Thursday, 31 January 2008

pontesford hill and earl's hill

On 27th December, on our way out for lunch, we went for a walk up Pontesford Hill and Earl's Hill. Pontesford Hill was wooded with steep, slippy bits; Earl's Hill was bare and very windy, almost from the point we came out of the Pontesford trees, which meant we didn't linger, just zipped to the trig point and back again to the trees, when tranquility was restored. Pontesford had a small iron age fort near the bottom, which I think we saw; Earl's a big one around the top, which we didn't have time to appreciate. Good views all around from Earl's Hill; the pair of hills look very shapely coming from Shrewsbury direction. They're prominent, but not that high.

Streetmap's got the OS map. Virtual Shropshire has some photos of Earl's Hill. And BBC Shropshire has a nice section on the 'sleeping dragon' double hill, including a 360 degree panorama.

a christmas carol

God bless Tiny Tim: Charles Dickens is often credited with 'inventing' the modern festive season with his 1843 hit A Christmas Carol. But we should not forget his other seasonal stories, argues Kathryn Hughes
- interesting article from the Guardian of 22 December 2007.

'What makes A Christmas Carol so important is that it marks the first time that anyone tried to imagine what a modern, urban Christmas might look like. ... Dickens demonstrates triumphantly that a meaningful Christmas is possible even in the most contemporary and urban of settings. Fears among gloomy commentators such as Thomas Carlyle that the dour Dissenting creed of the manufacturing classes had killed off older, more spontaneous types of seasonal joy are banished by Scrooge's conversion to the Christmas spirit. Starting the story as a textbook Utilitarian who calmly accepts that starvation is Nature's way of keeping the population under control, he finishes it not by attempting to revive some pre-industrial whimsy overseen by the Lord of Misrule, but by raising Cratchit's wages and ordering an extra scuttle of coal. The real Utilitarians, who ran the Westminster Review, were naturally not happy with this blatant economic rule-breaking, and thundered in response: "Who went without turkey and punch in order that Bob Cratchit might get them? - for unless there were turkeys and punch in surplus, some one must go without." Everyone else, however, was mighty pleased with this reassurance that keeping Christmas in the city did not mean having to resort to a bogus hey-nonny-no.'

'In his The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, the American critic Paul Davis has shown convincingly that Dickens's original audiences were not, by and large, very interested in Scrooge's back story, with its lengthy detours into his boyhood and courtship days. The ghosts bored them, too. What they liked, and wanted more of, was the Cratchits who, in an age where God was increasingly in hiding, could be easily turned into an alternative Holy Family, with Tiny Tim doubling up as the Christ Child.'

'As a result, A Christmas Carol became not so much an iconic text as an iconic idea of a text. By the 1870s, pursed-lip critics including Mrs Oliphant were accusing Dickens of creating a jingling story that merely celebrated "the immense spiritual power of the Christmas turkey". Ruskin, meanwhile, sneered that Christmas had become nothing more to Dickens than "mistletoe and pudding". These criticisms were markedly unfair since they took no account of the full text, which was darker and more complex than anyone cared to recall. Who, for instance, now thinks of Scrooge confronting the wasted child figures named as "Ignorance" and "Want"? Who remembers him being taken by the Ghost of Christmas Present to look upon the mariners and miners whose pinched and narrow lives represent the reality of rural labour in the new industrial age? And what about those desolate scenes where rats gather to gnaw at Scrooge's corpse, while his deathbed attendant tries to get a good price for his old sheets?'
- Me, for one; especially Ignorance and Want. I think she's overstretched her argument here.

the rolling stones' record sales

The recent Sunday Times Rich List estimated that since 1989, the Stones' empire has generated £1.5 billion from touring, merchandising and record sales. Which isn't bad for a band who haven't had a Top 10 single in Britain since 1981, whose studio album sales have been on a downward trajectory for aeons. While the Forty Licks package of 2002 has US sales of 2.7m, 1994's Voodoo Lounge has sold 1.9m in the States, 1997's Bridges to Babylon 1.2m, and 2005's A Bigger Bang, triumphant and widely hailed as it was, just 537,000 to date - less than the sales, for instance, of A Ghost Is Born by Wilco, who supported the Stones in Atlanta in October 2005.
- Uncut, July 2007

shiant feature names

Most of the names of places on the Shiants are Gaelic and not particularly rich in association or significance. They describe parts of the islands in the way a Crusoe would, by looking at them, by saying what they are, rather than by associating them with anything that might have happened there in the distant past. So there is a Big Beach, a Beach with Boulders, a Washing Place, a Cormorant Head, some Rocks of the Bay, a Seal Point, the Kittiwake Rocks, the Hole of the Seals - the natural arch at the north-east corner of Garbh Eilean - and the Point of the Fank ... The Ordnance Survey officers, when recording these names in the 1850s, used as their authority a Neil Nicolson or Nicholson (he couldn't spell) from the village of Stemreway in Lewis. He may not have known the place very well. The surveyors could speak no Gaelic, and so in this way, here as elsewhere in the Gaelic world, much of the information that might have been gathered was lost. The Shiants must once have had a rich suite of names in which the lives of its inhabitants were folded into the landscape and recorded there, but they will never be recovered. A Harris woman, Christina Shaw, when interviewed a few years ago by the ethnographer Morag MacLeod, told her: 'There wasn't the length of between here and the gate that we didn't have a name for, which is not the case nowadays. Every ben and every mound and every hill . . . I could name them all.' All of that has been lost from the Shiants.
Here and there, something older can be traced. The islands are set in a Viking sea. Every prominent headland and inlet around them, every stretch of water, and village after village, township after township on Lewis, were named by the Norse. There are three identifiably Norse place names on the Shiants themselves: Stocanish ... the Galtas ... and Mianish ... All three of these Norse places on the Shiants are precisely those which any sailor would need to mark and remember.
p73-74, Sea Room

