Doctor Who – New Year’s Special 2021: “Revolution of the Daleks”

  • I know we’ve had to wait longer than this for more Doctor Who, but it still feels like it’s been forever. Seeing that title again felt good.
  • Just that scene at the tea booth made me feel nostalgic for the days without masks. And no doubt plenty of people understood how the Doctor was feeling being stuck inside a small space with limited movement.
  • Shouldn’t people recognise the Daleks from their invasion in The Stolen Earth?
  • Also, I thought that Ptings couldn’t be kept in captivity because they would eat their way out of anything.
  • The dialogue in those scenes between Jack Robertson and Jo Patterson just made me switch off. We know from the RTD era that scenes involving politicians don’t have to be dull. In fact, comparing those scenes to the ones in this episode, I’m left wondering whether the political environment was actually less grim in 2005, or if I just didn’t pay as much attention to it.
  • Fortunately, the Doctor and Captain Jack’s escape quickly injects some excitement into things, and it’s uphill from here.
  • Really, Leo? You find some alien DNA inside an artefact – might as well not only grow it, but plug the resulting creature into your network where it can access its own tech! What’s the worst that could happen, right? It’s not like aliens are ever hostile in films and TV! I never would have expected Robertson to be the sensible one in any situation.
  • I like the scene between Yaz and Jack. Couldn’t help but wonder from Yaz’s behaviour if she really is meant to be attracted to the Doctor.
  • I like the design of the Robertson Daleks too, even if it’s presumably a one-episode thing.
  • Both of the central concepts in this episode – Daleks using humans to replicate them, and different factions of Daleks fighting each other – have been done before all the way back in the Classic Series.
  • So did the Doctor seriously just drop Robertson back at home without any kind of punishment for his actions?
  • Ryan and Graham’s departure feels more akin to when Classic Series companions left, in that it’s relatively understated and just has them deciding to go rather than being forced to leave. I am glad that they’re left alive and happy, but given that the whole Fam dynamic never really lived up to its potential, I’m hoping that things will be better with just the Doctor and Yaz – except that apparently John Bishop is going to be joining the TARDIS now.

This was a decent story overall, with some good action and John Barrowman making a more fulfilling return as Captain Jack Harkness – it’s left me eager for the next series, whenever that may be. Rating: 3.5/5.

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2020 and 2021: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Ever since March, 2020 has been a year of unique challenges: a year of health fears, cancelled plans, and severe restrictions on what people can do, where they can go and who they can see. And while there is hope on the horizon, the problem of the coronavirus pandemic and all its consequences are still ongoing as we enter a new year, and the lives we knew at the beginning of 2020 will take a long time to be fully restored, if they are at all.

I’m grateful for the fact that I’ve been relatively lucky: I have a job which allows me to work from home, and I have a support bubble which allows me to talk to people. The first weeks of lockdown were certainly hard, and made me realise how important the opportunity to socialise at work really is; but I’m pleased that I was able to adjust to the new routine, and find solutions to the challenges that the situation presented. There have been other positives to this year, too.

  • I completed my resolution to run a half-marathon for the first time.
  • I completed some personal development exercises which have greatly improved my self-awareness of what motivates me and how to develop in the future.
  • With my planned holiday abroad having been put back, I was able to take a staycation to see some sights in Britain that had been on my list.
  • I actually got into good writing habits outside of National Novel Writing Month, and feel like I’m really getting somewhere with the second draft of my work in progress.
  • I completed National Novel Writing Month despite having a lot going on in November which made writing more difficult.

A lot of my resolutions for 2021 involve developing what I currently have on the table, rather than doing something new. Some things I want to do – namely, things which involve physically going out into the world – are obviously dependent on the Covid situation. But I’ve got plenty of other goals that I should be able to work on regardless of that. Having been struggling to find motivation for running since the half-marathon, I signed up for Race At Your Pace in January to give myself a target – and once I’ve done that and I’m hopefully back in my flow, I want to try running the half-marathon distance again, even if it’s not for a particular event. My confidence in my writing is growing, and I find myself properly believing – when perhaps I haven’t before – that I can finish a draft and produce something that I can share with other people.

