Saturday, 30 December 2006

No very great depth

Well I missed my parents on Christmas day, but then I talked to them on the phone so that was OK, so the thing I really most enjoyed getting back to was This makes me a very shallow person. Without it I just don't know what to watch on YouTube.

Friday, 29 December 2006

The land called Holy

I am back from the land of religion. My major insight is: the Israelis are doing themselves no favours by being so scared. E.g. we parked our car in the middle of nowhere and walked down a long winding path to a monastery perched on the side of the Wadi Qelt; when we returned, with the help of some Bedouin and their donkeys, we could see against the horizon the silhouettes of men with big guns. It was a coach tour group; the Israelis are told they need an armed escort to visit the wilderness.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Urbs Sion aurea

I am about to go off to to Jerusalem for a tour of the Holy Land, taking in Bethlehem. There are a number of reasons why this is a bad idea
a) I am a very anxious person; I get upset by college meetings let alone actual oppression and violence
b) yesterday I felt a bit overwhelmed in an Anglican church full of about 300 people sitting down in pews; I'm not really very good with crowds or noise
c) they are having a really rough time there -- see this
d) it's actually seriously f***ed up and no one seems to care
e) I get very car sick
f) I don't much like travelling
g) I really don't like travelling with other people
h) one of the people I am travelling with is, like my dad, an enthusiastic observer of plants, so this will probably involve long hearty walks with Latin names which I am supposed to get excited about; another of my companions is a keen natur(al)ist and I have a suspicion that he might be into long hearty walks as well; though at least the bloke we're visiting is more of a cocktails man. (Me I like nature but I'm very very lazy, and besides I've never got the hang of going for walks without a dog, though happy men are the next best thing I suppose. I can't really go for anything more energetic than an amble.)
i) I know no Hebrew or Arabic except what a half-Egyptian bloke called George whom I work with taught me; he says "Shakrun" is Arabic for thankyou. But I probably got the vowels wrong.
j) I'm rather a podge so they'll probably think I'm American and hate me, though having said that it's not much better to be British these days
k) I either won't have enough time to read, which will make me fretful, or I will run out of books, which would be even worse; I hate running out of books; once I only took three books for a few days in Paris (work trip) and I had to read each of them twice through
l) the political situation deserves another mention at this point

On the other hand it is absolute heaven not to have to buy any Christmas presents.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Intelligent Design and the Tame Lion

I wish someone would make a proper attack on Intelligent Design on religious grounds; the closest thing there has been to it so far have been some typically intelligent remarks by Rowan Williams, which as usual were comically misrepresented by the newspapers.

Intelligent Design encapsulates what I am coming to think is wrong with the extreme evangelical church as represented by certain influential groups in America, and the danger of the milder evangelical tradition in which I was brought up. It is a confidence in knowing God which leads to a false and in the end patronising confidence that therefore you know what God is like. You know what he would do in a given situation: he’s become a character in your head. What Would Jesus Do?” seems to me the daftest thing to try to live by. Read the gospels, and you get a strong sense that he would probably do something quite unexpected; something uncomfortable or even frightening; not necessarily something that would make me feel good about myself if I were there. Something I had to think about hard and long before I could begin to understand what it meant. He does angry and difficult things sometimes and his disciples, who must have known him best of anyone, were usually left behind and confused, bewildered and asking the wrong questions. (Likewise his mother and family.)

Thinking that God created the world, and thinking that species change over time as the result of the selective breeding which comes about from competition over resources, are so clearly thoughts about two such different things, on such different levels, that if you find them completely incompatiable that seems to betray something about your views on God. Viz; that you know how he works; that you know what he would or would not allow to happen (if you think that natural selection is cruel); that you can define him and map him out. You’ve got a model of God in your head and that’s who you believe in. To some extent it is impossible not to do this, which is why Simone Weil said that when we pary to God we must imagine that he doesn’t exist – because our understanding of the word “exists” in relation to God is going to be wrong. Frankly I find that sort of thing a bit excessive, but I take her point; every time we think we’ve got God pinned down and sorted out we are making ourselves bigger and more important than him, and trying to put ourselves in control. I’m afraid I’ve never found a better way to put this than the bit in (the book of) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where the children are going to meet Aslan and when they’re told he’s a lion they say “Oh so he’s a tame lion?” And the Beavers are shocked and say “No, he’s not a tame lion”.

The paradox is that at the same time God has made himself knowable to us; he has given us the right to be his friends, co-heirs of Christ. So the evangelical willingness to pray to God about tiny things, like “where is my pencil case?” (a favourite of my childhood) is on the one hand a willingness to let God into every corner of my life and a belief in his total love for me, and on the other hand has a danger of my making up narratives to wind God into in order to control him. It’s a similar paradox to God, the greatest thing in the universe, becoming one of the smallest and most helpless, a baby with no home. At least, that’s how it seems to me now, but I hope my understanding will always continue to increase as I get older.

