Wednesday, 25 February 2009


1. I've just finished Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, by Jessie Childs. Henry VIII executes him in the end, as the title rather gives away, but after the Congo books (I also reread Heart of Darkness) there's something rather restful about brutality which is individually targeted, intentional, and which no one is pretending is for the victim's own good.

2. Today is Ash Wednesday. This Lent, as a bit of a cop-out from anything that involves actual engagement, I am going to read Cassiodorus on the Psalms, either one Psalm per day doing one quinquagene each Lent for three years, or three Psalms per day in order to finish by Easter. (There are 47 days in Lent -- because Sundays don't count towards the 40 -- so I'll have to have a few days with extra Psalms.) I ought to do the former and read it properly in a medieval lectio divina style, moving through lectio, contemplatio, oratio and meditatio. In her second Sandars lecture yesterday Michelle Brown pointed out that almost all of us are illiterate in the sense in which that term was understood by Bede and his contemporaries. But I think I shall just read it, modernly and illiterately, although sometimes I feel tired of only ever scraping the surface of anything. The translation of the first fifty arrived this morning. It has an excellent index of "Arguments, Definitions, Syllogisms, Types of Speech" -- syllogisms come in categorical, enthymematic, epichirema, and hypothetical -- and another of figures of speech, which is full of things like synecdoche and paronomasia which I once knew about and others like tapeinosis and cacozelon which are completely new to me. This Silva rhetoricae should help.

And I'm not going to get my forehead marked with ashes, either -- I did consider it but this year's procession starts at the Corpus emo-bling clock, which put me off.

3. In non-religious news, here is an excellent Britney song -- though it takes a few minutes to kick in. The bassline is quite I Feel Love:

Friday, 20 February 2009

Some things

1. My Margaret book has been catalogued under the wrong author surname in several UK and US libraries. I think maybe I should just embrace all possible variants of my name and learn to love them. The interview I did for Woman's Hour was repeated the other day, presumably because snow staffing problems led them to scrape the repeats barrel, and I got a nice letter to "Ms. Rochefort" from a lady in Sidcup who wants to learn Old English. My foolish uncle thinks we're descended from Huguenots. He is almost certainly wrong.

2. Young undergraduate Matthew Parker earned 40 shillings a year plus the right to eat with the manciple when he became Bible Clerk at Corpus Christi in 1520 -- the income was derived from a property recently given to the college, very probably the Eagle. Nowadays the profits of that pub do not go towards having someone read the Bible out loud to the fellows over lunch. I wonder what they are spent on.

3. I have just finished Lucy Worsley's Cavalier and George Mann's Affinity Bridge. Both of them were unexpectedly dull. I might have enjoyed the Cavalier book if I hadn't been expecting a racy biography. It's written in a series of (masque-like) scenes, one day each and several years apart, which means that anything dramatic happens in brackets like in To The Lighthouse, and instead of a narrative there are tons of details about how exactly the household structure worked. I thought it was interesting that oak branches were a royalist symbol long before 1651, but that's as far as it went, really. Affinity Bridge is a steampunk murder mystery set in a Victorian London filled with airships and automatons, with the occasional zombie lurching out of the pea-soupers, and it really shouldn't be more boring than the biography of Richard Bentley which I have also been reading on and off.

4. I have also just finished Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, a brilliant book, very readable, and also horrendous. It's about the Congo and is full of terrible facts, like Stanley's enthusiastic comment on the Maxim gun, which could fire 600 bullets a minute, that it would be "of valuable service in helping civilisation to overcome barbarism"; or that in 1906 the Bronx Zoo in New York exhibited a black man from the Congo called Ota Benga in their monkey house. King Leopold seems to have been a remarkably evil man; he had, for example, a subscription at a London brothel whereby for eight hundred pounds a month they kept him supplied with girls, warranted virgin, aged from ten to fifteen. These terrible but discrete things are easier to write about than the main issue, the mass murder and slave labour. Vast numbers of people died -- maybe about ten million, but it's hard to tell because the deaths counted so little to the killers that they weren't recorded. The aim of the colonists was to extract as much ivory and rubber as possible, and the deaths of the forced labourers (known as liber├ęs, 'freed people', and often referred to as volunteers) only seem to have been of interest insofar as they kept the remaining slaves in a state of fear on the one hand, or diminished the size of the workforce on the other. For the first time ever I felt some twinges of relief that our current bunch of constitutional monarchs are traditionally brainless -- you can't imagine Prince Harry setting up a huge colony and enslaving its population for vast profits while gathering donations from philanthropists on the grounds that it's all a selfless humanitarian exercise. Probably the undergraduates who toasted Empire at a dinner the other night should have to read this book.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Honest Abe; and some other good stuff

I enjoyed Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals -- actually it's more a group biography of him and some of his contemporaries. This tactic works very well in putting into context things like passionate friendships and disturbing statements about race. I particularly liked the evocative names, and got a bit carried away in collecting them. Schuyler Colfax; Eldridge Spaulding; Thurlow Weed; Millard Fillmore; Reverdy Johnson; Lyman Trumbull; Hannibal Hamlin; Montgomery Meigs; Amasa Sprague; Elmer Ellsworth; Roscoe Conkling; Hamilton Gamble; Ulric Dahlgren; Junius Booth; Elihu Washburne; Jubal Early; Pamphila Walcott; Erastus Corning; Orpheus C. Kerr; Murat Halstead; Ithamar Chase, his brother the bishop Philander Chase, and his son Salmon Chase. The last wanted to change his name, finding it "awkward, fishy"; which is such a wonderfully Pynchonesque way of putting it.

