Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Joe McElderry may be our only hope

No matter how puppy-dog the eyes of Joe McElderry I wasn't planning to buy the X Factor single, which I didn't even particularly like all those months ago when it was a Miley Cyrus single. However, I have bought it, simply in the hope that I can help keep bloody Rage Against the Machine off the Christmas no. 1 spot. I really really hate Rage Against the Machine; they're a symbol of all the worst tendencies of teenagerhood. Back when I was a youth I remember they had an album cover/t-shirt with a picture of a Tibetan monk setting himself on fire. This used to annoy me hugely; you really can't put someone killing themselves gruesomely in protest against genuine political persecution on a cheap t-shirt and use it to sell music to self-dramatising self-satisfied suburban indie boys as if this made them rebels too, or at least you shouldn't be allowed to, or at least the idiots who wear the thing ought to take a deep breath and get some sort of perspective. It's like when Kula Shaker started wearing swastikas. Idiots.

Not to mention that the Rage Against the Machine thing is all being driven by Facebook, which I also hate. Although it is quite interesting to follow, from the point of view of one who doesn't need to worry about it, the attempts of Facebook to monetise by selling information, and the protests of the Facebookees, and the reactions of Facebook as it withdraws part of what it has just done or puts some small opt-out tick-box somewhere buried in the site's settings. (There are links to info about it from this page: "Is this Facebook's 'Microsoft Moment?'".)

If you too hate 80s rock and Facebook then you could join my 'campaign' and download the Joe McElderry single. It's less than a quid and it's not like you have to listen to it -- I'm certainly not going to. In the meantime here is some different music:

Monday, 14 December 2009

Manuscripts and identity

I've been rather saddened recently to see that a little Psalter in Edinburgh which may once have belonged to St Margaret of Scotland is being touted as the Scottish Book of Kells. Now I've never actually managed to see it, but I have got a copy of the facsimile and some high-grade images, and I included it in my Margaret book. It's a cute little thing, only about 130 mm by 85 mm in size and with lots of bright little initials, but calling it the Scottish Book of Kells is a bit like calling Birmingham England's Venice. Birmingham's OK, but Venice is startling, and comparing the two sounds like a joke at England's expense. We, especially the English with our colonial history, ought to take Scotland's early medieval heritage more seriously than that: Scotland's Book of Kells is either irrevocably lost, or it's the Book of Kells -- it's actually quite likely that that manuscript originated on the island of Iona.

On the other hand, although it's a shame if one has to make these sorts of comparisons in order to get people interested, I suppose I shouldn't grouch about it; of course I think this stuff deserves more serious treatment, I've spent years studying it, and I shouldn't turn up my noses at those who haven't. Take something I know a bit about but not much, say the Rosetta stone, and then tell me that some object is the Rosetta Stone for pre-Columban Mayan hieroglyphs or something like that, and my attention will be grabbed even as the experts are finding themselves annoyed at all the ways that it's not like the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone has become cultural short-hand for a key that unlocks past written cultures, and the Book of Kells has become short-hand for a beautiful book with alien decoration, for "don't underestimate these people just because they lived a long time ago".

The little Psalter in question actually seems to me to have a very interesting significance which has, understandably perhaps, been glossed over by the promotion for the exhibition it's in. The main body of the Psalter is in a beautiful script of the sort written in Ireland and Scotland, a development of the early Insular scripts found in the Book of Kells among others (only it's a minuscule, e.g. lower-case, script, not a majuscule or upper-case one). It has decorated initials for the start of every psalm, made of interlace and beast bodies, and it has lots of little coloured initials at the start of verses. Psalters, especially ones from the Irish world, tended to split the 150 psalms into three sets of 50, and had decorated pages to start the 1st, 51st, and 101st psalms. The first and third of these decorated pages are missing (this is really common in medieval manuscripts) but the second shows a fascinating development. All you can still see of the original is a rectangular frame with interlace corner pieces; the rest has been completely erased and replaced with some English decoration in a Carolingian style, roughly datable to the eleventh century, probably late. And this is why the manuscript is associated with St Margaret; because she is the person who, with the best of motives, was at work in late eleventh-century Scotland making it more English/Continental. St Margaret was married to King Malcolm, or Máel Coluim, i.e. Malcolm Canmore from the end of Macbeth. Malcolm's first wife was a Scandinavian woman called Ingebjorg, and their sons were called Domnall and Donnchad (respectively pronounced Dovnall or Donall and later to become the name Donald, and pronounced Donnakha and later to become Duncan). Malcolm and Margaret's children were called Edward, Edmund, Athelred, Edgar, David, Alexander, Edith and Mary; not one seems to have been given a Gaelic name. The girls were educated in England. When Malcolm, Margaret and Edward all died suddenly within three days of each other, the younger children had to flee from the subsequent anti-English backlash. Consequently David, who later became one of Scotland's greatest kings, grew up at the English court, where his sister Edith/Matilda was queen, and became a vassal of the English king for huge estates in East Anglia before eventually succeeding to the Scottish throne. After that the heir to the Scottish throne was always a vassal of the English king. If you're a die-hard fan of things Gaelic Margaret is not the most positive of figures. This diminishing of Gaelic culture can't be seen as anything other than a terrible shame, even if you find Margaret an endearing figure as I do, and that picture in the little Psalter in Edinburgh provides a very literal symbol of the erasure of almost the whole of something Gaelic to replace it with something blandly English.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Televisual entertainment.

1. I continue to enjoy BBC2's School of Saatchi (subtitle: This is what's wrong with Modern Art). The subtle digs at Saatchi are getting slightly less subtle, which is appealing. In the last episode they had to put some art in a stately home. Saad, who is an egocentric monster but has occasional good ideas, made an installation of 2000 chapattis as a gift to Lady somebody, the chatelaine. He sent one through the post in advance, which by the time she received it had turned into a circle of green and brown mould. I don't know if he was referencing the famous precursor of the Indian mutiny, where Indians used the sending of chapattis as a means of freaking out the British ruling classes, but unfortunately I rather suspect not. Still, the whole thing had very sinister undertones. Also I'm totally expecting that Eugenie, who is very pretty and who has all the judges wondering whether she's a talented artist or a talented chancer, will turn out to be a plant from the Daily Mail. Good stuff.

2. Misfits is entertaining too, in a trashy sort of way.

3. The only other thing I'm watching at the moment is the X Factor, which is one of those things which you don't actually enjoy but find yourself watching anyway. It's only bearable if you follow the various live tweets and the comments on the Guardian's X Factor Live Blog. Of course I want Joe to win, but now that John and Edward are out it's very dull even if the actual quality has improved, and now that Danyl has gone there's no hate figure.

4. All these programs have only one episode to go, which may be for the best.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Things that are good

I was sitting in the Wren library yesterday looking at one of the most beautiful books in the world, Trinity College MS B.10.4 (214). It has these amazing attenuated gold Rustic Capitals which actually wring my heart. I can't quite work out why; mostly I think of beautiful things being slightly painful because of their transience, like the little sticky leaves in spring, or mist on the fields in the morning. But the Trinity Gospels have survived for a thousand years so far, and will look exactly the same when I'm archaeology. Odd.

Anyway, another sort of good: here are some fantastic Japanese robots. You don't actually need to be that muscly to play ping pong.

Plus this is Alejandro by Lady Gaga, produced by RedOne. I love music where the bass sounds like it's on the other side of a door.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Latin abuse

I'm not quite sure what to make of this accusation of sexual harassment via Catullus quotation. It does seem pretty clear that the "vos" in question was his unspecified enemies, and didn't refer to the woman who got the e-mail. I hope they've got some good expert witnesses in.

Note to bankers: also steer clear of John Wilmot.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


Matthew Collings is back in School of Saatchi on BBC2 at 9pm on Tuesday [edit: actually Monday, apparently], as one of a panel of judges evaluating the work of new artists. According to the Guide, "Collings in particular is great value explaining the difference between silly tat and actual art".

