Thursday, 30 August 2007

Bored genie

When I was a kid, because it's dull if the genie offers you three wishes and you ask for
1) world peace
2) cures for all diseases
3) another three wishes
the rule was that you only got your wish if you wished for something no one else had ever wished for. At the moment what I want is a spare brain in a hat. It would be a top hat, one of those strokable black ones where the fur on the top looks like grass after an animal has made a bed there. It would not be collapsible. I expect that the new brain would connect to my old brain via a tube in one ear. Then, in order not to be exposed, I would pretend to the strong principles of the early Quakers and never doff my hat for anyone. People would say "Look, there goes that strange woman who always wears a top hat", but I wouldn't care because I would have a spare brain. I would use it for organising and keeping track of things, and not for thinking, because I'm not greedy and my current brain will do for that.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Book resolutions

Sticking to my new-found seriousness in book choice, I read The Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea. It's about the first thousand years of Muslim--Christian interaction in the Mediterranean. It's interesting because of its broad view, but on the other hand quite a few of the episodes, e.g. the fall of Constantinople, are already pretty familiar. I was interested to learn about Muslim Spain, and also it had never struck me before quite how meteoric the spread of Islamic power was -- only about a hundred years after Muslim armies first emerged as a threat to Byzantine power in the east, they were fighting Charles Martel at Poitiers. The author occasionally says stupid things, but mostly he writes well. I also read Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead, which is just utterly remarkable. He was an incredible author, not just because of how he wrote, but what he wrote about.

But one evening, when there was nothing on television and I didn't feel like working, I decided to relax by reading more low-brow books, and got through the first two volumes of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. (This is why I have no savings.) These books are actually very good. A bit like Suzanne Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Novik places a characteristic of fantasy, in this case dragons rather than magic, into real Napoleonic-era history. It works well, and at the end of the second book appears to be going off somewhere thought-provoking. The third is out in paperback soon so I'll get it then. All the writing at the moment which is really interesting is Sci-Fi or Fantasy-type stuff. That old genre, Secrets of the Past are Revealed, just doesn't cut it for me like it used to. What really happened at The House at Riverton (by Kate Morton)? What is the meaning of The Savage Garden (by Mark Mills)? What was The Thirteenth Tale (by Diane Setterfield)? I've lost the ability to care. From now it's Dostoyevsky or sci-fi for me, I think.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Some more reading

I've just finished The Islamist by Ed Husain, which is very interesting. I wasn't expecting to find it moving but I did. I've thought about it and I think it's moving because 1) it's a nice change to read something which doesn't treat faith as intrinsically stupid, but takes a more subtle approach by looking at different manifestations of faith and 2) his anger at the way that Muslims are manipulated by people who want to turn their faith into a political thing reminds me of how angry it makes me when I feel that certain types of Christians are taking advantage of Christians like my parents.

Monday, 20 August 2007

A bit of a grumble

After wowing South America with my pasta-related repartee on Radio Columbia (live from Bogotà) in 2003, I have at last been picked up by the British media, and made my UK radio debut this morning. A nice lady phoned me up on Friday to check the blurb, and I pointed out a few minor errors, but the original version has gone up on the website anyhow. It's probably not her fault. I listened to myself for a little bit; I'm surprised I sound like that.

My main grumble is that today I got a letter informing me that for my examining this summer I am to be paid £55 before tax. Now, £55 (minus tax) is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick; I can't dispute that. But what I did for those fifty-five Great British Pounds was: set by myself an entire final-year exam paper, with twelve essay questions and a complex gobbet question with images and texts in Latin and Old English with translations; turn up in my gown to start the exam and stay within contact during it (I started another one too but that was as a favour to a friend); mark ten exam scripts of the same paper, with all the attendant agonising over half-marks; mark five third-year undergraduate dissertations on various subjects at the outer limits of my knowledge; reconcile marks with second markers. (I ducked out of the examiners' meetings since my attendance wasn't mandatory.) This series of tasks (not at all part of either of my jobs) took a lot of time; drew very heavily on my knowledge of various highly-specialised subjects; and involved also a big emotional effort -- these were young people's finals marks, after all. I used to earn the same amount of money in a Sunday afternoon on the tills at Marks and Spencer's.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Philip Pullman

Now I've actually read the Literary Review's interview with Philip Pullman which I mentioned before I find that he is writing a sequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy which will apparently "answer some of the huge theological questions thrown up by his reworking of the Fall". (It will be called "The Book of Dust" and be about Lyra.) So I think I shall wait 'til that's out in paperback before rereading the Trilogy.

