Archive for October, 2007

When I was in Canada and browsing the internet on Pete’s computer I happened to look at the appearances page of Stephen Donaldson’s website. He was due to do a series of Fatal Revenant signings in Britain the week I was due back, and I definitely wanted to go and see him.

This was the second time I’d gone to see Stephen Donaldson. The first time (and here’s your answer, Drew) was just after the release of the first book in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and was organised by the British Fantasy Society, of which I was a member at the time.

I got the train to London from Bath (where I was at university) and arrived at the pub directly opposite the Old Bailey in plenty of time. So much so, that, not only was I the first person there, but the room upstairs where the event was to be held hadn’t even been unlocked. I sat on the stairs for a while reading (I’m pretty sure the book I was reading then was Windhaven by George R R Martin and Lisa Tuttle).

Eventually, a member of staff opened the room and I grabbed a seat in the corner and continued to read. A few other people wandered in, and, some time after the thing was due to start, we were joined by some of the BFS people, a Gollancz editor (I recognised them from the Society’s convention earlier in the year (where I’d also met Lisa Tuttle, as it happens)), and Stephen Donaldson. They sat at a table talking, and I sat at my table while I waited for someone to make an announcement, for Donaldson to give a talk or something of that nature.

I waited.

I waited in vain. Stephen Donaldson left less than an hour later. I’m still pissed off at the BFS for this fiasco. The format of basically just going up to the author and talking to him was a bit strange, but was probably appropriate for the limited number of people there (no more than a dozen, including Donaldson, the BFS people etc). But the fact that there was no explanation given – no one even had the idea of inviting those people in the hired room who weren’t participating to come and take part (I wasn’t the only one) – it really annoys me – possibly more now, thinking about it, than it did three years ago. Or possibly not.

I let my BFS membership expire with out renewing it. Take that, British Fantasy Society!

Anyway, Friday was a whole lot more successful – although not entirely so.

This time, I was burdened down with my laptop case – containing laptop, book (Lord Valentine’s Castle) and umbrella – my backpack – containing four large Stephen Donaldson books, a change of clothes, toiletries, towels (one for the body, one for the hair) – and a coat a little too heavy for the weather.

The turnout was pretty good – around 60 people – and nearly all of the seats set out in the Bristol Galleries Waterstones were filled. In front of the seats, next to a table and chair and a couple of Waterstones screens, was a larger table piled high with Donaldson books – mostly, of course, Fatal Revenant. My retrospective guesstimate was that there were about 60 copies of the new book in the pile, of which, 40 or so were sold. I’d already got mine from Amazon.co.uk, along with Hunter’s Run by George R R Martin, Daniel Abraham and Gardner Dozois.

About ten minutes after the scheduled start of seven o’clock, Stephen Donaldson was announced by one of the Waterstonians and we all clapped.

Donaldson wore jeans, light blue shirt and a blue tank top (ie, a sleeveless sweater, for those who may think a tank top is a vest). Of course, I recognised him from photos, and, equally of course, he didn’t seem quite the same. The was a certain very slight veiny ruddiness to his cheeks and nose, and his nose looked strangely bigger and blunter. His voice had more of a southern twang than I was expecting, but he is a New Mexican (or, at least, that’s where he lives).

He began by saying that the limited amount of time available made it a better proposition to dispense with the advertised reading (although his website had only mentioned a ‘possible reading’; Robert Rankin, when I came to see him at the same place (although in a different place inside the store) had also dispensed with his billed reading – although he made it up by reciting a ‘poem’ about a screwdriver). He went on to explain that people should ask him questions, and, alluding to the fact that people are usually reluctant to start doing this, he pointed out that he could ask himself questions, but this wouldn’t be very interesting as he already knew all the answers.

Questions were asked, though. His answers tended to be somewhat long and involved – each one was a coherent story or explanation, as if he’s given the same answer many times before – which, undoubtedly, he has. His stye of speaking was very fluent – no umming and erring, no repetitions or backtracking, although he would sometimes pause mid-sentence to gather his thoughts. In terms of personality, he came across much as he does in the Gradual Interview on his website – modest, but confident in what he’s saying.

