Saturday, 31 March 2007

Army of teens

I saw something really cute today: walking through town I passed the Corn Exchange at about five pm and there was already a huge long queue, around the corner and back down Corn Exchange Street, of girls waiting for tonight's McFly concert. There was not one person there who was not an early to mid- teenage girl, dressed in that awkwardly tarty way girls do at that age, wearing naif makeup, many putting the final touch to McFly-related banners. They all looked absolutely fearless.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Quite good things

1. 4OD is giving away free Popworld. And other stuff, like Wedding Belles, which I missed and which was supposed to be good. I don't even need a TV any more, just a bigger computer screen so I can have more windows open at once.
2. I am reading another book with intelligent lizards in it but these ones are 12-foot tall. It's called A Case of Conscience and it's by James Blish. He just used the word hnau, which I didn't know was found outside Malacandra. 1950s science fiction is great, if only it weren't so damn male.
3. My inner geek has been being excited by drawing mind maps using Mindjet MindManager Pro. You can get a free trial here. I'll probably buy it when this expires, cos you can get an academic license for about seventy quid. I'm drawing a mind map of the book I want to write about eleventh-century script. You can attach links to images, files, and webpages to various bits, and I may no longer need to upgrade to Microsoft Vista for the file tagging features.
4. Why is Mika so repulsive? He ought to be attractive. I don't understand.
5. You've got to listen to the Mylo remix of Freeform Five's 'No More Conversations': it's fantastic.
6. Is this video good or bad? I think it's good but I've got the feeling it's like those things I shouldn't have thought were cool when I was 12, but I did, and I still do! ("The Smiths were only a band" -- controversial...)

Maybe it's because of the beard.


B. S. Johnson had unfortunate initials for an experimental novelist, but some of his stuff is quite good fun in a dark sort of way. A few years back I read Christie Malry's Own Double Entry, in which the eponymous hero comes up with a sort of cosmic book-keeping system of his life debits and credits. He's noticed a certain amount of imbalance in the bad and good things which happen to him, so he starts a record so he can make them balance out. It gets a little out of hand. I can't quite remember the details, but it's something like the debit side starts getting things in it like "Woman on bus sneezed near me" or "Bad tempered newsagent frowned as he handed me change" while the credit side is increasingly focussed on the very bad things he does to try to get stuff to balance out, like major thefts and occasional murders of the annoying.

Now I'd prefer not to spiral into murder and all that, so my version is unbalanced in the other way. There's a lot of very very bad things out there. Komodo dragons, for example. I can actually get quite upset about these, and that's just one species of lizard on a few islands a long long way away. Any serious unmediated engagement with the world is just going to make me gibber. So my theory is that you have to count the positive things extra on the positive side. For example, the combining diacritics in the Junicode font; the sunlight on Trinity Avenue in the spring; you have to let these things make you happy. An important happy-making thing at the moment is Neil Gaiman. He writes very well; he is excellently geeky; and his blog is very readable.
I'm not saying these little things make up for the rubbishness of life, but if you suck all the joy possible from them it makes it easier to tackle or at least know about the bad stuff. I admit that it helps that I'm lucky really and don't to have to deal with anything very bad. Nonetheless I fear that as time goes on I get more and more fey and whimsical, and that eventually I will end up like Madeleine Bassett, believing that the stars are God's daisy chain, and that 'every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born'. Heigh ho.

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Lessons from nature 1.1

They're holding hands!

Seriously, you guys, why can't we all just get along?

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Lessons from opera 1.1

Handel’s Ariodante

1. You’re better off with the brother of the hero than with the heroine’s spurned lover. (Basically, beware of the ones you find attractive.)

2. OK so a young man in love never questions whether it’s actually his inamorata who is admitting another man to her apartments late at night, but if the princess’s maid really looks so like her just by putting on her dress, then why doesn’t the princess get her to do this often and set her to conspicious works of community service and charity, while she herself has a bit of a lie in or lounges about on the sofa eating chocolates?

