Saturday, January 28

Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam Click for more info

Like all professional and "in there" Muslims living in London are bound to do at some point during the next three months, a few friends and I paid a visit to the British Museum's Hajj exhibition this morning.

I went knowing exactly what to expect and so I wasn't that surprised with what we saw. Three quarters of the floorspace (perhaps an exaggeration) was reserved for various Kiswah (coverings for the Kabaa) samples, and the remainder was spent on various diggings and artefacts found either in Makkah or its vicinity. And of course there was the inevitable "real life" accounts of those who had already been on the journey - you know, about how life changing it was and all that. If I was being harsh it was a little sales pitchy for me, and I could have done without the back patting and post justification.

For the non-Muslim attendees, there was a wealth of knowledge and insight for an event many will probably never come closer to; for the others however there wasn't much new to learn here (regardless of whether they may have been to Makkah or not).

It's the latter subtlety which I found the most important though: this was an exhibition about Hajj and not Makkah or Muslims, and for many pilgrims both in recent times and in the past that would have been a journey which spanned a much larger time and space than just the five days in the vicinity of the Kabaa.

And it was these aspects of the exhibition that I really enjoyed - the explanation of the various routes used by Muslims worldwide, the archival footage of them departing to and arriving from Hajj, and even the accounts of non-Muslims who smuggled their way in. All were all wonderful examples of the human side of the great pilgrimage.

Perhaps inadvertently, recording this kind of stuff is especially important in an age where Hajj and Umrah are becoming easier and perhaps even commodified - it's clear that the love, expense and real sacrifice people will now make for this obligation will never reach the heights of that made by our predecessors, and it's stories like these that can help remind us of both how lucky we are and what the real point of such a journey is.

On the same theme, it was interesting to see the temporal changes surrounding the tradition, from the almost exponential rise in numbers performing the ritual, to the way in which the sanctuary has physically changed over the years. I know it's fashionable to hate on Makkan development at the moment but I was pretty fascinated by the plans surrounding the extension of the mosque complex.

In conclusion then: if anyone doesn't get the chance to attend the exhibition then I wouldn't think that they were missing much - there's nothing really unmissable here and most of the facts and stories could possibly be found elsewhere. On the other hand if you did happen to be fortunate enough to check it out though I'm sure you'd enjoy it at least as much as I did.

Friday, January 27

Book: The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman Click for more info

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

It almost seems that my flip flopping opinion of His Dark Materials (Northern Lights was meh, The Subtle Knife brilliant) was predestined to continue with the third book in the trilogy. The Amber Spyglass was dire, awful, bakwas (and I never thought I'd use that word) and nonsensical. I honestly don't know where to begin.

Was it the random, haphazard and redundant plot? The blatant stretching of a story that should have been half the size? The horrendously anti-climatic events toward the end? The heavy baggage with religion that the author threaded throughout this last one (you know, when it was too late to dismiss him as a lunatic)?

So no, I didn't like this third book. In fact I disliked it so much that I would say it tarnishes the trilogy so much that it's not even worth reading The Subtle Knife. Which is a massive shame, since the potential for Pullman's universe to actually spin a compelling tale was most definitely there. But hey: at least it was well written.

No recommendations here.

Saturday, January 14

Book: The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman Click for more info

I'll always be the first to admit when I'm proven wrong. Not that I ever said Northern Lights was a bad book, just not as amazing as I was hearing it was.

But I did think that The Subtle Knife was awesome. The fact is that this was a book that I was actually looking forward to reading each morning, something that hasn't really happened for a long time.

Perhaps it was the way things finally begun to unfold; the long game if you will. Or maybe it was because the annoying protagonist from the first book had been replaced by someone much more interesting. Whatever the reason, it worked.

I also finally got a good taste of the whole religious angst those who have read the books always seem to refer to. Those of you sensitive to religious themes in fiction, I would suggest steer clear of this stuff.

Heartily recommended then, and I eagerly look forward to making my way through the third and final book in the series.

The Raindance Saturday Film School Click for more info

In my opinion Groupon is very much the online version of Next; you know with the whole "fake discount" thing. Take this course for instance - a full day of expert tuition usually worth 120 quid for the princely sum of £40 via the coupon site. How could anyone miss that bargain? Well the truth is that not many did - in fact I doubt any of the house capacity 300 who turned up today actually paid the full price for their place.