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Science is cool

It's great that bits of physics are often like things from Sci Fi, but recently it's struck me that bits of prehistoric archaeology are often like things from the genre Fantasy. Take the galloping crocodiles with tusks that used to live in the rivers of the Sahara; or the ancient cold-blooded goat of Majorca, with its tiny brain and eyes.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Good stuff

1) Matthew Collings is on TV tonight, BBC2 8.30pm. He has a beard now.

2) Amazing Nina Simone voice:

3) I shouldn't really post this nice comment about my Kalendars book here, but then I am un(/self-)employed you know, I'm allowed to be a bit self-indulgent. It's from Richard Pfaff's excellent new history of liturgy.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


Firefly was just getting into its stride when it was axed, and something really good was lost. Although the film Serenity cleared up some of the open story lines, we will probably never know quite what was up with Shepherd Book. Now it looks like they're killing Dollhouse too. Geeks obviously don't yet rule the world enough.


I've got google wave! Now I can send waves like the people in Firefly.

PS When it crashes you get error messages from the Serenity crew -- it just told me everything's shiny cap'n, which is something Kaylee says. I love the way that geeks run the world now.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Christmas hurray!

The Pet Shop Boys are releasing a Christmas EP, which includes their version of My Girl, which is great.

In other Christmas news I need to find a feminist book for my little god-daughter, whose mother is tired of reading things to her like Rumpelstiltskin, where the king threatens the girl with death for three days in a row before finally asking her to marry him, and she accepts with apparent joy; and The Princess and the Pea, where an idiot prince scours the world for a woman so precious that even when rescued from a storm by kind strangers she still complains that her bed is uncomfortable; and the Little Mermaid (not-Disney version) in which she just suffers herself to death by degrees for love of another idiot prince. I certainly don't mean feminist in an anti-men way, just that I want to find her a book where sex isn't portrayed as a woman's economic asset, and where relationships between men and women might be based on equality and mutual respect. It's a different kind of fairy tale.

What I want for Christmas is a beard from the "I made you a beard" etsy shop. When I got to Palestine, where of course most of the wilderness monasteries don't allow women in, I was very disappointed that you couldn't buy false beards like in The Life of Brian.

I think I've posted this before, but anyway here is the Pet Shop Boys' version of My Girl:

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Coffee breaks at 10.30

The morning coffee break at 10.30 is one of the best things about a regular hours job. I missed it when I left the Wren, I missed it when I left the BL, and I miss it now I've left the Parker. Luckily both the Wren and the Parker have expressed themselves happy to have me back to visit. So I made some raspberry buns to my great grandma Dean's recipe and took them in to the Parker this morning for a coffee break reunion. I'm putting the instructions below. It's about the only thing I know about my great grandma Dean, although I did meet her a few times before she died. I know that when my grandpa was a boy he wasn't allowed to go to tea if any of his friends invited him, because they were too poor to ask people back in return.

Great Grandma Dean's raspberry buns
1/2 lb self-raising flour
4 oz butter
4 oz caster sugar
1 egg
1 tsp water (optional)
1 tiny pinch salt
Raspberry jam with pips

1. Sieve flour and salt
2. Rub in the fat
3. Add the sugar keeping a little back
4. Add the egg
5. If too stiff add water
6. Roll on floured board
7. Cut into 12 pieces
8. Shape each into a rough cup
9. Put 1/2 tsp raspberry jam into centre of each
10. Pinch each closed (with perhaps a little jam showing)
11. Sprinkle with the remaining sugar
12. Cook for 15-20 mins at 180° C

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Windows 7: day 2

I've got Windows 7 more or less set up as I want it now, and I've reinstalled almost all the programs I need. I've got the Quick Launch bar back, which is good, because I hated the Mac-dock rip-off taskbar that's supposedly one of Windows 7's features. So far I'm not sure I've noticed that my laptop is any faster, but this is probably just because of the inevitable updates it's constantly downloading -- maybe it will be better once this calms down a little. I do like that items on the taskbar glow in different colours when you hover your mouse over them, which is possibly the most trivial feature ever. There is also a new thing called Libraries, which I think allows you to do the same thing as you could do in Vista with tags, but without frightening the horses with the word "tag" -- tags don't seem to be popular with the public, and google has largely abandoned this terminology in its documents and mail features. I haven't yet played with it. I do hope such tags as I put in in Vista still work; otherwise I will be angry. I wouldn't have bothered to upgrade if Windows 7 hadn't been so cheap, and what I really want from it is quicker bootup times and less seizing up to do unspecified things which it thinks are more important than my work. So it will probably take a while to work out if it is doing what I wanted it for. But if you upgraded to it from XP it would probably seem pretty shiny.

In other news: you've got to love autotune. Go Timbaland!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Best 79p I've spent all week

The Miley Cyrus single is finally out on itunes. It's an excellent pop thing about the mood-changing power of pop music.


1. Someone is supposed once to have said to Newton that it was understandable that people used to think that the sun revolved round the earth, because that's what it looks like. To which Newton is said to have replied, What did they suppose it would look like if the earth revolved around the sun? One of the excellent things about my Ph.D. supervisor, who taught me palaeography as an undergraduate, is that he has a similar attitude. If something looks like it's from a particular place and time, he still asks the question of how it would look different if it were from somewhere else. I think that Anglo-Saxon art history has suffered from not having people who ask those sort of questions. Most late Anglo-Saxon gospel-books are dated to circa 1020 because one particular gospel-book can be dated to around that time; but people might have made gospel-books in the 1030s to 1060s too.

2. Windows 7 is annoying me. On the one hand installing it was pretty easy. Because I was upgrading from Vista Home to 7 Pro it couldn't do an install on top of what I already had, but it did leave intact all my files and folders that weren't part of the Windows system -- so I had to restore the My Pictures folder from a backup, but not all my other important folders. But I dislike intensely the taskbar, and it's taking ages to sort it out.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


I have been away for the best part of a week in a place without internet access or mobile phone reception. This is because I was at an Arvon course on biography writing, at their centre in Totleigh Barton, and they deliberately eschew such things as distractions. But I don't think I will ever again try to do some serious work without an internet connection. I felt badly hamstrung by not being able to check things as I went, like the death date of Queen Anne, or the meaning of the word "desidiousness". Yes the internet has its distractions, and I had 350 items on my google reader list when I got back, but I think that's a matter of the self-control you exercise over it. And I'm sure I would have got more done if I'd been able to use it.

Now I am at my parents', retrieving my rats before heading home again. The TV reception here is decidedly patchy and I can't get any BBC channels. But I am enjoying a glorious feast of internet, and I've got my e-mail inbox down to one.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

"Science" means knowledge

I do love the way that the line between science and science fiction sometimes buckles under the strain. There's something oddly soothing about the idea that the entire universe is just a holographic projection on the lip of a black hole into which it has already been swallowed. The suggestion that people from the future are trying to stop us from making Higgs Bosons seems a little less original though.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


Since becoming unemployed last Wednesday I have looked at eight excellent manuscripts, four in Trinity and four in the BL. Some of them had very interesting codicological features, and one was in a dazzlingly beautiful Anglo-Caroline. It has made me very happy, and reminded me of what I do, and, if it's not too pretentious to say it, who I am.

There's a Douglas Adams book where a man goes from not knowing that such a thing as an I Ching calculator exists to owning one in a dizzyingly short amount of time. Adams must have loved the internet. I only very recently became aware that there's such a thing as a Buddha machine, and yet my own arrived in the post this morning. I went and bought batteries for it at lunchtime and now I'm listening to it on headphones. It's a bit like tuning in to alien signals from deep space, probably from a transmitter so far away it's long since stopped broadcasting, in the ruins of the planets of a dead civilisation.