In the interview he quotes that annoying saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. This has always irritated me, because it seems to imply that belief is something clutched at in panic and therefore either real and honest or quite the opposite. It would be truer to say that atheists and believers are both less sure of themselves in foxholes. Although the spider-pig is excellent, my favourite bit of the Simpsons film is when the people of Springfield come out into the street to see their doom approaching. All the worshippers run out of the church, and the drinkers out of Moe's Tavern, see the disaster in the sky, and then all the people from the church rush into the tavern and all the people from the tavern rush into the church. It's good to be shaken up and made less certain about things. I could be seduced by the argument that we spend most of our lives sleep-walking anyway. The first time I went to stay at the nunnery at West Malling I found it hard to confront their regime -- every few hours they stop to praise God, because God is to be praised, and there are none of the endless daily chores to hide behind, you have to meet very large things face on. After a few days, though I still found it a hard discipline, I had got very acclimatised. The morning that I left I sat on the platform at West Malling station and felt swamped by what seemed like a heap of utter trivia -- what time would the train get me to London, when would I get home, what laundry needed doing, what did I have in the fridge, whom should I phone -- when a very talkative friend of mine phoned my mobile and I could hardly put sentences together to answer her. It felt like normal life was the most absurd lunacy. To the abbot of Worth, the monastery of the eponymous BBC series, it is clear that much of our busy-ness is stuff we have made up to distract our minds. I could be persuaded of this.

The odd thing is that Philip Pullman seems to be saying that God might exist for some people who need him -- he implies, people with difficult lives. (It sounds like one should call no man an atheist until he is dead, which is as annoying as the foxhole thing I'd have thought.) I await with a mixture of apprehension and interest his resolution of "huge theological questions". Something I will miss about being a fellow is access to people with genuine theological knowledge. In particular, the college chaplain, though I frequently disagreed with his views, has a very large body of theology at his fingertips, not only from the great patristic era, but from the twentieth century and the present. I would be very tempted to do a theology degree if I had the money -- only, it would be too embarrassing if I didn't get a first, and the stress was bad enough last time. So, my good intentions are defeated by worldliness. Ho hum.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Better reading

I decided that I needed to lay off the 3-for-2 (or £3.73 from Tesco) novels for a while, and read some chewier books which occupy one for more than two or three hours' total. I have so far read two books under this new regime, both of which are very good. A recent biography of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howells has made me feel all inactive and silly -- she really was an amazing woman. I wish I could have met her. I wish I could learn fluent Arabic, don a jellibah, and ride into the sunset on a silken-flanked racing camel. I read a review of this book, though, which says that the author's estimate of the state in which Iraq was left after Bell's death is optimistic, and I'd like to have a better understanding of this.

Then I read a truly unusual novel, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki. This is a big shaggy dog story full of stories within stories like the Arabian Nights, or to a lesser extent the Decameron, but in spirit quite like Tristram Shandy. It's also a bit like The Master and Margarita in being a classic which ought to be as famous as Moby Dick, for similar reasons. It was written in the late eighteenth century by a mad highly-educated Polish count, who later blew his brains out with a silver bullet which he had first had blessed by his chaplain. The textual tradition, likewise, makes one wonder if the whole thing wasn't invented by Borges...

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Country life

Things are a little sad chez Rushforth right now, as Georgie the baby alpaca had to be put to sleep earlier today. My mum and I took her to the vet yesterday, and today she was worse, so a nice man in a waxed jacket came out and administered the coup de grace. They say that if you've got livestock, you've got deadstock. My mother is much better at this sort of thing than my dad, who gets very melancholy about it. Me, I'm sad about Georgie, but I hadn't been feeding her regularly like my parents had, and I do think she was too miserable to be kept going any longer.