Whatever your situation is right now, I hope that 2021 brings positive developments at the very least. It doesn’t feel quite right to say ‘Happy New Year’, but it might still be a better one.

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My Favourite Books (and Films) in 2020

Unsurprisingly, this hasn’t been a great film-watching year for me, at least in terms of new releases. Since January, I’ve seen a grand total of six films in theatres, as well as three new releases via streaming services and one on Amazon Video:

  1. 1917
  2. Parasite
  3. Birds of Prey
  4. Over the Moon (Netflix)
  5. Ammonite
  6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
  7. Soul (Disney Plus)
  8. Enola Holmes (Netflix)
  9. Misbehaviour
  10. Tenet

On the other hand, having to spend most of my time at home hasn’t hurt my reading habits, while daily walks provide the opportunity to listen to audiobooks which my commute previously granted. I’ve read/listened to 72 books this year, just beating last year’s total of 70.

Favourite Fiction Read in 2020

10. Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline
I was a big fan of Ready Player One, and while the sequel doesn’t quite hit those heights (or maybe that’s just because of the novelty wearing off), I liked it a lot. It generates a new source of conflict to drive the story that expands on what’s already been set up without feeling tacked on, though I was a bit irritated that Wade essentially has to re-learn the same lesson he did in the first book. The story has a different feel, being more event-driven than character-driven; but the nostalgic indulgence and the virtual world’s limitless possibilities are still out in full force.

09. Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
This is the first Star Wars novel I’ve read/listened to, and I enjoyed learning more about this universe beyond what we see in the films: getting down to ground level and having Empire soldiers as the main characters. Thrawn is a fascinatingly smart and competent character and I certainly want to read more of his stories. The audiobook version is very well produced, with background sound effects and appropriate voices for familiar characters like Emperor Palpatine. My only problem with the story is that some of the political and tactical machinations get a bit complicated and when listening to it, I sometimes lost track of things.

08. The Animals of Farthing Wood by Colin Dann
The TV series The Animals of Farthing Wood was a big part of my childhood, so I’m not sure why I hadn’t read the book earlier. One thing that surprised me – and isn’t the best reflection on the source material – is that several characters who were female in the series (Adder, Weasel, Owl, Kestrel) are male in the book. In fact, there are very few female characters at all here, and with the exception of Vixen, they aren’t given personalities or even names – they’re just somebody’s mate. The show did a better job of giving characters’ deaths emotional impact, as well.
Aside from that, I really enjoyed this book. It’s an exciting story where the animal characters have to face many different sources of conflict, most of them manmade. This fits in with the strong conservation message, which, coming from the animals’ perspective, feels earnest rather than preachy. And most of the animals have distinct personalities which come out over time – Adder is still my favourite character, even if their gender is different.

07. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke
A fascinating and profound sci-fi story which explores a lot of interesting concepts in a relatively short space, from how humanity would develop under a benevolent dictatorship of aliens, to the idea of an overreaching system in the wider universe that is beyond our understanding on every level.

06. Troy by Stephen Fry
After Mythos and Heroes, I had expected the third volume of Stephen Fry’s Greek mythology series to cover both the Trojan War and the Odyssey – but if it takes separate volumes to do these stories justice (assuming that a fourth one is coming in the future), so be it. This is another excellent re-telling of classical mythology which does its best to flesh out the characters and get into their heads, though some parts (e.g. the abduction of Helen) are skimmed over so quickly that they’re a bit dissatisfying. Odysseus is my favourite character in this, so I do hope that Fry will indeed be giving us more of him.

05. Devolution by Max Brooks
This is a brilliant monster story on multiple levels: the themes of humans’ over-reliance on technology and loss of familiarity with nature, and how our true selves come out in a crisis; the gradual, tense buildup before the horror really begins; the epistolary format, with interviews being used to give background info on the Sasquatch; and the mix of different characters who react in different ways to the situation.