I suppose that a sensible unemployed person would not spend any money on buddha machines. But having left my job on Wednesday last week I am actually back in for four days this week, to write a report about the project website. I have become wierdly disconnected from the whole thing during my two days of freedom, but they are paying me, so I'm giving it a bash.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Good TV

I'm not keen on the Wire, or West Wing, or all that serious shouty stuff. I have decided that what I like is TV that at some point makes me say "Coo-ol!" The two syllables indicate amusement, surprise, and respect. I am currently watching the third series of Primeval, which has some particularly horrible things happening to bankers.

Joss Whedon makes good TV. Joss Whedon is great! I've just watched the first series of the Dollhouse, which works better than I was expecting. The premise is that brain-wiped pretty people can be hired for lots of money and programmed to be whatever you want, with a guarantee that they'll be rewiped at the end of the hire time. It's not as sordid as you might think; it's probably true that people would want something more complicated than just sex from that sort of service. Possibly it's all a metaphor for acting. Anyway it reminded me of the terrible waste that was the cancellation of Firefly, which was just hitting its stride when Fox gave up on it on the grounds that Americans aren't interested in people who lose wars. (Pity American veterans.) Here is the theme tune -- I love the bit at the end with the spaceship and the horses.

TV PS The clothes of Sex and the City are terrible. Why were they ever supposed to be good? Isn't real style supposed to be timeless? I'm not a fashionista by a long stretch but I can still hardly look at them.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Makes sense?

I woke up in the middle of the night with that stomachy feeling that there's loads of nebulous but important things to be done. Often making a to-do list helps with that sort of anxiety, so I picked up a notebook and pen and wrote "To Do". Underneath I wrote "1. Write list of all the things I need to do at work. 2. Write list of what I need to do at home". Soothed, I was then able to sleep. This is my first ever meta-to-do-list. It is either a brilliant life-hack or the beginning of the end.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


I was all psyched up for the end of my job tomorrow -- I have started packing my stuff, have deleted personal things from my computer, and have filled in my leavers' questionnaire using words such as "proximate" and "erudite" -- but apparently now I'm needed for parts of next week too. They'll pay me for it, but I still feel oddly unsettled by this. I had a whole plan of intensive UL time mapped out.

In better news, I am rewatching the amazing 30 Rock, which has been making me cackle loudly like a madwoman. Here is some of Tracey Jordan's advice to young Kenneth:
Live every week like it's shark week.
Dress every day like you're going to get murdered in those clothes.

I find this compendium of 90s dating videos from boing boing oddly endearing. I do hope these men found themselves nice ladies with big fluffy hair who wear chenille sweaters and large glasses. Ideally the man who quotes Blake should have a goofy middle-aged librarian.

Sunday, 27 September 2009


I like this picture of my Grandma with my nephew. Apparently he has learnt to say mama when his mother isn't there to make his father feel guilty. You go, nephew! Get the passive aggressive in early and often. If you ever get a sibling they will effortlessly trump you in the passive aggressive stakes and it will all be over.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Corpus Crispies

Tomorrow is the MacMillan Cancer Support coffee morning at work, so I have mixed trademark Kellogg's Rice Krispies with fairtrade organic milk chocolate and put dollops of the mixture into cake cases. I am calling them Corpus Crispies. I'd like to pretend I was solely motivated by the urge to help this cause, but to be honest it was largely the pun that drove me onwards.

If you're a Corpus person reading this, the coffee morning is tomorrow at 10.30 in the NCR. If you don't get there early I can't guarantee that you won't miss the milk ones, and have to make do with one from the less successful dark chocolate batch.

The shiny ages

Anglo-Saxon colour terms tend to be about the degrees of shininess rather than actual tones; horses, for example, are described as bright rather than bay or chestnut, etc. There are now some pictures of the recent Anglo-Saxon hoard find on the Guardian website, including some rather nice script complete with Insular wedges. (On descenders too.) The above is a dagger hilt, with a variant of an interlocking sea-horse pattern found on other early Insular artefacts. (I can't remember where exactly, but I do remember copying it for a Christmas card when I was a sixth-former.)

Saturday, 19 September 2009


I went to hear Stanley Hauerwas, who is one of the few living theologians any of whose work I know. He was talking about his youth, and also, which made me uncomfortable, about the breakdown of his marriage to a woman with bipolar disorder. (Although the last bit was because of a question someone asked.) The whole thing was very like a novel by Robertson Davies -- the small-town boy who travels a long way without ever quite leaving the small town behind him. He talked briefly about the theory of memoir writing, and was clearly going for the idea of drawing the events of his life together into themes and a progression. I think maybe that's why I felt quite so uncomfortable about the breakdown stuff; it seemed so much like something written, with his wife as a narrative character. I suppose this probably isn't his fault. Anyway, it was a very interesting evening, and I got to catch up with a good friend I haven't seen for ages, which was pleasant.

Stanley Hauerwas was brought up a Methodist in the baptist style, and talked about something I remember from my own youth, the worry that the preacher would feel like a failure if no one went up to be saved. I spent some of this afternoon talking to a young family member who has been in California on a worship course, and is very into signs and wonders. On the last day they all had a barbecue at the prophet's house. He's a sweet youth who has roughly half a brain. But is truth only for the intelligent? Probably to the same extent as only the beautiful can be loved.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


1. My little nephew and his parents came to see me in Cambridge, which was very cool. Here he is chuckling on his father's lap, in one of very few photos which didn't come out as a blur because of his ceaseless activity.

And here he is with his tongue sticking out, looking oddly like my Grandpa, possibly just because my grandpa had a round face and wispy hair.

2. My mother's doing her parachute jump on Saturday. She hopes it's not going to take too long because she wants to get to Lakeland.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I had two thoughts

1. Mathematicians have a concept "trivial" for things which are theoretically solved, and do not therefore present a challenge. If you've shown that something's as true for x+1 as it is for x, then there's really no need to worry about x+2. A Mathmo friend of mine, someone I had known at school as well as university, had a really bad break-up in his second year. He was worried that this was something with which he simply could not cope, and he couldn't see how things would get any better. But one day I met him looking much more cheerful, and he told me that he had suddenly remembered that he had felt the same devastation when he split up with his sixth-form girlfriend. He realised then that he had dealt with this before, and that it was therefore trivial: and from then on he was completely fine about the whole thing. (One of the lesser known uses of maths.) There's also a joke about a mathematician who wakes up to find his bed on fire, works out exactly how to put out the fire with his water jug, and then goes back to sleep in the burning bed, because the problem is trivial.

Anyway I think that this concept is not a helpful one when dealing with joint technological and academic projects. The technological people can see how things would work all mapped out in their heads, in beautiful clarity, and every layer of extra information causes no trouble whatsoever, because the design is extensible -- addition of an extra layer is trivial. In fact these additions often result in serious increases in the actual complexity of amassing, mostly inputting, data.

My experience with working on academic projects which are mostly just ways to represent existing data online has made me sad whenever I hear techie people talking about how theoretically easy everything is. For this reason I have just invented the concept "intermediate information technology". This is based on the idea of intermediate technology, e.g. things which are perhaps more basic but more fixable by the non-skilled. A bicycle is intermediate technology, but a DVD player is not. From now on my aim is to be involved in information technology which I can understand. I don't mind needing a few days' training or even a week or two: but I don't want to have to have a masters in Computer science. My current limit is some light XSLT, and some Visual basic. A good example of the right sort of stuff is the tiddlywiki, a stand-alone .html file which does some very powerful things, but which even I can hack about. I want more of this! Down with total reliance on the schedules of over-worked humanities computing providers! I very much envisage my future self as a sort of IT Ray Mears.

2. I wish people would stop using the words steatopygous and callipygous as if they expect us to be wowed by their saucy erudition. This does not except Stephen Fry.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Reading and other stuff

1. I like that Borders now has a "paranormal romance" section. I didn't notice if the misery memoir section is still there. I do like the idea of their changing their store layout to incorporate current trends.

