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Monday, August 31, 2015

The Screech Owls in Hyde Park

While I enjoyed Westward Ho! immensely, I'll admit that Charles Kingsley's erudite and verbose prose did leave me somewhat fatigued. Thus, for my next reading adventure, I went in search of a novel just as entertaining, but shorter and less demanding than Amyas Leigh's incredible journey. 

Attack on the Tower of London suited my needs perfectly. I've never read any of Roy MacGregor's stories, or for that matter any of the other novels in the Screech Owls series, but Roy's easy reading prose, simple character introductions, and his way of introducing the current story got me instantly involved. I particularly enjoyed meeting Travis, the captain of the children's Ice Hockey team, as the team flew on their Air Canada plane to London. 

It seems that sports officials in London are trying to rouse interest in an inline skating hockey championship. To found a league in their own country, they select a team from children in England, then announce an international competition. Any team from another country can be selected, and their trip will be completed paid for. Although the Screech Owls have never formally played hockey on inline skates, they all ride them for fun, and play impromptu inline street-hockey games in their off time. They also know that their coach, who would have gone on to a career in the National Hockey League had he not suffered a debilitating injury, loves English history. So the team members send in several entries, each time stating why (in a slightly different way, and in fifty words or less), they believe they are worthy of being chosen. Who wouldn't fall in love with a bunch of 12 and 13 year old kids who like their coach so much that they want to give him that kind of experience?

Additionally, the competition takes place the week after Halloween, which is the same week my wife and I stayed in London back in 2013.

Much of the critical action in the novel takes place in the Tower of London, which despite having made two visits to that city, I have yet to see. But one location the Screech Owls visit I could relate to, and that is Hyde Park. This large park, with the adjacent Kensington Park, serves as a huge green area in the center of this densely populated urban environment. On our visit in 2013, we walked through the two parks, watching all the leaves changing color on the trees, the meticulously groomed flower beds, the swans and birds swimming on the Serpentine (a river), and all the people out walking, chatting, playing, boating, or riding horses. Naturally, it rained on us, so we ducked into a little restaurant for a cup of tea and a bun, but then the rain went away, and everyone, including us, emerged, and the parks once more filled with people.

Unlike us, the Screech Owls enjoy good weather during their stay in England's capital. The competition organizers set up a rink in Hyde park, and as the Screech Owls arrive, their competition, the Young Lions of Wembley, are already warming up. 

It was a lovely day, the sun shining and the light breeze plucking the odd dead leaf from the trees and sending it spinning down. There were so few leaves on the ground, however, that Travis wondered if they had sweepers hiding behind the big trunks waiting for one to land so they could race out and be off with it before anyone noticed. He had never seen such a beautifully kept park.

I agree with you, Travis. Hyde Park (along with Kensington Park), is a beautiful place to be. Even in November, when it's cold out.

To the memory of
Queen Caroline
wife of George II
for whom
the Long Water
and the Serpentine
were created
1727 - 1731

Although Roy MacGregor wrote Attack on the Tower of London for children, I enjoyed accompanying Travis and his friends on their British adventure. From skimming the titles in the series, it looks like the Screech Owls' adventures take them to interesting places in their native Canada, several states in the U.S., and at least one European country. So, all in all, I don't think I'd object too strongly to reading another book in the series. Or for that matter, any other book in the series. But then, that's the magic of a well told story: it appeals to all children, regardless of sex, race, culture, or age.

Dragon Dave

Friday, August 28, 2015

How We Almost Curtailed Our British Adventure: Part 2

Walking the Long Bridge in Bideford, England

As I said in Part 1, our GPS unit was clearly malfunctioning. Lacking adequate maps, we had to follow the M road in the general direction of Amesbury, our destination for the night. We could only hope that we would reach it before darkness. 

Thankfully, England enjoys long summer days. Far longer, it would seem, than our stores of patience. At least, that is, after a twelve hour plane ride, and a couple hours of sleep.

Although we don't usually use rest areas, we pulled off in one this time. Given our troubles, we headed inside, where we used the restrooms, and asked a salesman in one of the shops for directions. Thankfully, he confirmed that we were following the correct route, and suggested an off ramp that would take us into Amesbury. From there, hopefully we could reach our hotel.

Are you familiar with English rest areas? Many of them resemble strip malls in the United States, and cater to a traveler's every need. In addition to the toilets and a gas station, this one had several fast food establishments, a coffee place, and a bookstore. Although we had never seen one during previous trips, this one had a large atlas, available for five pounds. We opened its pages, and found it gave us just the highly detailed information we desired. While it might not replace the street-by-street directions of a properly-functioning Satellite Navigation System, this old school book seemed like a godsend. We couldn't have been happier as we pulled back onto the M road, and continued our journey. That night, despite the wonky instructions of our GPS unit, we found our hotel. After hauling our suitcases up several staircases, we were finally able to relax in our comfortable room.

