Monday, 30 June 2008

more jarhead

As I debark the plane, the oven heat of the Arabian Desert grips my throat. In the distance the wind blows sand from the tops of dunes, cresting beige waves that billow like silk through the mirage. The tarmac is full of American civilian jumbo jets - American, Delta, United; we flew United. The scene on the airfield is like that at any busy international airport, only we passengers are wearing fatigues and carrying loaded rifles, our gas masks strapped to our hips. Just beyond the tarmac, artillery batteries point their guns east and north. Fighter jets patrol the sky. During the twenty-hour flight our mode of debarkation was debated - tactical or general - and I'd hoped for the tactical approach - live rounds and a defensive perimeter could be the only authentic introduction to a theater of war. This won't be like jumping off a Huey at Green Beach in the Philippines, trading an MRE for a plate of hot noodles and blood pork. We received our rounds, but we exit the plane in an orderly single-file line, and I realize that we'd surely look ridiculous surrounding a civilian jetliner with our weapons drawn, the cabin crew performing inventory in the galley while we scream for war.
After we sit for an hour in the hydration tents, the colonel calls a battalion formation and proudly announces that we are taking part in Operation Desert Shield. He explains that the Kuwaiti-Iraqi conflict is not yet our concern, but that currently our mission is to protect, to shield, Saudi Arabia and her flowing oil fields. We'll be shielding enough oil to drive hundreds of millions of cars for hundreds of millions of miles, at a relatively minor cost to the American consumer. We joke about having transferred from the Marine Corps to the Oil Corps, or the Petrol Battalion, and while we laugh at our jokes and we all think we're d funny jarheads, we know we might soon die, and this is not funny, the possibility of death, but like many combatants before us, we laugh to obscure the tragedy of our cheap, squandered lives with the comedy of combat and being deployed to protect oil reserves and the rights and profits of cetain American companies, many of which have direct ties to the White House and oblique financial entanglements with the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, and the commander in chief, George Bush, and the commander's progeny. We know this because Kuehn, one of our representatives from Texas, says, 'All those old white fers from Texas have their fat hands in Arab oil. The mfers drink it like it's beer.'
And at this point we also know that the outcome of the conflict is less impirtant for us - the men who will fight and die - than for the old white fers and others who have billions of dollars to gain or lose in the oil fields, the deep, rich, flowing oil fields of the Kingdom of Saud.
We look north toward what we're told is a menacing military, four hundred thousand or more war-torn and war-savvy men. Some of the Iraqi soldiers who fought during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war (September 1980 to August 1988) began tasting combat when we were ten years old. The Iraqi dead totalled more than 120,000, with 300,000 or more wounded and 60,000 prisoners of war. An army capable of sustaining such damage and invading another neighbor two years later sounds like a truly menacing force. And the civilian population that supports this army and its missions, that accepts such a staggering mutilation and loss of fathers and sons, must be extremely devoted to the country and the protection of its leaders.
- p10, Jarhead, bowdlerisations mine, of course.

I'm pretty sure that when I was a boy American books had their English Anglicised in their UK editions. This doesn't seem to happen any more at all.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

st mary islington

Passed it often enough when I lived in Islington, but went into St Mary, Islington, on Upper Street, for the first time this morning, with a little time to kill before going to the Little Angel Theatre. Most interesting thing is that it's a much more modern body and interior than you'd expect from the front, because everything but the front was bombed in the war. You realise more and more what a significant impact - literally as well as metaphorically - the bombs of World War Two had on London; when it's commonplace for public buildings to have been damaged or destroyed, you realise how many more private buildings were similarly damaged or destroyed that you just never think of because they're not individually significant.

Some pictures, and a Canadian visitor's review.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

the shakespeare's globe experience

Playing to the crowd: Far from being the tourist trap some predicted, the Globe is much loved by audiences and actors alike. Howard Brenton on the thrill and terror of having his own play performed in Shakespeare's theatre.
- Guardian article, Saturday 12 May 2007


The house in question is in Stanmore, and Rowson brilliantly describes his childhood memories of the place, a 1960s suburb still stuck in the 50s. This is one of his themes - that the 70s were much more like the 60s of our collective memory, just as the 50s were much more like the 30s, and so on. This is because we tend to remember the avant-garde, whereas most of us live in what he calls the "garde". One of the many good things about this book is that it is resolutely un-trendy.
- from review of Martin Rowson's Stuff, Guardian, Saturday 28 April 2007

the god disunion

The God disunion: there is a place for faith in science, insists Winston: · IVF pioneer attacks 'patronising' evolutionist · Claim that insulting tone damages public trust
- Guardian, Wednesday 25 April 2007

mein kampf and the poseidon adventure

I borrowed Mein Kampf from the school library once. I didn't get through the introduction. I wonder if they still have it on the shelves. If I borrowed it today, my name would probably be put on some kind of list. Maybe it was then. I hardly ever used, or even went into, the school library; there didn't seem much need, as I used the town library thoroughly. The only book I remember reading from the school library was The Poseidon Adventure. (It's odd that that was the book, and odd that I remember it.)

bestsellers versus classics

Coincidence. I was thinking again yesterday evening how it would be interesting to know (and perhaps read) what the bestselling book in the country was for a particular year or decade, rather than those which were or have come to be considered classics. I turned up a few relevant pages, though they seem to be for US hardbacks. Two sites showing the Publisher's Weekly lists - Cader Books and (covering more years) Wikipedia. And a site listing every New York Times bestseller No 1 since the list started in 1942 (their sources are more selective than the Publisher's Weekly, it seems).

At a first glance it was a surprise to see how often someone like Daphne du Maurier came up, and not so surprising to see how many of the top books were titles I'd never heard of by authors I'd never heard of. On the NYT list, interesting to see a similar pattern as with music charts - 3 No 1 titles in 1951, 1952 and 1953, 23 in 2005, 20 in 2006 and 2007.

Then later on in the evening I reached in my papers pile a Guardian supplement from April 2007 on '50 books that defined their era'. One of the articles is on the 'bestseller vs groundbreaker' theme, covering the kinds of things I was thinking about. I've read a gratifying number of the 50 books in question (the complete list is here).

organic protesters unable to tell potatoes from beans

GM protesters pick wrong field in bid to disrupt potato trial

The operation to sabotage the government's GM potato trial was planned with care and under conditions of great secrecy. Two hundred and fifty protesters swooped on the 16-hectare site outside Hull, armed with shovels and filled with indignation.