2. Doesn't this book sound amazing? Maybe more amazing if you're up on ancient Greek literature. Maybe I should read up on it as preparation. Some people don't like really clever stuff, like Stoppard, but I can forgive excess cleverness if the book is done well. One of my favourite clever clever books is Betrayals by Charles Palliser.

3. Anyway back to book reviews.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
I loved this book, I really did. But I've had very bad results from recommending Neal Stephenson in the past. I adore his Baroque Trilogy, but two very different friends have recently abandoned it less than halfway through the first book. I think I like Stephenson is the best novelist for conveying ideas. Also, he has real science in. I started reading PopCo by Scarlett Thomas but had to give it up. I couldn't cope with how the main character is supposed to be all intelligent but obviously knows far less about code-breaking, etc, than me, and I'm not even a scientist. I've heard her likened to Douglas Coupland. I would agree with that, but not in a good way. So, if you know what the Fibonacci sequence is and realise that it's not a big deal to do basic alphabetical shift codes in your head then read Stephenson. (Cryptonomicon is also great.) If not then read Scarlett Thomas. I will not judge you.

The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale
Interesting biography of a woman whose life more or less mirrored twentieth-century attitudes to lesbianism, except that she was terribly rich, which immured her from a lot of problems. Eventually she just bought a small island in the Bahamas and set herself up as ruler there, with a series of beautiful girlfriends. It was interesting to hear about Dolly Wilde, "Oscar's unusual niece". Maybe I should read her biography too.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
This is very good in an unostentatiously haunting way. A fat young boy, bullied at school, becomes friends with a strange girl who moves in next door. Because of the recent film of this book I think it's pretty well known what's going on, but it still surprised me by being unexpected in places.

The Black Death by John Hatcher
Since the author is my boss's boss, at least til the end of the month, it's rather a relief that this is good. I nearly chickened out of reading it because I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to cope with the history-told-as-fiction structure. But it actually works quite well, I think because it's still kept reasonably dry, and has straight history bits at the start of each chapter, and full notes to each chapter at the end. It's an interesting way of tackling the problem of telling the history of ordinary people at a time when they're not hugely well documented. It made me think that I'd like to read a book in which someone who has sympathy with late medieval religion put its case; I suppose it would have to be Eamon Duffy. Cos I'm a protestant through and through, and the stuff about indulgences made me feel very angry. Also, it turns out the Catholic church still has them, which seems odd to me.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I think this is the most readable of all his books, because it has quite a lot of plot, with a whodunnit as part. And Ivan's Grand Inquisitor story is just excellent, though I don't approve of Penguin issuing it by itself as a booklet.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

More books

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal
Quite good, but somehow disappointing, given its high reputation. Apparently the Czechs says it's untranslatable, and I'm not sure this has persuaded me otherwise. Hmmm.

A Fragment of the Whole by Steve Toltz
I enjoyed this very much. It has unexpected bits in it. I liked when the narrator's father is planning his ideal house: "inside I think two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a dark room, not to develop photos, just so we can sit in the dark". I think this sounds very appealing, but unfortunately it is actually a symptom of his mental decline.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Interesting. Overly mannered in places. Also, not without its "isn't that normal?" moments.

Kept by D. J. Taylor
This is quite good, a pastiche of many Victorian authors, including a mistress in a house in St John's Wood. I'm not sure I'm likely to reread it ever, but it's quite good train journey material.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Life's rich pageant

I love these people who promise to care for your pets after the rapture. Perhaps I should write a best-selling novel series about the dogs who are Left Behind. (Although as a business model it does seem a bit stupid. If you believe in the rapture why on earth would you trust anyone to make a special effort to find and care for your animals while all the post-rapture horror is going down? Have they not read the book of Revelation?)

Also this happy lime has caused grief to a protective father. "He said: 'I demanded to see the shop manager and, during a heated exchange, my wife became quite distressed and had to sit down in the car park.'"

This Life of Elizabeth Chudleigh from ODNB's Life of the Week is pretty good.

In other news, no one can write like Dostoevsky.

I read some books

I keep reading things and meaning to blog about them, and then reading some more, so that the list of things to blog about gets longer and longer. I think I will do them a few at a time instead.

The Blackest Streets by Sarah Wise

Very interesting but startling book about a particular slum in London in the nineteenth century. It contains some extraordinary testimony given in the 70s by an old man who grew up there as a child. He lived with his parents, three older siblings, and later one younger as well, in a twelve-foot by ten-foot room in which they also carried on the family trade of breeding and training terriers. They paid three shillings a week for the room. His father sometimes got casual work at a local pub where he was paid two shillings for an eighteen-hour day. The poverty line for a family with three children was reckoned at the time to be eighteen to twenty-one shillings per week. This man's older sister was in charge of cooking the family's meals and doing other housework from the age of six, so that his mother was not interrupted in her home piece-work of making matchboxes for Bryant and May. The main emphasis of the book is on the various well-meaning but doomed attempts of people to sort all this out. It's interesting to see how different interpretations of Darwin's writings led to hugely different attitudes to the slum dwellers. In the end it was all knocked down, and the evictees couldn't afford the new, nicer housing built there.

The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe
I love all Jonathan Coe's books. His What a Carve Up! must be the defining book of the Britain I grew up in. This one is very different from the others, being basically about mother-daughter relationships. It quite blew me away, for two reasons 1) it's seriously good 2) it has all the ingredients of a Richard and Judy success, without compromising being seriously good. Why wasn't it more famous? A book with that sort of honest emotional core, but extremely well written, is a very rare thing indeed. Why wasn't it unavoidable, like Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture (than which it is certainly better)? Odd. I was sat on a packed train to Devon with a box of rats on my knee when I finished it, sat next to a woman who works as a an editor for Penguin. We had quite an interesting conversation about it. (You tend to end up talking to strangers more when you're in a packed train to the West Country with a box of rats on your knee.)

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Sometimes while I was reading this I thought wow this is very good. At other times I just thought it was very long. It's about a school of young Mexican poets who call themselves the visceral realists. I think it's a very good book but I am oddly uncertain about that. It was a bit like eating something with a flavour so delicate that a lot of the time you just miss it. Anyway, it might well be one of those books which you find yourself thinking about long after the event, so that a year or two later you reread it and get more from it. I suppose the best bits were the descriptions of things actually happening, which at times were viscerally real. I think the author was a very clever man who may have done this on purpose.

Anyway because I've been having trouble finding reliably good stuff to read I have decided to do some rereading. I had one of those great anti-FML moments last night: at half past eight in the evening I decided I wanted to buy a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, mine being lost in packing; before nine pm I was sat reading the book with one rat dozing on my lap while two more chased around my feet. Hurray! Good books and rats are the secret to happiness.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Sweet flowers of learning

I bought a wax tablet -- a diptych, hinged together with leather strips, made in authentic Anglo-Saxon style. It smells so sweet I keep opening it up just to sniff it. Given that wax tablets were used to learn letters and to gather notes I wonder if that's why the medievals were so keen on the metaphor of learning as honey gathered by bees from flowers in a meadow.

Here's the king of the tortuous metaphor, Aldhelm, really going with the topos. I had to be able to translate this for my Part I exams. That was some time ago.
...ast tamen solertissimae apis industriam praedictis exemplorum formulis coaptari posse uberrima rerum experimenta liquido declarant, quae roscido facessante crepusculo et exorto limpidissimi solis iubare densos extemplo tripudiantium turmarum exercitus per patentes campos gregatim diffundunt, modo melligeris caltarum frondibus seu purpureis maluarum floribus incubantes mulsa nectaris stillicidia guttatim rostro decerpunt et uelut lento carenae defruto, quod regalibus ferculis conficitur, auida uiscerum receptacula certatim implere contendunt, modo flauescentes saliculas et crocata genestarum cacumina circumuallantes fertilem praedam numerosis crurum et coxarum oneribus aduehunt, quibus cerea castra conficiunt, modo teretes hederarum corimbos et leuissimos florentis tiliae surculos constipantes multiformem fauorum machinam angulosis et opertis cellulis construunt, cuius artis molimen egregius poeta metrica facundia fretus catalectico uersu creditur cecinisse, cum diceret Cerea gemmatis flauescunt mella canistris...