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

three kierkegaard quotes

James iv, 7: Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. These are therefore the tactics. Not the reverse, not to fly the devil; that can only be the tactics in temptation.
From which it may also be learnt that tribulation is a whole quality above temptation. Humanly speaking it is always a relief to know that there is the possibility of salvation in flying from danger. But where tribulation is concerned that is not so.
- p207, Kierkegaard's journals

Official preaching has falsely represented religion, Christianity, as nothing but consolation, happiness etc. And consequently doubt has the advantage of being able to say in a *superior* way: I do not wish to be made happy by an illusion.
If Christianity were truthfully presented as suffering, ever greater as one advances further in it: doubt would have been disarmed, and in any case there would have been no opportunity for being superior - where it was a matter of avoiding - pain.
- p209

It is incredible how impertinently many people nowadays urge the purely human as opposed to Christianity.
And what is it we now call 'Humanism'? It is a vaporised Christianity, a culture-consciousness, the dregs of Christianity. . . . One ought to say to the humanists: produce 'undiluted humanism' - for the humanism we now have is really Christianity's, though it will not own it; but you cannot, with justice, call it yours in opposition to Christianity.
- p209

Monday, 28 January 2008

annoying things no 7,485

Why do biscuitmakers put desiccated coconut unannounced in chocolate biscuits? Do they think I can't taste it? If I wanted a coconut flavour biscuit, I'd buy one that said it was a coconut flavour biscuit. Instead, I don't want one, and I get one. Grrr.

loose as a goose

The goose’s life is dictated by its intestines. Even these barnacle geese, a smaller and more delicate version of the Canada goose, need to eat all the hours the day gives them. They are flying herbivores and that is their difficulty. Fish-eating birds can acquire the protein hit they need in a few sharp, efficient dives. A cow can invest in an enormous set of stomachs, through which the tough grass stems can be serially fed, slowly digesting the cell walls of the plant within which the most nutritious proteins and sugars are locked. But as the American naturalist David Quammen has written, ‘A Hereford is not obliged to cope with the delicate physics of flight.’ A goose can’t afford all those voluminous stomachs. It can’t even afford to have a stomach that is full. Overladen, it would never fly. As a result, most of what a goose eats passes straight through it in a couple of hours That’s why a goose is as loose as a goose, and that’s why the Shiants in the early spring-time are carpeted in their droppings.
p68-69, Sea Room


[The loss of a boat, with all the boys in it, in 1881] the boys from Lemreway were never seen again. The rudder of the boat was found a little later washed up on the Mol Bhan, the blond beach, near Orinsay, a few miles west of Lemreway. Timber was scarce in the Hebrides and the rudder was used for more than forty years as a foot-bridge across the stream that runs down over its pale pebbles on to the beach there. It was the way people took back to the village from the peat-bank and nothing was more welcome, when loaded down with peats, than to find the stream properly bridged, an easy step or two across a difficult passage.
A few weeks later, a rudderless Orkney-built boat was found drifting around Cape Wrath, seventy-five miles away to the north. It was recognised by the Lewis fishermen who came across it as the boat that had been lost at the Shaints. There were sickles stowed away in the gunwale. Shortly before the boys had taken the boat to the islands, it had been used for gathering the seaweed that was to be spread on the fields just before the spring sowing of the oats and barley. The sickles had been left aboard, jammed between the gunwale and the stringer. The sea had clearly turned the boat over twice: once to drown Murdo Macmillan, John Macinnes, Angus Ferguson and Donald Macdonald, and once to set it on its way again to Cape Wrath, with its cargo of sickles intact.
p56-57, Sea Room.

Friday, 25 January 2008

'drugs never make any record better'

'Drugs never make any record better, they only make making it better,' says Peter Hook. 'When you listen to it in the cold light of day, the way normal people do, it's rollocks. But it doesn't stop us doing it. We're like pigs in a trough.'
- from an article on Shaun Ryder in Uncut of July 2007 (obvious bowdlerisation mine, obviously). I think the music press/radio/tv have a lot to answer for in their collusion with musicians' drug culture and representation of drugs in musical creativity as being necessary and cool.

creativity through restriction

Did you make that third album with a clear plan? It's said that you banned the drummers from using any cymbals, for example.
It was a case of 'do something different - and make some rules'. The worst thing you can say to a creative person, I think, is 'You can do anything.' That is the kiss of death. You should say to them, 'You can't do this. You definitely can't do that. And under no circumstances can you do that.' Then they'll start thinking in a different, more creative way.
- one question and answer from an interview with Peter Gabriel in Uncut, July 2007

hummingbirds and eyeworms

He occasionally gets letters from people who say how much they love his programmes, but want to know why, when he shows pictures of something as wonderful as hummingbirds, he doesn't give credit to their Creator. He has drafted a standard reply, which asks why it is that people who suggest he should give credit to a Creator Lord always cite hummingbirds, butterflies or roses.
'On the other hand, I tend to think of an innocent little child sitting on the bank of a river in Africa, who's got a worm boring through his eye that can render him blind before he's eight. Now, presumably you think this Lord created this worm, just as he created the hummingbird. I find that rather tricky.'
- David Attenborough article by Jeremy Paxman in Radio Times, 26 January. I've heard him give this example before.

