Thursday, 15 December 2011

Back in the business

So I just got an email from someone thanking me for my review of the Sierra Designs tent. That people actually read my blog months after I've been on hiatius from the Blogosphere is startling and flattering. I've finished up my coursework for first semester, so there's no reason why I can't make a post or two.Just quickly, browsing through my uni library I found a really cool book of sketches of costume and set designs for Russian ballet of a century ago. I scanned a few, because these are truly beautiful and deserve to be on the internet. Some are by Alexandre Benois, for anyone who's googling him.

Here's a link to gallery. Enjoy!

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Morocco: There's a lot of it about

Click to see my exact route
I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed every minute of Morocco, but by god am I glad I went. I found all of the spiritual transformation and artistic inspiration which I had hoped to find in the mountains and deserts there, but I'll stick to the more adventuresome parts for recounting my voyage. Leaving the city of Marrakech, which was overrun with tourists and the merchants who invariably follow, I got a ride with a fruit seller to the foothills at the very edge of the widest section of the High Atlas range. Immediately I saw a flaw in my plan: I was to rely on the melting mountain snow for water, and there wasn't a snow-capped peak in sight. I had gone on a power trip, packing 8 days' worth of food, and another 5 days of emergency rations. Utterly useless without water; I had to walk along the road for some time until I reached the altitude at which rivers are still abundant, all of which seem to flow out into the desert (I know, right). I didn't bushwhack like I do in Europe. This entire country is crafted out of hardened mud: god help he who chooses his own footholds on the parched mountainsides. There are no hiking trails in the Western sense, but the century-old paths worn and woven by countless donkey hooves and sandalled feet are extensive enough to make the National Park Service seethe with envy. Choose whatever direction looks the nicest and eventually you'll find yourself on a trail.

Though you can't blame my confusion
when this is what Hollywood would have
us believe the typical Moroccan looks like
The mountains are not barren wilderness. Berber villages dot the landscape with a comforting frequency. They are an adorable people. A walk through a secluded township makes you feel like you're in a movie, with children running along behind shouting 'bonjour!', old women gawking out of windows, and chickens fleeing along the road before you. I made the mistake of trying out my limited Arabic on them. Most do not speak Arabic, let alone French. The Berber have a language, culture, and charm that is utterly unique.
Both the Berber and the Arabs of southern Morocco possess very little besides hospitality. But in this they are among the richest people in the world. My 8-day supply of food lasted me 12; nearly every day I was invited into a mud hut for bread and olive oil, or a platter of stew, or a refreshing swig of fermented sheep's milk -- there's nothing like it on a hot day.
Once I achieved my goal of crossing the range by foot, and reaching the 'silent city' of Ouarzazate, I made the decision to start hitchhiking. My friends and family had warned me of being too idealistic; of trusting whom they perceived to be nothing more than a race of desperate desert people. The truth is I felt as safe as an American alone in Morocco as I would in rural England. The first rule about visiting the country: you must learn to decide who is showing genuine hospitality, and who just wants your money. Once that distinction is made, you will sink into the culture and lifestyle, reluctant to ever leave.
The most memorable people who picked me up were two college kids from Casablanca. They had had to cancel a trip to Japan because of Fukishima, so they had gone on a 2-day road trip, on which over a week had now passed. After spending the night at their abode (we watched Black Hawk Down and made a 3D animation) they said to me, "Where you are going looks nice. We'll take you there." We spent the next four days driving deep into the Sahara, dodging sandstorms and bandits. After camping deep in the dunes, defying the scorpions with my bare feet and playing my harmonica under the stars (stars more brilliant than I have ever seen -- you could see the Andromeda galaxy) I returned to the mountains to finish out my voyage, where I got comfortably lost for four days before hitching back north.
I camped out in this valley, and many similar ones.
Sweet tea five times a day, watching football through a window in the shade of olive trees, trading cell numbers with a man who lived in a cave...I certainly felt like this place had everything to offer a kid such as myself. At the same time, after almost three weeks I began to feel what Robert Service termed 'the gnawing hunger of lonely men, for a home and all that it means.' My wanderlust has been sated for the moment. I have finally been somewhere exotic, and was surprised when I felt right at home there. Some day I shall no doubt return with larger water bottles and a better grasp of the three languages. But for the time being I can stop dreaming about trotting the globe and set my mind on more prescient things -- schoolwork, artwork, and girls.

