Monday, 31 March 2008

agnes grey quotes

She left me, offended at my want of sympathy, and thinking, no doubt, that I envied her. I did not - at least, I firmly believe I did not. I was sorry for her; I was amazed, disgusted at her heartless vanity; I wondered why so much beauty should be given to those who made so bad a use of it, and denied to some who would make it a benefit to both themselves and others.
But God knows best, I concluded. There are, I suppose, some men as vain, as selfish, and as heartless as she is, and, perhaps, such women may be useful to punish them.
- p180

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.
So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?
We are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what more pleasing than a beautiful face . . . when we know no harm of the possessor at least? A little girl loves her bird . . . Why? . . . Because it lives and feels, because it is helpless and harmless. A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt a toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes. If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, the plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retiring manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections; others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and vice versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.
They that have beauty, let them be thankful for it, and make a good use of it, like any other talent: they that have it not, let them console themselves, and do the best they can without it - certainly, though liable to be over-estimated, it is a gift of God, and not to be despised. Many will feel this, who have felt that they could love, and whose hearts tell them that they are worthy to be loved again, while yet they are debarred, by the lack of this or some such seeming trifle, from giving and receiving that happiness they seem almost made to feel and to impart. As well might the humble glow-worm despise that power of giving light, without which, the roving fly might pass her and repass her a thousand times, and never light beside her; she might hear her winged darling buzzing over and around her; he vainly seeking her, she longing to be found, but with no power to make her presence known, no voice to call him, no wings to follow his flight . . . the fly must seek nother mate, the worm must live and die alone.
- p192

... our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment.
- p210

agnes grey

I enjoyed Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. At first I was worried it was going to be a misery memoir, all about the awful experiences of a governess - and I derive no pleasure or enjoyment from reading books about people's awful lives and experiences - but happily the romance began to emerge eventually - and I do derive pleasure from romance and happy endings. So I enjoyed it in the end, but in a qualified way. It certainly didn't have the warmth and humour of Jane Austen. But it was a lot better than sister Emily's tediously annoying masterpiece.

(Since reading Agnes Grey I've read Of Mice And Men, because it's a classic, despite knowing it'll all end horribly - thankfully it's very short, and well-written, but everything's weighed down by the knowledge of the approaching doom.)

Part of the frisson of reading Austen and Bronte, of course, is the knowledge that the authors did not achieve the happy endings, or the longevity, of their heroines. Anne was born in 1820, died in 1849, aged 29. The happy ending of the fiction is tempered by the unhappy ending of the fact. Pragmatically, one might argue that if they had got married and had children, they'd never have written the books; but they could have lived longer. The novel (published 1847) is autobiographical, especially in relation to the governess experience, and at that level is an insight into social history - how few options were available for poor young gentlewomen. Interesting that AG - like, I understand, AB - and her love interest are evangelical Christians (which doesn't impress the Christians around them).

Introduction, p38: 'Anne Bronte's emphasis on the truth of her narrative is especially important because believability was essential to her purpose in writing. As she declared of her second novel in the preface to the second edition, what Anne Bronte aimed at was reform. Through the coolly objective narration of Agnes Grey's experience, she meant to provide her contemporaries with as thorough an exposition as she possibly could of the plight of the governess. ... The plight of the governess was inseparable from the larger dilemma of marriage for a woman of Anne Bronte's generation. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even before, there had been a steadily increasing surplus of women in England. According to the census of 1851, this excess amounted to 365,000 - an understated figure at that, because the 100,000 men resident abroad in the military were counted as part of the population in England. The unequal distribution of the sexes meant that there were large numbers of women who could never hope to marry. Between 1800 and 1840, the periodical literature of the day - which the young Brontes eagerly devoured whenever the opportunity presented itself - was full of articles debating "what to do with our old maids?" It seems to have been tacitly assumed in the Bronte household that there was little likelihood of the girls ever finding husbands.'

The introduction to the Penguin Classics edition I was reading, by Angeline Goreau, was notable for spending more time talking about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall than AG, saying AG wasn't very good, and creating a revisionist alternative history to Charlotte Bronte's account of their family life, casting CB as domineering and suppressing.

Also interesting in the introduction is the extent to which the Brontes (or the Bells, as they were pseudonymously published) were criticised for coarseness of language (when they were thought to be male authors, even more when they were revealed as female). p13: 'Anne Bronte ended her preface [to a second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall] with one of the most forceful protests against the critical double-standard that had yet been made by a woman writer of her time: "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."'

mountain rescue insurance

Though some of us may be getting a bit long in the tooth, the younger members have yet to leave us behind. At a recent get-together Willie Elliot, who had just returned from a meeting with the Chief Constable, summed it up as he announced proudly: 'Aye, we're now insured for Mountain Rescue until we reach sixty-five!'
- a little quote from the preface to Hamish MacInnes's mountain rescue book, Call Out

online footprint

I'm reducing my online footprint. I can use the utilities of things like Myspace and LastFM without being a registered user. It's a minor inconvenience that you can't view social networking sites without signing up for them, but I'll live without. I'm reducing my interconnectedness too, losing links and moving them back into favourites; a minor hassle in that I haven't found a good way to store favourites online so they can be accessed whatever computer I'm on, counterbalanced by the increased prevalence of rss and increased ease in displaying feeds in my yahoo page.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

religious t-shirts

- Times article of 12 March about peculiar religious t-shirts.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

absurd person singular

We saw Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn at the Garrick Theatre on Wednesday 19 March. It was quite good, though quite stagey. Three couples in three kitchens over three consecutive Christmases; a typical Ayckbourn structure, also quite good for meaning that nothing much has to happen on stage, just revealing what has happened in between the acts. David Bamber and Jane Horrocks, John Gordon Sinclair and Lia Williams, Jenny Seagrove and David Horovitch; all quite good.