hamlet - john gielgud

In the middle of listening to a Naxos release of the 1948 recording of a John Gielgud production (which was broadcast live). Everyone talks much posher, as you'd expect. Unexpectedly, the opening dialogue between Horatio and the guards seemed quite naturalistic. It became hard to listen to Polonius seriously - although clearly you're not supposed to take him seriously, or at least respect him - once I got it in my head that he sounded rather like Henry Crun from the Goons. There's a narrator at certain points, who briefly introduces some of the scenes, which is interesting, not assuming familiarity with the play. After a while I realised - or at least theorised - that it sounded to me like John Gielgud was performing poetry rather than a character's speech, which I guess may reflect a particular approach to the text. There's a quote in the booklet from Lee Strasberg saying, 'When Gielgud speaks a line, you can hear Shakespeare thinking.' There's a 1954 talk John Gielgud gave for the BBC Third programme on playing Hamlet which is on CD3 as a computer file, so that'll be interesting in due course. Also interesting in due course will be hearing Arnold Ridley as the priest - that is, Private Godfrey. The notes also tell me that I will be hearing 'the eccentric' Esme Ridley 'excitedly calling out "Oh! Oh! He's enchanting!"' after Hamlet dismisses Osric.

'they do the killings mostly at night'

Harry asked what I had expected of Manila. I paused. 'Probaby from abroad you think there are killings going on all the time,' said Harry, 'but you know . . . they do the killings mostly at night.' And he laughed a good deal.
- James Fenton, The Snap Revolution, in Granta 18, p44

Thursday, 24 January 2008

elephant blogs: soup, gardening, daryl hannah

I've got links to several Hebridean blogs - most of those I've come across, really - but not many to London-based blogs, though doubtless there are many thousands of those; I suppose there's not a community connection with many of them, even ones which might be written by someone very close at hand or are on a theme I'm particularly interested in.

There are three I've come across very close at hand, two by the same person. The Pullens Soup Kitchen in Crampton Street has one; I'll need to visit sometime. The Guerrilla Gardening venture, whose handiwork we've seen in the area, and the Perronet House one, done by the same chap. The big news on those last two is the extraordinary fact of Daryl Hannah's recent visit to Perronet House to see the guerrilla gardening activities in late November.

Monday, 21 January 2008

the godfather; gone with the wind; afi list

I read The Godfather by Mario Puzo over Christmas; the film's considered such a classic, I wondered if the book matched up, or if it was one of those films that had transcended its source material. It was an enjoyable read, and seemed pretty faithful to the film as I remember / am aware of it (although it may have been schooldays when I saw it, so a long time ago, certainly not since university), except I think it would have made an impression on me if the film retained the peculiar female genital cosmetic surgery subplot.

I'll need to tackle Gone With The Wind someday, although I found it in the library recently and it's a thousand pages long. I was reminded in the Christmas Radio Times by Barry Norman that the first time the film was shown on tv in the UK was in the early 1980s - that was still the era when you could wait decades for films to come onto telly. The upside being that it gave you a good education on old classic films; it's hard to see (or rent) old films beyond a small core these days, and it's that fact that will drive me eventually into the arms of an online DVD rental contract. Nowadays TV showings are hot on the heels of the DVD release, which is hot on the heels of the cinema release; the cinema release almost seems to be a loss-leader for the DVD sales.

Also over the holidays I videoed and later watched a programme counting down the American Film Institute's top 100 American films (a 10th anniversary list, them having done the same thing before). There's quite a number of films on both versions of the list that I haven't seen (and many of them based on books that I haven't read). I've seen the 1998 top twenty (No 21, The Grapes of Wrath, I haven't seen, then No 33, High Noon, is the next unseen); in 2007 list, I haven't seen City Lights, The Searchers and The General, all of which have obviously had a significant reassessment over the last ten years (The General wasn't even in the previous 100). The number based on books I haven't read are too many to list (there are a number I didn't know were based on books, or short stories, or plays, or newspaper articles).

the big ugly monster and the little stone rabbit

On Friday 21st December we went to the morning performance of The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit at the Pleasance Islington, my first time to that venue, although I think it opened before we moved away from Islington. It was based on a book that I'd never heard of, and was a most peculiar, bleak story which I found awfully depressing but which was presented in a cheerful way and none of the children there seemed to be troubled by it. About 20-30 people there, and quite well done - Rik Mayall on tape, one actress (Suzanne Nixon, who sounded like Linda Smith) in monster costume, one puppeteer (These Colours the company). Monster so ugly that it drives away or kills everything in the area of its cave, even ugly enough to break all the stone sculptures it makes to be its friends, except for a rabbit, who then becomes its friend, although it doesn't seem to realise the rabbit's inanimate; the monster grows older, then stops coming out of his cave (ie dies), whereupon life returns to the area and it becomes beautiful, and the stone rabbit remains. Very odd. There are some mixed reviews online, from its time at the Edinburgh Festival, many picking up on its strange message and some feeling conned that Rik Mayall wasn't there in person (which perhaps seemed more possible at the Festival, I certainly didn't think it likely when I went) - The Scotsman, The Stage, and audience reviews on the Fringe site. Here's a Reviewgate review of the Islington production, which reminds me that there was a little audience participation, with children going up on stage, to little purpose.

'the coddled terrorists of south florida'

The coddled "terrorists" of South Florida: Anti-Castro Cuban exiles who have been linked to bombings and assassinations are living free in Miami. Does the U.S. government have a double standard when it comes to terror?
- interesting article of 14 January 2008 in Salon. I wonder how long we have to wait before a US President says this is a previous generation's cold war that's long over, and declares peace on Cuba? (Salon's an online US magazine which I think I came across first because of free music downloads, but which has interesting articles on US politics in particular, and also arts and society; I'm guessing it's left-wing (in US terms) - its Wikipedia entry calls it 'progressive'.)

