Monday, April 29, 2013

Oaken's Twelve: Rounding out the Posse

Naturally, the Company of Oakenshield isn’t complete without a Wizard and a Thief…

My Gandalf and Bilbo figures are, as you might expect, not official Hobbit figures, although they are from Games Workshop’s Tolkien license line. Gandalf is one of five or six metal variants on the character (including two mounted and one on a cart), and is simply the easiest and most appropriate to use. This being a LotR version, there’s no silver scarf as mentioned in the book, but short of making one from green stuff, this will do – the important elements, his hat, staff and sword Glamdring, are present, and you can’t ask better than that.
Bilbo, on the other hand, is not Bilbo at all, but Frodo repainted and chosen for his pose and for having his sword/letter-opener Sting in hand. In his other hand ought to be the One Ring on a chain, as supplied by Bilbo himself, but as this was not present in The Hobbit I’ve remodelled things slightly and used the opportunity to include the scarf Bilbo wears in An Unexpected Journey. The green cloak loaned by Dwalin is, of course, not present in the movie (for shame!), but I’m happy to include it here, and the backpack is a nice touch and a happy accident, as the movie most definitely features one. No walking stick as seen on the big screen, however, but I’m not worried.

Bilbo, it has to be said, is not really just Frodo with different coloured hair. That said, I’ve not made any attempts to bulk up this hobbit or change his physique too much, hoping instead that a judicious paint job on his face will soften the more sculpted cheekbones and jawline of Elijah Woods circa 1999 and nod towards something closer to Martin Freeman circa 2011.
My base for Bilbo here incorporates some Mirkwood leaves – using the old modeller’s trick of dried birch seeds. I’ve not mentioned this before, but my original intention with these figure conversions some five years ago was to portray the company as they were making their way through Mirkwood – hence Fili’s grappling hooks, and giving me a reason to keep weapons like bows on the models (bows and knives being the weapons Beorn gives the non-sword-bearing party members in the book.) My birch leaves date from then, so they’re getting pretty withered now, and I’d based the figures originally with medium-grain local beach sand and herbal tea leaves – all of which needed to be scraped off after moth larvae took a shine to the Raspberry Zinger (or whatever it was I’d used.) Gandalf, of course, doesn’t accompany Thorin’s team through Mirkwood, so that idea is now laid to rest.  

And so, with the Company complete, here’s the whole gang gathered at last:

Next time: I’m still not done with Dwarves!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Once on Chunuk Bair

So far as I know there is no Simian family blood in the soil at Gallipoli, nor the Somme.

view of Anzac Cove from Lone Pine
Some families have stories of great heroism in their past; the stories of the Simians' combined families are perhaps more ordinary, somewhat anonymous in their loss - two brothers among the hundred of New Zealand troops killed in the futility of Passchendale, a young Kiwi aboard a bomber shot down over Cologne, each in themselves small incidents in far greater events, but each one a devastating, irreversible blow to our respective families. My Nan kept a picture of her late brother, Sgt Walter Foch Kelcher, in her hallway, and as a young man I fancied I saw some physical resemblance between he and I; we had similar faces and shared the same slightly stocky build. He wasn't a big man, but in the picture stands fit to burst with pride in his RNZAF uniform, the picture taken, I believe, in Canada where he trained for a time.

Walter's name stayed with me through my high school years, listed as it was on my school's roll of fallen old boys in our school hall, surrounded by austere stained-glass windows depicting Richard the Lionheart, and a New Zealand soldier, with the names of our great World War battlefields - Crete, Tunisia, et cetera, winding around him in heraldic tape. Every ANZAC Day the school service would of course feature the head boy reading the long list of the school's fallen, and Walter's name was of course on it - they seldom got the pronunciation right.

It's on my list of things to do, to visit Walter's grave in Reinholt War Cemetary. In its stead, and because Turkey was on our itinerary during our brief overseas holiday thirteen years ago, we visited Gallipoli.

The tour was one of the worst I've been on, a combination of booking mix-ups which had our friendly guide questioning the validity of our presence constantly, and a general lack of knowledge of the area we were visiting (he took us to Troy as well, but coped better with guiding us around the site by reading aloud the English descriptions off the signs posted around the place). Because we were two Kiwis in a tour party of four, however (the other two being Swedes), ANZAC Cove and the Gallipoli Peninsula were ours.

