Saturday, 27 December 2008

Angry young man

1. I met my little nephew. He really is little, the smallest baby I have ever seen in real life. He's been back in hospital because he's having trouble regaining his birth weight, which was only 6lbs 11oz anyway, so he's absolutely tiny. When he's angry, which is a lot of the time, he looks like an animatronic goblin, and when he's not angry he looks a bit like William Hague. He gets particularly annoyed when anyone tries to feed him. He very rarely opens his eyes, and then usually only one at a time to have a cautious look at us, before closing them firmly again. I have a lot of sympathy with him, and actually he wasn't due until tomorrow. He does at least appear to appreciate effort -- while I was looking after him he went into an arch-backed purple-faced tantrum pulling faces as if the worst thing ever was happening to him, and in panic I tried a rendition of the Frog Chorus, at which he settled back to sleep; this was distinctly generous of him. Hopefully it's all just indigestion, poor soul.

2. My mother is reacting in a very typical way to grandmotherhood, essentially by turning the full beam of her mind's energies onto worrying about it. My brother told me that when they told her back in the spring that she was going to be a grandmother her immediate reaction was "what shall we do about the pond?", rather than the more conventional joy. The next day she went out and bought lots of those plastic things you put into unused electric sockets, so that now whenever we want to plug anything in first we have to prise one of these devices out with our fingernails. The other day she gave my father a stern talking to, really a telling off, that he should never eat berries in front of his grandson. She told me that it's nonsense that grandchildren are better than children, because now she has to worry not just about her grandson but about how my brother and his wife are coping with him, and about whether they're being made miserable by worrying about him too.

3. Actually I remember it did make me very unhappy as a child that, although I knew that you shouldn't eat any berries you found in the wild, on autumnal walks with my father he would insist on eating pretty much all the berries he came across, including ones which I knew very well to be poisonous, like rose hips and yew berries. He said it was OK because he was careful to spit out the poisonous pips, but I didn't see how he could be sure that he wouldn't miss one, and then he would die. Hopefully my nephew will get a useful balance to this sort of thing from his mother's family, who all seem pretty sane.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Learned, fat, and red: part I

I've been meaning to post for ages about Bologna. I do miss it a bit, though mostly for the food. The title of the post is because Bologna is renowned for being learned, fat, and red: learned because of the university, the oldest in the West; fat because of its wonderful food; and red partly for the bricks it's built from, but also because it's famously socialist/communist.
Why go to Bologna?
1. Because it is a very nice city. It may not match up to Venice in the amazingness stakes, and I suppose Florence has more obvious things, but it has a very major advantage over those two places in that it is not packed full of tourists. It has far fewer tourists than Cambridge, for example, and at least as much nice stuff to look at. In Venice and Florence you have to book everything you want to see in advance, but there is nothing that needs booking in Bologna. You can get a seat outside at one of the cafes under the portici of beautiful Piazza S. Stefano with no trouble no matter what the weather; your competition will not be other foreigners but Italians. (Probably some will be having graduaton parties, wearing the Dante-style laurel leaf of the laureate.)
2. Also, it is the major railway hub for the north of Italy so a very good place to go to on the way from one city to another.
3. Plus even in Italy people think the food of Emilia Romagna is something pretty special.
What to do there
1. Eat good stuff. Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese are from nearby Parma (nice town) but Bologna is famous for doing things with them. In particular tortellini. (Tortelloni are the bigger ones, usually with vegetarian filling.) I saw a recipe for old-style Bolognese tortellini that had five or six different local meats in the filling. One was mortadella, for which Bologna is famous; it's pleasant enough but not as good as much other Bolognese food. (It's where the term 'baloney' comes from.) It's essentially luncheon meat, or what my mother always called boiled baby, though it's a high-class garlicky boiled baby. You won't find spaghetti Bolognese, but you will get tagliatelle al ragu, which is the closest thing, and very good.
2. Admire the portici. The story goes that townspeople wanted to get in on the lucrative student room-rentals market but didn't have a room to spare, so they would build one onto the first floor over the road, leaving the space beneath as a covered walkway with arches separating it from the traffic. This is now the official Bolognese style of architecture, and it's not only attractive but a real blessing when the sun is very hot or when it's raining. Plus the pavements beneath the portici are usually a little higher than the road so it makes busy streets more pleasant to walk down. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century the Bolognese went slightly mad and decided to build portici all the way out to San Luca, a round church built on a hill outside Bologna. There are 666 portici from the city gate, and twice a year the communist citizens go up there and bring an image of the virgin all the way down into the city. The sanctuary of San Luca is not that exciting inside, but if you get a bus out it's a lovely walk back down into the city. The walk out I would not recommend; in places it's essentially as steep as a staircase, and you feel it in your calves just from walking down.
3. Have lunch at Tamburini's. This is right in the middle of the city, about half-way between the two towers and the main square. It's essentially a delicatessen but at lunch-time it serves its own produce in a canteen style. Hopefully they'll have tortellini on and you can get a great plate for about six euros. Otherwise you can buy raw tortellini to cook yourself; this is where my Bolognese friend buys pasta when she has a dinner party.
4. Have lunch or dinner at Fantoni's on via del Pratello. This has apparently been just the same since the fifties. The roasted vegetables are always fantastic. A Bolognese friend told me that this is an excellent place for a) horse and b) zuppa inglese (literally "English soup", a type of trifle). I know it's a tad wet of me but I have counted horses as friends and I don't feel up to eating them; and I never tried the plain zuppa inglese either. (I did have some orange zuppa inglese somewhere not long before I left, and it was amazing.) This was partly because when I was lecturing on codicology years ago Melvin the lovely conservation man lent me a lot of props to make things more interesting for the youth. The one he was really emphatic about needing back intact was a little plastic bag full of costly imported kermes, the shells of insects which were used to dye alum-tawed skins pink for medieval bindings -- some of those bindings still survive on Bury books, for example, and I handled some while working on my PhD. Apparently the red liqueur used to make zuppa inglese comes from the very same insects, and this rather put me off it as a dessert. (See the wikipedia entry here which explains that the liqueur declined in popularity when people began to realise what it was made of.)
5. Also Tony's has very good, old-style cheap excellent food; popular with the Bolognese. It's on Via Righi, very close to the corner with Via dell'Independenza.
6. You have to do aperitivo. This was explained to me by locals as a very Bolognese thing, but other Italian cities seem to do something similar, like cicchetti in Venice. It comes down to the attitude to food whereby people will happily spend all day at work and all evening on the evening meal, which might explain why their TV is so bad. (They really take food seriously; if you want to make someone from Bologna cry try telling them how you cook spaghetti.) In the evening, at a time too early to start your full evening meal of antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci -- say 7.30 - 8.30 -- the bars all put out buffets of little bits and pieces to eat with your drinks. Some of these are really substantial and could easily stand in for your whole meal. They may charge a minimum for drinks in this period, e.g. when I first arrived and didn't know about the aperitivo tradition I was surprised that I couldn't get a half pint of beer at 7.30 in an Irish pub one time but had to buy a whole pint. (It was a carefully reconstructed "Irish" pub with wall tat placed inside a Renaissance building with frescoed vaulted ceilings.) In my last week there I went to Boa Vista in Via Cesare Battisti, which had really good stuff. It had a very dark black-and-mirrors decor and was playing electro music very loud, in a way which was so 80s and incredibly dated that it seemed really stylish for not caring that even 80s revival is now passé. Eddie Izzard used to do a very good routine about the progression "quite cool, cool, very cool, extremely cool, looking like an idiot" but I don't think that really holds in Italy; it doesn't seem like there's a sense that you can go Too Far. In some ways this is admirable and rather fun, though all those flamboyant young Italian men are a bit disconcerting. Anyway, I thought Boa Vista was great, and just the sort of thing that seemed the epitome of coolness when I was 13, but I'm not sure my companion liked it so much. Then we went on to Tamburini again, which turned out to be just as good in the evening as at lunchtime. Here the food isn't free but an amazing plate of sliced meats and such was only ten euros and the drinks were much cheaper. We ate all the meats even though we were already full from Boa Vista. The problem with aperitivo is that you're unlikely to want dinner as well, and it's a shame to waste a dining opportunity in Bologna if you're not there for long. Still you really should make time. One of the first things my flatmate Federica said to me when I moved in, looking at me very gravely, was "Sai il modo di Bologna?". Aperitivo is the mode of Bologna.
7. Gelati! Where to start? Where to end is also difficult. When the Parker people came out to visit me we were having four or five a day. The only not-excellent icecream I had in my whole time in Italy was at Pisa. (Pisa is a bit of a mess. It has three fantastic things to look at, all close together, and the area around them is filled with tat-selling stalls of a nature that even Rome cannot match. It's a sort of tourist black hole in an otherwise unremarkable Italian town. Walk a few hundred yards away and you're OK, but we went for icecream too close to the tower because we really wanted some.) Still Italians are able to distinguish gradations in icecream quality which escape me, and the two top places in Bologna are Gianni's, which has several outlets but with a particularly famous one just by the two towers, and the Sorbetteria Castiglione on Via Castiglione, not far from the Dominican church. Gianni's is lighthearted and has flavours called things like "Where is Gianni?" or "Beast in the City" (which is chocolate based, and which the Gaylord Donnelly librarian helpfully compared to dog poo -- there are a lot of dogs in Bologna, and therefore quite a lot of dog poo). Their pistachio is truly fantastic. The Sorbetteria Castiglione is a bit more serious, and has leaflets telling you the nutritional values of all its products, which seems to me to be spoiling the fun a bit, but I get the impression that it's the top one for the locals. Walking towards it either way at any time (I first went with some Bolognese friends on a very cold day in February) the streets are full of people eating icecream walking the other way.

