Tuesday, 27 March 2007

the black tower

The sentence of death had been communicated, as he suspected such sentences usually were, by grave looks, a certain false heartiness, whispered consultations, a superfluity of clinical tests, and, until he had insisted, a reluctance to pronounce a diagnosis or prognosis. The sentence of life, pronounced with less sophistry when the worst days of his illness were over, had certainly produced a greater outrage. It was, he had thought, uncommonly inconsiderate if not negligent of his doctors to reconcile him so thoroughly to death and then change their minds. It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy. Now he had to lay hold of them again and believe that they were important, at least to himself. He doubted whether he would ever again believe them important to other people. No doubt, with returning strength, all that would look after itself. The physical life would re-assert itself given time. He would reconcile himself to living since there was no alternative and, this perverse fit of resentment and accidie conveniently put down to weakness, would come to believe that he had had a lucky escape. His colleagues, relieved of embarrassment, would congratulate him. Now that death had replaced sex as the great unmentionable it had acquired its own pudency; to die when you had not yet become a nuisance and before your friends could reasonably raise the ritual chant of ‘happy release’ was in the worst of taste.

In the last fifteen years he hadn’t deliberately hurt a single human being. It struck him now that nothing more damning could be said about anyone.
- PD James, The Black Tower, 1975; Faber 1990

I've been working my way through PD James over the last couple of years (non-chronologically, sadly, just as and when I pick them up), a latecomer to her, can't remember which was the first I read which drew me in. This one wasn't so good plotwise, but I found the most interesting thing about it - and I don't know if this was her intention - was that by having it set in a more or less closed community, like many such stories, while the inspector is on sick leave, she shows how difficult it actually would be for an amateur detective who has no power/authority/jurisdiction to actually solve a crime.

the redeeming military virtue of discipline

The Western-style militarisation of the new independent states of Asia and Africa in the four decades after 1945 was as remarkable a phenomenon as it had been with the non-warrior populations of Europe in the nineteenth century. That it had many of the same doleful effects - overspending on arms, subordination of civilian to military values, superordination of self-chosen military elites and even resort to war - could be expected. It was equally to be expected that most of the hundred or so armies brought into being after decolonisation were of little objective military worth; Western 'technology transfers', a euphemism for selfish arms sales by rich Western nations to poor ones that could rarely afford the outlay, did not entail the transfusion of culture which made advanced weapons so deadly in Western hands. Only the Vietnamese, against whom the United States was drawn into an unavailing ideological war between 1965 and 1972, made the same transition that the Japanese so spectacularly achieved after the Meiji restoration of 1866. Elsewhere militarisation served only to bring the trappings of militarism without the redeeming military virtue of discipline.

- John Keegan, A History of Warfare, p380-1

'god help needy christian charities'

Interesting article by Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph of 10 February on objections to Christian social agencies.

the grand alliance

Interesting article by Ian Jack in the Guardian of 8 February on the union of Scotland and England.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

what we did on our holidays - keswick

While in Keswick last week:

- we visited Castlerigg Stone Circle: see here, here and here. Very well situated, with hills all around. One of the theories on the sign - not much info there - was that it was a kin of seasonal calendar by which those ancient peasants knew when to plant their crops and so forth: 'the sun's rising over that stone and that hill, time to move the sheep onto the moor'. Although I'd have thought it was much more likely that the ancient peasant would stand in the doorway of his ancient hut and do his sightings from there rather than heading up to the wet and windy stone-filled field. M established that the real purpose of the stones was to facilitate the playing of hide and seek.

- we visited Whinlatter Forest Park, which was good. We did a forest trail with M, finding the animal signs, and she liked the giant badger sett a lot, we had to go through a few times, even though the giant badger gave her a start at least the first time. Nice cafe too.

- we visited Linskeldfield Tarn bird hide. We found this through a leaflet in a folder in Whinlatter visitor centre. It was a good little place, done by the farm privately by the look of it. Bird hides are tranquil places, time really goes there.

