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.