Sunday, 20 January 2008

faith and the big bang

... I do wish people would stop regarding evolution and creation as mutually exclusive; and I wish, even more, that people would stop using science either to prove or to disprove creation. The Big Bang is as inaccessible as the atom. Science has absolutely no hope of finding out what caused it, if only because the Bang itself destroyed the evidence.

By faith, some of us understand that the world was made by Someone. By faith, others understand that it was made by Nothing. By faith, yet others understand that it was made by Something. None of us can break out of that confinement. One and all, we are shut in to faith; and faith, at last, is a matter of will. It is not forced on us: not even by evidence. We choose what to believe.

I do not believe because I understand, yet my faith helps me understand, and my faith urgently seeks further understanding. It may explain science, but it cannot look to science to prove it any more than science can prove itself.

- conclusion of Donnie Foot's Footnotes in WHFP of 18 January 2008.

I happened to be looking at an old Patrick Moore guide to the universe somewhere while waiting for something a few months ago. He gave quite a detailed account of what actually happened in the earliest fractions of a second after the big bang (from 10 to the power minus-something seconds), which registered high on the 'how do you know that' meter, but he also said something to the effect (and I'm sorry that I can't remember now exactly what he said) that what happened before that was of no significance, interest or relevance to scientists as it was undeterminable, which I thought was something of a cop-out (and which in a way rather agrees with Donnie Foot above).

bob halfin

The 28 December WHFP also had an interesting article by Brian Wilson about Bob Halfin, who wrote most of Calum Kennedy's best-known songs in English, including "Lovely Stornoway' and 'Skyeline of Skye'. He was a Jewish Eastender of Russian extraction, real first name Lazarus, working out of Denmark Street, whose biggest hit was for Max Bygraves, 'I'm a Pink Toothbrush'. His son was Ross Halfin, rock photographer.

'behind before besides'

Anecdote from Donnie Foot's Footnotes in WHFP of 28 December 2007, about Prof James Fraser: 'James Fraser, like Clement Graham, spent his [ministry] entirely in Scotland, beginning in Wick in 1938. But like all Presbyterian ministers he was "in journeyings oft". On one such journey, the northbound train from Inverness was seriously late. When he asked the guard the reason for the delay, he received the answer: "The train that's before us is behind and we were behind before besides."'

dead reckoning; farewell, my lovely

We've watched a couple of old film noirs this week, videoed over the Christmas holidays - Farewell, My Lovely and Dead Reckoning. (Links to Wikipedia rather than IMDB, which it's overtaking I think. The TCM site has some good info on the former, actually, in particular in the Articles section.) Dead Reckoning, with Humphrey Bogart, was fine; Farewell, My Lovely, with Dick Powell, was very good. I'd forgotten I'd seen the latter before, but remembered as soon as I saw the first shot; it was worth watching again, though. As Bethan says, they used to make films with a lot of detail; they expected you to concentrate. They also contrived to entertain you without sex, swearing and bloody violence, which is unthinkable; how we've progressed.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

gaelic and old norse

Almost everything in her [his boat, Freyja, up in the Shiants] and the world now around her, if described in modern Gaelic, would be understood by a Viking. The words used here for boats and the sea all come from Old Norse and the same descriptions have been on people’s lips for a millennium. If I say, in Gaelic, ‘windward of the sunken rock’, ‘the seaweed in the narrow creek’, ‘fasten the buoy’, ‘steer with the helm towards the shingle beach’, ‘prop the boat on an even keel’, ‘put the cod, the ling, the saithe and the coaley in the wicker basket’, ‘use the oar as a roller to launch the boat’, ‘put a wedge in the joint between the planking in the stern’, ‘set the sea chest on the frames amidships’, ‘the tide is running around the skerry’, ‘the cormorant and the gannet are above the surf’, ‘haul in the sheet’, ‘tighten the back stay’, ‘use the oar as a steerboard’, or say of a man, ‘that man is a hero, a stout man, the man who belongs at the stem of a boat’, every single one of those terms has been transmitted directly from the language which the Norse spoke into modern Gaelic. It is a kind of linguistic DNA, persistent across thirty or forty generations.

Sometimes the words have survived unchanged. Oatmeal mixed with cold water, ocean food, is stappa in Norse, stapag in Gaelic, although stapag now is made with sugar and cream. With many, there has been a little rubbing down of the forms in the millennium that they have been used. A tear in a sail is riab in Gaelic, rifa in Old Norse. The smock worn by fishermen is sguird in Gaelic, skirta in Old Norse. Sgaireag is the Gaelic for ‘seaman’, skari the Norse word. And occasionally there is a strange and suggestive transformation. The Gaelic for a hen roost is the Norse word for a hammock. Norse for ‘strong’ becomes Gaelic for ‘fat’. The Norse word for rough ground becomes ‘peat moss’ in Gaelic. A hook or a barb turns into an antler. The creep - that mobile, subtle movement - translates into Gaelic as ‘to crouch’: more still, more rooted to the place. A water meadow in Norway, fit, becomes fidean: grass covered at high tide. ‘To drip’ becomes ‘to melt’. A Norse framework, whether of a house, a boat or a basket, becomes a Gaelic creel.