I think that's most of the eating things. At some point I will try to get round to posting about the art. There are some fantastic art things to see and I have notes on them somewhere.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I had an eye test and apparently I now have to wear glasses when I use the computer. I already have to wear special gloves, called SmartGlovesTM, to keep my RSI under check. I am gradually turning into bionic computer woman. Eventually I will probably just have some complex body-fitting terminal which I just have to slot myself into before computer use -- maybe a bit like those excellent fork-lift body suit things in one of the Alien films. I love the interweb, but, is it worth it? I found it remarkably hard not to choose comedy glasses; there were some excellent pointy pink ones, but in the end I forced myself to go for bland frames since they're a pretty expensive purchase.

When I finished my PhD my mother told me that if I hadn't ruined my eyesight I hadn't been doing it properly, and paid for me to have an eye test then. It turned out I was only a little long-sighted at the time, but I think it was probably my hard work in Bologna which tipped me over the edge -- squinting not just at a computer screen in the usual way but also at online maps, looking for things which might be the remains of ancient lynchets and gores. I should have spent more time eating tortellini and pistacchio gelato.

I found myself surprisingly anxious before my eye test, and I think it's that word test, which still takes me back to school anxiety. Deep down I knew I would fail the eye test because I hadn't tried hard enough. It seems odd to me in retrospect how much pressure I used to feel about these things, because it certainly wasn't peer pressure -- I went to quite an academic school but it still wasn't good to be too much of a swot -- and it certainly wasn't parental pressure either. My parents always wanted me to be kind and honest -- which is asking a lot, it's true -- and school results came under the broad heading of honesty, in that they were things you shouldn't try to duck out of, but not things that mattered in themselves. They generally found it funny when I did well at school. I remember getting 100% in the easier of the two GCSE mock maths papers, and excitedly telling my father, who said "what, left no room for improvement?". I thought this was funny at the time, and still do, but he told a group of people about it at a seminar on Christian parenting and got utterly evil looks as if he'd confessed to some form of child abuse. I suppose they thought he should have affirmed my achievement by saying "I'm proud of you daughter and I love you!" and I would have said "I love you too pa!" and then we'd have hugged and recorded my results to send out in the annual Christmas letter, the fools. So anyway the pressure I put on myself to do well at school must have come from somewhere else. I think maybe I invented it in my brain. Or maybe it's that invidious desire to be honest, which can mean so many things. One of the excellent people of the college here taught me that if a thing's worth doing it's worth doing adequately, which is a seriously good piece of advice. How many things are really worth doing well?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hurray for aunts!

I have a nephew! He arrived a fortnight early, on Sunday, sensibly avoiding the whole thing about having a birthday immediately adjacent to Christmas.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Some music stuff

1. I love this La Roux song:

Here is her myspace.

2. I don't usually watch the X Factor but I've seen a couple of episodes of this series. So I'm a bit puzzled to find out that Simon Cowell has chosen Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as the winner's song. I only really know the classic Jeff Buckley version:

But if cherub-faced 16-year-old Eoghan Quigg sang it and all his granny fans bought it thinking it was some kind of religiousy Christmas thing and then found out it was a slightly tormented song about sex, wouldn't the Daily Mail have to start a petition? Can we start one in advance to stop this? I don't think any of the contestants are capable of not massacring it. Apparently Diana sang it in some earlier round, drawing praise from Louis Walsh, but after whatsername from the Cranberries I think we've had all the cracky squeaky-voiced singers we can sustain. The Cranberries did one good song:

3. I was going to embed the video to the Girls Aloud single written by the Pet Shop Boys but it wasn't that interesting, so here is Pet Shop Boys' extended mix of Here. It seems like quite a Christmas-y song to me, with it's "you've got a home here" message.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Bad things and something good

1. I had to buy a new laptop because my old one was getting iller and iller, and can no longer access its battery among other issues, not least the tractor noise it makes. It was a bit of a waste because I haven't really been in the mood for heavy technological expenditure. If you're going to spend hundreds on a new gadget you ought to get the most possible pleasure out of it, but it all just seemed like a huge chore to me. Anyway I solved three little problems and I thought I'd mention them in case they're of use to anyone.
a) Predictably itunes was the hardest to transfer: it turns out that wherever you keep your library -- I was moving it from an external hard drive to the second partition of an internal drive -- the actual important files are in the Music folder in your own user directory on the C: drive, and those are the ones you have to transfer in order to keep all your info like play counts and podcast subscriptions. If you copy over the ".itl" file you're OK. For some reason using the XML option didn't work. Then of course I had to authorise my new computer for the itunes store and for, and deauthorise the old one. Also, why will itunes only let you back up to CDs or DVDs, and not to an external hard drive? Given how long most of us have spent posting CDs into the drive in order to amass our itunes libraries, why on earth would we want to reverse that process? It's insanity.
b) You can't connect to Lapwing with Virgin Wireless Manager on. This puzzled me for ages before I worked out what the issue was. You can easily turn Virgin's Wireless Manager off; in fact I'm thinking of jettisoning it altogether. I told the computing service help desk and they're going to add it to their FAQs, since there must be other people in Cambridge who use Lapwing and have Virgin broadband at home.
c) I keep all my important stuff on a little USB drive so that I don't have to worry about versioning, and I have a beautiful little batch file which automatically backs up for me every time I plug it in, meaning I have all my work in a recent form on both my home and work computers. My new laptop wouldn't autorun from a USB drive, which ruined this whole scheme. Eventually I sorted that out by editing the registry from these instructions; thanks AJJ for googling better than me.

2. I got two notes yesterday which made me sad. One was from a local police officer, handwritten, and the other was from the Housing Society of the block of flats where I live, both to the same effect. Apparently there is going to be a community meeting to discuss "the problem of youths climbimg and antisocial behaviour". Now, I have mentioned before on this blog how much I like having the Le Parcour/free-running kids about. They leap around the area between the two blocks which make up the flats where I live, bouncing off things with the elegance of monkeys, and walking on their hands, etc. They must be in their early teens -- I'd guess around 13-15 -- e.g. they are children, playing outdoors and having fun. I haven't ever thought of them as anti-social. Did we need to get the police involved? Is this a police matter? I'm worried we're doing that thing one hears so much about in the media these days, reacting with unfair fear to children who are only being children. What are we actually expecting them to do with their time? OK they're not a very approachable bunch, but we don't want young kids to be approachable by strangers, it wouldn't be appropriate. I understand that children over the age of 12 have been banned from the local playground, and presumably we don't want them sitting at home playing on their playstations or doing unsuitable things on the internet. Poor kids. I want to see them running free! In time they'll have to grow up and worry about adult things but for now why can't they just leap about, daringly risking grazed knees and perhaps broken arms in order to look cool in front of their friends and very occasionally girls?