Intelligent mammal trouble

As a couple, the word I associate with my parents most is "bicker". This trip home I have constituted myself the impartial judge against whose ruling no appeal can be made. So far this morning I have decreed that yes, it is unreasonable of my mum to try to dust the oven while my dad is making Sunday dinner; and that no, my dad should not put his used tea leaves down the sink. We were discussing the latter while standing by the kitchen window, looking out over the back garden; we were interrupted by the appearance of an endangered mammal in the pond. Most of our back garden proper is a pond, my father's work. Every time I come home he has altered the configuration of weirs and ponds in the stream which leads down to it. It is very much a wild pond, with a swamp at one end planted with bog weeds, and it has frogs, newts and toads, plus all sorts of strange bugs. Last time I was home I looked out of my bedroom window before I had even got up one morning and there was a fat kingfisher perched over the shallow end.

The endangered animal swimming across it was plump and fluffy, and out to retrieve the floating fish food. It was a rat; it made me exclaim, ah, look how lovely it is! The reason it is endangered is that rats found a way to get into the walls of our house. My parents, being enlightened creatures who would never reject anything out of hand for conventional reasons, don't in the least mind there being rats living by the pond, but they don't like the idea of them inside the lining of the walls, which is sensible given the chaos they could wreak on the cables and piping there. The problem is that, as I can attest from my experience of keeping rats as pets, once an idea has got in their head it is very hard to make them forget it. My parents comprehensively closed the hole they found with wire netting, that spray filler stuff, a slate and some concrete, but still the rats managed to open it again, and now my parents think there may be another hole. They bought a thing that makes a high-pitched noise which rats apparently dislike, though of course they've had to turn that off while I'm at home with my tame rodents (Lilian, Muesli and Yaffle). And they have a humane trap in which they catch occasional (very annoyed) specimens; they then take them off to our furthest away field, where they join the ex pat rat community, presumably reminiscing about the good old days by the pond. (Unless, they just get on with their lives.)

But if they can't stop the rats getting in the walls then as a last resort they will call in an exterminator. This saddens me, obviously, though I can see what they mean. It's part of what's fundamentally wrong with life. The other day the subject came up of Ph.D.s and whether they're something to be proud of -- and I realised that the greatest achievement of my life so far is stopping my first rats, the late lamented Izzy and Aggy, from getting inside my sofa. After a huge number of attempts I eventually managed this by covering the entire frame of my sofa except for the cushions in chicken wire. I expect that my parents will not be able to do this to the whole house, so the rat swimming across the pond to collect fish food is probably facing an uncertain future.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

BWO: more lyrics

"You've got me fighting like a wild juggernaut. "
[Repeat until end of song]

Feeling quite fond of my mother

It's family season and I am at my parents' house in Devon. My mother even collected me this morning and drove me all the way down. It took us more than seven hours, though we did stop for an hour or so with my aunt. My mother's sat nav device is giving her trouble -- which sounds like a very posh thing to say, but my dad really needs one for his work, so my mum's car has one in case. It sometimes tells her to turn right where there are no turnings, and take the fifth exit from imaginary roundabouts. "The thing is", she said embarrassedly, "you know how oftentimes to win us to our harm the instruments of darkness tell us truths and win us with honest trifles?" I said I quite understood; the sat nat has become an instrument of darkness. Later I found the quote immediately, because I knew it would be in Macbeth. My mother isn't bothered about other Shakespeare or literature in general really, but she loves Macbeth. When I was very small I would sit on her lap and we would do the witches together in funny voices.

My mother is a loony, but in an excellent way. She has odd habits, like sometimes when she goes to the supermarket she'll only buy things beginning with the same letter; in my time I have come up with lots of circumlocutions for milk, like "bovine lactations". She once wrote a very moving poem about her love for cardboard boxes. My father is even more of a loony, so it's a wonder I turned out so normal.

Friday, 15 December 2006

BWO update

I now have the album Halcyon Days by Bodies Without Organs, and it does not disappoint. Sample lyric:
You must have been the angel who lost the grace of god,
cos I can't help repeating your sweet hymn on my ipod.
Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

79p wouldn't buy you an icecream these days

If you have 79p to spare then the Girls Aloud Megamix, part of the Something Kind of Ooooh EP, is packed with pop value.

As an 'experiment' I have typed 'megamix' into the itune shop search box. The Gloria Gaynor megamix seems to go straight from 'I will survive' into 'I am what I am' and might be a bit strong for my tastes. It could be kept in reserve as an emergency megamix. I already have the Chris Cox Britney megamix from the Greatest Hits, which doesn't so much mix the big tracks as play them all at the same time like some sort of 'mash-up'; it requires more active thought than is ideal from a megamix. Stylishly, Boney M have a 'mégamix', which is presumably cheaper than the musical; I actually downloaded that one. The free thirty seconds of the Technotronic megamix did not help me to remember if they actually had more than one hit (Pump up the jam?) and at this point I lost interest. As a whole, disappointing.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Against the day

I've finished Pynchon's Against the Day. I paused to read other things in between, but I enjoyed it on the whole. However I think it suffered from the same thing as the last one, Mason and Dixon, in that it tailed off towards the end. There are certainly some excellent bits, but not enough Pugnax, frankly, and, too much wierd sex in the last couple of hundred pages.

