Ponyo and Kiki’s Delivery Service at the Kiln

We’re really lucky to have a lot of great cinemas within walking distance of where we live.

There’s the Vue, which is a standard multiplex in a shopping centre, for which it’s easy to get decent-priced discount tickets. It also has a not-IMAX-but-huge screen.

Then there’s the Odeon, which houses not only a generously-sized actually-IMAX IMAX screen, but the smaller screens are ‘Luxe’ which means comfy reclining seats and appropriate seats-to-screen-size ratio.

And then there’s the Kiln, which used to be the Tricycle. It’s (mainly?) a theatre, but also has a very reasonably sized screen with a decent number of seats. It’s a lovely cinema, and reminds me of the excellent Cornerhouse in Manchester (RIP) in some ways. Tickets at the Kiln are very reasonable, and local residents even get a discount on top of that.

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The Kiln Cinema, complete with tricycle carpet

They frequently show the latest films, as well as National Theatre Live broadcasts, and they also show older films from time to time. I get the impression the programming team get to have a bit of fun with these selections. Over the past few weekends, they’ve shown a couple of Studio Ghibli films. First Ponyo, then Kiki’s Delivery Service. We jumped at the chance to see some Ghibli films on the big screen.

I own a handful of Studio Ghibli films on blu-ray and they look fantastic. But apart from The Secret World of Arrietty which I was able to see when it came out, I haven’t seen any others in cinemas.

71AIQ15DemL._SL1500_Ponyo was a treat as, although I’d seen it before years ago, it had faded from my memory. It looked superb on the big screen – colours popping all over the place, and the weather and storm effects felt very atmospheric.

Oddly enough, it was shown on the weekend that a devastating typhoon hit Japan, and it was a little eerie to see the more ‘realistic’ elements of the film’s response to storms and typhoons – panicked drives along dark roads to check on a remote community, the power going out, and having to prepare meals on gas stoves and using backup generators and plug-in lights.

One unexpected highlight was the cinema’s audience. When I saw that these films were being shown, I had to check they weren’t as part of the regular parent and child screenings they often put on.  Fortunately they were just normal screenings, so unaccompanied adults were welcome. It turned out that we were one of two or three other couples in their 20s and 30s, along with a six-year-old’s birthday party of about ten kids and various adults, and a small group of adults with special needs.

As a beard-scratching nerd, most of my experiences of watching Studio Ghibli films are alone, studious, with Japanese dubbing and English subtitles. These screenings were with the American English dubbing, and an audience of adults and children. And let me tell you – the reactions of the kids to some of the dramatic and beautiful scenery of Ponyo was so exciting! Gasps and cheers and chuckles and a general sense of awe, the like of which I had certainly internalised when watching these films before, but to hear it expressed out loud in such a natural way was a wonderful new experience.

kikis-delivery-service-poster-web-2Kiki’s Delivery Service was similar, although no birthday party this time – just the mix of grown-ups and a few kids-and-parents. But still a nice amount of gasps as Kiki took flight, or not-so-quiet enquiries of “but why…?” to various plot devices – and a chuckle or two at the odd line that seemed a touch out of place when translocated from the Japanese-written, fantasy-based world.

I had never seen Kiki’s Delivery Service and had no idea about its setting, the amalgamation of a sort of Swedish, northern and wester European town. I couldn’t help but immediately think of Rothenburg ob der Tauber following my trip there earlier this year. But after thinking it must have been one place, I later learned it was a pastiche of many.

Anyway, suffice it to say it looked fantastic all blown up on the screen, and I really enjoyed it. I even stopped scratching my beard long enough to enjoy the American English dubbing – including the late, great Phil Hartman’s cat Jiji – because although it’s a Japanese production, the setting is so generally and broadly European as to not need the language and dialogue to match any one place.

This weekend, the Kiln is showing Coco, which I guess is an even more Hallowe’en-themed film than Kiki (and is fantastic, of course). We have Coco on blu-ray as well, come to think of it. Anyway, I hope they show some more Ghibli films soon.

Alas, I Cannot Remember (but Last.fm can)

On 12 February 2008, I was listening to Laura Marling’s debut album Alas, I Cannot Swim. That was actually about the time that album came out, so I must’ve been listening for the first time. I was also listening, apparently, at just past midnight.