Also, this morning I woke up to find a small mobile installed above my bed, two large moths dangling from strands of spider web. This evening I evicted a large gangly-legged spider, and thought I'd got the culprit. But just now a huge black spider-beast with hairy legs, huge mandibles, and a body the size of a large wasp, scurried down my wall and behind some books I need to pack. I am sure that in the night I will squash it and wake up with squashed spider on my face. In short, I am ready to return to civilisation.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Avignon art

There have been good popes and bad popes, and the fact that there have been rather more of the latter is probably the fault of the Donation of Constantine. This document purported to be a grant of the Western Empire by the eponymous emperor to the bishops of Rome; it was forged in the second half of the eighth century, probably, and taken seriously until the mid-fifteenth. It made the popes into temporal princes, with territories to defend, alliances and treaties to make, and conversely secular enemies. It was this sort of political manouevring that forced the popes to leave Rome in the fourteenth century, and take up refuge in Avignon, in the pocket of the French kings, where they found ways to console themselves for their losses. Most of the Avignon popes lived sybaritic lives, holding the sort of banquets that sound like hard work even to attend, let alone for the servants -- records survive listing for one feast figures like 10 471 hens, 1023 sheep, 46 856 cheeses, etc. The one or two popes who did show some devotion to the church did so by throwing their energies into the ruthless detection and burning of heretics. This makes them unsympathetic, frankly. Cheerful gluttony looks less likeable when you consider what a huge pyramid of people's frank and anxious devotions supported the expenditure.

The local heresy, which still lingered in the mountains, was a kind of Manichaeism, pitting a good god of things spiritual against a bad god of the flesh. A few men, the parfaits, were supported by the people and undertook to abstain from meat (though not fish) and sex, but the majority did just what they felt like, on the grounds that sex with a prostitute or mistress was no more sinful than sex with a wife, etc, and trusting that they could be redeemed by a parfait on their deathbed. (After that last-minute purification they were not allowed to eat or drink again and had to starve to death, so they had to hope their relatives had correctly assessed their condition.) It doesn't seem so far removed from the attitude of the popes and cardinals, who must surely have assumed that their lives in the fleshpots could be attoned for in the eyes of God by alms-giving and death-bed confession. The attraction of Catharism seems at least partly to have been hatred of the heavy church taxes which paid for the church's lifestyle. This was the period when it was condemned as a heresy to say that Christ lived without possessions, because it might set a dangerous example.

It must be knowing this that gives an odd quality to the surviving papal art in the Petit Palais. It looks almost blatantly secular, without even a mask of piety. Even the carved angels have a distinctly worldly air, while the prophets and apostles look utterly weary, and Christ's gestures seem more rude than benedictional. There are surviving frescos there from a cardinal's house; they show scenes of hunting, dancing, and stolen kisses in beautiful gardens.

The rest of the Petit Palais has a collection of largely Italian art up til about 1550, which feels like a return to seriousness. There are some truly beautiful early icon-style works, and lots of beautifully executed madonnas in rich brocades -- the Pre-Raphaelites would have loved it. It's one of the best art museums I've been to in ages, and surprisingly uncrowded. It's all kept in a huge decorated stone building with stunning views over the Pont St-Bénézet (of the dance) and the Rhône. It was the original papal palace, but was soon found inadequate to their needs, so they built the Palais des Papes.

Holiday reading

To take my mind off a seriously disgusting encounter this afternoon with the less attractive side of baby alpacas, I have written some reviews of the books I've been reading on my holiday.

Mother Leakey and the Bishop, by Peter Marshall
This is an excellent little history book of the sort I would like to write myself. It's about the ghost of Mother Leakey who appeared to some people in Minehead in the 1630s, and how this relates to the story of a Bishop hanged in Ireland in 1640 for "unspeakable crimes". Very readable and quite fun.

Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann
George the shepherd is found dead by his flock of sheep, who decide that they will investigate his murder. Unusual and funny, with a convincing sheeps'-eye view of human behaviour. Also a little poignant.

Pelagia and the White Bulldog, by Boris Akunin
I didn't enjoy the first Erast Fandorin mystery as much as the reviewers, so I had sort of given up on Boris Akunin. But this book is very good, and somehow satisfyingly Russian. Maybe I will have another look at the Fandorin books.

The School for Scumbags, by Danny King
Readable enough. Not much in the way of surprises but the criminal schemes of the schoolboys are sometimes amusing.

