Saturday, 31 May 2008

Too much

I am getting annoyed with the Wire and may drop it. Starting an episode with a character in misty-eyed close-up explaining how they first knew they wanted to become a cop, and ending it with the same character getting shot in the line of duty, is a cliche too far even for me. Also American dramas are really annoying about how they treat cop shootings. You can have bodies all over the place, but as soon as one of the police force gets shot they go all O! the humanity. They seem to have a very strong hierarchy in place of what sort of people matter. I have no idea if their attitude is like this in reality too, but its prevalence in their much-exported TV fiction might help explain why the world hates America. It's annoying though, because I have no TV here; I suppose I'm back on the podcasts. Avoid, by the way, the Napoleon 101 podcast because it is awful.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Two things

1. This morning someone managed to hack into my paypal account and remove money from it. This is very annoying indeed. Paypal spotted it immediately and froze my account, and theoretically they should refund all the money, but I haven't heard back from them yet. Bloody internets. Four is about the most number of strong passwords I can remember; I could do more if they were weak, but then what's the point? I don't know how they got into the account; I haven't done anything stupid, but then it was a password I was using on some other accounts too, and I haven't changed it for ages, which I'm sure doesn't help. I knew I should have changed it a while back, but as an introvert I like to express myself through my passwords, and this one expressed me very well. Eala.

2. I've started watching the Wire, and I'm enjoying it like everyone does; more than I thought I would because I'm not usually very good with shouty things. I think I should be allowed to record the following though:
a. tough efficient cop woman is a lesbian
b. maverick cop man drinks too much and has trouble getting access to his kids
c. the baddies spend a lot of time in a strip club
d. post-coital conversation opener: 'You're an ass-hole, McNulty!'
Still, after the scene in the kitchen where, drawing heavily on the opening of Four Weddings and Funeral, the dialogue consisted of nothing but the f-word, I think maybe they do all this on purpose.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008


Little Hereward had to be put to sleep on Sunday morning. He was born on the Thursday, spent much of Friday at the vet's, and was bottle-fed a bit by my mother on the Saturday, but was clearly not about to start thriving. He wouldn't suck and didn't quite seem to have got the hang of swallowing either, and despite my mother's patiently dropping milk into his mouth bit by bit he was getting weaker all the time. It was like he was too bowled over by the world to know how to begin to start living in it; he could scramble to his feet and lurch about a bit but then he would collapse and just sit there looking overwhelmed. Ending it was the sensible decision, but it was horrible to see his mother, Dorcas, waiting for ages by the paddock gate as the other alpacas grazed. We went in to move her and Delphie down to join the main herd, so that Dorcas would at least have last year's baby as company, and she kept looking really hard into our faces and making the noise that mother alpacas make to their cria. Poor soul. I think the alpacas see us as agents of change, and are wary of us when all is well, but when things are going wrong they are often very friendly, and since he'd been to the vet's once and come back it's not surprising she was still waiting for him.

Farmers round Devon, and presumably elsewhere too, say that if you've got livestock you've got dead stock. I don't think my parents would put it that way, but when things just aren't viable it's not a good idea to keep fighting for too long. I was there when little Georgie was put to sleep last year, after a truly disgusting maggots-hatching-on-her-while-I-was-holding-her-in-the-car-back-from-the-vet experience. (They got on me! I showered for ages. Maggots hatching on a living animal right in front of you is not something you ever want to see.) My parents fought to keep her going, perhaps for too long; her inability to suckle was a symptom of much worse things happening inside her, and the net result was that she had a longer but pretty unpleasant life.

Nonetheless sometimes it works out OK and one of the boys they handreared last year has grown up into this ridiculous ball of fluff:

He used to have a slight head tremor but I think he's now basically held up by all the wool. Here are some of them eating from the half-pipes of drain which my parents use as little troughs; the brown one in the front is Gwarakusi (an Aymara name, e.g. geographically appropriate, provided by mdam, though we did adapt the spelling a bit):

And here is Gertrude, an elegant yearling:

I think she may be a Babylonian dragon in disguise (apologies for a bad photo, which I took at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in December):

Saturday, 24 May 2008

This, that

1. I read Angus Calder's Gods, Mongrels and Demons, which is quite good. It's a selection of little biographies of odd people. He has a strange style, sometimes writing as if annoyed at being forced to write about a topic; maybe there's some back story I don't know. His entry on the Devil starts out as a wearisome recap -- it's not the devil it's a snake in the garden of Eden, blah blah blah -- and then suddenly veers wildly into a vehement condemnation of the family unit as the devil's work, and an entreaty for society to abandon it as a concept. Now obviously there are other ways to live than in a nuclear family -- we have all learnt this from Bridget Jones and Sex and the City -- and families are fetishised somewhat by politicians. Nonetheless it seems interestingly extreme to advocate their wholesale abandonment in an essay which is supposed to be about the anthropomorphisation of evil. It may be true that most child abuse takes place in families, but I'm pretty sure most child nurturing and love takes place there too. Anyhoo, it's nice to read something unexpected from time to time. I also read When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale. It's very good and it made me cry. Also The World According to Bertie. I think I prefer Alexander McCall Smith's Scotland novels now -- I think the Botswana ones have run out of oomph a little. I read Lady Audley's Secret, one of the original sensation novels -- when lovely woman stoops to folly, and all that.