His fluency of speech, I can imagine, is based on this confidence and on the constant rehearsal that booksignings and convention appearances bring – not on a general confidence in his own charisma and ability to do this kind of thing. Maybe I’m just projecting this last observation, but he has said that he finds tours and the continuous meeting and talking to people very draining.

I didn’t ask or attempt to ask a question. Yes, there’s the usual confidence issue, but, Stephen Donaldson has answered maybe a couple of dozen of my questions on his website over the last few years, so I didn’t feel much impetus to even think of one. (Actually, Pete inspired a question, but I’ll ask it on the GI.)

Most of the questions asked covered much the same areas that have been dealt with – often more than once – on the GI. They did go into further detail, though. He said that, having submitted the first Chronicles to every publisher in the US, when Lester Del Rey accepted him, he was inclined to think of the famous editor as God – and Lester Del Rey thought of himself the same way. He then wondered out loud whether he should go on to say something about Del Rey, implying that it was something quite ‘juicy’ – and he didn’t (or if he did, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as he made out).

The young bloke who’d introduced Donaldson inturrupted at about five to eight to call for a last question, then, on or around the hour, we all clapped again and got up clutching our books to form a queue. My books were still in my backpack; I had transferred them from the bottom of the backpack to the top earlier on in McDonalds, but it still took me a minute to retrieve them. By which time, naturally, the queue was fully formed and I tagged on virtually at the end with my hardback copies of The Runes of the Earth and Fatal Revenant.

I waited.

This time, I waited in … whatever the opposite of ‘vain’ is. (Findail – ha ha ha.)

Well, towards nine o’clock the Waterstones man told everyone still waiting to get books signed that we shouldn’t ask for messages in the inscriptions, unless you were willing to drive Stephen Donaldson back to London. So my internal dialogue over whether I could bear to ask for a message and if so whether it should be of the cheesy or whimsical variety was rendered moot.

(Whilst queuing, I’d left my coat over the back of my chair and my bags leaning against it – and for most of my hour’s wait they were out of my line of sight. I was a little anxious about my laptop, but I assumed it would be perfectly safe (if not perfectly sane – more Donaldson in-humour). The staff stacked the chairs away until mine was the only one left.)

I was leaning towards asking for the famous Chronicles quote ‘Be true’, but when my turn came I just put the two books down the post-it note another denizen of the bookstore had written my name on in front of the author. I said, ‘How’s it going?’ but just then he exchanged a few words with one of the members of staff and wasn’t listening. He turned back to me and started to inscribe my books … which were also his books.

I asked, ‘So, how often have you written “Be true” in the front of a book?’ He answered that after ‘Be true’ the most common thing people ask for is ‘Stone and Sea’ – a saying of the Giants in the Chronicles. He raised his hands and shook his head a little as if to say, ‘Beats the heck out of me why’, but neither of us could think of anything else to say at that point, so he carried on signing.

A minute later I was back with the other two books I’d brought with me: trade paperbacks of The Reed Stephens Novels (Reed Stephens being the pseudonym under which Stephen Reeder Donaldson wrote the detctive novels The Man Who Killed his Brother, The Man Who Risked his Partner and The Man Who Tried to Get Away) and The Man Who Fought Alone. The inscription I was considerin asking for for one of these was, ‘To Sean, from The Man Who wrote The Man Who books, Stephen Donaldson.’ But I didn’t.

(This raises the point of why I chose to bring those particular volumes when my favourite Donaldson books – in fact, my favourite series of books – is the intense and brutal space opera, the Gap series. Well, I only have those books in ‘A format’, mass-market paperback edition, and I feel that signed books should really be hardbacks – first edition, ideally – trade paperback, at the very least. So.)

I thanked him and shook his hand – and from what I could see, not everybody managed even the first of those things. Then it was off to Burger King for more healthy repast and then to Lawrence’s place for a night’s accommodation. Lawrence had been working until ten, and serendipitously enough I met him outside his front door just after he’d put his bike in the shed.

