Golden Age Supes

Goodbye LiveJournal

Okay, the time has come. Having received an inordinate number of spam comments over the last few days, I've decided to no longer update this LiveJournal account. Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth will continue over at Wordpress - http://matthewhyde.wordpress.com . Please feel free to follow me there!

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Golden Age Supes

Hay-on-Wye, Town of Books



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If you want a data haven, Sealand is the micro nation you need to go to; if you want a Segway, then go to North Dumpling Island. If you want books, however, then Hay-on-Wye is the destination of choice.

Hay was declared a micro nation by the self-proclaimed King of Hay, Richard Booth, in 1977. It was something of a publicity stunt that helped put Hay on the map. Previously a struggling market town, Booth's dedication to the place has turned it into a Mecca for book retailers, with over 30 second hand bookstores operating within the town and its outskirts.

(Booth was, however, beheaded in effigy and Hay declared a commonwealth in 2009. Other booksellers felt that Booth had neglected his duty in drumming up publicity for the town. I think I might have seen the head earlier today actually.)

The story of Hay touches on several niche subjects and social concerns; micro nations, for instance, or library closures.

That last one's a bit of a topical issue, what with libraries across the UK under threat from the Government's austerity measures. It also raises the question of what happens to all the books. Earlier this week, when in Worcester, we visited a store run by an environmental charity that gave away books for free; in Hay's case, the books traveled from further afield. Apparently, in response to a wave of library closures in the US, Booth took a group of Hay locals to America to bring back redundant stock.

This could be a lifeline for collections threatened by public spending cuts, with the concept of the 'booktown' providing an escape route for books that would otherwise end up as landfill. I feel happier knowing there's a sanctuary for quirky titles, titles like this:



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This is particularly important at the moment. Browsing Hay's bookstores, you can't help but notice the petitions, protests against plans to build a giant supermarket in the area. This feels like a crime - unusual, out of print volumes threatened by Fifty Shades of Grey goo, the continuing homogenising of Britain's towns.

That said, all those books have a permanence to them, and when that's such a part of the landscape it's no surprise if you develop a problem with ebooks. Hay is a monument to the physicality of the printed word, a place where Terry Pratchett's concept of libraries bending the fabric of time and space could almost be true. If I ever have to rebuild civilisation, I'm heading to the nearest booktown when the batteries on my Kindle run out.

In the end, we didn't buy that many books during our time in Hay-on-Wye. For me though something more important happened; I was inspired to keep blogging, to keep telling stories, to keep making sure I try to put the stuff I learn out there, into a public space. After all, that's what all those writers represented on the shelves of Hay wanted to do, and now they sit there, happy, given a second lease of life by the spiritual home of all Britain's bibliophiles.


PS. Should have mentioned this originally, but Hay-on-Wye is twinned with Timbuktu in Mali. during its golden age the city was a centre of Islamic scholarship but now, facing desertification and poverty, it's facing a desperate struggle to save its ancient historical documents from extremists. Another wrinkle on the preservation of knowledge.

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Golden Age Supes

Historical Randomness: Going Round The Mulberry Bush



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So Helen and I are doing a road trip around the Midlands for our honeymoon and today's stop was Stratford-Upon-Avon. This is a town that can claim to be the birthplace of English culture, with Shakespearean echoes around every culture. So obviously, with me being an English Literature graduate, the things that struck me most were trees.

Specific trees actually. It's said that the mulberry tree in Shakespeare's garden was grown from a cutting taken from the gardens of the king himself, and that it was cut down by a subsequent owner who got sick of gawping tourists (he later did the same to the house itself). So far, so innocuous.

Then we ate mulberries at the house of Shakespeare's daughter and wondered what the deal was with these trees cropping up everywhere. After all, it's not like mulberries are that common in the UK.

I thought there might be a family story behind this, or some literary connection. Turns out the presence of these trees was far more political.

James I ruled England at a time when the world was changing. He was the first monarch over the United Kingdom, presided over the colonisation of the Americas, translated the Bible and faced the Gunpowder Plot. He was involved in the patronage of the arts and the hunting of witches.