I know very little about American history. I've never really found it that interesting. This Lincoln biography, which has been huge in America, has been marketed on the assumption that all that has changed since November. I counted eight mentions of Obama on the outside of the book and only five of Lincoln -- Obama even makes it onto the spine, which Lincoln doesn't. I was sufficiently influenced by a positive write-up in the Literary Review to overlook this annoying attempt at relevance. Another reason for my change of heart may be because I've always looked upon the Roman Republic and America as similar in the way that their self-satisfied claims to be founded on high principles just make their revolting failures of moral behaviour all the more depressing; but recently I've been really enjoying learning about the Roman Republic in the History of Rome podcast, which is the best podcast, especially if you discount ones which are just edited highlights of radio shows.

Anyway my ignorance meant that some things surprised me. I hadn't known that at this period the Democratic party was automatically seen as the party of slavery and the agricultural south, rather than the industrialised north. (Which made me think, probably irrelevantly, of this map from the excellent Strange Maps blog.) That the Republican Party arose out of the Whig party also surprised me. Mostly however I was struck by the fact that 1860 really isn't that long ago. It's the era of my great-great-grandparents, and I can remember some of my great-grandparents. But even that recently some terrible things were being said about race not just by those who supported slavery, which you'd expect, but by those who opposed it. Everyone was keen to dodge the accusation that they believed in racial equality. Even as Lincoln was waiting for the right moment to make the Emancipation Proclamation he was trying to persuade a delegation of freed slaves to support a mass emigration movement to settle in colonies in Africa; and the ex-slave Frederick Douglass's emotional response to being allowed to enter the White House, and being treated as a man by Lincoln, is touching and upsetting. I knew that it was a naive view to see the American Civil War as just about slavery, with the righteous North trying to stamp out the evil, but I suppose I was surprised because British opinion by that date was mostly more advanced. Am I not a man and a brother? etc. But maybe I only think this because I only read biographies of the sort of people who were likely to be on that side of the debate. I think I will look out a good biography of Frederick Douglass, who sounds like a remarkable man.

I was also disturbed by the author's anxiety to distance Lincoln from depression at all. She says that he had melancholy instead. Apparently "melancholy differs from depression. It is not an illness; it does not proceed from a specific cause; it is an aspect of one's nature ... perhaps genetically based." Her logic seems to be that Lincoln functioned as a human being and as a president and that therefore he can't have ever suffered from mental illness. It seems rather old-fashioned to me to see mental illness as necessarily incapacitating, rather than something with which people might be able to deal. Actually it makes me very angry. I also dislike the Stephen Fry madness-and-genius thing, which runs the risk of being a bit like that old patronising attitude that blind people have remarkably developed senses of smell and hearing, etc. I think that both of these are harmful; people who find themselves mentally unwell should not have to think that they are now incapacitated and unable to contribute, or that they now have to do genius things to justify it and not be a double-loser. If people in general had a better sense that this is an illness that can be cured or managed then maybe people might deal with it better, maybe there could even be fewer deaths. For now this is the end of my rant, but I might return to it at some point.

In other news
I like the Black Cab Sessions. Here is Benjamin Zephaniah doing an excellent The Wrong Radio Station. Here's Amanda Palmer doing Radiohead's Creep, always a fantastic and moving song. Here's Lykke Li.

Also good; Amanda Palmer's I Google You song, with lyrics written by Neil Gaiman. Someone I work with joined an academic networking site which he didn't realise at the time would subsequently e-mail to tell him every time he's googled -- he finds it disconcerting.

And this is still great!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Spending money on books

Waterstone's have an overseas fiction section in their 3-for-2 offer. From it you should buy Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita; Szerb's Voyage by Moonlight; and Calvino's Invisible Cities.