3. What would I give to be a mezzo-soprano? Certainly some fingers and toes. Just to be able to sing like that, not even to be a world-class mezzo, though that would be fun too. Look at Sarah Connolly, remarkably sexy as Caesar in the DVD of the Glyndbourne Giulio Cesare (see picture), and then I saw her recently being fantastic as the anti-heroine Agrippina in the eponymous opera, manipulating left right and centre and not even getting her come-uppance. I think it’s not that easy to get strong counter-tenors who can do justice to duets with top sopranos, so women often get to sing the castrati parts in Handel. Last night men only played the dull and rather stupid people, and not only the heroine and her maid but the hero and the anti-hero were played by women. Ariodante was a last-minute stand-in, and truly brilliant, while Polinesso stalked about in five-inch heels and a black suit, with a very long black ponytail, making an absolutely excellent villain.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Two items do not make a list

Novels with talking dogs:
Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Both breeeelliant. The Pynchon also has a mechanical duck.

Novels where women have carnal relations with invertebrates:
The Roaches Have No King by Daniel Evan Weiss
Lobster by Guillaume Lecasble
These are both interesting. The cockroach one is a tad more interesting but the lobster one is shorter, which is a bonus.

Detective novels with high philosophical conceits:
The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza. Very clever; annoying but genuinely original, which is something at least.
The Critique of Criminal Reason by Michael Gregorio. I leafed through it in the bookshop but then I thought that if I had the time and energy I would read some Kant and then I'd actually know something, so I picked up some chicklit instead.

Novels in which four-foot-high lizards teach us something about being human:
War With the Newts by Karel Capek. Funny and occasionally painful.
Cold Skin by Albert Sanchez Pinol. Freaky.

Novels which although very good are too violently disgusting to reread:
My Idea of Fun by Will Self.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.
Thankfully I can't remember any details from the Easton Ellis but the Self one I can't forget and it will be to blame for my eventual mental disintegration.

Novels with a hero of unspecified gender (I think they're women):
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. Funnier than you expect.
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley. Funny and a bit heartbreaking.

Novels narrated by crockery:
The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer. Truly excellent, with disturbing ideas about earrings.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Let's get smashing

In between vague attempts at some work I am reading Diane Purkiss's The English Civil War. It's the sort of history I enjoy: old-fashioned in that it has a strong narrative, with lots of people in it; modern insofar as people from all levels of society are included. Also it's well written.

It surprises me, though, just how consistently I am on the side of the Roundheads. In 1066 and All That the Roundheads are right but repulsive, while the Cavaliers are wrong but wromantic. But even their wromance just seems pathetic now, with their Quixotic ideas of honour and dash, and that idiot Charles I at their head. And Henrietta Maria with her embarrassing ballets and masques, like the worst excesses of undergraduate thesps. Still, when it comes to descriptions of loutish yeomen smashing statues and glass windows, mostly recent ones put up because of Laud's directions (bizarre old Laud, with his homoerotic dreams and his amazing manuscript collection) but occasionally actual medieval art, you'd have thought that would upset me. I am a medievalist. I work on medieval artefacts. But I'm still cheering them on.

The really offensive thing is the altar rails. People objected to these because they put up a barrier between people and the place where the communion bread and wine were consecrated. A space where only priests were allowed; a removal of faith from the people. Of course they should have torn them down. The proponents of them said they were necessary to stop dogs eating the consecrated wafers. Now I can see that that's not ideal, but then again the particular view of the sacrament that sees preventing that as more important than the symbolism of free access can be very offensive. It's as if to say, by our incantations we have brought down God and trapped him in a piece of bread; now we must defend him! I still find this a tad offensive today, though it's not a deal-breaker, as it were, for me to worship with people. It's not in the creed.

Anyway I've always seen the Reformation and the Civil War protests against Laudian/Arminian views as the triumph of truth over beauty, of reality over the symbol. If they hadn't won in the 1530s, and in the 1640s, and again in 1688, we would be a poorer country for it, even if we had more medieval art.

Forgot to say

14. Alexei Sayle's short stories are brilliant. Well done Alexei Sayle!

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Having a bit of a think

This week I have undergone two separate job assessments. (The picture on the left is Canterbury Cathedral after dark; I like it because it makes it look like the east end is made of flames.) I didn't get Tuesday's job but it's too soon to tell about yesterday's.