So James is working in a period of transition, a liminal era when the modern world is starting to form but hasn't quite arrived. It's a time of doing new things. France, Britain's big rival, is in a similar place, innovating new ways of boosting its silk industry. James decides that he wants a piece of the action and, in 1609, decrees that people should start growing mulberry trees, because mulberry trees attract silk worms. It's a way of competing internationally, and so people, including Shakespeare, start growing black mulberries.

Unfortunately, silkworms only like white mulberries. The plan failed.

(Although the UK silk industry got a boost a few decades later when France started persecuting the Huguenots, resulting in a mass exodus of silk makers to London.)

So in a way, those trees of Shakespeare's are emblematic of the age, a time when people were fumbling their way towards a new way of looking at the world, making mistakes, getting things wrong, but ultimately heading in the right direction. We went from a room in which medicine was all based around imbalances in the four humours to a garden in which the central tree was meant to usher in a new industry. The modern and the ancient, superstition and rationality, all rubbing shoulders at the dawn of a new world.

Not bad for a tree.

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Golden Age Supes

Happy Birthday Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred



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They say that 'your' Doctor is the one you watched when you were twelve, old enough to be a fan and young enough to not be cynical. I'm not sure if this is exactly my story, as I came to Doctor Who through the books, but it's true to say that Sylvester McCoy is 'my' Doctor.

This is ironic, because Sylvester's era seemed almost deliberately designed to not be particularly new-viewer-friendly. The show was falling out of favour at the BBC and so the McCoy years weren't blessed with intensive advertising or Radio Times covers. The show was moved from Saturday nights into a kamikaze head-to-head battle with Coronation Street, and so the era was perhaps the moment that Doctor Who became a genuine niche interest rather than something aiming for the mainstream.

Now, the reason I came to Doctor Who through the books rather than the TV show itself was that I visited my grandmothers on Saturdays and had no control over what was seen on television. Therefore, when Doctor Who shifted to a midweek transmission, I was probably one of the few viewers they actually gained, with me watching Sylvester's debut on a battered portable television in my bedroom.

Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred (who played Ace) deserved better than that. Their era was one that started redressing production issues that had been made recently, moving away from continuity porn and sequels to episodes made twenty years ago and towards a darker, more imaginative universe.

This is evident in the persona of the Seventh Doctor. Although the Sixth is often thought of as the 'difficult' Doctor, the Seventh is an altogether scarier prospect, one that will burn down your world in a single night if it'll serve the greater good, one that will help you become the person you could be but not without inflicting a far amount of emotional agony along the way.

This is the strange thing about the relationship between the Doctor and Ace. He's recast as an almost mythic figure, facing off against ancient gods in a twisted circus, playing chess against cosmic evil and winning through a tricks terms gambit. He's teamed up with a working class girl from London with mummy issues and a lack of direction.

In a way it's similar to the template used in 2005's reboot, but while Christopher Eccleston's Doctor was a broken survivor, Sylvester's Doctor was at the height of his powers, delivering what could have been seen, at the time, as conclusive victories against the Big Two monsters of Doctor Who's history. This Doctor wasn't messing around.

We see this most clearly at the climax of 'The Curse of Fenric', where Ace's faith in the Doctor is preventing the villain's defeat. The only way to win is for the Doctor to emotionally destroy her... And he does.

It's a stand-out moment for the era, because we already know that the Doctor can be a ruthless manipulator, and that Ace has a world of her own issues to face. It turns out that the Doctor was lying to her, that his dismissal of his friend was all a lie, but there's enough suspicion cast to make us ask the difficult question - what if he wasn't lying?

It's an elephant in the room, and it almost seems like it's a character flaw crying out for a resolution it never received, on TV at least. And maybe we don't want it to happen, because while he can be a nasty piece of work, the Seventh Doctor is also incredibly liveable and oddly human. He hates burnt toast and bus stations - don't we all?

I also like the fact that the McCoy era includes the first mention of Elvis in Doctor Who. It's almost an accidental mission statement for the programme, drawing on new influences like graphic novels and jazz, rather than complacently being influenced simply by the grand history of the longest running TV show in the world.