Reviews: The Guardian. The Independent. The Times. Daily Mail. Daily Telegraph. West End Whingers blog. They all quite liked it except the bloggers (who were rather harsh, but right about how unexpectedly muscly David Bamber was).

Friday, 28 March 2008

big birdwatch results

Starling - 3.14 per garden
House sparrow - 2.63
Wood pigeon - 2.38
Blue tit - 2.09
Blackbird - 1.72
Feral pigeon - 1.41
Robin - 1.23
Magpie - 1.20
Great tit - 1.07
Collared dove - 0.90

- from BBC report. We've never seen a starling in or around our garden, or a collared dove. The others are regulars - magpie only on rooftops, feral pigeons mainly on rooftops. On our Big Birdwatch day we also saw a wren in our garden; we don't often see wrens, but it may be because we're not concentratedly watching as we were then - we just spotted one flitting from one side of the garden to move along the low fence on the other briefly before moving on - so they may be there regularly. The only thing we see regularly which didn't make the list above are dunnocks, but they are hard to distinguish from sparrows; we never did at first.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

terry pratchett interview

'There's humour in the darkest places': Author Terry Pratchett, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's last year, has just donated half a million pounds to research into the disease. As he tells Stuart Jeffries, he's not about to give up without a fight
- Guardian, 18 March

Pratchett tells me why he got out of journalism. "I was sick of asking: 'How did you feel, Mrs Smith, when your son was knifed to death by muggers?' What is she going to say? 'Oh, I never liked him much?' I hated that. Journalism was a good thing for a writer to start off in, but I knew I didn't want to be in it for ever.

"When I was a young reporter covering, as one did, the police stations on New Year's Day, there was a story about a minibus and a car colliding. Six kids had been killed. I thought: 'This is a great story. It's going on page one.' Then I got back to the office and the other trainee reporter was explaining why he was late, how he had had to console his mother because his sister hadn't come back home.

"So I looked at the names in my notebook, and her name - which wasn't very common - was there. I ringed the name and handed my notebook to the news editor and went to the toilet. I went into a cubicle and locked the door. And then I laughed."

He laughed? I thought he'd say he threw up.

"I laughed, but I wanted to scream. There was a lot of that sort of thing, and ultimately I didn't want to do it."

if I think it's good it can't be science fiction

AS OTHERS SEE US. J.G. Ballard is rehabilitated, again: 'For many readers, Ballard is the author of the controversial novel Crash (1973), a surreal exploration of sexuality and the motor car. But before Crash, and before his wife's death, Ballard's novels had begun to shape a unique suburban dystopia. In its time, this vision was categorised as science fiction. Now we can see it more clearly as deeper, darker and more prophetic.' (Robert McCrum, _Observer_ review, 10 February)

- from the March Ansible. It's a wonder SF writers don't gang up and murder book critics and reviewers.

In the same issue David Langford, in reporting Gary Gygax's death, says 'I liked the on-line suggestion that fans should club together to build him a vast tomb full of the deadliest imaginable traps.'

'lap-dancing not all post-feminist empowerment' shock

'I was seen as an object, not a person': Lap-dancing clubs are advertised as exclusive, glamorous entertainment for 'gentlemen'. As a former dancer tells Rachel Bell, the reality for the women who work in them is both degrading and dangerous
- Guardian article, 19 March.

larry norman

Larry Norman has died. His first album, Upon This Rock, is still one of my favourites. I've very little time for what is called 'contemporary Christian music' in general; but his early albums were proper albums which happened to be Christian, rather than product for selling into the massive US Christian market, which can sustain careers in music (and other arts) based on selling to the Christian sub-culture alone, an audience which seems to adjust its critical faculties significantly downwards for the magic word 'Christian'. One of the highlights of my time at SU was getting a handwritten fax from him giving permission to use some of his lyrics in a set of Bible reading notes - I told the writer we couldn't use them as it was unlikely we'd get copyright permission, but she knew him, and got him to fax the permission. I've probably still got a photocopy of it knocking about somewhere here.

the science of religion

The science of religion: Where angels no longer fear to tread. Science and religion have often been at loggerheads. Now the former has decided to resolve the problem by trying to explain the existence of the latter

BY THE standards of European scientific collaboration, €2m ($3.1m) is not a huge sum. But it might be the start of something that will challenge human perceptions of reality at least as much as the billions being spent by the European particle-physics laboratory (CERN) at Geneva. The first task of CERN's new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to open later this year, will be to search for the Higgs boson—an object that has been dubbed, with a certain amount of hyperbole, the God particle. The €2m, by contrast, will be spent on the search for God Himself—or, rather, for the biological reasons why so many people believe in God, gods and religion in general.