04. The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula le Guin
When it comes to fantasy, especially those stories set in other worlds, I usually either love them or am indifferent to them. This was one of those that I loved. I loved the sheer vastness and diversity of the world of Earthsea, and the intelligence of Ursula Le Guin’s writing, which doesn’t feel the need to spell things out to the reader, and contains a lot of interesting philosophy on life, death and the sense of identity.

03. Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith
The Cormoran Strike books have generally gotten better as the series has progressed, and this one is my favourite so far. The central mystery, the various subplots, and the fascinating character introspection all come together really well. Even though the main story involves a cold case so the protagonists are hardly ever placed in personal danger this time round, it’s still gripping enough to keep you reading. I did have a couple of minor gripes: there are so many suspects involved that it can be hard to keep track, and it is a bit frustrating to see more instances where Strike and Robin continue to keep things from each other until it all comes out in an unhealthy outburst. But this is another great detective story and character study, and I’m already looking forward to the next instalment.

02. Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
I’ve previously read Ken Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth, and while the setting of Fall of Giants is very different (early 20th century), it’s also a story spanning many years, involving a large cast of characters whose lives intertwine – and it’s similarly enjoyable too. As well as how interesting the characters’ various conflicts are, they’re placed in roles that allow the regular exposition regarding the First World War and European politics to feel natural instead of forced. More than other historical fiction I’ve read, this feels like an informative history book disguised as a novel, but it doesn’t suffer for it – it’s excellent.

01. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
It took me a few chapters to get into this book: there’s not a huge amount of plot, and I was a little irritated by how easily the narrator appeared to get side-tracked. But eventually something clicked, and I found myself loving it. There are so many great things about this book: what a brilliant character Owen Meany is, the rich atmosphere of Fifties and Sixties America, some very funny moments (e.g. the Volkswagen), how emotionally powerful it is, the reflection it encourages in the reader – and how, even though a lot of depressing things happen, it still manages to leave you feeling positive. Such is the power of Owen Meany.

Favourite Non-Fiction Read in 2020

10. The Body by Bill Bryson
This is a fascinating book done in Bill Bryson’s usual style, combining interesting facts (on just about every area concerned with the body, with enough detail to be satisfying) with stories about the people involved with the relevant discoveries (many of whom deserve to be more well-known than they are). It’s frequently emphasised how much we still don’t know about our own bodies, and that the modern western lifestyle is having worrying long-term effects on us. While it is a little frustrating that the book talks about our unhealthy diets and insufficient exercise without giving detailed science-based answers on what is necessary to resolve either issue, that may because real life is too messy to apply general figures to everybody (another point that frequently comes up) or because the answer – eat what you know is healthy, but not too much of it, and be as active as you can – doesn’t really require overthinking.

09. The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era by Gareth Russell
I picked up this book wanting to learn more about the world in which the Titanic‘s passengers lived. It certainly delivers in that regard, though the focus is on the first-class passengers: using a few characters as case studies, like the Countess of Rothes, it provides interesting details on the attitudes and expectations of their society, and how the Titanic itself reflected that society. Less time is spent providing details on the sinking as a whole – that is a subject for other books – though the author does sometimes deviate to pointedly debunk erroneous ideas like the Olympic-switch theory and the coal bunker fire theory.

08. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to write but is struggling to actually do it: its a short book and could well give you the kick you need by adjusting your mindset. I liked how it describes the forces of both resistance (which keeps you from writing), making you understand what it is and how it can be overcome; and the positivity of creation, as the author taps into the feelings that drive writers. The differences between amateurs and professionals also give a particular mindset to aim for. It’s a well constructed book that will hopefully make you want to write and believe you can produce something.

07. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore
A very powerful book, which inspires sympathy and admiration for the titular women in their suffering and fight for justice, and anger towards the radium companies who put profit above human lives and refused to accept responsibility. There is real emotion behind the writing, which makes it more engaging; the author does a great job at narrating the audiobook version, as you can feel her passion even more.

06. Scott and Amundsen by Roland Huntford
As well as being a very detailed and immersive account of Roald Amundsen and Captain Scott’s respective expeditions to the South Pole, this book gives plenty of insight into the differing attitudes of both men and their cultures, and offers applicable lessons in demonstrating why Amundsen succeeded and Scott failed. Huntford framing practically everything about Scott in a negative light can seem a bit extreme, but in most cases, he does have first-hand accounts and evidence to back up his views.

05. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
A fantastic book which not only has a lot of funny jokes and anecdotes, but also gives a serious insight into the trials and tribulations of being a doctor, and why they still choose to do it (and deserve appreciation from the rest of us).

04. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
An excellent personal development book, that covers many different aspects of increasing the likelihood of success in a positive, understandable manner.

03. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull
If you like Pixar films and you’re interested in what goes on behind the scenes, this book certainly provides some interesting anecdotes. Mostly, it provides some great advice and examples for either a manager or an artist to learn from. The main thing I took from it is to not be afraid of not getting something right the first time, as even Pixar films need a lot of time and tweaking to get right.

02. On a Sea of Glass by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstedt
This is by far the most detailed book on the Titanic that I’ve read. It delves deep into the ship’s construction, maiden voyage and sinking, with practically nothing being considered too insignificant. The accounts of survivors form the meat of the book, with multiple accounts covering each stage of the voyage, and the reader is able to get a good feel for who many of those on board were as people. Everything is backed up with sources, with even generally accepted “facts” about the disaster being called into question based on the evidence; it’s a necessarily slow read partly because I kept checking the endnotes. Essential reading for Titanic enthusiasts, who may be surprised to find out what they didn’t know about the subject.

01. Save The Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
Anyone who’s either writing a novel or intending to write one should check this book out. It breaks down beautifully what a story and its hero need in order to work well, reinforcing its points with case studies (of different types of story) to make sure they are understood and stick in the memory.

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The Right Stuff on Disney Plus

Recently, I finally took the plunge and subscribed to Disney Plus. The big push I needed was that it was the only way to legally watch the final season of Agents of SHIELD, which had been infuriatingly dismissed by British terrestrial television. However, among much else, it also gave me the chance to watch the Disney/National Geographic series The Right Stuff. While both the original book by Tom Wolfe, and the 1983 film adaptation (which I’ve previously talked about with Rachel Wagner), start out by covering the activities of American test pilots like Chuck Yeager prior to the Space Race, the series focusses entirely on Project Mercury – the project to put an American into space – starting with the recruitment of the first astronauts, and ending with the first flight by Alan Shepard and President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the Moon.

The Right Stuff does a good job of balancing its historical content with the drama that gets the audience engaged with the characters: the astronauts coping with their new status as national heroes, the competition between them, and their relationships with their wives and children. (Personally I wouldn’t have minded a bit more “space stuff”, but that’s just me.) Jake McDorman and Patrick J. Adams give excellent performances as Alan Shepard and John Glenn respectively, highlighting the differences between the two men and the conflict that is subsequently generated between them. Shepard is portrayed as a jock, serious and driven when it comes to his career, but not especially responsible in his down time; Glenn, meanwhile, is “Mr Clean Marine”, devout and well-behaved but certainly not perfect, his judgemental attitude sometimes causing problems for him. I also liked Eric Ladin as Chris Kraft and Patrick Fischler as Bob Gilruth, who provide a good look at the management and flight control side of things.

There were also things I wasn’t so happy with, however. Despite having more time to work with than a feature film, the series feels like it missed its opportunity to flesh out all of the Mercury Seven: instead, most of the focus goes to Shepard, Glenn, and Gordo Cooper, the same as in the film. Meanwhile, Gus Grissom, Deke Slayton and Scott Carpenter only get brief moments of development, while Wally Schirra is barely even present. The Right Stuff also definitely has its share of inaccuracies, mostly with regards to the timing of events, which can be all over the place. It wasn’t a bad idea to foreshadow things that are going to become more relevant further down the line, like Shepard having problems with his ear or Carpenter’s readiness being called into question; but the former at least is a significant deviation from history as Shepard only started having symptoms a few years after his Mercury flight. Deke Slayton being grounded due to his arrhythmia before Shepard’s flight is even more bamboozling; in reality, he was grounded almost a year after that, and had actually been the first choice for the second orbital Mercury mission.