The show was suddenly growing up again, realising that there's a bigger world out there. In that sense, it's probably appropriate that Ace's growth from a frustrated, damaged teenager to a confident young woman is the key character arc of the final seasons of the classic series. There's a moment in 'Survival' when it appears that the Doctor is dead and Ace holds his umbrella and wears his hat. She's ready to take over from him, or at least try, and in a story that's all about her growing maturity, sexual and otherwise, it's an important moment.

And so maybe it's significant that this era was when I joined the show proper, when I made a transition in my fandom. It's an era of growth and change, one that ironically saw the TV series cancelled but that also saw it evolve into books, comics and CDs. It was the seeds planted in the Sylvester/Sophie years that enabled the 2005 relaunch to stand a fighting chance, with writers cutting their professional teeth on the New Adventures books and building on themes that would later emerge in the new series.

Back when I was young, it felt like the Seventh Doctor era was an ending. Instead it turned out to be a glorious transformation.

Happy birthday, Sylvester and Sophie.

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Golden Age Supes

Matt's Geocaching Adventures #2: Horses, Poo and Enchanting the World

So I'm up to four geocaches now and I've officially got the bug.

Not that I haven't encountered rookie issues. My first cache was in a car park, which lulled me into a false sense of security. My second was probably more typical - I found myself on a piece of public land that was nevertheless inhabited by horses. This, of course, meant I not only had a couple of inquisitive equines nosing around, I also had to navigate big piles of poo. That was about as much fun as you'd expect, but it didn't obscure the sense of achievement when I found the cache.

That leads me to the first bit of advice I feel qualified to give - if you're going to take a photo, make sure it actually works. Now I'm in the OCD position of really wanting to go back and get photographic evidence I found it. On the other hand, I don't want to trip and fall into manure.



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My other two finds were more straight forward, and reminded me of why I enjoy this game. Both of them were hidden in places I've driven past hundreds of times. Now I've been encouraged to get out of the car and walk and it's made a difference to how I see the world. There are hidden treasures lurking near brickworks and memorials to our industrial past, a whole shadow world of hobbyists enchanting familiar landscapes. A cache can be lying behind any oddly shaped tree, be sitting at the foot of any random fence post.

And that's why I already love this hobby.

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Golden Age Supes

Matt's Geocaching Adventures #1

Geocaching is one of those things I vaguely knew existed, like nose flutes or Lithuania. It's effectively a global treasure hunt, making use of GPS and smartphone technology to help players discover 'caches' hidden by other participants. Cool idea but not something I ever thought I'd get involved in.

Well, things change, because this morning I discovered my first geocache.



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I'm not sure why I'm suddenly a convert. Maybe it's because I thought all the caches would be hidden in the Grand Canyon, not somewhere I could actually get to. On a whim I downloaded the app anyway after seeing a throwaway reference on a blog somewhere, and I was surprised to see that caches were hidden less than a kilometre from where I was sitting. Suddenly this was looking interesting.

So anyway, this morning I'm on my commute and I have to stop off in Walsall to buy a birthday card. And my phone buzzes, telling me there's a cache nearby. I start walking, following the directions on my phone and, after a bit of searching, there it was. I add my name to the list of those who've gone before me and, as I replace the cache and hope the retail park security guards don't think I'm a terrorist, I realise I have a new hobby.

So, if you see me stumbling through woods or looking furtive in car parks, don't worry. I'm not a deviant.

I'm a hunter!

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Golden Age Supes

Things I See At 5:30am

And so I'm embarking upon a new chapter of my life, and that involves setting out on a commute at 5:30am. This is fine - I like driving at that time, because it's quiet and I can enjoy the journey, and that's not something I often say about driving. But being out and about at that time, and having little to do other than contemplate, listen to podcasts and not crash, I've started to notice things.

Nothing major, nothing scary, don't get me wrong. I'm just talking about the landscape of my commute, like the guy who stands next to a 'diverted traffic' sign every morning. I guess he's waiting for a lift, but he could also be in charge of the sign, being something to do with the roadworks that necessitated the diversion in the first place. He smokes, which is a habit I can't stand, but at the same time I can't blame him - the sun isn't quite up yet, there's an early morning chill in the air and there's nothing much to do when you've only got a big yellow sign for company.