But it is the human qualities for which Gaelic borrowed the Viking words that are most intriguingly and intimately suggestive of the life lived around these seas a thousand years ago. There is a cluster of borrowings around the ideas of oddity and suspicion. Gaelic itself, if it had not taken from the invaders, would have no word for a quirk (for which it borrowed the Old Norse word meaning ‘a trap’), nor for ‘strife’, nor ‘a faint resemblance’ - the word it took was svip, the Norse for ‘glimpse’. The Gaelic for ‘lullaby’ is taladh, from the Norse tal, meaning allurement’, ‘seduction’.

The vocabulary for contempt and wariness suddenly vivifies that ancient moment. Gaelic borrowed Norse revulsion wholesale. Noisy boasting, to blether, a coward, cowardice, surliness, an insult , mockery, a servant, disgust, anything shrivelled or shrunken (sgrogag from the Old Norse skrukka, an old shrimp), a bald head, a slouch, a good-for-nothing, a dandy, a fop, a short, fat, stumpy woman (staga from stakka, the stump of a tree), a sneak (stig/stygg), a wanderer - all this was something new, and had arrived with the longships. Fear and ridicule, the uncomfortable presence of the distrusted other, the ugly cross-currents of two worlds, the broken and disturbing sea where those tides met: all this could only be expressed in the odd new language the strangers brought with them.

- p31-33, Sea Room, Adam Nicolson; Harper Collins; 2001.


Bethan and I have both joined choirs this term. Bethan's going along on Mondays to the Barts Choir, who are this term doing Bruckner's Mass in E minor and John Rutter's Gloria. I'm going along every second Wednesday to the community choir at Cecil Sharp House, singing folk songs in harmony. Barts several hundred, Cecil about twenty. Neither require an audition, Cecil doesn't require ability to read music, or sing really.

Similar to my experience in editing, those who aren't sure they can sing (write) at all usually can, while some of those who consider themselves to be able to sing (write) are less able than they think. At our first session we learnt or started to learn and did an African song, an English song, an English round and a Balkan song. I think as long as the people who are there for the simple pleasure of singing songs with others outweigh those who have strong ideas about what they want to achieve - and therefore we all have to submit to - it'll be good fun.

police box copyright

It seems scarcely credible that the BBC now owns the copyright in the police box design (as featured in Doctor Who), having won it from the Metropolitan Police in a ruling in 2002, but it says so in The Word of June 2007.

'the manly superstition'

If he had lived in a southern country, I can imagine that Christian VIII would have been the certain prey of a cunning priest. No woman would ever really have got power over him, not even the most gifted, partly because he was too intelligent and partly because he shared a little the manly superstition that man is more intelligent than woman.
- The Journals of Kierkegaard 1834-1854; Fontana, p154 (1849)

Friday, 18 January 2008

zechariah 14

Martin Luther wrote two commentaries on Zechariah. In the first of them, chapter 14 is passed over without a mention. In the second, he said, 'In this chapter I surrender, for I am not certain of what the prophet treats.'
- John L Mackay, in his introduction to the Zechariah section of his Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi CFP commentary. Zechariah 9-14 is notoriously obscure, apparently.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

speechification and other podcasts

I don't think I've ever seen a radio recorder in the same way you get video recorders - although I guess digital tv means you can record the radio channels off the telly - and there's no radio equivalent of YouTube. There is, however, Speechification, which I was tipped off to by the Guardian, which has now started podcasting - it preserves mostly radio documentaries, mostly off Radio 4. I listened to interesting ones today on George Formby and Heavy Metal, and a 100th edition compilation of Rambling, with Claire Baulding, which I'd never even heard of.

I've been through a range of podcasts, and most of the ones I've stuck with are just people talking - I've tried various music ones, but mostly there was too much talking and not enough music in them (I'm still going with Songlines - I don't listen to the chat - and a 'best of myspace' one, and have just discovered there's a R1 top 40 rundown one which I'll give a go, just to hear snippets of what the young people are listening to nowadays). Chief amongst them have been Mark Kermode's film reviews, Danny Baker's regular show and Kelly/Baker football show (both now gone, as the relationship with the business involved broke down), the Word podcast, Scotland's Funny Bits (mostly clips from Fred Macaulay's programme on Radio Scotland), the R4 Friday Night comedy (Now Show/News Quiz), and In Our Time (Melvyn Bragg, one of my real discoveries from going part-time, R4 on Thursday mornings; I think Douglas tipped me off to there being a podcast; MB's obviously my kind of person, interested in everything; although I've never seen the South Bank Show, because it's on a Sunday). A lot of churches have sermons online, but I've only found two Free Churches that podcast them, St Columba's (who don't seem to any more) and St Vincent St (whose mic sometimes buzzes such that you can't listen, and the highlights of which are when Finlay Mackenzie is preaching; it's not just his accent, by any means, but I can't help suspecting that part of it is, which is uncomfortably shallow).