“Explaining Religion”, as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines from psychology to economics. And it is merely the latest manifestation of a growing tendency for science to poke its nose into the God business.
- interesting article in the Economist, 19 March

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

more on small crowds in big stadiums

This edition of The Knowledge has a ps about the smallest crowds in the biggest stadiums.

obama's minister

The difference between Jeremiah Wright and radical, white evangelical ministers: Are evangelical Republicans who blame America for terrorist attacks and natural disasters - including a sitting U.S. senator - as guilty of "anti-Americanism" as Wright is?
- Salon article of 17 March by Glenn Greenwald

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

song of the south

Last week I watched what one list places as No 5 in the 25 most controversial films of all time, and which is one of the few (the only one?) on the list unavailable in the USA on video or DVD: Disney’s Song of the South. (I think it’s currently unavailable in the UK; I got it on a video in a charity shop.) The point at issue is the depiction of black people in the southern states in the 19th century.

First, here’s a mixture of how I saw it and how I would have seen it had I watched it as a child. To set the scene, here’s something that used to confuse me as a boy watching The Dukes of Hazzard, set in Hazzard County. The USA, like the UK, was a country. What we called counties, they called states. So an American county, in a state, must be really small - perhaps like a district of Lewis, like Point or (given their remote rural lifestyle) more like Ness or Uig. Yet the way they drove around it, it seemed to be huge, and they had their own police and everything. Of course, now I know that American states are more like the size of European countries, and the counties are county-sized.

(And incidentally, very recently I have realised - or at least come to the theory - that many Americans view their state the way some British people view the UK (our state) and view their national government the way some British people view the EU, which goes some way to explaining the state-to-nation antipathy that has always baffled me.)

So watching Song of the South through a UK filter, the issue of slavery wouldn’t have occurred to me. What I would have seen was class, not race. The rich folks living in the big house, the peasants (white and black) on the land around. If I’d made any race connections, it would have been rich English and poor Scots. I’d have seen a film in which the least likeable character was the rich (white) mum, the most likeable the poor old wise storytelling (black) man who people call uncle (which I would have understood to imply respect and affection). All the black characters are likeable. The rich (white) boy is a bit stuck-up, but learns from the poor old man and has fun with his new poor (white) girl friend and poor (black) boy friend. His foolish mum doesn’t fully approve, in different ways, of his friendship with the old man and the young girl. When mum and granny throw a party for him to try to cheer him up, they invite lots of other presumably rich kids (who we never see otherwise) but don’t let him bring the poor girl who is the only one he actually wants to invite. This is the one point that I might have thought odd: although he had fun with the black boy who also seemed to be his real friend, he expressed no interest in having him come to the party, just the girl. And the cartoons are straightforward illustrations of the folk tales he tells of Brers Rabbit, Fox and Bear. It wouldn’t have struck me as anything other than innocuous, and I’d have enjoyed it. I did enjoy it as the middle-aged man I am, in pretty much the same spirit I’d have enjoyed it as a boy.

Here are some of the views I’ve found on a superficial online look, mostly at Wikipedia and Snopes.

The main charge, I think, is that it portrays blacks as happy in their slavery. One point on this is that the film - as the original book - is set in the post-Civil War era, although this isn’t mentioned (because everyone would have known this was the case, said one site); the only thing that makes you explicitly realise this is that Uncle Remus is able to leave his home and move away of his own free will. Another point on this is the truth that people can and do find joy and happiness in the direst of existences, for example in the less emotive context of Highland rural poverty rather than slavery, where songs and stories and humour also flourished. To accept, acknowledge and depict that truth is not to diminish or justify the situation in which those people were forced to live. If for 'happy in their slavery' you read 'happy in their post-slavery subservience', the second point still holds true, including in upper/lower-class dynamics of the time (and much later) in this country.

The author of the Uncle Remus stories was a racist who retold stories of blacks for his own profit. On the latter, the pragmatic view is that (like other folklore collectors of stories and song before and since) he preserved and popularised stories which might otherwise have been lost. On the former, I don’t know enough to know to what extent that is accurate and to what extent it’s judging the past by the values of today; but I do know that the extent to which the morality of the creator of a piece of art is tied to the artistic merit of that piece of art is at least debatable.

‘Uncle’ is a demeaning and patronising way to refer to someone. Well, I don’t think it is in the culture I’m familiar with; it may be so elsewhere, or it may be that it’s impossible (subjectively or objectively) for people to disentangle these issues by comparison with other cultures from the overwhelming issue of slavery.

The four more controversial films (though I'm not clear whether they are actually in order): Natural Born Killers, Midnight Cowboy (saw a long time ago - school or university - thought it was dull), The Last Temptation of Christ, The Birth of a Nation.