I'm afraid it's just rather putting me off the whole notion of paid employment. (I was going to critique the depressing things about the two experiences here but I imagine most people can fill that in for themselves.) When I think about the people I really respect, a good number of them don't have official academic jobs and would most aptly be described as "independent scholars". To many academics this is a euphemism for something undesirable. However, people of discernment know that, say, Michael Gullick and Nick Orchard are about the most learned people alive on the subject of medieval bindings and twelfth-century script on the one hand and Anglo-Saxon liturgy on the other. I would quite like to be one of those respected people. To know something really well, and to be able to publish it honestly without worrying about RAEs and such, and to be free to work on the details, only saying things about the big picture when there's really something worth saying about it.

The problem is that one looks for two things in a job: a way of spending the majority of your time in which you can achieve stuff and develop your mind; and also a way of getting some money into your bank account. I don't know how to get the two things together, and I'm not exactly unusual in that. Probably letting go of the idea of status would help. Recently I've seen enough middle-aged men behaving like troups of monkeys to put me off the whole status thing, anyway. I could work part-time in a library and live very frugally?

Thursday, 22 March 2007

More stories

OK so it's not Kim Wilde it's Diana Ross. But if you had been an anxious eleven-year-old going to parties with older boys at them in 1987 you too would have that song powerfully burnt into your memory.

I forgot some important short story collections:
9. Kate Atkinson, It's Not the End of the World. I read this a while ago, and I remember it's being so good it made me happy.
10. Helen Simpson, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life is very good too. It might put you off having kids though. I didn't need putting off so I enjoyed it immensely.
11. I don't know how I forgot Borges.
12. I've read the first story so far of James Meek's The Museum of Doubt. He can really write.
13. Charles Palliser's Betrayals is a series of connected stories. It's very very clever but not too annoying.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Short stories, short films, because life is short

O Cambridge, you have ruined my attention span with your insatiable demands for varied and conflicting bits of work! Plus there's nothing good on TV now Primeval has finished. I recommend:
1. Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners and Stranger Things Happen. (NB the latter is a small press book and page 188 has accidentally got replaced by page 118. Let's all forgive them because they put the page here in pdf. Plus you can read the whole book for free.)
2. Julie Orringer, How to Breathe Underwater. I've only read the first story so far. Well-written. Potentially upsetting.
3. Philip K. Dick's Human Is? It's on 3 for 2 at Borders. I haven't read it yet, but it's bound to be good.
4. Lorrie Moore is amazing. Her Birds of America has this incredible story called "People like that are the only people here".
5. Michel Faber's The Fahrenheit Twins. Brilliant. I only remembered half-way through that it was the same bloke who wrote The Crimson Petal and the White. I wouldn't otherwise have guessed. Though I enjoyed the novel too. He wrote a collection of little stories about the Crimson Petal characters too, for those who wanted to find out what happened to Sugar and that lumpen kid, called The Apple I think. I haven't read them.
6. Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors. I have a secret weakness for geeks, you see. Some of these stories just make you think Oh you geek you! but some are really brilliant. There's this excellent story which is only about a page long called "In the End" and it's just the Genesis creation story in reverse (the one with the apple) and it makes me want to cry though I don't know why that is.
7. Jane Stevenson's collections of novellas, especially Several Deceptions.
8. Anything by Rose Tremain, Tibor Fischer, or Kurt Vonnegut

And also you could watch Mark Ronson fusing The Smiths, Kim Wilde, and a pair of evil shoes, which I have embedded below for your pleasure. If you want to hear some of his other cover versions (I rather like his Toxic) he has a myspace page. Or to see Britney showing Scooch how to wear those uniforms before going to full Sidney Bristow mode see here.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Oh interweb it's all a bit much

I'm trying to build my own map using MapBuilder, one of the Google add-on things that are oh so Web 2.0. This is my first attempt, but really it's not ideal. The yellow marker is St Benet Holme, the only monastery not dissolved at the Dissolution.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Rats are nocturnal

E.g. they sleep during the day, unless they get a better offer. This was the reaction when I offered them some sandwich this lunchtime. Yaffle at the top and Lilian on the right are interested, but Muesli is still sleepy:

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Bridget is allergic to cherries!

Some of us were discussing this after lunch the other day. It's so damn twisted!

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Xena Pop Princess

Are these two really the same woman? Or is it someone continuing the Lucy Lawless tradition? The novelist Virginia Andrews died in 1986, but by then her name was worth so much that books written by a "ghostwriter" continue to appear as the work of "Virginia Andrews™".