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Obviously I can’t remember all this, but my Last.fm can, because I must have scrobbled these plays.

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What I can also remember (or rather, look up), is that I was in New Zealand at the time. Somewhere between Auckland and Taupo. With my buddy James Bachellier, as it goes. We spent a week or two hanging out, attending Camp A Low Hum, and then driving round the East Cape, to Mount Maunganui, then across to Auckland for a gig.

Anyway. The act of listening (or rather, the act of scrobbling those listens) means I can try and remember what listening to music (and scrobbling it) meant in February 2008. And when I spent more than ten seconds or so thinking about that, I was kind of surprised.

I had forgotten that Spotify didn’t exist yet. I had forgotten that to start listening to new music in February 2008, I most likely had to have bought it. And then I remembered that on that trip, I was rocking an iPod Touch. The iPhone itself only launched less than a year beforehand, and the iPod Touch was the cellular-free version of the iPhone. I’d obviously convinced myself that it was a useful tool to take on a six week trip to New Zealand, and so it proved.

The iPod Touch naturally allowed one to listen to music – music imported from a computer via iTunes, as well as music downloaded via the iTunes Store on the device itself. This in itself was huge.

The app store wouldn’t launch until a few months later that year, and so the iPod Touch in 2008 was a device limited to Apple’s pre-installed apps, as well as a couple of other third party apps like YouTube and Google Maps (I think…).

So in the context of a pre-Spotify, pre-app store world, I can dimly remember the huge novelty of being able to buy new music on a handheld device, get it over WiFi, and then listen. It’s tricky to remember quite what a paradigm shift that was, but I can just about do it. I had been buying digital music for a while, but it usually meant doing so on a computer then syncing it to a device via iTunes. Doing it directly on the device was a paradigm shift. To browse a huge catalogue of music, then be able to press a button, watch a few progress bars for a few minutes, and then play some new music… All on the one device. Wow.

(Even downloading an MP3 via a browser – which I’m 99% just wouldn’t have been possible in 2008 – wouldn’t have subsequently allowed you add it to the music repository on the device. I think you could stream an MP3 in Safari but that was it.)

And so the very fact of me scrobbling a listen in February 2008 raises questions about how those plays were scrobbled. There was no app store, so no official apps… Perhaps there was a third party scrobbling app which could be sideloaded? Maybe my desktop scrobbling software could read previous plays once I got home and synced my iPod Touch? I cannot recall. What is clear from my Last.fm history is that I don’t appear to have scrobbled any other tracks while I was out of the country.

Anyway, I can see from some other iTunes receipts from that period that I bought some other music while travelling then, too. A Joy Division album – which I think was prompted by seeing the film Control in a lovely little cinema in Wanaka with my new pal Jamie, and which obviously made a big impact on me.


Listening to that Laura Marling record again now, and considering all of the above, it strikes me that there are a handful of records that I can quite easily remember where I was when I first listened to them, and a lot of that is tied up in the ceremony or ritual of buying something, and particularly in buying something physical.

Now, I’m more likely to hear some on BBC 6 Music, add a track to a playlist, and maybe then save an album to listen to later. Release dates don’t matter. It’s unlikely I’ll see the album sleeve any larger than a thumbnail on a Spotify screen. Songs and artists come and go, in and out of my consciousness.

I love albums – they have edges. Now, music just sort of happens via Spotify or a playlist or the radio, and it feels like less of an event. I realise this is more about my music buying and listening choices than anything else, but this is also my blog so I think it’s okay.

…This blog post just took a meander into “old man yells at cloud” country, so it’s about time I wrapped things up.

I should add as a postscript, though, the original reason I was browsing my February 2008 scrobbles in the first place. I was trying to discover what artists and albums soundtracked my 2008 trip to New Zealand. I assumed there’d be six weeks of data of all the stuff I listened to, but of course I was on the road, and scrobbling seems not to have happened for that trip. What I can see, however, is what I listened to in the weeks leading up to the trip, and what was on high repeat upon my return home. And that’s almost as good.

The very fact I can just pull up this listening data is still a tiny miracle to me. I love you, Last.fm.