The next twenty most controversial films: Last Tango in Paris, Pink Flamingos, JFK (saw it in a matinee in London with Chris when he was down when it came out, loved it), South Park, A Clockwork Orange (it was okay, but I preferred the book), Titicut Follies, Dogma, Cruising (saw it on video in Lewis, probably university time, thought it was dull), Fahrenheit 9/11 (okay, but I'd lost confidence in Michael Moore's reliability by then, pretty much, he'd become a left-wing version of the right-wing shockjock types he opposes), The Passion of the Christ, Caligula, Triumph of the Will, Requiem for a Dream, Deep Throat, The Devils, Crash, The Message, Baby Doll, The Cook The Thief His Wife and Her Lover, The Brown Bunny.

Given that list, and the many other films generally available which are offensive in all kinds of different ways - including old films with out-of-date views of all kinds, as well as modern, ironic or otherwise - it does seem surprising that Song of the South remains in the cupboard. Perhaps it’s gone so long that it’s become a bigger deal than it deserves, it’s become inflated above its real significance (rather like A Clockwork Orange, perhaps).

I wouldn’t presume to say that Song of the South ‘should’ be released in the USA (here's a site devoted to the film by a fan who certainly thinks it should be); a discussion about it would seem to be appropriate, but I can also see why Disney would shy away from opening that can of worms for fear that the debate becomes a monster. It may be that some people would still choose to read it in a racist manner; I find it hard to imagine that it would inspire or encourage racism; its depiction of race relations gives an insight into social history, both of the period it depicts and of the time of the creation of that depiction; similar insights are given in films of the time representing class relations or Highland life, say, which one wouldn't want to withdraw from circulation on the basis of the inaccuracy or unattractiveness of those representations. But I can see why it would be considered reasonable to release it in other territories like the UK, where the cultural baggage brought to a viewing of it is very different.

Monday, 24 March 2008


We had quite a cultured weekend. Friday to All Souls for a service then to the Wallace Collection (art and armour - something for everyone); Saturday to the Imperial War Museum; this afternoon to see the Royal Ballet perform Delibes’ Sylvia at the Royal Opera House. I feel almost embarrassed that we can wake up on a bank holiday Monday morning and reckon there’s nothing else for us to do, shall we resort to the RB at the ROH, something which might be a major outing or a dream trip for some folk. But then, if it was the latter, you wouldn’t try their online website on the day and choose to get £6 restricted view seats in the amphitheatre slips (the second lowest price; there were £4 tickets too). The ROH online booking is great - seating plans showing availability, prices and descriptions of each seat, with photos of the view from several places on each level.

We really enjoyed it, and we’d take those restricted view seats again. There was something less than a third of the stage that we couldn’t see - there were moments when we were gazing intently at an empty stage - but it didn’t really matter with ballet, we reckoned. (It didn’t matter with opera either, when we got sideways seats near the stage at stalls level for Boris Godunov a few years ago, where again we couldn’t see one whole side of the action, although we only missed about a quarter in that case.) Three acts and two intervals; the two intervals were both longer than Act II.

The music and the dancing were both very good. I didn't expect to know any of the music, but there was one brass bit in the first act (female hunters group work) and a very well-known bit in the third act (solo lead lady). One of the things with the dancing, of course, is that I don’t actually know what’s easy and what’s difficult, so maybe I’m impressed by the wrong bits. I liked the ensemble dancing; being in the Busby Berkeley seats, we could see the patterns very nicely. What's slightly odd is that you can also hear the footfalls on the stage, especially when the music is quieter, and it can sound rather clumpy. It was a revival/reconstruction of a 1952 version. Opera and ballet keep productions in the repertoire for decades, and seem to keep very faithful to the details of the production. This helps me to understand the Gilbert and Sullivan purists, who believe that every detail known of the production as originally performed should be replicated in all subsequent performances. They see them as opera rather than theatre, where not replicating previous productions is the thing.

For something regarded as very elitist, the ROH has lots of very cheap seats; they are restricted view certainly, but the sound was excellent and the view was as good as in many theatres with more expensive restricted view seats - and certainly we felt much closer to the stage than we have in a lot of theatre cheap seats. If you don’t mind the restrictions, you could see (or partly see, but perfectly hear) every production at the ROH without great difficulty or expense. You couldn’t get a seat in any cinema or many theatres in central London for that price.

We undid all our good cheap weekend work by eating lunch at the Loch Fyne restaurant today (and letting me buy CDs today and Saturday).

Some reviews, on which I can't comment because of my ignorance. The Stage. Ballet magazine. The Teenage Theatre Critic.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

'I don't believe in atheists'

I don't believe in atheists: Foreign correspondent and intellectual provocateur Chris Hedges explains why New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens are as dangerous as Christian fundamentalists.
Many charges have been leveled at foreign correspondent Chris Hedges over the years, but shrinking from conflict isn't one of them. Hedges spent nearly seven years as Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, covered the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and was part of the New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of global terrorism. He took on the American military-industrial complex with his books "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" and "What Every Person Should Know About War," and provoked the rage of the Christian right by likening them to Nazis in last year's "American Fascists." Hedges now cements his reputation as an intellectual provocateur with the charmingly titled "I Don't Believe in Atheists."
- Salon article, 13 March

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

cornish reggae

Apparently Charles and Camilla are big Bob Marley fans, and Camilla saw him in concert. That's one up on Lady Di and her Duran Duran.