Stephen Donaldson predicts that book three in quartet of The Last Chronicles, Against All Things Ending (originally entitled Shall Pass Utterly until his editor pointed out that sounded like something to do with a bowel movement), will be out in three years time, with book four, The Final Dark, three years after that.

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Star Trek IV

On my last full day in Canada, my mission was to buy a souvenir. Eventually, after far too much walking around, I got a small glass polar bear from the Pier 21 gift shop for $56 (and I hadn’t even been round the exhibition).

Earlier, I’d taken some money out from the Bank of Montreal cash machines (the only ones I could find that accepted Mastercard; my previous card was the much more prevalent Visa, but when my bank sent me a new one the default option was this and I naively went along with it), but it turned out to be far too little, so I went back and the machine refused to give me anything. The following day, Pete, Vince and I went to see 30 Days of Night and have something to eat before dropping me at the airport. Again my card wasn’t facilitating the transfer of funds, so Pete ended up paying for me.

As we sat at Tim Hortons at the airport (I bought Pete a cup of green tea with the last of my change), Pete noticed a small avian creature flying round the departures lounge. He asked what on earth it’s doing here and I suggested, ‘Maybe it just flew in.’ Of course, I corrected myself by saying that it’s probably waiting to fly out, this being Departures.

Back in London, I found myself with eight pence in my pocket, an intransigent credit card and a four and a half hour wait to my next flight. I had £5-something in my current account, and, of course, the minimum withdrawal at any given cashpoint is a tenner. There was plenty of money in my savings account, but without any cash to pay for internet access I couldn’t transfer it across. I could have called the credit card line at that point, but how was I going to pay for the call?

The BMI flight to Manchester was on the smallest plane I’ve been on – probably less than a hundred seats in total – just three per row. As I hadn’t had a drink since the Air Canada flight, I was getting thirsty and a bit headachey; naturally, the drinks on board weren’t complimentary. At Manchester, I found myself in the same situation as I’d been at Heathrow. There wasn’t a free bus into the city as I’d been hoping (which is a pretty stupid thing to hope for in Britain … and probably anywhere).

Fortunately, when I looked at the number I had written down in the little black address book I keep in my wallet it was a free 0800 number. It wasn’t actually the _correct_ number – it was mainly for reporting lost or stolen cards – but the recorded voice recited the right number. Which was a not-so-free 0845 number. I rang the free number again and spoke to an operator; when she told me I had to ring the other number I asked her if she could tranfer me, and, when I pointed out that I had no money, she did so.

The next lady fixed my credit card. She mentioned something about me returning to the UK and them therefore not wanting to allow my card to be used if it had been stolen. This makes no sense, as it stopped working two days before I returned and I’d already told them _when_ I’d be returning. But I didn’t pursue the matter.

A brief walk to the cash machines furnished me with twenty quid. Well, no: putting my credit card into the machine and telling it I wanted £20 furnished me with said money. If only a brief walk was all it took.

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Review of 30 Days of Night

As my last activity in Canada I went to see this with Pete and Vince. I liked it more than they did.

Horror movies aren’t my first choice of viewing pleasure, but I thought this was well-done and quite enjoyable. The first thing that you notice about it is the colour. It presented in a cold, blueish tone. This is reminiscent of 300 (sam-baek, as I like to think of it), but where that film uses the technique to make the images, the violence elegant and picturesque, 30 (sam-ship) Days of Night makes itself gritty and strangely distant.

Another thing I liked about the film was its relatively modest ambitions. Yes, it charts the attempted destruction of a whole town by a group of vampires, but the town consists basically of a few houses and a lot of snow. The special effects run to fire, ridiculously long fingernails, pointy teeth and snow. And people getting their heads chopped off.