2. I have had an e-mail from someone at Boydell and Brewer, to whom I have just sent back the proofs of my calendars book. Now this book is being published by a Learned Society, the publications editor of which is an Eminent Professor who used to teach me. Apparently the said E.P. has decided that the title of the book has to be changed. I'm feeling a little miffed about this, in a vain way -- it seems to me that ideally one might not change the title of someone else's book without at least pretending to consult them first. He has also said that "calendar" has to be spelt "kalendar" throughout. I find that a little annoying because I have a prejudice against the spelling. Obviously in the bigger scheme of things it's not that important. But he could have mentioned it in one of the two or more first drafts he was given before it went to the publisher, and not at the proofs stage. I actually first published this book as part of the ASNC Guides, Texts, and Studies series a few years back, at a time when it made me feel like my PhD years had at least been good for something. It has a number of A3 foldout tables in it which I had to fold myself every time someone ordered one. Consequently it's a bit old hat to me now, and I don't have firm opinions about how it ought to be done (except that the folding ought to be done by someone else) -- it's solely my amour propre that's wounded here. And clearly it's the wrong sort of amour propre, and I must cultivate a more sensible type of self-esteem.

3. I did not call the Eminent Professor by his name in the above, but it should be noted that this is no more really anonymous than our Part II exam papers were, given that anyone with half a brain who can be bothered could work out who it was in five minutes, and anyone who is likely to know him knows who it is without effort. Am I being drawn into youth culture's disregard for privacy? Maybe. I do sort of count on not many people reading this.

4. I went into Exeter today to see my brother and sister-in-law. We went to see Indiana Jones, which was silly but reasonably entertaining, and then I went shopping. I didn't go into Princesshay, where the bomb went off the other day, because it's a very new shopping centre like Cambridge's Grand Arcade, and probably won't have any good shops in it for about five years. It's an interesting place to choose to attack, because it's been Exeter's big civic project for some time now. It is a good deal classier than the Grand Arcade and had a good architect. Anyway, the other day on a very successful research trip to Devizes (the successful bit was ascertaining that I have no need to do research in Devizes) I left my mother alone in the car with my nice little hardback of He Knew He Was Right, and she decided to read the ending, only to discover that much of it was missing. So given that I have already started it, it was pretty urgent for me to find a copy of the book which does include pp. 909-924. The best bookshop I know, at least tied with independents like the LRB bookshop in London and QI in Oxford, is the Waterstone's in Exeter by the cathedral (there's another near where Debenhams once was). It has a literature in translation table near the front, and always has the most interesting books out; that's where I found The Manuscript Found At Saragossa, which is brilliant. They actually had the very Trollope I needed, as well as tons of interesting-sounding far eastern literature. I also bought a book called The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington. On the back it has a quote attributed to Luis Buňuel: "Reading The Hearing Trumpet liberates us from the miserable reality of our days". So I'll keep you informed if it does that.

5. I tell you what liberates me from the miserable reality of my days: Pet Shops Boys. Here's a very old mix of West End Girls with I Wear My Sunglasses at Night, I think from the Bobby O days:

Thursday, 22 May 2008


I've made it down to Devon, via the Royal Academy to see the Cranachs, which was worth climbing all those stairs for -- I disdain to take the lift. I love his portraits, and his Venuses and Eves have this fantastic face, canny and amusing, like a bright WAG. Of course a fondness for Cranachs puts me in some pretty nasty company, but anyway, I've had quite enough of the Italian style recently, it's nice to see something more robust. What I didn't get, and I couldn't be bothered to shell out for the catalogue on the off-chance that it would explain, is how Cranach got to be the official portraitist to the Lutheran reformation, painting him several times and also his family and Melanchthon and complex allegorical woodcuts and such, but also got commissioned by the anti-Luther cardinal, I'm going to dredge wildly in the depths of my brain and call him Albrecht of Brandenburg, to paint portraits for the other side, including one of said Albrecht in his study as St Jerome. I checked the dates and they seemed roughly concurrent. I want a pacy, well-written biography of Cranach to sort this out for me. There ought to be a service, call it, where you can either track one down or order one written. Or the Literary Review should run a consultation service. As well as the Cranach biography I would ask them for a popular history of the Hanse, and something readable and narrative about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.

I had a lot of luggage so got a taxi to Waterloo, and got talking to the driver, an Iraqi bloke who had got his British passport just two days earlier. He had left Iraq at 16 and never gone back, meeting his parents just once in the ten years since in Iran. He was a nice youth; he complimented me on my wisdom for my young age and during the course of this it transpired that he estimated me to be 20. 20! Of course these things are a mixed blessing; I don't mind people thinking I'm 20, it makes me feel like they'll make allowances when I fail to function as a proper adult human being, but they only ever make that mistake because I'm overweight. It's the chubby cheeks; heigh ho. He was very nice about my Arabic accent, as well, which was rather sweet given that I can only remember about four words.