I keep forgetting to write about what I've been reading, plus I'm still doing a lot of rereading at the moment -- lately John Julius Norwich's History of Byzantium, which I have certainly blogged about before. I read the new Patrick McGrath, Trauma, which is quite good, but I don't think he has ever quite got back to the heights of Asylum, which is a spooky modern Gothic story about a 1950s woman who falls in love with a mental patient, or Dr Haggard's Disease, which is also about obsessive love, though I forget the details. I also read the new Naomi Novik Temeraire book, which made me smile. I think that, like J.K. Rowling, she has an appealing natural honesty in her work. In this book Lawrence and Temeraire have to face the consequences of their decision to do the moral thing at the end of the last book, including worries about whether it was really the moral thing to do after all. I'd recommend the series if you want something easy to read and friendly but not annoyingly vacant, or they'd be good for children too I expect. I read Heather McGowan's Schooling because a friend recommended it, and it is very good. It's a sort of stream-of-consciousness story of a thirteen-/fourteen-year-old girl whose father sends her to an English boarding school after the death of her mother. The problem with stream-of-consciousness stuff is that I just don't think like that; I mostly think in sentences, certainly with proper words in (and sometimes I find myself going back to correct split infinitives); and if someone nearby says something aloud it in no way becomes jumbled with what I'm thinking. Everything doesn't rush at me at once. If the inside of someone's head was really like McGowan's Schooling then I think they would be mentally ill to a quite significant degree. The interesting thing is that I didn't use to think this about stream-of-consciousness when I first encountered it as a teenager. Either I was less critical then, or the way my brain thinks has changed and everything did use to rush at me at once, which may be true. Plus I read The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman. I quite enjoyed it -- it's not challenging stuff, and it annoyed me on the first page when someone discovers a "parchment" with a watermark, but then "person finds interesting manuscript in the Bodleian" is one of the great story-lines, and I do intend to write one myself one day. There's a lot about western slave-girls entering the Sultan of Constantinople's harem, written in a way which must have made the publishers think "bingo!". The odd thing is that when I finished it and read the thanks at the end I discovered that she's married to A.C. Grayling. Somehow that doesn't seem quite congruent with writing racy orientalist historical fiction. And I read Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake. I nearly didn't pick this up because the hero is described in the blurb as a Briton called Aelric, but actually this was explained in the book, and most of its inaccuracies are arguable -- the Donation of Constantine is now thought to have been forged rather later than that, and the description of book production was more late medieval than early. I can never quite believe that the use of imposition in manuscript-making was more than a daft passing fad. The story is OK, but the blurb likens the main character to Flashman, which he isn't at all. I'll probably read the next one. Also I read The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday, which was a real downer.

In other news I'm very annoyed because I just found out something I didn't know about bookland (not a land full of books but a type of Anglo-Saxon land tenure). And here is a good song:

and here is a fantastic one:

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Mandatory conferences

Well, the decree has come from California: I've got to go to Newfoundland for ISAS this July. It's not that I'm not interested in seeing Newfoundland, it's just that the travelling will be so long and complex, and when I get there I will be surrounded by Anglo-Saxonists. I know many Anglo-Saxonists of whom I am fond as individuals but en masse they do not thrill me. At least it's a proper conference with proper intelligent papers, unlike Kalamazoo -- WHICH I ALSO HAVE TO ATTEND!

There's an Anne Tyler book called the Accidental Tourist which has a character who goes around writing travel books for people who would rather be at home. It tells them where they can get a good burger (this being an American book) in all sorts of obscure places. I wouldn't go that far, and I certainly don't want to pretend I'm still in Cambridge. But some guidance would be helpful. Most people who go to Newfoundland presumably have decided to go there, so they already know why they want to be there. I'd like to know what I might enjoy in Newfoundland. I understand the local accent is endearing, and I might see some whales. But some more help would be good.

The programme for Kalamazoo is out now. My session is at 8.30 on the Sunday morning. Not only does this mean that no one will come, making the whole exercise even more pointless, but I can't leave before the Saturday night disco like I did last time. I could always not go to the disco -- but I fear I will turn up to revolt myself at the sight of all those professors dancing revoltingly with their conference wives, or with oddly-flattered postgraduates. I think I will arrive half-way through the week since I can't leave early, though this does mean I will miss such papers as "Holy Shitheads: The Path of Unreason and “Wasted” Thought in Medieval Saints" (shouldn't there be a "' Lives" on the end there?), "Our Father’s Eggs: The Use of the Paternoster as a Medieval Timing Device", and "The Pleasures of Fecopoet[h]ics". Looking through I find that all the usual suspects are there. There's enough Tolkien that you could probably get through the whole conference without encountering any other author, and more papers (i.e. some) on Elvish than on Welsh. (Elvish is essentially Welsh, but Welsh is a real language with real medieval texts in it.) Of course there are also mentions of the Buffyverse, J.K. Rowling, online RPGs, the blogosphere, and 9/11. There's also a paper on that YouTube clip of some people rapping Chaucer, and quite a lot about Angelina Jolie. Will I survive the experience with any remaining feeling of connection to academia? I think I'm using the term "academia" here deliberately in opposition to the term "scholarship". Scholarship I still love; I'd like to be a scholar.

Sunday, 1 February 2009


I'm on cute overload! (Well not me, obviously.)