I also liked the actors. Unlike, say, Resident Evil: Extinction, it doesn’t rely on a cast of unfeasibly good-looking and well-manicured actors. The two leads are, of course, very photogenic, but a) they wear heavy, un-sexy clothes all the time, and b) they’re the only two – everyone else is plain or plain ugly. Despite being tall and handsome, I’m not averse to Josh Hartnett; he tends to play angsty, conflicted heroes, and his character here is no different (could I be the only one thinking he’d make a good Rand al’Thor?).

The vampires in the film were quite distinctive. They look pretty terrifying – with their white skins and twisted eyes. They come across as a group of normal people who have been changed into vampires – they’re not sexy, they’re not uber-tough or athletic. On the other hand, a lot of them spend the film just stading around watching the main action and they communicate either in some (presumably made up) guttural ancient language or by screaming.

What I most liked about 30 Days was the tension it created and maintain – right to the end, really. The action plays out logically for the most part and the film doesn’t overplay its hand. The acting, the script, the story – pretty much every aspect of the movie is effective. The ending is equally logical and effective, but it wasn’t as moving as I thought it should be.

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In a discussion of fantasy books my friend in Canada had told me that Piers Anthony was the American equivalent of Terry Pratchett. I’m not a huge fan of Pratchett, but this was sufficient to spark my interest. I’d read only one Piers Anthony book at that point (Digital Mode, I think) and remembered enjoying it, but not considering it a comedy. British bookstores don’t stock many of his books, so when I saw a shelf-full of them in Chapters in Ottawa, I decided to get this volume – the first of the Xanth books.

A Spell for Chameleon, is much along the same lines as a good Discworld novel: a pleasant, easy, sometimes quite amusing read. You know, I feel that the review should stop about there, but I’ll go on.

Xanth, like Discworld, is a distinctive land of magic. All the citizens are magicians to some degree – most, though, are of the spot on the wall variety: ie, their talent is essentially useless. The most powerful, however, are granted the title Magician – and the king of Xanth has to be one of these. Bink, the hero of the novel appears to have no talent at all. Any person over the age of twenty-five with no magic is exiled to Mundania – the real world. Bink, at the start of the book, is twenty-four years and eleven months old.

So the book is about Bink’s quest to find his magical talent. Many things that he encounters are not what they seem or what he expects – and this is eventually true of his own ability, once he discovers what it is. As Xanth is a magical land, everything in it uses magic. For instance, there doesn’t appear to be any agriculture or industry, as such – instead people harvest magical trees like the breadfruit tree, a trees whose fruit are loaves of bread.

The story is surprisingly intricately structured – as I said, things are rarely what the appear to be – and the humour is mild – not really laugh-out-loud stuff, but it’s likeable. I’d say that Terry Pratchett’s stuff is a little funnier, but Piers Anthony’s is a little better-written – but they’re very different otherwise: Pratchett goes in for parody and cultural references, while Anthony is more into invention.

Not a bad read, and I’d try another Xanth book if I saw one.

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The last Frank Herbert book I read was The Green Brain and it wasn’t very good. I saw the subject of this review in the Chapters bookstore in Ottawa and, as I didn’t have it – and didn’t even recognise the title – decided to buy it. Both The Green Brain and Hellstrom’s Hive have insect themes. While in the former insects themselves are being directed by a disembodied brain to fight against human ‘deinsectation’, in the latter a secret colony of humans, led by the eponymous Hellstrom, has been modelled on insect society.

A small city of 50,000 individuals is hidden under a farm out in the middle of nowhere. Many of these people are ‘workers’ – they have been chemically altered and have no spoken language (although they use a kind of sign language – as people do in many of Herbert’s books) and very simple motivations. The ‘specialists’ have been bred to be effective at their tasks. The origins of the Hive are unclear, but they’ve been around for a few hundred years and are intent on eventually converting all of humanity to their way.

When one of the specialist workers leaves a document lying around in the ‘Outside’, it is borrowed and copied by the Agency (not the CIA, but some secret government body along the same lines). Fearing that whoever owns this document is trying to create some kind of doomsday weapon, the Agency begins to investigate. As their agents goes missing, the situation escalates and the futures of the Hive and the human race could be in jeopardy.