Talking of the weather, the commute is making me more aware of the natural world. I know that sounds strange, what with me being sealed up in a car, but it's true. The sun hits my rear view mirror and I'm dazzled and I realise that duh, I'm travelling from the East Midlands to the West Midlands, so of course the sun is behind me. Theoretically I could navigate by it, if I were brave and if there weren't roadsigns.

Noticing the world around makes me realise something. That liminal time at dawn doesn't belong to humans, not really. Sure we're out there, commuters and dog walkers, but nature seems to react differently. Pigeons peck around the middle of the road, fearless, totally ignoring the cars heading towards them. Traffic at that time is non-existent and that makes pigeons brave. Humans haven't yet used weight of numbers to reclaim their territory from the night.

Then there are the mysteries - who, or what, knocked over all those wheelie bins? Who put that single traffic cone in the middle of the road? Why does mist come and go so quickly as it hangs over fields? What are those radio stations that break into the podcasts I'm listening to? One of them plays a lot of Bhangra, another played a loop of sixties TV themes, but there are never station indents or commercials or the names of presenters. Is there still a flourishing pirate radio scene in the UK? I thought technology would have rendered it obsolete, but maybe not early in the morning, maybe not late at night.

And why did cars pull on to the Tesco car park in threes this morning?

5:30am makes you ask these questions.

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Golden Age Supes

Happy Anniversary, Transformers The Movie

Apparently it's been 26 years since Transformers: The Movie was originally released. This makes me feel very old, but also strangely happy that people are remembering it. Because, frankly, Transformers: The Movie is one of the greatest films ever made.


Okay, I’m biased, of course; I’ve been a Transformers fan since I was a kid. Back in the day you were either into Transformers or GI Joe (Action Force in the UK), and I was definitely the former. Don’t ask me why exactly; I don’t think it was anything more complicated that liking toy cars that turned into robots. Then they brought out dinosaurs that turned into robots!


So I owned Ratchet the ambulance, Bumblebee the Volkswagon Beetle, Metroplex the city complex, and Grimlock the T-rex. And I owned the hottest toy of 1984, Optimus Prime. It’s no wonder I turned out to be a big geek.


A lot of this traces back to the cartoon, which got right what Michael Bay got wrong when he rebooted the franchise a few years ago – it focused on the Transformers and actually bothered to give them personalities; lightly sketched personalities, sure, but enough to make you love the characters: Optimus Prime was the noble leader, Starscream was a screeching schemer, Ironhide was a Texan hothead, the Dinobots were tough-but-dumb. There were human characters in the mix but the Transformers were the main event.


Then, in 1986, came Transformers: The Movie, the first film I went to see without my mom. I probably shouldn’t have, because Transformers: The Movie is traumatic. Let’s not kid ourselves, the cartoon was there to sell toys and, in order to launch a bunch of new toys, well, some of the old characters had to go. The movie saw a bunch of my favourites literally blown to pieces, while Optimus Prime’s crowning moment of awesome is quickly followed by his death. I watched it as a ten-year-old, jaw dropped in horror.


The soundtrack is awesome though.


I guess the Marvel UK Transformers series is also partly responsible for me liking superhero comics; the comics took the concept to new heights, fleshing out the characters and back story and making heroes out of characters who barely featured in the cartoon.


I guess all this is a symptom of my second childhood, and I’m actually okay with that. For all its flaws, the Transformers, in all their iterations, hold a special place in the hearts of a generation. Okay, so maybe that generation is simply made up of nostalgia junkies, but I can live with that.


I guess I feel sorry for kids raised on the Bay movies. I remember going to see Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 90-minute movie that unfortunately lasts for the best part of three hours, much of which doesn’t involve Transformers. In fact, that’s the problem with the whole Michael Bay live action trilogy – it’s not about the Transformers, it’s about robots that turn into cars occasionally while being bossed around by humans, mainly of whom may be CGI. Behind us in the cinema were a group of kids, and they didn’t hide their enthusiasm – they loved it, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Dark of the Moon was the best they’re going to get, no Dinobots being awesome, no Bumblebee as classic VW Beetle, no Springer saying things like “I’ve got better things to do tonight than die”. Heck, the poor kids had no robots for half the film.