I remember Simon Evans - who we saw a few times at free radio recordings of The Way It Is many moons ago, he's got a Rigsby look going on, he's got a very good dry humour - on the News Quiz saying that we were looking at it all wrong and that actually Charles and Camilla is the fairytale romance, their true love sundered when he's forced to marry an appropriate attractive bubblehead of others' choosing, finally finding happiness together. Which is an interesting perspective, at least.

stephen carter

Stephen Carter, recently appointed as a Gordon Brown strategy sidekick, was SRC president in one of my Aberdeen years. I remember speaking to him once at an SRC council meeting while he was president - they were open to all students to observe, but hardly any did; he said to me it was good that people came along and were interested. I went a couple of times, for reasons which escape me; I wasn't even trying to impress a girl, the usual male student reason for doing anything.

The only advice I remember my parents giving me before I set off for university was not to get involved in student politics, advice which I (consciously or unconsciously) took. I mentioned this to my mother a few years ago; she had no memory of it.

'gary gygax fails fortitude save'; arthur's final odyssey

Another Gary Gygax obituary, this time from the Economist of 13 March (I can picture Douglas and other captains of industry looking wistfully up from their copies). Interesting that for him it was all about the roleplay and social interaction, not the dice and the stats - which were of course the nerdiest elements and drew the most scorn. Although there are few objects as beautiful as a 20-sided dice; I've still got one somewhere.

And of course news today of the death of Arthur C Clarke.

the wrong kind of family

Missing children and the media: The wrong kind of family? The case of Shannon Matthews, the missing nine-year-old from Dewsbury, has developed a cruel overtone: an unspoken suggestion that, because of their lifestyles, her family deserve not our pity but our censure.
- interesting article from the Independent of 13 March (I've only read it just now; in the meantime Shannon Matthews has been found; I hadn't been following the coverage the article refers to)

Monday, 17 March 2008

personal jesus

Johnny Cash covered Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus in the last of his late covers album released before his death, American IV. In the Mojo Collection they quote him describing it as 'probably the most evangelical gospel song I ever recorded. I don't know that the writer meant it to be that, but that's what it is.'

Saturday, 15 March 2008

empty stadiums and weird scoreboards

Splendid Guardian Knowledge of 12 March. with impressive answers to the questions 'What is the record number of empty seats there have been at a major league or cup match?' and "While watching Wales take on Russia, I noticed that the score in the top left corner of the screen was WAL 0 1 RUS. Remove the numbers and you've got a WALRUS. Can any other teams (international or otherwise) make up the name of an aquatic mammal?"

fiver letters

Fiver, Mon 10 March letters
"Given the demise of the top four in the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, is it now time to dream the impossible - that a team finishing outside the top four can actually win the Premier League?" - Ricky Morton.

Fiver, Tue 11 March letters
"Can I be one of the 1,056 pedants to point out that if someone from 'outside the top four' won the Premier League, as Ricky Morton dreamt in yesterday's Fiver, that team would then actually be in the top four themselves" - Chris Michael (and 1,056 halfwits who didn't appreciate the subtlety of Mr Morton's excellent gag).

Fiver, Wed 12 March letters
"Perhaps the problem with Chris Michael and 1,056 other halfwits (yesterday's Fiver letters) was that Ricky Morton's joke (Monday's Fiver letters) was both subtle and funny, neither of which are traits they would have been expecting from the Fiver?" - Brad Downing.
"In fairness to Chris Michael and his fellow 1,056 halfwits, the Fiver is renowned for its subtle humour. I often show it to friends and family and find that they are unable to identify any jokes at all" - Joe Gregory.

Friday, 14 March 2008

one man and his bog

I'm putting out One Man And His Bog by Barry Pilton, an account of walking the Pennine Way which I'm sure I read but remember nothing of. Looking at it again before the charity bag gets it, though, I did like the Author's Note at the start: 'If this book should in some small way encourage people to take up walking themselves, then the author suggests that they read the book again more carefully.'

james barry

More evidence has been uncovered which seems to confirm that Victorian army surgeon James Barry was indeed a woman in disguise.

gary gygax

Gary Gygax died last week.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

st mary woolnoth and st edmund the king and martyr

Last Monday on the way back to work after a meeting at Mansion House I was able to pop into two of the City churches, at least one for the first time, St Mary Woolnoth and St Edmund the King and Martyr. Notable about St Mary Woolnoth: designed by Hawksmoor in an unusual cubic style, John Newton was a clergyman there, mentioned in The Waste Land (there's a related timepiece/sculpture there). Plenty pictures of St Mary's here, pictures of St Edmund's are harder to come by. Notable about St Edmund's: it's home to the London Centre for Spirituality, and a new/secondhand bookshop which carries much better Christian stock than one might expect given the info there is on the LCS, though the secondhand section isn't a place for bargains by any means; it's reckoned to be Wren's worst church (they reckon he did the facade and someone else did the interior; it was badly damaged during an air raid not in the Second but the First World War, and remains of the bomb responsible are displayed as part of the altar in the form of a work of art; Woodbine Willie was a clergyman here after the First World War.