If you have any questions about the country or this kind of travelling, please comment!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Y: The Last Man

I have a thousand things to say about this series, and not one of them is good. The only value, indeed the only reason I think it catches anyone's eye, is the eroticism, which they play up to an utterly un-artistic and unprofessional level. But I'll only linger on the main point which makes this the worst thing Vertigo has ever cranked out, which is that it is the most boring comic I have ever read. I'd say the story had been written by a 4-year-old, except Axe Cop is actually entertaining. I was quick to drop $30 on the first two volumes, tentative to pick up the third, and then, fuming, got the rest of the series from a torrent just to see how it ended; even that was a waste of resources.
It has a promising premise. Unoriginal yes; this sort of thing has been done before (there's at least one grindhouse movie with the same setup) but one of the things graphic novels do best is to tackle tough ideas and make an awesome story out of them. From vikings (the Northlanders series) to cyberpunk (the Gibson adaptations), comics are often the first to take a concept and do it right. I  think the writers of Y really half-assed it here. Now that all the men are dead, the strongest military in the world is the Israeli; the strongest navy, Australia. Democrats now hold an overwhelming majority, and food production was hardly affected. Interesting, but hardly revelatory; you're not touching on half the issues you should be if you want to flesh out the storyline, which is bonier than the unengaging protagonist.

Also in this comic book world, every woman is a hottie. Dr. Mann is supposed to be in her 40s, yet she looks 19 and is the center of most of the books' sexy scenes. While the artists are indeed good at drawing cute girls, I think making them all spanking hot just defeats its own purpose. Porn is widely available; I want some depth if I'm going to be paying for this drivel.

And I'll say it again. It's unbearably boring. Eighty-seven storylines, and not one of them really grabs you. It got to the point where I just started skipping the parts about the Israeli woman; they had zero bearing on the main characters, and even if I had read them I think the resolution of that plot-line would still have made zero sense.
Clearly there was potential with this ensemble of creators; they just needed some slapping around by their publisher, whose job it is to keep this nonsense out of the market until its developers have gotten their act together. Vertigo has seen better days.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Craig Thompson's Blankets

This is a heart-stoppingly beautiful book, and a real testament to the power of the art form. The melding of story, speech and art are done so as to transport you into the author's very mind as he tells of his struggle with faith and love as a teenager. It's 600 pages long -- I promise you'll be through it in a day. And at it again the next. I don't want to over-hype it so those who look for it won't be expecting the best book they've ever read, but this should be required reading for anyone who's ever been a teenager.
The more you read it I think the sadder it becomes; the more it speaks of how tortuous it can be being a teenager. It also brings you right into American teen culture, in a similar, though less grotesque, vein as Charles Burns' Black Hole. One reason I enjoyed it is that the style is similar to my own; and I can't emphasize enough how much this inspired me to put as much effort into my drawings as Thompson does. The black and white medium is handled with skill and grace; beautiful detail here, tantalizing suggestion there. Every page is a canvas. I am over-hyping it, aren't I? Go out and find a copy.

Comics as fine art

I am a comic nut -- nobody knows this about me because I am properly ashamed of the fact. Luckily I seldom get questions about why, as an English major, over half of my bookshelf is filled with graphic novels. I've gone through those days of worshipping those modern myths, the super heroes, and I will be forever grateful to Spider-Man and the Justice League for getting me into drawing comics in the first place (really it was Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes which got me started, but it wasn't until later that I realized it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life). However with the discovery of the graphic novel, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and the wild world of Vertigo, my style of drawing and outlook changed very much.
        I hate reading analysis of stuff that's supposed to be fun, so skip this paragraph if you like. But I've struggled wit myself for some time pondering whether comic books can constitute 'fine art'. Whoever says that comics cannot speak poetry, let him read Krazy Kat, Pogo, the later Calvin and Hobbes strips, and graphic novels like Craig Thompson's Blankets. But comics of epic and timeless value, foremost of which are the likes of V for Vendetta, have to be put in perspective before they are labelled, as I did initially, as high art. They will shine through the ages above all other comics, but do they hold a candle to other modern art, like Munch or Mondrian? The effort involved, the creativity required, the origins of the idea and the cultural significance are all there (now I'm thinking specifically of V). To falter at my own hurdle, I have no idea. With more reading I expect I'll succumb to my own bias and decide "of course comics are fine art, you illiterate!" But to be honest, this isn't something that is ever going to effect my immense appreciation and enjoyment of the art form.
For the next week or two I'll begin reviewing my favorite comics and suggest which are surest to suit your pleasure.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Upcoming trip