In less than an hour they had moved to invalidate the trial, planting thousands of organic potatoes. Mission accomplished. If only they had got the right field.

Activists from yesterday apologised to farmer David Buckton after it emerged that they wrongly identified his land as the site of the GM trial. The field they planted was sown with beans.


Yesterday Mr Buckton, 54, said the mix-up was the strangest event to have befallen his family in four generations of farming. He said the protesters were accompanied by two police officers on horseback.

"I told the police officers that it was a bean field but they said the protest seemed peaceful so we'd better let them get on with it. The beans are just about peeping through. The protesters should have been able to see that," he said.

- Guardian, Wednesday 25 April 2007

'anti-bush protest' part two

Further to the 'anti-bush protest' post, that wasn't the protest being prepared for, it turned out. Rather, it was a protest related to Tokyo G8 by londonfete being surveilled by the Forward Intelligence Team (whose work isn't appreciated by the Wikipedia article compilers). Here's a not entirely objective report of the incident at Indymedia.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008


Read Jarhead by Anthony Swofford recently. Okay, but not as good a Gulf-War-Senior-related creative work as Three Kings, which was a tremendous film. (I haven't seen the film of Jarhead; Three Kings wasn't based on a book.)

There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim. Bur actually, Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. Mr and Mrs Johnson in Omaha or San Francisico or Manhattan will watch the films and weep and decide once and for all that war is inhumane and terrible, and they will tell their friends at church and their family this, but Corporal Johnson at Camp Pendleton and Sergeant Johnson at Travis Air Force Base and Seaman Johnson at Coronado Naval Station and Spec 4 Johnson at Fort Bragg and Lance Corporal Swofford at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man [...] It doesn't matter how many Mr and Mrs Johnsons are antiwar - the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not.
[...] I take my seat and return to the raging battle [in the film on the screen the soldiers are watching]. The supposedly antiwar films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some [Iraqis].
- p6 (Scribner, 2006 edition)

Saturday, 21 June 2008

stalin the poet

Before the terror: As a precocious teenager, Stalin had a surprising talent for romantic poetry, a passion that endured throughout his life. Simon Sebag Montefiore asks how the youthful scribbler became a ruthless tyrant.

Before he was a revolutionary, Stalin was known as a poet. In 1895, aged 17 and studying for the priesthood in Georgia, a province of the tsarist empire, he took a selection of his poems to show to the country's most famous editor and national hero, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze. The prince was deeply impressed with both the poems and the poet, whom he called that "young man with the burning eyes". After looking through the verses, he chose five to publish in Iveria (an archaic name for Georgia), Russia's most fashionable and prestigious literary journal. It took someone of the young Stalin's ambition and colossal self-confidence to walk into the prince's office and offer his poems for publication.

When printed, they were widely read and much admired. They became minor Georgian classics, to be published in anthologies and memorised by schoolchildren until the 1970s (and not as part of Stalin's cult; they were usually published as "Anonymous").

The poems do not fit into the category of Hitler's badly drawn postcards. Perhaps they are closer in standard to Churchill's prose style. Stalin's singing - he was a lead adolescent tenor at the seminary - was said to be good enough for him to go professional. Here, he showed a certain talent in another craft that might have provided an alternative to politics: "One might even find reasons not purely political for regretting Stalin's switch from poetry to revolution," suggests Professor Donald Rayfield, who has translated the poems into English.

Stalin was no Georgian Pushkin. The poems' romantic imagery is derivative, but their beauty lies in the rhythm and language. Poetry remained a part of Stalin's life right up to and even during his three decades as tyrant, leading him to protect some poets and destroy others.

- from an article on Stalin the poet in the Guardian of Saturday 19 May 2007

cartoon readings

Pulled out from lower in the pile, a couple of Private Eye cartoons from 24 November 2006:

- black bling-laden bodyguard-accompanied soul/rap artist picking up award at Music Awards podium, saying, 'But mostly I would like to thank God for inspiring me to write songs extolling greed, gang violence, misogyny and the sex trade...'

- a more traditional cartoon setting (by Honeysett), in a solicitor's office, family gathered for the reading of a will, solicitor holding up t-shirt and saying, 'Before I read your mother's will, I'd like each of you to put one of these on...'; the t-shirt says, 'I neglected my old mum when she when she was alive, & now all I've got is this lousy t-shirt!'

I always thought they should produce one of that series of t-shirts that said 'I went to London and all I got was this stupid t-shirt'. I don't know if you can also get 'I'm with stupid' t-shirts in which the arrow points up at yourself rather than the person next to you.

paper pile

I've reached back down to summer 2007 in my pile of paper stuff to read; the pile is still pretty high (how high? it's now below the level of the keyboard on the electronic piano, something it hasn't achieved for years), so there's still a lot of stuff in there, I'm not sure how far back it goes; I'd guess it's mostly Guardian material, and that mostly the Review section from Saturday Guardians, which is a lot of reading per millimetre reduction in height. And no, I can't just throw them out without reading them.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

anti-bush protest

When Bethan was coming back from parking the car on Sunday afternoon there were quite a few policemen in Crampton Street, including one with a camera, looking up Iliffe St. they reassured her she had nothing to worry about, that it was to do with something happening somewhere else later. We guess it was these anti-Bush protests. We're a hotbed of anarchic hippydom, doubtless, with our artists Yards and Fair Shares Coop. I don't know how they know these things are going on.

steer towards death

As one Imperial Navy precept suggests: 'When a commander is uncertain whether to steer to port or starboard, he should steer toward death.'
- from a review of Max Hasting's Nemesis: The Battle For Japan 1944-45 in January 2008's Word (which begins 'With a name suggestive of "total 1066", Max Hastings was maybe destined to write martial history.')

david quantick describes marc bolan

David Quantick turns a mean phrase. In January 2008's Word he describes Marc Bolan as sounding 'like the world's tiniest pony in a strop'.

handwashing; angel skiing; baghdad gig

The Scottish Executive launched a £2.5 million campaign to teach people how to wash their hands. This involved creating a ten-point guide and the position of 'hand-washing coordinators' on salaries of £50,000.