3. But if I go to the meeting and try to put this point of view I will not be sympathetically heard, and it will probably turn out that the kids have been throwing stones at old ladies or something. I have had bad experiences with this before. It is very hard to deal with people whom you think are over-reacting without coming off as an unpleasant person incapable of sympathising with other people's traumas, and there are some hardcore complainers who live in my block of flats.

4. I did have the audio cassette of On the Hour, but it was only a few episodes, and now both series are available on itunes. Hurray! This is the good thing. It has the beginnings of Alan Partridge, when he went around asking athletes about their groin strain, and will make you feel nostalgia for the days of John Major and Douglas Hurd. Some of it was repeated in the later TV version, The Day Today. Hurray for Chris Morris! Here are his thoughts on the CERN hadron collider.

Saturday, 15 November 2008


1. I put four blogs into and it thought they were all written by men:
Neil Gaiman 54%
Taking Liberties 59%
Kenodoxia 78%
and this blog 81%. I found this disconcerting til I looked at its accuracy rate.

2. This shouldn't need saying. I get so angry about the fake religion/science divide, I'm not even going to say any more about it.

3. A friend of mine who lives in Rome and is the only other person in the entire world who doesn't like the Wire told me I should watch Gossip Girl. I am enjoying it very much. But no one else will because you all love the Wire. It's one of those great US teen dramas where the actors have even sillier first names than their characters; the main four protagonists are played by people called Blake, Leighton, Penn and Chace. I think genderanalyzer would have even more trouble with those. (F, F, M, M btw). The theme is "rich people have problems too" -- it's a sort of New York O.C. but with none of that tedious agonizing (at least so far). Hurray!

Friday, 14 November 2008

De raris fabulis

Ever since arriving at Cambridge and finding that the Insular Latin course took it for granted that I had done A-level (which is no longer the case) I have felt like I am playing catch-up with my Latin. (I did GCSE, at which level you just translate all the words and rearrange them into a sentence -- no man ever bit a dog in GCSE. With a smattering of superficial intelligence you can do well without learning much grammar at all.) In my first ever Cambridge supervision Andy Orchard (Provost Orchard as he is now known) showed me St Patrick's Confessio and asked me to spot the grammatical errors. Andy made the point that we were lucky when we could understand Patrick at all since his Latin education had ceased at sixteen (though in Patrick's case this was because he was abducted and sold into slavery, rather than that he chose different A-level courses). I meant to give up Latin every year, and never quite got round to it, until for my MPhil I edited the Vita S. Cuthburge; at that point my Latin was at a reasonable standard, but it slips away again so fast.

Anyway, at least our Insular Latin classes did start slowly, with early medieval texts made for teaching Latin to boys in monasteries. One, misleading called De raris fabulis, had some surprising ideas of what sort things they were going to need to be able to say in Latin. There doesn't seem to be a text online, but here is part of an image, taken from the wonderful Early Oxford Manuscripts Online, of the perhaps Cornish manuscript:

It's rather a nice bit, as opposed to the many chapters which involve savage beatings:
Audi frater ueni huc.
Quid uis carissime indica me?
Ego uolo te salutare.
Audi princeps da mihi potum de liquore qui in manu tua est.
Audi pistor uel cocus da mihi cibum ex colina tua.
Audi frater carissime ueni iuxta me et sede in pace.

Then the rather endearing:
Audi uxor pulcherima ueni huc cito et osculare me et pone manus tua circa collum meum.
and the more daring:
O puella optima da mihi osculum.
then the rather bathetic:
O iuuencula laua uestimenta mea hodie laua caput meum et faciem simul cum barba.
to the troubling:
O frater ueni mecum ad meam necessitatem.
which gets this understandable response:
Non ibo frater quia non facile est mihi quia aliud opus occupauit me.
How seriously would one take this as suggesting that people talked to their wives in Latin? Not very, I suspect. There are advanced colloquies for better students, including a very scatological slanging match between a teacher and a pupil. Oddly this also includes the Latin for asking someone to accompany you to the toilet, and a request not to stand in the light.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Some stuff

1. My father is back from plant-hunting in Arunachal Pradesh. Oddly enough this coincides with the British Museum running an exhibition about Arunachal Pradesh, helpfully titled "Between Tibet and Assam". There were riots while my Dad was there, and they got thrown out of a border region by a tetchy general, but to be honest I'm on the general's side because I know my Dad was hoping to sneak over some mountain pass into Burma. They all enjoyed themselves anyway. My father is the young one of the group, in his late fifties; his friend Peta is in her seventies and still happily striding about the Himalayas. How did I not get to be one of these people? Was I just born fifty years too late, and the wrong class? Or do I have only my own self to blame?

2. Talking of trees a friend sent me this helpful link; I'm not sure how to feel about there being no logical need for fish poison. Is that sad? Or is it happy for the fish? I might have to hunt through Borders for Country Walking Magazine to hear more of Ray's thoughts on this.

3. The same person sent me this link, from Bookslut. Admire the positioning of the "click to look inside" arrow. Also I like "broad riding" as a key phrase for Lady Chatterley's Lover. I remember reading it when I was 13 and being shocked, but not by its explicitness -- even as a young nicely-brought-up girl I'd read stuff at least as explicit -- but by its complete lack of romance, or even much in the way of emotion. I read tons of D. H. Lawrence as a teenager and for a while The Plumed Serpent was my favourite book but now it seems almost unreadable.

4. Actually I was wondering if the Circle Line was running:

And when I got to the platform the Circle Line was running. Hurray!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


Indie bands whose music I dislike except for one song which I love
•Travis, Sing
•Coldplay, Don't Panic
•Keane, Better Than This
•The Killers, Mr Brightside (although it ought to be the popjustice compilation version which fades into Sophie Ellis Bextor singing Dear Jimmy)
•Oasis, The Importance of Being Idle (they had other songs but they've been overbuskered)

Bands I am slightly ashamed of liking
•Scooter (e.g. Posse)
•Basshunter (he's such an old-style idiot but the blurb for this video says the record's success was due to word of mouse, and you can't resist that)
•Scroobius Pip vs Dan le Sac

though I do approve of beards like that; he has decided to have a beard and then abandoned restraint
•Sash (here is encore une fois long version with the French intro)
•Enrique Iglesias, e.g. the ping pong song

Music that puzzles me
Why did Sam Taylor Wood stop being a vaguely controversial but very successful Young British Artist and decide to release a cover of I'm in Love With a German Filmstar produced by the Pet Shop Boys? I feel like there's some message there I can't read. The video is quite good except that it is the same as the stuff she did as a video artist.

Also we should all just agree that prank calls are not now nor ever have been funny
These aren't really prank calls but if they were they would be the exception.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

The bright side

1. OK so these endless meetings give me a headache like my brain is full of very fine hot sand but there are occasional rays of bearability. Watching my boss, an old-style professor, react to a request for "an offline caucus", for example. (He did so warily.) Also just before our deliverables meeting my boss asked me if I knew what "deliverables" meant, and I enjoyed explaining it as those things which must be delivered -- once he knew it was a gerundive he was fine. I really don't know why I don't find American business-speak enjoyable. It's a muscular vernacular, where everything is a metaphor: we have roadmaps not plans; things are frozen not finished; we have to prioritise "low-hanging fruit". But it just annoys me. And it is unclear; my colleague whose first language is German finds it really hard to understand sometimes.

