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Language surrounds us, defines who, what and where we are.
Language has developed beyond a mere capacity for communication of information to providing a vast array social and cultural functions. The idea that a certain symbol has a defined meaning enables language to be a written and not solely a verbal communication. Our language has developed so that we quite often don’t mean exactly what we say but use similes, hyperboles and figures of speech to describe what we may mean in a non-literal fashion.

How we would communicate with aliens if we did ever find them has long been a subject of debate, perhaps not as esoteric as might be thought. In the 17th century before the invention of the radio schemes for drawing giant triangles in the Siberian tundra or by setting light to channels dug into the Sahara to create different shapes every night. With the advent of the radio a handful of messages, based on mathematical and scientific symbols have been sent to different star systems over the past 36 years. Although the first one won’t reach it’s destination until 2022 and the last one will arrive in approx 25,000 years.

For any of these communications to be successful there will need to be a basic agreement on what language is. In Embassytown our human protagonists are dealing with a species that have a very different idea about what language is and how it works. They speak with two voices at once and they are only able to communicate with the ambassador ‘twins’ who able to think and talk as one. Any deviation they either can’t hear or sends them crazy. There is also an inability to lie, even to the extent that speaking metaphorically is a near impossibility. So they have to create the metaphor in reality before they can speak it. Having established this strange world and the weird interactions the story leads to the arrival of a new type of ambassador, who both challenge the established order. As the world falls apart and decays the role of language becomes key to the battle for liberation and a new way of speaking.

I was given a short time to review this book but I raced through it voraciously, struck at every turn by the fantastic mastery of language and the inventiveness of new words. At times I was tempted to reach for a dictionary to find out whether the word was truly new or just new to me, the strength of the imagined world seeming totally plausible. As inventive and intriguing as Mieville’s Bas-Lag series, I was hooked to the last sentence.

Barnstaple to St Ives
150 miles, 30,000ft

April/May 2011

Day 1: Barnstaple to Appledore 13.6 miles, 531 ft

Beautiful faultless weather, feels great to be outside all day. Flat easy path, an old railway path and now a cycle track. Nice but a little dull after a few miles. Bizarrely bumped into a guy from Amnesty who I used to work with at conferences, coincidences can be really strange. The path to Appledore was more interesting passing behind the Babcock Appledore site (which rung a bell as a place that I’ve had to check a payment to for work) and then had some lovely company through a nice little, slightly more residential stretch. Now I know I’m out of  London as people aren’t afraid to talk to strangers.
Very good fish and chip supper in Appledore, accompanied by a Crabbie’s ginger beer from the pub opposite.

Day 2: Appledore to Clovelly: 14.2 miles, 2,589 ft

Slow, gloomy start – took it very easy going to Westward Ho to save strength for my first challenging day. Yup, a decent amount of climbing and a much more varied and interesting route than yesterday’s miles of cycle track. I made it to Clovelly in an ok time, but really did ache after. Something not quite right with how pack is sitting, hopefully will ease. But I had skittles to keep me going and met a lovely German couple who were also walking the path who kept me company on the last couple of miles, which could well have been a bit of a slog on my own. Had a lovely local beer at the harbour and then just about made it up the hill to my night’s stay, past the homemade sleds that are used for transporting stuff around the steep car-free streets.

Day 3: Clovelly to Hartland Quay: 10.1 miles, 2,323 ft (well actually a bit further!)

Following the man is a bad plan! As even though he said he was walking the coast path – after a little while of going inland and not climbing I realised that it couldn’t be the right way. Felt like ‘proper’ coastal path walking, two sections of steep ascents and descents separated  by a gorgeous 4 mile cliff top stretch. Feeling sunkissed, but in pain and have developed my first proper blister. Tonight’s stay is amazing, right on a harbour, can hear the sea and spent Saturday night with the locals watching the popular entertainment – the sunset.

Day 4: Clovelly to Morwenstow: 8 miles, 2,000ft

A scary day. Started with charging cattle, then proper cliff edges coming to a burning hillside. For a few miles along the cliff top we could all see smoke rising and then as I approached the descent the crackle and smell of burning gorse hit. Took a diversion and then saw the firefigters tackling the blaze. Could still the smoke at the end of the day. I’ve loved walking in this dry weather but the land is seriously parched.

Day 5: Morwenstow to Bude: 7 miles, 2,000ft

Very glad that I split the suggested itinerary (Hartland Quay to Bude) in two – really would have struggled to do that in one day, especially with the arrival of a huge blister under my big toe. Had a lovely evening as I bumped into a couple who I had been following since around Hartland Point, really nice to share some wine and company, made more welcome as I was in an odd mood for some of the day, beginning to sort through some stuff in my head.

Day 6: Bude to Crackington Haven: 10.2 miles. 2,664ft

Received a phone call from a journalist about the fire and made the local newspaper http://www.thisisnorthdevon.co.uk/news/Battling-blaze-Welcombe-cliffs/article-3490793-detail/article.html after I sent them a picture from the B&B that night. And then had the extreme joy of bursting my blister after a couple of hours walking before the cliff walking got strenous. A lovely stay tonight, offered saffron bread in the garden and interesting chats with the other guests. Definitely the best bed of the stay and an award for the best sausage as well goes to Hallagather.

