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 BrĂ  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.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


1. I went to the christening of my god-daughter, who was so well-behaved that it may turn out that she sets me a good example rather than the other way round. It was a very nice day, with lots of old friends.

2. I stayed at my aunt's the night before. She wasn't there so I just flicked through the TV channels and rediscovered stuff like Dave's Ray Mears repeats. Wonderful Ray Mears! Thoughtfully living off ants' eggs and tracking deer in the highlands, etc. In Devon my parents only get four TV channels; using a Freeview box they only get the BBC ones, minus BBC Four. British TV is great.

3. I have decided that the Italian food situation and the British literature one are very similar. In Italy there is so much wonderful food from a long-standing native tradition. You don't really get foreign food, though (except that they seem to like Dutch cheeses). In England we have good food, but not so much as in Italy, and most of our cooking culture is imported. Italians are surprised when I say my mother makes lasagna, and that Genovese pesto is a British student staple. You might miss international food if you lived there for a long time, but for a few months you're not going to because the Italian food is so great -- prosciutto crudo! parmigiano reggiano! tortellini al ragu! (Oddly, I have found myself missing chicken soup.) Their literature is more like the British food situation; they read copiously in translation, and the vast majority of the books on sale there were written in other languages. They have a Daniel Pennac book that I can't get in English yet, for example, and I got the impression that Jeanette Winterson's Stone Gods even came out first there -- at least it was available before I was reading British media reviews. Whereas in Britain we have so much English-language literature available that we have a bit of a resistance to reading translated things. I can't quite let go of this even though there are so many foreign-language classics, especially Russian, and even though I've read some fantastic translated stuff recently, like Antal Szerb's books. I don't quite feel like I'm reading the real book -- it's almost like watching a TV adaptation, or listening to an abridged audiobook. I suppose it's necessary just to relax and trust the translator.

4. I forget to keep a record of what I've been reading. I certainly read Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills, which was just the sort of intelligent bonkbuster you'd expect if you've read any of her other stuff. I read Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur, which was very good, and the second Sister Pelagia book from Boris Akunin, which was excellent and very funny. I am currently being disappointed by Roger Deakin's Wildwood, which isn't much about woodland, but just a collection of essays describing things he has done which are vaguely connected to trees -- e.g. travelling in the Australian bush, where he might see the odd eucalyptus, etc. I read Russell Brand's Booky Wook -- he's quite funny, and ashamed but probably not as much as he should be. My grandma asked me to convey Alan Bennett's An Uncommon Reader to my aunt's house, so I read it on the way, and that was much better than I was expecting. Now I'm rereading Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which is great and very likeable.

5. Here's Ray Mears, from a long time back, with his old friend sphagnum moss:

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

BWO query

Is the Swedish Song Contest Sweden's equivalent of the whole Song for Europe thing, i.e. choosing an entry for Eurovision? If so I think it's shameful that BWO didn't win with this song which goes so far in homage to Abba that it even uses the bass line from Madonna's Hung Up. The video is a bit odd, but the song is brilliant: