Thursday, 29 January 2009

News from 1731

A website with digitised searchable images of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century newspapers has just been released. I got an e-mail about it at about 3.30 yesterday afternoon, which according to google reader stats is the slowest part of my day, so I decided to investigate the reports of the Cottonian fire. Most of the digitised images are taken from British Library copies of the journals, so it was interesting to see large crosses in the margin by the mentions of the fire, added perhaps by Madden? Here's the Daily Advertiser for Monday October 25th 1731, in their miscellaneous news section:

On Saturday Morning about 2 o'clock, a very terrible Fire broke out at the late Earl of Ashburnham's House near Westminster Abbey, where the Cottonian Library was kept: It did great Damage to the House, and consum'd several valuable MSS. belonging to that Collection; but by the Diligence of the Firemen, and others who assisted thereat, the St. James's and Alexandrian Libraries were preserv'd, tho' with great Difficulty.

This is fair enough, though the "Alexandrian Library" is, as far as I know, just one book, the Codex Alexandrinus. But the next paragraph of news caught my eye:

The Mail from Chelsea of the 19th Instant informs us, that a Person who lives not many Miles from the Church in that Town, was dreadfully frighted by 12 Specters who came posting thro' the Room where he was in Bed, burst open the Curtains, and bristling up, cry'd out, Blood and Thunder; he observ'd that their Noses were of an uncommon Length, and they breath'd their Words thro' their Nostrils; which gave them a Twang that was not over delicate, and not far unlike the Sound of a Bag-pipe. The poor terrified Creature would not describe the Shape of these Visions. ----- But our last Letters from the above mentioned Town relate, that a dozen Hogs were cruelly murthered by a Butcher within the Atmosphere of it, and suffer'd to run about the Streets (the Blood streaming all the way) the instant the Knife had pierced their Entrails, to the great Dismay and Scandal of the human Parts of the Inhabitants.

Perhaps heartened by the thought of the spectres with noses of uncommon length, the writer went on in speculative vein:

A Gentlewoman in but indifferent Circumstances, having a Ticket in the Lottery that came up a prize of 1000 l, was seiz'd with such sudden Joy, that she burst into a Flood of Tears, and continu'd in that extasy for four and twenty Hours. As Joy is productive of such fatal Effects, it perhaps would be necessary that the Bodies of the several Adventurers in the State-Lottery, should be prepar'd in something after the same manner as for Innoculation.

I have no idea what precautions were taken when people were innoculated in 1731 -- probably something more substantial than just sitting down for fifteen minutes like you have to at my doctor's.

Sunday, 25 January 2009


Music I have been discovering, or re-, ordered according to appropriate occasion:
• If you're alone (because you're going to want to yodel along): spotify; youtube
• If you're looking for something that sounds like it's from the mellower bit of a Tarantino film (it's in Kill Bill 2, which I haven't seen): spotify, youtube
• You're in a Bollywood strings mood: spotify, youtube
• You're looking for a catchy song about being broken-hearted/playing ping pong: spotify, youtube
• You want some gospel-euro-camp (I'm making an Alexander Bard playlist): spotify, youtube
• You want to listen to someone shouting in a badly-sustained estuary accent (I wonder if daddy's a bishop?): spotify, youtube
• You yearn for anti-romantic Scandinavian electronica from a couple of years ago: spotify, youtube
• You're wondering how the Pussycat Dolls are feeling about fame these days: spotify, youtube
• You feel ancient (but justified): spotify, youtube
• You're trying to get through something: spotify, youtube

Friday, 23 January 2009

Hard work

If I were doing one of those books where you set yourself some pointless task and then write about it I would spend a year doing what the Guardian told me to. Reading that newspaper has become increasingly hard work. Every weekend there are supplements telling you to learn Portuguese, or set up a comprehensive exercise routine based on the workouts of Olympic athletes, or save something or other, or learn to play the piano. That's not even counting the main newspaper itself, which is full of things one's supposed to think or want. Currently they have a "1000 books everyone must read" supplement. This is just so pointlessly annoying. If they had called it "1000 books you might like" then I'd have collected the series of supplements and looked through them with interest. As it is each one just seems like an aggressive act, and all about setting you a checklist to fail against rather than actually about sharing some interesting book recommendations. If I were looking for reasons to feel bad about myself I would go to the sermons at St Andrew the Great's, which at least have the merit of some real moral basis. (I probably ought to do that, really.)