Montaillou, by Emmanuel le Roy Ladurie
This is an interesting social history book, looking at the depositions made by a village full of heretics to an inquisitor in the first quarter of the fourteenth century. The problem is that the stories are brought out to illustrate social points, like how co-godparents related to each other, and many of the quotations sound like the start of interesting tales which one would like to read in full. Although the author is interested in conditions and mores in a mountain village, the personalities of the people involved are what makes it a really compelling book.

Avignon of the Popes, by Edwin Mullins
Quite well-written, straight-forward account of the sojourn of the popes at Avignon. Seven popes lived there and two anti-popes. Telling the difference between a pope and an anti-pope is best left to the experts.

The Discreet Interventions of Verdon James, by Julian Roach
The puff on the front mentions Jeeves and Sherlock Holmes, so I was expecting something rather light-hearted and rompish, but it pleasantly surprised me by being better than that, and distinctly more substantial. It makes one think, presumably deliberately, of the links between the rise of fascism in the 1930s and the fatuous material of the Da Vinci code, which is an interesting point. Includes a novel way of avoiding death duties and of dealing with a blackmailer.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon
This first novel by a talented writer is a precise demonstration of why no one under the age of at least 30 should be allowed to write a novel -- or maybe simply no one over the age of 30 should read works so produced.

Donne: the Reformed Soul, by John Stubbs
Prone to occasional oddities or flourishes of phrase or reference, which is forgiveable in someone who has spent so much time with such an allusive author, and on occasion they come off quite well. Readable because Donne is so readable, and so lasting. I used to enjoy, and still do, his love poems, but then the sacred sonnets and latterly the meditations and sermons have grown on me as some of the greatest writing ever, which is interesting because of course that's the progression Donne made when he wrote them. I should imagine many other people feel like this too but maybe it helps to be a Christian.

Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, by Miranda July
Disappointing. Not as good as the website. Some good stories, but mostly a bit too much on the borderline whimsical/fatuous. Very like her film "Me, You, and Everyone We Know", if you've seen that, though maybe I expect more from fiction than films because I didn't find that quite so annoying. I had read all sorts of good reviews about this book, but I get the feeling she's one of the Dave Eggers/McSweeney's group and that's why Dave Eggers and other McSweeney's people like her so very much.

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson
Very good, intelligent and satisfying. I like Kate Atkinson, and I like the hero of her last two books, Jackson, with his terrible compulsion to protect people.

The Tenderness of Wolves, by Stef Penney
Quite good. Readable, not very surprising. There are a lot of books like this about at the moment -- workmanlike fiction, satisfying but forgettable.

Seven Tales of Sex and Death, by Patricia Duncker
Duncker, on the other hand, is an original. Some of these are very good, some are pretty shocking. I like Zeus as a stalker.

Hav, by Jan Morris
Jan Morris is also unique. I like this very much, but I think I might understand it better if I had read more travel writing. It seems like there's a riddle there that I'm not quite getting. Hav is memorable, and the Myrmidons unpleasantly banal, and Cathars, which is appropriate to my holiday destination.

The Savage Garden, by Mark Mills
Yet more readable, forgettable fiction, though with a reasonably pleasing historical mystery aspect to it. It's my own fault I keep encountering this undemanding stuff -- I think I need to read something tougher next.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Popes' houses

I learnt something about papal architecture by stumbling across the palais des papes on my first night in Avignon, trying to find my hotel in the high-sided medieval streets. It startled me in exactly the same way as the first time I went to read in the Vatican; it gives the impression that you've just been dropped into a place where everyone is two or three times as tall as you. Windows are very high, and the gap between stories huge, but it's all done to scale as if it were just natural. You imagine walking in and having to clamber up the stairs like a toddler. I assume the effect is entirely intentional. I wonder if it's because in Italy and France they had Roman remains about to give them ideas. When the Anglo-Saxons came across Roman ruins they famously called them enta geweorc, the works of giants, even though they knew their history perfectly well. In Arles, which I went to for a day, they have a huge amphitheatre, apparently one of the best preserved surviving. Roman Arles also had a large theatre, and a circus for chariot racing; but in the middle ages a substantial proportion of the dwindled population moved into the amphitheatre and used it as a fortress, dismantling the top storey and building watchtowers with it. There were over 200 houses, three streets, and two chapels inside the arena when it was cleared in the nineteenth century. It's a complete shift in scale from the Roman period.