Day 7: Crackington Haven to Tintagel: 12 miles, 4,045 ft

My greatest climb in one day and was properly shattered by the end. Today’s walk passed through the very picturesque Boscastle Harbour, now recovered from the sever flooding of 2004. Another very welcome slice of homemadecake (banana this time) on arriving at the B&B, really enjoying this Cornish hospitality.

Day 8: Tintagel to Port Isaac: 9 miles, 2,740 ft

Today’s walk had 9 deep valleys to cross and sometimes very close edges along the top so a day filled with adrenalin and endorphins. I was very pleased with my time for the walk today and got rewarded by a fabulous pint, good company and a foot massage in Port Gaverne. These were definitely my toughest 2 days and I really should have included a rest day at some point but the goal of reaching St Ives seemed all important.

Day 9: Port Isaac to Padstow: 11.7 miles, 2,802 ft

Strangely this became the toughest day to get through, despite being comparitively easy after the last two days. The steep cliffs, strenous climbs and precipitous paths gave way to rolling heathland and secluded sandy coves. Youth hostel stay at Treyannon Bay was gorgeous with another truly engaging sunset. Pushing myself to the limit has forced me to stop and take tomorrow as a short day and not going back to Padstow to continue from there. I found Padstow on a bank holiday to be claustrophobic with far too many people, wanted to leave as quickly as possible!

Day 10: Treyannon Bay to Porthcothan Bay, 2 miles

And the day I decided to have a rest day and sit on the beach is the first day of rain! So I found my B&B and spent the afternoon watching the snooker – a riveting semi final. Just a side note on food, in general not as good as I had anticipated so has become more of a necessity instead which is a shame as I had higher hopes.

Day 11: Porthcothan Bay to Newquay: 11.1 miles, 1,755ft

Proper soaking today, so yes it was worth carrying those waterproofs all this way. I’m very glad to be able to sense the ending as the fatigue is getting to me. The choice of where to eat in Newquay was slightly overwhelming so I was delighted when my hosts tonight offered my dinner and along with a couple of other guests it was a wonderful evening. If you want somewhere to stay in Newquay with down to earth lovely people the Chichester comes highly recommended.

Day 12: Newquay to Perranporth: 10.8 miles, 1,586ft

No rain today but quite severe winds made it a bit scary along the cliff tops and fierce along the beach. It took quite a long time to get the sand out of my eyes and ears. Feeling close to the end of my endurance. No aching muscles but feet and ankles sore and energy levels quite low. Tomorrow should be the last day of any significant difficulty so hoping for less wind and less dunes and beach walking.

Day 13: Perranporth to Portreath: 12.2 miles, 2,454ft

Far too windy today and after not enjoying yesterday on the cliffs I decided to walk the roads to Porthtowan and then last few miles back on the coast, when the wind had died down a little and the path was not so high. Very glad to have had one of my best meals in the pub in Portreath, a lovely home made spinach, mushroom and hazelnut pie and a night in a wonderfully presented B&B.

Day 14: Portreath to Hayle: 12.4 miles, 1,371ft

Still a bit windy but nothing like the last 2 days. This is a really lovely stretch with the lighthouse at Godrevy, seals in the bay, high but not vertiginous cliffs and a long stretch along the beach. The signing and directions were a little bit lacking around Hayle so got lost a couple of times which at this level of fatigue was a little frustrating.

Day15Hayle to St Ives: 5.6 miles, 663ft

The first half was dreadful, along the roads with differing directions in the two books and with poor signing leading me on a diversion. Once back on the coast the last three miles were a perfect end with nothing too strenous with St. Ives in sight, a little bit of sunshine and right on the cliffs but not too high. The last mile felt like a real achievement and I had feelings of elation at reaching the end of this stretch, looking back over the past two weeks with joy and also a real excitement about returning to friends and home.

Oh my, I am still sighing nearly 24 hours later. Lovely, pretty boys singing so beautifully in a half restored building. Paying carefully attention to the witty score with it’s parallels to the government coalition of today the all-male cast provided joy, mirth and the occassional tear from beginning to end. Like their version of Pirates of Penzance there was no drag,  no high-campery or screeching falsettos, just fairies seducing peers in the house of lords. The costumes reflected the stripped back nature of the hall and all the cast protrayed great feeling with the smallest gestures and facial ticks. I want to watch it another 14 times, so I can spend time following each individual actor. They all had some wonderful moments

And the venue is just perfect, if you’ve never been to the oldest musical hall, then it’s worth it just for that. Go to http://www.wiltons.org.uk/ for more.

There’s nothing else to say, except go see it (you’ve got until 7th May, for a wonderous evening that will have you smiling inside for the next week.

I just wonder, given the gender imbalance in my musical theatre group, whether an all-female Gilbert and Sullivan show could deliver the goods.

