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

Monday, 11 October 2010

Can you stop the cavalry?

Probably not.  War is notoriously difficult that way.  But you could wait thirty years and then have many cameos in an IKEA advert with a new version of your other big hit:

That's the way to do it: write something that gets played every single Christmas while keeping your other hit to rerelease just when 80s nostalgia is at its most commercial.  I have bought this single by the way, it's available on itunes.  It has shouts-out to various kitchen appliances at the end.  I quite like that.

Here's another great song, off of The Sounds' album Dying to Say This to You, the same one as has Tony the Beat (Push It), but not exactly current as it was released in 2006.

Lyrics; euromillions; zoos

I like that Cee-Lo's Fuck You is higher in the itunes charts than his Forget You, the version which has been redacted for the sake of sales.  It's not just a catchy song, it's also pretty much exactly the plot of the AbbĂ© Prevost's Manon Lescaut, which is a brilliant novel, and helped Lord Peter Wimsey work out who killed Cathcart in Clouds of Witnesses.  For example, there's a bit that goes
Now I know that I had to borrow
Beg and steal and lie and cheat
Tryin' to keep ya, tryin' to please ya
Cos bein' in love with yo ass ain't cheap.
The Chevalier Des Grieux could have said just the same thing, only in French, of course.  Manon Lescaut made a big impression on me as a teenager and it is the only whole novel I have ever read in French.

I went to the zoo with my brother, sister-in-law, and excellent nephew on Saturday.  On the way they told me about how last Saturday my sister-in-law had got a text message saying she'd won some money on the Euromillions.  It didn't say how much.  So they wondered whether to do something special -- but they were already on their way to the cider festival.  And what was going to top that?  Then they thought they could go to an expensive restaurant that evening, but my brother remembered that he'd got the stuff to make his special courgette and feta tartlets, and my sister-in-law really loves my brother's courgette and feta tartlets.  So they were a bit stumped.  Luckily it turned out that they had only won six pounds something.  I thought this was a cool story-- even without winning the Euromillions they already had the cider festival and delicious tartlets.  Someone should turn it into a children's story.

The zoo was very good.  They were penguins which you could watch from above or below, and a Zona Brazilia with capybaras and tapirs.  My nephew liked the rats, because he knows that rats are good things.  On the whole he's not sure about the larger mammals, which is fair enough really.  It must be disconcerting at that age to see all these animals you know from books, like the snake and mouse out of the Gruffalo, but not taking part in a narrative, just lounging around in cages.  It was Bristol zoo, or Brizzle as they say around those parts.  The gift shop had excellent t-shirts with local phrases like "Cheers drive!" and "Yer tizz".  Also "Alright my luvver?" which is more Cornwall, really.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Meanwhile on the internet

First Great Western just don't get it.  My PhD is non-gendered, so I went for Other.  And at least put the options in alphabetical order!

Oh rap, has it come to this?  It's quite a happy thing to watch though.

Here is a handsome young man from Wales singing a very good song. Well done Wales! Well done popjustice hifi! You can buy this right now.

Here is a handsome young man from Newcastle singing a very good song, previously released by Donkeyboy it's true, but it's fine for singers not to be songwriters and vice versa. I keep finding myself singing it at odd moments. This is released on the 10th, so I expect he'll be on the X Factor this weekend.

Someone made a pickled pacman
. It has a very real looking tongue.

Here's Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross talking about Russell Brand's new book. I read the first one and it amused me, so I will probably read the second too. At one point in this interview Russell Brand says "All forms of desire are the inappropriate substitute for the desire to be at one with God", and I think the fact that he says this as if it's quite a reasonable answer to Ross's question (basically are you going to keep it in your pants once married) epitomises the thing about him that I like. He's a lunatic but at least he's unusual.

This Boing Boing slide about the internet makes me feel really comfortable.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Devon, Cambridge, Persia

I'm back in Devon, looking at my beautiful view, and listening to the sound of the hunt. They're just a few fields away today, so there's lots of view hallooing and sometimes hounds baying. I don't know if they're hunting a real fox. Probably I ought to care, but I find that I really don't. We had harvest festival last night, with real bits of harvest in the church instead of tins, and we sang all the excellent harvest hymns: For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take his harvest home, etc. Afterwards they auctioned off the produce, and I bought a pumpkin which I am going to turn into soup of some kind. This is the time of year when everyone is utterly sick of courgettes and cooking apples, and a lot of houses have boxes of them outside with a sign saying help yourself. Mr Underhill, the farmer across the road, has also put out a box of conkers for the children. In short, it's pretty damn bucolic here.