Ultimately, this contest between Hive and isn’t entirely resolved – but I don’t think that’s really the point. Herbert creates a potential alternate society, that is neither good nor evil (although definitely chilling in some of its methods), but could be an effective answer to the problems posed by nature and human development.

The novel is also interesting because of its symmetricality. Hive and Agency mirror each other in many ways – both are hierarchical, directed, secret, yet effective at what they do. The writing and characterisation are efficient and competent. All of which makes the book a decent novel and good sf.

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Review of Michael Clayton

The most notable thing about this film is that it’s very classy. The acting is immaculate, the dialogue good; it has a sombre look throughout – all grey and cold; and it has a complex structure with a speech from the middle right at the very start, and this is followed by a climactic scene from near the end. The thing that isn’t so classy is the story.

George Clooney is much as George Clooney usually appears on-screen – charismatic and decisive – but his character is undergoing financial trouble (his restaurant has gone under; if it was made clear exactly why, then I wasn’t paying attention; in fact, I didn’t quite understand why Clayton was so strapped for cash when he’s made out to be such a great legal fixer … actually, he’s a recovering gambling addict, but even so. You know, the more I think about it, the more it seems like the restaurant and the gambling were just added to the story to spice it up – they don’t have a huge impact on the main thread of the plot). All his troubles give the eponymous MC a hangdog quality that Clooney either does subtly or half-heartedly, depending on your point of view.

Tom Wilkinson plays a manic-depressive lawyer who’s stopped taking his medication – and he goes a bit crazy … or does he? The puzzle of how sane or otherwise he is is a major part of the film. And again, this probably isn’t all that worthwhile. What it does is turn this legal drama into a personal drama. Perhaps the writers just decided that a straight legal battle wouldn’t be engaging enough; perhaps this half and half approach is either too ambitious or too much of a compromise.

There were a couple of moments that didn’t quite work: Clayton survives an attempt on his life by what appears to be some form of unconscious precognition. As with many things, the film doesn’t really go into the details of how this actually came about. And at the end of the film, the crux of success and failure is brought about by a hackneyed device that we’ve all seen approximately a million times in movies. Quite a disappointment for such a striking and strangely unusual film.

All of which might make you think I didn’t like Michael Clayton – so why did I say it was very classy? I enjoyed it a lot – it was dark, intense, intelligent and simply carried itself with authority. It also featured an incredibly chilling killing … Sorry. The villain of the peace, played by an almost robotic (in a good way) Tilda Swinton, hires a couple of corporate fixers of a very different kind to Michael Clayton – and they go about their business methodically and, when need be, brutally.

In the end, the film contains a few too many flaws to be great, and it’s perhaps not nearly as good as it appears to be, but it’s certainly watchable and its qualities outweigh those flaws.

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That’s two record-breaking daily views in three days: yesterday my blog got 126 hits.


I’ve also changed the format once again. The old design was pretty good, but I didn’t like the justified margins of the blog text, nor was I fond of the way the date on each post cut into the upper right corner of the text. This one’s reasonably pleasant. The category cloud widget doesn’t quite display properly (the larger words overlap their neighbours), so I’ve gone back to the old-fashioned category list. The photo at the top is of the Han River in Seoul. It’s not great and I’ll change it soon. The text of the blog name isn’t terribly attractive so I’ve turned it off.

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Beard news

The backpacking stage of my Canadian sojourn is over and I’m now back at Pete’s place. To commemorate this moment, this morning, I shaved off my goatee, leaving the little tuft under my lower lip (whatever it’s called … if it even has a name). I didn’t realise I was going to do this until I looked at my scruffy, stubbly face in the mirror and the idea came to me.

Afterwards, I threw away my razor. It’s the same Gillette Sensor Excel I bought all those many long years ago when I first started shaving. It has served me well. However, it’s also absolutely filthy – the part of the tray where the head of the razor rests contains little mounds of black gunk. I think its dirtiness is a good excuse to ditch it and upgrade to an inevitably more expensive model. I can’t see me going the electric route, though.