- we visited Friar's Crag, our first walk out from Keswick.

- had a boat trip on Windermere, from Ambleside to Bowness, mainly for M's benefit. The areas we were in were busy enough in March, they must bee heaving in the summer. Bowness wasn't very nice. Not sure why anyone would base themselves in the dull southern district rather than up in the hill country. This'll be one of our last out-of-season holidays, before the termtime regime kicks in, and we were among many oldsters, as usual, but probably a fitter sampling than usual.

- we visited Honister Slate Mine, which was good but a bit expensive, and not much to it apart from the mine tour (although that was good if you like mine tours); there were just us and another family, so we were an exclusive little group.

- we visited Watendlath: see here and here. We walked quite a bit beyond the tarn, and M did very well, although most of the way back she was a bit girny; but it was a proper walk for her.

- we walked up Castlehead: see here, here and here. This was M's first 'proper' walk up a hill, probably, and she did very well, except when we were at the very top when it was too windy for her, but she was happy again once she was back down in the lee. On the way up we met Michael Buerk coming down - there was a writers festival on in Keswick the week we were there, so who knows what unidentified authors we were passing on the streets. The hill's a wee isolated one almost in the town - it couldn't have taken us much more than thirty minutes from our front door to the top.

- I went to a Chinese restaurant for a takeaway, and the magazines they had in the takeaway waiting area were back issues of The Economist.

- we did the town, and having been to two charity shops and a fairly pricey secondhand bookshop, primarily antiquarian, we concluded - in the way that astronomers hypothesise missing planets - that in a town like Keswick there must be another large secondhand bookshop somewhere which we'd missed. Sure enough, we looked in the yellow pages and found an Oxfam, and when we went along it was huge. We'd have been gutted if we'd missed that.

- I spent part of Saturday evening looking for a launderette, and part of Sunday afternoon in one, as M was sick as soon as she went to bed. She enjoyed the launderette, though.

- I saw a Dover Thrift Edition of 'Wordsworth Favorite Poems'. Wondered if it was American, or if they were economising by omitting letters - if I looked up his most famous poem, would the first line read 'I wandered, lonely as a clod'?

- wondered at names given to bed and breakfasts; they'd make an interesting study. Next door to each other on our street were Rivendell and Glencoe. There must be Rivendells everywhere. The owners of Glencoe presumably don't have the resonance with the name not just of the massacre, but the fact that one of the things considered most awful about the massacre was the breach of hospitality, the guests rising up in the night to murder their hosts, or else they wouldn't get much sleep.

- we'd go again. My first time in the Keswick area, not Bethan's.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

sarah mayers

I thought about Sarah Mayers today, and googled her. I found this brief blog, centred around a trip to a cancer clinic in Mexico, which rather ominously stopped all of a sudden just before Christmas. A further search led me to this item on a blog by another former colleague of mine, recording John Grayston's tribute delivered at Sarah's funeral on 22 December.

Sarah's blog is hard to read, knowing the outcome. The two most poignant things are the title ('Chick with cancer (but not for long!)') and the Archives column:
October 2006 (3)
November 2006 (4)
December 2006 (4)
January 2007 (0)
February 2007 (0)
March 2007 (0)

Sarah was a lovely young woman who'll be sorely missed by those who knew and loved her. We worked together for just a couple of years, ten years ago now.

Monday, 19 March 2007

while I'm worth my room on this earth

Apparently Hibs won a cup yesterday. The title for this blog entry with a YouTube clip is 'The Most Emotional Singing of 'Sunshine On Leith' Ever'.

