Friday, 31 January 2014

old letters

Having a bit of a tidy-up, cleared out the letter rack in the hall. The rear two compartments were mostly full of old letters, some of which I suspect had been there even before we moved into this house, though some were more recent, Christmas letter type. Some for me, some for Bethan. I certainly haven't looked at them for years, and haven't written a proper, ordinary letter by hand to anyone - by way of a reply rather than a one-off special - for years. Those which were mine, I think they were latest letters from someone which I thought I owed replies to. Happily, everyone in there who I want to be in touch with I still am, generally online. Those who are still alive. Something of a time capsule really.

Also found a set of photos from our godson's baptism weekend. He was born June 1998, so the dads look very young (the mums haven't changed, of course), and my hair looks ridiculous.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

how london got its name

How London Got Its Name
- interesting article on Londonist, 15 January, on London's sequence of names

how protestant missionaries changed the world

The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries: They didn’t set out to change history. But one modern scholar’s research shows they did just that.
- interesting article in Christianity Today, 8 January 2014

Sunday, 19 January 2014

christianity and modesty as a virtue

Melvyn Bragg, in his In Our Time email of 13 Dec re the Pliny the Younger episode:
'One of the interesting things about Pliny's letters is their lack of modesty. Roy Gibson pointed out that modesty and self-effacement were not considered as virtuous at that time. He suggested that Christianity brought that in. Christianity was one of a number of sects, and the notion of it eventually eating up the Roman Empire and taking the Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire and beyond would not have crossed their minds, even persons as perspicacious as Pliny the Younger.'

Sunday, 12 January 2014

gardens of the moon

Browsing in the library, having started reading my '100 Must Read Fantasy Novels' book in the Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide series, I picked up the first of Steven Erikson's Malazan series, Gardens of the Moon. The Bloomsbury guide had made it sound possibly of interest to me, a fantasy series with a slightly different approach, and the back cover made me think so too. Almost an implication that - well, it doesn't say so, but it makes me think of Band of Brothers, a grand geopolitical fantasy through the perspective of one company of soldiers involved in it. I don't expect it'll pan out entirely like that, but even if it's partly, it'll be an interesting approach.

I am mindful that there are (so far?) ten books in the series (plus perhaps others in the same setting, plus others by another author in the same setting which was a world devised by them both for rpg and unsuccessful scripts), so am perfectly ready to bale out after one volume (as I did with Game of Thrones) or earlier (though I don't like not finishing). This edition has a new introduction by the author, which is a bit self-important, self-aggrandising and off-putting, as these things often are, but I have got stuck in nonetheless. There's a long list of characters at the start, but I've ignored that; I'll just let things unfold, things which should stick will stick if it's well put together enough, and I can refer back once I'm further in if I need to. The only thing of interest he said in it was that if you don't like it after reading a third of the first book, you won't like any of it, so just bale out. I may take him at his word.

rereading lord of the rings: notes 6

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One: The Ring Sets Out.

Chapter 11: A Knife in the Dark
Not sure why the Riders are only now at the house in Crickhollow.

Interesting how often the tension is not in outright pursuit and flight but in travelling with a sense of menace, and also camping/overnighting when you know danger is near - Bombadil's, Prancing Pony, the dell near Weathertop here (not the more cinematic Weathertop itself) Less of this in film, less cinematic than chase perhaps. Menace rather than chase, a chiller/horror technique rather than an action/adventure one.

Regular reminders of days/dates of travel; even if we're not keeping track, the author has a clear timetable in the background.

Interesting that Strider is suggested as being uncertain what to do on occasion, less the decisive leader.

More poetry/song and telling of old history/legend.

Tension and pace certainly picking up - Strider confirms external reality. Starting to feel more real for the hobbits. They are in unfamiliar terrain, in hands of an unfamiliar person.

Chapter 12: Flight to the Ford
Previous chapter a bit, but especially this chapter is one where you do start to miss having a map. (Looking ahead, there isn't a map in book two; I'm wondering if there was originally a separate map in this (second-hand) box set.) Starting to clock up days and nights of travel, and changes of direction.

Slight puzzle over why they are left comprehensively alone after first fairly successful attack, but accepting idea of ambush at key point which they must pass.

Flavour of a landscape abandoned long ago.

Cross-references to Bilbo's adventure feel odd, since that one was so light and this is so dark, and also that one didn't emphasise the distance but this one does. So to find you are only at the Trolls is odd.

