Saturday, 26 January 2008

Parcelforce says...

...that my copy of Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon is currently in a depot somewhere unspecified in Germany. This gives me anxiety.

Friday, 25 January 2008

More random stuff

1. I finished Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. It was funny in places, which was good, but otherwise it did read a bit like a parody. All that spit and semen! Also menstrual blood, disgusting viruses, the action of chemicals in the body described at pretty much molecular level, and self-mutilation. The sort of stuff he does is good for the first few of his books you come across, but I wish he'd broaden it out a bit, maybe write something people could read without mild nausea.

2. We had a works outing today to Westminster Abbey archives and Lambeth Palace conservation centre. The latter was interesting but the former was amazing, because there is a whole balcony overlooking the abbey from above, with a huge twelfth-century oak chest and an even bigger thirteenth-century one, which must have been winched in when the abbey was still being built. Also, lots of thirteenth-century tiles and a huge wall-painting of Richard II's badge, and other great stuff. I particularly liked a fourteenth-century big illuminated Missal in which the opening prayer asking for God's blessing had been altered to invoke King "H" and Queen "N" -- presumably meaning that it was altered from praying for the pope to praying for King Henry and some queen whose name was not specified, perhaps a sensible cautionary measure given Henry VIII's character.

3. The Soulwax album arrived and it's great.

4. This book exists:I will read it sometime. Though that word "beautiful" in the title worries me.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Random Stuff

1. I think this is fantastic. There was a link to it off of the Guardian's music pages the other day. Good things happen about three and a half minutes in, and the last minute is great. I love 2 Many DJs but I tried some Soulwax once and thought it was a bit too rocky, so I've bought the remix album this track comes from off of ebay in the hopes it will be good, and will arrive in time to form the soundtrack of my move to Italy.

2. Every year at the time of my summer exams I used to get this terrible need to write a novel, and this is called a displacement activity. Maybe my life would be different if one time I had just gone with the flow and not struggled through finals etc. Recently I have been getting very appropriate displacement activity urges: when I was meant to be painting I felt the need to crochet an ipod sock; and when I was supposed to be packing and getting rid of books I felt an overpowering urge to start collecting Everyman Classics.
There is a reason for the latter, a good reason. Hardbacks are rubbish. They cost lots; they are difficult to read because unwieldy; they are large making them a hassle to carry or store; they are printed on bad paper with big fonts and lots of space on the page to stretch the text out to a larger book; and they have dustjackets, which are a nuisance to keep on while reading, but even worse if you take them off because then you have to put them somewhere safe and find them again later. Except for academic reference books, hardbacks are not good. The message conveyed by a book in hardback is "Look at me! I am a... (pause for effect) hardback!". You pay extra for that self-importance. But, in the words of Shania Twain, that don't impress me much. I am lucky enough to work with some of the most beautiful books in the world, the more beautiful for being meaningful in many different ways, and they mostly look like nothing special with their covers closed.
There is one exception to the wrongness of hardbacks, which is the old style Everyman Classics -- not the current series, which is even worse than most hardbacks because it tries too hard by having cream covers. The original Everyman hardbacks are the size of a small paperback (thriller/detective novel size rather than literary novel size), and therefore easy to carry. They wear their sturdy format lightly. They may have had dustjackets at one point, but many have now lost them. They also have lovely endpapers and title pages (see below). So I am thinking of starting a collection of battered valueless Everymans. The more stained and imperfect the covers the better, as long as the books can be read without discomfort, and have the insides all intact. Hopefully at some point I will be able to get some more rats to help the shabbiness along; rats are good at customising books to make them less physically pretentious.

3. I'm reading Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted. I'm no distance in and already I've read something so gross I'm going to have to work really hard to forget it, almost in the My Idea of Fun league. It's going to have to be good to make it worthwhile.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Some miscellaneous good stuff