Walking from Stanmore to Cockfosters

Last weekend M and I did another section of the London LOOP, a long walk which circumnavigates the capital. Like the Capital Ring before it, it’s become something we do on a random weekend when we realise we have nothing better to do and the weather looks good. As such, this latest section was our first since April. We are by no means hurrying it.

strava7538720327678540915Anyway, the end of section 15 and all of section 16 took us from Stanmore (the end of the Jubilee line) to Cockfosters (the end of the Piccadilly line), with a surprising amount of beautiful countryside, pristine woodland and interesting architecture.

Having only ever associated the likes of Stanmore and Cockfosters with being wedged onto a hot tube train and hearing the final destination mentioned, it was a big surprise to see what those places actually look like.

Naturally, the actual terminus is on a busy thoroughfare, but for Cockfosters in particular, we approached it up a lovely linear parkland with views back to the city, through a quaint little village lined with interesting buildings, then passed through a kilometre or two of pretty woodland flanked by a golf course and private roads. It was not at all what we expected, and therein lies the repeating appeal of the London LOOP, and – to a slightly lesser extent – the Capital Ring.

We were caught out by the length of the daylight – which is funny as we were aware that the clocks go back next week and didn’t anticipate any issues on this walk. But by the time we entered the final stretch of woodland, darkness was setting in and the few faces we passed were difficult to make out. It was wonderfully quiet for this stretch, and although we knew from the map that we were skirting the edge of a relatively thin stretch of woodland, it wasn’t hard to imagine the slow envelopment of foliage around us taking the form of a much larger forest. And then – joy of joys, and only minutes after one of us mentioned the potential for it – we heard an owl. Not bad for a day walk reached by tube train.

Screenshot_20191019-235633We covered a distance of just over 30km and obviously took pictures all the way round. I was using a mix of my dSLR and my phone, and I was using my phone (a Motorola G7 Power) to take a few snapshots, as well as for Strava and a some checking of OS Maps.

I’ve prattled on about this phone’s battery life before, but let me tell you – when I finish a day like that with that intensity of phone usage and I still have half my battery life remaining, I continue to be astounded by the performance of this phone. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference to relying on it for full-day (or even multi-day) exercises.

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Steamworld Dig

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The game’s ‘overworld’, a Western-style town with shops and chatty inhabitants

Hey, I finished a computer game! That only happens like once a year or so.

I’ve had Steamworld Dig on my 2Ds for a few years now, I think*, and for a while I just chipped away at it. It’s the kind of game that you can just pick up and bash through a bit of here and there.

* Just checked and I purchased the game in June 2017

The problem is, there’s also a nice, steady levelling up and learning curve of sorts, and the game really rewards playing it in longer periods – or many short periods in quick succession. Mainly I was leaving the sessions too few and far between that I’d pick it up, move the characted round for a bit and ask myself “right, what am I meant to be doing again?”

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The mine is where you’ll spend most of your time

This time I started a new savegame, and managed to bash through the whole thing in something like 8.5 hours. A decent length. A similar length, in fact, to two other games I’ve actually gotten round to completing – Attack of the Friday Monsters (also on 2/3DS) and Firewatch (on PC, and a game that spawned in me an obsession with fire lookout towers). Anything longer than that and I might not bother. Apart from Zelda: Breath of the Wild, of course, which I am currently 60 or so hours into and never want to end.

Steamworld Dig is made with so much charm that in many ways I also didn’t want it to stop. I had to do a bit of Googling to check if the levels were static or procedurally/randomly generated – if so, the game would be effectively infinite, but I suppose might have introduced game-breaking conditions unless very carefully designed. And so, very carefully designed it was, and all the better for it.

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As you go deeper, the environment, music and critters change

The artwork is lovely, the soundtrack, though slightly repetitive, is wonderful, and the effects are perfect. It rewards playing with headphones. The graphics, incidentally, work well on various systems. The screenshots here are from either PC or games consoles I think. The 2/3DS version, despite much lower resolution, retains the charm, but benefits from the second screen which displays a minimap and the contents of your satchel.

The game’s design in terms of the various teleporting, levelling up and general progression are handled in such a way that it feels slick and enjoyable. It makes it a great game to chuck in your bag and pull out on the bus for a few minutes. The player is never left frustrated at something taking too long – any actual tension or frustration is purely from the game’s tricky puzzles, none of which are particularly difficult.

Even the final boss is enjoyable in its systematic nature and although it’s tricky and took me a few goes, I managed it in one sitting – in the bath, no less – and felt a great sense of elation upon completing it. Pride and relief, partly, but also the satisfaction at having beaten a boss that felt challenging but in an understandable and fair way.