Still the comedy issue had a book called "Slouching Towards Kalamazoo" in it, which I shall take with me to Kalamazoo, I think. It's still up in the air whether I will be going to the Newfoundland conference. I think it would be a waste of time and money. But then again there isn't much that I've done in the course of my life which doesn't arguably fall into that category. Heigh ho.

Still at least it's a relief to know that the Guardian approves of music streaming. I'm getting a bit confused about what it logically implies though. Recently I have mostly been listening to music via Spotify, and discovering new stuff, and occasionally indulging in nostalgia to old things like Ebenezer Goode and Frazier Chorus. I have been feeling very clever for making it work on my office computer. But now I'm back where I was a year or so ago, when I listened to lots of stuff on my ipod, but everything I had for playing music out loud wanted CDs, so that I either sat around at home with headphones on or I could only listen to stuff I could physically find, which was a very last century way to live. I sorted it out by getting ipod dock speakers to take to Italy, and now I only use those and have never bothered to unpack my hifi. But now I am back to the same situation where I have to listen to stuff at home with headphones on, because my laptop's speakers aren't any good. I might need to set up some AirPort streaming system. Technology is complicated and confusing. Suddenly my ipod looks all out-dated. Could we all just stop and catch our breaths?

West End Girls! Here it is on spotify.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009


The problem with writing a diary is that it doesn't take much in the way of low mood or drunkenness before you start pouring out your heart into it. What comes out of the poured-out heart may very well have needed expurging, but it should have then been cleaned up and disposed of rather then kept for the future. I have teenage or even younger diaries which I can't quite bring myself to junk now they've got this far, but which I can't read or bear the thought of anyone else reading, because they're mostly gush about boys or horses. (Apparently having spent my entire youth with a mad intense crush on someone or other, occasionally both, is why I will never find sensible love as an adult, which, to be honest, I can live with.) At the same time it's hard to suppress the urge to record some comments on life to reread later. To get round this I once started a diary which wasn't about me, but about what my friends were up to, and this was the most interesting diary I have ever kept. Alas I lost it in a computer failure, the last one before I started my current paranoid backup system.

This blog is a reasonable solution to the problem. (I'm afraid I do write it for myself to reread later, and if that seems unpleasantly self-obsessed and wierd, well I find that I can forgive myself.) I can't pour my heart out to it because people might read it, but I can record stuff that I feel a need to get out of my system a bit. When I'm feeling particularly bad I sometimes write a happy post as an effective counter measure. Unfortunately it is a public place, and I can't count on people's not reading it, so there are some things it just wouldn't be appropriate to say. Sometimes you have to be more oblique.

In unrelated work news, if you find anything wrong with our 0.6 version website you can send the info in to Stanford using the "Contact Us" link at the bottom. Then it will get into their expensive and complicated bug-recording system and be carefully logged and given code numbers and everything.

Plus, if you want to be able to use programs without installing them on your computer, to which perhaps you don't have administrative access, the portable apps available at sites like this are a very good alternative -- you can put them in the My Documents folder if you don't want to carry them around on a USB pen. I'm going to experiment with making my own portable apps later, specifically spotify. I'm guessing that I will give up after about five minutes realising it's totally over my head.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Present continuous

I am quite enjoying using Spotify. Here is my "En francais" playlist.

I am also watching 30 Rock and have almost finished the second season. I'm sure it's wrong to find Alec Baldwin attractive. I like his show "MILF island": "25 super-hot mums, 50 eighth-grade boys, no rules." As he points out when one of the women turns out to be a hooker, "that doesn't mean she's not a wonderful caring MILF".