Click to see my basic route.
For those of you who might be interested in visiting Morocco, I'll outline my plans as far as they've been set in stone.
I'll be flying into Marrakesh, which is your classic bustling Berber city with winding streets and carpet sellers -- only inundated with tourists. It's definitely worth a look 'round just for the culture, but I won't stay long here.
Spices on sale in Marrakesh
 I'll make for the mountains hopefully on the first day. I'll find a mountain pass that runs just north of Mount Toubkal national park. Toubkal is the highest mountain in the Atlas and I'd really like to climb it, but it's still snow-covered at this time of year, and I'm travelling light; can't take any winter climbing equipment when I'll be spending most of my time in the desert.

Ouarzazate (pronounced wa-za-zat)
 I'll be aiming for (and hopefully hitting if I want to restock on food) the mythical desert frontier town of Ouarzazate, a real oasis with incredible architecture and history. I might spend a day or two here resting up and meeting people. I'll depart northeast by bus, heading for the town of Merzouga and the famous Erg Chebbi. 'Erg' is the Moroccan word for dunes, and they're harder to find in the Sahara than you'd think (banish from your mind the image of thousands of miles of sand dunes; most of the Sahara is gravel and salt flats).
Erg Chebbi
This location is unfortunately very popular with tourists, so I'll have to trek out a bit to avoid the commotion. I'd like to rent a camel and a guide if it isn't too expensive. At any rate, it will be amazing to pitch my tent out here under the stars.
I'll hopefully have a week left at this point, so I'll head directly west to see the Dadas gorges, also popular, but filled with ancient Berber strongholds and alien rock formations. This area is rugged, but should be easily navigable with a compass. I'll play it safe and get back to Marrakech early; hopefully having a few days to spend soaking in more of the culture of this fantastic country.
So yeah, expect an update about how that went in three weeks!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Metablogging (i.e., ripping off other blogs)

Googling Chaucer after my last post I found 'Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blogge', an absolutely genius site. Here is the prologue of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code as written by Chaucer. Compare to the original chapter after you're done snickering.