Interestingly, this’ll be the second time I’ve upgraded. A few years ago I bought a Lynx razor. It wasn’t as good as Gillette, and it quickly went out of production. I’d cannily kept my old razor, and so pretty quickly switched back. This time it won’t be so easy to go back as I’ll have left it in a wastepaper bin in a bathroom in Canada. I still have a few days to change my mind, though.

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Really: why bother?

Just read this amusing entry in Stephen Donaldson’s Gradual Interview:

Anonymous:  Steve,
I have more of a comment rather than a question. I have been reading Fatal Revenant this week and something occured to me. Your introducing of profanity into Covenant is similar to Foul introducing the Sunbane in the second series. You have utterly corrupted what was quite a legendary place. (The Land DOES exist in our minds). So, you have actually BECOME a living embodiment of Lord Foul. Ironic, isn’t it? Becoming the very thing you loathe. I want you to know that I have been hard at work with a white-out pen making Fatal Revenant a “proper” Covenant novel. Don’t bother responding to my submission either. I am not interested in your fancy explanations. It just is what it is. Base disappointment after 20 years of waiting.

I’m entranced by the self-righteousness of this message. And I can’t help noticing that the people who post such comments never sign their names–or risk leaving an e-mail address. I suspect that there’s a link between self-righteousness and cowardice. And yet this person keeps reading…!


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Niagara Falls

The Canadiana Hostel is a pick-up point for three separate tours going to Niagara Falls. There’s Jojo, leaving at about 8:30 for $50, Magic Bus, leaving at 9:45 for $40, and Moose, leaving at 11:15 for $50. Having ascertained that a return coach ticket would cost me $46, I decided to go for one of the tours instead of making my own way. Then I decided to go on the 11:15 tour – it would give me more time to prepare in the morning (for which read sleep later and then wait for a bowel movement after breakfast). However, the woman on reception couldn’t contact that operator, so I took the cheaper option.

I had breakfast yesterday morning in the main building, went back to my building to brush my teeth, discovered that my very nearly finished tube of toothpaste had mysteriously vanished (I can only imagine that I must have left it in the bathroom the previous night and that it had then been binned) and brushed my teeth with water.

Back in the main building, I had ten minutes before I had been told to be at reception and twenty minutes before the pick-up was scheduled. I went to the toilet. As I did so I overheard a receptionist say to someone, ‘Have you got everyone?’ That someone replied, ‘No – I’m early yet, though.’ When I got back (from a somewhat unsatisfactory bowel movement (and as I wonder whether anyone would actually want to read about my bowel movements I remember that I haven’t taken my bowel medicine today – and do so with my last swig of Tim Hortons tea)) there was a man asking was there anyone for the tour. I said Yes, and off we went.

There were a few other people from Canadiana, plus a few others already onboard. A further few people were picked up at the remaining two stops. Two girls got on at one of these – one of whom sat down next to me and promptly turned sideways so her back was to me and she could talk to her friend. These two girls turned out to be of the Essex variety and spent most of the outward and in-bound journeys chatting to a locquacious Portugese lad and his Iraqi-Indian friend. At one point, the Portugese guy asked the girls what the population of London was. One of them said she didn’t know, but it was a lot; then – and I’m sure I heard this right – she suggested that the population of Britain was about 4 billion.

The first aspect of the tour was a DVD to be shown in the minibus – but the sound was distorted and unlistenable. I suspect that even had the sound been OK the engine noise would have made it equally unlistenable.

After about an hour driving round the western coast of Lake Ontario (which I only really saw on the way back because I was on the right-hand side of the bus) we arrived at a winery. The winery aspect was a feature of all three tours. Personally, I couldn’t care less about wine, but – whatever. The presentation given by a girl who looked like she’d much rather be doing something else was very brief. It included three free samples of wine (the Iraqi-Indian chap was a Muslim – he requested Coke and was given juice) – one white, one red and one ice wine. Ice wine is made with grapes that have been left on the vine to freeze (they’re picked at night when the temperature has been -10 to -15 for three days), which gets rid of most of the liquid in them. The result is a sweet, syrupy wine. All three wines were surprisingly pleasant.