A Norwegian man became the toast of YouTube after he filmed himself skiing down the length of the 196ft escalator at the Angel - London Underground's longest.

The Spice Girls' reunion narrowly avoided an uncomfortable snag. When the group added an extra date to their tour, they gave fans the chance to suggest the venue via an online poll and for a time it seemed they were heading for Baghdad. A late surge from Toronto enabled them to avoid this fate.

- three items from the last page of lists in January 2008's Word, I guess a list of things which happened, or we learned, in 2007.

Here's the Angel ski video

another god's undertaker review

David Robertson's review of God's Undertaker on p28 of the April 2008 issue of the Monthly Record can be found here.

from 78s to mp3s

In 2006 just 251,000 vinyl albums were sold, compared with 151.4 million CDs ... in the same period, 21,000 'musicassettes' were sold to somebody or other ... [I presume these are UK figures]

From 78s to LPs to cassettes to CDs to MP3s, the reason each new format has caught on is because it's more convenient to use than the previous one. The advent of stereo in the early 1950s is the sole popular development based on sound quality; the benefits were so obviously better than mono that everyone wanted it. If anything, the quality of MP3 is a huge step *backwards* from CDs and vinyl. Tough luck, Mr Audiophile, it's become the consumer standard, the only file format that can be played on any music player or computer.

- a couple of notes from an article in Word of February 2008 on the future of the music business

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

the difference between english and american humour

James Thurber, remarking on the difference between English and American humour, said that whereas the latter consists of making the extraordinary seem ordinary, the former turns on transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. Readers of Jane Austen will perhaps agree, as will those who enjoy EF Benson's timeless Mapp and Lucia novels. Barbara Pym belongs in this company. Indeed she more than the others illustrates Thurber's point about English humour - it delights in tiny little things; and by that standard, Excellent Women stands as one of the most endearingly amusing English novels of the 20th century.
- from a review of Excellent Women by Alexander McCall Smith in the Guardian of 5 April 2008

euro 2008

We both got six out of eight of the quarter-finalists right (we both thought France would get through at the expense of Netherlands (me) or Italy (Bethan), I thought Sweden would rather than Russia, Bethan thought Czech Republic rather than Turkey), and no team got through that neither of us thought would. Hurrah. Predicting the quarter final results is more of a lottery I think, and generally came down to heart v head, what you want v what you think; we've both gone for Croatia and the Netherlands, I've gone for heart with Portugal and Spain, Bethan's gone head with Italy and Germany. On performances, Netherlands Russia should be a tremendous game, and will therefore turn out to be awful. Germany and Italy haven't impressed, but have a habit of grinding out results, bad start or not.

The 'in a nutshell' for the Netherlands in the Radio Times was good for previous tournaments, but hasn't held true this time: 'Free spirits whose liberal outlook doesn't include passing the ball to a loathed team-mate. For sure.'

It's always amusing how, whether it's World Cup or European Championship, ITV/BBC don't acknowledge that the games they're not showing live are being shown live at all, or even taking place (although the BBC have the advantage of directing you to their radio commentary).

shaul schwarz e&c pics

A batch of photos by Shaul Schwarz of the Elephant and Castle, which sits oddly in the index alongside much more exotic locations. The spelling and English leaves something to be desired, and the text makes it sound rougher than it is.

boys into books

Here's a list of 170 books the government's recommending for 11-14-year-old boys.

ken's cunning plan

Livingstone: My 2012 bid was to snare billions of pounds for London: Ken Livingstone claims that the ballooning budget for the Olympics was central to his plan to "ensnare" the Government into bidding for the Games. Mr Livingstone told a mayoral hustings in London he didn't bid for the 2012 Olympics because he wanted "three weeks of sport". He said the Games, which will cost at least £9.3 billion to stage, were just a means of extracting funding for London. He told an audience at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square: "I didn't bid for the Olympics because I wanted three weeks of sport. I bid for the Olympics because it's the only way to get the billions of pounds out of the Government to develop the East End, to clean the soil, put in the infrastructure and build the housing." The Mayor's remarks came after he was criticised by Liberal Democrat rival Brian Paddick for claiming that original sums on the Olympics were "guesswork". Mr Livingstone said: "It wasn't a mistake, Brian. It was exactly how I plotted it to ensnare the Government to put money into an area it has neglected for 30 years. I am delighted that there will be billions of pounds from the Government. That was exactly the plan. It has gone absolutely perfectly." This week an influential group of MPs said it had "little confidence" the £9.3 billion target would not be exceeded. The Public Accounts Committee said the original estimate of just over £4 billion was "entirely unrealistic" and accused ministers of succumbing to " wishful thinking". Mr Livingstone helped draft the original Olympics budget but has stressed that his main responsibility was for the level of council tax precept to help foot the bill. He stressed again last night that he had capped the amount Londoners would have to pay. "I gave a guarantee to Londoners they wouldn't pay more than 38p each [a week]. We held to that," he said. Mr Livingstone's team says that responsibility for drafting the budget was down to Whitehall but stresses it would have cost £200 million to get a fully costed estimate of the final bill - money the bid team did not have.
- Evening Standard, 24 April, reporting this, of course, as if it's a scandal rather than brilliant, which of course it is. (It was an Evangelical Alliance hustings.)

political reality bites for boris

Boris vows to fight closure of Tube station ticket offices: Boris Johnson was campaigning against the closure of Tube ticket offices in outer London today. The Tory mayoral candidate warned that passengers would be put off using the Underground if stations were unmanned and added that since Transport for London had no intention of making job cuts, its plans for the closures were unnecessary. On the campaign trail in Harrow Mr Johnson pledged to halt TfL's proposals to close around 40 offices and said: "They do provide a great deal of reassurance to people late at night if something untoward happens, if they're scared, or if there is an affray. It's good to at least have a human being there to give a sense of security. That's why I think we should fight to reverse this programme of closures." He said transport was "needlessly scary" and that he was concerned about disorder and violence on the network.
- Evening Standard, 11 April

Boris under pressure to honour pledge: The new Mayor of London failed to satisfy campaigners who are trying save an Underground ticket office, despite offering his support to their fight. In a written answer to a question about the future of North Harrow ticket office, Boris Johnson appeared to not understand the reasons behind the campaign. He wrote: "Local people feel it is important to be able to have a staffed ticket office at their station, as often there are not enough Oyster outlets in the local area." He went on to say the number of Oyster card machines are due to almost double by the end of the year, but has been accused of dodging the question. .... Mr Johnson is under pressure to honour his promise, having signed a petition in North Harrow demanding the offices remain open. That petition, signed by 4,125 people, was handed over to Navin Shah on Friday, May 30 and will in turn be presented to the mayor.
- This is Local London, 3 June

Here, amusingly, is a photo of Boris signing the petition, and his entry, on the campaigners' website.

