Fri, 30 Jan 2015
Being Human
A Canticle for Leibowitz
By Walter M. Miller

Miller saw war and the dawn of the nuclear age first hand. He signed up to the US Army at the start of the Second World War and took part in bombing missions over Europe, as a tail gunner. Perhaps his role in the destruction of the famous Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino played a part in the genesis of his great novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. The bombs that exploded over Japan made the threat of a nuclear armageddon clear.

I've known of this book and how highly it was regarded for a long time. Having finally got round to reading it, It's not what I expected, but much better for that. It deserves its "masterwork" label and its awards.

The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz safeguard and transmit knowledge down the ages like the Medieval monks of the past for us. Not always aware of the meaning of the artifacts in their care, they understand how important it is to keep the flame of knowledge burning, so one day humankind can rebuild the world after the cataclysm of nuclear war (the so-called "Flame Deluge").

The novel is in three parts, each separated by (possibly) hundreds of years as the monks see the world slowly start rebuilding and growing, coming to resemble the world of before finally. Each age shows many changes over the previous but the question at hand is how changed are we?

Miller is good describing the tension between science and religion and it's refreshing to see that both seem to be given a decent hearing. The play of politics, war and human aggrandizement make very uncomfortable bed-fellows with reason and science here though. Miller's religious conviction seems quite clear but not overbearing and his philosophical debate is fascinating and ell written. The latin passages interjected throughout even had me browsing a "Teach Yourself Latin" text book at one point. Such is the life of the church.

Latin is not required to love the book. Moving and poignant, and very memorable.


Thu, 15 Jan 2015
Silver Goblet

This is my version of a Will Kemp Silver Goblet, painted from following a tutorial video.

Silver Goblet
Acrylic on board, 2015.

It is also the first painting of 2015 and I'm fairly happy with the way it turned out. Considering I didn't like it at all until very late in the process, a good result. It also proves, once again, you really need a bit of faith to keep going and see things through sometimes.

I painted this on a wooden MDF board, an Ampersand Artist Panel Smooth Primed from Jackson's Art. A very different surface to what I'm used to: very smooth, almost like formica, even with two layers of coloured ground. The paint moved around a bit more than expected, and my rough, spiky no. 6 filbert brush definitely left brushmarks!

I'll use the board again, but perhaps try a canvas textured version. I'm finding it harder to sit down, and sit still, this year so far. Having said that, I still hope to overcome the January deflation and start something new: either another Kemp tutorial, or perhaps something of my own for a change.


Mon, 12 Jan 2015
Artists and Illustrators 2015

The Mall Galleries have a show :

A good introduction to the show is at the magazine's web site, including a look at the various prize winners.

The winner of the "Readers Choice" award was David Miller :


David Miller, Bass, Mackerel and Sand-eels, oil

Good painting and some excellent pictures elsewhere in the show. I particularly like exhibitions like this with a lot of different artists on display.


Sun, 11 Jan 2015
Laptop Maintenance

My laptop of choice has always been a Thinkpad, firstly as made by IBM and latterly by Lenovo. I own an X220 (and an older X60s, still a wonderful little machine), and even though it's a few years old now it's still a great laptop.

One of the big reasons I'd still buy a Thinkpad is their build quality. Also, if you need to do any maintenance on the system (e.g. upgrade RAM, swap the mSATA SSD), the documentation is very good (much better than Dell's for instance).

People often enthuse about the build quality of Apple laptops, but I'm not willing to spend money with Apple. And even if I was, it doesn't seem such a good idea to replace Mac OSX with Linux. Linux generally runs very well on the Thinkpad.

Currently with Debian "Jessie" (Testing) installed and the i3 tiling window manager. It's very refreshing not having all the desktop clutter around. Not really any desktop at all in fact.


Wed, 07 Jan 2015
In Search of the Dark Ages

In Search of the Dark Ages
by Michael Wood

As usual, Michael Wood is a very worthwhile historian and broadcaster and this book is a good read.

Consisting of a series of essays on pivotal episodes in Dark Age Britain, covering Boudicca, Offa, Alfred and a few others of note, it is not a full or linear history but offers a great introduction to the changing face of Britain between AD 400 and the Domesday Book. I have not seen the original BBC series but it appears to be on Youtube (what would we do without it) so I hope to watch the television programs too (even though the VHS video quality leaves a little to be desired). The book and the series covers Arthur as well, minus all the mythology (little is left actually).

I would recommend everything he's done, including his recent BBC series King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons and his essay as part of the Anglo-Saxon Portraits programs (on Penda, King of Mercia, who had quite an unfortunate end, but somehow fitting: his head was cut off and spiked).


Sat, 03 Jan 2015
Museum Artifacts

A few exhibits from the British Museum's early Britain and Europe rooms are listed as having been found via a metal detectorist. In the news today was a story about a new find by a metal "detectorist" of over 5000 Anglo-Saxon coins in a field in Buckinghamshire. It's quite a dream to dig up buried treasure.

One of the most beautiful examples of this was dug up from a field in Norfolk in the late 1950's: the Great Torc shown below :

A torc is a piece of jewellery or decoration worn round the neck and the beauty and complexity of this one is staggering considering it was made sometime in the early first century BC.

The torc is made from just over a kilogram of gold mixed with silver. It is made from sixty-four threads. Each thread was 1.9 mm wide. Eight threads were twisted together at a time to make 8 separate ropes of metal. These were then twisted around each other to make the final torc. The ends of the torc were cast in moulds. The hollow ends were then welded onto the ropes.

This is a wonderful example of Celtic design from the British Isles.

In the same room at the museum we find this :

Above is a detail from the Battersea Shield, found in the River Thames in 1857. It has no battle damage and is thought to be more ceremonial than martial, perhaps thrown into the water as a votive offering (iron-age people, including the Celtic-type, had a strong relationship with cross-roads and waterways). No one really knows the reason for it being found here.

Going even further back, we have the Folkton Drums, one of which is shown below.

These are neolithic (dated between 2600-2000 BC) and found on Folkton Wold in 1889. It is not clear what they are but they have been carved into geometric shapes and buried with a child.

The Folkton Drums are apparently unique, but remind me a little of the carved stone balls found in Scotland, also dated to roughly 2500 BC. See more of these at the National Museum of Scotland.


Thu, 01 Jan 2015
Happy New 2015

2014 was not so bad for me generally. Here's to 2015 being a good year here and also for you, your family and everyone you care about. Happy new year!

The picture's a painting I made a few months ago of the famous Monkey Selfie. I didn't show off the picture because I thought it would make a good Christmas present for my 8 year old niece (hence no publicity!). I'd glad to say it was liked! It's just a small painting and almost unplanned, but it's my favourite and the one I'm happiest with so far!


Sun, 28 Dec 2014
Yin Yang

The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula Le Guin.

This is the second Le Guin book I've read, following on closely from The Dispossessed. Like that book, this was a very good read: thoughtful and intelligent.

It's not a long novel, the paperback (yes, I read the dead tree version) being under 250 pages. Quality wrapped up in a small package.

The Left Hand of Darkness tells the story of an envoy from the Ekumen, a commonwealth of planets, to the world of Winter (known to its inhabitants as Gethen). As the name suggests, Winter is a world of cold, harsh winter temperatures most of the year. The planet is being investigated for its readyness to become a part of the Ekumen and is therefore a form of first contact tale.

There is a similarity between this novel and The Dispossessed in at least one aspect: a contrast is drawn between two quite different societies. One is Karhide, a conservative, autocratic and old fashioned culture, scared of change. The other, Orgoreyn, is more organised and technocratic, but dissembling and cruel.

The big difference here though, and the defining aspect of the novel, is that the people of Gethen are sexless, neither male or female. Apart from a few days every lunar cycle (roughly 26 days), the natives are only latent and can be seen as potential males, or potential females. Le Guin explores what this might mean from multiple aspects: social, linguistic, political, economic and personal. The personal relationship that develops between the envy and Estraven, a native he completely misreads and distrusts initially, is the powerful core.

Like The Dispossessed, this is not a book full of action or excitement, although there are exciting parts and some action. The interest is in the meeting and eventual trust between the representatives of two alien cultures: one a terran man (the envoy) and the other a Gethenian. Until some understanding of the reality of life without gender, the envoy's mission and his life is in great danger.

Once again, an adventure book with extra depth from an interesting author.


Tue, 23 Dec 2014
EOS 700D

A new toy to play with ...

Not actually a Christmas present but a few weeks ago I bought a decent DSLR camera for myself. I don't consider myself a "keen" photographer, but I did want to take better pictures and have more control. I bought a Canon EOS 700D, which seemed to have everything I'd need.

Now, a few weeks later, and having also bought a Dummies guide to the camera (my first such book - it's actually quite good), I'm taking a lot of pictures trying to figure out the various settings. And this is part of the beauty of a digital camera: instant feedback.

I'm old enough to remember when a taking a camera on holiday was very different: the speed of the film rolls, how many to buy, manually winding the film, putting them in to be developed, waiting a week and then discovering that half of then might be spoiled ... very different now!

Now I can take dozens or hundreds of pictures, see instantly what they're like, tune settings, try again. In fact, a camera like this has so many possible settings it can be quite overwhelming.

I've got a lot of playing around to do ... a lot of very bad photographs to take!


Mon, 22 Dec 2014
Nancy Petley-Jones, Artist

Another artist I came across recently, and again via Llewellyn Alexander, is Nancy Petley-Jones. Not as prolific as Pamela Kay but I've been impressed by what I've seen.

I like the sparkling water, muted colours and thin, wintry sunlight she captures on the Thames. Very impressionistic. In fact, reminds me a little of Monet.


Afternoon Light – Southbank, Oil


Towards Westminster


Afternoon Shadows – Southbank