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Excellent pop

Annie, Songs Remind Me of You

Lucky in my teachers

I had a meeting with my PhD supervisor; it was the first time we have discussed my work since I was actually doing my PhD, and we didn't meet up that often then. It was very kind of him to make time to talk to me about it, but it was utterly emotionally draining. I had forgotten how good he is at making me feel stupid, though I don't know that he does it on purpose. The problem is that he's very very intelligent, and at the same time he has a habit of being dismissive of other people's work, work that I rate, in a way which makes me profoundly uneasy. I suppose as a PhD student I was always trying to get his approval, which is a bit pathetic, but also entirely natural; I never worked out whether or not I had it. He tends to be nicest to me when I was doing badly at life, and least nice when other people are being pleasant to me. His rudeness about other people's work is usually directed against his peers, or at least the well-established. I have heardly ever heard him being rude about the young or unestablished. The big exception to this is young men who go out with his pupils (who are almost without exception female). Not a straightforward man, but academically brilliant.

He was very rude about a forthcoming book I'm involved in, saying it will be a joke. Has he forgotten that I'm contributing to it? Maybe. Maybe not, since the reason I was asked to contribute was that he was sacked from it (he refused to cut down an article that was four times over length).

Anyway, the best bit was when we were discussing a manuscript I'm writing something about. It has extensive glosses mostly from Cassiodorus on the Psalms. He was saying that it should be in the later medieval library catalogue of Canterbury if it was there at the time. I argued that it could have been in someone's private possession because the gloss would be quite a useful thing for someone wanting to do some serious reading on the Psalms, and added that I had read Cassiodorus on the Psalms over Lent. He shook his head and muttered loudly "Bloody Christians". This made me perversely happy. I can imagine any one of the other three intellectual giants who taught me saying exactly the same thing.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Accuracy and assessing accuracy

I've just finished Mary Beard's Pompeii, which I enjoyed very much. Somehow she pulls off the trick of being accurate without being dull. At least, I don't know enough about it to know whether or not she's being accurate, but she certainly gives the impression of examining the evidence carefully, and is prepared on many occasions to say that we just can't tell. Maybe it helps that the material she's dealing with is very rich indeed, and has been examined in a lot of detail which she can draw on and assess. But still, I think it's an impressive feat to be careful and leave questions open without sounding dull, and in fact to promote the unanswerable questions as part of the interest of whole thing. I've tried to write for a general audience without over-simplifying, or betraying my academic training, and it's not easy. I've also been involved in giving public tours both at the BL and where I am now. (And I spend more time than I'd like listening to someone give such tours who doesn't really seem to put much premium on accuracy.) I may reread some bits of Pompeii more closely to see if I can work out how Beard does it; it would be a great skill to have.

On the question of assessing authority, here is one of my favourite ever quotations about education, from More Christmas Crackers by John Julius Norwich:

John Alexander Smith, Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, began a course of lectures in 1914 with the following words:
Gentlemen, you are now about to embark upon a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Some of you, when you go down from the University, will go into the Church, or to the Bar, or to the House of Commons, or to the Home Civil Service, or the Indian or Colonial Services, or into various professions. Some may go into the Army, some into industry or commerce; some may become country gentlemen. A few -- I hope a very few -- will become teachers or dons. Let me make this clear to you. Except for those in the last category, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life -- save only this -- that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

It's getting worse and worse

Isn't the Guardian revolting?

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Guilt; accents

Today I am feeling guilty because people keep being nice to me. A friend of mine wants to abolish guilt. He would replace it with very limited amounts of regret.

This map of dialects and accents looks interesting. I wish they had included Wales, though.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Challenge the rock

I find this strangely consoling. I think it's because it's Shatner with just a hint of Ray Mears.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

But on the down side

You can get an urn made to look like the deceased.

A bit more consolation

Also someone sent me a link to Shatner as Palin.

Convalescent blues

My week started very badly with an unfortunate conjunction of the norovirus and Heathrow terminal 3. I am not insouciant about this, not one jot. In the meantime to cheer myself up I am going to vent some bad temper about various things.
1. The education system badly needs reforming to include more statistics. I did half an A-level's worth of statistics and now I can't remember most of the important bits. But there was something very appealing about being able to work out how likely something was to have happened by chance; say 300 people took a placebo and 300 took a new medicine, and 100 of the placebo people felt better and 130 of the medicine people did, what are the chances of this happening by accident? It was nice when I was able to work that out. It made me feel more in control of things. Maybe I should get a statistics textbook and try to teach myself again. I heard attributed to Einstein once the statement that the human brain is very badly equipped to cope with probabilities. Education might usefully tackle that problem.
2. I don't understand how education is planned. People are often very down on stuff which they say is useless -- things like Latin and medieval history. (Which of course aren't useless at all, but are ways of training the mind.) But there doesn't seem to be a corresponding enthusiasm for things which are demonstrably useful. Apparently they have recently had to drop the requirement for a foreign language at GCSE level in order to matriculate at Cambridge because it was disadvantaging people from schools where this was either not possible, or discouraged. One of my colleagues tells me that at her school, a large comprehensive, the entire foreign language provision consisted of a single French teacher. Also I'm told that mechanics is being dropped from both Maths and Physics. I did double Maths and Physics A-levels, which was really more like two and a half A-levels than three, because of the mechanics overlap. Any mechanics we ever did in Physics we had already covered in a more theoretical way in Maths; large parts of our Physics lessons were like Maths revision classes. And this must have made life easier for both sets of teachers, as well as for us when we did the exams. It seems like an odd thing to drop this advantage.
3. I was trying to trace the Einstein quote I mentioned above, without success, but I did find this one, which I quite like:
"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."
4. Everyone thinks my little nephew, at 7 months, is too young to sit on someone's shoulders -- everyone that is but my dad and my little nephew, who both think it's funny.

In about twelve years my nephew will outgrow my dad, but in the meantime I expect they will have a lot of fun together.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Happy Minnesota people

OK, OK, so Chris Brown is not so much an icon of romantic bliss. But this is still how all weddings ought to start:

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Hello baboons

I want to fill a car's roof box with exciting stuff and drive to Knowsley Safari Park:

Sunday, 19 July 2009

More about books

I've been having trouble finding stuff that I'm in the right mood to read. I want things that are substantial, but not difficult, and reliably good without being upsetting. I reread some Barbara Trapido, sticking only to happy ones, but the ending of Juggling still made me cry because I could remember what happens in the sequel (very sad things). I reread David Copperfield and Bleak House, and Great Expectations and then I read Little Dorrit, which I hadn't read before. I think nineteenth-century fiction is bad for my morals; the rules of being female were so different back then that I find myself cheering on the mercenary women. Obviously I'd never marry except for love, or expect any friend of mine to behave otherwise, but if you're talking about a system where a bride puts her entire self, her body and all her belongings, into a man's hands such that he may rape and (within certain limits) beat her just as much as he likes without anyone thinking the worse of him, and remove her children from her forever at a whim, then it's hard not to sympathise with the women who decide to look for something more substantial than romantic feelings as their part of the bargain. How could any partnership possibly be based on mutual honesty in such inequal circumstances? Why shouldn't Fanny Dorrit marry an amiable fool whom she can dominate? Can one really look on the future life of Elizabeth Darcy with equanimity? She'll always be King Cophetua's beggar maid. This is why Jane Austen can't write past the marriage scenes; she wasn't stupid. This is why Jane Eyre couldn't marry Rochester until he had lost his sight and one arm, just to even things up a bit. Trollope is better than Dickens in this regard: He Knew He Was Right and Can You Forgive Her? express these problems very well. Wilkie Collins is better than both. I can't find my copy of his No Name, but I've just reread Armadale, and I defy anyone to read it without being on the side of Lydia Gwilt. It's a good book, one of the reliable classics. I wish I could find No Name and The Woman in White.