Later, we discovered that somehow, perhaps months ago during the planning stages of our trip, as we entered our destinations into the system, it had somehow got switched over to Pedestrian Mode. We switched it back to Driving Mode, and after that, we never had a problem again. In fact, this year's driving was even more pleasurable than before, given that we now had two available means of navigation handy.

Another view from the Long Bridge

Staying home and pretending to travel doesn't force one to face those fears and overcome them. Besides, it's often in navigating your way through any complications life throws into your path that make any journey an experience you treasure later on. Now I can look back on that difficult driving experience and smile. Plus, we've got an additional navigation aid, that will surely come in handy on a future visit to England.

Still, it's taken me awhile until I could write about that experience, which probably gives you an idea of how frustrating and bewildering we found it.

Does travel make a difference in one's life? It's hard to quantify an answer like that. All I know is that being in Bideford, really being in this north Devon town I had read about in Westward Ho!, to which I had already traveled vicariously through Charles Kingsley's eyes, soul, and pen, proved a meaningful experience that could never be enjoyed by the armchair adventurer. I don't know about you, but for me, that's a reason to travel. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to relax in my comfortable armchair and do a little reading. Right now, being an armchair adventurer sounds really appealing.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How We Almost Curtailed Our British Adventure: Part 1

The riverfront in Bideford, England

I once corresponded with a couple who never traveled anywhere. Aside from the occasional day trip, they never ventured far from home, and never spent the night elsewhere. They claimed that they could get all the benefits of travel from the comfort of their armchairs, either by watching a TV program, or reading about faraway places in books and online. Their approach saved them the monetary costs, the hassles and exertion, and all the planning that real-world travel demands. 

Needless to say, fears accompany any untried venture. And even with the best of planning, there are things that can go wrong during any trip. As happened during this year's trip to England.

As we pulled out of Heathrow Airport in our rental car, we had trouble following the instructions given by our satellite navigation system. We had bought the unit during our first visit to England, back in 2011, and it was old and out of warranty. Still, we had thought it would be fine for our trip. Instead, it started giving us all these strange instructions. When we missed a turn off, it kept on wanting us to backtrack instead of recalculating an alternate route. In an attempt to turn around, we got on one of the M roads (the British equivalent of freeways in the United States. There it really went wonky, telling us to turn off in places where there was no off ramp. Plus, the M road was full of traffic, which meant that we were headed nowhere, and almost certainly in opposite direction from that night's destination, really fast.

We had never found a good map book or atlas of England on our previous trips. Google Maps had changed the way it operated, so while I had calculated the estimated miles between destinations, I hadn't been able to print detailed directions. This left us to rely on our satellite navigation unit. But even after we got off the M road, and headed in what we believed was the right direction, the system still seemed wonky, telling us to go in a counter-clockwise (instead of the correct clockwise) direction around roundabouts, and turn off the roundabouts using lanes that would have us driving on the right side of the road (instead of the left). 

Somehow, by relying on the faulty unit, we managed to start heading in the right direction. But we were so frustrated by this time that, had my wife suggested we return the rental car, and try to use buses and trains for our journey, I would have agreed. It would have made our vacation much more expensive, and limited our options, but really, what were our options at this point? Could we really reach all the places we desired, without adequate maps, and a GPS system that was clearly malfunctioning?

We thought we had planned adequately for this adventure, but clearly we had not, and lacking an adequate means of navigation, was this what we could expect every day of trip? Does that sound like a vacation to you?

Dragon Dave

Monday, August 24, 2015

Understanding The Fantastic Four: Part 3

"Better run, T-Rex. It's clobbering time!"

The Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book series championed the brilliance and idealism of youth. It proved popular with fans, lasting for 60 issues, far longer than most Marvel comic book series endure these days. And ultimately, it served as a basis for this year's new Fantastic Four movie. The only question is: will anyone bother to see it?

Hollywood can be a strange place for a writer to navigate. Stories, or properties, are bought and sold, and most often not made into films or TV series. But whether these stories get made or don't get made, whether contracts are fulfilled or expire, buying rights to stories back, once they've been sold, can be a tricky business, argued out over years or decades via lawyers and the courts. Currently, Disney, a vast multimedia conglomerate that owns Marvel, Lucasfilm, and the ABC TV network (among, no doubts, hundreds or thousands of other media companies), are embroiled in a battle to win back the rights to make their own Fantastic Four movies. So they obviously don't want this new movie, made by a rival studio, to succeed. Marvel has also done some interesting things lately, including canceling the Fantastic Four comic book, and killing off the actors portraying the Fantastic Four in the movie in an issue of The Punisher

Sometimes, you really don't need that extra caffeine.

This situation no doubt puts Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis is a difficult situation. Here's a movie, which seems a fairly faithful adaptation of their story, and they're not allowed to promote it or celebrate its release. It pits two writers who have lived their lives regaling us with wondrous stories against other writers and artists who are attempting to translate their story into another medium. And in the process, it puts all of us, as readers and viewers, into a dilemma: Should we support Marvel and boycott this movie? Or should we embrace it and celebrate it for what it is, recognizing how true to Millar and Bendis' reimagined characters and story the filmmakers have remained? 

Prevent pest infestations before they start with
the Ultimate Fantastic Exterminators.

Still, I suppose we can't feel too bad for these two creators. Two years ago, the Queen awarded British citizen Mark Millar with an MBE for his services to film and literature. American Brian Michael Bendis has garnered plenty of awards over the years, and last week even celebrated his birthday. It seems an odd time and way to celebrate one's birthday, let alone the translation of one's story onto the silver screen, amid controversy and battles over ownership of classic characters and stories. But then, Bendis loves to tell stories about superheroes. And if there's one thing we know about superheroes, when they're not rescuing the innocent or defeating villains, they're fighting each other. This fact was illustrated most profoundly, perhaps, by Mark Millar's Civil War series, which serves as the basic for next year's Captain America movie. So perhaps it's fitting that, while the superheroes fight each other, Disney and Fox should be battling it out over who gets to make movies about the Fantastic Four.

Dr. Doom: the reason every smart homeowner buys Fire Insurance.

As for me, all I can suggest is that you see this movie and decide its merits for yourself. Ultimately, that's what superheroes are supposed to be fighting for anyway, isn't it? The ability for each of us to decide how to think and act, instead of allowing far more powerful entities to dominate our outlook and actions. That's certainly what young Reed Richards was trying to do, in the Ultimate Fantastic Four comics, when he struggled against parents and school teachers who didn't understand him, and persisted with his experiments to develop the world's first working teleportation system.

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Marvel Influences in the new Fantastic Four movie
Cast of FF movie killed in Punisher comic
Is Marvel sabotaging FF and X-Men movies?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Understanding The Fantastic Four: Part 2

In the Ultimate Fantastic Four origin story, written by Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis, Reed Richards leaves school to join the government-funded think tank run by Dr. Storm. There he meets Dr. Storm's children, Sue and Johnny, as well as Victor Van Damme. He spends four years there, working with other scientific prodigies to help iron out the problems in the experimental teleportation machine the group has constructed. Victor, meanwhile, works on his own projects, and never deigns to speak to anyone. Then, one day, Reed returns to his room, to find Victor there, going through his notes.

Reed: What are you doing, Victor?

Get out of here! This is my room!
Victor: You're doing them wrong.

Reed: Hey, what? You can't touch that!
Victor: You're attempting to calculate the densities as if they still held a gravity.
Reed: You can't touch my--these are my formulas!
Victor: You don't know the gravity equation in the--

Reed may force Victor out of his room that night, but later realizes that Victor is intelligent, and his participation may help speed the realization of his dream. So he approaches Victor, and asks him if he will join his team. 

Victor may be as intelligent as Reed, but he doesn't understand what Reed is doing. His overwhelming self-belief keeps him doubting Reed's conclusions. So he continually fiddles with Reed's calculations, and when the final test comes, of teleporting something organic through the machine (an apple), he corrects Reed's numbers again. Instead of teleporting the apple, the machine expands the field outward, drawing himself, Reed, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm into another dimension. When they emerge, this descrambling of their atoms, similar to the transporter systems on the USS Enterprise in the TV series Star Trek, has changed their physical forms. Instead of reassembling their bodies correctly, they are now, and will forever more, be known as Mr. Fantastic, The Invisible Woman, The Thing, The Human Torch, and Doctor Doom.

Victor may be intelligent, but his belief in his own infallibility gives him a god complex. Like so many intellectuals, he knows exactly how to order the world so that it functions at maximum efficiency. Unlike Reed, he cannot truly work with others. He believes he should be in charge, and anyone whose beliefs or actions are at variance with his becomes his enemy. And, as any enemy threatens the proper structure he wishes to impose on the world, they and all their allies are dangerous and must be destroyed.

This, naturally, makes all human governments his enemies.

The new Fantastic Four movie draws their conception of Victor from this template laid down by Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis. When the military continually frustrate his efforts, he leaves Dr. Storm's think tank to continue his work elsewhere, and destroys the group's computers (and presumably, much of their progress) on the way out. After Reed joins the group, Dr. Storm reaches out to Victor, who has not achieved his goals on his own, and convinces him to return to the Baxter Building. Unlike Reed, Victor has not learned humility. He will continue to believe that he should be in charge, that he should be running not just the think tank, but the world. And after he and the others are physically changed, and the military take complete charge of the think tank, Victor realizes that, regardless of how powerful he becomes, he will never be able to control everyone on Earth. 

People who truly wish to help and empower others would channel this realization into working with the present system to achieve their desired goals. Victor choses a different path, a more destructive one. But I'll let you discover how he responds to the world's rejection as he sees it, and how he earns the name Dr. Doom, should you venture out to the cinema to see The Fantastic Four.

Dragon Dave