2. But it's over, and I am lucky that I can soothe my jaggled soul with manuscript 448. People are variously rude about Parker, but one of his endearing characteristics is that he loved his wife, Margaret. They got married before it was legal for a priest to do so, and there is a story that before that they had each made a vow not to marry anyone else. When you look through Parker's manuscripts you can see his three main interests from his notes and underlinings: [a.] Anglo-Saxon names and vocabulary [b.] the Protestant reformation as a return to the practices of the pre-degenerate Anglo-Saxon church, so things like King Edgar driving out the clerks from the New Minster at Winchester, and Ælfric's description that communion bread and wine are the flesh and blood of Christ not bodily (lichamlice) but spiritually (gastlice) [c.] priests' marriage. Parker sponsored a defence of priests' marriage, and argued for it vehemently all his life, even when it meant crossing his frightening sovereign. When Elizabeth ordered that married priests' wives could not live with them in cathedral precincts Parker quarrelled with her angrily, declared that he wished he had not accepted his position as archbishop, and would not enforce the decree. Parker and his wife seem to have been very happy together, and Parker never recovered from her death, five years before his. His body had to buried in the usual place, but he asked that his bowels should be removed and buried with Margaret. (Since he was disinterred under the Commonwealth and thrown on a dunghill, maybe it really is almost true that what will survive of us is love -- love, or perhaps bowels.)
Anyway this manuscript is a very beautiful product of late tenth-century Canterbury, one of their last gasps of Insularness. (That is Insular with a big I, meaning the style when it's pointless to distinguish between English and "Celtic", like with the Lindisfarne gospels; it is therefore somewhat less insular with a small i than the subsequent Anglo-Saxon style.) The initials wouldn't look out of place in a Welsh manuscript of the same date. It contains a poem by a certain Prosper to his wife, and Parker thought this was Bishop Prosper of Reggio, and took it as evidence for married priests in the late antique/early medieval church. Bound into this manuscript is the only surviving copy of a little printed book he had made of this poem, containing a facing page Latin and English translation. It's quite sweet. I find Parker's general ineptitude as a poet another of his endearing features. If you've ever heard Tallis's Tunes for Parker's Psalter (perhaps via the Vaughan Williams "fantasia on a theme" version of one of them, which is not a patch on the original) you might have gone so far as to look up Parker's Psalter on Early English Books Online, where you would discover Parker's rather plodding Psalms. (I don't know why they are never sung in college, since the music is fantastic.) I'm guessing that Parker translated Prosper's poem himself.
Age iam precor mearum
Comes irremota rerum
Trepidam, breuemque vitam
Domino Deo dicemus

gets turned into four stanzas of six lines each, starting "Come on O mate". Wherever Prosper says something nice about his wife, a little annotation in the margin of the Latin text says "ergo non reliquit uxorem". It finishes
Persist we styll
All one in wyll,
Rest we one fleshe to go,
Kynde hart doth moue
Eche others loue
Rule we one sprite in two

Vt caro non eadem tantum, sed mens quoque nobis
Vna sit, atque duos spiritus vnus alat.

Sadly our project omits printed material, so this unique little object will not be included.

3. Early English Books Online is brilliant anyway. Try searching on "lewd", or regard this distressing story:
Strange and VVonderful News from NEVVBERRY, Concerning a Youth that was Choak'd by Eating of Custard

Monday, 20 October 2008


Earworms aren't all bad; I can listen to the Soulwax remix of MGMT's Kids in my head with no need of ipod. Here is an live version brilliantly filmed on a phone

(as posted at least twice on popjustice so far) and here is a better quality audio version.
The remixers Soulwax and Freemasons ought to get some sort of credit on the website of my current project. (My colleagues listen to the Ramones and REM. I don't object to their sharing.)

Since this coming week will be entirely taken up with meetings, I might usefully charge my head with many earworms to help me through. There's no wi-fi in our meeting rooms, and only one internet point which we will grudgingly be allowed to use for our project laptop, so I can at least use my own laptop without it looking like I'm just checking my e-mail; however I doubt I'd get away with earphones. We have one of these meeting weeks every year, with our American colleagues, and it is always very hard work. On the plus side there's something about being actively prevented from doing any work and forced to talk about it in a circular manner for hours on end which results in my having strange energetic bouts of super-fruitfulness in those odd moments between items and at the tail ends of lunch breaks.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Why I am a bit melancholy

1. The Corpus Emo-clock has a significant software component. I like the way that the principle of the Vernier scale has been adapted so that the time is shown by the alignment of slits in the dials, because it's quite clever; but apparently the clock has to be corrected by software every five minutes, and this doesn't seem to fit with the idea of it as a mechanical, old-fashioned clockwork clock.

2. Because I can't tell whether MS 88 is English or Continental. It looks English to me; but loads of people have thought it wasn't. I'd like to argue the case but it would take lots of effort, so boh.

3. Because my laptop has started making a noise like a little tractor. It's ominous, and embarrassing in the UL.

4. I have a lot of time for the archbishop of Canterbury. It's great to read about his book on Dostoyevsky, because I am very fond of Dostoyevsky too, especially the Brothers Karamazov which is a wonderful mad book. There's quite a good interview with Williams here. (It's the interviewer who is identifying David Cameron with Stavrogin, not the archbishop, who makes it very clear in the full audio version that he does not intend that sort of parallel; anyway it makes Cameron sound overly interesting if you ask me.) But if he weren't archbishop of Canterbury he could say what he really thinks, and that's a great loss.

5. Vladimir Putin often cheers me up -- for his birthday he released a judo video and was given a tiger cub -- until I start thinking about the state of world politics.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

A shallow response to important stuff

I've just discovered that a friend of mine has an official blog to do with an exhibition he's curating. It's intelligent and interesting; go Matthew! The BL does excellent free exhibitions, and because it's just a few minutes' walk from King's Cross it's worth popping in and catching a slightly later train. This one is about Liberty and citizenship and such. It looks interesting but rather harder work than their usual pretty picture exhibitions. I'm not entirely sure about the big hoarding saying "In some countries you wouldn’t have the right to visit this exhibition about your rights". This person is angry about it because he thinks it panders to the government (which seems a little sensitive to me), but my problem with it is just stylistic, because I can really hear Chris Morris shouting it while pointing and glaring. My other immediate shallow response is that this black-and-white picture is a bit rubbish. But leaving aside stylistic quibbles, I think it's true that we do take various rights for granted, and I certainly ought to understand their importance and history better in order to know how to respond to possible threats. Look at Italy; it's another big European country, like Britain, yet they are fingerprinting all the Romany children* and no one there seems to be bothered. I was sat at dinner a year or more back talking to a hard-boiled and rather angry lawyer, who said something about how awful it was that the government thought it OK for such-and-such to happen, and I thought the suggestion shocking and said surely they'd never get it through, and he said that they'd done it two years ago. Now I can't even remember what that shocking thing was, although it was something to do with the relationship between the government and the judiciary. So I'm hoping this exhibition will decrease my ignorance; there's a lot there for it to work with.

* I just can't rid myself of this image of a little Romany bambino or bambina asking some adult, a teacher or parent, why he or she is being fingerprinted? "Well, small one, it's so that the government can punish you more easily when you grow up into a criminal like all your race." It's foul.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Dropping out

1. I had the current brief fevery bug last week. This has reminded me how lucky I am to have a job which I like enough to want to go to in the mornings even if I'm still feeling iffy. It's odd that the lurgy comes before the students this year; maybe for once the path of disease will be reversed.

2. I really want to want an ebook reader -- I love the idea of loading things on to it which I would currently buy as cheap paperbacks, and then not worrying about them again, things like War and Peace and Mansfield Park, or Trollopes. But the readers are far too expensive, too invested in proprietary formats, too little is available for them, and what little there is comes at the same price as a proper book despite having far fewer production and distribution costs and no resale value. I should be the ideal market for these devices: I love reading, I love gadgets, and I have recently had the disadvantages of a book collection literally brought home to me heavily -- almost all of the cardboard boxes containing all my possessions seem to be full of books, and lugging them up the stairs to my flat is very tedious. So I am actually quite angry about not wanting one; I feel personally failed by consumerism.