The last episode of the Baker/Kelly football show included the funniest thing I heard last year, a version of Bohemian Rhapsody in which all the lyrics were replaced by the names of footballers (I've still got it, but I'm sure someone will clip it out for wider circulation).

film trivia

Two bits of film trivia from last July's Word:

- Crocodile Dundee was released in the US as 'Crocodile' Dundee to ensure that audiences didn't think that Dundee was an actual crocodile (on a similar note, I don't know if it's apocryphal that The Madness of King George was renamed from the original The Madness of George III for fear that US audiences wouldn't go to see it, not having seen The Madness of George and the Madness of George II. Conversely, on a guided walk in London - a Sherlock Holmes walk, as it happened - I learned that the musical of Pygmalion was renamed My Fair Lady not for dumbing down, but as a Cockney pronunciation pun, on Mayfair Lady)

- Sissy Spacek was originally cast as Princess Leia, and Carrie Fisher as Carrie; Carrie Fisher didn't want to do the nude scenes, so they swopped films (I remember in school, I'm pretty sure (I have a memory of looking at it while sitting in the assembly hall, for some reason) being struck by a large photo of Sissie Spacek's face in a magazine as being very pretty and unadorned)

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

too much information

Alex's post about Facebook reminds me that I haven't noted down something that happened towards the end of last year. I'd had dealings with BT's email customer service (ie help via rather than about email), and the (helpful) emails I got back were from a named person, let's say Jane Smith. I remembered reading an article which revealed that some companies sent customer service/help correspondence from a fictitious person, because people preferred to get something from someone named rather than just a department, so I searched on 'bt "jane smith"' to see if I'd find one of those articles. What I found instead was Jane Smith's Facebook page, which was rather unsettling - finding it, that is, not the page itself, which was a page like many such social network pages, full of chat and photos of a young woman (who works for BT) and her friends in Northern Ireland. It's more information than you should be able to easily find out about someone, though, and must lend itself to various kinds of abuse. Like Alex, I'm not keen on Facebook, or any of the social networking sites - not least because I just don't have the time, I suspect I'm just too old. Last FM and Myspace - in its musical facet - are useful, functional, but I'm not going to expand my presence on the former, and am planning to reduce my presence on the latter.

hamlet - anton lesser

I’ve finished listening to a Naxos Hamlet, full cast with Anton Lesser as Hamlet. He was very good as the first Richard III I saw, in the RSC’s Plantagenets trilogy, which had Henry VI parts 1-3 compressed into two plays and then Richard III as the third; I saw the trilogy one Saturday on standbys at the Barbican, soon after I came to London, possibly 1989. Ralph Fiennes played Henry VI, I rediscovered recently, but he made no impression on me. The RSC are doing Henry VI 1-3 this year in full, which I might need to go to see to feel that I’ve done them properly. I'm not sure I've seen him in anything since (possibly Art?).

The Hamlet production was good, although you do realise how much you miss not actually seeing the thing; it’s harder for people’s performances to stand out. Anton Lesser was perfectly good. I noticed how uninvolved in the conversation Horatio is in the gravedigger scene; Hamlet does all the running. Hamlet blames his madness, in talking to Laertes, for his killing Polonius, but it wasn’t really. You could I think plausibly put across a performance of Hamlet in which he is cold, arrogant, ambitious, dislikeable. I need to check whether I correctly got the impression that young Fortinbras was the nephew of the king of Norway, another parallel. It’s interesting that the crowd are calling to make Laertes king, which suggests that his family, and Polonius in particular, were more significant than they’re usually portrayed. You’d expect Polonius to be more intelligent, respected, powerful than he’s usually portrayed. Claudius kept him on; I’ve never seen it played as if he suspected foul play on the part of Claudius, but you’d think it might be plausible. It’s interesting to hear the fuller versions of the scenes with the players where they talk much more about acting and the theatre. Like every production - except I think one, although I can’t remember which - they can’t make the player king’s recitation entertaining. It’s hard to understand why Claudius and Gertrude don’t find the prologue of the play offensive and alarming, so closely reflecting their situation as it does - unless, as I’ve seen in at least one production, they aren’t paying attention to it. I’m not sure that it’s clear which are the lines Hamlet inserts, unless it’s in the prologue. I’ve started reading it in the Arden edition, where one of the things I’ve noticed is that sometimes it has ‘a’ where you’d expect ‘he’ (as they have it on the track listing in this CD, for example, ‘Now might I do it pat, now a is a-praying’), which is interesting and unfamiliar usage.

commandments in good standing

Her manner and appearance were precisely those expected of a young woman in her stratum. Her social instincts were well developed, her sense of taboo was reliable, and she had a proper respect for all of the Commandments that were currently in good standing.
- John Wyndham, Trouble With Lichen, 1960; Penguin, p70

Monday, 14 January 2008

the special relationship

Oceans apart: Tony Blair has been mocked for his belief in the 'special relationship' - and now a US State Department official has come out and dismissed it as a myth. So what future is there for the transatlantic friendship? John Harris investigates.
- interesting article from the Guardian of 1 December 2006


The June 2007 issue of Word magazine had an interesting feature on people who were in school together, which included such pairings as John Lennon and Jimmy Tarbuck (complete with photo of them in a group of boys at the beach), Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, Liza Minnelli and Loudon Wainwright III, Hugh Cornwell and Richard Thompson (they were in a band together), Rod Stewart and Ray Davies (who were in the football team together), and Michael Portillo and Clive Anderson (complete with school photo in which they're sitting next to each other, and the revelation that Michael once cast Diane Abbott, from their sister school, as Lady Macduff; no wonder they're so pally on Andrew Neil's couch).

david shayler

A quiz of the year 2007 in the Guardian around New Year tipped me off to the news that David Shayler, as reported by Channel 4 News, had taken a 'path from mainstream whistleblower, to 9/11 conspiracy theorist to self proclaimed messiah', which is rather sad.

