being in the position where these chances combine. Added to this, the ‘secret government organisation’ to which Gently is connected was so very out of place as to be pointless.


There was an adaptation a few years ago on the BBC, with the Stephen Mangan playing Dirk Gently as brilliantly as he does everything, which was utterly pitch-perfect. As well as being underfunded and hidden away on BBC2 at some ungodly hour so hardly anyone was aware of it, never mind watched it, comparing the two shows the potential strengths and weaknesses of the sort UK and longer US series formats. In the UK everything has to be tight and to the point and serving story and character, but the viewer barely has time to get into it (especially when it is cancelled so soon), while the longer series allows development and exploration of the world and the characters, but can lead to unnecessary padding and extraneous levels of plot that can sometimes take away the focus.


Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the series and will be watching season 2 - possible in just a couple of sittings - but I reserve the right to hold an original book and BBC adaptation purist grudge.