3. Recently some people at lunch were deploring the decline in face-to-face or even telephonic communication resulting from widespread e-mail use. Contrarily I'm all for this, at least when it comes to work-related stuff. The other day someone came up to me at my desk and asked me to chair a session at a conference to which I was probably going anyway. I really don't want to do this because chairing sessions is one of those things that is surprisingly stressful and much harder work than it looks, but she's a nice person who asked nicely and I said yes. I would probably have had to say yes anyway but I feel unfairly resentful of having a yes bounced out of me by a sudden face-to-face request. (Though I'm now hopeful I can get out of going to that conference at all, and I did make my consent conditional on my attendance.) Whereas someone has just e-mailed to ask me to give a paper at another conference and it has been so much easier to write expressing regret but saying no, after a few days to give it proper consideration. Asking people for things is much more civilised by e-mail; if you try face to face maybe they're more likely to say yes at once, but there's also more chance that they will secretly resent you and then find some means of getting out of it anyway.

4. Also I have had this genius idea of putting that second conference in my diary anyway, so that when I get to the point where I would have been frantically patching together a paper I can enjoy the feeling of not. Hurray! I am the laziest person in Cambridge at the moment -- I work 8.30 to 5 and then I veg.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Oddly comforting

1. For the first time in fourteen years I have not bought a copy of the Cambridge Lecture List. Hurray!

2. I am gutting for bibliography a book with the short title Bedingfield 2002, and I cannot get "Gotta get thru this" out of my head. Catchy tune...

3. I was puzzled by the BBC's issue with how to tell the time on the new insect clock; but a colleague says that when he went by on Saturday night it had broken down, and there was a group of people standing there trying to work out how to read the completely dark dial, and that might account for it I suppose. Probably it hadn't really broken down, and occasional darkness is a design feature, perhaps to remind us that we're all going to die. Die!!!

4. It's oddly comforting when science and science fiction are not easy to disentangle. Take this suggestion that the universe is just a projection on the lip of a black hole which has already swallowed us. I saw something which said that if the Hadron collider produced any black holes they would "small, benign and fleeting", which is also an oddly comforting idea, like the dragons in T. H. White that are little and live under stones, hissing like kettles.

Thursday, 18 September 2008


1. I am the only person in the world who doesn't like The Wire. I was discussing this with someone today (though "discuss" is a mild word for any conversation involving the Wire) and she said that even if there are cliche moments they are forgiveable because of all the cliche-subverting moments. I think maybe the problem is that I don't watch enough drama to get the cliche-subverting moments. I'm not very good with drama because acting is an intrinsically ridiculous profession. I quite like Primeval though, because as well as the silly "mammoth on the M25" stories you also get the extra level of knowing that when the actors are cross-eyed with fear in front of a giant prehistoric millipede they're actually just gurning at a runner holding a football on a stick.

2. Isn't local news wonderful? The Cambridge Evening News letters page currently has gems such as "Bunny Girls Not Godly" and a plea for Ely city council to provide all its pensioners with tricycles.

3. I was checking out the Cambridge News to see what it was saying about the new clock on King's Parade, to be unveiled tomorrow. There's a video of it here. Unfortunately we have missed the deadline for the competition to design a new monster for Primeval, or we could have submitted the Chronophage, but in fact the real winner isn't so dissimilar.

PS Better video here.

PPS And now there's the full thing. If you want to live longer you shouldn't sit next to pretty girls, apparently. The bits about the mechanism are interesting, though it doesn't go into the self-correcting irregularities.

Monday, 15 September 2008


My computer at work is making a lot of noise and smells like an underground carpark. But there's no prospect of getting anything done about this at all because the entire computing resources of my workplace are tied up in a complex scheme to replace our phones with far far less useful ones in physically inaccessible places. This has already led to a major incident on Friday for which I'm not exactly reponsible but which I could probably have prevented if I had been more alert -- a police call-out sort of incident. Bad Monday morning.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Good things

1. You can read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon online here for free. It's good, but not as good as the Baroque Trilogy. Other free books include Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.

2. Apparently the one thing that can be guaranteed to soothe my god-daughter is the music of the Pet Shop Boys, specifically the album Discography. I think this is great. Of course since Discography was released way back in 1991 she's missing a lot of great Pet Shop Boys songs, but she's not eleven months old yet, so she'll have time to discover those later.

3. Odd maps.

4. 3-D dinosaurs! Beasts from Primeval set to Nine Inch Nails!

5. Am embarked on much rereading -- I got rid of so many books before I moved to Italy that I don't like to think about it, but it does mean that I am unpacking all my favourites at once. I'm rereading the Sarah Caudwell murder mysteries right now -- detective of unspecified gender etc etc, very arch, solves mysteries using principles of textual criticism. Next I think it will have to be the Niccolo books by Dorothy Dunnett.

6. I keep listening to this Keane song, although the radio recording isn't great.

Saturday, 6 September 2008


Parker team photo coutesy of Lizzie:

1. I feel properly back in Cambridge now, because I went to a feast last night. They're a little hard work when they're the long ones with a sorbet after the fish and it's very difficult not to drink -- just a few sips of each wine gets you tipsy. But this is really a very spoilt thing to complain about! I was glad to sit next to a rather aged friend with whom I wanted to catch up, but unhappily what I discovered is that his mind is wandering somewhat. Although it's not impossible that I was just failing to keep up with his trains of thought, which have always been unusual.

2. I read quite fast, possibly because of the way my mother taught me to read when I was little, I don't know. I think I do absorb what's there, just quickly, and it makes reading an expensive hobby. I am experimenting with audiobooks at present, though only of books I've already read. At you can download them much more cheaply if you subscribe than if you buy them individually, and I have just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which was over thirty-four hours unabridged. Only some books could take this, and unfortunately most of the ones that spring to mind aren't available: Allan Garganus, Oldest Living Confederate's Widow Tells All; Pynchon, Mason and Dixon; Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo series. But I have also now listened to a fantastic unabridged Moonstone, with a different narrator for each section -- Patrick Tull is Gabriel Betteredge -- and I also listened to the whole of the BBC's dramatised Barchester Chronicles. I think they would have been better served by an unabridged reading, because the BBC version was overly dependent on soliloquies. Next is a reading of the first Aubrey and Maturin book.

3. I don't think I have previously posted this excellent Pet Shop Boys video:

Wednesday, 3 September 2008


Listening to an admittedly quite good girlband version of The Human League's The Things That Dreams Are Made Of reminded me how good The Human League were.

For some reason it made me think of this old The The remix.

This is one of only two songs I currently have in an "Accordions and Banjos" ipod playlist. The other one is Travis, Sing (food fight video which started regrettable baby mohican trend here). Suggestions appreciated, if anything leaps to mind.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Some stuff

1. Returning to Cambridge is unpleasantly like defrosting, or perhaps more like freezing up again. I remember the last time I came back, though I hadn't been away properly then because when I worked in London I commuted down rather than moving. It was probably worse then because a) I was leaving a job I really didn't want to leave with excellent people and b) my new Cambridge job was chaotically unready for me in a way which turned out to be unhappily typical of the whole experience -- no one had considered that I might need a key to my office, for example, or a computer. This time I'm only leaving Italy, which was interesting but unsustainable, and coming back to a job with great people where everything has been got ready for me -- before I arrived there were even major arguments over my contract with HR, the two professors who are in charge having decided that it was a terrible insult to my dignity for me to have a three-month trial period, which was rather sweet of them. So I don't know what's making me feel uncomfortable about it all. Perhaps it's the fact that I have now lived in Cambridge twice as long as I have lived anywhere else in my life.

2. I have now acquired three rats, mother and two daughters. Mother and two daughter groups from literature or popular culture with acceptable names are harder to find than you'd think -- I toyed with Judy, Liza and Lorna but decided it was too camp. In the end I have called them by the late medieval names of some Anglo-Saxon saints -- Audrey (for Æthelthryth), Edith (for Eadgyth), and Osith (for Osgyth). They are not yet sure that I am a good thing, but they are very curious about me. This is such a sensible response.