The winery appeared to be housed in a very modest single-storey building (although there was another house in the grounds). It can’t have been much more than ten yards square – and half of that contained the gift shop. The lass who gave the presentation said that Dan Ackroyd had just bought a stake in the company and that the winery and house were to be torn down soon and replaced with a Dan Ackroyd winery.

The tour resumed and we were driven through the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. This was a very pretty place – it’s been maintained in a billboard- and fast food restaurant-free state; it reminded me of places like Ilkley and Františkovy-Laznie – and it’s a shame we didn’t stop there. The Iraqi-Indian guy and a Singaporean couple and their daughter opted to go on a 15-minute helicopter flight (which cost them $85 each, reduced from $110 for the tour). While they were doing that the rest of us went to the world’s biggest whirpool.

The river is contained within a gorge and, from the point of view of the platform we stopped at, flows towards you from slightly to the left. It enters a crater-like section of gorge, flowing towards the near wall and then around to the right, anti-clockwise. Then it crosses itself, running out on the left. Apparently, the whirlpool is good for fishing because the fish like the oxygenated water.

Then we picked up the helicopterers and went on to the Falls. First stop here was the Maid of the Mist tour. Tickets cost $14, but got a massive discount of 50 cents. Once you’re issued with your fetching blue plastic raincoat, you cue up by the water. We arrived here just after the last boat left – which was good because it gave us a chance to take pictures and also allowed us to be first on the next boat.

When next Maid of the Mist (there appeared to be three Maids of the Mist on duty yesterday – two on the Canadian side and one over on US soil … I mean water. And they’re all called Maid of the Mist: Maid of the Mist V, Maid of the Mist VI etc) arrived and was emptied I made my way to the front right corner of the upper deck.

The boat went out into the middle of the river and very slowly made its way past the section of falls opposite the dock – the American Falls. (The Bridal Veil Falls are also there, next to the American Falls, but I didn’t notice or realise they were separate.) A recording played over the boat’s PA, giving some general information in English and French; I wasn’t paying too much attention. After five or ten minutes in front of this lesser (but still massive) waterfall cascading on to a row of boulders like a seawall, the boat put on some speed and forced its way against the current to Horseshoe Falls – the main attraction.

This iconic, crescent-shaped waterfall thundered incessantly, casting up a column of vapour like a cooling tower. In fact, these clouds obscure your view of much of the waterfall. The boat came and sat in front of the cascading arc for maybe ten minutes – a very short ten minutes. The best view for me was on the right-hand side (I seem to have been on the right constantly yesterday), where the water poured over its cliff 50 or so metres up. A little further back on the right was a long structure built into the face of the gorge. Up above, tourists looked out over the falls.

I took a number of pictures and a couple of video clips. My camera got quite wet. As did I – around the edges, anyway. The blue plastic cape is very lightweight, and the wind from the falls pushes the hood back and forth, obscuring your view or leaving the top of your head open to the waterfall rain. If you have your hands in front of you – to take pictures, say – then the wind also blows the sleeves back up your arms. And the cape only comes down to your knees.

When the your time is up in the biggest shower in the world, the boat revs the engine again and begins to turn back. This causes the vessel to fall and rise alarmingly in the churning water, but a minute later you’re safely back on the calm part of the river – although still being rained on. After another few minutes in front of the smaller waterfall – this time facing the other way – the Maid of the Mist quickly returns to her place beneath the cliffs. Then you have to wait another few minutes as people reluctantly trundle out and on to the land.

Next stop for me was the bathroom – not least to dry my hair with a hand-dryer – the first time I’ve ever used one that way – and comb it. Then I got tea.