Here is a picture of one of the watchtowers built in the middle ages to defend the amphitheatre-fortress. (Now it's used for the sort of bull-fighting where they don't kill, but just annoy the bull.)

Avignon and Arles

Here are my notes on things I did in Avignon and Arles, from my Moleskine (in case they're any use for Perry):

1. The Popes' Palace
Rather more impressive outside than in. Little decoration remains, but two chapels and the pope's bedroom and study still have frescoes. Somewhat less than comfortable when I was there because of all the bored children running about not looking where they're going. You can't blame the children -- there must be few who enjoy large empty stone buildings -- and you can't really blame the parents because the children need to learn the world's not arranged for their amusement.

2. The Pont St-Bénézet
This bridge once went all the way across the Rhône to Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, passing over the Ile-Barthelasset, but now only 4 of 22 piles remain, with two little chapels on top of the other. A nice walk. Again, too many children looking like they're about to run off the edge into the depths of Rhône.

3. The Petit Palais
Excellent, my favourite. Nice and empty when I was there. Its collections have two main themes: Avignon in the middle ages, and early art. It has excellent collections in both. There is lots of good stuff here, not going any later than 1550 or so, which suits me very well. Also there are fantastic views from the top floor.

4. The Petit Train
Quite good. A bit silly, I suppose, but interesting enough. Does a circuit of the town with commentary in French, English, and Spanish.

5. Boat cruise
The beginning is the best bit, with fantastic views of the popes' palace and the bridge. Flags a bit in the middle, when the commentary gives way to 1990s pop.

6. Musée Angladon
Satisfyingly small, and personal because it constitutes the house of two great collectors, themselves artists, who inherited from an even greater collector who had known all the impressionists. Nice stuff. Includes the only Van Gogh of Provence still in Provence.

7. Musée Lapidaire
A large disused church filled with stones of many kinds. Nice to wander round. There are Roman carvings and inscriptions, many local, as well as Greek and Egyptian ones, and some medieval monuments.

8. Musée Calvet
Has one of those fantastic huge Brueghels of a village where about 100 things are going on at once -- a procession, a small play, drunken dancing, livestock, a man pissing against a tree, etc etc. Otherwise a nice collection of art and sculpture -- not too large.

1. Musée Pierre de Luxembourg
A museum containing very little, but with two very nice things (which I was told to go and see by Nigel). A carved Virgin and Child, fourteenth-century. It leans back slightly -- they say because it was carved from one tusk of ivory, but one also sees this leaning back on the hips as one of the features of art at the time. Also, the crowning of the Virgin by Enguerrand Quarton. This is nicely displayed in a whole room to itself, with a bank of seats at a good viewing distance, and cases with the relevant documents. A detailed contract exists, imposing the composition. However there are a few differences, e.g. in the lack of the Hospitality of Abraham. Otherwise the museum mostly contains wet-eyed products of the Counter-Reformation.

2. Collegial Notre-Dame et Cloitre
A large church with a calm and open cloister. Peaceful but not remarkable.

3. Chartreuse Val de Bénédiction
A labyrinthine collection of remains of the charterhouse here, the largest in France. Lots of cloisters; lots of empty rooms with notices explaining their previous use. With lots of other people there, uninspiring; viewed alone it is probably quite different.

I ran out of oomph to visit the Tour Philippe-le-Bel and the Fort-St-Andre. I had see them both from the river. The main square of Villeneuve is a nice place to sit with a coffee.

Arles is about 20 minutes by train from Avignon.

1. Les Arènes
A huge Roman amphitheatre, probably of the first century A.D., remarkably well preserved. It was used as a fortress in the Middle Ages, when large parts of what remained of the city moved into it, like a raincoat folding into its own pocket. There were more than 200 houses and two chapels in it, with three streets. They took down the third tier at this time, and used the stone to build four watch-towers, and on other town projects. They cleared it in the nineteenth century, and now it is used for bullfights. It makes for a strange building -- part ancient building, part current stadium, with extra seats on scaffolding and stencilled numbers for ticket-allocations.

