Word Count

A little experiment I want to try, perhaps tonight, is to count how many words I read in a day. Obviously it’s not going to be a comprehensive count, but I think that counting everything I’ve read on the Internet (which on some days constitutes 80-90% of the total, e.g. when I’m not reading a book) will do well enough. I predict that today will clock in at around 50,000 words, or half of an average novel.

The Debate

A transcript of the debate between Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Essential reading for Pullman fans and anyone interested in the portrayal of religion in contemporary fiction.

The Race

8:30am – I wake up with a totally parched throat, despite drinking a huge quantity of water the night before. Less than six hours to go before the relay race I signed up to a couple of weeks ago begins. 3.6 miles per leg – I’m hoping to do it in under 30 minutes, at least.

12:15pm – Finish an early lunch of a tuna and cheese sandwich at the lab. Check the outside temperature for the thousandth time – it’s a balmy 5C. My supervisor exclaims, “I think it’s started snowing!”. I jump up and look hard out of the window. She laughs cruelly and says, “Only joking.” I grumble something in reply.

1:25pm – The race starts at 2pm, and I don’t know what the race order is yet, so I have to turn up early. I hop on my bike and cycle towards the Iffley Road track, site of the famous four minute mile by Roger Bannister. It is damned cold outside.

1:35pm – There must be hundreds of people here! They all look extremely fit and worringly, they all look like bona fide runners. There are visiting teams from universities across the country including Imperial, Cambridge, Birmingham and Bath. Each team has four runners, each of whom run the same 3.6 mile loop around Oxford, and they enter into the male, female or mixed races.

1:40pm – I’ve decided to wear both of my T-shirts and take my coat out to stay warm before I start. It turns out that I’m going to be the third runner in my team, which is composed of graduates. The other runners – Andrew, John and Jason – are all far more experienced than me but they assure me that my time of around 26 minutes for a slightly shorter distance than 3.6 miles is fine (I ran the race course, or at least what I thought was the race course, on Monday).

1:55pm – All the first runners are assembled on the start line on the race track in an enormous crowd, easily close to a hundred. Suffice to say that it is pretty intimidating for me, who’s never run a race before.

2pm – They’re off! The front runners are zooming along at a fearsomely fast pace, and our guy Andrew has set off pretty quickly as well. John, the second runner, begins to look worried. Many of the serious teams have clearly put their fastest runners in first so they can get ahead of the pack.

2:15pm – John departs to the start line across the track to have a jog around and warm up. I chat with the other people in the Queen’s College contingent about running stories. The Queen’s College is probably the most successful college in the university at sports – we seem to win most competitions and athletics, despite the fact that we’re not particularly big.

2:18pm – The front runners have just started returning. 3.6 miles in 18 minutes – not a shabby result by anyone’s standards. Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of separation between the front runners.

2:22pm – Andrew has just entered the stadium and is making his way around to the start/finish line! 22 minutes is a very good time and not what any of us were expecting. I start worrying about the fact that if John is also fast, I’ll find myself in the midst of a pack that is significantly quicker than myself.

2:23pm – John zips past the stadium and on his way out I give him an encouraging shout. I begin to bounce around to try and warm up.

2:30pm – I remark to Jason, while bouncing around, that I feel like getting into a fight. Evidently the adrenaline is kicking in.

2:38pm – I pin on my runner’s badge and make my way to the start line. I do a few sprint and jogs around, but for some reason I’m getting progressively colder.

2:42pm – I see someone who looks very much like John entering the stadium, which startles me immensely because it seems impossible that he’d be able to do it in 20 minutes, given that he was supposed to have had a leg injury recently. Luckily, it’s just someone else who doesn’t have much hair.

2:46pm (T0) – John appears! He might not have been as fast as 20 minutes, but 24 minutes is pretty decent. My worry increases. I make my way to the handover point and bam, I’m running.

T+1 – It is very cold. Too damn cold. It seems like I didn’t warm up properly.

T+4 – I’m on Iffley Road, just approaching Magdalen bridge. I’ve already been overtaken by two people, which isn’t surprising since I’m in the middle of a much faster pack, but it’s still depressing. The race marshalls are very encouraging though.

T+6 – I’m feeling pretty tired already, running by the Botanic Gardens. I briefly ruminate on the utility of actually going and running outside instead of cheating and using the treadmill. This accomplished, I return to watching the runners ahead of me recede into the distance.

T+10 – I’m getting into my stride now, but a stitch is developing. I find this entire development to be almost unbelievable – I’ve never found it this hard to run outside. Perhaps it is psychological. Perhaps I should do more training. I’ve warmed up quite nicely though.

T+14 – Running along the Isis River now. There’s a guy running by my side – he’s been keeping face for the last few minutes but now he’s set to overtake me. Thankfully, he looks pretty fit.

T+17 – I can see Donnington Bridge! That means that I’m well past the halfway line and I’m on the way home. Things are looking up.

T+19 – I’m on the penultimate final straight, which unfortunately is very long. I can see a long string of runners making their way along it, and there’s one guy in the distance who appears to be walking.

T+23 – I put on a spurt of speed and overtake the guy who was walking (he’s gone back to running now), which pleases me to no end because otherwise I wouldn’t have overtaken anyone in the entire race.

T+24 – There’s not far to go now – I’m on the final straight on Iffley Road and the rugby ground are to my left.

T+26 – Just before I enter the stadium, I pick up the pace by quite a bit and make it around the track at a decent clip.

