Friday, 31 December 2010


In 2011 I am going to try to blog briefly about everything I read.  Now I no longer get to keep all my books (and I'm still finding that a bit painful) I'd like some other way of keeping track of what I have read.  (Plus I would be interested to know how many books I get through -- I've got nearly 60 things in the Finished folder on my Kindle so far.)  I might try to catch up a bit as well, and blog about some things I've read over the last few months.

Also I think I might watch the whole of Battlestar Galactica again.  I like the cylons with their side-to-side red eye lights and Greek-inspired design.  I'm more afraid of the ancient Greeks than of dinosaurs.

I am also going to develop an opinion on East Coast versus West Coast rap.  In a way I've missed that particular question, but I know there's really good rap out there that I'm not hearing.  I've given up on modern art and the theatre, but I think that if I really try to listen to rap properly I'll get something back from it.

Three resolutions is enough.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Dreaming of a green New Year

Hurray, I can see some grass!

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Oh how I hate facebook

I had an e-mail today to say Welcome back to Facebook!  And that if I hadn't reactivated my account I should go to facebook help.  Of course it wasn't me who reactivated my account.  So I have just spent half an hour having to reactivate it in order to change the password and then removing all information from it -- the profile picture alone had to be deleted from several different places, and it wouldn't let me delete my name, birthday, or gender.  Just out of curiosity I looked at its page of suggested friends, and became absolutely furious about the accuracy of its predictions.  It has to have had access to my e-mail correspondence in some way to do that.  There's no other way it would suggest I should be friends with Kevin Kiernan, Professor of English at Kentucky, with whom I once shared a conference session and a brief polite argument about manuscript digitisation.  Last time I tried to get rid of facebook you could only deactivate your account, but now you can delete it, so I've set that in motion.  It takes fourteen days.

Possibly my account was hacked.  Christmas is the season for hacking and spamming, I suppose because a lot of bored people have time on their hands.  But if I were facebook I would send that message to all deactivated accounts from time to time, to force them to reactivate and perhaps lure tham back in for monetisation.

I first got a facebook account at the instigation of a friend who wanted to show me something he thought was funny, and which I really didn't, and that's been my whole experience with facebook ever since.  I have never looked at anyone's facebook page without thinking just a little the less of them, which is why it's not for me, because I like to like my friends.  I can't believe how much of my time and patience that website has taken up.

Of course I probably wouldn't be in such a bad mood if the snow had thawed.  It's ten days since it fell and it's pretty much all still there.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas!

The very low temperatures have made the snow go all sparkly in the Christmas sun.  It was cold as predicted on the way to church -- people said that it was minus 12 -- and then when we got there the heating was broken and so we all had to sit shivering in our coats and scarves.  Everything anyone said hung in front of them in a mist, and you could see when people were whispering to each other.  No one had told me in advance that I was doing the reading, but it was OK because it was an excellent shouty one from Isaiah, lovely feet on mountains etc.  At communion (I took off my gloves for it) when the vicar handed out the consecrated bread she also gave each of us a chocolate coin.  I don't know what the liturgical traditionalists would make of this but I thought it was quite nice.

The sermon was all about the BBC's dramatisation of the nativity, which to be honest annoyed me a bit, because I've been avoiding it all week when my parents watch it, and I don't need some Eastenders writer to point out to me that it must all have been very difficult at the time.  From a young age I saw the nativity tale as a horror story and it's taken me a long time to make any peace with it.  My favourite thing anyone's ever said about it was Rowan Williams pointing out that small babies are alien and hard to understand.  The churches round here are great for fellowship and being kind to each other, but not excellent at the sermons.

The people next door have no heating because the oil in their tank has frozen.  But the BBC predicts better weather tomorrow.  In the meantime I'm proud of the university I went to.  I like to think that if anyone had tried to censor my post-grad work my head of department would have written similarly, but oddly enough no one was that outraged by my edition of the Life of St Cuthburga or my analysis of the manuscripts made at Bury St Edmunds in the eleventh or early twelfth century.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Weather forecast

It's predicted to be minus 9 tomorrow morning when we walk to church in the village, but then we did have some actual sun today.  The icicles have got a bit out of hand.  There are some really long ones by the front door, and the wisteria is smothered in them.  It won't take much more to pull the whole structure off the wall, and the ground below is already covered in little shards that look like broken glass.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The hills are back!

I can see the distant hills again!  This has lifted my spirits even though logically it's a bad thing, since it means the fog has lifted, which in turn means that there is slightly less material between us and the infinite depths of cold space, which means low temperatures.  Nonetheless, hurray!
Distant hills!
Otherwise the snow is still here, perhaps a little diminished on some of the gateposts.  My parents have been hunting tracks in the snow.  I'd like to be the sort of person who goes out into the cold to look for animal tracks but I'm the sort of person who stays at home and blogs instead.

Anyway, here's an excellent video of babies bouncing along to German Industrial music (off of Boing Boing).

A friend sent me this, explaining the Dude in the Big Lebowski as a Christian ascetic in the holy fool mode.  I quite like this, but it does beg the question: what about Maude Lebowski?  She sees through her father's pretensions, and devotes herself to her "strongly vaginal" art.

Here's a man who has made suspenders for low-hanging trousers.  If these caught on the world would be a wonderful and surreal place.  Over time trousers become like loose heavy stockings, and pants are recognised as outerwear.

And here are two great Martin Solveig and Dragonette songs (off of popjustice).  There's something about how Martin Solveig looks which only a Frenchman could get away with.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Bored of snow

The snow's not really melting here.  I don't think we've had any more, but the trees and hedges are still loaded with it.

Our trip to Tesco was clearly hubristic.  In my excitement at getting out I had forgotten how horrible supermarkets are just before Christmas, negociating your way past people with two full trollies, searching for bread sauce, while the PA system blares out a ska version of Mary's Boy Child.  On the way back there was a bus stuck in the middle of Uffculme and lots of us had to go in convoy across the back roads.  We got over several humpback bridges and then loads of us got stuck at the bottom of a slope.  We all took it in turns to push each other up the icy hill, which was nervewracking because it was hard to get a grip.  When we got back home someone had pushed their broken-down car across our drive, clearly mistaking it for a place where no one would ever want to go.

Anyway I don't think there's any chance I'll get away again until at least after Christmas.  This isolation ought to make it easy to do work but I just obsessively check the BBC weather forecast.  It's always predicting milder weather for the day after tomorrow.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Still too snowy

There's been no more snow in the night.  With much digging, and pushing, and bickering, my parents and I managed to get both cars out, and they've gone off to try to get the tyres changed.  I know one's not supposed to say I told you so, but I did suggest this three weeks ago, and they pooh-poohed me.  Every now and then I can just see the hills from my window, but mostly it's the same as yesterday, with the ground brighter than the sky.  If all goes well with the tyres we might attempt a Christmas shopping trip to Tesco.  That's excitement for you.

It may be getting on my nerves, but this weather does have some odd beauty to it.  The hedges and trees have big globs of snow in them as if shot from a foam cannon.  You can look straight at the sun, which looks like the moon but slightly lemonier.  And today we have icicles.  The wisteria on the side of our house by the front door has become completely covered in them overnight.  I took this video while they were melting a bit in the sun.  That's stopped now, though.