Dusk in Devon is amazingly beautiful. I was out for a trying reason tonight though. One of my parents' alpacas had her baby at lunch-time, rather earlier than my parents were expecting. This year they all start with H, and I lobbied for and achieved a Hereward. (I always try to get an Anglo-Saxon one in; we've had Beowulf, Cuthbert, Caedmon, Dunstan, and Edith among others.) But he wasn't suckling, and was finding it hard to stand for long. In the end I phoned my parents, who were out at a PCC, and got them to come home early and give him some plasma. Plasma is a bit wierd, being basically the spun pale part of blood given to them orally, but it perks up struggling alpaca babies no end. Hopefully tomorrow he can be sorted out properly. The difference between flourishing and failing to thrive, even fading out completely, is a very small one when they're so little. He's a dear soul, composed mostly of legs. He can walk for a bit, looking just like a four-legged spider, but then he gets tired and has to flop down.

After all I did find We're the Pet Shop Boys, the Pet Shop Boys cover of the My Robot Friend song, on YouTube, with a fan-made video that's a selection of clips from official PSB videos. I do like the low-grade poignancy of the original though.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


I have just had the fleetingest of fleeting visits to Cambridge. It was very nice but also a bit wierd; I'm worried that returning in August is going to be excessively strange. I had a good time catching up with people and a hard time tracking things down in the UL, and got rather less done than I had hoped, but one of the things I did manage to do was to get my hair cut. Italian hair styles are rather bold and often seem to involve orange, so I decided to respect the language barrier and go to see Julian on King Street. I like Julian; he's a tad eccentric, and I find that relaxing. I went via Waterstones because Julian is always running late and I wanted something to read as I waited, so this evening I have indulged myself with good literature. First I read Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym, which is very funny. People compare her to Jane Austen, but she seems a bit more like E. F. Benson to me, another of my favourite writers, in that Austen is essentially quite nice at heart while Benson and Pym can be wickedly bitchy. I do sometimes find Pym's books oddly threatening; all those nice women who index the work of self-obsessed men and minister in other ways to their egos. But they do help me to understand the world of Anglicanism better -- at least that rarified branch you come across in academic or otherwise refined circles. I was brought up to treat vicars rather like teenagers; you respect and help them because they are having a rough time, but you don't let them get away with things -- in particular, they mustn't be allowed to expect to tell one what to do. In Pym's world vicars are like little demi-gods and have armies of WI women fussing about their needs. Let's all pause and think how nice it is to be alive now rather than fifty years ago, especially for women (though perhaps less so for vicars).

Then I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is very good and readable. I rather like that very rhetorical one-side-of-a-monologue style, like in the last Iain Pears book, or in narrative poems by Browning. The problem is that both these books were pacy and very readable, so that in the last six hours (not counting breaks to get on and off trains, watch an episode of Shameless, eat dinner, talk to my parents etc) I have consumed 13 pounds ninety eight pence worth of printed paper. (Though they were on 3 for 2 so I suppose really just nine pounds thirty something.) I will never be rich at this rate. Now I have Trollope's He Knew He Was Right, which should slow me down a bit. It's a two pound fifty little hardback from G. David, the home of shabby Trollopes.

In reference to that, here is a Pet Shop Boys song named after another Trollope novel, Can You Forgive Her? I remember reading it as a sixth-former, I think because of the song, and expecting to find the heroine, called Alice I think, unsympathetic and indeed unforgiveable, because I was expecting her to Give Up All For Love, something of which I disapproved strongly in my stern idealistic youth. But instead the ideal fiance whom she throws over is in fact also the man she loves, and she takes up with the unsuitable man even though she can see all his faults simply because she wants to get involved in politics and has no other way of doing so in that era, making her immensely forgiveable -- what she wants is a career, the poor soul. The PSB song introduced me to the idea that one didn't have to like rock, which blew my mind, because back then everyone seemed to listen to nothing else, though maybe I was just spending too much time with geeks -- I used to hang out at the local boys' school's after-hours computer club. (Fade to nostalgia...)

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Modern life

1. My mother has a theory that budget airlines were started by canny environmentalists who wanted to take all the mystique out of flying by making it as nasty as possible and then dumping you miles from anywhere. She might have a point because I think that most of us now HATE flying. It takes forever and stressful logistics to get anywhere near an airport, and then you have to join queue after queue, holding your documents like a criminal, shuffling forwards and hating the people who push in. It doesn't help that in the north of Italy right now the humidity is something you can actually feel on your face. And then there's getting away from the airport again. Plus on the aircraft there's pretty much bound to be some small child having a tantrum, expressing how we all feel but are too grown up to express. I think there should be a rule that from now on if there's a screaming child on an aeroplane we should all be allowed to just let rip and join in; just open up our mouths and lungs and contribute our own howls of despair and mind-numbed boredom. Everyone's peace is already disturbed, it's often satisfying to express oneself, and it might even startle and amuse or otherwise confound the infant. Actually that could be allowed in other places too. Last time I went to Ikea there was a boy of about five there just screaming No, mummy, no no no! I could have joined in with that one.

2. On the plus side, Tims are great. Since I don't think any of them read this blog, I want to express how excellent are my Tims: Tim my brother Tim has turned out surprisingly well-adjusted and is generally an excellent chap; Young Tim, my college son years back, is now a hotshot lawyer in Singapore and about to be a father; International Tim the compsci is an even hotter shot Microsoft Research Lab researcher. They are all lovely and I am very proud of them; hurray for Tims!