Monday, 16 June 2008

single detectives

Zen's literary celibacy may have been partly a marketing decision. These books were increasingly targeted at the PD James and Ruth Rendell market, where readers are potentially decorous. Indeed, it is a curious fact that intercourse is more or less outlawed for the investigating figure in British detective fiction. Apart from Wexford, who is married, the other major detectives - Poirot, Marple, Dalgleish, Morse, Rebus, Zen - are all single through all or most of their mysteries. Divorced when the series begins, Zen is permitted occasional relationships and, by End Games, is married to Gemma, a witness in a previous case. But because each of his cases requires travel, he remains alone in his encounters with the reader, enforcing the generic convention that the bringer of justice is monk-like and undistracted.
- interesting point in a Mark Lawson review of a Michael Dibdin book in the Guardian of Saturday 30 June 2007

revenger's tragedy article

A mad world: Thomas Middleton challenged Shakespeare on his own turf. It is impossible to watch The Revenger's Tragedy without thinking of Hamlet, argues Gary Taylor
- this article from the Guardian of 7 June is I think the same as the one which appeared in the National Theatre programme


Another good Footnotes article by Donald Macleod in the WHFP of 2 May, on island life in the past and economic imperatives past and present. Too long to type up, and not online anywhere else, so another for the Lewis tearout pile. (I've got his 'The Living Past' - one of my favourite reads of last year - in another pile, which is books I've read that I've got bits to copy out of. Eight in the pile.)


We've been enjoying Springwatch over the past few weeks. We're doing quite well with our regular bird species in the garden. We have a seed feeder - with small holes and niger seeds, not seeing much action at the moment, mainly because the tits haven't been that much in evidence recently - and a feeder in which we put fat balls, which the sparrows are going well on just now. In recent weeks we've definitely seen young birds - robins, blackbirds, sparrows and dunnocks, the last three of which we've seen being fed on the ground by a parent (dunnock today, sparrow a few days ago, blackbird a few weeks ago), which I guess suggests they're not long out of the nest. There had been very loud cheeping from time to time in the bush were the sparrows in particular hang out, so now we're wondering if there was indeed a nest in there being protected. We had a blackbird nest at the bottom of the garden a couple of years ago.

Today at lunchtime I went to the Dockhead post office - the last day, I believe, before it closes - and on the way back I stopped at St Saviour's Dock (which looks like this, a little inlet from the Thames which comes right up to the pavement I was walking along, and as well as all the rubbish up at the head there were a coot, a moorhen, two mallards and a swan. There was a little swell, whether from (high) tide turning or passing vessels I don't know.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


Times article of 18 April based on a squatter story. Squatting not being legal in Scotland, it's always seemed a very odd thing to me. But equally it seems a scandal that there are so many empty properties in London when there is so much need for housing. As the article says, 'The Empty Homes Agency campaigns to draw attention to the estimated 840,000 unused or abandoned properties in the UK and bring them back into use.'

jimmy carter

Interesting interview-based article on Jimmy Carter's post-presidential career in the Guardian of 7 June. One of the mysteries to the non-American is how so quickly after having a Democrat President who was, even Republicans would acknowledge, an evangelical Christian it became unthinkable and heretical that an evangelical Christian could be anything other than a Republican.

the unpleasant reality of crime

his kind of rivalry and noncooperation played to Eckert's advantage as soon as he drove his lorry across the German border. As one senior official in the inquiry put it: "Our authority stops at the border. He can drive across it but as soon as we try to cross, we need special permission. Everybody claims to be working together, but the justice systems are very different from one country to another. It is a problem now and for the future."

Without adequate working links, the fragmented forces of Europe simply failed to notice the serial killer in their midst. Eckert's other advantage was that the victims themselves were effectively invisible. They had travelled from Africa, Russia and eastern Europe, leaving behind families and friends who might otherwise have reported them missing. Some had entered illegally, some were legal; all lived on the fringe of crime with pimps and other prostitutes who were loth to contact the police when they vanished. And whereas a dead princess may still generate official inquiries more than 10 years after her death, a dead prostitute provokes less interest.

Eckert was not alone in taking advantage of these weaknesses in the system. Delving into European police records, the OKD came across many dozens of unsolved murders of women, particularly prostitutes. They came to the conclusion that there were up to 30 serial killers working undetected across Europe. On the E45 alone - a road running south from Innsbruck into northern Italy - they discovered there were unsolved murders of 45 prostitutes. Even in Eckert's adopted home town, Hof, their colleagues were investigating the deaths of three women - two Thai , one Romanian - which were probably not the work of Eckert. The vulnerability of prostitutes is expressed in the evidence, gathered by the OKD, that Eckert openly told the women he picked up that he would pay them more if they allowed him to tie them up and partially throttle them during sex. Some were desperate enough to accept.

The result of this long history of official failure is not simply that Eckert was allowed to kill for more than 30 years but that even now the full scale of his violence is not known. There are gaps in the narrative, holes in the evidence, and clear indications from his Polaroid photographs and his obsessively detailed notes that the 13 dead and 40 survivors almost certainly fail to tell the whole tale.

- from an article in the Guardian of Saturday 7 June, another dispiriting account of a serial killer, another reminder that the secret of 'success' is to murder prostitutes. Real-life crime is so much more unpleasant than crime fiction. My taste in crime fiction is unashamedly cosy rather than grim. and of course most murders are in no way mysterious.

Friday, 13 June 2008

henry vi reviews - roundhouse

Further to the batch of Stratford reviews of the Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 which I saw at the Roundhouse in Camden, here are some reviews of the actual Roundhouse performances.