I've been reading modern books too, in a variety of genres. I shall treat them individually:

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff
I enjoyed this book (even if I sort of guessed the ending). It's about a woman who goes home after an ill-advised affair with her PhD supervisor, and arrives on the same day that a huge dead monster is found floating on the surface of the town's deep lake. It's from the genre "stories of family history", where the grumpy and unhelpful elders in one story are the wide-eyed lovers of the next. The best example of this genre is Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes of the Museum.

Firmin by Sam Savage
I'm always jealous of any novel written in the voice of a rat. (I once described my idea for a rat-narrated novel to a friend who said "That sounds terrible, don't ever write it".) This is quite a good book, though I am getting a bit tired of novels about the life-enhancing powers of literature, etc. The author frequently refers to rats as unable to laugh, which annoyed me because there are good reasons for believing that they do. If you want to hear them you buy a bat detector, because it's too high a sound for humans to hear, and then you tickle a rat. (See this video which I may have posted before: "Then one day we decided to tickle some animals".) I have never tried this.

Escape from Hell! by Hal Duncan
This bored me. It might have been a half-way decent graphic novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I bought this with some trepidation because on the front the Times is quoted as saying it's one to lift even the most cynical of spirits. But it is a charming book, without overdoing it. It treats the immediate post-war period, when rationing was worse than during the war, and Europe was full of displaced persons. The main character is an author, looking for a topic for her next book. The subject she decides upon gave me serious misgivings -- yes in the twenty-first century, but not in the late 1940s. Someone should write a sequel where she's written that book and now lots of people hate her and the people she loves. (This shows that I am the most cynical of spirits.)

La's Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith
I'm glad I discovered the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series before they were famous -- like with Harry Potter, these things are easier to read pre-hype. (I prefer his other series, although I was shocked that the last of the Edinburgh philosopher ones involved the heroine's blithely doing something which I considered seriously immoral.) This book, however, is vague and forgettable, and has a bit in the first chapter which sounds like a McCall Smith parody. His way of having his characters stop and ponder things makes him seem sometimes like a male, Telegraph-reading, British Carrie Bradshaw: "As we drove past the closed Post Office, I wondered -- is a certain type of Britishness being lost forever?" Anyway, I don't recommend this book, but I have passed it on to my Grandma who is enjoying it, and it is therefore not a waste of time.

The Caliban Shore: The Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways, by Stephen Taylor
In the late eighteenth century an East Indiaman on its way home to England wrecked itself on the east African coast. The ship broke up in a strange way which meant that almost everyone got to shore safely, including a very large number of passengers who had paid large sums to put their fate into the hands of an idiot. (Including three unaccompanied children, the youngest of whom was three.) The coast was not at all uninhabited, and the most interesting parts of this book deal with the castaways' encounters with the local peoples. It's good stuff, and there's some very interesting material about later evidence for what happened to some of them. It comes from the genre of terrible stories of historical sea survival.

Batavia's Graveyard, by Mike Dash
This has some things in common with the previous book, in that it's about the wreck of an East Indiaman, in this case on some small shallow islands not far from Australia, and in the first half of the seventeenth century. Unfortunately for all involved one of the crew was an antinomian psychopath. Very interesting but grim.

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman, by Frances Stonor Saunders
This is a very good read, about the period when Italy was swamped by mercenary companies. I liked that his name got italianised as Acuto (among other spellings). There's a bit where the author talks about a contemporary picture of Hawkwood in the margins of a chronicle where, among his banners, is one with the keys of St Peter; she takes this as evidence that he a) had a banner carrying this image and b) that this is corroborating evidence that the pope was paying him at this time, as rumoured. This is strange, because the artist is hardly going to be simply reproducing an actual scene he saw -- he's put the banner in the picture because he thinks Hawkwood was paid by the pope. Here the author is being oddly naive about medieval art; like she thinks it's their attempts to make up for not having invented photography yet. It made me think of early books, before punctuation, where texts were written out in scriptura continua, i.e. without spaces between words and with no punctuation. The idea was that they read aloud the noises represented by the letters and then listened to the resulting sound, which they understood as language. Similarly the author here is taking a picture, turning it into a real scene, and then decoding that. Whereas we can go straight from letters to language without sound, and they could go straight from picture to meaning without having to imagine some real-life scene inbetween. Anyway, this book has some pretty revolting actions by popes, and Catherine of Siena doesn't come out of it well either. There is a terrible terrible massacre at the Italian town Cesena, ordered by a cardinal after a town butcher defended his shop from plundering by papal mercenaries, involving the systematic slaughter of thousands of civilians, including women and children without distinction. The cardinal went on to be pope.

An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson
This is one of those odd books where a real-life person is made a detective. Josephine Tey is not my favourite golden age mystery novelist -- I've never quite understood her popularity. Her stuff doesn't have much heart. This one is set in the world of the theatre as well, which doesn't help. It's OK, but I won't be queueing up to read the sequels.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif
This I really liked. Its got a sort of Catch 22 feel to it.

The Bellini Card, by Jason Goodwin
I quite enjoy these books, not least for their upsettingly well-described Ottoman recipes. But they do have some wierd mood bits in sometimes. I'll continue to read the series, I expect.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by G. W. Dahlquist
Cheap and nasty. I gave up on it after about 80 pages and left it on a train.

The Storyteller, or The Hawakati, by Rabih Alameddine
This is a very good book, as long as you don't mind that the narrative sections all have nothing whatever to do with one another. The present-day story is about a well-off Lebanese family, displaced from Beirut by wars, and about their recent ancestors, some of whom were storytellers. Interlaced with this there are various 1001-nights-style narratives with genies and such, which are never linked with the rest at all. But it's interesting and readable.

The Story of Forgetting, by Stefan Merrill Block
Quite a good novel about Alzheimers. Yet another one where stories are told about the last three or four generations of the narrator's family, here because of a genetic variant like in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex; plus there are fantasy bits like in the previous. There is nothing new under the sun. Maybe I should draw a big diagram, rather than actually reviewing these things in words.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Roses protected

I know it's horribly wasteful, but I think this picture of individually wrapped roses is rather beautiful:

It comes from TimShoesUntied's flickr stream, under a CC licence.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Thair is na salve may saif the of thy sair!

Here's a good online glossed text of the Testament of Cresseid. If you search for "Complaint of" it will take you down to her lament for being a leper and a betrayer. Yes reading it involves a bit of work, but if you say it out loud you can hear a fifteenth-century Scottish voice, which is cool, and anything written by Seamus Heaney is also hard work to read, and all you get in return is the twenty-first-century Ulster English in which, a friend of mine pointed out, all poetic translations of medieval material seem to be written these days.

Monday, 13 July 2009


I've never read Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf. I read some very interesting reviews, in which the bits quoted as particularly good all seemed to be precisely the places where he had hardly translated at all. But I'm fortunate enough to be able, with a good annotated edition, to read Beowulf without needing to translate it, and I'd rather do that than read someone else's version. Nonetheless, I do realise that Beowulf is pretty far removed in language from most people's leisure time, and that a translation is probably a necessary thing.