Oon night ther forwarde dide ystagger fayntynge
A man hight Saunierye who knewe of payntynges
Thurgh archwaye vaulted of the Louvre he passid
And seised at nerest canvass as yf gassid;
A Carravage yt was, wyth gilded frame,
Ovt from the walle thys man dide tere the same.
In hepe beneth the canvas doun yfallen
From far aweye he herde thalarme to callen. 
He thoght hym ‘ich yet lyve’ and caste his eyen
Arounde the roome a refuge for to spyen. 
As crawlede he forth a voys dide saye ‘Halt, stop!’
So close yt was! Yn feere hys jawe did drop.
And ther thurgh irene barres he sawe a man
-for, ich sholde saye, accordynge to the plan
Of Palais-Louvres securitee ful grete
By cause of the alarum from lyne VIII
Ther hadde ydropped a gate of muchel strengthe
That trappid Saunierye yn that roomes lengthe. 
The man on thothir syde (art thou stille wyth me?)
Was an albino, ful pale and straunge to se
For nothynge striketh feere yn mortal soules
Lyk to the pale! A boate ful of hooles
Ich rather wolde thurgh sharke-rich watirs stere
Than oones come to an albino neere! 
A pistole from his coat the pale man drewe
And aymed yt at Saunieyre the trewe.
In accent odd, ‘Was litel vse to runne,’
He sayde, ‘Now wher ys yt? Or get the gunne!’ 
‘Tolde thee I haue,’ the gode man dide proteste
‘Of what thou spekst ich haue nat the fainteste’ 
‘Thou liest’ thalbino sayde, ‘Thou and thy brotheres
Kepen sum thynge that by ryght longeth to otheres.’ 
Adrenalin in Saunieyres veynes dide synge
‘How coud he,’ thoght he then, ‘knowe of thys thynge?’
‘Tonighte,’ pale weirdo seyde, ‘the rightful men
Thys thynge in seisin holden shal ayein –
Telle forth and lyfsblud for thynselfe reservest
But telle me nat and by my gunne thou stervest.’
So Sauyniere lyk Sinon storye tolde
False as the devil, and seyde yt forth ful bolde
For he hadde yt rehersd many a yeer
(Ye notice, o myn gentil rederes deere,
Ich telle yow nat of what thys ‘thyng’ might be-
Yt ys a tricke poetic vsid by me 
To kepe yow yn confusioun most plesynge
Thurgh alle thys vague and nonspecific tesyng). 
So, wyth the tale of thys McGuffin tolde
Sire Lilye-White did logh, ‘Ich knowe of oold
Thys storye false, for oothirs haue yt seyde’
Sauyniere dide gaspe and blaunchen lyk a mayde:
Yf pale-face spoke the treuthe, than al the thre
Of senechaux (aske me nat what they be)
Had dyede the deeth and tolde the selfsame tale. 

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Canterbury Tales Rap

A search on YT for 'canterbury tales rap' turns up about a hundred results; mostly aging English teachers trying to be hip. But this is the best one; you can tell these guys really know what they're saying, and put the rhythm of the poem well to a rap beat. More than that, their pronunciation is excellent.

If you haven't read any Chaucer and lack the incentive, let me provide you with some: a few of the Canterbury Tales are absolutely filthy, even by internet standards. Stuff ranging from anallingus to St Paul going around magically covering people's entire bodies with penises. And contrary to internet standards, they're almost always funny. Look up the Miller's Tale for a start.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Book suggestions

I know my readers are a literate crowd; any suggestions on what books to take on my backpacking trip? Something warming for relaxing in a tent during a thundershower? Leave 'em in the comments!
I was thinking one of poetry and one fiction/nonfic. I've thought about something by Jack London in his stories about Alaska (just to contrast the desert I'll be in) and maybe some poems by Herman Melville.

Monday, 7 March 2011

One-Person Sierra Designs Lighting-XT

Another thing that gets asked a lot on the Lonely Planet forums is which one-man tent to get. This is something I am actually not very knowledgeable in, save that I own a very good one. It's the only one I've ever really used so I don't have great context with which to write this review, but I can still recommend the Sierra Designs Lightning XT as a brilliant tent.

Interior: well-placed pockets, loops, and those sorts of trimmings. Nice big doorway for easy exit (or escape). The rainfly lets in a lot of light, so you can read with it on in the evening. Also it creates a nice dry space outside your door to keep boots, and other things you don't want in the tent. It's vital when you're thinking about buying one of these that you get one with enough room to comfortably sleep both you and your enormous backpack. I'm not a big person, but I get along fine if I have my bag down next to my feet. Tall people with large packs will want to test this out before buying.

Exterior: looks quite nice, doncha think? I like the unobtrusive colors so you can be sneaky while camping on private property, or where there's a risk of some crazy wandering through the woods looking for expensive boots to steal (it's happened). The only flaw: its thin and wide dimensions are not good at handling strong winds when the rain cover is on. I learned this the first time I tried camping on a mountaintop in a rainstorm. That said, it isn't so hard to find shelter from the gales. Do make sure to pull the rainfly tight, or rain will pool up and begin to leak through (this is true of any tent).

Set-up: probably the best part about this tent. It's a bizarre design -- the three poles are all connected by little knobs, and swivel around. You've got to bend them every which way and make damn sure you've got it the right way 'round or you'll be starting all over. But once you get the hang of it, the whole tent goes up in 60 seconds or less. Fantastic if you're hit with a sudden shower.