3. Also, there's the Pet Shop Boys. This single has fantastic Brazilian drums (I'm not sure they come out as well via YouTube), Neil smiling, and Chris as a security officer with a truncheon. It's relevant because it involves flying, do you see?

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Dad rock and ironist pop

1. Perhaps I've been wearing my leather jacket for too long -- I've got this sudden urge to listen to Dire Straits. They don't really deserve the dad-rock disdain they provoke. Brother in Arms, for example is an 80s snare-drum-and-organ/guitar-solo classic. Or maybe it's because I've been getting too into the history of the Roman Republic? I may be turning into the duller but marginally less revolting one from Peep Show. Anyway if you want to find Brothers in Arms you can do so easily enough, so here instead is a version by a Gregorian chant combo from Spain:

Love the velour habits, not so sure about the actual singing.

2. Here are the Pet Shop Boys many years ago. Chris is all good-looking in a Mark-Owen styley, and Neil just looks bizarrely young, though he was slightly older than I am now. The song is the one that gave them their ironist tag, because it's about the sort of idiots that bought into Thatcherist greed.
Wikipedia has helpfully informed me that the Zazous of In the Night neither aided nor abetted the Nazi occupation of France but cared only for fashion and fine living. So maybe that graffiti was rebuking fashionistas for not caring about the rather sick state of Italy right now. Skinheads beat up a man in Verona putting him into a coma, and I think he's just died; there have subsequently been marches there not against but for the skinheads; and in Milan Romany camps have been firebombed. This place is not well.

You can sort of get why people hate the gypsies; they give the towns of Italy this oddly Dickensian air, begging in a nastily abject way that's really just a cover for robbing you. There are even children who pick your pockets and take the spoils back to their Fagins. Two women with babies cornered me in my first weekend here, pinched my arm hard to enough to leave a bruise while talking at me fast and loud, and took my purse as I was trying to get away. Distracted by the situation I didn't notice them taking it until too late. I only lost about five euros and a nice new purse, but it's still unpleasant for your sense of self. You can see why people would get angry at that's being visitors' experience of Italy. But I don't really trust the police here either; they move around purposefully looking like extras from a George Michael video, e.g. with a distinct hint of kinky bondage to their sunglasses and leather-accessories get-up. I rather get the impression that they fall between two stools; too harsh for the La Repubblica reading types like myself, too soft for many people who think something has to be done about all this foreign crime. Of course I'm out of my depth, because I don't understand Italian well enough to keep up with what's happening; it just leaves a slightly unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Friday, 16 May 2008

History; rant; more pet shop boys

1. Several years after it would have been a respectably cutting-edge thing to do, I'm getting quite into podcasts. (It's because I have no TV here, not even 4OD, which let me spend ages downloading lots of Shameless and now won't let me watch them.) When I first heard about podcasts and went to check them out they seemed a bit like the early internet e.g. just a bewildering profusion of utter rubbish, but I think they've calmed down a bit now. Adam and Joe's BBC Radio 6 podcast is good, though actually the real show on Listen Again is better, because they play good, or at least interesting, music. Russell Brand is sometimes very funny but he's the most amazing mess of a human being, remarkable for being actually less of a mess than he used to be. Clive Anderson's Daily Telegraph podcast is quite good too, and so are the Radio 4 comedy podcasts. But the ones I'm really getting into at the moment are the history podcasts. There's one called The History of Rome, by a bloke called Mike Duncan, which I've been listening to and enjoying. I've never known much about the Roman Republic and it's good to get a sense of just what the emperors were trampling on. You can get it through itunes too, but only from episode 14 onwards. I'd be interested to know if it's accurate -- I get the impression it probably is, more or less. Anyway, even just coming across terms like Samnite and maniple is increasing my knowledge in a relatively painless way; I could stand to know a lot more about military history, which I've always avoided, but which is beloved of the Literary Review and can't therefore be bad. I've been hunting out other history podcasts, but I haven't tested many yet; there are ones of Ancient Iran and Napoleon which may or may not turn out to be good stuff. The National Archives (olim Public Record Office) have put up some lectures as podcasts, which are quite interesting. (These include a contribution by someone with links to the CIA -- there may be something afoot there -- I'm just saying.) The Oxford DNB's podcasts are also good, and there's a reading of Macaulay's History of England from the Accession of James II which I listen to as I do hanjie puzzles when taking a break from charter formulae. Blimey I'm intellectual sometimes!

2. Actually at the moment I am forced to be all intellectual by lack of other options. It's been ages since I had a curry and vegged out on a sofa with DVDs, and I lament this. To be honest I'm feeling quite annoyed with the nineteenth-century scholarship at the moment. I'm trawling through these charters, identifying witnesses and beneficiaries and tracing Latin formulae as they develop from one reign to the next, considering the import of dispositive sections, amending Latin and Old English texts and trying to disentangle the estate history from Domesday Book and other sources. What I want to be doing, instead of producing editions and commentaries, is writing the introduction, a survey of Wilton Abbey's history and what its charters tell us about its landed endowment, influence, etc etc. I want to be allowed to use the texts, not produce them. Hardcore texts and commentaries are supposed to have been done in the nineteenth century, or the early twentieth, and I blame them for this neglect. Because they could have got away with some things that are denied to me, e.g. broad sweeping statements and assertions. I have to combine the twenty-first-century cautious "this might be the same Ælfgyth but we can't be certain" and "it is not impossible that it was drafted by some pupil of Eadmund C" with the older style serious Latin crunching. Nineteenth-century scholars who should have done this for me, j'accuse! It's making my head hurt; I keep waking up in the night worrying about the phraseology of proems; I have become obsessive about diplomatic minutiae. In the meantime I keep forgetting to eat lunch, and I have loads of unanswered email and probably shouldn't really be blogging at all.