But I was very sad to see that he has now published a translation of Henrysoun's Testament of Cresseid. I encountered that poem in an anthology while I was doing my GCSEs -- I used to read poetry anthologies, and then follow up any bits I particularly liked. It really is not that hard to read in the original; the anthology just had a few marginal glosses for difficult words, and with those supplied it was possible to read it straight off. You might as well translate Shakespeare. (Actually one of our more annoying English teachers made us do that once.) We were allowed to write essays on our own topics for GCSE, so I wrote one on the Lament of Cresseid, which starts "O sop of sorrow sonken into care", though I can't remember any further now. It was a terrible essay because I knew nothing of the background or context -- I pointed out the intensive use of alliteration, which I didn't realise was just how early English verse worked -- but still, I'd count it as a major part of what led me to do medieval things at university. I'd encountered Chaucer before, but it was Henrysoun which led me on to look out harder and harder stuff, like a gateway drug. (Including Gawain and the Green Knight, which Simon Armitage has translated, entirely unnecessarily.) The fact that Heaney has translated it makes it sound like it needs translating; it's not making the poem more accessible but less. I hope people will still put the original in anthologies, for nerdy kids to discover and enjoy.

Translation culture is certainly something which you need to learn to move away from at university. I did Latin GCSE and no further, and if I didn't memorise entire translations of the set texts it was only really because I was too lazy. In our Part I Old English and Latin classes certain of my contemporaries, who had not been too lazy back at GCSE and A level, would ask as we went through texts for definitive translations which they could write down and later memorise, and the teachers would, of course, refuse to be bound down to a single order of words. I'd be interested to know if this attitude among students is more or less of a problem all these years later.

Anyway, I realised the other day that I have never read Julian of Norwich in the original. My Penguin paperback, which I picked up when I was a sixth-former and Penguin classics had a lot of authority for me, is in modern English. So I have got hold of a student's edition of the Long Version, which starts like this:
This is a revelacion of love that Jhesu Christ, our endles blisse, made in xvi shewynges, of which the first is of his precious crownyng of thornes. And ther in was conteined and specified the blessed Trinitie with the incarnacion and the unithing betweene God and man's sowle with manie fayer schewynges and techynges of endelesse wisdom and love, in which all the shewynges that foloweth be groundide and joyned.

Translating that is ridiculous. I'm going to read it in stages, because I enjoyed the discipline of working through Cassiodorus on the Psalms.

In news of a different order, there has been a real spate of funny autotune stuff on Youtube recently, like this crying baby, and this autotuned news. And I do like this terrifying advert for cheese curry. (I think it's the Japanese equivalent of pot noodle.)

Sunday, 12 July 2009

How do we all just get along?

I recommend the Early Book Society conference, it has a nice atmosphere. I went down to Exeter to give a paper there, and stayed at my parents' instead of the student dorms, and caught up with my brother and sister-in-law, and the ever-changing nephew, who is really very merry at the moment. He has discovered his feet, and he thinks they're great.

Unfortunately I picked the weekend when my difficult uncle was visiting. I've certainly had worse arguments with him. We did argue about evolution -- my parents and I were saying why we think evolution is just clearly something which happens, and my uncle was saying that he has trouble with the changes from species to species, but not changes within species. But then he dumb-founded us all by saying that the two creation stories in Genesis refer to two different creations -- people who can be saved, and those who can't. Now I don't know much about the history of heresies, but that sounds to me like it could be a new one. (There are so many obvious objections to it that it might be new simply because no one has been that dumb before.) My uncle is very objectionable in many ways, but just occasionally I find myself admiring his constancy in objectionableness. Whichever way you slice him, he's objectionable. We had a long conversation about fanaticism, and I amused myself by making sure I got in one reference to right-wing American christians with their red heifers for every time he mentioned fanatical islamists. Then when we were talking about free will he reminded me of the time I kicked him for denying free will about 15 years ago, and my mother told me off about it all over again, so he did sort of win that one.

And in the middle of conversation my uncle's vague, amiable, but very prudish wife said a (Rochester-style) rude word. I think she must have not known what it meant, and I wondered for a bit if I should tell her. This is a woman who spells out any word she considers to have any sexual or adult connotations when in the presence of children, which used to puzzle me a lot when I was little, not because I didn't understand -- I was a precocious speller -- but because I didn't understand why she was doing it.

My uncle and his wife have never lived that far away from me, and even if they're much more prosperous than my parents they aren't from a totally different world -- my dad and my uncle grew up together. But sometimes they're so alien to me that it hurts my head to think of how many people there are in the world. How on earth do we get on as much as we do? I've decided it's actually amazing that there aren't more wars.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Expect trivia

I do like this song off of La Roux's album:

Also, I know they're all pretty much business as usual, but I've been listening a lot to the Sophie Ellis Bextor heartbreak song, David Guetta's "When love takes over", and Cascada's summer swine flu hit "Evacuate the dance floor (I'm infected with the beat".

I quite like this watch which reminds you that you're going to die. There's something supremely triumphant about constantly remembering your own mortality, I suppose because if you can cope with that you can cope with anything. I've been writing a paper partly on the Corpus manuscript of the Ancrene Wisse, a Middle English guide for women who had themselves walled into small rooms on the sides of churches. They would dig a little more of their own grave every day, and then kneel in it to say their prayers. But if you can own that, what can own you? Not much. (And as a way of life it certainly worked for Julian of Norwich.) I've never been 100% convinced that having a slave whisper "Don't forget you're going to die" into your ear during a Roman triumph was entirely a deflating act; it's pretty much saying "but nothing else can touch you". Although I do dislike the Corpus clock a lot, which I suppose is a bit hypocritical of me; maybe it all comes down to aesthetics really. I think it's partly because the Corpus clock is rather hysterical and seems to be about panicking in the face of death rather than just getting on with things, and because although it claims to be mechanical it couldn't keep time without a software intervention which corrects it every five minutes. That's not insouciant; that's not "Death be not proud".

Also this watch with a blank face is quite good.

Furthermore here are some disconcerting vintage adverts; here is a map which shows something very true about Wales; and a website which will sell you an authentic rug about war. Actually that last one isn't trivia, but rather upsetting in some way I can't quite put my finger on. The clash of the domestic and the horrific? I don't know. Maybe it's something about these rugs being sold in the far-off land which provided a lot of the weaponry depicted. *Ponders*

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Just my usual bad-tempered moaning

1. Piety
A journalist friend of mine is doing Guardian stuff in Italy this week, and got something in the paper the other day, which I think is quite impressive of her. The story is that apparently the pope has decided that the bones they found a while ago in Rome are those of St Paul. It struck me how very odd it is that this seems to me of no religious significance whatsoever, although it's a nice historical curiosity, while to many people officially of the same faith this would be a Big Thing. Sometimes I feel very isolated in my (dour but honest) Protestantism, because all Christians in Cambridge seem to be Anglo-Catholics or Catholics and very interested in bones and vestments. It often feels like there are many ways in which Protestantism has more in common with atheism than with Catholicism -- or at least, with certain types of honest atheism, rather than the pious kind. I suppose that's a rather disrespectful way to refer to both Catholicism and pious atheism. But piety has been getting me down a bit recently: the piety of the Guardian; the piety of academia; the various different conflicting pieties of what Cambridge is All About. So many of my conversations seem to involve a mutual pleasant outrage about this that or the other. I have to take a fair share of blame for this -- it's become a sort of conversational ploy I've fallen into, for when you want to have one of those conversations which is more about chatting than about anything you actually say, like the human equivalent of searching another chimpanzee's back hair for fleas. It would be a habit worth breaking, if only I were better at real conversations.

But I'm also pretty certain that piety is necessary and important in some sort of stripped-back way. I read some stuff not long ago, probably on the graun website, where people were talking about the pervasive nature of superstition these days. One example someone had was that he would offer a cardigan around at a lecture, getting people to raise their hand if they were prepared to wear it; and then see how many hands went down when he told them it had once belonged to Fred West "even when he told them it had been dry-cleaned". Another example was people being less willing to throw darts at a dartboard when it had a photograph of a baby's face on it. I don't think that either of these are actual examples of superstition at all. I don't want to wear Fred West's cardigan; it's not because I think it's imbued with evil such that I would become a sleep-walking murderer or some such like in a Simpson's Treehouse of Horror episode, it's because the things he did were so truly foul and terrible that I would not want to have any association or symbol of that about me. I would prefer not to pierce a photo of a baby's face with darts, not because I think that in a voodoo-esque way some baby somewhere will feel transferred pain, but because it would be a symbolic act of violence against a child, and tasteless. I don't think either of these things are illogical, once you accept that we are quite symbolic creatures. Maybe I'm not quite right in labelling them as piety either; what I mean is a sort of quiet respect given to things which deserve it. I wouldn't like to be among the people who didn't feel a little distaste for wearing Fred West's cardigan, dry-cleaned or not, or who stabbed pictures of babies' faces without a second thought.