'even as a propaganda exercise, those sailors should really have died'

I know 7/7 was terrible, but people today seem to forget that 30,000 people died in the Blitz. I spent every night of it with my mum in Manor House tube station, and in the morning people would get up and say, 'I see number 43 took a packet, old Mrs So-and-So lost a leg,' and *just get on with it*. I was wasting time yesterday afternoon watching Cockleshell Heroes, this rather carp WWII film starring Trevor Howard. He's the commander of these four blokes, and they get captured by the Germans and of course they refuse to say what they've been doing and so they get put up in front of a firing squad. And the very last line is Trevor Howard saying, 'Straight line, chaps', and they stand there in a straight line and... they get shot. I was sitting there watching this and I thought, 'It's all changed a bit, hasn't it, from *that* to the Shatt al Arab waterway where Mr Bean cries about his iPod and that woman sells her story to The Sun.' At least the terrorists die for what they believe in. Even as a propaganda exercise, those sailors should really have died.
- Alan Coren, The Word, July 2007

Saturday, 12 January 2008

shrewsbury town 3 stockport county 1

We went to the football on Boxing Day, and saw Shrewsbury beat Stockport County 3-1. It was our first time at the new stadium (we were four of the record crowd of 7,707). They made fairly heavy weather of beating a team who were down to ten men for most of the game, and when Stockport equalised it was greeted as inevitable, so it was a pleasant surprise when Shrewsbury won in the end. It was pretty scrappy. The first goal was by someone coming back from injury, so that was very well received. The woman next to me was very vocal, and was soundly of the view that the ref was duff, to Shrewsbury's detriment; ironically, one of the match reports below indicates that he was wrong with the sending off, as it was subsequently rescinded. Whatever the case, the linesman in front of us - we were second row, quite near the halfway line - was certainly the tubbiest I've ever seen.An interesting point from one of the match reports was that when Stockport brought on sub Paul Tierney he was playing directly against his brother Marc. We were quite impressed with the young Shrewsbury sub who came on the right wing in front of us halfway through the second half and crossed for the second goal, Chris Humphrey; it was interesting as he was very at ease and skilful on the ball, but always seemed to be worried about staying in the position where he'd been told to be.

Match reports from the BBC,, the Shrewsbury Town FC website and shrewsburytown-mad website.

'a nation of biblical illiterates'

The battle of the books: The business of marketing the Bible and the Koran says a lot about the state of modern Christianity and Islam
- interesting article from the Economist of 19 December 2007.

One interesting para:
There is a difference, however, between getting and understanding a Holy Book. Here both Christianity and Islam suffer from serious problems. Americans buy more than 20m new Bibles every year to add to the four that the average American has at home. Yet the state of American biblical knowledge is abysmal. A Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (Billy Graham is a popular answer) and a quarter do not know what is celebrated at Easter (the resurrection, the foundational event of Christianity). Sixty per cent cannot name half the ten commandments; 12% think Noah was married to Joan of Arc. George Gallup, a leading Evangelical as well as a premier pollster, describes America as “a nation of biblical illiterates”.

jack and the beanstalk - colour house version

Today we saw Jack and the Beanstalk at the Colour House Theatre at Merton Abbey Mills. As with Robinson Crusoe in Space, which we saw here last year, there's little info online and no programme - the only cast info was on the wall in the theatre foyer, which didn't really lend itself to being read. As with RCiS, a couple of their actors are listed on castingcallpro, Natasha Dawn (who played cow and goose) and Lucy Joannides (who played Jack). The fairy/harp looked familiar but was probably generic; Jack's mum's mugging reminded me most of the sitcom character played by Andy Millman in Extras; the young man who did all the male roles was patchy. It was well done, though slightly variable in quality; I guess mostly fairly recent graduates of drama courses. It was also almost full, about sixty people there, in stark contrast with RCiS, where there were six of us. I probably preferred RCiS, but we all enjoyed it. There was a delayed start - someone who asked was told that one of the cast had had an accident and they weren't sure when they'd get there - so the kids were getting a bit restless, but they recovered.

(We also saw Jack at Barbican on New Year's Eve, and before Christmas, minus Bethan, we saw Dick Whittington at the Hackney Empire and The Big Ugly Monster and the Stone Rabbit at the Pleasance Islington, which I haven't blogged yet.)

'our supposed sexual liberation'

Porn is screwing up young men's expectations of sex: The revelations about Manchester United's party reflect the parlous state of our supposed sexual liberation
- Guardian article of 22 December 2007. 'No matter where you stand on it, porn has undoubtedly skewed many young men's expectations of sex, and many young women's sense of sexual obligation.'

Monday, 7 January 2008

'a cultural christian'

Dawkins: I'm a cultural Christian. Scientist Richard Dawkins, an atheist known worldwide for arguing against the existence of God, has described himself as a "cultural Christian". He told the BBC's Have Your Say that he did not want to "purge" the UK of its Christian heritage. The comments came after Tory MP Mark Pritchard accused "politically correct" people of undermining Christmas. Professor Dawkins, author of the God Delusion, added that he liked "singing Carols along with everybody else".
- unexpected, and rather odd, story from the BBC News website of 10 December 2007

carrot radar

I was telling my captive audience yesterday how carrots helping you to see in the dark was a myth made up to cover the invention of radar in WWII. There was doubt, and I began to doubt myself, but BBC and Snopes reassure me.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

wood pigeons and feral pigeons

City pigeons decline as country cousins come to town

Grey, waddling and greedy, the country cousin of Britain's best-known city bird has moved into town - and straight to the top of the urban pecking order.

For the first time, ornithologists report today, more wood pigeons are nesting in London, Manchester and other big cities than the feral pigeon, the traditional scavenger at sites such as Trafalgar Square. The country birds, with a fine pink breast and green throat, have taken to city life because of easy pickings, according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Driven from their usual haunts by changes in farming, they have rapidly outbred feral pigeons.

"Ten years ago, the wood pigeon didn't even figure in our Garden Birdwatch table, which registers every type of bird spotted in UK gardens," said Paul Stancliffe of the BTO. "Now it's the fourth most common species and well ahead of feral pigeons in the main cities."