2. The Theatre
There was a large Roman theatre there, too. I walked past but did not go in.

3. St-Trophime
A fantastic frontal, not very large, but very detailed, with about 60 scenes. Lots of them contain lions -- Samson and David are both there, and there are also deorative lions. It's possible a lion was the symbol of Arles. Very beautiful. Inside, the church is very dark, presumably to protect the Aubusson tapestries of the Life of the Virgin. One of these partially covers a large eleventh- or twelfth-century inscription about St Trophimus. There is a fourth-century Christian funerary monument with carving, and some interesting paintings.

4. The Cloister of St-Trophime
Very beautiful. Probably peaceful when fewer people are there. The ranges are all beautifully carved, though it was hard to see because some were dotted about with conservation tape when I was there. A lovely place. It disappointed me that it was hard to buy pictures of the carvings both of the cloisters and the frontal.

5. The Market and the Van Gogh Place
The market was intense and confusing, and sold things in too large quantities to be much use to me -- or provencal fabrics which I didn't want. I had lunch at the mental hospital where Van Gogh stayed for a while. It has been repainted in the lurid colours of his painting -- an odd thing to do.

6. Musée de l'Arles and la Provence antique
An absolutely baking walk to get there. The museum has some excellent objects, carved heads (one very handsome) and other relicts of the Roman government of the Province. Of particular interest to me were the funerary monuments, which go from pagan to Christian, and start to portray Christian scenes in the same style -- lots of small figures densely packed together. Interesting. The nice ladies at the desk directed me to where I could get a bus back into town.

There are also the Thermes of Constantine, but I have a long-standing dislike of hypocausts so I didn't go.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Yes, this is mid Devon

My father is on the front page of today's Culm Valley Gazette (website:; next to a picture it says "Keith's encounter with a giant rhubarb; see page 29". On turning to page 29 I found out that he has a full-page profile in "Village People" -- a series about "the colourful characters who live in our rural communities". Which is nice.

Monday, 6 August 2007


Yesterday we let some alpacas out of one field into the next field along, which I understand is OK because they are essentially both the same field, we just put a gate in a while back to control the grazing more. The alpacas were keen to get to the new grass, but there's a tiny stream in the way which they felt the need to leap extravagantly. Here is a picture my dad took of a leaping alpaca:

She has her front feet nicely together, like a showjumper. Four of the babies decided that this wasn't what they wanted at all and while the rest of the herd disappeared up onto the hill my parents and I chased them round and round trying to get them across the stream. They looked to be having quite a lot of fun, until eventually one of the mothers trotted back and bad-temperedly herded her cria across.

Apparently this little gang is well-known for being trouble. I'll try to record the sound of them going meep at some point and put it up. They do the most brilliant shrieking yodel when distressed -- it would make a great ringtone -- but it seems mean to distress them just in order to annoy people on trains.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The provinces

People in London may call Cambridge the provinces, but it's hard to beat Devon for a bit of "blimey, do people still say/do that sort of thing?". This morning at church an amiable old man preached against evolution -- not in a ranty sort of way, just urging us to respect the bible's date of 6000ish years. He seemed a sweet chap so afterwards I thanked him for his sermon (which also included some good stuff on faith) and said that, as it happened, myself I'd never seen a problem with the difference in the bible's dates and the scientists' dates, because of the bit in Psalms (quoted in the New Testament by Peter) about a thousand ages in God's sight being like a day, suggesting that time in the bible isn't always about counting the movements of the earth relative to the sun. But then I felt guilty because I had opened up the topic for my dad, who is less tactful than me, to have an argument with the poor man in the manner of an enthusiastic dog bouncing a small reserved boy.

This sort of thing, it's odd and sad to relate, seems to be a product of the enlightenment, and the bible literalists and the evangelical scientists are very closely related. It was a great thing when people got down to applying logic and observation to their understanding of the world, and we learn things in one lesson of school science now which were someone's life work. But maybe that has made us over-confident about how easy everything is going to be to understand. Want to know more about how God made the earth? Why not add up all the numbers involved to make a total! Then also everything has to be true or false, 1 or 0, and if the bible says a day it means 24 hours and if you say otherwise you're calling God a LIAR. In the middle ages we would have known, if we were educated, that there were four ways to understand anything, especially scripture. The literal was the first, then there were the three spiritual ways, which I think were moral, allegorical, and anagogical. I can never do the anagogical, which I suppose means that I am a bit ignorant in medieval terms, in the same way that we would tut tut about adults who didn't know about the circulation of blood taking oxygen to the body, or some such. I think it's brilliant to know, for example, how a tree works, but it's a shame we couldn't have hung on to some of the good things about the old style of knowledge when we got the new stuff.