Flagstaffs, Anzac Cove
Which isn't entirely true of course. The Peninsula and its highest point is no more 'owned' today by the people of New Zealand and Australia than it was on 10 August 1915 when it was decisively held by Ataturk, and it's his statue which rightly is posited on Chunuk Bair , and his holding of the point one of the few true victories of the campaign. As much as we believe that the nationhood and identity of New Zealand was born on the slopes of this cratered line of hills, it's also the birthplace of modern Turkey, its general and future leader's decisive moment of valour, now as much dedicated to the man who would free his country from its Ottoman past and bring it into the modern world, and of course it is his words in relief on the shores of ANZAC Cove, among the most eloquent and poignant lines of rhetoric I have ever read.
Ataturk's dedication
Gallipoli today is of course important to Turkey as a tourist destination as much a place of reverence and history. The battlefield museum on its lower slopes is a storehouse of some wretched stories and grim artefacts and remains, dead shells and bullet casings, shreds of cloth and shards of bone, each described on small cards as the belongings or remnants of a "martyr", regardless of its nationality (if ever such things could be determined from the shattered landscape.)

Off-season the battlefield sites are incongruously serene; the day we had set aside was warm, dry and blessed with azure skies a startling contrast to the mingling indigo waters of the Bosphoros and the turquoise Aegean. For all of this the landscape could easily have been that of home - the blasted cliffs of Anzac Cove simply resembled the similarly blasted quarry face of Cape Wanbrow, and I found myself constantly noting mentally that the soil on which I was standing was itself a burial ground, spent lives ploughed over by repeated assaults on the summits, the dry clay holding innumerable stories and pieces of other people's homeland. 

Grave markings on the beach

Also on the beach, a stray dog who knew the tourist market as well. He got some lokum for his trouble (it was all we had!) but looked like he could have used something a little more substantial in his diet.

Reaching Chunuk Bair by van and walking track was perhaps twenty minute's worth, past sites familiar to me from ANZAC Days past - Quinn's Post, Lone Pine, Johnson's Jolly, and the Canterbury Commonwealth Cemetary. Again, no familiar names, and the joshing of local stallsmen plying their wares on the road up to the summit ("why aren't you crying?" "this is a sad place!") was more than a little distracting. On to the top, then, for some peace and quiet and away from the wagons of painted plates and soft drinks.
restored trenches
Once on Chunuk Bair the entire Peninsular is evident, from the Dardanelles to the Aegean, we could apparently see Lesvos on the horizon, a tantalising glimpse of the nearest parts of Greece we'd see. Kicking the shingle at my feet near the Ataturk statute my toe caught a chip of blue-green shell, perhaps abalone, but maybe paua, no doubt left there by a traveler before me. It was utterly silent, and a perfect place for reflection, easily the most distant spot from home I could imagine. Despite there being no family blood spilt there, it's a place I'll not forget, and to which I still feel an eerie attachment.

Blogger and fellow tourists, Chunk Bair, September 2000.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

1985: Ich bin ein Britischer

I am 15 and my world is expanding.

This isn't going to be a Video Affects post, nor a Manic Street Preachers one, although the video below is useful for more than just illustration. In my mid-teens my musical tastes went Northward, to the United Kingdom. Obviously, thanks to the Summer of Pop and the early Eighties British Pop Invasion the presence of a wide range of popular music from the Mother Country on New Zealand radios would have led to a lot of young teens such as myself building a music collection which had a particular geographical bias. Thanks to that, and after a brief dalliance with West Coast US rock, through an even briefer interest in NWOBHM, I settled on following British music almost exclusively - Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, The Police and Sting, U2, and eventually The Skids, The Clash, and The Smiths. For a while I could see no point to the sunshine and sweetness of American pop, and resisted the likes of Madonna and Prince to follow acts which I thought, in my tender years, spoke to me more about how the world really was. Goodbye California Girls, hello Eton Rifles.

Quite silly, of course, and by the time I'd left home a good few months of university life fixed such notions and I was adding The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth to a palette that even at high school couldn't quite manage resisting College-radio era REM. But enough listmaking, it's making me feel all weird and old.

The thing about following British culture, as I did in my teens, was that half a world away it seemed to require an additional investment in background cultural accumulation. Reading comics (Eagle, 2000AD) that over ten years would move from nodding at contemporary novelty newspaper headlines and TV ads through to actually quoting Morrissey lyrics; following TV series (The Young Ones, Spitting Image, Black Adder, any number of Comic Strip specials, New Statesman, Red Dwarf) that were the product of a new wave of politicised young comedians - all of this demanded some sort of context to it, and working out the relevance of terms like Special Patrol Group, or names like Scargill, Tebbit, Lawson... Thatcher.