Wisteria with icicles
The ice has completely covered some of these red stems
Look how thick the ice is round the twig on the left
There are little icicles all through the wisteria

Monday, 20 December 2010

The late 80s were like this


From one of those best books of the year lists:

4. Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl explores ideas of authorship and collaboration through the act of translation. Hawkey didn’t know German when he began translating Georg Trakl’s poems, and so he integrated creative techniques like using using an online translation program, shooting the text with a 12 gauge and translating the perforated page, and leaving pages exposed to the elements for a year before translating what remained. In doing so, Hawkey physically represents (and augments) the inherent degradation of the original text that occurs in translation. Ventrakl is as much a book of poetry as it is a meditation on how the identities of the author and translator merge. The result is haunting and beautiful.

Hello from snowy mid-Devon

On Wednesday I went to Tesco with my mother.  I should have enjoyed it more at the time, because it looks like it was my last outing for quite a while.  Last night there was another six to eight inches of snow, and I think we might count as snowed in.

We did actually go out yesterday evening.  My father has been in China at a conference on biodiversity, not Graun-style whole ecosystems biodiversity but the biodiversity of some particular species or groups of species of shrub.  It's important to have lots of genotypes.  His flight back was diverted from Heathrow to Edinburgh, and he was very lucky to get a flight down to Exeter airport.  However, that meant my mother had to collect him.  I didn't want her to go alone because it was forecast to be minus seven last night, so we loaded the car with shovels, blankets, foodstuffs and grit, and headed off.  It took us twenty minutes to get 200 yards to the pub -- luckily for us our nextdoor neighbours came and helped me push the car over the difficult bits.  Anyway we did eventually get him home, and though we couldn't get the car back in the drive at least we left it out of people's way.  But it made it clear just how unlikely it is that we're going anywhere.  If I got appendicitis I expect I could, eventually, be got to a hospital, but short of that extreme measure I'm stuck here.  And I can't see the hills from my window.
Desk view: note lack of distant hills
Even my dad's bamboo is holding a surprising amount of snow:
Spot the blue tit
Here's the gate to the garden and paddock.
The theme is snow
To photograph this teasel I walked into snow deeper than my wellies.
Snow is heavy
There are also some icicles, which are quite pretty, and which are melting in an encouraging fashion.
Anyway I'm not going out again without my sunglasses.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Getting hay to alpacas before sunset

It's real Oh-let-me-see-thy-footmarks-and-in-them-plant-mine-own weather out there. My mother says the way to deal with it is to put alpaca fluff or hay in your boots. We got hay round to all the alpacas before the sun got too low, but it's nearly gone now.  The thaw stopped a couple of hours ago, and the snow that's left we're stuck with.  In places which have been shady all day the snow is eight or nine inches deep.

Unfortunately I can't find my proper camera so these pictures are from my mobile phone, and not very good.

This wether is clearly well insulated

They fell on the hay I was carrying as if starved, but actually they still had some left in their shelter

The winterburn is frozen

At the back on the right is baby Jemima
It's going to take ages for my toes to defrost.

The big thaw

I love watching a really big thaw, it reminds me of the end of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Right now it's only snowing here if you stand underneath the trees. We had about six inches overnight, a proper snow where everything turns white, and now the sun is melting it. It was uncanny at about three in the morning: the moonlight reflected on the snow so that it never got dark, and the light shone in through my curtains all night.

We have an arrangement in the village about newspapers. No one is going to deliver papers around here, not least because none of the streets have names and the houses don't have numbers. But the nearest newsagent drives out every morning with our paper orders, and they get left on a table in the women's loo at the pub. The pub's loos open onto the street -- you have to go out of the pub and a little way down the road to get to them. Everyone picks up their paper in the morning when they walk the dog or whatever. The newsagent politely tucks my Saturday Guardian inside the Daily Telegraph so that my father doesn't have to feel embarrassed carrying it home.

When I got up this morning it was quite clear that none of us were going anywhere, and that the newsagent would not have driven up Cork's Hill with our papers. But just now we got a phonecall from Trevor Underhill, saying he'd taken his tractor down and collected the papers himself. Trevor Underhill is a proper old-style farmer. He's been retired for years, but he can't stop doing farmery things, and he cuts the hedges and brings in people's hay for them. He has a Devon accent as thick as clotted cream, and relatively few teeth.

If we ignore what Thatcher did to the Tories and what Blair did to Labour and think back to older political divides, even though I still think that we have a duty to care for each other because life is too random to assume everyone can make it on their own, I can see the attractions of the Tory way because it's how people live here. If something gets broken or stuck here, the farmers fix it. In the last big freeze one of our outdoor taps broke, and the farmer who has the next field rummaged through his box of random useful bits and pieces until he found just the right fitting to mend it. So next time my mother went to Mole Valley Farmers she bought him a replacement, but it meant the tap was fixed quickly and without fuss. When my parents ordered some concrete and the idiot suppliers sent it in a 32-ton lorry which unsurprisingly got stuck in the field, Trevor bought his tractor down, and called a friend, who called another friend, who called the man with the biggest tractor in the village, and with those four tractors they dislodged it. That sort of pugnacious attitude to problems is probably the only way to keep going as a farmer. You can't be a farmer and expect the government or any sort of central authority to help you out.

I'm going to walk down to the pub now and get my Guardian. Hopefully Trevor has not discriminated but brought them all -- unless he felt that Guardian-readers have no right to profit from acts of private enterprise. Later I'm going to help my mother with alpacas, so I'll try to get some pictures.

Friday, 17 December 2010

A few more things

Amanda Palmer has released an anti-pube-shaving song.  It's quite good.  In a way that's pretty typical of her uniqueness she manages to make a post about it into a story of the best "sorry for your loss" present ever.

Blimey the Graun is good at making pop sound like a dull chore.  I might try out this album, though.

I want to make my own recycled train set but my nephew is too young for it and he's my excuse for this sort of thing.  For his birthday earlier this week I got him a Noah's Ark set, which he loved, and my parents got him a Trunki ride-on suitcase, for which he went absolutely crazy.  He's probably also too young for Bad-Ass Lego Guns.  *sigh*.

Apparently our universe shows signs of being bruised by collisions with other universes.

If you want to join in all the wikileaks fun then then why not put an encrypted version of the cables on a swish USB stick and wear it as jewellery?

I like that this website gets people to recommend the books they've enjoyed most this year whenever those books were released, so you end up with something a bit more interesting than just loads of people recommending Franzen's Freedom.

Get that imposter pug! Get him!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Things I have learnt

The Italians have some odd ideas and we should probably just let them get on with it.

I'll post some alpaca pictures when I can get some good ones.  Here is a story about an alpaca in a hospital.

You can buy maps printed on thin cloth.  I may have some sort of map-buying problem.

Sheep live in hobbit houses.

One of my old students is undergoing discernment to be a vicar.  I think this is quite cool.