But they enjoyed themselves, and me, I can’t go home again. I love Transformers because they’re a part of my childhood, and while that childhood is far behind me, doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the memories and the feelings again now that I’m an adult.


Hey, look at that. IDW have put out a Transformers comic today. Guess what I'll be buying?







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Golden Age Supes

You Are What You Choose To Be: Happy Birthday, The Iron Giant

On this day in 1999, one if my favourite films was released; here's a repost of my review.


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This post contains spoilers!


Today is International Animation Day, and so I thought it would be nice to talk about one of my favourite animated movies. The Iron Giant, released in 1999 and starring Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr and Vin Diesel, is the story of a lonely child, Hogarth Hughes, who encounters and befriends a giant robot from space. You'd think that would be enough, being an adaptation of Ted Hughes' book The Iron Man, but there's something else that makes the film dear to me. You see, The Iron Giant is the best Superman film ever made.


At one point in the film, Hogarth is showing the Giant a pile of magazines when they come across a comic featuring an evil robot, Atomo. The Giant instinctively relates to the cover - over the course of the film it's revealed that he's a heavily armed war machine - but Hogarth's having none of this - he sees the Giant as being more like another comic book character:


Oh, here. This is Superman. He's a lot like you. Crash-landed on Earth, didn't know what he was doing... but he only uses his powers for good, never for evil. Remember that.


Hogarth's being naive, of course - the military antagonists hunting the Giant probably have a clearer grasp of the situation, as he was obviously sent to Earth on a mission of conquest. Naivety triumphs over expedience though; although the Giant reacts to perceived threats by, well, blowing them up, his relationship with Hogarth helps him to transcend his programming:


DEAN: He's a piece of hardware, Hogarth. Why do you think the army was here? He's a weapon, a big...big gun that walks.


THE GIANT: I... I not gun.


You can't help but have sympathy for the guy - we've got a tendency to categorise each other by what we do for a living, or where we come from. Often that's not meant to be malicious or exclusionary but it creates a straight-jacket all the same, trapping us within the expectations and perceptions of others. There are still jobs in which women are seen as anomalies; when Obama became president, people wanted to see his birth certificate. Prejudice become handcuffs we slap on the dreams and aspirations of other people. Heck, this is more widespread than we'd imagine - how many rock stars were told to get a job in a bank because of the limited career opportunities for musicians?


Anyway, the movie takes its inevitable course; the military are called in and, because the military in these stories are always misguided and foolish, a nuclear missile is launched at the town. This is 1957, the height of the Cold War, and atomic destruction is an ever-present spectre. And yet there is hope, because the Giant has s decision to make:


HOGARTH (IN FLASHBACK): You are who you choose to be.


THE GIANT: Superman.


With that, the Giant flies to intercept the missile, saving the town but being destroyed in the process, and I'll openly admit that I cried. One of the themes of Superman over the years is that it's not really about the powers, it's the heart and soul behind them, and that's always been a powerful idea to me. And so maybe it was the animation, maybe it was the evocation of all those Superman comics I've read over the years, but The Iron Giant hit me in an emotional way that few movies manage.


(And yes, I'm aware that it's a very similar twist to Terminator 2. I found it moving then as well.)


Because maybe we all carry around an element of fear - that we're not good enough, that we'll never really achieve much, that we lack purpose or, worst case scenario, that we're a gun and that's all we'll ever be. It's not true. Grace and change are possible. You don't have to be Atomo; you can be Superman. You just have to make that choice, and act like it's true.



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Golden Age Supes

Triumph Of The Nerds

You want to know why people talk about the triumph of the nerds? It's not because of geek culture becoming mainstream. It's not even because NASA can land a huge robot on Mars. It's because of the joyful-but-slightly uncomfortable hugging in this video.

It's because of passion, dedication, hard work and excitement.

Nerds rule.

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