The Guardian. Music OMH. Independent. The Times. Time Out. Daily Telegraph. Evening Standard. Stage blog. John Morrison blog - he went the same nights I did.

This is the official RSC Histories website, but the actor blog by Nick Asbury seems to have gone apart from one entry - perhaps they're turning it into a book (perhaps like the Switzers Guide to Hamlet, which I think started as a blog - from the Toby Stephens Hamlet production) so have withdrawn it.

journalist cautioned for giving alcohol to 16-year-olds

A journalist has been cautioned by police for supplying 16-year-olds with cider and alcopops during a photoshoot in Gloucestershire for an underage drinking campaign. The unnamed 28-year-old journalist is understood to have been working for local news agency South West News Service on a piece for the Daily Mirror. They supplied alcohol to a group of teenagers, who were later involved in a brawl that left one youth in a coma for "weeks afterward", according to Avon and Somerset Police. Alcohol was supplied to the teenagers as props for a photo shoot on underage drinking and the journalist told them they could keep the alcohol afterwards, the police added. Just hours after the shoot some of them were involved in a "serious disorder incident", said the police, which is still under investigation. The incident occurred on February 8 at Stoke Gifford, South Gloucestershire, and resulted in two teenagers being taken to hospital with one of those injured in a coma.
- picked this story up from Private Eye, but this account is from The Guardian of 6 June

Thursday, 12 June 2008

sandy mor

Read a very interesting profile article of Sandy Mor by Brian Wilson in the WHFP of 23 May, but since the WHFP aren't putting most of their articles online yet, it'll have to go in the tornout pile rather than a blog link. Maybe they'll do it eventually.

Brian's comment column in that issue is on a public enquiry meeting into the proposed Muiteabhal wind farm. Extracts:
'Opponents of wind farms will invoke a hundred reasons which all really boil down to one - that they don't like the look of them. That is a perfectly respectable point of view which deserves to be weighed in the balance. However, they then feel obliged to garnish this prejudice with layers of rationalisation - economic, environmental and quack-medical - in order to construct a more plausible case. Curiously, I have never met an opponent of wind-power who says: "They look great, but I am against them for other reasons."
'The Muiteabhal inquiry is limited in scope to a straightforward question - do the national benefits which the development would bring outweigh its likely scenic impact. For many people on both sides of the argument, that is a no-brainer of a question. The pros don't find anything inherently offensive about the sight of wind turbines so are unlikely to see their impact as being negative at all, far less decisively so. Equally, the antis hate the things so that any impact is too much for them.'
'But of all the arguments deployed against wind farms on Lewis, surely the least persuasive - again put forward by the John Muir Trust - is that they would spoil the view from the Callanish Stones. As with so many things in life, I suppose it depends which direction you are looking from. I remember 30-odd years ago when a Lewis councillor wanted to knock down the Callanish Stones and build council houses on the site because they were nothing but a nuisance. How far the pendulum has swung; while the truth stands bang in the middle - for all but the most zealous, it is perfectly possible both to respect the past and develop a future.'

I'm one of those who finds wind turbines elegant and striking in a positive way.

'we've never executed a rich man'

My definition of politics is: 'poly' means more than one, and 'tic' is a blood-sucking parasite. If I run [for Governor of Texas] again it will be on a platform to abolish the death penalty. I think if Texas were to do that the world would stand up and cheer. It's holding us back. George W Bush. says we've never executed an innocent man. Who knows? All I can say for sure is we've never executed a rich man.
- Kinky Friedman, Word, February 2008

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

new blue media

Did humor save the left at its darkest hour? How did Stephen Colbert become a progressive political force? Theodore Hamm discusses "The New Blue Media," the rise of netroots and their role in the next administration.

When future historians write of the long months between the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there will most likely be a chapter about the overwhelming failure of the mainstream political media to properly question the Bush administration during the buildup to a failed war. Journalists who should have acted as government watchdogs instead acted largely as yes men, spuriously debating what should be done about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

In that recriminatory chapter, there will likely be a section about the exceptions: left-leaning, often satirical media outlets like "The Daily Show" and the Onion, whose headlines in the run-up to the invasion included "Bush Won't Stop Asking Cheney if We Can Invade Yet" and "Bush Seeks U.N. Support for 'U.S. Does Whatever It Wants Plan.'" These exceptions are the focus of "The New Blue Media: How Michael Moore,, Jon Stewart and Company Are Transforming Progressive Politics" by Theodore Hamm, the founding editor of the arts and politics journal the Brooklyn Rail. The book is what Hamm calls a "critical tribute" to a group of liberal commentators and outlets -- Stephen Colbert, Air America and blogs like Daily Kos and MyDD -- that have emerged in the last decade. In chronicling their rise and influence, Hamm suggests that some of the most meaningful and independent political discourse has come from the least "serious" of sources. If the book sometimes reads as a bit credulous -- there is perhaps more tribute than criticism here -- it may be because Hamm cannot conceal his gratitude for what was for him an invaluable source of relief in a bleak time.
- from article in Salon, 30 May

private eye cartoon readings

From the previous Private Eye:

Man in t-shirt saying Red Cross with a cross on it and a man in a t-shirt saying Red Crescent with a crescent on it listen to a man in a t-shirt saying Red Nothingness with a circle on it, saying 'We're an atheist humanitarian agency'
(which is more interesting than funny)

Lower class mum says to other lower class mum, while watching pregnant schoolgirl pushing child in buggy, 'I see your Charlene's been visiting Balmoral again!'
(it would be nice to think it would catch on as a euphemism, but it won't)

Mouse behind desk says to other mouse, 'In this department we work hard and, if the cat's away, we play hard'
(My favourite)

stephen fry on the bbc

If I had the brain and the eloquence of Stephen Fry, I'd have made this tremendous speech on the BBC and the future of public service broadcasting. I heard it thanks to Speechification. I'm not generally speaking patriotic (nor unpatriotic), but the BBC is pretty much the only thing that makes me proud to be British.

hunter davies

Hunter Davies: 'I always tell them they have to tell the truth': Biographer to the stars, the inimitable Hunter Davies, talks to Tim Walker about secrets, lies and his 50-year career
- Independent, 9 June

I've always enjoyed Hunter Davies's writing, which I read first in his Father's Day columns in copies of Punch in Stornoway library and then second in his biography of the Beatles.