The Right Stuff is a decent portrayal of the early days of American space flight, which I liked slightly better than the film overall. It looks like a second season hasn’t been confirmed yet, but I hope that it goes ahead and we get to see how it handles the rest of Project Mercury and beyond.

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NaNoWriMo 2020: Tough One This Year

Every National Novel Writing Month is hard work, but this one has turned out to be more difficult than most. Basically, I was being kept busy with various other things, and while I could technically find time to write, finding the mental energy was tougher. Over the first weekend in November, I would sit down at the computer and try to write, but felt like I was running into a brick wall; the words just would not come. I decided not to give up, and trust that it would get better – sure enough, when real life calmed down a bit, I got back into the groove and managed to keep my word count on target. But then other commitments arose that demanded my focus. For four days, I put NaNoWriMo entirely on the back-burner so I could put my attention where it was needed – plus I didn’t think I’d be able to write anyway, certainly not well.

This put me behind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it up. Possibly due to spending most of this year learning what is really important in life, I decided that if I ended up not writing 50K in November this year, I would be able to live with it. Then, when I was once again in a good mental place, I got in a good daily quota (i.e. 1,667 words) of writing, and finishing did still seem possible. If I wrote a total of 10,000 words over the last weekend, I could make up for the time I missed and be on track to finish on the 30th. The way I saw it, if the goal was technically possible, I should go for it.

So I did. In fact, I ended up doing enough extra words each day over the last working week to mean that 10,000 words at the weekend would see me reach 50K a day early – so why not? This afternoon, I crossed the line, and it felt well-earned and extra special.

As for the story itself, it was an interesting learning experience. I’d wanted to indulge myself by bringing back some old characters from previous instalments, but sometimes found myself unsure what to do with them. One new character, the protagonist’s young daughter, was especially fun to write. The plot was rather more intricate than a lot of my earlier projects and there were many points where what was supposed to happen didn’t feel right – so I would get out a notebook and break it down into bullet points, and usually inspiration would come along and turn the sticking point into something I could work with. As with most of my NaNoWriMos, I ended up skipping back and forth between scenes whenever I had a good idea or just felt like writing something in particular – so even though I reached 50,000 words by writing the epilogue and ‘The End’, there are still a lot of gaps to fill in.

So, after that November, I’m definitely ready for the holidays!

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The Sandman: Don’t Listen Before You Go To Bed

When it was announced that an audiobook adaptation of The Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman was being produced for Audible, it sounded like the sort of thing I’d like to check out; I’d heard how good the comics were but I hadn’t had a chance to read them. Having finished listening to the production, I’m left with complicated feelings – part of me liked it, and part of me didn’t.

The Sandman begins in the 1910s, with a pagan cult performing a ritual intended to summon and trap Death itself. Instead, they get Death’s younger brother, Dream – who also answers to Morpheus, and many other names besides – the lord of sleep and the dream world. After decades of imprisonment, Morpheus manages to escape; subsequent chapters follow him as he seeks to reclaim the magical items that were stolen from him, and capture some stray dream entities that went rogue in his absence. It’s not exactly a linear story, however: mixed in with the events directly following on from the first chapter, are a number of isolated episodes, in which Morpheus only tends to have a small part (and, in one case, doesn’t appear at all). I found these a bit disorientating, though perhaps that’s just because I’m not familiar with the source material and wasn’t expecting them.

There’s no denying that this production is very well made. It features a distinguished voice cast including James McAvoy, Taron Egerton, Michael Sheen, Kat Dennings, Arthur Darvill, Riz Ahmed, Andy Serkis and Samantha Morton, with Neil Gaiman himself providing narration. I’ve previously heard Gaiman narrating his own audiobook on Norse mythology, and his voice is very well suited for this sort of thing: soothing but a little mysterious. The combination of acting, dialogue and sound effects all come together to make a very immersive radio play; and as you would expect from Neil Gaiman, it’s incredibly imaginative as well. As well as Gaiman’s original, fantastical contributions, the story is actually set in the DC Comics universe: there are references to the Justice League, and cameos from characters like the Scarecrow, which I definitely liked. Some references appear to tie in to Gaiman’s novel American Gods, too.