Iolanthe, Wilton’s Music Hall, April 1st to May 7th

This show made me want to go and read, a lot, which is maybe why I’ve delayed writing up this review. Alongside Emily Dickenson’s poems, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I yearned to pick up another book that had always caught my interest but never quite got around to picking it up. Lisa Appignanesi’s Mad, Bad and Sad was published in 2008 looks  biographically at individual women’s and so explores mental illness not through their diagnoses but through a complete survey of the individuals and the societies that surround them.

Both Barefaced Theatre’s play and Mad, Bad and Sad pose awkward questions; Why do women seem to be more prone to mental illness than men? Is this caused by something innate? Or by ‘female’ life events like childbirth and menopause? Or because of the way we have viewed and treated women for centuries? Whilst Mad Women in the Attic focuses on historical periods these questions should still concern us today. Appignanesi  quotes a 2004 study in which girls’ suicide attempts in the UK outnumber boys’ by nine to one. We may have moved beyond 19th-century practice of observing and cataloguing ‘female hysteria’, but we have not lessened the incidence of mental illness in women.

Taking these four writers in context enabled the company to explore the women behind the writing and how their mental states influenced their work and in turn how their writing was so integral to their personalities. The attempts by those around them to constrain and confine these women were created in such away as not to vilify the individuals but demonstrate wider societal views of women and madness. Charlotte Perkins husband’s attempts to get her subscribe to the doctor’s rest cure and stop writing seemed misguided rather than fuelled by patriarchal fervour.

The act of being confined to the attic by the world around leads all of our women to an increased creativity and production of writing that has been absorbed by countless readers over the generations. In our dreams the attic is said to symbolise the higher self, in contact with the most ethereal and least grounded parts of our nature.

Getting into the minds of these four women and what inspired their writing might seem like a daunting task for one play with a cast of six. And it indeed it proved to be, an experience much like a tapas meal of interesting morsels, each one picked up and over before we could get to any real emotions or passions. That the company wrote, produced, directed and performed this work should indeed be praised, it was a treat to see something new on the stage and I’m intrigued to see what they do next. With this piece I was left wanting so much more which explains my desire to go and read.

Mad Women in Attics, New Wimbledon Studion, 9th to 12th March 2011

One of my favourite walks from Time Out Country Walks near London.

It has some fabulous long stretches. Along the Greensand Way in the morning, after the postperandial joy of Winkworth Arboreteum along quiet ramble through the trees and then along the canal into Godalming. The rain just about held off and there were some glimpses of sunshine on the water to keep the tired legs moving at the end of the day.

Everywhere spring seemed just a grasp away – daffodils, crocuses and rabbits in abundance with fresh leaves and buds on every tree, bush and shrub. This year it has felt like winter would never end but finally spring has very nearly sprung.

‘I just didn’t get any of that’, ‘But what did it all mean’, ‘What was that all about’ mutters the audience as they stumble out of the smoke. In an absurd play where logic and rationality have broken down there will always be a sense of profound disengagement. It is all too easy for the critic to cry ‘I didn’t understand it, it was brash and incoherent’.

But why do we need meaning? Why is it so hard just to let the action play out without having a clear beginning or end?

To attempt to make any sense of a play like Throats you have to leave any expectation of plot, narrative, structure or rational meaning at the door and then see what jumps out at you. Each of our seven characters lacks a coherent linear background, so we don’t have the opportunity to prejudge their dialogue or actions. Yet through the course of the play they do each inhabit their own skin and create a sense of an individual in this chaotic blood soaked world.

Beyond the characters there are some themes, lots of blood, lots of drinking, a car crash, an explosion, an encounter with a blind boy and it seems that Benidorm holds some significance.

I however found it hard to grasp much more than threads. There seemed to be a commentary on terrorism and 9/11 but it is all a bit vague. A constant nagging at the back of my mind made me feel that perhaps I was missing quite a lot, maybe had I seen more absurdist plays or been a drama student or not been so ignorant I may have understood more. Or perhaps in truth it was all too disjointed to leave the viewer with anything other than the feeling of an evening separated from reality.
I am quite happy to never know.

Throats is at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington 18th February to 27th March 2011

Find out more about Gerald Thomas here – http://geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com/

Science fiction offers alternative futures and sometimes also explores how the past might have played out if something, trivial or not, was different.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel, Years of Rice and Salt, takes this onto a large scale, imagining that the plague of medieval Europe wiped out 99 percent of the population instead of 30 percent.

In Lucky Strike the arena is the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where a different crew goes out to drop the bomb and the man with his finger on the trigger has doubts about the necessity of the mission.

Lucky Strike is an excellent short story that takes you directly into the heart of a world-changing event through some individual characters that would never be counted, whichever history played out.

This novella comes with a short essay deconstructing alternative histories of that day and an interview with Robinson. The essay is interesting but the interview is somewhat disappointing, reading like a standard set of questions from a magazine journalist with little interest in either the politics or the fiction.

The price tag seems a bit steep for this slight book. Instead, why not pick up another Robinson novel and dive into some great science fiction which puts the questions facing humanity in the 21st century under a sharp spotlight? The Mars and Science in the Capital trilogies come highly recommended.

Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson, PM Press, £8.99

Published in Socialist Review February 2011

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