T+27 (3:13pm) – It’s over – I just handed off to Jason, who appeared at the start line a mere second before I reached it.

3:15pm – Wander over to the stands and collapse. Drink some water. Go into a daze. Visions of armoured bears with cockney accents and windows in the sky pass before my eyes.

3:17pm – Wake up. 27 minutes is almost exactly the time I thought I’d get. I feel like I could have shaved at least 30 seconds or maybe even a minute by picking up the pace closer to the end, but 27 minutes isn’t bad and it was my first race, after all.

3:38pm – Jason enters the stadium in a flamboyant multicolour jersey, alongside a guy in a very sober black and white T-shirt setup. Jason steams past the sober guy with apparently zero effort and everyone from Queen’s speaks admiringly of his frankly excellent stride technique.

3:43pm – Have a chat with Jason, and then celebrate by going into the gym and spending 20 minutes on the weights. Definitely a quick race, but not one I’m going to forget… and there’s still the 10k race I intend to do in May to train for…

His Dark Materials

Lal, Kim, Lat (Lal’s sister) and I met up in London last night to see the first part of Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials’. Naturally, in true Culture style we only managed to get to our seats in the very nick of time, not once, but twice! (it is nothing less than an abomination that they should have an interval of a mere 15 minutes between the two halves).

We were seated near the back of the upper circle so we were some distance away from the stage, but I didn’t feel it impeded our experience very much – of course, I would have rather sat right up at the stage but then that would’ve been a bit more expensive and difficult to sort out.

The play began with Will and Lyra, sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Gardens, talking to each other from different worlds, which was a rather good introduction to the story, and this was also used at the start of the second half. From there we plunge headfirst into main story of ‘The Northern Lights’ which in the play is more or less left untouched. While I can understand that, at least for the first book, you need to leave all the major events and characters in, the restrictions of a 6 hour play (3 hours for each of the two parts) mean that several sequences are compressed into only the most essential details – which unfortuantely leaves a lot of the wonder and charm out of them. Take Lyra’s stay at the bear palace in Svalbard – in the book, there are a fair few things that happen there. In the play, it deserves a scant five minutes – Lyra pops in, talks to the usurper King, there’s the fight, and that’s it. So to me the compromise between time and accuracy was acceptable, even good, but imperfect.

Generally, the actors were extremely good. Lyra and Will were cast very well and interacted smoothly. Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel was also well done, but you don’t get to see that much of him in the first half. Other good characters included the Master of Jordan College and Lyra’s mother.

The various supporting roles suffered from slight cariacture and totally bizarre accents. The audience was left in no doubt as to the identity of the main bad guy (for the first part, at least), Fra Pavel, as he walked onto the stage with an unidentifiable but unmistakably evil accent and – even more amusingly – a shimmer of violins and foreboding music every time he opened his mouth. Was this really necessary? I don’t think so. Ditto for the head of the Church, who had the strangest Irish/American/Italian accent. To their credit, they were both convincingly nasty.

Lee Scoresby, the Texan, had an overdone accent and seemed relegated to the role of comic relief, mostly. Iorek the bear, I felt, was played very well although Lal and the rest had issues with the accents of the other bears.

By far the worst offenders in the play were the witches. Serafina Pekkala easily won the title of ‘Most Irritating Voice’ – a kind of overdone, grandiose, booming and Very Profound voice. She was backed up by the other witches, who couldn’t seem to decide whether they were real witches or some idealised Amazonian warrior tribe who danced around a lot.

Finally, Father Coren of the gyptians was played perfectly.

The set design was excellent, and for someone like myself who hasn’t been to a major play or musical for a very long time, the versatility of the stage was highly impressive. The centre and surround of the stage would regularly move up and down and rotate between and during scenes and the backstage crew were clearly hard at work switching things around to make them look convincing. Given that HDM is apparently the cheapest production around at the moment only makes their efforts more praiseworthy.

The fact that I haven’t mentioned the daemons yet goes to show that they were done very well. About a minute before the play started, I think Kim mentioned something about the daemons being manipulated by puppeteers in black suits. This immediately filled me with a sense of impending horror, and certainly for the first five or ten minutes of the play I found it hard to look past the puppeteers and see the daemons (also voiced by the puppeteers). However, after the novelty wore off I quickly forgot about the guys in black suits and instead looked at the daemons themselves, which were manipulated very well and amusingly, Mrs Coulter’s in particular. Only the main characters were given ‘proper’ daemons – the minor characters had to do with daemons they carried around themselves.

On the whole I found the play very enjoyable. I haven’t read the books for at least a couple of years but it seems that Wright has so far been very faithful to them. There are many things that could be improved, but even more that shouldn’t be changed. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the next part on Tuesday.

Incidentally, we all thought that watching all six hours of the play in one afternoon wouldn’t be that difficult. Think again. Three hours was long enough.

Some links about the play in today’s Guardian – an article about Archbishop Rowan William’s praise of His Dark Materials and the praise itself.

For the early adopters

Those who emailed Project Syzygy in the first 24 hours or so of the site going online may not have received the autoresponder that was set up a bit later. So here it is. You wouldn’t have missed anything aside from the launch date:

This is an autorespond to say thanks very much for your email and interest in PS.

As promised we’ll be back in touch on the eve of the launch (late 2004) and we’ll be able to go into much greater detail then.

Your early interest and patience will be rewarded.

Yours enigmatically,

The PS team