Price: I think mine was around $220. I am bewilderingly cheap when it comes to buying camping equipment; I slowly back away when anybody tells me how much they've paid for a backpack or pair of binoculars. But it's worth dropping a little extra on; this kind of tent will literally last a lifetime, and won't quit on you in the middle of an adventure. Recommended.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Man who was Thursday

I started reading this over the inevitable 26-hour journey from Chicago to the UK in February. It's a fantastic book, and I had to stop reading it two chapters from the end. It's clear that GK Chesterton had some agenda when writing it; I only wish I knew what it was. I won't spoil, but it goes exponentially from being undeniably slow to heart-pounding and utterly surreal. The subtitle is "A Nightmare" and there are a lot of indications that by no means are you to take this book seriously. Only you want to. The main character is just a straight-up awesome dude and it spins such an enticing world.
The premise is Gabriel Syme, a member of the secret police, finds himself elected into a top rank in an international terrorist organization. Sound very topical for today? It was published in 1908.

 So the plot is insane, brilliant too, and will have you smiling like a Cheshire Cat as you turn each page. If I gave it away here I'd be the world's biggest bastard, but it's fair to say that it's unique in the world of literature. To put it bluntly, Chesterton has written a book about the pursuit of God.
There's something enticingly movie-like about the novel, what with all the chases around London, special effects (including a memorable elephant), sword fights, dreamscape countryside and constant mortal peril. But like all that's good about Chesterton, it also has a devil-may-care, winsome, romantic streak a mile wide. If it was going to be a film, it should have been directed by Hitchcock; this really is like the 39 steps as written by Kafka.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Food on the trail

Nutrition is gonna be a big issue when I'm out for 16 days, and there won't be any supermarkets around to sell good camping food. And if I couldn't catch a rabbit in Scotland I won't be doing it in the desert. So I'm making a list of food to bring that will hopefully last me a week at least.
I'd like to see if anyone has suggestions to add. So far I have.

Oats or quinoa (quinoa has complete protein, but isn't as tasty)
Cans of fish (fish gives more nourishment per weight than other meat)
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds as a snack/protein supplement
Tea can make the harshest environment seem like home. Provided you can get a fire started.
Wholemeal biscuits
Protein drink powder, (ultra lightweight, for emergencies)
Some packets of sports drink mix in case of dehydration
Cliff bars (that's my brand, yo)
Powdered milk

I'll be purifying water with chlorine tablets. Supposed to be easier on your liver than iodine. It'll make the placid mountain streams taste like swimming pool, but oh well.

Comment with suggestions/experience!

Saturday, 26 February 2011


I hang out on the Lonely Planet forums a lot, and there's an incredible amount of interest shown towards tips and tricks for being a 'person of distributed household' -- homeless, vagrant, what have you. As I've had a bit of experience with this, I wrote a piece for a fellow travel enthusiast to post on his blog. I shall reproduce this, abbreviated a bit, below.

I had the interesting challenge over the summer of having to alter my comfortable routine of living in the wilderness to suit the environment of southern England, which is bustling and very densely-populated. After finishing my first year at university in Scotland, the only thing for me to do was to explore the fabled Highlands. This I did for four glorious weeks, living deliberately and all that.I had to be at a wedding in Oxford two weeks from when I finished, though. I didn't want to spend £100 on a train, so I formed the plan of hitchhiking all the way, tenting it where I could, and hoping my outdoor skills would still be of use in the modernized towns and farmland.

First, a bit about the basic mechanics of hitching in the UK. I found that the further south I got, the longer I'd have to wait. Also with towns closer together the rides are usually shorter. What I resorted to was the ol' whiteboard routine, standing outside rest stops along A-roads. Unfortunately this tends to get you into big cities; I narrowly avoided getting plunked off in the middle of Glasgow, but I hit Birmingham dead-on, and it's not the kind of place you'd want to leave your thumb exposed.