Donald Trump visits his Scottish roots in charm offensive for £1bn golf resort: The US tycoon arrived on the Isle of Lewis by private jet for a not-so-private visit his late mother's modest croft
- Times, 10 June

the ever-entertaining offside rule

Dutch goal correct says ref chief: Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy's opening goal in the win over Italy was legitimate, says Premier League referees' chief Keith Hackett. Van Nistelrooy looked yards offside when he prodded home from close range. But it appears he was played onside by defender Christian Panucci, who was lying off the pitch at the time. "The fact is the assistant was correct; the defender who slid off the field is still regarded as active," Hackett told BBC Sport. "Christian Panucci went off through contact with his own goalkeeper (Gianluigi) Buffon. He is still considered part of the game." Uefa general secretary David Taylor said Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt and his assistant Stefan Wittberg were absolutely correct in their interpretation. He told a news conference: "There is a lack of understanding as to why this particular goal was awarded. In fact some television commentators have insisted the goal was clearly offside, but that is not the case. The player was not offside because in addition to the goalkeeper there was another Italian player in front of the goalscorer. Even though he had fallen off the pitch his position was still relevant for the purposes of the offside law. Not many people, even in the game, and I include the players, know this interpretation. Incidents like this are very unusual - although I'm informed that there was an incident like this about a month ago in a Swiss Super League match between FC Sion and FC Basel 1893."
- BBC, 10 June


Soundindex is an impressive resource from the BBC, aggregating various online music listening locations to show which artists and tracks are the most listened to online. If previous experience is anything to go by, they'll be allowed to do this until some commercial venture complain that the BBC are unfairly taking food out of their mouths by giving away something that they could be selling, and the BBC will have to stop doing it. The BBC don't seem to be allowed to do or develop anything that becomes too successful; they're hamstrung, and have too many ideological enemies in authority and commercial enemies in competition. There was something a couple of weeks ago, I forget what it was; and several years ago they had to stop doing their fantasy football league.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008


This is Main Street Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Mississippi. This is Wikipedia on Columbus, most notable for being the birthplace of Tennessee Williams (yes, more notable than formerly being home to the world's largest toilet seat manufacturer).

Monday, 9 June 2008

eythrope and wotton

We had a feeling of being back in the nineteenth century when we visited a gardener of our acquaintance in Lord Rothschild's estate at Eythrope, one of nine gardeners in the estate, living in estate buildings. A large estate, and large gardens. Thanks to the wonders of Google you can see it here - residence courtyard bottom centre, garden leading out behind.

In the afternoon we had a choice of two local villages having events, and we chose Wotton Underwood, where it turns out Tony and Cherie Blair have just bought John Gielgud's old house, the South Pavilion of the mansion - the plant stall and bric-a-brac stall were outside the front of it in the pavilion; it seems unlikely they'll be able to do that in the courtyard in future years, for security reasons, but you never know, it's a very out of the way village. The village is also home to the Wotton Light Railway, which we went on (and which is a hobby of a high court judge, according to his Who's Who listing.

Friday, 6 June 2008


The coverage around the play-offs revealed that, up until Hull made it into the Premiership, Hull was the biggest city in Europe never to have hosted top flight football, which is both interesting and an impressive piece of research by somebody. At least they can draw comfort when they've been relegated this time next year from the fact that they no longer hold that title.

intergalactic tyrants

Intergalactic tyrants beware: the boys in blue are after you: Anyone who thinks the police aren't interested in diversity will be amazed by the links they have built with Scientology.
Once again our great nation has entertained the world, putting on two stunning exhibition matches this week. First was the Champions League final, between the clubs who finished first and second in our very own Premier League. The second - and whether the parties were quite as closely matched as Manchester United and Chelsea will be for you to decide - was between a 16-year-old schoolboy and City of London police, who arrested him for carrying a placard referring to Scientology as a "cult". The files went all the way to the Crown Prosecution Service before finally being dropped yesterday.
- start of an interesting Guardian article from Saturday 24 May. The Scientologists are of course notoriously litigious.

is this the end of the stay-at-home mother?

Around seven out of eight mothers now work. According to a report published last week by YouGov, the number of stay-at-home mothers has dropped by a quarter in the past 15 years. In 1993 there were 2.7 million full-time mothers in the UK: the new research estimates that the figure will fall below 2 million by 2010. The survey concluded that most parents cannot afford for one of them not to work: couples think they need an income of £31,731 before they can afford for the mother to stay at home and the average male income in the UK is £28,464. This is proof that a stay-at-home parent is a logistical impossibility for most households.
- from a Guardian article of 26 May, Is this the end of the stay-at-home mother?

brutal grammar school girl

If Prescott ever were to lie on the couch, he would have a life's worth of inferiority complexes to talk about. People have been struggling to understand him ever since he moved to Cheshire with a Yorkshire accent as a child. After failing his eleven-plus, he sent a love letter to a girl at grammar school, who returned it with all his spelling corrected. He'd even misspelled the word "love". At sea his union bosses considered him a troublemaker, and the sense of social inadequacy dogged him throughout his adult higher education, at Ruskin College and Hull University, where a middle-class student said he belonged to the "lumpen proletariat". It was only later that he realised he'd been insulted.
- from an article on John Prescott in the Guardian of 26 May

mini guide to the netherlands

Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, although they also recognise several minority regional languages, including West Frisian, Low Saxon, Twentse and Limburgish.

Roughly 70% of the Dutch population speaks English.

If you're ever stuck for an example of a "synecdoche", ie a term for part of something that is employed to mean the whole of that something, remember Holland. Though frequently used as a synonym for the Netherlands, it officially refers to just two of the 12 Dutch provinces, North Holland and South Holland. The Dutch sometimes use "Holland" this way themselves, particularly with regard to the national football team.

The Dutch don't actually refer to the Netherlands in the plural the way we do in English. They call it Nederland. The plural form is an archaic construction which refers specifically to the loosely confederated provinces of the Dutch Republic of 1581 to 1795.

More than 60% of the Netherlands lies below the mean sea level. The highest point is just 321 metres above sea level.