After that I walked. And at first I went in the counter-intuitive direction. Which is to say, I went to America. To walk from Canada on the bridge joining the two countries, you pay 50¢ and go through a turnstile. I had intended to take some photos from the bridge – and I did, but unfortunately my camera was steamed up inside. I tried holding it tightly in my hand to make the water condensed on the inner side of the lens evaporate – didn’t do much good – at least while I was up in no man’s land.

I went into the US immigration post and was told I needed to fill in a form and pay $6. I said, ‘I think I’ll just walk back across’. In the Canadian immigration post, the man on duty said, ‘Did you just walk across?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ As he was looking at my passport (I may have been stupid enough to try to cross the border without looking into what was required, but I wasn’t stupid enough to try it without my passport) he asked, ‘Why’d you go over?’ I said, ‘Um, just to have a look, really.’ He said, ‘OK,’ and motioned for me to go through.

Then I walked over in the direction I probably should have gone first – towards the great crescent waterfall. I couldn’t even do this properly. There’s a reasonably nice park area and an old administrative building with a small, tree-clothed ridge behind it. Going up through the trees was a path, and it just looked so inviting. There wasn’t much at the top: a road, a carpark. The carpark was for the Skylon Tower overlooking the falls. I didn’t go up the tower.

I walked round and back down to the water and along to the big waterfall. The path at the top goes right by the water at this point. The thundering rush of water is just a few yards away from you, and you get to see the boulder-strewn upper reaches of the river.

I took photos (the water in my camera had cleared away) and asked a Spanish bloke to take one of me with the fall in the background – and I offered to return the favour. I wasn’t all that happy with his photo of me, but, of course, when he asked was it OK, I said, Yes, it’s fine. Back near where the Maid of the Mist departs and our bus was waiting I got a Japanese man to take another photo of me. I suppose the Japanese should be good at taking photos – and this was a better snap, although the falls are a lot further away.

According to my watch it was getting on for five o’clock – our pick-up time – so I went for another tea (one for the road). In the café, the time on the tills showed 5:05. I looked at my watch: it said about 4:47. I worried that my watched had stopped for a while during the day. I worried that I might get left behind; the driver had earlier joked that if we weren’t back for five, well, the Greyhound station was just over there. I got to the bus stop and there were a few other people from the tour there – the two Essex girls and an Australian woman about the same age as me who I’d spoken to earlier. I sat next to her.

We chatted. I spend so much time not talking to people, stressing about not talking to people and whether I should talk to people, and who, and what about, that – on those rare and fleeting occasions when I do talk to people – I’m moderately surprised that I can even put coherent sentences together. She asked me what I’d been doing in Canada and I told her about my friend and my trip; she suggested that when I returned to Britain I’d be going back to work, and I told her about my plans to go to India. She said she’d been to India – a friend of hers had got married there, and she’d done the Golden Triangle; I asked her if there was anything, apart from the Taj Mahal, she’d recommend I see and she mentioned the fort at Jhansi (I think. It sounded like she said ‘Jasmine’). I noticed as we talked that she glanced a few times at either my mouth or my goatee.

The bus turned up and we all returned to the same seats we’d sat in on the outbound trip. I was on the second row from the back and she was on the second row from the front. I had a female Essex back at my side while she had a shaven-headed fellow Antipodean to talk to – and they seemed quite happy. Strangely, I’d felt much more depressed and lonely on the way out than on the way back. Actually, I felt quite content. The Essex girls and the Portugese wannabe Casanova even fell silent for a time and I allowed myself to fall asleep.

As Stephen King would say: Coda

The first half of this report on my trip to Niagara Falls (and I keep wanting to call it Viagra Falls … hmm, I wonder using the V-word will do for my viewing figures) was written at the Metro Center food court. The second half was written here, at a table in the reception area of the Canadiana Backpacker’s Hostel. And who should come and sit down opposite me and eat her soup? Yes – the Australian girl. And what did I say to her? ‘Hi.’ Then I kept on writing. Yesterday, I’d decided that when we had a rest-break on the way back I would ask her if she was going to put any of her photos on the internet, and if so could she give me the address. Of course, we didn’t stop on the way back. And, of course, I didn’t take my second chance just now.

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