1. I read Lisa Jardine's Ingenious Pursuits, which is quite readable, though it was partly for some work I'm doing not just pleasure. Her Latin is imperfect and she's not always accurate, though. My favourite details are a) that the Royal Society printed far too many copies of a heavily engraved book on fish. Not only did that jeopardise the publication of Newton's Principia, but they had to pay Hooke for his work as the Society's demonstrator in copies of Willoughby's History of Fishes at the nominal value of one pound each. I bet they're worth a bomb now. I think fish are very beautiful, myself. And b) Hans Sloane, introducer of chocolate to England and sort-of founder of the British Museum and British Library, describing some of his natural-history collecting activities in Jamaica:
Though I foresaw the difficulties, yet I had an Intention to try to bring with me from Jamaica some uncommon Creatures alive, such as a large yellow Snake, seven Foot long. I had the Snake tam'd by an Indian, whom it would follow as a Dog would his Master, and after it was deliver'd to me, I kept it in a large earthen Jarr, such as are for keeping the best Water for the Commanders of Ships, during their Voyages, covering its Mouth with two Boards, and laying Weights upon them. I had it fed every Day by the Guts and Garbage of Fowl &c. put into the Jarr from the Kitchen. Thus it liv'd for some time, when being weary of its Confinement, it shov'd asunder the two Boards on the Mouth of the Jarr, and got up to the Top of a large House, wherein lay Footmen and other Domesticks of her Grace the Dutchess of Albemarle, who being afraid to lie down in such Company, shot my Snake dead.

2. I found the notes I took on some lectures which Rowan Williams gave about art a couple of years ago. They were very difficult. I have a bad tendency, when presented with sustained language and concepts which I don't understand, to wonder whether this is being done on purpose by someone who would rather appear clever than be comprehensible; but in the case of Dr Williams I cannot hope that that is the case. He is simply very very intelligent. My notes are consequently a bit hazy. Apparently "Prudence is the ethical reasoning-out of good". Art is when "things are more than they are, and give more than they have". David Jones, loads of whose stuff is in Kettle's Yard, consequently drew an analogy with transubstantiation. And it's OK not to like Eric Gill's work because it is not "wounded by the infinite". (I've usually not liked it because of the child abuse, but I don't think it's really OK not to like art because of the artist's life.) Part of the way through I appear to have given up and just written out some of the lyrics to the Pet Shop Boys' Domino Dancing -- presumably there was some connection in my mind at the time, or maybe it had just given under the strain. Not in these notes, though, is an interesting definition of porn which I remember him giving, which included the late Caravaggio, and also fitted with the way people call the start of Country Life property porn, etc. If I had read more of Williams' stuff I would be a better person; if I had understood more of it I would probably be quite wise. He is the only clergyman who should ever be allowed to talk about sex, for example.

3. I have made a playlist of the campest songs on my ipod to help me pack, and though I says it as oughtn't it is geen-yus. T.A.T.U.'s version of How Soon Is Now?, Dusty Springfield singing I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love, Tarkan's proper version of Simarik (which Holly whatnot murdered as that Kiss Kiss song), and Girls Aloud's No Good Advice are current favourites.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

A small step

Modern life is full of complex challenges, most of which I significantly fail to meet, like filing my utility bills in labelled folders, or remembering the names of the people who live on the same stairs as me. But I have just successfully crocheted my own ipod sock! It's the third attempt, and it's pretty ragged, but I think it's important to rejoice in these small triumphs. Hurray! Below is a picture: on the left, ipod; on the right, sock. I chose an attractive mottled green-brown wool, which didn't photograph that well in artificial light. And hopefully it won't give me static shocks like the polyester case I am currently using. Seriously, this is the first thing I've actually achieved in yonks.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Some notes on stuff

1. I object profoundly to the Kleenex advert where a man takes a sofa out on to the streets and gets people to sit down and have a bit of a cry, with feel good emotional music in the background. Nobody needs that.

2. has just told me that after looking at Ruskin's Stones of Venice 80% of customers buy it, but 6% choose Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instead.

3. Jill Paton Walsh's Imogen Quy detective books are quite good.

4. An intelligent friend of mine pointed out that the demon-man hybrid aspect of the plot of Beowulf the recent film is entirely present in the original poem, when the Grendel-kin are associated with the Nephilim, the children of fallen angels and human women who provoked the flood. Hurray!

5. Borders has sent me an e-mail to offer 50% off "The Handbook for Exceptional People" by Jez Cartwright, assuring me that it is written in an "easy-to-read fashion" with use of pictures and analogies.

Extract from poem on Day of Judgement

Nis nan witnesse also muchel se monnes a3en horte.
Wa se seið þet he bo hal . him solf wat best his smirte

Morris 1868, p. 163

The import is that our own hearts will condemn us as to the law at the day of judgement. It's a slightly frightening piece, like so much Middle English religious poetry -- very Romans 7, rather than Romans 8.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

As a rule, his mornings were filled with bouts of energetic roaring

My only really long-term subscriptions are to the Literary Review, which I first started as an undergraduate, and to the Early English Text Society, which oddly enough I joined as a sixth-former. Otherwise I tend to try a subscription but not renew. Still, every now and then The Believer comes up with something like this, about the man after whom the venerable Warburg Institute is named: Ghost stories for the very adult, by Leland de la Durantaye: so maybe I'll stick with it.