Monday, 10 March 2008

celtic spirituality

... many a romantic has recently waxed lyrical and many a tyro written a good deal of nonsense [on Celtic spirituality]. ... they love it... when they read Alexander Carmichael and his enchanting invocations of angels, saints and fairies: especially the fairies, the crowning proof that Celts see the other world all around them (even when they're sober).
The problem is that an astonishing proportion of the 'Carmina' are brilliant expressions of the doctrine of the trinity, not something we normally associate with lads and lasses having fun at Bealltainn. In fact, Carmichael's songs reflect the same obsession with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as we find in 'St Patrick's Breastplate', and together they give the lie to the idea that Celtic Christianity wasn't interested in dogma or doctrine. On the contrary, if these 'carmina' were the typical daily lyrics of the ancient Celtic peasantry, there couldn't have been a people on the planet better versed in the mysteries of the trinity. After all, didn't someone once say, 'If I could write a nation's ballads, I care not who writes its laws.' Just imagine: Trinitarian pop music.
But the modern taste for Celtic spirituality is highly selective, and certainly doesn't seem to extend to modern Gaelic Spirituality.
... But is it not intriguing how the gentry, high-born and low-born, love to venerate those Celts of ancient lore, and yet hate and despise their even more venerable descendants, the Teuchters?
- Donald Macleod, Footnotes, WHFP, 7 March 2008

hansel and gretel

On Saturday we went to the Colour House Theatre at Merton Abbey Mills to see Hansel and Gretel. It's been diminishing returns at the Colour House - Robinson Crusoe in Space was good fun, a crime that there were only six of us to see it, Jack and the Beanstalk at Christmas was okay and well attended. Hansel and Gretel was full also, but just okay. There was a group of kids at the front for whom this was the end of their birthday party, held in the theatre, and they were pretty hyper; I'm not sure if that made it better or worse. They made a strange decision to make it a contemporary story, so that dad was just a wretched incompetent, mum (not stepmum) was living high on the hog while feeding the others on porridge, and rather peculiarly H&G were able to order a pizza on their mobile while on their first night in the forest. Dad wasn't very good, Hansel was less good, Gretel/mum/witch (Chloe Van Harding) was quite good. (Here's Chloe on Hospital Radio Basingstoke too.)

Sunday, 9 March 2008

other ways to choose what book to start reading next

Pick a shelf and choose a book off it you haven’t read; do this systematically through your shelves, to make sure you’re getting a good spread of coverage across the various sections. That’s what led me to Hamish MacInnes’s Call-Out book.

Choose a book of the same size as the one you’ve just finished; this particularly relevant to pocket-fitting books for travelling. So Agnes Grey takes over from The Moving Finger as the pocket book.

Choose a book of a same kind as one you’ve just finished. So Agnes Grey takes over from Old Mortality in the old classic slot. (The best thing about Old Mortality was the introduction - which I read at the end, as the writer of the introduction suggested, so as to get stuck right into the exciting story straight away and not get bogged down in the critical analysis. Dearie me, if that’s exciting... The thing that took me by surprise, both in the novel and the critical analysis, was the fact that they weren’t really very well-disposed to the Covenanters; it never occurred to me that they wouldn’t be the heroes. A suggestion in the introduction that, both at the time of writing the novel and the time in which the novel was set, any popular movement against authority amongst the ordinary people, even within the church, was seen essentially in terms of revolution.)

In 2000, we - alright, I - started writing in books I bought the date (month and year) in which I bought them. So I could read books that have been on the shelf the longest by choosing those which have no date in them. The first book in this new system was The Collected Stories of F Scott Fitzgerald, which became the book I pulled out of a shelf to make room for a book I bought yesterday. It turned out to be the only book on that shelf which didn’t have a date in it and which wasn’t Bethan’s, which was quite satisfying - evidence indicates I bought it in an Islington library book sale. It replaces Old Mortality in the bedside fiction slot.

Why not just read the book you want to read next? Because there are a hundred books I want to read next. The world has to be broken down into manageable lists. This statement presumably means I have some kind of mental disorder. Although overorder would seem a more appropriate term, if such a term existed. Or perhaps it means just that I’m fairly typical.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

fantasy sagas

Alex writes of having set aside fantasy sagas for years after trudging half-way through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (and ‘half-way’ may sound like stopping short, but ‘short’ is by no means the word for it), but that he’s found a new sci-fi one that he’s enjoying. Like him, I did my time on Lord of the Rings (interestingly, enjoying the recent films made me think not that I wanted to read the books again, but that it would be nice not to have read them and to have them ahead to read), and the Stephen Donaldson Covenant ones (I may have stopped after the fifth of those; my chief memory of them is that not a page seemed to go by that he used a word that I had to look up, or should have looked up). I baled out of the Wheel of Time much earlier; after the first fat volume I knew I wasn’t prepared to go the distance. I did plod through Tad Williams’ shadow, memory and thorn trilogy (trilogy in hardback, that is; the third book was so fat it came out in two volumes in paperback, although no cheaper for that, of course). Like Alex, I’m very wary these days of starting anything that looks like a fantasy series. I think the only one I read more than once was the first David Eddings series (Pawn of Prophecy etc); I read the sequel series, which wasn’t as good, and started one of his other series but didn’t stick with it. (And a few months ago I read a bit in probably the introduction of a David Eddings book in the library, in which he made clear just how hard-nosed and calculating he’d been in going in for fantasy after lack of success elsewhere, which made me think less well of him.

charity shops

Oddly, I’ve had two separate electronic conversations recently about charity shops recently. Some of my dull points: when one shop puts their book prices up - often it’s Oxfam - others in the area go up to match them; I don’t mind them putting their prices up if they can do so and still get people to buy them, although it means I’ll buy fewer of them myself; I’d rather they realised the value of particular items and priced them accordingly than that someone else got the bargain then sold it on ebay; indeed, I think more of them should do what some of them already do and cut out the middle man by selling some of their more valuable/niche/collectable stuff on ebay themselves; I think ebay and car boot sales must have cut into donations to charity shops, people selling stuff for themselves instead of donating it.

still not dead, then

This morning the first radio news bulletin I heard started with serious tones and mention of Margaret Thatcher. It turned out she’d just felt a bit unwell and had been taken to hospital (she was back out before long). They really shouldn’t raise people’s, well, let’s say expectations, like that.


You’d imagine that the most expensive element of book production is the cost of the paper, which is why I don’t understand why they spread books over so many pages with so much white space and large type. It’s hard to get books that are the old traditional small paperback format; even setting cost aside, you’d think portability would still be a selling point in this commuter world. And even when they are that format, they’re still twice as thick as they need to be - it would be interesting to do pagination comparisons of, say Agatha Christie paperbacks through the years. The paperbacks I’ve just had from the library are about twice the pagination and three times the thickness of the old editions from the 60s and 70s. Maybe the nation’s eyesight isn’t what it was. Maybe, as Bethan suggested, the thicker paper is actually cheaper.

Coincidentally I bought a book yesterday I already had - not unprecedented; it was a reprint of the same edition, might even have been reprinted the same year, of a Frank Muir book; the text was exactly the same, as was the price, but the paper (and the cover) was different, and it was half the thickness of the one I already had.

The Moving Finger, incidentally, was another one of the Dusty Bin 3-2-1 efforts, a batch of characters, motives and alibis it’s not worth keeping exact track of because you could choose any of them randomly as the murderer and make an equally plausible ending.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

nick howard

I found this out just now, while looking for something else: Nick Howard, the son of Michael Howard, became a Christian at 15 and is now part of the Association of Evangelists. (I also found a Daily Mail article about him and how he was refused ordination in the CofE, but I couldn't bring myself to link to it.)

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

archaeological theories

I'm pretty sure that when I was growing up the theorists were confident that the Callanish stones were sun-related and the Carloway broch was a defensive stronghold only retreated to at times of trouble. Now the confidently-stated theories are moon-related and regular residential respectively.

Most Callanish theories are to do with alignments with distant objects or heavenly bodies. My own pet theory is that if they're aligned on anything it's Cnoc an Tursa, the rock outcrop right beside them.

One of the difficulties with archaeology in the Hebrides, I guess, especially sites of domestic occupation, is that presumably the design of dwellings - what became black houses - remained much the same for centuries, right into the twentieth century. There may be variations in design, but they must rely on other scientific measurements. Certainly when you just come across a ruin on the moor there seems to be no way of telling.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

denis healey

Interesting Denis Healey interview article in the Guardian of 4 August 2007.

Some bits:
In 1980, Michael Foot was elected in the last Labour leadership election conducted solely by the party's MPs, beating Healey by 10 votes. Two factors sealed this: a handful of votes for Foot from MPs who were about to leave Labour for the SDP and hastened their exit with an act of self-justifying sabotage; and Healey's history of treating the Labour left with a reckless belligerence. As Roy Hattersley once pointed out, "in defence of what he knew to be right, he could never resist grinding his opponents into the dust."
"That was one factor, without question," says Healey. "I had the same weakness in those days as Hugh Gaitskell: I didn't only want people to agree with me; I wanted them to share my views." He laughs. "And you don't need that. All you want in politics is acquiescence. If I'd behaved more sensibly, I could have probably won.
However, a year after his defeat by Foot and Healey's consequent arrival as Labour's deputy leader, he made what many see as his single greatest contribution to Labour history: he saw off - by the narrowest of margins - a challenge from Tony Benn, which served to hobble the hard left and thereby begin Labour's road back to power. Set against that, and a six-month campaign that Healey has described as one of the "least agreeable" experiences of his life, does it feel strange to see Benn transformed from a leftist menace into a national treasure?
"Well, Tony's an extraordinary chap. He has about him what the character of Gregers Werle in Ibsen's The Wild Duck had: a destructive innocence. But these days, he doesn't want to destroy anything. He's always had a silver tongue, and he makes a lot of money with it now."
His most incisive character-sketch comes when we discuss the very different mischief wrought by the SDP, and the anticlimactic career of that short-lived political poster-boy David Owen. "When he was born," says Healey, "all the good fairies gave him every virtue: 'You'll be beautiful, you'll be intelligent, you'll have charm and charisma.' And the bad fairy came along and tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'But you'll be a sh-t.' That was his trouble."

cheery ingmar

I wanted gloom and doom, but Bergman brought me sunshine
- interesting article from the Guardian of Saturday 4 August 2007 by someone watching Ingmar Bergman films after Bergman's death and finding they didn't live up to their gloomy reputation

Monday, 3 March 2008

the gruffalo's child

We went to see the Tall Stories production of The Gruffalo's Child at the Arts Theatre on Great Newport Street on Saturday 8 December. It was enjoyable, but it's probably telling that before looking at the programme, what I remembered most about it was that after we got there early and picked up the tickets, we walked around the block and found, quite near the theatre at the end of our circumnavigation, a stationery shop which also had various little bits and pieces of the kind we got, then and on a return visit, as stocking fillers and were served by a girl from Lochs who's studying music in East London and doing that as a Saturday job. After looking at the programme, I could remember thinking that the child and the mouse were good, but still couldn't remember how they'd done all the other animals. My first time at the Arts Theatre. As it was a Saturday, Bethan was also there; she hasn't done as much children's theatre as I have. This is the official site of the books.

it's a touring production, which has been in their repertoire since October 2005, so there should be reviews knocking about. Let's see what we find... Tall Stories' own page of extracts. Saggs, a blogging Singaporean Londoner who saw it a few days after we did. The Stage, 2006 and 2007 versions. Scotsman 2006. Oxford Daily Info. What's On Stage.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

pinocchio in catford

A week yesterday went to see Pinocchio at the Broadway Theatre, Catford. 'Blue Star Productions presents The Barrie Stacey Production of', the programme says; I'd taken it to be an amateur production, but it seems to have been a professional touring company, with support of local child amateurs for dancey bits. I presume Blue SP is linked with Blue Star Associates. The Broadway Theatre looked like the old town hall, a bigger version of the Stornoway town hall, with introduced raked seating up from stalls floor level to the balcony. It was a matinee in half-term week, and it was virtually full, with lots of children. The production was okay, but it was very well received; they managed to create a good rapport with the audience, more so than some of the fancier pantos we've seen. I'm sure it was based on the Disney film rather than the book; I was surprised they were able to be so free and easy with it, including introducing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius, when the open-air production we saw of The Jungle Book clearly had to do things just so (ha!). No reviews turned up on a search, but did get the cv of Lucy Clements, who was Pinocchio.

hebridean bloggers

John Kirriemuir's been searching for other Outer Hebridean bloggers. I've found most of those he mentions in previous searches. Like him, I've found a quite a few that ground to a halt quite quickly, including most of those by people blogging their move to start their new life in the Hebrides (the Heggies, who I've followed for a long time, and who, like John Kirriemuir and most of the other Hebridean bloggers are completely unknown to me, are rare and honourable survivors of this genre). Quite a few folk seem to use the BBC's Island Bloggers facility, but I don't find the structure helpful and the bloggers are a mixed bag (the humorous ones in particular are, let's say, less equal than others),

my prediction? pain.

If James's sermons live up to his Mr T posts, he'll be something to hear. From his latest:
- What scientists thought was natural selection is actually only the continued survival of animals Mr. T has found too chewy to eat.
- Mr. T is so scary that his hair is actually afraid to grow. The only reason he has a mohawk is because it’s in his blind spot.
- Mr. T does not know you personally, but the odds are 7 in 10 that he pities you.
- Mr. T recently opened a Psychic hotline, one in which he takes every call. No matter the question he is asked, he gives only one response: “My prediction? Pain.” He then goes out and personally pummels each caller witin an inch of their life, because Mr. T can never be wrong.

new year's day parade

I've read about the New Year's Day parade in London, but this year was the first time we'd been. I like parades the least of us, but it was okay; more interesting than the Lord Mayor's Show, because there were a lot of groups over from American school, doing their marching band and cheerleader stuff (it was interesting how many of the bands and dancers used Beatles music). They were in a different class from most of the other paraders - mostly the usual kinds of suspects, including floats from each borough. The publicity claims that about half a million people watch the parade on the street and millions more on telly around the world. From the day and the website, I guess much of it is getting small US satellite stations to take it for free; if people are watching it live, it'll be pretty early in the US, so I'm guessing it's millions potential audience but much smaller actual. It was quite cold, but only started raining at the end. We were standing quite near the start - just across Whitehall from Downing Street, across from a set up grandstand. There were a number of grandstands set up along the route (from Parliament Square to Piccadilly), which you could pay to sit in, and near each one of them, I think, was a 'celebrity' commentator. Our grandstand seemed mostly to be filled with folk who had come over with the American paraders, so they were quite enthusiastic, in contrast to us peasant Londoners standing across the way. Our commentator was Kath Melandri, who I've often heard on GLR (BBC London in new money). Having a commentator made it a bit more interesting; also because we were opposite the grandstand, it was a place where some of the paraders stopped to do a performance. If we went again, we'd aim to stand there; easy to get to and from for us. Although Bethan and I did both think that if anyone was going to bomb the parade, this was the place they would do it.