And so, the game ended, the narrative hinted at a sequel which I am very happy to have already downloaded and am keen to begin, and the credits rolled. And I was able to enjoy the satisfaction at completing what was already a very satisfying game.

Onwards, to Steamworld Dig 2!

September

It’s September. There’s a chill in the air, but the sun is still shining. Autumn is coming. Which is fine! I’ve had a good summer, with plenty of days out walking, cycling or (sometimes) running, and a good number of nights in rented cottages, AirBnBs or in a tent. But the transition periods between seasons can be great if only because they’re tangible and visceral.

When September hits – and with a partner who teaches, this is a more pronounced sensation – it feels like there should be time to wrap up summer thoughts, as though there’s a sudden overnight flip, new-year-style. And there can be, I suppose, but really it feels like there should suddenly be extra time in the evenings to edit photographs and reflect and maybe write about adventures. But perhaps I’m being premature – maybe I need to wait till the clocks go back (railway tracks!) and do all that stuff then? Memories will have faded some more, but if it means a nice photobook (or magazine?) turns up some time in late autumn or actualy winter, that might be no bad thing. Just as long as it turns up at all.

I’m reading a bit more at the moment – as in books (I generally read articles and tabs I’ve sent to my Kindle, but books less frequently) – and I feel like later this year I might finally tackle the Flying Nun book Roger Shepherd wrote a few years back. I’ve had it for nearly two years now, a much-asked-for Christmas present that I’ve still not started!

I keep thinking autumn/winter is the right time to read the book (and bathe in that music) because often when I listen to NZ music from that era I think of grey, dreary Dunedin/Christchurch streets and drafty flats and cosy student radio station studios and curly hair and wooly jumpers and four track tape recorders and touring in a shit van and all this stuff. And so I end up with this temporal inversion where I associate NZ music with that wintry vibe, and yet I need to experience it when I myself am experiencing winter – which is, of course, when NZ is experiencing its summer.

The change in the seasons is often – or was more often, a few years ago – the time I’d choose to tune into 95bFM (Auckland) or Radio One (Dunedin) to get a sense of life there, such as it’s possible to do so. I’d love, on a grey winter’s evening in the UK, to hear the next morning’s breakfast show where they chat about the decent weather, the surf report, or what bands were touring NZ – the excitement of a big ticket band who only comes to NZ once a decade, or some local heroes doing yet another thirteen-date tour playing basically every town big enough to sustain a venue.

Conversely, I also liked now and then to tune in to a mid-winter broadcast while the sun shines here, as I often associate those wintry times (as above)  with where all the great NZ indie music comes from – the somewhat romantic image of a band or musician holed up against the cold, writing and recording, with some new stuff to debut when the sun finally comes out again.

In the meantime, I’m rattling through Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest, which has landed on my Kindle through a happy accident of reading American nature writing with a focus on national parks, fire towers and so on, as well as John Lewis-Stempel’s lovely The Wood.

Tesson’s book is sometimes an amalgamation of those books, and it’s always nice when a book just sort of slots in neatly like that. I guess that’s why I always have about a hundred books I want to read, so that when the mood takes me I can dip into ‘the right one’ and follow the wave a bit further. It’s also written as a sort of diary crossed with a commonplace book (much like Lewis-Stempel’s), which obviously appeals to me.

On a related note, I had the joy of visiting Barter Books in Alnwick this summer. It’s a huge second hand bookshop – possibly the largest in the country? – housed in an old railway station. It also has a very decent cafe and food, and plenty of places to sit amongst the stacks. And model railway trains rolling round some ceiling-mounted tracks.

It’s a treat.

It also has lots and lots of books, and they all tend to be quite nice copies, rather than just stuff shovelled onto the shelves. I looked forward to the prospect of searching through the shelves, which are pretty well sorted by subject, but was pleased – initially – to find they have an online catalogue.

On the one hand this was great as when one has only a short time to visit a shop like this, it’s good to search for a few of those hard-to-find items.

But on the other hand, it removes some of the joy of searching through the stacks. But it’s still worth doing that because you’re bound to discover something you didn’t know you were looking for. So actually I suppose it’s the best of both worlds.

I ended up buying one book which was sort of on the periphery of my American nature writing / national parks reading list.