3. If you read cuteoverload you have already seen this insane woman and her cat. I like to see this one from the husband's point of view -- so dull an eating companion that his wife has to train the cat to use a fork just to get through mealtimes.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Things you can buy

1. My alma mater is selling a football-playing robot.

2. If you want to boil one egg. Do I want to boil one egg? I am undecided. Maybe my grandma would like to boil an egg for Christmas.

3. This kettle is probably quite good because it only boils what you want and boils that quickly. Though I do have a kettle already. And actually I don't think it quite boils. So not much use, really.

4. These intelligent plugs, or "intelliplugs", are not cheap, but I think I have to have at least two -- for my laptop and for my TV and their respective accessories. They turn off the peripherals when you turn off (or put on standby) the main item, which makes a lot of sense. E.g., I don't need to power my USB hub when my laptop isn't on, nor my DVD player when my TV is off, and although I do mean to turn everything off at the mains it involves a) remembering b) awkward reaching. The TV/audio one learns your remote control so it can turn everything back on when you want it to. Presumably this means that the "intelliplug" is on standby and you haven't eliminated, simply reduced your standby usage.

5. I got my brother one of these gadgets (called an Owl) for seeing how much electricity you're using, because he's a conscientious yet gimmick-loving type. He went around turning things off and seeing how it affected the usage, which he enjoyed (though I think my sister-in-law found it mildly annoying). Then they bought a new American-style fridge with a crushed-ice dispenser, and now he finds it depressing to look at.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Ciao Cambridge

1. So I'm back in Cambridge. It's a bit odd. My flat smells of new flat, somehow. I would be happier about moving in if I didn't have to face the idea of moving out again in a year's time. But on the plus side I have been reunited with some of my books, a pretty random selection because we just brought up the boxes nearest the door. I have Lindsay's Notae Latinae back, which is nice; it has the Supplement by Doris Bains as well, covering 850-1050. Also S. Harrison Thomson's Latin Bookhands, and Bishop's great but frustrating English Caroline Minuscule. Ker's English Manuscripts in the Century After the Norman Conquest; and Lowe's English Uncial. Yay! Plus I had coffee with a good friend to talk about hermits and such-like. So maybe I'll readjust in time.

2. I can't remember what I've been reading recently, except for War and Peace, which is great; you can't stop marvelling at the sheer novelliness of it. Also a biography of Henry IV which was good. And lots of Wodehouse, Blandings ones mainly, from my parents' shelves in Devon. I started Waugh's Scoop and I kept thinking "that's funny" but yet putting it down, so I've given up on it; it was amusing but I had to keep pushing myself to read it. I read the latest Pat Barker but it seemed rather aimless, like it was missing its second half.

3. Julie Burchill is a christian now, it seems. Life is hard work sometimes.

4. I quite like this from the Introduction to Holweck's Dictionary of Saints:
Profane History is for the most part a record of sin and scandal, of successful plunders and murders, it is a vast scene of crime and misery. The history of the saints on the other hand, is the narration of the triumphs of God's Kingdom, of spiritual prowess and heroic virtue.

5. Not an original thought: Parlophone really messed up the promotion for this fantastic Kylie song

Saturday, 9 August 2008


1. I went to a conference. I always find conferences hard work and not for creditable reasons. I'm not so good at chatting to people whom I know a little bit -- I find myself going awkward and probably coming across as very standoffish, and worrying about that just makes me more and more awkward. But on balance I enjoyed myself. I caught up with some very old friends whom I haven't seen for years; one of them said that the last time he'd seen me I had explained to him who Harry Potter and Britney Spears are, so it must have been a substantial time back. I like the idea of myself as someone who helps bring popular culture to the intellectuals. This gives me a role I would otherwise be lacking among the intellectuals.

2. The conference was specifically designed to be a small enough group that we could sit around a table with primary sources, manuscripts and documents, out in front of us. For the middle of the three days we were joined by a large society, so had to change our style, but it actually worked rather well. Luckily someone reminded me that I've promised to speak at the next meeting of that society; I had completely forgotten.

3. I am developing a reprehensible habit of putting jokes into my lectures that I don't expect anyone to get. I should probably try to stop this, it must be annoying for anyone who suspects.

4. The Prof. who taught me as an undergraduate was there. He opened the proceedings with an utterly formidable paper, one of the best I have heard in ages, delivered in his usual clear manner; one of those works of scholarship which is beautifully obvious once presented, and in no need of any elaboration. I have been very fortunate in my education.

5. The Prof. happens also to be the general editor of the series in which my new book has just been published. Hurray! My free copies have arrived but I think it's not quite out yet. It's very handsome, bound in black with the Henry Bradshaw Society arms stamped on the front. It's a subscription volume so will be sent out to all the members of the society.

6. Now I'm back in Devon. We have a new baby alpaca, Hermione. She's premature and weak, and after the bad experience with Hereward earlier this year and Gracie last year I'm not holding my breath for her chances.

7. My godmother has come to visit. It's odd to hear her reminiscing with my parents about their university days, because I usually think of her as pertaining to me. She has brought with her my usual birthday present, a copy of Nemo's Almanac. (Here described by the Independent as "A year-long trivial pursuit for the over-educated".) It's the 117th year, apparently. Basically it involves identifying obscure quotations and usually I can get one or two out of 73 (six per month and one on the cover). I'm betting the internet has changed this a lot but not entirely -- some of it still requires following hunches about recognising styles. That Independent article claims that it drove Helen Gardner mad. I don't really think I could take it so seriously; I ought to use it as a resource for reading suggestions but I've always lost it by the time the next year's comes out with the answers. Still, it reminds me that when I think of myself as well-read I am woefully exaggerating.

Sunday, 3 August 2008


It's like Kevin Bishop made a really good pop song:

(It's actually Juvelen.) Maybe Kevin Bishop should pursue a pop career? He was very good as George Michael in Star Stories.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Hurray for virtue; hurray for manuscripts

1. I went to an opera. It was quite good, but beforehand they made us watch a film some poor school kids had been forced to make about what it all meant to them, which was painful. The opera was Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea, which I've long wanted to hear because it features heavily in Julian Rathbone's Intimacy, in which a dying castrato teaches a woman to sing the role of Nero. It turns out to be quite remarkably decadent and amoral, with the triumphant lovers both nasty pieces of work. Both Poppea and Ottavia have bawdy nurses: Poppea's nurse disapproves of her affair with Nero but only because she doesn't think it will lead anywhere, and she says she prefers more fruitful sinning; Ottavia's nurse say that she should get revenge on her husband's infidelities by taking a lover, which would be OK because Nero is hurting her living feelings, while she'd only be hurting his reputation. The work starts with an argument between the goddesses of Fortune, Virtue and Love, and Love, backed up by Fortune, is the winner because the opera ends with Poppea enthroned as empress. But given that the one thing I knew about Poppea before this is that Nero later kicked her to death when she was pregnant (though I think actually in some sources he kills her by another means), and given that anything I know about Roman history was probably much more commonly known in seventeenth-century posh Italy, doesn't that rather undercut the whole thing? The duets are beautiful; but it's still all an illusion, and if Poppea had stuck with her intial lover Otto she could still have been empress later. In the libretto soldiers are complaining about the way the empire is falling apart while Nero has love affairs; and just before Nero makes him kill himself for criticising his affair with Poppea, Seneca tells Nero that his having faults would be forgiveable if they weren't so banal. Isn't this subtly giving Virtue a boost? The school film had the kids talking about the three goddesses; maybe I'm terribly uptight but I really don't like listening to children talking about love. No one defended Virtue; I think I would have when I was fourteen, but probably only out of contrariness, to be honest.