If you're intrigued, see footage of her concert here -- I think that's the real Gabrielle (Renee Fleming). She (Lucy Lawless) is apparently going to play Tanya Turner in the American Version of Footballers' Wives. (Couldn't they just watch the British version?)

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Doing as (you think) you've been done by

The closest I've ever come to feeling actually physically threatened in Cambridge was some years ago when a group of us were walking back from Barton Road after the weekly ASNC pub night in the Red Bull. As we went through the Market Square we passed a rather excessive SUV and somehow we set off its alarm -- but car alarms are easily disturbed so we ignored it, continuing to talk and laugh rather loudly. At this point a group of young men on the other side of the square got very angry with us and started shouting quite rude things while advancing on us menacingly. The blokes I was with found this pretty upsetting. (I think they felt frustrated that they were unable, both physically and because of their moral upbringing, to fight back.) Because I had no problem about just walking briskly away I was mostly puzzled what had set them off. After reflecting on what they were shouting at us I realised that they thought we had deliberately done something to the SUV and that we were laughing about that. I don't think they were connected with the SUV though -- I think they were just a bit "lairy" after a night out, they saw some people behaving like wankers, and then decided to react to that. But the point is that the bad behaviour they thought they saw in us was what permitted their bad behaviour. If they had seen us being nice to a cat, or helping an old lady across the road, we would still have drawn their attention but I bet with entirely different results. They were probably a reasonably nice bunch of lads in other circumstances.

There's a big problem with trying to be intelligent about other people's motives. On the one hand people often behave badly and one needs not to be too naive about this or one will be prey to manipulations. On the other hand, one doesn't want to become over-sensitive, seeing schemes were there are none; this damages relationships and it causes us ourselves a lot of hurt and anxiety. And I wonder whether a lot of the trouble I've come across recently has been caused by people thinking there's been some sort of planned ambush or conspiracy, and then coming up with a counter-conspiracy -- which of course gets detected so that the originally imaginary conspiracy comes into existence as a counter-counter-conspiracy. This is just plain stupid -- people are creating enemies in their own image. But then, the most useful thing I have learnt in all my time at Cambridge is that there is no one so stupid as an intelligent person. It's not something to be bitter about, just something to remember sympathetically when trying to deal with clever people.

I don't know what the right answer to it all is, but I suspect one smiles, though in a sympathetic manner and (for tact's sake) internally, at the misapprehensions, and walks briskly away from any complicity in those ideas. (Which worked in Market Square.) In a community you see people frequently so you can't just give up on them, but I hugely hope it's possible not to become caught up in the narratives in their heads. In the meantime we should all try to make each other laugh with friendly jokes.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Only the problem is

Try not to do it the other way round, e.g. where you're sat next to a good friend in a lecture and they keep saying "mmm" loudly when they agree with things, and you want to strangle them even though they are excellent in other ways -- this is the wrong way to do it.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

I try very hard to love you, dammit

One of the annoying things about being a Christian (for more, see this past post) is that you're meant to love everyone. Jesus said the commandments were Love God and love your neighbour -- it's in the gospels somewhere. I've heard sermons on this point which took it for granted that it isn't possible to love people at will. I don't believe that this is true. Of course some people one does love easily, and other people are dislikable, but I think that if you try hard you can muster some love for anyone. (Scraps of absolute bare-bones love, not love that involves anything the person does for you or relies on any sort of relationship.) You have to concentrate on anything likeable or good that the person does, and remember it in a mental notebook. You can build up some very basic love just by knowing someone well. I mentioned at lunch today that I have a list of people I try hard to love, and I was a bit surprised that people didn't seem to approve -- surely it's better than just disliking or giving up on the difficult people? Anyway it's not something I'm good at, but then I'm lucky enough not to know anyone who's really really hard to love.

Take, for example, that thing that happens when someone luuurves someone, and they mention their name frequently and gratuitously in conversation. That is always cute, even if sometimes the circumstances aren't ideal -- anything where someone can't help themselves, and they try to hide a positive emotion but can't, is cute.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

No this was not a waste of time

I should have spent the evening doing a powerpoint thingy for a paper. But instead I watched mashups by Pheugoo, VJBrewski, and PartyBen on YouTube.
JT brings sexy back to 2 Unlimited
Madonna (plus ABBA) vs Fergie's lovely lady lumps
I'm not sure about Phil Collins and Nelly Furtado -- not a patch on Chris Morris's She's an Uzi lover. Nelly goes better with funky-era Michael Jackson, turning Promiscuous Girl into something quite laid back. This one makes Ace of Bass rather rude (in lyrics, not video, I never watch the ones that make you guarantee you're over 18 -- plus I hope someone was looking after that monkey). This one is Oasis vs Green Day vs Travis vs Eminem.
There are more audio mash-ups here: "I was signed for loving you" is pretty good, also "When Pussycat Dolls cry". Scroll down for Britney vs Sunglasses at night -- great, and sadly topical. Or go here and get "Ooh la la summer nights" or "Hung up on soul".

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

What I want

I would like a windsock:

Monday, 5 March 2007

What you should do

Go to this
and listen to Any Way You Choose, and read James Meek's The People's Act of Love. I want to reread it but I can't find my copy.

Old people

It worries me that my generation is not going to make interesting old people like the old people of now. For example, in her mid-twenties my Granny was in charge of a ward full of Dunkirk evacuees with head wounds -- forty of them with just one other nurse to help her. One of the men wouldn't stop saying "bloody hell, bloody hell" over and over again. His parents and fiancee came down to see him and were really shocked -- they kept assuring her that he was usually such a polite young man. A few years after the war, when my grandparents were living with young children in St Albans, there was a knock at the front door. It was the same man, all healed, come to apologise for his bad language.

Try talking to someone in their seventies or eighties about their life. They have had to cope with bizarre and really testing things, like the polite lady who lives beneath me -- a few months back we were talking about a terrible storm in the night and she said for a moment she had thought she was back in the blitz. They always have interesting stories. My generation won't have that. We remember when there weren't mobile phones and there was a Berlin wall -- that's about it. Also, Bagpuss. Not really likely to invoke respect.

On the other hand, when I was a kid I remember asking my Mum when she'd like most to have lived, and she said between the wars -- except that there was too little of it. Sometimes I worry that we are living in the '20s, after something bad, and before something bad, in a bubble of false quietness. Being a disrespected and ignored old person might be a small price for a smooth life.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Goth teenager with ferret

I'm reading an excellent book, and sometimes when I do that I have to pause so that it's not gone too quickly. It's called Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. It's full of disturbing short stories like the dreams I have when I'm running a temperature. (Last week I had flu and I dreamt I was an agoraphobic bat called Gennaro, who couldn't bear it when his clicks disappeared into space instead of echoing back.) There's one where there are no such things as cats, only people in cat skins, and if you marry a prince or princess who doesn't work out you just sew them back into their cat skin and throw them in the river. The one I'm reading at the moment is about a TV show set in a huge haunted library -- sort of like Borges meets Buffy. Borguffy, if you will. Apart from fake Victoriana, modern gothic sci-fi is the most interesting stuff being written at the moment.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Surely that's wrong

In the Burger King advert for Angus burgers every single one of the employees of the rival, inadequate, burger chain has ginger hair.

Tact vs guile

My father is without guile. He rarely calculates the effect of things he says before saying them. He has a brother and a sister, both of whom are rather difficult individuals. Recently he told his sister that he thought her very like their brother, offending her hugely because she's well aware how difficult said brother is. Later he passed on to his brother how offended their sister had been at being compared to him -- which of course offended the brother too. Having cheerfully annoyed both of them he has now gone off plant-hunting in Vietnam; he's always been rather more comfortable in the company of trees than people. My aunt and uncle need their heads banging together -- they are currently engaged in a ghastly squabble over the effects of their recently deceased mother -- so a dose of see-yourselves-as-others-see-you might have done them some good.

Of course he embarrassed me to death when I was a teenager, but my dad's cheerful tactlessness is actually rather refreshing when compared to the environment I spend a lot of time in at work. We have big meetings where most of those talking are contemporaries of my father, if not a bit older, and I'm fed up with trying to second guess what's going on. I'd bet that most of them are acting out of principle, or think they are, but you end up constantly questioning -- what is this man's motivation? -- what is he getting at with that snide comment? -- can I take what he says at face value or does he have some obscure aim? (They are almost all men.) We are destroying the trust which a community needs. So hurray for cheerful and honest loonies like my dad. I hope he's having a good time in Asia communing with rhododendrons.