But part of me also went into each listening session with some trepidation, as The Sandman is a very, very dark story, where the less pleasant side of human nature is put on full view. Violence, abuse and rape feature heavily, with sound effects that are all too believable: one part that stands out to me – and that’s saying something – is when a woman, mind-controlled by a malevolent puppet master, is forced to gouge her own eyes out. Assisted by moments of introspection from the central characters, this is the kind of story that reminds you how scary both the world and the human soul can be, which is bound to be uncomfortable. Even the “lighter” chapters leave a lasting impression, such as when Morpheus accompanies his sister Death as she goes about her work. Obviously, this chapter contains plenty of talk about the fear and inevitability of death, yet somehow there’s something reassuring about it; perhaps it’s because it wouldn’t be so bad if this friendly, empathetic version of Death was the one who came for you at the end.

I think I will end up listening to The Sandman again at some point, though definitely after a cooling-off period. If you’re okay with the mature themes, I say give it a try; however else you feel about it, it’s definitely not an audiobook that one forgets in a hurry.

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NaNoWriMo 2020: Year Twelve!

Since Camp NaNoWriMo, writing has actually been going really well. I’ve been applying the common personal development tips of a) taking small steps and b) persisting with something until it becomes a habit. Maybe I’m putting myself under less pressure, maybe I’ve refined my focus, or maybe I have developed more confidence in myself, but following an on-and-off August, I have done some work on my WIP every day in September and October. On the few days where I didn’t directly write or edit, I did brainstorm and make plans. Sometimes it’s just a few hundred words at a time, but that’s still better than my previous tendency (at least outside November) to tell myself I was going to write, end up doing something else, and then feel bad. I’ve turned writing/editing into a habit, from which I can build momentum, and even though the end point is still a long way off, I no longer have to force myself to believe that there will be an end point.

So I’m feeling reasonably warmed up as I head into my twelfth National Novel Writing Month. For November, I’ll be temporarily putting my WIP aside and working on a new project: I feel more comfortable doing that than being a NaNo Rebel, and I’m eager to try out one of the story ideas I haven’t gotten round to yet. In the summer, when I thought about what I was going to do, I was stuck between two ideas: a sequel to my 2015 fantasy NaNo involving an assassin princess, or the next in my twentieth-century historical series. Having covered the 1910s – specifically the Titanic and World War One – in the first three instalments, I thought that the next part could jump to the Roaring Twenties, and that I could send the protagonist on an archaeological adventure to Egypt; with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb taking place in that decade, it seemed like an inviting setting for a story.

I knew that I would end up writing both stories eventually, but which one should I write first? When the decision refused to come easily, I took an approach that has worked in the past: I went for a walk to a quiet spot in the outdoors, and meditated on the issue. I decided that while either option would be fun, the historical story was nudging me just a little bit harder. So I went with my gut. The fantasy sequel can wait until the next Camp NaNoWriMo.

Much of my preparation in the last two months has been research, research, research. Following some careful choices in reading material for the limited time available, I now know a lot more about ancient Egypt, Egyptology, and 1920s Britain than I did a few months ago – which, for me, is part of the fun of writing a historical novel for NaNoWriMo! I’ve also been working on my plan, using both the Snowflake Method – my favourite story planning method – and the tips in Save The Cat Writes A Novel for charting my protagonist’s development across the story. This weekend, I’m hoping to finish off the plan and be ready to leap into action come the first of November – which happens to be a Sunday, allowing plenty of time for a decent start.

I can’t believe I’ve been taking part in National Novel Writing Month for twelve years now. This year’s project is feeling appropriately ambitious: I’m already looking forward to writing certain scenes, and bringing in both old and new characters. I can’t say how well all of my ideas will all fit together, but there’s nothing wrong with self-indulgence in this situation: if you’re going to write a 50,000-word novel in thirty days, you should probably make sure you’re going to enjoy it to some degree!