3. Continued Pet Shop Boys news: "Other pop is cancelled for the rest of 2008" says popjustice. Also, I tried to find the Pet Shop Boys' cover of My Robot Friend's "We're the Pet Shop Boys" but couldn't except in an annoying remix, so here is Elton John's favourite Pet Shop Boys song, You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You're Drunk. A typical PSB combination of poignancy and gentle self-deprecation. Also lyrics to compete with ABC; "somebody said 'listen, don't you know what you're missing, you should be kissing him instead of dissing him like a punk', but you only tell me you love me when you're drunk".

Plus here is the PSB remix of Bowie's Hello Spaceboy, with quite a good video:

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Sto editando

1. So I'm thinking of designing a little "editavi" badge which only people who have edited stuff in dead languages are allowed to wear, and when we pass each other in the streets we could doff our hats and nod with pain in our eyes. It would have a little lion on it in reference to St Jerome because he ought to be the patron saint of editors for obvious reaons, but also because editing and writing a commentary often feels to me a bit like kneeling in a wilderness while bashing yourself with stones.

2. The Pet Shops' most recent hit was the excellent song "I'm With Stupid", which was about the Blair-Bush special relationship, but transformed into a rather poignant and tender love story. The video by Walliams and Lucas has an air of a long-harboured fan fantasy and is a bit distracting from the song, but nonetheless quite good. Have to love Walliams' teeth.

3. My initial enthusiasm for being able to tag files and have transparent things on my desktop has entirely dissipated. Vista is clunky rubbish and it keeps stopping letting me do frivolous things like, say, typing, so that it can freeze up the whole system with some mysterious activity of its own. Every now and then it claims to lose contact with the USB pen I work off and actually deletes from the pen the file I have open, and I could believe that that's the USB pen's fault except that almost as often it claims to lose contact with the desktop, my default position for emergency saves of open material just randomly removed from my pen drive, and then won't save anything at all, even a recovered-work file, and I am now reduced to taking screen shots of what's visible behind all the open dialogue boxes and notifications and actually retyping it from the picture. If it is painful to write an analysis of the sources of a proem then doing it again is like scratching your nails on a blackboard. I'm told I need to strip my machine down and reinstal everything. Techie people always say that sort of thing, but isn't partially working computer in the hand something to hold on to? I have fear. There's no way I'm deleting the operating system from my computer, and I don't think I'd let anyone else do it either.

4. You have to love Kirsty Gallacher, the one dissenting voice at the Sex and the City premiere according to the guardian. " "I didn't really enjoy it very much," she said, with disarming frankness. "My friends loved the series and I went with a couple of them and they loved the film. But I'm afraid I don't get it. I found it very lightweight, very annoying and quite depressing at times. I'd rather read a history book." " Sex and the City was always entertaining if you only half paid attention but if you thought about it too seriously ever it was just depressing, as KG points out. They were all annoying and insubstantial people with odd goals. The book was better, because more unusual. But I don't understand all these women who seemed to think that the TV program gave them permission to have female friends and made it all ok -- why ever did they need the validation of an American sitcom in order to conduct their friendships? The most positive thing to be said about Sex and the City is that it was obviously way better than Ally McBeal. In Futurama Ally McBeal was reenacted as Single Female Lawyer -- Bender sang the theme tune "Single Female Lawyer, fighting for her clients, wearing sexy miniskirts and being self-reliant" -- but I don't think they ever did a Sex and the City episode. Futurama changed my life -- it's so rare to see relationships between space-ship crews conducted in such an honest way on screen. Anyway now I'm off to write a history book for Kirsty Gallacher.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Scholarship; or why I fear St Dunstan

I wrote a book about a little gospel-book in the Bodleian Library which belonged to St Margaret of Scotland. It's an endearing little manuscript owned by an interesting woman. I enjoyed writing my book very much; it was a way of cocking a snook at the RAE and doing something a bit more alive. My aim was to make something that wouldn't be annoying to scholars but would still be enjoyable by the well-educated public, which I know is a tough remit. Still I do honestly think it would make a good present for your intelligent aunt, if you're lucky enough to have one.