I count myself immensely lucky to have been brought up by my parents both as a Christian and to challenge things I am told. Actually we can be very pub-bore-ish when we get started -- we spent the whole of the Christmas day before last trying to estimate how likely it is that if 13 people sit down to dinner one will be dead within a year, and my mother has done small surveys on the number of times that alpacas chew the cud. But they have never objected to, but rather welcomed, challenges to anything they think they is true -- this goes as much for scientific beliefs as for Christian ones, and I suppose therefore I shouldn't feel too guilty for letting my dad loose on the preacher, because my dad at least will have found their discussion invigorating.

Saturday, 4 August 2007


I never used to get holidays, which is why I'm not very well-travelled. My mother has never liked them. When I was young we used to go to Cornwall on a day-long car trip or, after we had moved near Portsmouth, to France on the overnight ferry. The one attempt that my brother, mother and I made to organise something a little more exotic, a trip to Pompeii, was vetoed by my dad on the grounds that the place is very hot and full of flies. Meanwhile, my dad got to disappear most autumns to obscure parts of middle Asia on plant-hunting expeditions, often in Bhutan. My mother got very bad-tempered while he was gone and I would get upset because I couldn't quite remember what he looked like. Postcards he sent immediately on his arrival in Thimpu wouldn't get to us until months later, and this was before the days of satellite phones, so we didn't hear from him at all while he was gone, and turning up at the airport to collect him on the appointed day was an act of faith. He returned with a weather-beaten tan, immensely smelly laundry, a new species of rhododendron or camelia or such, and the occasional obscure intestinal parasite which meant the whole family had to be dose with remarkably foul-tasting worm powders. He would cheerfully tell us stories of being airlifted from mountain passes by the Indian Army, or thrown into prison by corrupt Nepali policeman, which always sounded to me not just scary but rather hard work. So I never got the idea of travelling for pleasure -- even those straight-forward ferry trips to France started badly as we put Peggy the dog in kennels. She'd had a bad experience with a sexually-voracious labrador and hated to be left. When we returned to collect her my mother would make us sit wait in the car in case she'd died while we were gone, and I knew that was why she did it too, which made those car waits pretty dire. And as an adult organising trips for myself seemed too much like a high-pressure chore; and also to raise the disturbing question, why am I expecting to enjoy a place just because it's a long way away? What precisely am I running away from?

But in the last couple of years I've just begun to understand. I think it's because now I'm older and I know exactly what I'm running away from (the shock is it turned out not to be myself). Today I took a long train journey down to my parents' in Devon to drop off my rats for ratsitting while I'm gone. My father checked and although they are rodents their tame status means it's not illegal for me to transport Yaffle and Muesli onto agricultural premises. (Though my parents currently can't move any of their alpacas under the regulations of the immediate response to the new foot and mouth outbreak, which is tricky when they're running out of grazing.) The journey down here can be very beautiful when it's not too crowded. There's this one spot just by Westbury where there's a big wrinkly hill with a chalk horse cut into the side. People wearing parachutes jump off and catch the thermals rising from the steep side of the hill, circling round and upwards like the buzzards you see everywhere in the West Country now. In continuation the train theme, on Wednesday I will catch a Eurostar down to the south of France. Remembering that at school we spent a good proportion of our French lessons plaguing poor mairies for tourist information on their towns, I requested information from the Avignon tourist board (that being my destination) and now I have tons of leaflets on jazz festivals and whatnot with which to plan my stay. I have fifteen books in my suitcase, plus a small sketchbook, and I think I am all set for a civilised time.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Cria creche

My parents have more baby alpacas than they know what to do with. I think the current total is 10, with another 3 to come before the end of the summer. One of them has to have eye-drops, and another is being bottle-fed, which adds to the time they take. When you bottle-feed an alpaca you have to be careful not to fuss it at all, or make it too tame, or it will develop personality problems when it is older. You have to wander up to it with a bottle of warm milk as if by accident, and poke it in the direction of the mouth in a diffident, offhand manner, while taking care not to make eye contact. This is very hard to do because they are absolutely adorable, with their thick immensely soft curly coats and huge black eyelashes.

Here are some crias having fun: