Tag Archives: history

Roamin’ roads

Via kottke, this tube-map-style atlas of Roman roads lands foursquare in a gloriously tangled Venn intersection of Things I Really Love:

Subway-style map of Roman roads in Europe by Sasha Trubetskoy

If that’s whetted your appetite, the Stanford ORBIS Geospatial Model of the Roman World will take you all the way down the rabbit-hole. Those with a more parochial bent may prefer the tube-map atlas of Roman roads in the British Isles. (There are more of them than you think.)

The power of narrative

… narrative is the specific form taken by a written history to counter the permanence of vision. […] Narrative asserts the the power of men [sic] to be born, develop, and die, the tendency of institutions to change, the likelihood that modernity and contemporaneity will finally overtake “classical” civilisations; above all, it asserts that the domination of reality by vision is no more than a will to power, a will to truth and interpretation, and not an objective condition of history. Narrative, in short, introduces an opposing point of view, perspective, consciousness to the unitary web of vision; it violates the serene Apollonian fictions asserted by vision.

From Orientalism by Edward W. Saïd; quote on p.240 of the 2003 Penguin edition.

A postcard from Chelsea

So, the last three weeks have been busy.

This is an understatement.

Let’s start with geography. I have once again left Velcro City behind me. Yes, this was rather sudden, but a shift of situation was followed immediately by the sort of opportunity that it would be madness to pass up on. When the wind blows favourable, you hoist your sails, right? So, long story short: I’m now living in London for the first time in my life.

And not just any part of London, oh no; yours truly is rockin’ an SW3 postcode, lodged like a lonely cigarette butt in the sumptuous banquet of oblivious privilege that is Chelsea. I’m used to standing out from the crowd a little bit, but when I walk down the King’s Road to the shops, people stare like I’m leading a troupe of tap-dancing zebras by chains made from links of fire and lost languages. To be fair, I do some staring back; there’s no shortage of eccentricity around here. It just expresses rather differently, y’know?

Historical ironies abound, also; maybe a few minutes walk around the corner from my new abode, an Indian restaurant occupies the King’s Road shop where – way back when, around the time I was born – Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood acted as manipulative and Machiavellian midwives to the subculture that came to be known as punk. Gentrification’s apogee, ladies and gents; even the sanitised contemporary mutations of punk would look out of place in this neighbourhood. Walk a few minutes northward, and old chaps in colourful trousers (cravats optional, but still popular) stagger in and out of the Chelsea Arts Club; along the Fulham Road, boutiques decorated in earthy tones are staffed by willowy hungry-looking young women who look utterly uninterested in selling the ludicrous clothing that they label with ludicrous prices. Make no mistakes, I grew up with a port-side deck-chair on the SS Privilege… but the folk round here mortgage the damned boat to the cruise company, so to speak. I tend to feel at least slightly out of place pretty much anywhere I go, but the sense of being an interloper here is very tangible. It’s also quite fun. I’ve been doing a lot of cheery grins and how’d-you-dos to people I pass on the pavement. Politeness is a highly hackable protocol.

Alongside new digs, I’ve got new duties: my new Research Assistant post is getting interesting very fast, and there’s plenty of work to be doing. Ironically, considering I thought I’d successfully beamed off of Planet Webdev, a lot of this week’s work has involved thinking out a methodology for building a wiki for one of the projects I’m working on… and you can’t have a methodology without an information architecture, which means my inner librarygeek has been getting’ his taxonomy on, too. Guess all that talk about transferable skills means something after all, eh? Feels good to be stretching my brain around some real challenges.

And speaking of new challenges, I’m three weeks through the first semester of my Masters. The first two modules are going well; just about managing to keep on top of the reading lists and assignments and critical note-taking and what have you, and learning a lot in the process. But the biggest challenge of all attends next semester’s module on writing the novel, in that I need to have written a 90,000 word first draft of one… by January 9th.

In some respects, that’s not as bad as it first sounds; the challenge was set at the start of this semester, leaving the best part of three months to complete it. Nearly ninety days means you hit the goal by writing just 1,000 words a day. It may sound a little blasé, but a thousand words a day is easy; I probably do twice that wordcount most days, anyway.

But writing ninety discrete thousand-word lumps that all fit together and make a novel? That’s a totally different receptacle of ocean critters. We were ordered to start afresh rather than reboot an old or half-written project, so I dragged out one of my little idea nuggets from Evernote and got rolling… only to have become bogged down in the muddy verge. A third character/strand/scenario has been stubbornly refusing to cohere for the best part of the week, and at the lower right-hand corner of my monitor the date keeps changing with a sly, sleazy wink.

The whole point of the challenge, so far as I can tell, is to put us in a position where we don’t have time to think too hard about what we’re writing; we just have to write. This is a very alien position for me to be in. I am not what I think of as a “process writer”; the physical and mental act of writing itself, when I am conscious of it, is deeply unpleasant. It’s only when I cease to be conscious of the process that the decent stuff comes out, at least with non-fiction material; the leap to that higher quantum brain-state is not under my conscious control. Very rarely, it’s there first thing in the morning*; more often it takes two or three hours of battering the keyboard for the keyboard to disappear and the words to start stringing themselves through my mind like fairy lights. Some days, it just doesn’t turn up at all. Those are the days when this job is just typing, a joyless mechanical process that doesn’t even have the consolatory nigh-meditational oblivion provided by assembly-line work or physical labour.

Hark at me whining! One of the shibboleths of writerdom is that the writer who hates writing should do something else. Well, screw that. I hate writing, sure… but I love having written. Having written is the strongest, subtlest drug I know of. I suspect that I’m not entirely alone in this. Furthermore, I suspect that better writers than I have come to love the process for the same reason a junkie loves the needle’s kiss: the high comes after the pain, and – after a while – the association becomes established, a sort of Pavlovian tropism of the intellect. The prospect of a by-line rings bell-like in the hallway, and the imagination starts to salivate… but the reward lies at the far side of the minefield of your own insecurities.

And so it goes. It’s alarming and instructive to see how losing the momentum with which I started has allowed the daemons of of defeatism to raise their voices. You can’t pull it off, they mutter, it’s a step too far; you’ve done OK with non-fiction, but did you really think you could write a novel? Even a ragged first draft, with cardboard characters and plot-holes that could hide entire planets? Even if you can, it’ll probably suck.

Well, that’s the thing I’m trying to cling to, perversely enough. If I tell myself that, yeah, it’ll almost certainly suck, then somehow it doesn’t matter that it will suck.

No, I have no idea how that works, either.

Still, this psychological self-hacking ain’t gonna fix the more tangible and immediate problem, namely the lack of a third character where I need one to exist. Only one thing’s gonna fix that, and that’s me sitting down and writing until someone or something reaches out and tells me where they need me to send them… so it’s time to leave aside the tempting displacement activity of blogging (which, in reference to my claim further up the page, has already seen me assemble over a thousand words into something approaching order this afternoon) and do that thing where I try to press the keys in the right order: the order that makes them – and everything else in the room, maybe even the whole universe – disappear.

So, to work.

[ * Clarification: I adhere to the Warren Ellis definition of “morning”, namely (and I paraphrase): “the first three hours after I get out of bed, whatever the lying bastard clock says”. ]

Book review: Ehsan Masood – Science & Islam, a History

Science & Islam, a HistoryEhsan Masood

Science and Islam: A History - Ehsan MasoodIcon Books, HBK £14.99 RRP; 8th January 2009

ISBN-13: 9781848310407


Accompanying a BBC television series that I’ve not seen, Ehsan Masood‘s Science & Islam, a History is a readable pop-sci-history book and a great introduction to what lies behind the veil of the mythical Dark Ages, which I remember being taught were a period of scientific and philosophical vacuum. Behind the curtain of Western Europe’s descent into superstition and ignorance lies a largely untold story – that of the scientific achievements of the Islamic peoples. Continue reading Book review: Ehsan Masood – Science & Islam, a History

Friday Photo Blogging: you are now leaving the American sector

This iconic Checkpoint Charlie sign is not the original, but it’s a very close simulacrum thereof:

Site of Checkpoint Charlie

Just a few yards to the left – in what is arguably Berlin’s most tacky tourist trap – a fake checkpoint booth is guarded my imitation soldiers in period uniforms, American and Russian. They will pose for photos while holding large national flags; you can get an ‘official’ Checkpoint Charlie stamp for your passport for a small charge.