I thought Book One might end more roundedly, but it doesn't. I suppose it does mark the end of the pursuit by the black riders.

Mystery of Frodo's resilience.

Frodo and all of the hobbits are actually very passive as heroes so far. It feels like Frodo's only real action so far has been to consent to leave the Shire in the first place.

And there end the notes on Book One.

rereading lord of the rings: notes 5

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One: The Ring Sets Out.

Chapter 9: At the Sign of The Prancing Pony
Bree, a crossroads town, a place of travellers and different peoples living and passing through; change after Shire.

Question of why some things are not known or forgotten. Simply parochialism? News seems to spread efficiently, though, and we're not very far from the Shire. Rangers nebulous, both individually and collectively.

Chapter 10: Strider
As earth is to Dr Who, so the Shire seems to be to Gandalf - a place of special interest and protection.

The journey is becoming more purposeful, now that they are joined by one who fully appreciates/understands the magnitude of what's going on.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

rereading lord of the rings: notes 4

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One: The Ring Sets Out.

Chapter 7: In the House of Tom Bombadil
By accident or design, we are now off the map. The map at the start of this volume shows only the Shire's known world. Which isn't a bad way to emphasise that for the hobbits this is literally uncharted territory.

In a modern book, Tom Bombadil would be too good to be true, and would in fact be sinister/bad in some way.

The first proper female character appears, thought combining the two cliches of simply a wife and also a godlike creature.

The old forest a hostile foreshadowing of the ents.

A peculiar chapter. What's the purpose of the characters Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, and the pages devoted to them? A pause; a first positive experience beyond the Shire; a relief from grimness? Nature of the characters and their place in the scheme of things (as yet) unexplained. The power of story and song? A sense of longevity? Forget their fears for a while? Yet why stop their flight so readily? Confident they are in hands and timetable of a greater power? Being fortified for journey?

Tom character a bit annoying to many readers, surely? He seems a powerful and significant character to be unmentioned or unknown by Gandalf, say. Puts on ring without effect, sees Frodo when Frodo is wearing the ring. He seems a bit out of place, not fitting in with the carefully-constructed world and history. Mythical. I remember Tolkein wrote a poem about him, and wonder if he's fitting into the story a pre-existing character.

(Did later read the Wikipedia entry for Tom Bombadil, which is quite interesting and informative.)

Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow-downs
Old-timey/high/poetic language not a problem from the hobbits, only when others come in, and myth and history being retold. Poetic descriptions of landscape etc are tedious to me. Songs are too, somewhat, but don't last long, and also admire the attempt (often repeated in subsequent fantasy novels, rarely successfully) to put what are essentially ballads and folk songs into a story - a hard thing to do, but a key part of that world's culture (as ours). Which is why the orchestral score instead of folk music in the films is such a big lack in my view. But jost not very good songs, not sure they would work as folk songs. I'd like to see it done well. Music ard to write about, of course.

An atmospheric chapter, English-imbued in fog, landscape and myth. Surprised not in film, until the rescue by Tom Bombadil, which explains its omission (if he rescued them, the previous chapter would have to be included; if he didn't tricky question of who does or how they escape). The rescue adds to the oddness/implausibility of Tom Bombadil, with his speedy and powerful response, which feels very unsatisfactory.

This scene is the one most like a Dungeons & Dragons scenario yet.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

moon; silent running; asimov's mysteries

On Thursday 25 April I watched Moon in the afternoon by myself, Silent Running in the evening with the family, and finished reading Asimov's Mysteries.

Moon I really enjoyed, very thoughtful and bore analysis in a way that films like that don't always; it was well constructed and well done; I've not been a big Sam Rockwell fan, but he was good in this.

Silent Running I remember seeing probably when I was in school and it making a big impression on me. As is often the way, it wasn't as good as I remembered it, though I did enjoy it; I'm sure I viewed it differently as an old man, though, finding the main character less sympathetic and more murderously insane.