Anyway, through a concatenation of slightly odd circumstances the idea has now been mooted, with some heavyweight backing, that I should do a similar thing on St Dunstan's Classbook. It would go in the same series, Treasures of the Bodleian Library, which is supposed really to be about the Bodleian's pretty books, but St Dunstan's Classbook has even fewer pictures than St Margaret's Gospel-book (one line-drawing as opposed to four painted evangelists) so my book would have to take a similar line to the St Margaret one and be as much about the owner as the manuscript. I ought to decide pretty soon whether to do this or not. The problem is that Margaret was an educated lay-person, an intellectual but not a scholar, and would have been someone's favourite intelligent aunt if she had had any nieces or nephews. (Edgar the aetheling was too busy swash-buckling about Europe and being one of William Rufus's fast set to produce offspring and Christina, one gathers rather against her inclination, was a nun in Wessex.) Dunstan, on the other hand, was a mad scholar in the long venerable British tradition of mad intense scholarship. The stories about his life are fine; I could write an entertaining book about that without crossing the line of scholarly respectability. I could look at his role in the government, his sanctity, the strangely furious miracles he performed. The manuscript is largely Welsh, and it attests to something really important we have lost: a sense of the Gaelic and Brittonic lands as the homes of scholarship, places where the English might as easily go for their higher education as anywhere on the Continent, or more so. Aldhelm got annoyed with people who went to Ireland to study, saying one could as well study in England; but he was almost certainly himself the student of an Irish master at Malmesbury. The Irish and Welsh as wandering scholars, educating the English and contributing on the Continent too, is fine, I can write about that. I can point out what a terrible thing we lost in the sixteenth-century when Glastonbury fell, the place where we'd expect to preserve this evidence; I can speculate on why almost everything we have surviving from Wales before 1100 left Wales before 1100 (I'd have to check my facts first, this is off the top of my head).

The real problem is the scholarship itself. It's all very well to write about something as an example of great learning passing from place to place, but if you can't match the learning yourself you may be in trouble. The manuscript has Eutyches De verbo, from Brittany via Wales, which is a grammatical work perhaps by the great monophysite heretic, and is probably manageable, even if all that stuff about the two natures of Christ does make my head hurt. It has Ovid's Ars Amatoria, the only copy known from Anglo-Saxon England, which is OK, though I'll have to read it -- I only know that bit that Marlowe translated ending "Jove send me more such afternoons as this", and I would have to think why St Dunstan is reading this -- is it quoted in grammars, for example. The problems are the so-called "Liber Commonei" in the middle, a miscellany of Welsh learning including a runic alphabet and large amounts of Greek and Welsh, with glosses in Welsh; and the Breton glosses on the Eutyches. My Welsh is so rusty as to be not far from non-existent; my Greek doesn't go much further than "en arche en ho logos"; I have no Breton at all. So I'm wondering if this rules it out. It just goes to show though the importance of ASNC as a subject; you can't leave the Welsh and Irish out of it when you study Anglo-Saxon England. But people persist in doing this. I recently read a draft of a survey article on English Square minuscule which made no mention at all of Welsh Revived minuscule, by a professor who shall remain nameless (pointlessly, since anyone who would be likely to recognise the name will be able to guess who it was anyway). (Though since I wrote a thing for the same exercise on English Caroline minuscule it's quite possible he read it and thought crikey, writing about English Caroline minuscule without mentioning X -- if that's the case it's too late, X will have to remain an unknown quantity, I'm told it's finally moving presswards.)

Sunday, 11 May 2008

I don't like much really, do I?

The Chris Lowe songs are rarer, but good. Here's the original Paninaro from the 80s, when they were young:

Here it is remixed in '95. Can you believe they managed to make an even gayer video? By the way I've wanted to say for ages that all this fuss about gay as a pejorative term is missing the point that it's only people like Chris Moyles who use it that way anyway. In the pop world it's just used to mean energetic and camp, e.g. popjustice on some new remix saying 'is this gay enough for you now?'. So that my grandma and I can look at some fabric and she can say that's very gay isn't it, and I can agree, and we both mean exactly the same thing. I think that's great. Anyway:

Maybe I am a pethead. I know exactly where the forbidden word "Versace" goes, anyway. (Between Armani and Cinque.)

Friday, 9 May 2008

No really, the best band ever

Someone's managed to rip the Pet Shop Boys demo of My Girl, with Neil Tennant's vocal, from their website and put it on YouTube with a black and white German film as video. How Chris Lowe is "I like to stay in and watch TV on my own every now and then"?

Maybe I will turn this blog into a series of embedded Pet Shops Boys songs. The only version of Don Juan on youtube has unfortunately been messed about with and there's no One of the Crowd at all so instead here is Try It, from Disco 3, originally a Bobby O track:

and here is Decadence, off Alternative:


1. Pethead is the official term for a Pet Shop Boys fan. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call myself that, even though according to itunes I have 41 Pet Shop Boys albums, including the rather more obscure Relentless, Pop Art Mix, and Fundamentalism, and I think that Alternative, their collection of B-sides, is one of their best albums, and also that there will never be a better band. But I'm not obsessed -- I think Pethead suggests one's a bit obsessed. There's a very good fanzine called Literally, but I let my subscription lapse when I was feeling particularly poor as a post-grad. Anyway I was reminded of the greatness of the Pets when I saw this on popjustice; I hadn't realised before what a PSB song My Girl is. And this video has a low-fi charm. Suggs seems to be enjoying himself anyway.

PS Chris Lowe now just looks like he's referencing Sid from Skins, but I expect he takes it in his stride.

2. Also there was some graffiti by a bus stop I was at this afternoon about a "Zazou". And the only Zazou I can think of is in the Pet Shop Boys' In The Night (aka the Clothes Show Theme), and I can't remember who he was any more -- some sort of Moroccan WWII anti-war protestor? The graffiti on the other side of the pillar said "Über Alles". So I thought maybe it was all political. On the other hand, maybe Zazou is just a footballer I haven't heard of.