History is almost as strange as our attitudes towards it.

Writing about music

Still playing the catch-up game from the massive glut of releases due the week before this; however, there are virtually none due the week after next, so that should provide a bit of cushioning. Second regular reviewer settling in, as well, so things are looking like they should become more reasonable over time[1].

Album of the week

The prize this week goes to Toronto lunatics Fucked Up for The Chemistry Of Common Life, a sprawling psychedelic punk’n’roll album that never quite does what you expect it to.

An honourable mention to local popcore chaps Cut The Blue Wire for their début EP, too.

Writing about books

Finally got round to battering out a review of The Coming Convergence, which was harder than it should have been – principally because the book was telling me lots of stuff I already knew, so I didn’t find it anywhere near as interesting as I expect many less geeky people would do. High time I cleared some of my fiction reviews backlog, though… lucky it’s the weekend, eh?


As mentioned previously, Tim Lebbon’s site is up and running, though a number of minor issues remain to be ironed out. Web development with WordPress seems to be a game of compromises as far as advanced functionalities go; you can make it do [function x], but you may unexpectedly lose the ability to do [function y] as a result[2]. Still climbin’ that learning curve…


Just finished swapping contracts and paying for the next piece of Futurismic fiction, which is about as different from the last one as you could possibly imagine – a very sober and metaphorical piece. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it.

Traffic is still strong over there, but ad revenue is way down this month; I think a lot of budgets have been tightened in response to the stock markets doing their creditable impression of the Himalayas[3].

Books and magazines seen

Finally some actual science fiction material has turned up in the postbox! We have two Neal Asher titles from Tor UK: Prador Moon in paperback, and a hardback of his imminent collection The Gabble and Other Stories.

The Gabble and Other Stories - Neal Asher

Then there’s two second-books-in-series from Orbit: one from Sean Williams, Astropolis 2: Earth Ascendant, and the other from Marianne de Pierres, Chaos Space.

Astropolis 2: Earth Ascendant by Sean Williams Chaos Space - Marianne de Pierres

I really enjoyed the first book of de Pierres’ Sentients of Orion series, so I’ll have to try making space for this one as soon as I can. I seem to be cramming in more reading time recently, so maybe it’ll be sooner rather than later… if I could only banish this pointless need for sleep!

Oh, and yet more poetry[4] in the form of the latest issue of Obsessed With Pipework. Jolly good!


This has been the second week of my swimming regime; I’m pleased to say that I made it out twice again, and managed longer distances with less agony as well[5]. I even seem to be losing weight already, though that’s based on a visual assessment (as I don’t own any scales). Still, less spare tyre is one of the results I’m looking for, so that’ll do nicely, thanks.

I’ve also generally been a little more energetic and cheerful this last week, too[6], though that might also be due to the influence of my anti-SAD lightbulbs[7]; they did a great job of fending off the seasonal blues last year, and I’m hoping they do so again. Sure, maybe it’s a placebo effect; it’s still £10 well spent if so.

Anyway, there’s still much to be done before my day is over, so I’ll bid you farewell; it’s off-week on the Curry rota, so I’d best go make myself something comparatively affordable and healthy to eat instead. Have yourselves a good weekend, folks – auf weidersehn!

[ 1 – That was the sound of me touching wood. ]

[ 2 – I suspect this is more to do with my bodging than with WordPress, though the latter certainly contributes. ]

[ 3 – Not just corporate budgets, either. ]

[ 4 – They always come in waves, being as most of them are quarterlies or slower. ]

[ 5 – Still aching like hell all over, though. ]

[ 6 – With the exception of this morning, when I felt that given the option between getting out of bed or hibernating for the next few decades, the latter was hands-down winner. Psychology – it’s weird like that. ]

[ 7 – Oh, you can laugh if you like. But remember you have the bulbs to thank for me not killing you for doing so. 🙂 ]