I'm a bit sad about the demise of X Magazine, because after the end of the X Factor was when it was going to get good, with less about X Factor contestants and more general pop stuff like Smash Hits.  Alas.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


There was the most beautiful hoar frost while I was in Cambridge, and everything was covered in surprisingly long ice spikes.  Here's Cranmer Road pretending it's in a fairytale, white vans and all.

You could put the far end of Cranmer Road in a fairytale because it does feel a bit shifted from the rest of Cambridge, a degree or two colder and not quite in the same place.  Also the new Parker Library is haunted by inexplicable laptop typing noises.  The old one was haunted by the ghost of when M. R. James got locked in on a winter's night and had to break a pane of glass to attract the porters' attention.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Twitter and TV

I tend to keep an eye on Twitter while I watch the X Factor, and Richard P. Bacon has just expressed the opinion that anyone who enjoyed that Black Eyed Peas performance is a moron.  I enjoyed that performance by the Black Eyed Peas because it's pleasantly silly, and I do have the Dirty Bit song on my ipod to help keep me struggling onwards as I walk through the slush to the UL.  I'm not saying I'm completely the opposite of a moron.  But I will go up against Richard Bacon in a moron-off any day.

Edit: here's the official video.

PS hair whipping

You've probably come across Whip My Hair by Willow Smith.  Forget how old she is, and who her father is, and it's a very good pop song.  Remember those things and it's a bit depressing.  Anyway it's released now.  The video is embedding disabled by request.

If Cowell picks this for the Winner's Song you'll know it's a fix for Cher.

Cantab. misc.

Well, I'm in Cambridge again, on a trip I've had to organise quite carefully to fit in with other things, like a talk I gave on Thursday night in London, which was quite good fun.  Even though it's always a bad time in Cambridge, I accidentally picked a particularly bad time to come up, having failed to notice that it was a) Commemoration of Benefactors b) interviews season.  I'm going to buy a card for the woman who found me a college room despite all this, to thank her and apologise.  At the Commemoration of Benefactors service they read out the names of all the college's benefactors, starting with a brewer called Margery, and then one of the fellows gives a short talk about some aspect of the college's history.  There's a pleasing old-school piety about it, piety in the old Roman sense of remembering the ancestors.  The interviews, on the other hand, are very much of the now.  I get really annoyed whenever I hear people moan about Oxbridge admissions, because I know how much sincere effort is put into it in Cambridge at least.  Almost everyone is completely taken over by it for about a week or more, and there is constant discussion at lunch about how to be fair, and what's the best way to look for potential rather than the effects of past tutoring.  It's really hard work to do, I remember well, because you're dealing with seventeen-year-olds and you want to give them as many opportunities as possible in a short time to show you that they can think.  Now that I haven't done it for a few years I've got a good outside perspective on the vast amounts of effort that everyone puts in.  I had a job interview a while ago at a top UK university, one of the best non-Oxbridge ones, and when I asked how they went about selecting their students from the applications, the head of the department couldn't tell me, and the whole panel talked about it as some dull duty they'd managed cleverly to avoid.  While in Cambridge it's seen as something you'd want to have a say in, an important part of what a university does.

When recently Die Antwoord were "all up in the interweb", as they put it, I didn't pay a lot of attention because so much of the coverage seemed to about the unusual disease which one of the bandmates has.  Plus what are the chances that Boing Boing and I would share a taste in music?  But I quite like this one:

That's the clean version, which has lots of punch and slap noises over the words in an "Uzi lover" style, which I find quite funny.

Although getting the internet in my current room involved moving all the furniture and unscrewing a mystery white box using the end of the squashed penny I got at Bristol zoo with my little nephew (it made me feel like the evil bloke from No Country for Old Men, except that he used unsquashed pennies with no sentimental value), and then buying a cable from the big Tesco's and getting involved in a minor car crash in the taxi on the way back, plus the usual restarting and endless retyping of credit card details, now I've got it working it's so much faster than Devon internet that it feels really luxurious.  I can watch YouTube videos without having to pause and wait for the download to catch up, and I can stream live TV using

Aso here are some good photographs I saw on the web.  These two large photos of stock exchanges are very striking.  Here's a thing about making real life things look like models.  Here are some good London photos.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

NaNoWriMo: some thoughts I had about it all

1. There are many ways in which it felt like something other than just trying to write a novel, like some sort of life exercise, or a thing you might do as a discipline in order to learn about yourself and grow as a human being.  After all, people write diaries for that reason.  And let's face it, the thing really holding my diary back from being interesting is me. I've always disapproved of my own diary attempts as an unhealthy pandering to my innate introspective egotism. Hurray for leisure novelling!

2. It's wierdly emotional.  I started off feeling a deep and very satisfying hatred for my book, and this was the undercurrent of the whole experience.  It felt like the sort of emotion that a supervillain might feel for a hero, a fascinated and enjoyable detestation.  I also felt occasional flashes of triumph just at the thought of the sheer number of words I was getting through, and moments of deep pity, as if I had accidentally injured something helpless.  All the way through there's the disgust when you inadvertently reread what you've read.  I dealt with that mostly by ignoring it.  (If I were a Catholic I would have "offered it up".)  When I got to fifty thousand words I felt stupefied, and when I finished the whole story I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of terror.  The NaNoWriMo thing is not conducive to sanity.  The message boards are quite good for this, because they make you realise that everyone is a bit loony, and that this can actually be a strength, making stories more interesting, and helping to keep you going.  There are excellent posts where people ask for help with things like, if their hero has the superpower of turning things to jelly and he accidentally does this to the office block where he lives, what's his best hope of escaping from the 20th floor alive?  And would viscosity be an issue if you were trying to fill a cave with custard?  And there are memes like the travelling shovel of death.  To participate in that one, you simply kill someone in your novel with a shovel.  I killed a viking with a shovel, right to the back of the neck.  Go England!

3. Quality.  Quality is a big issue.  How could I possibly write 50 000 good words in a month?  I don't think I could.  Can I write 50 000 good words at all?  I don't know.  Usually when I try to write fiction, I write a few paragraphs and then worry about whether or not they're any good, and spend lots of time revising those bits, and then I give up.  Throughout NaNoWriMo it's been the case that I know that most of what I'm writing is awful, not "oh bother I'm disheartened with my work, I quite liked it yesterday but now I think it's bad" sort of awful, but obviously and straightforwardly bad from the moment it emerges from my fingertips. It takes the worry out of it if you decide to let it go and just get on with it.  But the whole NaNoWriMo thing is a huge exercise in humility.  You'd have to be a very bad reader, or one of those super-unrealistic people who sing appallingly at X Factor auditions, to think that you are writing something like a proper novel as you go.  (Or maybe you could be a genius like Dostoyevksy, but if you are I don't want to know about it.)  The NaNoWriMo people make this very clear, to their credit, and suggest you look upon what you write not even as a first draft, but a zeroth draft, or a halfth draft -- one month for writing, and eleven for revising.  In a way it's a shame they call it a novel at all.  It could be NaFiDraWriMo.  But the whole time you are writing you are humiliating yourself by doing something you care about and doing it badly.  It feels quite mature to keep going anyway.  That's definitely one of the hardest things about it, not just producing the words but quelling your self-dislike as you do so.

4. The anti-NaNoWriMo press annoys me.  It reminds me a bit of my school cello teacher.  I loved my cello though I wasn't that conscientious about practicing.  I hated playing those horrible concerts where  kids take it in turns to scrape through some "Tune a Day" piece about a happy pigeon or something, and all the parents clap all the kids on the understanding that that way their own children will also receive hearty applause.  I hated that.  One time I got as far as turning up with my cello and then just plain refusing to perform.  My cello teacher could not understand anyone not wanting to play for other people.  She said to me, if no one can hear you, what's the point in playing the cello?  I did not feel like that.  My favourited cello-playing times were with no one else in earshot,  trying to pick out tunes I knew or playing old favourites, or making things up as I went.  And however much journalists may act as if the only point in writing is to sell it (stupid Samuel Johnson) it's clear that a huge number of people do not write for that reason.  Look at fanfic and its amusing sub-genre slashfic.  People who write those know from the outset that they will never make money from them because they don't own the characters.  It has to be done as an expression of love (or other, stranger emotions).  No one goes to art classes and tells the painters to give up because they'll probably never sell their work commercially.  No one tells knitters just to buy their jumpers from M&S.  If I join a choir and sing in it, no one's going to say I'm fooling myself because I won't get paid.  I could go jogging, and I probably ought to, and I'm not going to be put off just because I'm unlikely to win any marathons or acquire lucrative sponsorship deals.  No, I'll be put off because I'm lazy.  People enjoy writing.  I would like to publish a novel one day, it's true.  It may well be that this one has to be one of those "I wrote four novels before I got one published" sort of things -- as you can imagine, I'm pretty scared to read the damn thing, so I don't know yet.  If that's the case, and even if I never publish any fiction,  then, nonetheless, it has not been a waste of time. It's been an experience.  It's been a painful and creative sort of fun.

5. If at all possible I'm going to do it next year.  I don't know what my work circumstances will be next year, but I think that an hour a day with maybe a couple of extra hours over the weekend is enough.  This year, even though I have hated my novel most of the way through, I have still found it very easy to motivate myself.  I have even managed to use the prospect of evening novelling to help me work on my freelance stuff during the day (much of what I'm doing at the moment comes down to formatting, and it does get a tad dull).  I think that next year I'll try doing something a bit crazier, perhaps involving talking rats.  Not something that could ever be commercial, but something I'd feel good about writing. The novel I wrote this year started out as a joke in my head, and I feel that if I'd left it a bit more jokey and undefined then it might have been more fun to write. There could have been pirates in it!

6. I printed it out -- it comes to 176 pages in 1.5 spacing, so I printed it duplex for the sake of the trees.  I made it a front cover using Wordle and bound it with four treasury tags.  I like that "people" is my most commonly used word.  I'm going to pretend that it's a deliberate calque on the Old English word þeod instead of just a word I overuse. And now I've got to reread the thing.  The idea fills me with dread.  I feel like I'm going to the vet to find out whether my puppy is riddled with disease. I'm going to reread it once quickly, for an overview of structure, and then, unless I feel I have to put it out of its misery, I will work through it several times slowly, revising properly, trying to turn some of the sentences into good sentences.
72, 288 words of historical detective story by me.

7. I won NaNoWriMo!  Go me!  Also, so did my only NaNoWriMo buddy, nwjvfoi, who started at short notice and improvised more, which I think may be more in the spirit of the thing.  Go nwjvfoi!  We rock!  Oh yeah!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

It seems that books are great even when they're rubbish

Validation for NaNoWriMo goes live at midnight.  After checking up on the procedure I ended up on the forums, which are generally quite fun.  I'm going to write properly about my reactions to the whole NaNoWriMo thing at some point in the future, but I've been annoyed by anti-NaNoWriMo press which alleges that NaNoWriMoers are not readers.  So I was looking in particular at the posts which mention reading.  If you register you are e-mailed occasional pep talks by authors to keep you going, and today one was sent out from Lemony Snicket which mentioned briefly the idea of books that change you.  This has led to a post which I have found oddly moving.  It backs up what I mentioned in the last post, about how people sometimes seem more like real people on the internet than if you bumped into them in real life.  It's not full of people extolling the virtues of Dostoyevsky, far from it.  Most of the works mentioned are not especially good.  But the stories of how Harry Potter got kids reading and they've never stopped -- quite a lot of NaNoWriMos are only teenagers -- or even how the Twilight books have made a real difference to their lives, are actually strangely moving.  So many kids having a rough time learn to accept themselves because it's the message they picked up in a book.  And Tamora Pierce!  I loved Tamora Pierce as a teenager, though I always felt they were a little young for me.  Terry Pratchett, the Lord of the Rings, and Narnia also get mentioned a lot.  The Narnia books were the ones which got me reading as a kid, and were the first proper things I read alone.  I vividly remember crying my eyes out when Aslan died as about the first time I ever felt so completely part of a book.  When I started reading again it said that Susan and Lucy had cried so much they couldn't cry any more, and I thought, that's me!

Anyway, that's a bit off topic.  I'm not sure I'd claim that this ability to mean so much is unique to books.  I'm not sure I'd claim anything in particular, just that this post suggests something about being human which moves me.  Remark how many of the books mentioned are Sci-Fi or Fantasy, even the high-brow ones if you count things like Ovid's Metamorphoses or Kafka.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Lots of present suggestions

The weirdest thing about the internet is how personal it is.  You experience random people on the internet much more as actual people than you experience the random people sitting in your carriage in the tube.  (This is very much the case with twitter, which I try to avoid but which keeps sucking me in.  A lot of twitter is a bit like overhearing things on a bus, but on the bus you pretend you're not eavesdropping, while on twitter you're supposed to eavesdrop, and it's all a bit confusing.)

I think my favourite internet thing at the moment is handmade stuff.  I'm trying to plan all my Christmas presents this year to be handmade either by me or, which is more likely, by people who are good at it.  I know I've posted about this before, but the three big sites for this are etsy, folksy, and dawanda.

Etsy is the original and by far the largest.  It's priced in dollars and most of the sellers are US-based.  Almost everything is on etsy.  Would you, or someone you love, like a pair of felted brain earringsAn ipod cover with crocheted mould?  I think this hand-blown wine stopper with a portrait of George Washington in it is really rather lovely, and I like this spooky linocut portrait of Boris Pasternak.  You can get excellent literary badges at beanforest, and amandertot sells bags with useful slogans like Jane Austen's "Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint" (it's just occurred to me that this sums up why Buffy is better than Alias).  What about a silver woot necklace?  People do all sorts of things with upcycled comics and books.  I bought some wooden buttons and earrings from this bloke in Slovenia, and they are really lovely, and very cheap.  Of course there's lots of jewellery, from tribal-ish to semi-precious stones.  And Mattias Inks sells original pictures here.

The problem with etsy is that it's not easy to look for things made locally.  You can browse local shops if you don't care what they make, but you can't search for an item and get the UK producers brought up first, like you can on abebooks, for example.  USA means long delivery times, high postage costs, and the possibility of being made to pay customs duty.  (Though that only happens occasionally I did get hit for an extra ten quid on this, which my brother is getting for Christmas.  Brother, if you read this, DO NOT CLICK THAT LINK.)  But there are a lot of international sellers on it.  If someone only has one shop, it's on etsy.  And the plus side is the possibility of making an alchemy request.  This means you describe a commission, people bid for it, you choose one and discuss the design, and then they make it for you.  I've just done this the for the first time, and the item is in the post.  From the picture I saw before it was dispatched, it's a very pleasing thing.  Mine was a pretty boring request, but you could get someone to make you a t-shirt of Tupac riding a dolphin.

Folksy is the UK one.  There's not as much on it as etsy, and you have to be prepared to do skimming to get good things, but then you know it's coming from a local seller, which makes things more straightforward.  Perhaps you'd like to think wistfully about escaping your problems by being eaten by a brown bear.  Maybe someone you know would like a jumper for their kindle. Who wouldn't appreciate a notebook covered in an upcycled religious comic, or a bag to celebrate the wonder of Tunnock's chocolate teacakes?

Dawanda is the European one.  Postage is easier than from the US, and although you have to negociate the occasional shop in Dutch, on the plus side the things on it tend to be classier than on folksy.  There are a lot of Germans out there doing sophisticated things with thick grey felt.  I would love to have this owl ipad cover, if I had an ipad, and I think they do them for other devices too.  This is an excellent site for finding laptop and phone cases, and I'm thinking I might buy my laptop a skin at some point.  (I've got a kindle skin now and I'm really pleased with it.)  I really like this etching of the Vitruvian Fly.  There's a lot of things on there which are the works of young European designers, like this porcelain cup.  Also Dawanda has very impressive search filtering.  You can choose just to see UK stuff, or search by colour.

The problem really is that I could find endless presents for myself, and have no idea what, for example, my parents would like.  What would my parents like?  My dad would probably like a tree, but I don't know which one.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Old Testament, a summary

I am going to read some Marilynne Robinson one day, I promise, even though it might be too clever for me.  In the meantime I have just read her interview in the Paris Review.  I like her précis of the Old Testament:
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.
She's a Calvinist, and I think they may have a pretty good understanding of the Old Testament.  Another thing I intend to do one day is to read some Calvin.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Life is a glorious cycle of song, a medley of exemporanea

They were the same height in real life.
You'd have to be pretty unkind not to wish an engaged couple all the best in their future life. But I have this wierd feeling about this new royal engagement that, like jokes about the death of a much-loved family pet, it's just a bit too soon. I think that for my generation Princess Diana was a pretty defining figure. I was five when they got engaged, so it didn't strike me until much later just how young she was. I didn't quite understand all the fuss about the picture where you could see her legs through her dress, because I thought, though I was prepared to be told I was wrong, that everyone has legs. I was angry when my mother explained that in order to make Charles look taller than Diana for official pictures like the ones on the stamps, Charles had to stand on a box. I thought that was stupid. Then as I grew up, things got worse and worse for Diana, as revelations got into the press about how she wasn't loved, and we found out that Prince Charles's idea of sexy talk with his mistress involved tampons, and that we as a nation liked to eavesdrop on Prince Charles talking about tampons with his mistress. None of us were coming out of this well. I read Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love as a teenager and realised that Di was now a Bolter. The Martin Bashir interview was while I was an undergraduate, and a couple of us watched it with my Director of Studies. It was fascinating and upsetting, an early lesson in how, just by sitting still with our eyes open, we can be implicated in something not quite right, a sort of accessory to someone's mental damage. And then she died, the summer I graduated and turned 21. A lot of people are very rude about how upset the country was, which annoys me. You can criticise the illogicality of it only if you have never cried at the end of a book or a film (and if you've not ever cried at a book or a film then frankly you're a lot wierder than the people who cried for Diana). It was a very sad story; a teenage girl presented with the supreme fairy-tale happy ending, only to realise that her husband doesn't love her and has married for dynastic reasons, sending her on an increasingly frenetic hunt for love. And the two poor boys, already doomed to mental disfunction by the accident of birth, now had no mother. It's like the whole country had been watching Bambi together for the last fifteen years, and suddenly wolves leapt out and slaughtered Bambi's mother, and they were our wolves -- and come to think of it we had been talking to them recently about the delicious taste of venison.
Having said which, the phenomenon still involved an element of wanting to be part of a phenomenon. The idea of a nation all sharing a feeling was quite an appealing one. There was a candle-lit vigil on Parker's Piece, I think on the eve of her funeral. I went along in a Chuck Palahniuk-ish way to see what it was like to feel the same thing as other people, to participate in a national moment. But when I got there I got the impression that most people had gone with the same motive, and that people who actually had the feeling were in short supply. Still, to stand quietly on Parker's Piece with a candle while thinking about the transience of life is not such a bad way to spend time.
Poor old Princess Diana. I was never a girly girl who wanted to be a princess, but if you'd decided slowly to teach a generation of primary school children that fairy tale endings are a fatuous and dangerous concept, then you couldn't have gone about it better. You can't really ask us to suspend disbelief again now, even if Kate Middleton does seem like a tougher kind of girl.  There are several reasons why I am not that keen on the Royal Family, but if I had to pick just one, I'd say that I'm a republican because I think it's rude to stare.

Anyway, here's an old polaroid I found of me winning first prize for fancy dress at a local Royal Wedding fete in 1981.  My mother had turned me into a wedding cake with the help of cardboard boxes.  The total number of entrants in this class was one.  My prize, a blue tin with the royal couple on the front, was discovered by me to have contained fruit jellies only after said sweets had all been eaten by others.  You can't really tell, but in this picture I am crying because everyone is looking at me.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Forgiveness and 90s pop acts

As I write this Take That are standing on the X Factor stage, performing as a reunited five-piece group, and I am feeling slightly emotional. They probably should have stayed a four-piece, without Robbie. He's likely to flake out at some point in his large-pupilled dazed Bez-like way; not to mention that he's said some unpleasant things. But still they took him back. It's like the parable of the prodigal son in man band form.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

You'll momentarily forget all your problems

In case you haven't come across it, here is Harry Hill's Little Internet Show. I think I'm going to save them up for when I feel in need of a tonic. They should make a longer version of the theme tune, for cheery times.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Instead of moaning about my novel

I do think there's some great female solo artist pop around at the moment. It's helping me to novel with its up-tempo energy. (Novelling mood-swings update: today I am sad face.) I blogged the Saturday's video before, and I like the Cheryl Cole song even if it's a bit feverish and I don't know what she's doing with those wierd puttee things on her legs. Rihanna ("RiRi") has a good song out too. Here is Nicole Scherzinger trying to do Toxic and doing pretty well.

Although I do disapprove of all Pussycat Dolls on principle. I am on record about how they remind me of the sexy lapdog in Pynchon's Against the Day.

I do love the way that all pop songs these days start with someone, usually the "feat." rap artist, shouting the names of all participants over the intro. If they had done this in my youth then it would have been much easier to tape songs off of the radio. Go RedOne!

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Also I forgot to say that the field with the new lambs in it was scattered with mangelwurzels almost as big as the lambs. This is to supplement the ewes' diet since the grazing isn't great at this time of year. You have to love somewhere which has a genuine use for mangelwurzels.

Saturday, 6 November 2010


The hunt are out again. I can see them from my window as I type, and I can hear the horns blowing. They do make an excellent sight. I can see the hounds casting around an old barn a couple of hundred yards away. When I was doing my PhD I used to go riding at a place just outside Cambridge called Haggis Farm, which was right next to where the Trinity Foot Beagle hounds are kept. I used to ride a horse called Parker, who was quite young and had been brought over from Ireland, where of course he had hunted a lot. When they called the hounds to their food with a hunting horn Parker would prick his ears up and his head would go high and he would flare his nostrils out very excitedly. Lots of horses do this in their fields when the hunt goes past. Poor old Parker. He was a bit too big for a riding school horse, with a long stride, and they didn't have much hacking round there. Haggis Farm has since become a polo school, and he's certainly no polo pony, so hopefully they've sold him on and he gets to shake his legs out a bit more now. He's the only horse who has actually ever fallen over with me on top. Falling off a horse is one thing, but a horse falling right over when you're riding him is pretty disconcerting. It amazes me now that I ever had the courage to ignore my bruises, get back on a horse which has just fallen over, tell him not to be so silly and put him again to the jump he didn't like. He was fine, by the way, we did check that first. It was the smallest jump ever, which may have been what wrongfooted him.

Anyway after writing that paragraph I just went out to get a better look at the hunt. When I was a kid we used to follow the hunt on foot on Boxing Day. My parents' most recent field is called Siding Hill, and it's really only half a field. The other half was bought by a man who earned his money shearing, and he calls it "Sheargraft Farm". If you want to farm and don't have land then I think it's a pretty common route to spend a few years as an itinerant shearer, maybe in New Zealand, while you save up. He keeps sheep there and he still shears. My mum is hoping that when they eventually sell up he'll buy the other half of the field and it will be back together again. There's a footpath that goes over across the fields, first in our bit then in his, so I went up that. I could see at least thirty horses with the hunt, riding across the next door field which is stubble from wheat. Some of them were doing the most fantastic dressage movements, they were so excited, beautiful passages and canter pirhouettes. Oh how I wish I had ever been a good enough rider to hunt. When a horse is excited like that it's like holding a bow in a drawn arrow, and you just release them and you're both away. It's utterly glorious. But the great surprise was that the Sheargraft Farm part of the field was full of lambs! I walked across that footpath the day before yesterday on my way back from the bus stop in Uffculme, and then the field only contained broad-beamed sheep. And now there are loads of tiny lambs, sitting bleating with their little legs tucked under them, and still with long tails. I did not pick any of them up -- this is the definition of self-control.

If you read this blog and haven't already gathered, I love Devon. It's not all pastoral quietude -- some of it's quite hard. Is it OK to kill foxes with dogs? (Though they are probably drag-hunting because who wants the legal hassle.) What about the little rubber bands on those lambs' tails, put there to constrict the circulation so that the tails will fall off before long? What about keeping lambs in a field with a footpath? When I was a kid I knew very well that if any of our dogs worried sheep then they would be shot. I still love this place though. I love the fact if I wanted to keep a horse then it would probably cost me less than keeping a car, especially if, like many people round here, I didn't have it shod. I love that even on the motorway you get casual views down into little valleys that shift round you as you pass. I love the way it's noisy with noise not made by humans, and stinky with non-human smells. I love that the man whose wife sometimes grazes her cobs in one of our fields collects up the horse dung and barters it with someone in his office for old comedy DVDs. Even the fact that personalised number-plates are still considered a form of wit in these parts has a certain charm. (One of the local farm vets has one that reads M005 VET, e.g. moo's vet.) Now if there were just some way of making a living here...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Twenty thousand badly-chosen words later

Is it bad luck to speak too soon?  Does pride come before a fall?  Is it inadvisable to count your chickens before said chickens are hatched?  Because so far I am blowing NaNoWriMo out of the water!  It is less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels!  Never mind the quality feel the width (as the bishop said to the actress or, in East Anglia, as the art teacher said to the gardener).  Let's celebrate, not at all prematurely, with Alan Partridge:

Eat my goal!  (New Partridge here.)

I've sort of got over the way that reading it back makes me wince, and how totally it sounds like it was translated from Latin by someone who doesn't quite understand Latin.  I don't care that roughly half of the characters have a claim to be renamed Basil Exposition.  Or that everyone has very similar names (which is after all the Anglo-Saxons' fault with their stupid names).  And yesterday, when I needed some evidence for my detective to absorb, I just wrote "PUT EVIDENCE HERE" and moved on.  I feel a bit like a primary school kid who has decided to invent an amazing new colour by mixing lots of other colours and hasn't yet realised that when you mix loads of colours you get brown.  Or who doesn't care because brown is a colour too!  Hurray for not worrying and just enjoying yourself!  This must be what it's like to be Wagner.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Hoot La

My father has just got back from plant-hunting in Arunachal Pradesh, the bit of India that's further east than Bangladesh.  They went right to the eastern end, between Tibet and Burma.  My father was, at 60, one of the younger members of the group.  Before he went my mother kept making dark references to Last of the Summer Wine, which made every one of us who heard her think of them all careering down the Himalayas in bath tubs...

Anyway, plant-hunters are a tougher bunch than most of us.  They travelled all day on foot but often got no further than about a mile, not just because of the extremely sloping ground, but because there were almost no paths except for hunters' tracks, and they had to hack their way through the forest.  Most nights there was no flat land to put their tents on, and apparently the bearers would cut a small shelf into the muddy slope, and pile up bits of vegetation at the other end, and they'd just try not to move too much in the night in case the tent started sliding down the mountainside in the mud.  They went to a place called Hawaii, and a place called Hoot La.  "What a great name for a place," I said to one of the people who went with my dad.  "Well Hoot was very nice," he said, "but not so much the La."  La means pass, apparently, like Shangri La.  Their bearers were Adi, though they called themselves Abor, my dad says, which was originally an ethnic slur but which they are now adopting for themselves.  He gave me an Adi scarf which one of the bearers gave him when they left.  It has proper hand-made flaws in the weaving, and I like it.  Also it smells of rancid yak butter.  (If you are wiser than me you will never try authentic Tibetan tea with rancid yak butter, but some years ago my dad made it for us all at Christmas with such an air of puppyish enthusiasm that we all of us suspended our better judgements and gave it a go.)  I may nick some of my father's photos of Arunachal Pradesh and post them, if they're good. The problem is that most of them will be of rhododendrons.

In noveling news, I'm still perversely enjoying the terrible terribleness of my work, and every dull sentence and wooden piece of dialogue is filling me with a sort of righteous anger.  Perhaps I like the way it vindicates my hitherto novelling-free existence...  Though I did write quite a lot of one when I was fourteen.  It was called "The Rose and the Thorn" and had its own bright orange binder on which I drew a rose in permanent marker.  It sort of tailed to an end when I realised that the hero was an arsehole.  Adolescence -- such a magical time.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Hating the writing

We're only just twenty hours into the NaNoWriMo novel-writing challenge, and six hours of that I spent asleep.  Somehow, though, I am already sick to the back teeth of my grindingly dull and neck-breakingly pedestrian novel.  I really really hate it.  I'm determined to finish it out of spite.

This feeling is oddly comfortable.  I wonder if my brain was permanently bent out of shape by the whole PhD thing?  When you've hated something that much for so long it would probably make a mark on your psyche.  And I do have this odd feeling that nothing I've done since then has really counted (though in the intermediary years I have written a friendly book and a scholarly book, been a fellow of an august body of scholars, lived in Italy, etc etc, so I haven't really done nothing).

I'm trying to get a good chunk done today anyway, so that I can hate it on a more secure basis.

I like Putin's new Siberia survivor pictures.  If it weren't for the sunglasses it could be the start of the People's Act of Love.  If you haven't read the People's Act of Love you are a fool to yourself.

And I like that Shakespear's Sister is at no. 8 on the itunes chart after Cher's rendition of Stay on Saturday.  Itunes says I have now downloaded 500 tracks from them.  This is the 500th::

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Some useful advice about the face

NaNoWriMo starts at midnight tonight.  I have put a word-count device in the sidebar of this blog, but I may not post much in November.  Or I may give up on the novel and post loads.  Or I may give up on novelling and be too ashamed to post anything.  Who can tell?  I've got quite a lot of other stuff I've got to get done too.

For those cultivating moustaches this November, watch how my great-great-grandfather Samuel Symons did it.  It may have taken him more than a month, but here he is as a clean-shaven bridegroom circa 1877:

and here he is in later life, with a flourishing face shelf.

You'll immediately spot the pitfall: try not to let your eye do that wierd thing.  Is it a stye?  Is it the result of some accident?  Or of trying to bring up eleven children in a three-room house on a shipwright's salary?  (For all I know shipwrights were paid loads, and the census suggests that he managed to apprentice them all off at age 13, which can't have been cheap to arrange.)  Anyhow Eliza, his very poised eighteen-year-old bride, wore the years better:

Saturday, 30 October 2010

I am smelly and ill and I need pudding

Cows eat grass and from it they produce poo and milk.  I have just been spat at thoroughly by an alpaca.  When alpacas spit they use the semi-digested grass which they would otherwise chew as cud and reswallow.  I can testify that it smells of rancid milk with a hint of poo.  So that's what I smell like now.

It wasn't the alpaca's fault as such, he was scared.  Though it was stupid of him to be scared given that we were only moving them to some better grazing.

Anyway I also have a nasty cold, the sort that gets into your head and makes you feel vague and miserable, so that when you can't get to sleep because of your bunged-up nose you lie awake remembering all the unpleasant things you've ever done in your life, especially things from primary school which you ought to have forgotten by now.  I have lost interest in everything, even my kindle, and can't remember what I do for fun.  In short, I feel miserable, and I smell so bad that even I can smell me.

It's in times like these that I turn to the internet in hope of solace.  This advert for super-size Japanese pudding is the only thing that is making me feel human right now.  I'm going to watch it a few times on repeat to garner enough energy to take a shower.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

What happens in November

This year I am doing NaNoWriMo.  The first rule of NaNoWriMo is, you must talk about NaNoWriMo.  Actually the first rule is that you have to write a 50 000 word novel from scratch over the course of November.  So talking about it is probably the second rule.  Anyway, the idea is that if you tell everyone you've signed up then it will be that much harder to give up in the ten days in when you realise that you're half killing yourself to produce big piles of garbage.  Not many people read this blog, but I know it has readers to whom I would be embarrassed to admit that I had failed.  I've made peace with the fact that what I write will be rubbish, but I still think it will be pretty cool if I can leave November with a large amount of stuff written.

Scary things about it: there are tons of 17 year-olds out there who have won for the last four years, etc; just think how many unpublished novels there are in the world!; plus it's a huge amount to get written in one of the year's shorter months.  I've got various bits of freelance work to do at the same time, of course, and an article to revise, so although it's not quite the same as working full-time and trying to write it, I do have several competing demands on my organisational energy.  It's not just the work, it's the work of making myself work.

I'm trying to plot it out in advance to give myself the best chance possible.  It's an historical murder mystery with lots of real people in it, so I'm doing quite a bit of research, and getting frustrated with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  I usually love the ODNB; and I suppose that really it's a strength that different scholars' accounts of related people vary so much in what they lay down as fact.  And because I'm writing a novel I can just choose what I prefer.  Still I'm trying to keep a sense in my own mind of what is actual historical material and what I've made up to fill in the gaps with plausible factoids.  And I'm reading Augustine on the Donatists partly because I'm trying to write from a point of view about holiness which I don't quite understand, but mostly because I think it's quite cool to read Augustinian theology as preparation for a cheapish murder mystery.

So much for my November.  I know at least one man who is participating in Movember, the first rule of which is that you grow a moustache for the whole of November and get sponsored for research into prostate cancer.  You can read James's Warren's blog post about it here, and it has a link to where you can sponsor him, or sign up yourself.  Prostate cancer is not one of the really big name cancers, so I expect it's harder to raise money for research into it, and therefore it ought correspondingly to be supported.  It killed my Grandad when it metastasised, and although he was 80 we did really need him.  I think it killed my Grandpa too, but that side of my family is very reserved and it seemed like it would have been impolite to ask exactly what was killing him.  Anyway even if those deaths weren't the case it's clear that it's a very good cause.  Plus moustaches are great.  Go Movemberers!  I feel slightly guilty that my NaNoWriMo is just self-indulgence and not to contribute to the bettering of the world.

A Cambridge friend mentioned in an e-mail that she thinks it's great that there's several men of our acquaintance doing Movember, and several women doing NaNoWriMo.  I suppose moustache-growing is intrinsically a male activity -- though I did get something approaching a Christopher Marlowe-style fluff going when I was an angry feminist sixth-former, making a point which now escapes me -- and you could argue that novel-writing, or at least a certain sort of humility towards novel-writing, is quite a female thing.  When I was a kid I used to get annoyed by the song we sung at Sunday School which went "Jesus loves the Rownhams girls / some with straight hair, some with curls / and he loves the Rownhams boys / even though they MAKE A NOISE".  (You substitute your own town or village for Rownhams.)  It irritated me that the boys got to do things while the girls were just looked at.  Of course as a child I could never explain why I disliked it, because one of the terrible things about childhood is how dumb you are to explain what you mean.  So it's nice to see us all disregarding the gender stereotypes of the 80s.  I think this is probably a really inane thing to say, and perhaps I ought to get past noticing these things.