Asimov's Mysteries I enjoyed, and I liked the sf/detective genre combination, but again perhaps not as keen on Isaac Asimov as I used to be.

ps Yes I am trying to catch up on blogging some of my 2013 activities.

london marathon

We've watched bits of the London Marathon in the past, by accident or design, though I always have mixed feelings about it, not really feeling it's something to be held or watched on Sunday. Last year, on Sunday 21 April, we had the full-on experience, after church, as Clive was running in it, so we with Naomi went to see him at three different places on the route (at Mudchute, Limehouse and the underpass west of London Bridge, which is where we've gone from church once before, to the pedestrian flyover on that occasion), and then met him afterwards at the end. If we hadn't met him so often he would have made his target time, so a bit of a mixed blessing, our encouragement, though perhaps it kept him going...

rereading lord of the rings: notes 3

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One: The Ring Sets Out.

Chapter 5: A Conspiracy Unmasked
Only now, at the start of this chapter, crossing the Brandywine river. Not a chase, as in film. None of it a chase so far, in fact, rather a journey with lurking danger, which is more interesting.

Fredegar, Fatty, the forgotten hobbit. Would be tortured to death by black riders in modern version. Merry and Pippin's accompaniment not accidental, but the conspiracy of the chapter title.

A low-speed chase.

Chapter 6: The Old Forest
Finally leave the Shire, through the Hedge. Not an action thriller - don't need to be catapulted headlong into events. Let the world unroll, give it time, but without being dull, maintaining interest and momentum.

Reasons for leaving - friendship. Frodo leaving to flee trouble himself, but also to avoid bringing trouble to the Shire.

Seems incurious that the old forest on the doorstep is so rarely visited, but then perhaps unsurprising given magical/living/moving nature.

Necessary for plot movement that Merry, Pippin, Sam knew what was going on, but slightly implausible they knew and kept quiet, or that only they worked out, and Gandalf so indiscreet, especially with Sam's successful and repeated spying.

A sequence of people helping - elves, Maggot, Tom Bombadil. Episodic nature of journey structure shaping up; traditional; Pilgrim's-Progress-like.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

new year's eve; new year's day

On the afternoon of New Year's Eve we went to the National Gallery, having picked up Naomi and Clive from Marylebone. It wasn't as busy as I thought it might be, though had picked up a bit by the time we were leaving. I have been in the new wing most often recently, where a lot of the older stuff is, but we did a circuit of a set of more modern rooms, 18th and 19th century mostly - including Gainsborough, Turner, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh. Never get over seeing these massively famous works of art so close at hand, and for free. Though continue not to get Van Gogh, and why this is great art.

Later we left home - with Laura and her parents, who had also joined us for the evening - about quarter past eleven and got to Lambeth Bridge about twenty to twelve. It was very busy, but only rained heavily for a short time while we were waiting on the bridge. We had a pretty good view of the fireworks, though side on; we recorded them on the tv and watched them again when we got home, and they appeared quite different I thought. But then, I'm not big on fireworks. Left to my own devices, I would neither have gone out to see them nor watched them on tv.

It rained steadily and sometimes very heavily on New Year's Day. We had planned on going to see the New Year's Day parade, but not when we saw the weather. What we decided we'd do was get the bus to this side of Westminster Bridge (where they were terminating) and then walk up Whitehall past the parade as it came towards it, so at least we'd see some of it, on our way to get some dim sum at JKL in Chinatown. In the end we stayed watching the parade at certain points, when the rain wasn't too bad, as we went up, though some of us stayed longer when the rain did get heavier. The American marching bands and cheerleaders were certainly the best things in the parade, worth seeing, and admirable, as they continued with skill and good cheer while getting drenched, in what may have been their third hour of parading. It gave you increased respect for cheerleaders in particular.

rereading lord of the rings: notes 2

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One: The Ring Sets Out.

Chapter 3: Three is Company
Not a precipitate crisis departure but long planned, with reluctance to leave - unusual in such a plot set-up.

Wonder why so slow. Move from Bag End to Crickhollow. You can see why some thing streamlined for films. How few of the details I remember from my first reading. Conveys time spent on walking journey non dismissively, in this chapter at least. Often walking/riding journeys of scores or hundreds of miles are dealt with very lightly. Also reminder that pre-industrial era, many countryfolk (particularly non-coastal) would not have travelled further than they could walk in a day or perhaps two.

Moves out just in time. First leg of Frodo's journey with Pippin as well as Sam, and starts overnight. Two toffs and a servant.

The outside world is intruding in the Shire - men, elves, black riders. Frodo, like Bilbo, is know to elves and talks to them of international affairs - knowledgeable and interested, not such an innocent abroad.