Half submerged in water in order to reduce the stress caused by its vast size

Thank-you Fiona for telling me about this rat the size of a hippo. I could have been its pet human!

Saturday, 12 January 2008

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought

I was flicking through the channels yesterday when ITV3, which seems to be dedicated entirely to repeats of old adaptations of golden age murder mysteries, produced an episode of the late 80s version of Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase. This was a big nostalgia thing for me because I watched them with my parents the first time round, when I was 10, and consequently read the books. Sayers first invented Wimsey as a frivolous character, who acts foppishly to hide his debilitating shell shock, particularly in Murder Must Advertise, where he spends much of the time dressed as a harlequin. But once the Harriet Vane books start he's much more serious. In the last Harriet is investigating some nasty poison pen letters and vandalism at a women's college in Oxford, and fears to discover that the chaste spinster life will have turned some of the fellows loony; only to find out that the perpetrator is a "normal" woman with children. She marries Wimsey anyway. I fell head over heels in love with Peter Wimsey; I did realise even at the time that it was a bit naff he was a lord, but I couldn't resist his intelligence and his patience with Harriet Vane. I used to follow up the quotations at the start of each chapter, and also the quotations made by Harriet and Peter if I could tell where they came from. This was a harder thing to do before the internet made it easy to find obscure books, and when I had very little money to spend, but I put a list of items on the wall by my bed and tracked them down over a long period, and in that way discovered some really excellent books. Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici; the poetry of Donne and Herbert; Tristram Shandy; Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy; Ernest Bramah's The Wallet of Kai Lung; Boccaccio's Decameron; and probably others I can't think of right now. And coincidentally this morning my post included another of them, a copy of Thomas Lovell Beddoes' Death's Jest Book, which I only recently managed to track down in an affordable paperback edition. It's a mad nineteenth-century blank verse attempt at a Jacobean Revenge tragedy by one of those romantics who took it all rather hard and eventually killed themselves. The list of characters ends with "Homunculus Mandrake, zany to a mountebank", and it all looks rather hard work, but I'm in just the mood for that given that most modern fiction is rubbish.

Hurray for Dorothy L. Sayers! She was an interesting individual too. She fell head over heels in love with someone who was not really a very good idea. He asked her to go and live with him; for religious reasons she said No sex outside marriage; he replied that marriage was a bourgeois institution to which he objected on multitudinous very high-minded grounds. This stalemate continued for a while; then he suddenly married someone else. She felt like an utter fool to have taken his objections seriously rather than personally, and naturally went out and slept with the first man she met -- a lodger in the same house as her, who worked on motorcycles. She got pregnant from this. She managed to conceal it from everyone, and for the last couple of months went away to stay with a cousin of hers who took in foster children, but she arranged for her mail and phone calls to be relayed to her so efficiently that no one even knew she had left London. She left the baby with her cousin and supported him from afar. Whatever psychological damage she may have done to this poor kid who didn't even know that this frequent visitor was his mother until he was 10 or so, I can't help admiring someone so human but also so efficient at coping with a difficult and at the time very scandalous circumstance. She continued to support herself through her writing, and eventually married someone terribly shell-shocked; they "adopted" her son. She was renowned for striding around Oxford in strange clothes humming Bach loudly to herself.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Good work Sweden!

Also I do like the idea that there is a Swedish girl pop duo called West End Girls who exist purely to cover Pet Shop Boys singles. One of them even does a Chris Lowe and just stands around looking sulky.

I phoned Ikea the other day in a foul mood because they had delivered the wrong stuff to me, and they put me on hold with Abba singing Lay All Your Love On Me, and it just didn't seem worth staying angry. There has never been a better accent for pop. (Except possibly Baccara, who have never sounded that Spanish to me.) Also Neil Hannon wrote a good song about Sweden. It's here on YouTube, but with a poor video some filmschool student made.

Notes on disappointing books

I am reading A. M. Homes' This Book Will Change Your Life and it's boring me. I don't like to be snobby but I think maybe I should stop reading Richard and Judy choices. I recently finished The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and that wasn't so great either. It was readable enough I suppose, but had a terribly schlocky death scene at the end. Apples by Richard Milward was also disappointing after the rave Guardian reviews. Probably it would have had more impact if I were likely to be shocked by the idea of teenagers having lots of grubby sex; I suppose it's just another way in which the Guardian is about 20/30 years out of date. I don't know why I read The Self-Preservation Society by Kate Harrison; it's really the sort of thing one should only read while recovering from a great emotional trauma, in the same way that in the aftermath of a nasty breakup a friend of mine found she couldn't bear to watch anything on TV except for Will and Grace.