At least the last name needed little introduction. Margaret Thatcher's political career spanned many more years than my teens, but her eleven years as British PM overlapped them neatly enough, and culturally she was everywhere, perhaps more than any other Prime Minister since Churchill. Looking back it seemed the political landscape of Cold War Eighties was dominated by these huge and polarising world leaders - Thatcher, Reagan, a succession of doomed Soviet Presidents culminating in Gorbachev, the formidable Bob Hawke, and here the outwardly sharp-witted David Lange, an orator king who'd thrust our defining foreign policy riposte into international waters - out Anti-Nuclear stance. This seemed like a brilliant burst of desperate hope compared to the grim picture painted by the songs, programmes and stories I'd read and watch and listen to. Polarising leaders inspire entire cultural movements in revolt, and so my music collection also acquired tones of political protest - The Specials, Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello and The Proclaimers. Only  my following all of this seems now more than a little disingenuous - a combination of good tunes and unfocused adolescent fervour. A far cry from those early Eagle magazines and their Falklands-themed pull-out posters of Harrier jump jets and MIG Foxbats. Culturally as well as politically the Thatcher years as I experienced them as a teenager still resonate in the movements and phases that followed - angry small press-inspired comic titles like Deadline and Revolver, Britpop's courtship and rejection of Tony Blair's New Labour, the stories of Ian Banks and Irvine Welsh, and even the shape of modern Doctor Who. Thatcher's death this week is a strange thing for me to mark then, her past career seemingly forming the bedrock of an artistic reaction that I could only really experience vicariously. It all seems so distant, geographically and chronologically; and as I type this with Tramp the Dirt Down playing in the background I feel I'm no closer now to the heart of it than I was at fifteen, seventeen or twenty.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Oaken's Twelve: Thorin Oakenshield

"There is no knowing what a dwarf will not dare & do for revenge"

And so finally I'm here - Thorin Thrainsson, the Oakenshield, Chief of the Company of Oakenshield. The Boss.

Thorin is the most complicated Dwarf character of The Hobbit, and his story is the most rewarding because of this. He has Fatal Flaw etched in him indelibly, and seems to personify the most infamous traits of his kind as lamented by Gandalf- obsessed with past injustices, wedded to revenge, servant to his passions, and not in a Mills & Boon way. I'm very curious to see how the remaining Hobbit movies will treat this character. So far he seems pretty close to the book version of Thorin, perhaps not so haughty (but then Richard Roxburgh's character hasn't met Elf king Thranduil yet), and maybe a little more sympathetic. His coming around regarding Bilbo of course happens earlier in the movies for reasons, I presume, of the movie trilogy's storytelling. That said, Thorin and Bilbo's relationship is an up and down affair throughout the book, and his mercurial personality is a major challenge for our Hobbit hero. 

Thankfully we have a pretty clear image of Thorin provided to us by Tolkien - an older Dwarf (older than Roxburgh's version seems to be to me), with a "sky-blue" hood with a long silver-tipped tassel. This style of hood is in fact a liripipe, and it was only through reading John Rateliff's notes to The Hobbit that I had a clearer picture of this in my mind - the earlier version of the model I simply opted to have a silver-braided wire tail with moulded tassel, but I was quite wrong and, in trying to correct this with more green stuff sculpting, met a rather heft challenge in getting the dynamics and flow right. In the end I don't thin  I did, quite, but it's a fudged-sort of movement that I think balances out the raised arm bearing Orcrist, not an Elven blade as such (it's the hand and sword of a butchered Gondorian soldier I've used here), but a significantly de-stabilising element to the model.
As shown here the model I used for Thorin has been altered a fair bit, including a new sword and hand, removal of hand axes and of course the tail and tassel. I also enlarged his shoulder bag (a hangover from when I stared these models back in the day and didn't want to sculpt backpacks, so opted for the nearest thing), and a gold chain around his neck which, strictly speaking, Thorin shouldn't have until he reaches the hoard of Erebor. The colouring is simple - some purple to the inner cloak to signify his regal bearing, and a Dwarven motif added at the last minute to break up the space a little bit. And that's Thorin.

Ah, but is it all the Dwarves? Wait and see...