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Film review: Ammonite

Well, I certainly hadn’t expected that by mid-October, I would have seen a grand total of six films at the cinema. I’m not even sure I’ll see another one this year: new releases continue to be put back, and my usual cinema has closed again. The film I’ve just been to see, Ammonite, was only airing yesterday, to close out the BFI London Film Festival. To see it, I visited another, smaller cinema I’d never actually been to before, which provided a little extra comfort and homeliness with sofas rather than seats.

Ammonite is a period piece about the 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who discovered some of the earliest examples of prehistoric reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. I was certainly very interested to see any sort of film about Mary: I’ve previously visited her hometown of Lyme Regis and gone on a fossil walk along the beach. However, as made clear in the trailer, this film isn’t really about the fossils. Instead, it focusses on Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), who comes to Lyme Regis with her geologist husband while suffering badly from “melancholia”. When Charlotte remains in the town to convalesce while her husband goes to Europe, Mary becomes her reluctant companion, with their relationship becoming increasingly intimate and complicated as time passes.

This is definitely one of those films where less is more. Dialogue is kept to a minimum – there are a lot of scenes with none at all – so every word counts, and Winslet and Ronan do an excellent job in conveying their inner thoughts through facial expression alone. There’s not much background music either, so it has a larger impact when it is used, such as when it gradually becomes loud and overwhelming in a scene where Mary is feeling isolated at a social gathering. The time period, the rough and windy seaside setting, and the poverty that Mary has to endure, are all captured very well.

While Mary and Charlotte may not have many extensive conversations, watching their relationship progress is still very engaging. They both start out as distant characters, for differing reasons that are ultimately linked to being a woman in a man’s world: Mary has had a hard life and is resigned to not getting the credit she deserves for her fossil discoveries, while Charlotte is stuck in a joyless marriage. Gradually, they bring each other out of their shells, but additional conflict is generated by the class difference between them: Charlotte feels useless while staying in Mary’s little house, and Mary is out of place in the social circle Charlotte is used to.

The biggest artistic licence that the film takes – and the main element of it that I didn’t like – was the lesbian romance between Mary and Charlotte. That’s a big thing to invent for people who existed in real life, when there is no actual evidence for it. And honestly, if you’re going to make a film about Mary Anning, there are plenty of interesting things you can focus on that aren’t made up – like the struggles she faced because of her gender, and the impact that her discoveries made on the scientific community – as Tracy Chevalier does in her novel Remarkable Creatures. As I said, there’s not much focus on the fossils and the science; this film isn’t great in terms of telling Mary Anning’s story – in fact, it would probably have worked fine with fictional (or historically inspired) characters. Yet simply taken as a film, it’s really good.

Outside of the context of historical accuracy, if you enjoy more artsy films, Ammonite is a highly worthwhile watch, very atmospheric with great performances. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Holidaying in England: The S.S. Great Britain

After the wet weather in Southampton, the sun was thankfully shining in Bristol, and walking along the picturesque River Avon was a very pleasant experience. As with Southampton, my visit was primarily motivated by my interest in maritime history, and I was about to see an icon of oceanic travel: the S.S. Great Britain.

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In 1838, the S.S. Great Western entered service and began a new age on the seas; sailing between Bristol and New York, it was the first ever steamship specifically built to cross the Atlantic. The Great Western was the brainchild of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who soon turned his attention to designing another, even more innovative ship. Whereas the Great Western had a wooden hull, this ship would be made of iron, and would also adopt screw propulsion, which was just starting to prove itself as superior to paddle wheels. The end result was the S.S. Great Britain, the biggest ship in the world at the time. Launched in 1843, it set off on its maiden voyage to New York in 1845. In the words of Jeremy Clarkson, “It was Genesis. A ship 50 years ahead of its time.”

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The Great Britain was to have a varied and turbulent career. She only made a few voyages across the Atlantic before she ran aground on the Irish coast in 1846, and the cost of the salvage forced her owners to sell her. She then spent 23 years carrying emigrants to Australia, taking around 60 days to travel from Liverpool to Melbourne. In 1886, after she had been sold again and converted into a cargo ship, the Great Britain was damaged in a storm and sought shelter in the Falkland Islands. The current owners decided that it wasn’t worth the cost of repairing the ship, so she stayed where she was. Used as a floating warehouse for many years, she was eventually scuttled in a cove and left to rot. There, the story might have ended – but instead, in 1970, a salvage team refloated the Great Britain (a process that included plugging a crack in the hull with donated mattresses), placed her on a pontoon, and carried her back to Bristol. Placed in the dry dock where she was originally built, she was fully restored, and remains there today for visitors to enjoy.