I'd gotten a bit spoiled in Scotland, which has passed revolutionary laws regarding camping. You can pitch a tent almost anywhere as long as you don't frighten livestock. I was shouted at once by some early-morning golfers whose putting green I had infested, but if that's the only thing that annoys a Scot, well God bless them. In England, however, this is not the case. "In England we're too lazy to come up the hill and tell you to feck off" I was told by one aged man, and of course you're not going to get fined or arested if you kip in a cornfield. The only thing is, it's hard to be subtle when unused land simply doesn't exist. Ultimately my advice regarding this: don't be as paranoid as I was; get comfortable and leave if somebody asks you. Happily, there are very few midges down south.

Hygene is obviously extremely important when hitchhiking. If there's a small, flowing stream, I'm happy to bathe in it or do laundry; the colder it is, the more of a mountain man one feels. I use Dr Bronner's castille soap, which is biodegradable and is perfect for camping -- being highly concentrated you don't have to carry much. Half a teaspoon was enough to wash my mop of hair. When it came to the city I figured that I wouldn't care if I walked into a public bathroom to find some guy washing his hair, so nobody else would either.

There are many reasons I'm glad I hitched. foremost of these is that If I'd taken a bus or train I wouldn't have ended up in the Lakes District. I'd been lucky enough to be picked up by a man who was attempting to climb the three highest mountains in Britain in one day, and was trying to make record time between Ben Nevis and Scafell Pike. He balanced out the man who took me from Manchester to Birmingham, going 50 mph and playing some kind of truly horrific tribal music while I was ill and hadn't slept. Good or bad, every driver contributed something to my journey. I engaged with many others as well in ways I never had before. After a rainstorm I went to a church service just to warm up, and ended up spending the day at the house of the minister, reading Calvinist pamphlets and dining heartily. A fat woman whom I had been mentally abusing for taking up a whole bench walked up and handed me £15 and a pasty, saying "Jesus loves you."

 After my rather rough immersion into vagabond life among the civilized, I still feel a bit of a greenhorn, but with the pervasiveness of urban society I witnessed over those months, only knowing how to live in the wilderness is clearly not enough. Life on the streets can be extremely taxing, and knowing how to handle it is therefore an immensely valuable skill for a young person to acquire.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Morocco Trip

So the reason I haven't posted in a while is that the English course I'm taking moves too slowly to provide a constant stream of material. So I'll add the theme of travel to my posts, which is something I think about all the time.
I saved enough money to get a pair of tickets to Marrakech, Morocco, which is the launching point for backpacking excursions into the Atlas Mountains. It was that name, really, that inspired me to go. I came across it in reading Richard Halliburton's account of crossing the Sahara Desert in a biplane. I thought it unusual that he didn't stop in such a magical-sounding place, so I figured I'd go in his stead. Halliburton is the most dangerous role model any human being can have, and I got my hands on one of his books for the first time when I was very young indeed.

What these mountains really represent for me is a curtain between the known world (that is, the Mediterranean) and the mad excitement of the Dark Continent. Islam didn't reach past this barrier; the Romans didn't even bother trying. The indigenous Berbers (root of the word Barbarian, though I don't know that they fit that archetype) are a hardy people, who threw out both Arab invaders and much later, the French. My mother and girlfriend seem certain that I will be swindled, poisoned, and flogged, but that brings me perhaps to my main reason for going on this sojourn: I wish to prove to myself and to others that the world is not a dangerous place. The perpetuation of this idea in the minds of young people is one of the biggest atrocities society has ever committed. A fellow I ran into in a pub once told me that the nicest people in the world were Saudi Arabians -- he was Scottish, so I had reason to take him seriously. After Turkey, Morocco is the most liberal Islamic state in the Middle East, so I won't have the opportunity to judge people of that religion. It is a custom of mine to attend church wherever I backpack, just to gather more memorable stories (you'd be surprised where you could end up by the end of the day having begun it at a church). So it'd be fun to attend a mosque or two while I'm there. I suppose I'd need to learn the ritual of prayer before I attempt this, so I don't give them a damn good reason to poison or flog me.
More on this trip as I prepare (I've got a great big Michelin map that I'm drawing possible routes on, consulting the user-submitted photographs on Google Earth as I go).