Over the past century and a half the Dutch have gone from being among the shortest people in Europe to among the very tallest. The average height for a Dutch man is 6ft 1in; the average woman is 5ft 8in. It has become necessary to raise door lintels and extend hotel beds to accommodate their extra length. This growth spurt could be attributable to several factors - a steady increase in income, improved diet or better health care, combined with the fact that they started from such a low point - but no one knows when it will end.

The Netherlands as we know it originated with the Seventeen Provinces, which also included modern-day Belgium, Luxembourg, a chunk of France and a sliver of Germany.

A brilliantly named edict, The Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, transformed the Seventeen Provinces into a single entity. Later, seven northern provinces revolted against Philip II of Spain at the instigation of William the Silent, touching off the 80 years war.

The 80 years war actually did last 80 years. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, to which the modern day Netherlands is heir, won its formal independence in 1648.

The Netherlands exports a quarter of all the world's tomatoes.

The Netherlands has the highest population density of any sizeable European country;

484 inhabitants per square kilometre, if you discount the 18.4% of the country that is water. And yet none of its major cities has a population of more than a million.

The Netherlands has the lowest incidence of lactose intolerance in the world, about 1%.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to happen by Australia, which they immediately christened New Holland. They were also among the first to colonise America, which they called New Netherlands, and the first to settle New York, which they named New Amsterdam. New Zealand, named after the Dutch province Zeeland, provides a rare example of the Dutch coming up with a name that stuck.

Remember that Unicef report in which the UK came bottom out of all rich countries in terms of child wellbeing? Guess who came top.

In addition to Delftware, we can thank the Dutch for the pendulum clock, the CD, gin, the mercury thermometer and Santa Claus.

- extracts from the mini guide to the Netherlands in the Guardian of 26 May

beryl's fat ladies

Cook's self-portraits show her as plump, which she was not. She added three stone to all her figures to avoid filling in backgrounds - location did not enthuse her.
- from Beryl Cook's obituary in the Guardian of 28 May 2008

john gielgud's tremendous hamlet

John Gielgud's tremendous Hamlet - review from The Guardian, Thursday May 29 1930, reprinted in their archive slot on 29 May 2008.

'Mr. Wolfit as the King is a lovely Van Dyck, but the head and front of the occasion is Mr. Gielgud, who presents the best Hamlet of the writer's experience. Hamlet is usually played by the actor who is made and set in his style, a middle-aged gentleman of good looks and cast-iron technique, in whom the capable and god-like reason has been allowed to "rust unused."
'Mr. Gielgud's Hamlet is young and never fixed in handsomeness; it has beauty when the text proclaims it, and the ugly mockery of disillusion when that is needed. It is angry, violent and tender as the sense demands, and with what loving care does Mr. Gielgud know and guard the sense.
'Here is a Hamlet who seems to have pondered each line for its meaning as well as weighed it for its musical value, who points the wit, the agony, the ecstasy of Hamlet with a sensitive appreciation of the lad from Wittenberg who has been hurled into this bestial world of court and crime.
'Mr. Gielgud went to the Old Vic with a reputation. Shakespeare has played on him as though he was that recorder which Hamlet uses for simile; the great parts have found him ready, and evoked fresh power.'

how to market a miracle cure

How to market a miracle cure - Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column about the Dore 'miracle cure' for dyslexia in the Guardian of Saturday 24 May.

never underestimate the johnson family

Never underestimate the Johnson family. My friend Tim Heald, who lives in Fowey, was at Oxford with Boris's father, Stanley (a quondam Guardian columnist). One night in 1962, at around one in the morning, he was with others in Stanley's rooms. Somebody asked if he had entered for the Newdigate prize, the celebrated award for a poem in English of less than 300 lines. It is so prestigious that they don't make the award unless there is a poem good enough. However, previous winners include John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde, John Buchan, Lawrence Binyon and James Fenton.

Stanley said he hadn't thought of entering but asked the deadline. It was nine that morning. So he stayed up all night writing his poem (May Morning) and won. That family does awfully well by pretending to be bumbling incompetents while actually being ruthlessly focused.
- Simon Hoggart, Guardian, Sat 24 May

the revenger's tragedy

On Tuesday I went to the National Theatre to see The Revenger's Tragedy by Thomas Middleton (hasn't always been attributed to him, I think; he's our local boy, being buried in the former-churchyard-now-park across the road). He's currently getting a bit of critical reassessment, with a new edition of his plays coming out; the canon's complicated by co-authorship and revisions, but the editor claims him as the equal of Shakespeare. And certainly seeing plays like this and Westward Ho, you're certainly convinced that the only reason you see plays like these by Shakespeare's contemporaries far less frequently than even Shakespeare's lesser plays is just because they're not by Shakespeare, though they're better than many Shakespeares. It puts me in minds of Scottish hills less than 3000ft largely ignored or neglected in favour of much duller Munros.

The play was very good, and well done. Less bleak, and funnier, than I had expected. I deliberately didn't read the synopsis or the play-related articles in the programme before the play, so that I didn't know the story. The many parallels with Hamlet were interesting (including revenge, of course, but also a speech with a skull and a stage full of corpses at the end), although sometimes with these things you're not sure if it's purely in the text or put in in the productions. This is also more true of humour - how much would these tragedies have been played for laughs at the time? We like laughs in our blackness and tragedy these days, perhaps less so then. The insanity which must lie under or on the verge of such all-consuming desire for revenge wasn't really there as an element, though (he keeps his murdered wife's skull in a box and talks to it, but this isn't treated as anything other than perfectly normal behaviour), which perhaps relates to the playing up of the humour, perhaps you can't do both.

The performances on the whole were good, and Rory Kinnear in the lead role was very good, although to start with it was a bit disconcerting how you would suddenly see his dad Roy in Rory's face, and throughout it was a bit disconcerting that he looked rather like Roddy Mackay.

The gore and debauchery was presented imaginatively, and they used the rotating stage very well, particularly at the start, before the text began, with action taking place in rotating scenes depicting things referred to in the play as having happened. I was sitting at the far-right seat of the second-row stalls, so you could see activity and preparations going on in the next third of the stage and the back of the stage, but they were obviously aware and designed to be seen by portions of the audience; they were in character, but you didn't miss anything by not seeing them. It was done in old set and dress style, largely, but most of the music was modern dance music (by DJs DifferentGear). Plenty plot and action, not much standing around making poetic speeches.