The rise of Columba palumbus is the most rapid recorded by the survey, which takes results from 16,500 householders across the country. Wood pigeons were first spotted moving into towns and suburbs five years ago, but have now been found in almost half of London's gardens and nearly two-thirds of Manchester's, while feral pigeons have fallen to 27% of London gardens, and 34% in Manchester.

"We could see even more arrive this winter, because autumn saw two of their sources of food, beech nuts and acorns, in shorter supply than usual," said Stancliffe.

- Guardian article, Tuesday 1 January 2008. We're one of the 16,500 households which contributed to the Garden Birdwatch figures, and we've certainly got a regular pair of woodpigeons visiting us, more often than feral pigeons. Feral pigeons, aka rock doves - I remember our surprise seeing them flying out of sea caves while walking near Portvoller a few years ago.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

friend and foe and the dead

A subaltern at the front writes.
Friday January 1, 1915

A truce had been arranged for the few hours of daylight for the burial of the dead on both sides who had been lying out in the open since the fierce night-fighting of a week earlier. When I got out I found a large crowd of officers and men, English and German, grouped around the bodies, which had already been gathered together and laid out in rows. I went along those dreadful ranks and scanned the faces, fearing at every step to recognise one I knew. It was a ghastly sight. They lay stiffly in contorted attitudes, dirty with frozen mud and powdered with rime. The digging parties were already busy on the two big common graves, but the ground was hard and the work slow and laborious.

In the intervals of superintending it we chatted with the Germans, most of whom were quite affable, if one could not exactly call them friendly, which, indeed, was neither to be expected nor desired. We exchanged confidences about the weather and the diametrically opposite news from East Prussia. The way they maintained the truth of their marvellous victories because they were official (with bated breath) was positively pathetic. They had no doubt of the issue in the east, and professed to regard the position in the west as a definite stalemate.

It was most amusing to observe the bland innocence with which they put questions, a truthful answer to which might have had unexpected consequences in the future. One charming lieutenant of artillery was most anxious to know just where my dug-out, "The Cormorants," was situated. No doubt he wanted to shoot his card, tied to a "Whistling Willie." I waved my hand airily over the next company's line, giving him the choice of various mangel-heaps in the rear.

They spoke of a bottle of champagne. We raised our wistful eyes in hopeless longing. They expressed astonishment, and said how pleased they would have been, had they only known, to have sent to Lille for some. "A charming town, Lille. Do you know it?" "Not yet," we assured them. Their laughter was quite frank that time.


[The work continued the next day, Boxing Day] The digging completed, the shallow graves were filled in, and the German officers remained to pay their tribute of respect while our chaplain read a short service. It was one of the most impressive things I have ever witnessed. Friend and foe stood side by side, bare-headed, watching the tall, grave figure of the padre outlined against the frosty landscape as he blessed the poor broken bodies at his feet. Then, with more formal salutes, we turned and made our way back to our respective ruts.

Elsewhere along the line I hear our fellows played the Germans at football on Christmas Day. Our own pet enemies remarked that they would like a game, but as the ground in our part is all root crops and much cut up by ditches, and as, moreover, we had not got a football, we had to call it off.

- part of The Guardian's archive snippet on the editorial pages, on Tuesday 1 January 2008

Friday, 4 January 2008

millions like us

Being under the weather today, I watched Millions Like Us on More4 while shredding old receipts.

People can be very sniffy about 'propaganda films' from WWII, but I thought it was good, and not jingoistic at all. Like Mrs Miniver, a main character dies near the end, rather than all being well, but the message is about carrying on in the face of such losses. And you can be relatively confident that a film made during the war is accurate in its incidental details, and it obviously uses some documentary footage.

The script was good; one nice line from it was the father (Moore Marriott) studying his tea and saying 'What’s in these sausages is a mystery - and I hope it’s not solved in my time.'

london street gangs

They've dealt drugs, carried guns, knives and axes and seen their friends killed. And they're still only teenagers. Tom de Castella talks to five former gangsters about life - and death - on our city streets.
- an article from the Guardian of Saturday 24 November about teenager gangs in London. Some of it covers gangs in our areas, and one of the photos was of one of the E&C underpasses.

hamlet - martin jarvis

I got a batch of Hamlets for Christmas, either directly or with tokens, to add to my previously-purchased Nicol Williamson and Laurence Oliver DVD versions - Michael Sheen, Anton Lesser and John Gielgud on CD, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi and Mel Gibson on DVD.

Ironic, then, that the first Hamlet of the year is Martin Jarvis's performance on a BBC radio version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, that I picked up in Oxfam in Bromsgrove. There are of course only fragments of it in the play, and nothing particularly distinctive. (Martin Jarvis is famous/notorious for being Mr Audiobook - Dead Ringers used to make fun of him - but he's good at it.)

The play, among many other things, highlights thinks like how bad Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were at doing what they'd been asked to do - find out what's really up with Hamlet - and how unnecessary it was for Hamlet to rewrite the letter so that R&G died.

I've started listening to the Anton Lesser CD version now.

Hamlet's full of peculiar questions. How good friends are R&G with Hamlet? Gertrude thinks they are, but Hamlet obviously doesn't; Horatio seems to be a much closer friend. Yet Hamlet doesn't seem to have known he was in Elsinore, and didn't expect him to be there; he came for the funeral (whereas R&G obviously hadn't).

I also realise that although 'Was Hamlet really mad?' is a big classroom question, I've never seen a production in which he is played as being in any way mad.