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Social distancing restrictions didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the Great Britain: there was only a one-way system when exploring the ship itself, and there was still enough room to both maintain distance from others and see everything there was to see. The ship’s interiors have been restored to how she was when on the Britain-Australia run: there was a big contrast between the accommodation for steerage passengers, with tightly packed bunks and only staple foods to eat, and first-class, with a lavish dining saloon and an indoor promenade to walk around in. One could appreciate how it must have felt to have been stuck in such limited space for two months at sea, particularly with what everyone in the country has been through this year.

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There was a separate area dedicated to Brunel himself, with lots of artefacts and information about his other projects – including Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, which I went to take a look at later in the day. The last thing that I did was to descend into the dry dock itself, beneath the ship; this area is kept warm and dry to slow corrosion. While the Great Britain looked proud and untouchable on the surface, from beneath she looked more fragile, the bottom of her hull pockmarked and scarred. It was a clear reminder of just how old the ship is, and how fortunate she is to still survive.

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Holidaying in England: Southampton

Readers of this blog will already be familiar with my interest in maritime history in general, and the Titanic in particular. Having visited the museum dedicated to the Titanic in Belfast, and seen a piece of the wreck in Las Vegas, the natural next place to go was Southampton. The city’s connection to Titanic goes beyond the fact that this is where, on 10th April 1912, the ship departed England on its first and last voyage. 724 members of the Titanic‘s crew lived in Southampton – obviously a natural place to reside between jobs when one worked at sea – and 549 of them died in the sinking, leaving a devastating impact on the community.

My first stop upon arrival was the SeaCity Museum. It happened to be pouring with rain, but thankfully I was allowed into the shelter of the museum a little earlier than my reservation time. The museum contains exhibits dedicated to the history of Southampton itself, but the Titanic exhibit is the highlight. A wide variety of objects from 1912 were on display, including Titanic menus which also functioned as postcards. There were interactive displays (accompanied with hand sanitiser dispensers, of course), where you could try sending a message in Morse code or steering the Titanic out of port. There were also films featuring oral accounts of the sinking by survivors, and describing the topics discussed at the disaster inquiry, from whether the Titanic was travelling too fast to whether binoculars would have aided the lookouts.

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After the museum, when the rain had eased off, I had a walk around Southampton, looking at points of interest relating to the Titanic. This memorial is dedicated to the ship’s eight musicians, all of whom perished; it is actually a replica of the original memorial, which was destroyed when Southampton was bombed in 1940.

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This memorial is dedicated to the Titanic‘s engineers; as with the musicians, all of them were lost.

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This was a fountain “erected in memory of the crew, stewards, sailors and firemen”, which was eventually moved from Southampton Common to Holyrood Church.

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This is South Western House: currently an apartment building, it used to be a hotel, where some of the Titanic‘s passengers stayed overnight before sailing. South Western House can actually be seen in the background of photographs of the Titanic at its berth, as below.

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There is no public access to Berth 44, the place where the Titanic left Southampton, since it is still in use for ships. I could, however, get a look at the general area from an accessible view point.

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From that point, there was something else I was able to see that I hadn’t known about before arriving in Southampton: the Queen Mary 2. Due to the pandemic, Cunard’s fleet are currently not in service, but the QM2 had briefly come into Southampton for provisioning. A quick look at Southampton’s online ship schedule indicated when the ship would be leaving, so I stuck around to watch it. With a tug at its bow, the QM2 moved away from the dock so slowly that you could only perceive it by comparing its position to the nearby cranes; then it made its way down Southampton Water, right past where I was, an impressive sight indeed.

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It’s always nice to see something you weren’t expecting on a sightseeing trip. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually sail on the QM2 someday.

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