But clever marketing aside I do think that the day was worth what we paid for it. Elliot Grove, founder of Raindance, was the star of the show. Yes he was a little arrogant at first but eventually this turned out to to his credit rather than something that alienated. He led three of the four lectures, covering subjects like screenplay writing, movie making and how to break into the industry.

A lot of his advice was anecdotal in nature, something that was fun to listen to if only because Grove is such a good storyteller. I really liked the screenplay lecture myself though; he was extremely practical in the way he told us about the regular patterns found in modern movie making.

Like all great speakers though, most of his lessons were not really about the film industry but instead about life; he even went a little metaphysical toward the end. I thought it was great stuff myself, and even if I never make any movies with the stuff I took away from him, I do think that I learned something of value.

Simon Hunter, a director, took the third lecture about, well, directing. Perhaps it was because he had the dreaded post-lunch sleepy session, or maybe because his lecture was less structured than Groves's, but I found his stuff pretty difficult to follow. That said, Hunter has more of a practical approach, with him describing the tools and methods that directors use in their work. He also directly drew from his own experience, even going as far as showing us examples of the bad work he did.

And that's kinda why I enjoyed the film school really. Unlike other lectures which are either academic (where a lecturer separated themselves from the subject matter) or personal (where the speaker is the subject matter), all of the lectures today were both. We were being led by real people, those truly in the industry. I've never really experience this kind of "apprenticeship" tuition before, and I found it to be quite powerful. This, despite the fact that the school was clearly designed to be a platform to pitch to us the other Raindance offerings.

A final note on the venue: apparently The Old Cinema inside the Regent Street Westminster campus is the oldest in Europe. It was actually quite impressive too in a charming way. There are two more dates for the school in the next couple of months, but I think they are in different places.

Friday, January 13

Link of the Day Click for more info

The Willpower Trick

Wired discusses how those who are usually described as having "strong willpower" tend to achieve this by avoiding tempting situations in the first place. Now I like to think I'm more on the "square" side in terms of what I've experienced, but it's only after I read this article that I realised there may be a correlation between that and certain behaviour patterns - or "rules" as my criticising friends put it - I try to maintain.

I guess a part of the whole thing is to realise that sometimes, we are just human and the best way to not be tempted is to be a little extreme and physically limit the opportunity for these things to happen - and that it's more smart than weak to do this.

Friday, January 6

Wicked Click for more info

Wicked is the last of the big shows I had yet to see. It's probably a testament to it's popularity that tickets to it never seemed to get any cheaper than full price, so a few friends and I jumped when a deal did appear.

But a discussion on my tightness aside, Wicked was rather wonderful. It was fun, the (now well known) plot and twist on an existing tale was brilliant and it was much funnier than I expected it to be too.

Technically it was okay - the acting was much better than the singing, but the choreography was pretty and the music catchy. The set and costume were all very simple yet very effective and I had no trouble being pulled in with the running of the show.

I had a couple of complaints with the venue - the Victoria Apollo seemed particularly audience unfriendly with the angle of seating almost guaranteeing a head in your way. Seating was also quite cramped and uncomfortable, something which was compounded by the deceptively above average runtime of the show.

All in all it was definitely worth watching; especially as have got some weird discounting going on the moment. Much recommended.

Tuesday, January 3

Book: Northern Lights, Philip Pullman Click for more info

First things first: no, this wasn't as good as Harry Potter. I know that's going to annoy those anti-establishment types but it's true.

That's not to say it's not a bad book. I quite liked the universe it was set in, although the fact that a lot of words were not only made up but taken as given by the author did irritate me a bit. Of course as I set more into the book these things mattered less, but I guess I need a little bit of hand-holding when being thrown into a new world.

Oh and it's quite dark, graphic and violent at times too, but not unnecessarily so, so this wasn't that big a deal. The characters, although not as deep as I would have liked, are multi-dimensional; the book constantly keeps you on your toes by making it so ambiguous as to who you're supposed to be gunning for.

But the book is well written and ultimately enjoyable. At least enough to carry on in the trilogy: expect a review of the next instalment soon.