I saw it on a preview night, as it happened; my programme lists the first performance of the production as the following night, Wednesday 4th, which was the press night - so there should be some reviews up by now... The Stage. Evening Standard. Interview with the director at MusicOMH. The West End Whingers. The Guardian. The Independent. The Times. Daily Telegraph. I seem to have enjoyed it more unreservedly than most.

Forty years since the last London production, apparently. I wonder which Shakespeare has gone longest unperformed in London, and how long ago it was performed.

Thursday, 5 June 2008


We visited Harlech Castle, but it was too windy a day to enjoy it properly. In a way made you appreciate it all the more, both the feat of building it and living in it. There's not much to it now in terms of rooms, it's really just a shell, but a very impressive shell.

Some photos. There's good info, and many photos, at, and of course there's always Wikipedia.

Impressive in a different way was Castell y Bere - a Welsh prince castle rather than Edward I, hidden away up a valley. It's one of those places which assumes that those who take the trouble of finding it are on the one hand small in number and on the other prepared to do without railings and warning signs to stop you plummeting off the various potential falling spots. Castle Wales has another good page of words and photos on it; and I shouldn't have doubted Wikipedia. Plenty photos online too.


2. Weird Words: Pilcrow /'pIlkr@U/
The paragraph sign.

The word is delightful, not least because it gives no clue at all to what it means or where it might come from. The recently revised entry for it in the Oxford English Dictionary says that it is "now chiefly historic", which I rather dispute, since it's easy to find examples in current books on typography and it continues to be used in standards documents that list character sets.

What makes it truly weird is that the experts are sure it's a much bashed-about transformation of "paragraph". This can be traced back to ancient Greek "paragraphos", a short stroke that marked a break in sense (from "para-", beside + "graphein", write). The changes began with people amending the first "r" to "l" (it appeared in Old French in the thirteenth century as "pelagraphe" and "pelagreffe"). Then the folk etymologists got at it, altering the first part to "pill" and the second to "craft" and then to "crow". The earliest recorded version was "pylcrafte", in 1440; over the next century it settled down to its modern form.

The paragraph symbol, by the way, isn't a reversed "P" as you might guess. It's actually a script "C" that was crossed by one or two vertical lines. The letter stood for Latin "capitulum", chapter.

- from the World Wide Words email of 3 May

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

gavin peacock

Gavin Peacock, reports the Times of 31 May, is going to Canada to train for the ministry.

some other things we did on our holidays

We were staying in a house on Mawddach Crescent(link to an article on the history of this peculiar isolated seaside terrace) on the Mawddach estuary; the view constantly changing as the tide came in and out, of course, with much sand exposed at low tide. Barmouth, just across the estuary by foot on the railway bridge; a big beach which we were able to make use of on one sunny day. Fairbourne, along from us at the mouth of the estuary, including a trip on their little steam railway (of which there are so many in Wales) - when we were there they were having special days with their no-not-like-Thomas-at-all Friendly Engines (with their faces on) and the Stout Director.

two tiny welsh hills conquered

On our holiday we all made it up Fegla Fawr (map and photo) and most of us made it up Pared y Cefn-hir (map and photo), a higher hill up by the Cregennen lakes with splendid views, shapely but easy. There were any number of ways up the former, we just struck up from the back of the house and circled round a bit. The route up the latter is all visible in the photo, skirting the north-west side and then, instead of going up on to the ridge where it dips and going direct up the ridge (which is the way of the obvious path, but there is a steep rocky bit which not all would have managed and which I imagine would be tricky in the wet; I came back down that way), continuing to skirt through some rubble then some heather (the dark patch a centimetre below the summit in the photo) onto a shoulder then up onto the ridge on grass higher up, at which point half our party stopped and the other half continued the easy walk to the top.

I'd come across the Geograph site before, but had forgotten it - a remarkable site, seeking and showing photos for each square on the OS map. There seems to be great coverage, although Lewis is still skimpy. There are even graphics which show you from which direction each photo was taken.

Sunday, 1 June 2008


On holiday chomped through Rumpole's Last Case by John Mortimer, the final collection of Rumpole stories which I'd picked up just before going on holiday, and then Rumpole of the Bailey, the first collection, which I picked up early in the holiday. Yesterday picked up the two Omnibuses, each containing three books. It's nice to read a book by an author of whom you've read nothing before and enjoy it, and so be able to look forward to reading a whole back catalogue of theirs. I felt the same after reading my first Alice Thomas Ellis. I'm not sure I ever saw a whole episode of Rumpole of the Bailey on TV, with Leo McKern; but within the last few weeks I heard a bit of one of the stories and a bit of John Mortimer reading from his autobiography (which I also picked up yesterday), both on BBC7, I'm sure.

I was strolling along the corridor, puffing a small cigar with a modest feeling of triumph, when a small, eager young lady, her fairly pleasing face decorated with a pair of steel-rimmed specs and a look of great seriousness, rather as though she was not quite certain which problem to tackle first, world starvation or nuclear war, came panting up alongside.
- Rumpole's Last Case, p14

[fictional newspaper cutting]Government extravagance has been highlighted by the astonishing sums spent subsidizing tea and biscuits consumed by civil servants at the Ministry of Defence. The cost of elevenses pus the money spent on entertaining a long list of foreign visitors would, it is calculated, have paid for the Crimean War three times over.
'If we hadn't spent all that money on biscuits at the Ministry of Defence, we might have had three Crimean Wars,' I called out to her as I thought she might have cared to know.
- Rumpole's Last Case, p80

something wicked this way comes

Just finished reading Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. If the first two books of his I'd read were this and Dandelion Wine (rather than the most recent two), I might never have read another, which would have been a shame as I'd have missed his good science fiction short stories and in particular the excellent Martian Chronicles. These two books both overflowery and philosophically nostalgic about childhood. The story itself got buried a bit, and not enough was made of the premise. Stephen King has used the same premise - mysterious but apparently benevolent thing visits small town and preys upon people - a number of times.

So, a bit disappointing (here's the quite detailed Wikipedia article). Only one way to follow it, of course, and that's to read Agatha Christie's By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, which I, as it happened, bought yesterday, so started today. Coincidentally, also bought Macbeth yesterday - had a big trawl of the secondhand bookshops and charity shops in Shrewsbury on the last day of our holiday.