Anyway the implication was that there are more Movemberers out there, and more NaNoWriMoers among my acquaintance!  If anyone reading this is doing Movember and would like me to sponsor them, or is doing NaNoWriMo and would like to be my NaNoWriMo writing buddy, then please identify yourselves.  I would love to have some mutual NaNoWriMo support.  I'm really rather apprehensive.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The X Factor

Sometimes I read the Guardian's X Factor liveblog, complete with the "comment is free" (comment is harrowing) comments.  It makes me feel like I've wandered into the lounge at a retirement home.  I'm 34, I'm old enough to be Cher's mother, but even I know who Jay-Z and Duck Sauce and Blackstreet are.  Looking at the twitter it seems the young people think that Shout was by Dizzee Rascal -- and I'd find that more annoying of them if it weren't that the actual Graun liveblogger has decided to attribute it to James Corden.  Plus he seems to be startled and bemused by Cher's habit of doing more than one song at once.

This week's theme of Guilty Pleasures was annoying for two reasons: I don't really approve of the concept; and then they didn't follow it -- though perhaps it's entirely logical that they make no distinction at all between Guilty Pleasures X Factor and every other week on X Factor.  Wagner is always a guilty pleasure.  But no one sang anything by the Wurzels, and no one did The Bloodhound Gang.  Not a single William Shatner cover.

I saw my brother and sister-in-law this afternoon and discovered that not only had neither of them seen the fantastic picture of Wagner holding a lion by the tail (which you can see here) but they hadn't seen the Stephen Fry Wagner youtube video, so I'm posting it here in case you've missed it.

Plus here is a really good song.  No X Factor connection, just something I've been listening to quite a lot.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Collings alert

Tonight at 8pm Matthew Collings will be on BBC2.  Tell me things about art, Matthew Collings!  I like to hear you talk.

Some things I have been reading on my Kindle

I love my kindle, but it does have its disadvantages.  Every time I try to play with it I get distracted by novels, so I still don't really know how to do loads of things on it.  Though I have found that if you save a word document with a table of contents and then e-mail it to your kindle it preserves the table of contents for you, with links.  (I did this for the Douay-Rheims translation of the Psalms.  Of course you have to set up the styles and generate the Table of Contents properly, but if you use Word and don't know how to do this then it is definitely worth learning anyway.)

Anyway here are some reviews of books with links to where you can get them.  Many are cheap or free.  I don't think any of them costs more than a fiver, though for some you have to go to websites other than Amazon.  (I'm leaving aside for the moment books by K. J. Parker, about which I am going to blog separately.)
Dracula, Bram Stoker
Fantastic.  The lunatic who begs for a kitten is great.  The lesson is, if you're hiding from a monstrous super-human with unknown powers, best not to do it in mental asylum.  And if your wife wants to know what's going on, just tell her!  Don't treat her like some sort of morally-fragile pet.
Free at Amazon

The Beetle, Richard Marsh
Came out in the same year as Dracula.  Not really as good, but still has its spooky moments.  Very much a product of its time.  There's a good bit where an important politician is completely cowed by someone just going "The Beetle!" at him.  The Beetle!
Free at Amazon

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N. K. Jemisin
OK.  It's about a horrible ruling family and a grand-daughter who is brought in from outside for nefarious purposes.  Lots of odd bits where she has sex with gods.  I'm not sure I will bother with the sequels because it seemed somewhat melodramatic.
Amazon link

Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller
Brilliant.  Set in a world where nobody knows why some pets are turning into women, and some women into animals, but it's making men very worried about Motherhood.  Pooch finds herself taking on increasing household duties while her mistress becomes more and more snappish and uncommunicative, but when the mother of the house bites the baby she expects she'll be blamed by her adored master, and runs away to become an opera singer.  Mad but very excellent.  Go Carol Emshwiller!
$5.95 at Weightless Books.  (For a Kindle you want the .mobi file.)

The Bertrams, Anthony Trollope
Excellent Trollope stuff.  It's about two young men, one of whom gets a first- and another a second-class degree at Oxford, and their subsequent lives, particularly their marriages.  It's also a bit about an older friend of theirs who becomes a barrister.  More of this takes place abroad than is usual for Trollope, in the Middle East.  His feelings about the Holy Sepulchre are quite amusing though I feel a pang about how similar they are to mine.  But the Kindle edition, although mostly good, had an over-zealous editor who had done bad things to sentences, I think under the auspices of Project Gutenberg.  For example, s/he added the word in square brackets to this sentence, even though it reads much better without:
By degrees they both began to regard him with confidence -- with sufficient confidence to talk to him of Bertram; with sufficient [confidence] even to tell him of their fears.
And removed the square bracketed word from this:
I do not think he would have [him] come down here had he heard it -- not yet, at least.
And what made me raging mad beyond anything rational was that the editor changed the word "vicegerent" to "viceregent" in a reference to the Russian emperor as heir of the Byzantines.  Vicegerent is right!  Don't introduce errors into Trollope!  Do not!
72 pence at Amazon or free at Project Gutenberg

The Nebuly Coat, J. Meade Falkner
Excellent old-style mystery, largely set around an old church, where a young architect is worried that the arches cannot take the strain of the added tower.   This man also wrote Moonfleet, which I loved as a kid.  But apparently he was also librarian of Durham Cathedral.
71 pence at Amazon or free at Project Gutenberg

Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key, Kage Baker
The only Kage Baker I could find in ebook form.  Not her best, but still pretty readable and amusing.  It's about a man who accidentally becomes a pirate although he'd much rather be a bricklayer, and gets involved in a hunt for Prince Maurice, Prince Rupert's missing brother.
$5.00 at

Pretty Monsters, Kelly Link
Excellent mad short stories -- a bit spec fic, a bit slipstream, but good-humoured and interesting.  She also edits Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet which is a very good zine.  See also Small Beer Press and Weightless Books.  In fact those last three URLs deserve a blog post all to themselves in their excellence.
Amazon link

Sum: Tales from the Afterlife, David Eagleman
Very hyped, but worth the hype because extremely good.  It's a series of short stories giving different ideas of the afterlife.  Very Calvino.
Amazon link

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
An amiable and fun time-travel mystery, centring around Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat and the bombing of Coventry Cathedral in the Second World War.  It's a bit Importance of Being Earnest-y as well.  Good stuff if you're in a light-hearted mood.
Amazon link

Ayala's Angel, Anthony Trollope
An excellent Trollope book.  It's about two sisters whose artist father dies leaving them penniless.  One of them is to go to their rich aunt for a life of vulgar riches, and the other has to go to their poor uncle for a life of scraping genteel poverty.  The younger, Ayala, is a very romantic girl; men keep falling in love with her but she has an idea in her mind of the perfect man, and finds their attentions frightening and rather shocking.  Trollope writes women very well.  Even though Ayala is provokingly naive in a way which leads her to be inadvertently rude to quite a few people, you still can't help but be on her side.  And why shouldn't a nineteen-year-old girl be silly?  It would be more surprising if she weren't.  One of Trollope's funny novels.
Free at Project Gutenberg

Dr Wortle's School, Anthony Trollope
A shorter Trollope novel, e.g. two volumes not three.  Dr Wortle runs a very good school -- we're not in Dickensian territory here -- and he has found an excellent usher in the form of Mr Peacocke, whose wife does the linen and basically acts as a matron.  But Mrs Peacocke has a complicated past.  The novel is mostly about how Dr Wortle deals with the ignominy brought on his school when that past becomes known.  Not as funny as Ayala's Angel but still quite cheerful.
Free at Project Gutenberg