Actually good is Mary Wortley Montagu's Life on the Golden Horn, one of those small Penguin paperbacks, an interesting but brief selection of letters she wrote from a diplomatic expedition to Istanbul in the early eighteenth century. I think I will read a longer compilation of her stuff some time. Maybe I should switch to biography and history for a bit. I need some good books! Some proper literature. Something substantial but not too indigestible. Something reliable by someone who can write.

Mooses are good at least:
Kiss a lovely moose today! Also this bloke's illustrations are gently cheering. I like his portable halo here. Also the undercover pig, although I fear for said pig's future.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Kostantiniyye part 3

I was going to blog some more about İstanbul but I've been too busy doing other stuff. I definitely intend to go back, and I will stay longer and see more mosaics. The Istanbul Archaeological Museum is great, with the Alexander sarcophagus which Fiona said rendered Michelangelo unnecessary, and statuary displayed very well with huge pictures on the walls of details which I might otherwise have missed, but I didn't manage the first and second floors, with their stuff from Troy; plus I never made it over to the Asian side of the city. Here is a fishing boat near Eminönü, looking over the Golden Horn towards where the Genovan colony used to be.

PS Eminönü is fun to say.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

More about Fraser

Typically sensible stuff about George McDonald Fraser from Neil Gaiman (in the middle of a long post). I'd noticed that the obituaries have been surprisingly pro-Flash, and it's true that the books are much better when he's being a cast-iron scoundrel. Newspapers aren't very capable of subtlety, are they?

Thursday, 3 January 2008

So, farewell then General Flashman

George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels, has died. Now we will never have the full details of the briefly-alluded to sordid episode in the Parker Library.

John Sutherland has written in the Guardian about how Americans never got Flash, and how this just goes to show how British he is. He is a genuinely revolting anti-hero for much of the time, and the amount of vileness people will put up with in a hero varies hugely. Nick Hornby can't stand the Charlie Mortdecai books, for example. But I liked Flash: he drank Tokay; he seduced women; he rode fast horses; he cheated at cricket; if pursued through the Russian snow by knout-wielding cossacks he would happily push his sleeping lover off the back of the sleigh to increase speed; he felt no qualms about living off the earnings of infatuated hookers; and I learnt a huge amount about the military cock-ups of the nineteenth century by reading the copious endnotes provided by his editor. He wasn't just pretending to be nasty, he was the real thing, and a wonderful antidote to Tom Brown's Schooldays, if you have had the misfortune to read it.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Kostantiniyye part 2

6. I loved Agia Sophia -- for a start, isn't it cool to have a church dedicated to Holy Wisdom? The bit about Wisdom calling in the market-place is the main place in the Bible where God is referred to as female; I remember my uncle Paul, who is a URC minister, telling me that when I was quite small, because he comes from the civilised non-sexist side of my family. The Orthodox church interprets her as Christ before he was incarnated and they have a good icon, where Wisdom has a bright red face for reasons I forget.
Unhappily, I could tell that Fiona was distinctly unimpressed by Agia Sophia. It's true it's not in the greatest shape. The dome is huge, and a good section is filled with a construction of iron scaffolding so immense as to be impressive in its own right. (Apparently this is for surveying purposes, and they will move it every ten years until they have looked at the whole building, and then they can decide what to do about its terrible structural deformations.) The massive calligraphic roundels, put up in the nineteenth century, disappointingly turn out just to say the names of Allah, Muhammed, the caliphs, and the prophet's grandsons, rather than anything profound about God. The building was converted from the head church of Orthodoxy to a great mosque within three days of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and only a few mosaics survive. One is the Virgin and Child; apparently a similar image was the only one not destroyed by Muhammed when he cleansed the Kaaba at Mecca, which I completely don't understand. There's also a very fine fourteenth-century deisis, and various emperors and empresses giving things to Christ. I liked the one of that termagent Zoe and her husband -- whose name and face had been changed at least once according to political circumstances. But it seemed sad that the whole place is no longer used for anything sacred. Ataturk turned it into a museum in the 1920s, and it has a very secular busy air, no one keeping their voices down. I'm biased, and would have liked it to have been a church, but at least if it were a mosque there would seem some point to its not being a church any more. When the army of Mehmet the conqueror breached the defences of Constantinople the orthodox priests who were celebrating the liturgy in Agia Sophia are said to have gathered up the sacred vessels and disappeared into the walls behind the altar, where they await the return of orthodoxy to the empire.