The bit with the flirty dog Mouffette was quoted in the Literary Review's preview guide to the Bad Sex award. I can't believe David Mitchell didn't win for the woman making a noise like a tortured moomintroll.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Euston Road

Is it just me or do all the members of The Pussycat Dolls look like very good male-to-female transsexuals?

Oh pop

I'm watching Popworld, which has a feature on Take That. I'm finding it strangely moving, in a comforting sort of way, to have them back again. Gary Barlow singing about the fist of pure emotion -- it seems like the world's back where it should be. They were very big when I was just at the right age to realise that it was OK to like things that weren't cool; someone who is now one of my best friends sent me a Take That Christmas card in 1994, before I knew her well. I remember the BBC news announcing their split and giving a phone number to call if you were very upset; while I didn't avail myself of that, certainly, it felt like one of the many gradual declinings of growing up, like having to spend money on electricity not novels, and being responsible for buying my own loo roll.

Anyway now they're back it seems like there could have been an alternative world, where Camilla and Di could talk to each other when they handed over the children, though they were never friends, and the Labour party getting into power made things better. &c &c &c. &c.

Saturday, 9 December 2006


Martin from Bodies Without Organs is the male Britney Spears. This is because of his hair colour and complexion, but also because he can carry off an expression of wide-eyed idealism while not wearing many clothes. Britney would probably also look good as a pug.

Thursday, 7 December 2006


I've been having a tiring week, or term, or year, &c &c, but I came across this video for Chariots of Fire by Bodies Without Organs and it has rather cheered me up. There are dolphins and horses, singing dogs and a rabbit with lipstick, but also a lightly-clothed woman soaping a car, and an oiled man, so something for everyone really. There is a moustache of very high quality, on a bandmember whose instrument is apparently 'laptop'.

And I just found out they're Swedish!


Tuesday, 5 December 2006


This is very wrong: they're just messing with us. I read a book recently in which someone seduced a Roman Catholic priest, one of Michele Roberts' more fun novels, and it shocked me rather a lot, like the first time I saw a nun kiss the crucifix at Easter. I yearn to keep the body out of some things, and if I knew more theology I would know what heresy that implicates me in. Possibly Manicheanism? I'm not sure.

My grandpa, whom I miss, signed the pledge as a young man, back when this was a big social movement. He grew up in Plymouth, and worked in the docks. Later in his life he changed his mind about the things that had led him to give up alcohol, and thought that moderate drinking was fine and no problem. But he never went back on his vow because he had promised. It still makes a big impression on me that he kept to it. I don't think I would have; at least, I can't swear that I would have.

He used to remind me of the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After he died I thought it was a pity that description made him sound so dull, because he wasn't at all.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Good things

Am on volume II of Against the Day. Hurray for Pynchon!

This is to promote Robbie Williams. I approve of the way he doesn't appear and isn't mentioned in it. If I had more energy I'd make a list of the itune-able songs in his latest album but I'm tired out through chatting to nervous seventeen-year-olds about their academic achievements. At the head of the list would be "Bongo Bong and Je Ne T'aime Plus" with Lily Allen. I have not asked any interview candidates about Robbie Williams yet, because by law we are not allowed to talk about anything human. It's very hard work. I wish I was allowed to get each of them to recommend me one book.

Friday, 1 December 2006

Pop pickers

Actually the Shiny Toy Guns album is good in parts but not all the way through. It gets a bit samey after a while. Ok so your parents don't understand you and you're a bit confused about gender -- shouldn't you be living in the eighties? I haven't yet picked out which of the tracks are worth persisting with, but in the meantime, here are some helpful tips about which tracks on Jamelia's Walk With Me you should download for 79p from itunes instead of buying the album.

You certainly don't need the cover art (see right). The single "Something About You" is quite cute but not essential.
"Window Shopping" is either about sex as a metaphor for shopping, or about shopping as a metaphor for sex, or may just be about harassing shop assistants. Anyway it's catchy and worth 79p. It samples Mrs Slocombe but she's not talking about her hilarious cat so it's OK. "Ain't a Love" is good; 'if this ain't a love', she asks, 'why is my ass in motion all that you're thinking of?' This is an odd definition of love, and I'm afraid I can't see the whole situation working out well. "Beware of the Dog" is great but your attitude to sampling might affect your enjoyment here; it uses the bass line from Depeche Mode's version of "Personal Jesus". Admittedly about 80% of the song's brilliance comes from Depeche Mode and only a small part from Jamelia, but then she's standing on the shoulders of giants, like Bernard of Chartres.
That's 79p x 4 making £3.16, saving £4.79 on the amazon price!


Am listening to the Shiny Toy Guns album. It's quite good. But I object to spending more than about six quid on an album these days. Britney's Greatest Hits with bonus CD for a fiver is more like it.