2. I went to Trinity and looked at a beautiful manuscript. It's been quite some time since I looked at my sort of stuff and it was very heartening. Sometimes just having a book like that open in front of you at a good point can be a very refreshing thing. Also it was nice to catch up with the Trinity people. I used to work there long enough ago now that returning is a nostalgia trip. But I had a thought: maybe it's actually a good thing I don't have time to write my book on eleventh-century script right now. It's a kind of brinkmanship: if I live to be about sixty and produce it then, it might be quite a good book, assuming I get to continue to look at manuscripts in the interim.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

What's wrong with Cambridge

I went to Tiverton with my mother to get away from being bad-tempered about this paper I'm writing, and I remembered what is wrong with Cambridge, viz., it has no Woolworths. When they sold off the old Woolworths in Cambridge for some time there were posters in the window saying an exciting shop was coming, but then it turned out to be Next. Woolworths is great! They sell Milka chocolate with the cream filling; cheap pillowcases; shower curtains; sparkly pens; basic DIY stuff; things for growing flowers; picnic accessories; coat hangers; light bulbs; cheap CDs of hi-NRG dance music; and plasticky toys. Plus in the Tiverton Woolworths the woman at the till looked exactly like my mum but with tattoos.

Monday, 28 July 2008


I think I am in love with A.E. Housman
wrote Wendy Cope
Which puts me in a worse than usual fix.
No woman ever stood a chance with Housman,
And besides he's been dead since 1936.

It's a well-known fact that dead gay men are peculiarly attractive, a theme I may embellish some other time; but my main reaction to Housman is one of daunted relief that I will never encounter him at a conference. This is because although I read A Shropshire Lad a long time ago -- and have come across a lot of men at Cambridge whose favourite poetry it is, unexpectedly -- I mainly meet him in the sphere of textual criticism, where he has the sharpest tongue there has ever been. I well remember our esteemed Prof., when we were little undergraduates doing the Part II Textual Criticism course, reading Housman to us, and then telling us not to imitate him because we didn't have the brilliance to pull it off. I've been rereading a particular article, for the paper I'm writing, called "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism". It's worth having a look at for its complex and sometimes over-involved metaphors about rhinoceroses hunting for fleas. It ends:
"Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head."
He made his life's work to edit Manilius, a bad and uninteresting Latin poet who had previously been edited by Scaliger and Bentley, solely on the grounds of the problems that the text presented, and his introduction is full of harsh things.
"An editor of no judgement, perpetually confronted with a couple of MSS to choose from, cannot but feel in every fibre of his being that he is a donkey between two bundles of hay. What shall he do now? Leave criticism to critics, you may say, and betake himself to any honest trade for which he is less unfit. But he prefers a more flattering solution: he confusedly imagines that if one bundle of hay is removed he will cease to be a donkey."
That's me! That's how I feel when I have to decide between two readings in one of my charters! Now, I don't try to remove a manuscript, I try to work out which of the two readings is better if either, and I record the other in the apparatus criticus, but I don't feel in the least fitted to choose between the two, especially if they both make grammatical sense. Nor do I feel that it is inappropriate, if one text is usually the better, to give its variants more weight. I'm not sure I'm even wrong there; but I still can't shake off the image of myself as donkey. I have not the shadow of a doubt that if Housman met me he would consider my head a pumpkin full of pudding.

Bentley was Housman's great hero: he was similarly acerbic in his judgements, and quite as certain that almost all other men were blockheads. Towards the end of his life he edited Milton's Paradise Lost. Observing that Milton was blind, and that he dictated to his daughters (Milton taught his daughters to read Greek letters but not to understand the Greek itself so that they could act as his ammanuenses, because he was a nasty piece of work), and that those daughters were ladies of the female persuasion and therefore stupid, he emended Milton's text like billy-ho, replacing words with other words which sounded similar and seemed to Bentley more worthy of Milton's greatness. No one was sure if he was joking. This is probably an idea whose time has come, in the same way that it took the world a few centuries to catch up with Tristram Shandy. It seems a bit like Pierre Menard rewriting Don Quixote word for word the same; it could be a witty comment on the way we interact with a text. Someone should get hold of Bentley's edition and stage a reading; it would be art, I tell you.

Bentley and Housman both are daunting figures, and if the theory of textual criticism has moved on from their time I don't think it has moved quite as far as some people think. You can pick a manuscript and do a diplomatic edition, that is a dot for dot reproduction of the manuscript's readings, essentially just a transcription, but anyone with half a brain will be better off with a facsimile, or the manuscript itself, which rather defeats the object, especially in these days of increasing digitisation. And how fair is it to ask an undergraduate or a historian to cope with that? It's not at all unreasonable for people to want an edition they can read, with expert advice on the text's variants, and that is the great strength of the old school text-critical method.

PS I know from reading her articles that Wendy Cope hates being quoted online, and sees it as equivalent to robbing her. Wendy Cope, I say you are wrong; that the more people know of you as a funny poet the more they will buy your books. Not that this blog is going to spread your fame. Maybe I'll buy your latest sometime to appease my guilt.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Influence of anxiety

I am trying to write a paper for a conference in Durham next week. It's an ad hoc conference organised by someone who is generally excellent, and he e-mailed earlier this year to ask if I'd like to contribute. I think this was more because we were in correspondence about something else than because I was on his original list. I e-mailed back with a proposal which he accepted -- and then I saw the list of the other speakers, and I'm worried now that I suggested something a bit low-key. The theme is the manuscripts of Bede, and other people seem to have titles which would be chapters in some sort of definitive Handbook about the manuscripts of Bede. But I just proposed to talk about a particular manuscript which I know well.

The reason I know it well is because I did my Part II dissertation on it, a long long time ago now. I wrote a competent, perhaps over-detailed, examination of all its aspects which got rather good marks, and when I helped out at the ASNC Open Day the next year the then Prof. pointed me out to all the little sixth-formers as someone who had done publishable research for my undergraduate dissertation. Not so uncommon in ASNC; still, the joy I felt at the time! I beamed all day. (The same eminent professor is talking at this conference on simply "The Manuscripts of the Historia Ecclesiastica".) I never got round to publishing it. I have thought about it since and I think the significance of what I did is now clearer in my mind than it was then. Still it seems a little cheeky somehow to dust off and present work I did when I was 20. Furthermore someone I know who was going to be giving a paper has just e-mailed to say he's sorry we won't get a chance to catch up because he's pulled out on the grounds that he has nothing new to say on the manuscripts of the Pseudo-Bede Collectanea. Which seems to be expecting quite a demanding and knowledgeable audience.

If I were going to be talking at Kalamazoo or Leeds I would have no worries at all about the standard of what I'm doing. The point of what I'm going to say is that this particular manuscript shows clear unambiguous evidence for something happening in its production which is usually assumed not to have happened in manuscript production; perhaps we should stop assuming that. I think I will have to rely on a doing a tight well-presented paper under time. Heigh ho. Three days in Durham should be nice, at least.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Grumbling about some books

1. I read Scarlet Thomas' The End of Mr Y, which was quite good. Not brilliant, but at least unusual. I don't know how much you can believe what she says about the theory of relativity, given that it's a novel; I have all sorts of questions about that now which will have to wait until I get back to Cambridge and have access to scientists. Also there was a quote from the Independent on the front saying it had lots of grubby sex in it, which was not at all true, and makes me think that the reviewer must have not read anything written after about 1960. Julian Rathbone's King Fisher Lives is said not to have won the Booker in 1976 because Lady Wilson was chair of the judges that year and she was shocked by its filthiness, whereas now it doesn't seem that untame. I don't know why it's not a cult classic.

NB I just looked on Wikipedia and it seems Julian Rathbone died while I was in Italy and I missed it! Not that it's likely to have made front page news here either. Still, alas Julian Rathbone, I will miss your chutzpah.

2. I reread P.D. James' Death of an Expert Witness. She's quite good, only very cold, and Dalgliesh is a bit silly, with his poetry.