A related annoying thing in the Guardian was a piece saying that we're all pagans now. Apparently to be a pagan you just have to believe that there is a higher power or powers; and revere nature. This is clearly nonsense -- for one thing it would make my mother the world's first Calvinist pagan. She doesn't like church buildings, and says she could never feel closer to God in a cathedral than in a wood. She's currently wrestling with her conscience about whether she can remain a member of their local church when it spends so much money on building maintenance and so little on people, and if she had her way the churches of England would be torn down or handed over to some government heritage body and the actual church, the people, freed to meet in community centres, or parks when it was sunny. I think this would be both great, and a terrible shame -- a respect for buildings where people have worshipped for centuries is a piety I'm not quite ready to abandon. But just imagine a church without flower-arranging rotas -- it would probably immanentise the eschaton.

2. Still, life goes on.
Despite all this, life still has good things to offer. For example, would you like your business card lasered onto a piece of beef jerky? Of course not -- why on earth would you? But I feel that the possibility enlarges mankind.

Also the new Dizzee Rascal/Calvin Harris collaboration can be heard here, via popjustice, on Zane Lowe's radio show. Dizzee Rascal always cheers me up -- I love to think of it all from the perspective of his school-teachers.

Plus talking of conversations, there's a certain aged but eminent emeritus professor who has become increasingly physically frail, and very quiet in conversation. But the other day at lunch he was suddenly much more like his old self. I asked him how he was finding the fish. "My fish", he said, "is delish!" Ah, I said, but how was his baked potato? "My baked potato", he replied at once, "is only so-so." It made me immensely happy. I couldn't have written out the entire course of that conversation beforehand, and I hope his better spirits continue.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Aged Ps

My mother tells me she is going to do a parachute jump. I asked her if it was revenge for all the times we've made her worry, and she reacted with surprise at the idea that we might worry. I said surely she would worry if me or my brother did a parachute jump, and she said that since it's very safe she might as well worry about me crossing the road in Cambridge. Then she paused for thought and admitted that she does worry about me crossing the road in Cambridge. So I had to reassure her that I am always very careful when I cross the road. We left the conversation at this point, by mutual consent.

My father is involved in a court case and has had to swear a legal oath about a hermit. This is very much the sort of thing which might have happened in the eleventh century, and got recorded in passing in one of the charters I work on. My dad was friends with the hermit through their mutual love of trees, but whereas my father somehow lives in the world, the hermit had retired to a hut in the woods somewhere and made an amazing garden or arboretum. Now the hermit's dead my father is involved in trying to save the garden, which means proving how long it had been under cultivation. My father is able to provide evidence about this through his records of the plants he had donated for the purpose, and the oath was specifically about the rosa cymosa named after me, which apparently flourishes there, somewhere hidden in the north of Cornwall.

In other news, apparently if you want a cigarette you should ask someone in their right ear. Also from boingboing, a leech-powered barometer. And I have broken my toe, but not badly, just enough to hobble about for a bit.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Also good: DVDs. I have joined one of those rental things. I did this once before but had to stop because it was while I was teaching and I had no spare time. (I find that I rather miss teaching, though it's a perverse time of year to think that.)

1. Raffles! I used to love these books as a teenager. Raffles is a gentleman thief; he steals things in order to keep playing cricket for England. His sidekick is Bunny, a round-faced young man who was his fag at school. They wear evening dress with capes, and rob country houses while wearing white gloves and top hats. I recommend these highly; for one thing they're from the era before jerky distracting camera work, and for another Anthony Valentine is oddly compelling in the lead role. I can't find a DVD of Dr Syn (or was it Dr Sin?), the smuggling clergyman of Romney Marsh, although I know there was a TV adaptation of that too.

2. Pulling. The first series was a bit meh. The second series and the final special are very funny.

3. The Larry Sandars show. Excellent stuff.

4. My So-called Life; disappointing so far. Maybe because it's very hard to feel any sympathy for the Claire Danes character, who keeps saying tasteless things about envying Anne Frank.

5. Firefly. I thought I ought to watch this if only to get the in-jokes in xkcd and google demonstrations. (If you watch this google wave demonstration there is a bit where it talks about real-time collaboration which I guarantee will make you shudder and feel ill with the sheer possibilities for endless endless talking.) Also I went to see the film Serenity in the cinema with a friend who was expecting it to be an intellectual anti-war polemic because he'd heard it mentioned on Radio 4; I don't think he was terribly impressed but I thought it was great. Anyway, it's really excellent, like a sort of Western (with horses and shoot-outs and everything) set in the defeated American South but in space! I can't believe they cancelled it after one season.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


Hurray for paperbacks! If you don't think you're ever going to reread them you just give them to Oxfam. I've been rereading lots of Iain Pears' excellent art-history crime books, and also some Perez-Reverte. The latter is part of my quest to find a book written after 1914 which my boss would like. The Fencing Master might do, but I think The Dumas Club has the wrong sort of sex in it, which is a shame, because he's a big fan of Dumas.

In new books, I enjoyed Me Cheeta. When it came out in hardback it was anonymous, or at least purporting to be by Cheeta, but now it has someone's name attached. Well done James Lever! It's very funny and mimics the bitchy Hollywood tone perfectly. Also Cheeta's love for Tarzan (Tony Weissmuller) is very touching, and it has an amusing index, which is quite a hard thing to pull off. It's probably the sort of book that would make a good present. But not for anyone who doesn't like the idea of chimpanzees snorting cocaine from the breasts of nubile starlets. So probably not my mum.

Tibor Fischer's Good to be God is also good, but he's yet another one of those authors whose work I read, and enjoy, but put down thinking how much better their earlier stuff was. I love The Thought Gang and The Collector Collector (and I know that not loving Under the Frog so much is a sign of my unintellectual nature).

I read The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta. All the characters were very 2-D, verging on stereotypes, and I found it hard to get worked up about it. It has gone straight on the Oxfam pile.

I read Alan Moore's Watchmen. I enjoyed it. But it's interesting that even though comics don't have to be geeky, they are. Also naive -- why on earth would an alien landing in New York pull the whole world together in harmony during the Cold War? The same political antagonisms would continue. Isn't that how the Romans conquered Gall? Anyway, now I too am a geek, arguing about the logical inconsistencies in comic books.

Eamon Duffy's one-volume history of the papacy is good. I have the Oxford Dictionary of Popes, but I've never really read it all the way through rather than just dipping in to work out which of the (generally nauseating) popes of the tenth and eleventh centuries were involved in various things I'm working on. Now I want to read a biography of Marozia. Maybe I should write one. I could put it together with some other short lives in a collection called "Genuinely Revolting Women". I hate this feminist thing where you have to be on the side of all women ever and you can never disapprove of anything they did -- it's very patronising. Marozia's story would all be a bit too schlocky for a novel; my advice is that if you ever come across a novel based on the life of Marozia, avoid it. I read a novel once about the life of that Spanish woman who was Lucrezia di Borgia's sister-in-law, and that was a mistake. Also, novels about anyone with the surname Boleyn.

And I finished the Arcadia book. It was interesting but irritating. For one thing when he transcribed original documents there were tons of instances of words like "pishe" which were quite clearly meant to be "parishe", and he's just failed to notice the tag on the back of the p which shows it's short for par or per. This really annoyed me.