I am reading The Relic by Eça de Queiroz. So far very good, and a bit madder than the others.

Thursday, 15 January 2009


Today I am unwell and I can't speak at all, just make croaking noises. So I'm blogging instead of working. I haven't said anything about books for a while, partly because I've been doing quite a lot of rereading. I had to prune my books heavily before going to Italy so when I was unpacking them again I came across a lot of things I wanted to reread. Also I've forgotten all the stuff I read in Devon, except for The Journal of Dora Damage, which was readable but mediocre, and the thing I remember most about it was that the author died immediately after finishing it, which was sad.

I did pick up Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. It is good. Either Rushdie has returned to form or I've just not been in the mood for his last few books -- I think it's the former. I also read Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?. I think she's great and it annoys me that now there won't be another for a while. Benjamin Markovits's second Byron book, A Quiet Adjustment, is very well written and psychologically convincing, but I don't think I will ever reread it -- it just didn't quite interest me enough. It's never going to be easy to have any sympathy for someone who willingly marries Lord Byron. The book sort of skips her decision to marry him as well as most of the actual marriage, which was probably a good choice.

My boss recently decided that I watch too much television and spend too much time on the internet, so he has helpfully lent me a big pile of nineteenth-century novels translated from the Portuguese. They're by someone called Eça de Queiroz, who spent a long time as an ambassador in England (his letters are quite interesting apparently). They turn out to be very good. So far I've read The Crime of Father Amaro, which is like a sarkier Edith Wharton, and The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers, which is sort of Manon Lescaut meets Oedipus rex. They're pretty bitter. I've noticed that the women get their comeupance, but it's not in a straightforward anti-women sort of way, it's more as if he was a very cynical person who couldn't quite let go of the idea of women as moral beings. The men just get worse and worse and end up morally dead -- Father Amaro's crime results in some terrible consequences, but not to Father Amaro, and what he takes away from it all is a resolution only to "confess" married women.

Also I saw The Reader. I think people have been a bit harsh about this, as if they want it in some way to solve the holocaust. I would interpret it as just telling a story. If it's asking whether you can ever feel any sort of human relationship to someone who has done really terrible things then that's a fair question, and I don't think it makes any attempt to diminish her guilt -- especially given that she only ever shows shame about one thing, and it's not active participation in mass murder. I give it three and a half stars, which is short for reasonably interesting, not a waste of time, but probably quite forgettable, and I won't bother watching it when it's shown on Channel 4.

In this shocking story scientists have discovered that many Victorian novels promote moral behaviour! The scientists did this by getting academics to fill in a questionnaire. I assume Eça de Queiroz wasn't included; his sort of moral universe might not come over well in a third-hand questionnaire.

I used to like David Quantick a lot but his new Radio 4 thing, Broken Arts, isn't very good. Alas. But I do like these odd shorts, and also this Rex the Dog video, which I got off of popjustice.

Bubblicious from Rex The Dog on Vimeo.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Some things

1. As an evangelical I ought of course to be all enthusiastic about the atheist bus; but in my, as it were, private capacity I just find it annoying for all sorts of reasons too tedious to give here. But today I had a sudden thought about the puzzlingly weak phrasing which has remarked upon by many people; maybe it's actually a subtle message to Richard Dawkins from other atheists? Stop worrying, Dawkins, and enjoy your life!

2. These pictures of deserted London are very excellent. I particularly like the one of Waterloo Bridge completely empty; I've been over it so many times on foot or by bus and it's always teeming.

3. I've been watching 30 Rock. It's quite good. It's like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip only funny. I can't even remember if Studio 60 was supposed to be funny, or if I just assumed that because it had Chandler in.

4. Doesn't this bedroom version of Little Boots' Stuck on Repeat make the single sound over-produced?

I'd love to play with a Tenori-on but they're not cheap and it cannot be said that I need one.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

2009 has just started

I couldn't get to sleep last night so I worked out that the prime factors of 2009 are 7, 7 and 41. I don't know if it's possible for a number to have more than one set of prime factors but I suspect not; anyway 2009 doesn't.