3. Then I read Kate Mosse's Sepulchre on my long journey back via Milan and Bristol. I managed to finish it at Milan Malpensa airport, a pretty dismal place, so that I could abandon it there as it deserved. I've heard her talking on Radio 4 and she seems like a pleasant and intelligent individual, but her writing is terrible. Almost as bad as Ken Follett. I should have known this because I read Labyrinth a while back, but Sepulchre was in Waterstones for half price and I thought maybe it would do for a long journey, even though it's clearly much the same book again. There aren't enough good fat paperbacks in the world. I used to think that this was the ideal plot for a novel when I was about 15, the Penelope Lively-style thing where a girl or young woman who is in some way alienated finds out about a girl of similar age in the past to whom dramatic things happened, and then their stories start to merge dramatically. You know what happened to the past girl because of things the present girl finds out, which adds poignancy and suspense. It can make a good plot, most high-browly used by Stoppard in Arcadia, but plot is not enough I think. Talking of Penelope Lively, her Moon Tiger is brilliant, though it might make you cry.

4. I've just finished Documents Concerning Rubashov the Gambler by Carl-Johan Vallgren, which was quite good but a bit sad. I doubt I will ever reread it.

5. Anyway I need to read something good now, something I will want to reread like King Fisher Lives or Moon Tiger (but without the crying).

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Emilia Romagna and beyond

I decided to treat my last week in Italy as a holiday -- I don't work well in the heat and besides I had a friend visiting. I thought I would therefore now blog about some good things to do in north-west of Italy. We went to Parma, Padova, Verona and of course Bologna, and the other places are cities I've been to in the region at some point over the last six months.
1. Venice, natch. I blogged about that before, though I have since found this list of things to do there by afficionado John Julius Norwich, the acceptable face of cooing over Venice. I am going to go back in November (not necessarily this year) and look at the Old Testament mosaics in the atrium of San Marco, and the capitals of the doge's palace, and nothing else. At least I won't plan anything else before I go, I shall just wander with a good guide book.
2. Parma. Eat ham! A huge plate of ultra-thin slices of squidgy red ham! Also, grainy parmigiano. "Affetati misti" is a plate of mixed cured meats, which often comes with some cheese. The duomo here is likeable enough, but the baptistery is great, espcially if you like iconography. My friend who was with me always wins at competitive iconography because he's a proper art historian while I have only many years of Sunday School to guide me.
3. Padova/Padua. Nice city to wander around, with many squares and the sort of architecture that it's pleasant to pass by at leisure. On the north of the city is the Scrovegni chapel, with a complete scheme of decoration by Giotto. It's definitely worth seeing. I think it's possible to turn up and see if there are tickets, but that's a bit risky, and you should really book at least a day in advance online. There are 20-minute slots, and you sit for 15-20 minutes in a climate-controlled ante-chamber before going in in groups of no more than 25. It's only just long enough to have a good look at it. I think I prefer, in my very limited knowledge, Giotto's frescos to his panel paintings. I remember particularly Joachim and Anna kissing at the gate of Jerusalem, and Elizabeth smiling at Mary in the Visitation. The art in the main museum is pretty underwhelming; I wouldn't bother unless you're keen to see all the art you can. Again, there's a nice but dull duomo and a really excellent painted baptistery. We also went to San Antonio, but because we were pushed for time we only looked at one part where the artist was a possible influence on an illuminator my friend is working on. I really wanted to go on a river trip, but it turned out to be annoyingly impossible to arrange despite our efforts. But by the river-bank at dusk there were coypu, which made me very happy. I've never seen any before. Apparently they suckle their young from teats on their back!
4. Verona. Nice city. Worth getting the tourist bus which climbs up a hill to look down on the city, which is in a bend of the river Adige. (We got the Padova bus too, also interesting, but to get the full use from a bus it ought to climb a hill.) We didn't go to any of the places associated with Romeo and Juliet because they are fictional characters who did not exist. There is a bronze statue of Juliet in the Capulet house the breasts of which one is supposed to rub if you want a new lover. I overheard someone saying that in consequence it has quite immensely shiny breasts, because many people want a new lover and are prepared to grope a statue to get one.
We went to the opera at the Arena, the Roman amphitheatre built early in the first century A.D.. All summer they stage several operas here in turns, storing the scenery for the other productions in the huge Piazza Brà outside. They say the Arena seats 15 000 with modern health-and-safety issues and part of it used as a stage -- that's down from 30 000 when the whole circuit was used for seating in Roman times. It's an unusual experience, and I'd recommend it. Unless you're very flush you'll want to buy non-allocated seats on the steps rising round the amphitheatre. These open two hours before the performance, which has to start after dusk, and it might be worth nabbing a seat on the very top of the steps so that there's no one behind you, or finding a seat behind an entrance so there's no one in front of you. There are people sat on every row of steps so you can't lean back because someone's legs are there, and you can't stretch your legs out because there are people in front of you. It's a little cramped but atmospheric. We were there on a very hot day, and were very high up in the seating, waiting for the sun to set and the performance to start, when over our shoulders appeared a fast-moving wall of black cloud, lit with flashes of lightning, and there were sudden blasts of wind from different directions. It made it suddenly obvious how much nearer we were to the sky than the ground, and was very dramatic. We only got a little wet, but it wouldn't have mattered if we had got soaked in that heat. Still, checking the weather report might be wise. The storm went right over our heads and then moved off into the distance, where we could still see the lightning flashes getting fainter and fainter all evening. The opera was Aida, done very traditionally: big scenery and big scene changes; very substantial singers -- they looked like if you pushed them they would wobble but would not fall down; and a cast of thousands. Or not thousands, but I estimated that there were around three hundred people on stage in some of the big set pieces, plus bowing horses. I enjoyed it. It's not an opera I know well, but I found myself humming bits of it later. It was nearly one when it finished, but lots of hotels do a bus shuttle service, and ours was one of them, which was very handy.
Also in Verona: S. Zeno, an excellent church with a portal and these great bronze doors, twelfth-century I think. Inside there are lots of wall paintings, some with very old graffiti. S. Lorenzo was also a nice church to stop at. The Castelvecchio is fantastic as a building but a disappointing in its paintings. There was an exhibition of the work of a late manuscript-illuminator there, which was a tad depressing because it was almost all cuttings of illuminated letters painstakingly removed from their context with a sharp knife. I'm not that fond of that florid, pink and blue style, with its fleshy acanthus-like leaves, and I think it needs the space on the page and the counterweight of grave black script to make it bearable: without it it's like eating just the icing and marzipan off a fruit cake, plus I prefer my fruit cake plain anyway. In Verona there were no boat trips at all and the Adige is abandoned to the swallows who skim off its insect life.
5. Ferrara. This is an excellent city with most of its medieval walls surviving. Lucca also has its walls -- I think quite a few small Italian cities do, with distinctive ramparts coming out from the walls in the shape of flat arrow-heads. Right in the middle of Ferrara is this fantastic castle surrounded by a great moat, home of the Este and scene of Browning's Last Duchess. The cathedral is quite nice. The whole city smelt of drains when I was there, but not unbearably.
6. Ravenna. I completely failed to revisit this, but it's fantastic, a little city which was once the capital of the Western Empire, which has an air of nothing happening between the sixth century and the 1930s. The mosaics are amazing. Unlike other art of that era they haven't faded. The really famous one at Ravenna has the portraits of Justinian, the law-maker, and his ex-dancer girl empress Theodora, wearing exotic Byzantine crowns with strings of pearls hanging down on either side, but there's also other sites like the tomb of Galla Placidia. That era of Roman/Byzantine history is full of dramatic stories and odd characters, in particular rather sinister women; John Julius Norwich's History of Byzantium has a pleasingly Tacitus/Robert Graves deadpan delivery if you want to find out about it.
7. Modena. I was there with my parents, which was an odd experience, because they see very different things from me. My mother would say, what's that? And I'd look and see some interesting building and start to get out my guidebook to see if it's mentioned; while my dad would correctly answer that it was abies heliocanthii in its shrub form, or some such. Or my dad would point out that of three trees by the road the outside two were the same genotype while the middle was different. Modena has a lovely duomo. The orto botanico is nice too, and a good deal more to my parents' taste. The Palazzo dei Musei has some excellent museums in it, especially a really good gallery of medieval manuscripts, with old sea charts of the mediterranean. It's quite a nice strolling city.

I think Bologna had better have a separate entry.