Also, so far, no keeping secret or misinterpreting bad dreams, knowledge, info or encounters, tediously commonplace in fantasy especially.

Quote from p111, exchange between Frodo and Gildor the elf, Frodo first:
'I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?'
'But it is not your own Shire,' said Gildor. 'Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.'

Chapter 4: A Short Cut to Mushrooms
In modern novels they would find other hobbits murdered in their stead in Bag End or in Frodo's new home. That's not a change for the better.

Pippin and Merry, as well as Frodo, have travelled further than peasant Sam.

Gradual encountering of fantastic things in home territory, where not meant to be; this a bad sign. Frodo an outsider in Hobbiton, 'returning' to Buckland. Hobbiton thought sufficiently strange by folk of Buckland, never mind outside world beyond that. This is a world in which hobbits as race, and Shire as place, could go unnoticed by other nations/peoples/forces; implausible today, plausible hundreds of years ago.

Surprising how many pages spent before leaving the Shire. Does emphasise scale of journey (and also how much was omitted from the film).

Saturday, 4 January 2014

some buried caesar; over my dead body

On Wednesday 29 May I finished Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout, a Nero Wolfe. I'd got the impression it was one of his classics, but I wasn't that taken with it. And on Friday 27 December I finished Over My Dead Body, another Nero Wolfe, in a nice old green Penguin edition. Again, the plot wasn't anything special - Yugoslavian wartime intrigues, and by the end the first murder in particular seemed to go unrecapped, having done its job of setting the plot in motion.

But with the Nero Wolfes I forgive the plots, because I enjoy the writing and the characters a lot.

One quote from Over My Dead Body (p107, 1955 Penguin edition), Nero Wolfe to a banker who wrongly thinks Nero Wolfe is trying to blackmail him:
'You're suffering from an occupational disease. When an international financier is confronted by a hold-up man with a gun, he automatically hands over not only his money and jewellery, but also his shirt and pants, because it doesn't occur to him that a robber might draw the line somewhere.'

christmas at crampton

On Wednesday 18th December we went to Crampton's production of the Wizard of Oz, which was fine. I preferred, though, the carol service there on Friday morning which I was able to go to, which had some good solo singing in particular, as well as the brass band being very good. They all looked very serious as they played, which is the normal way of things.

Friday, 3 January 2014

rereading lord of the rings - notes 1

(proper title, of course, The Lord of the Rings - though people not always clear on who/what that Lord is)

The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One: The Ring Sets Out.

Chapter 1: A Long-expected Party
Establishing insularity of Shire - rural, unconcerned England. Few pointers to adventure ahead - a little talk of ring. Bilbo's oddness in Hobbit world as one who has travelled beyond the Shire. Feeling of non-working gentry, the country set, for Bilbo, Frodo, etc.

Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past
Seventeen years pass between end of previous chapter and the main action of this passage - between Bilbo's part and departure and the beginning of Frodo's own adventure. Slow change of things, not dramatic crisis, travellers passing through. Normal setting, fairly familiar to readers, so with hobbits in journey from familiar to strange. The outside world little known, distant lands of no concern, rumours and things thought legend which are real actually.

Language very normal, not yet higher/mythic/saga style with too much plot background/names being unrolled. Starts in chapter 2, though, with Gandalf's return. Memory/reputation of LOTR's written style not really borne out so far - perhaps from later volumes and appendices.

Working to reconcile/explain the Hobbit ring with the LOTR ring. A lot of story dumping. Not afraid to give stuff that we won't fully understand without much explanation. Not drip drip or gradual, unfolding revelation.

Still hazy on why the Ring exists or how it works.

Idea that Shire and hobbits utterly unknown to many, including Sauron. Implausible in modern world, perfectly reasonable for most of history of world.

Aragorn mentioned, searching with Gandalf for Gollum, much earlier than I realised, before Bree. Similarly Merry and Pippin. Means of destroying the ring, and Frodo doing it, also mentioned here - this is purpose of journey from start, not just fleeing to safe place.

There is the idea of Frodo being chosen - but by whom? If the ring desires to be taken home, then not the ring. Implication of another power/Power at work.

Reference to Cracks of Doom, not Crack of Doom which I expected (also in later chapter, I think an implication that Gandalf does not know where it is).

Sam begins role of devoted, cringing servant to Lord Frodo. I remember this from my first reading of it, I'm pretty sure, not just from the films.