At midnight mass on Christmas Eve, even though there tends to be a pretty poor sermon adapted to provide for all the non-church-goers who wander in from the pub, I usually get some sort of urge to improve my life (with the result that my resolutions for the coming year have often worn off by the time I get to New Year's Day). This year I have decided to try to return to reading more heavy-weight stuff. I'll make a big attempt to get back to Karl Barth's Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (translated by Hoskyns, a previous Parker Librarian), which I got stuck in at around chapter 5, partly through feeling a bit overwhelmed at what I might be going to have to try to understand for chapters 7 and 8. I also decided to read Rowan Williams' new book on Dostoyevsky, which I managed to find in Exeter on Boxing Day, and which I enjoyed very much. He explains well the problems with seeing Prince Myshkin as a Christ-figure, which bothered me but which I was never quite able to express. He also clarified very helpfully for me the views known as apophatic or "negative" theology, which can be found in one of its more extreme forms in Simone Weil's statement that one must pray to God as though he didn't exist, because however you imagine God to exist you are imagining him wrong, and your imagined God is not God but your own creation. Also, the "Kill the Buddha" idea, which comes from some Buddhist master telling his pupil that if he has a vision of the Buddha he must kill him, because it is not the Buddha he has met but an expression of his own longing. There's stuff about it here. It's interesting but it also seems like there's a problem with that and with the incarnation as theophany. Isn't there? Anyway, Williams talks instead about the Russian icon tradition, and ideas of whether the divine can be represented in an image, saying that while an icon is not a complete or correct image, it's not a matter of saying "this is not it" but saying "this is not all". Which makes much more sense to me. One day I will probably have to make up my own mind about images, but for the time being I enjoy my icon collection on a non-intellectual level. Dostoyevsky was very against the idea of Jesus as teacher, which also is pleasing -- all in all it's a satisfying book for explaining properly why various things have previously made me uneasy.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!
I watched the alternative Christmas message by the president of Iran, which is available on 4OD. I was slightly touched that he seemed so sure that in addressing the people of Britain, moreover the Channel-4-watching people of Britain, he was talking to a Christian nation with a reverence for the son of Sitt Miriam and the prophets. I was also interested in how much he talked about What Would Jesus Do. Why all this What Would Jesus Do stuff bugs me is summed up by what I said about the apophatic tradition above. Ivan Karamazov's story of the Grand Inquisitor conveys some of this, and Williams talks about it very well.

Hurray! Here's someone saying that Pullman's atheism is entirely derivative of Christianity, like I said on this blog a while ago. One might also observe that his view of sin as particularly sexual is very Augustine. I feel guilty for not getting more to grips with all these anti-religion arguments, but not enough to do anything about it when there are so much more interesting things to do, like Barth on Romans. Williams quotes the novelist Marilynne Robinson saying that Creationism is just the sort of impoverished ideology that militant atheist Darwinism most needed. Now we could do with the Christian backlash against Creationism. But Williams, entirely consistently with the thesis of his book and of his theology in general, works less by argument than through actions and narrative, and his reply to impoverished views of Christianity is to bring out in his Dostoyevsky book an examination of particularly interesting and subtle Christian views. Hurray for the archbishop! He's unusual.

More TV!
I do like Star Stories -- the Kate Moss one is very tasteless. I understand Take That have embraced theirs to the extent of playing extracts at their concerts, and I bet George Michael likes his, but the Bono one is pretty savage.

Little nephew slightly less little!
He has now passed his birth weight, and is nearly seven pounds, plus he is learning how to burp.

I got my new glasses. The lady at Boots made me try them on and look at her computer to check they were OK, which gave me the really odd experience of looking at something I could see perfectly clearly and then its suddenly becoming much clearer. I feel like this should be a metaphor for something.