corinne's trendy vicar

Corinne Bailey (she took the Rae from saxophonist Jason, her husband of five years) was born in the city [Leeds], the offspring of a St Kitts dad and Yorkshire mum, and has lived there her whole life, moving to student central Hyde Park as an English Literature undergraduate. She credits the church with shaping her taste in music; not with the gospel that might be expected of a singer occasionally categorised as soul (one listen is enough to realise she has nothing in common with the gut-busting Aretha Franklin school), but via the American guitar bands she was exposed to by a trendy lay preacher (she corrects me when I say 'vicar'), who enthused about the revolutionary social aspects of Christianity while extollling the riffs on Nevermind and Led Zep IV.
- Word, November 2006

what we learned this week

Israel has allocated funds for a driver for Ariel Sharon, even though he's been in a coma for more than a year.
Peruvian officials arrived 30 minutes late to the launch of their national punctuality campaign.
- Guardian, Sat 3 March 2007

current private eye: health supplements; jesus tomb

cartoon: sales assistant at health supplements counter, various pills and potions behind him, saying to customer, 'Have you tried this? It used to be all the rage.', while holding a box marked 'Food'.

Discovery of Jesus Tomb Rocks Faithful
Millions of believers around the world are reeling following the news that the tomb of Jesus along with that of his wife Mary and son Judah has been found near Jerusalem.
A typical reaction came from one woman in the airport lounge at Heathrow.
'If this is true, it means that everything I believe is rubbish. It has shattered my faith which is based on the literal interpretation of the Da Vinci Code.
'The code claims that Jesus' wife Mary travelled to France with her son and established a royal bloodline that led through the Merovingian dynasty right down to French actress Audrey Tatou.
'All of a sudden it seems as though Jesus and his family never went to France at all and stayed in Israel until their tombs were discovered by Hollywood director James Cameron. I just don't know what to believe any more.'
She continued, 'This challenges all that I hold to be true, and raises fundamental questions about the gospel according to Dan, ie is it not true that albino monks go around assassinating French professors in the Louvre? Is Sir Ian McKellan *not* really an expert on Grail symbology? Why did I spend £4.99 in Waterstones? Am I a gullible idiot (cont. p94)

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

peculiar behaviour by david eddings

David Eddings burned down his garage and part of his office on 25 January, by throwing a lit piece of paper into spilt petrol to learn whether the latter was inflammable. It was. (Nevada Appeal)
- from Dave Langford's Ansible 235, Feb 07

I liked David Eddings' first fantasy series very much; read it twice, perhaps thrice, and I reread only slightly more often than I give up on a book without finishing it. The sequel series was curiously pointless. Recently I read in the library a bit from an introduction, written by him, to one of his books which suggested that he was ruthless and calculating in constructing his books to maximise chances of popular success, which put me off him rather.

Monday, 5 March 2007

correlation does not imply causation

According to an article on Micah P Hinson in October 2006's Mojo, the place he comes from, Abilene, Texas, 'has the highest number of churches per capita, and the most teenage pregnancies in the nation'.

If you can read the ingredients list you can eat it

Next time you are about to give in to pester power, just say “If you can read the ingredients list you can eat it!” One stab at ‘disodium 5-ribonucleotide’ and my 8 year old nephew decided he didn't like the sound of the hotdog flavoured chips after all!"
- tip from the netmums.com February email

yet more from the 27th kingdom

'Cassandra had a row with some people ... someone said the monastic life was selfish. And she said yes, wasn't it marvellous how amazingly unselfish married people were - always giving things to beggars and tearing their coats in half and generally behaving in an altruistic and Christ-like fasion. ... Then someone said religion was responsible for a vast amount of human unhappiness, and she said that in her experience it was sex that made people most unhappy, and she'd never met a girl who was buying six bottles of aspirins because God had got her into trouble and run away; and someone said "What about the B.V.M.?" and she gave them a very old-fashioned look, and then she said she'd never come across a girl teetering on a window sill because God had left her for the blonde next door. And then she said God had never blacked anyone's eye for refusing his favours. She went on like that for quite a bit.'