3. I've read a few more books now. A Year In the Life of The Man Who Fell Asleep was OK but there could have been less of it. It's a bit random. I liked the bit about godding, where strangers meet in car parks to watch furtively as someone has a religious experience. I put books on my amazon wishlist and then forget why; this one seems to be from a blog, which would usually put me off, not to mention an introduction by Julie Burchill. Sergii Lukyanenko's The Day Watch ROCKS! If it were a teenager it would be a bright boy with a ponytail and a large wardrobe of heavy metal tee-shirts; he would want to study Natural Sciences and take RPGs too seriously. Pelevin, on the other hand, would be a bit more androgynous and be one of those mathematicians who do maths swiftly and without blinking; his sense of humour would be easily missed. I didn't make the mistake of assuming there are only two interesting Russian authors at work at the moment, but it seems that Lubyanenko and Pelevin did, since each of their latests refers to the other author. Hard to gauge the tone, whether positive or not. Anyway the way that Lukyanenko's stuff is interesting, despite being unashamedly geeky and quoting Rammstein lyrics -- RAMMSTEIN! -- is that it's about some sort of policed truce between the Light, who are all moral, and the Dark, who are all about the freedom of the individual and who don't see why the tedious Light people should tell them what to do. But the Light, as soon as they start arresting Vampires not for hunting humans but for doing so without a licence, have automatically lost all their credibility.
I also read Then We Came To The End, which is pretty good. It's famously in the first person plural almost all the way through, and is quite good about that sort of collective knowing that people in an institution can do sometimes, and how creepy it is to become part of an institutional soap opera.

4. The Pet Shop Boys did an excellent remix of Rammstein's Mein Teil, which is about that wierd cannibalism case in Germany not that long ago, called the You Are What You Eat edit.

5. I don't want to be too middle-aged about this, but I think this video here:

although very good, is really for a remix of the original song, rather than being a new song which samples the old one. It's the way she sings 'And I'm just bored to tears' that makes it. I had never heard of Donna Hightower before this. The new version is bound to be a big hit, so maybe she'll have a revival. Here's the real thing.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


1. For a while now the charter known as Sawyer no. 582, number 15 in my edition, King Eadwig granting about a hundred hides at Chalke in Wiltshire to Wilton Abbey, with extensive bounds perhaps "clarified" by the nunnery itself later, has seemed to me like an enormous ancient crocodile covered with old battle scars sunning himself on a riverbank, occasionally snatching at a goat or even a small child. I have already produced eleven pages of Old English place-name elements, references to nineteenth-century parish boundaries, and Ordnance Survey grid references, and it's not finished. The last one, no. 14, for two completely unidentifiable hides of land in odd places, was more like some sort of hard-to-remove skin rash, perhaps caused by subcutaneous mites. The battle between me and the charters is a bit like Merlin's fight with the witch in the cartoon of The Sword and the Stone. I think I'll win in the end. Perhaps I am a disease that the charters caught.

2. People do go on about the bad effects of google books, the way pages don't come out right, things get misfiled, and you should hear the French on the way that the project assumes all wisdom is to be found in English... it's become a bit of a truism. This afternoon, thinking that I had found something to help me deal with the tithe maps of Wilton, I clicked on the link to the appropriate chapter of a book whose contents page came out fine, and instead got something about early commentaries on something called the Su wen, in particular those by Wang Bing. "Wang Bing's demonology did not preclude him from voicing commentaries on the Su wen that appear rather attractive even from the modern scientific hindsight of today." Then it quotes and comments thus: " "Huang Di: Is the earth supported? Qi Bo: The Grand Qi supports it." This is, of course, a perfectly adequate statement even from the viewpoint of modern science." Am I better off for encountering this? I don't know. I like that the modern author feels the need to justify his or her work to "modern science". There are many obvious parallels there -- I just can't be bothered to draw them. The catalogue of English tithe maps goes on my list of things to look at in a real non-virtual library.

3. I haven't book-blogged for ages and ages, so I won't be able to remember what I've read. I think that last time I wrote I was extolling the easy narrative values of the classics. Almost immediately I came across one of the downsides, because I encountered two remarkably racist books in a row. I can't remember what the first one was but the second was Melville's Benito Cereno. I'm sure modern literary scholars read it as slyly ironic, but I think it's just the sort of patronising prejudice which makes you want to cry and smash something when you find it applied to you. I read Manzoni's The Betrothed, I Promessi Sposi as Daniel Day Lewis would lisp, because it's a local book and is apparently very important for Italians. It turned out to be much more readable than I was expecting, and even to have that sort of dry Scandinavian humour that I associate with the sagas, the films of Ingmar Bergman, and Prof. Page over the port at combination. On the hen-pecked alchemy afficionado Don Ferrante: "More than once he had modestly observed that essence, universals, the soul of the world and the nature of things were not such simple matters as one might suppose."
I can't even look at my shelves to remind me of what I've read because I've left books in places and also given them away. Fiona took five, but the only one of those I can remember is Charlotte Mendelson's When We Were Bad, which was funny. Is it just me or has there been an upsurge in Jewish lesbian literature recently? Iain Banks' The Steep Approach to Garbadale was very Iain Banks, quite good but with a complex family history, a man haunted by his teenage sexual experiences, just a hint of geek. It's most like The Crow Road of his previous ones, but The Crow Road is the better. Tobias Wolff's Old School came with a high recommendation and I was a bit disappointed; however well-written it might be, the subject matter is just dull and embarrassing -- basically posh boys at a posh boys' school in America try to write fiction and are secretly ashamed of being Jewish. Fiona declined to take it away on the grounds that when she opened it at random she read "That evening I started a new poem". Parot's The Chatelet Apprentice was sufficiently good, though it is one of those books where people start being impressed by the hero and you think, what? what did he do? because it just doesn't seem that clever. In Venice I read Calvino's Invisible Cities, which I think is now my favourite of his jointly with Cosmicomics; and Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, which starts in Venice in the odd little backstreets by night. It was good, like all his stuff. I think The Pendragon Legend is my favourite, though. Also there I read Jan Morris' Venetian Bestiary, which seemed a bit over-whimsical to me. And she says that Venice is full of cats everywhere but I didn't see one, not like in Istanbul where they were lurking on every wall and through every doorway, and I fell in love with the long grey and yellow one at the Archaeological Museum who climbed onto my shoulder and used it to survey the park. The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish starts off with a strange air of reluctance, and reading the thanks you get the impression that his editor might have had to chain him to a radiator to make him finish it, but it quickly becomes fascinating. It's basically about the Oxyrhynchus papyri. I liked the mention of a book which takes auguries from sudden involuntary twitches. Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday World is quite good but her attempt to render a convincing Cockney character is so wrong as to inject an air of magic realism into the whole thing -- it gives the snooker player an other-worldly air which is certainly unintentional. My copy had that awful PS thing at the end for book groups, which I wish they would stop doing. For once, though, it was vaguely interesting. The book is about a woman who has to decide whether or not to kiss the afore-mentioned cockernee, and then it splits Sliding-Doors style into two separate narratives depending on what she did. Ms Shriver said in the interview that the book asks us who we would choose out of the two men. My immediate reaction was neither, of course, because they're both terrible self-obsessed bores. The heroine is apparently a "post-feminist" in her need for a man more than anything else in her life; an alternative label would be "creepy idiot". I may not be the most balanced person in the world but I'm sometimes amazed at the neuroses other people come up with.
Victor Pelevin's The Sacred Book of Werewolf is great, and may become some sort of cult success, i.e. maybe it's what all the kids are reading. (Are you, kids? I'd like to know.) It's about a fox-like creature living in Moscow as a hooker, the only respectable way for a fox to earn her bread. "I don't need anything from human beings except love and money", she says. Given all those novels over the last couple of millennia which have claimed to be real documents when they're not and occasionally fool people (like the diary of Louis XIV which recently took some biographer in, and the diary of Mrs Pepys (scroll down this Graun page) which still trips people up sometimes -- have they not heard of the phrase too good to be true?), I quite liked that it starts with a prologue declaring that the whole thing is a shameless forgery filled with half-baked orientalist nonsense, and that for decency's sake they have had to change the original title from "So Fucking What?". Which would be a good name for a novel. Read it, it's unusual. I ended up jotting down several quotes from it but I won't burden you with them here, except that I liked the fox's fascination with "Stephen Hawking's horror stories". A quote from the Independent on the back described Pelevin as the "Zen Buddhist Will Self of the former Evil Empire". If I were describing him like that I think I'd say that there's also a bit of Tibor Fischer, some Jeanette Winterson and a hint of Chuck Palahniuk. Go Pelevin!
Darkmans by Nicola Barker is likewise very good. It manages to combine being a forward-driving narrative with being original and a bit strange. I might go and read everything that she's written now. It reminds me of Mantel's Beyond Black, only not as throat-slittingly depressing. I also read The Jungle Book, which is amiable enough. It's wierd reading Kipling; he has this intense sympathy with India, especially with its many traditions and its wild places, but coupled with an absolute certainty that the white man can make it all alright. The Last Ride by Thomas Eidson is about a time when the Wild West was still full of vast spaces and utterly brutal. It's about a very old man who tries to track a girl kidnapped by Apaches. Definitely worth reading, even if, like me, you don't really like westerns. I think I'll remember his name for when I'm in the mood for that sort of book. And this evening I started Jed Mercurio's Ascent. I am very sorry people who really liked it, but I am officially giving up on page 54 because it is marrow-drainingly dull.


I've been asked to be a godmother for the baby girl of some friends! I'm very chuffed about this. My own godparents have always been quite good fun. They were both originally botanists, though I suppose they are both plant scientists now; the more high-powered of the two certainly is. (See lament on the death of botany, below.) He occasionally sends me embargoed press releases about work he's done on crop diseases in China. My godmother lectures at Hertford and has a wonderfully dry sense of humour -- she's one of Pym's Excellent Women who escaped, and as such a very good role model. I shall have to see if I can pull a similar stunt and be a good example, rather than just, as I am at the moment, an example.

Anyway it's nice to have some good news because I am rather sunk in work right now. It's feeling a bit like one of those Psalms where David cries out from the pit.