Aunt Irene shivered. It had occurred to her the other day in church that possibly it was only the good who were *able* to believe in God - that the wicked, being hideously narcissistic, could see only themselves reflected in whatever they looked upon; could believe only in their own desires and inadequacies, were quite incapable of seeing the truth of a different person or deity.
Like people who took sugar in their tea, or people cross-eyed and dribbling with lust. Such people when told that other people preferred their tea unsweetened, or liked to sleep alone, simply did not believe it - were quite *unable* to believe it.
The only answer was for these people to practise virtue, no matter what they felt like. To do good things until it became clear to them that good things could be done. And perhaps in the end the snake scales would fall from their eyes, and they would be able to see the limpidity of God, and after a while it would cease to offend them. Of course the same thing applied to the virtuous. The virtuous were unable to see the attractions of lying dead drunk in the gutter, or tearing frenziedly from bed to bed, or telling lies or pushing old ladies out of railway trains. If the virtuous should try doing these things in order not to set themselves apart from other people they would lay themselves open to the charge of hypocrisy. But then that applied to the wicked too. Perhaps it didn't matter. Perhaps there were worse things than hypocrisy.

But why [did he kill himself]?' implored Aunt Irene. '*Why?*' She felt responsible, which was one of the few penalties her degree of self-centredness would necessarily incur.
'It was nothing to do with you or anyone else,' explained Kyril, who was far more solipsistic than his aunt but differently constituted: he had no feelings of responsibility at all.

Aunt Irene took a breath and ran through the traffic, which seemed to rush at her, snarling and barking. 'Fry your face,' she directed a taxi driver who had stopped and was leaning out of his window, shaking his fist and telling her things about herself.

jarvis quote

Jarvis on the debauchery that led to Pulp's darkest, yet finest hour [This is Hardcore]: 'I got the fear, because I got what I'd been after for the majority of my life, and then the reality of it was rubbish. It was awful, definitely the worst period of me life. Taking drugs didn't help. You don't often hear people say, "Oh, since he's been taking them drugs, he's such a nice person!".'
- NME, 9 September 2006

Saturday, 3 March 2007

the master and margarita; sympathy; rhapsody

I have now officially abandoned The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, having picked it up again and waded through until I'd read more than a quarter of it. It was just very dull. And I'm not someone who gives up mid-book lightly. Supposedly Mick Jagger read this in a night (it's the same translation, originally published in 1967) and then wrote Sympathy for the Devil.

Sympathy for the Devil is a far better song than this is a book, and unfairly villified by people, usually Christians, who think it's pro-Satan - presumably the title and the fact that it's by The Rolling Stones are sufficient evidence for some people to reach that conclusion without actually listening to the song.

Although people are always ready to misinterpret songs according to their own prejudices and preconceptions. I saw a tv programme about American Christians against rock music years ago where someone was giving the example of the line from Bohemian Rhapsody which (they said) said 'Beelzebub has a devil for a son - called me!' Which is not only illiterate, but just obviously not what poor old Freddie is singing. (I'm not sure why people - even members of Queen, they themselves imply - find the lyrics of Bohemian Rhapsody impenetrable; they seem pretty clear to me.)

The reason I started reading the book, really, was because it was on the Waterstone's list of the Top 100 Books of the Century, boosted in, I suspect, by a microcampaign, as many such lists are victim to in this age of internet and email. (I think Marquez in this list must be the same.) The two most noticeable things about Waterstone's list, prepared in 1997, come 2000, were that a) there was no JK Rowling on the list, whereas if it had actually been prepared in 2000 then all of her books in print by then would have been on the list, and b) there were current books popular at the time which even a few years later you knew weren't going to stand the test of time as classics.

lady jane grey; castle of mulden

Last Friday we went to the National Gallery and went to a set of rooms I hadn't been in before, a basement set - in fact, I think I'd been in years ago, when you could get in there from the back. I don't think I'd seen The Execution of Lady Jane Grey painting in the flesh before, which I like a lot. I remember it was on the poster and programme for the production of Death and the Maiden I saw with Juliet Stephenson, Bill Paterson and Michael Byrne, which was very good.

Coincidentally, when I'd been down in the basement rooms years before I saw what became my favourite painting, The Castle of Mulden in Winter. I didn't see it again until not long before Christmas, when they had a temporary exhibition featuring Dutch winter scenes, including this one.