The wierd thing about Cambridge is that I always have a great time catching up with excellent people and looking at lovely manuscripts, but I dislike the actual place itself. Every time I go I get a cold, or a psychosomatic part-cold, and at the same time I have a really good time. I can't imagine living there again.

At the moment the Fitzwilliam has a very good exhibition on the Persian Book of Kings, the epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdowsi. I found that my Kindle was able to provide me with a prose translation/version of the first half of the epic for only £1.71, so I read that. (I love my Kindle.) It reminded me very much of the Morte d'Arthur, perhaps just because the nineteenth-century translator/reteller was influenced by that style. But the men are always having children who are grown up a few paragraphs later, or who are remarkably strong and attractive even in their youth, and they go on odd quests for honour's sake, and will die for something they know is wrong because commanded to do so by a king they know is foolish. There are more monsters in the Shahnameh, though. The main hero is Rustem, with his valiant steed Rakush (or Rakhsh), who is constantly having to clean up messes made by stupid kings to whom he is nonetheless strictly obedient. One of the kings decides to fly by tying specially trained eagles to his throne, and putting legs of lamb on spikes above the throne's posts. But he hadn't thought about what would happen when the eagles got tired. Rustem rescues him and scolds him thoroughly for his stupidity. The Fitzwilliam exhibition is really worth seeing. There are lots of beautiful, very delicately drawn, really lovely pictures, quite likely to be appreciated by children too I'd have thought. There's the simurgh, and trials by fire, and lots of dragons and demons. Some of the adventures of Alexander the Great are quite cool too. There's a brilliant one where he's riding into the land of darkness to look for the fountain of everlasting life, and behind him the horses of two of his followers are exchanging aghast glances.  Also click here to see a picture of Alexander having his death predicted by a talking tree, and to hear a translation.  He found it quite upsetting.

Friday, 1 October 2010

I had some thoughts

I had some thoughts, and while I'm trying to recover pictures of manuscripts from a damaged SD card I decided to share them with you, the reader. Lady Wortley Montagu had an endearing habit of apologising for the length of her letters, but saying that if the reader didn't like it she could always chuck it in the fire. You can't really burn a computer, but there's always ctrl+alt+del in extreme circumstances, or a simple ctrl+w closes the tab.

Thought 1. I'm in a city right now, and it occurred to me this morning that the thing about the countryside is that it's casually beautiful, and full of death, often at the same time. There is death absolutely everywhere, and almost all of it is both random and in some way beneficial. In the city people don't have that much to do with death. Except for the occasional pigeon, and that's treated as an aberration instead of what's happening everyday everywhere -- it's something someone will have to clear up, rather than a windfall for the rooks.

Thought 2. Though I did think that I saw some buzzards over Corpus yesterday. I don't see how that can have been right, but there they were, four or five of them circling up on thermals. I think they were buzzards not red kites because they had wedge-shaped tails rather than the forked, and were hefty in build rather than slim. I'm disconcerted by this.

Thought 3. I wish my SD card hadn't failed. I was looking at a really disconcerting manuscript on Wednesday, a late eleventh- or early twelfth-century Bible from Lincoln. It had initials in the white-vine style, which I don't much like at the best of times, because instead of the light entwined foliage or curled leaves of other styles it has fat white vegetable stems, like something grown in the darkness, and makes me think of bean sprouts. But in this manuscript the fleshy white stems don't end in foliage but in the heads of odd beasts, with gaping jaws, and black eyebrows. The human figures have red spots on their cheeks as if they are ill, and enormous hands bigger than their heads. I have a feeling I may have nightmares about it; it was quite crudely done, but also in a wierd style. Anyway, even if I still had the pictures I couldn't post one, because Trinity lets you take pictures for personal use only.

Thought 4. I love my kindle, for many reasons. Hurray for buying stuff instantly! Hurray for its compilation of my highlighted passages, and for being able to search for names of characters whose significance I have forgotten! But boo for the way I no longer enjoy Waterstones so much. Though I did buy a book yesterday, a translation of Isidore's Etymologies which I've wanted for a long time, but needed to get from the CUP shop because of my author discount. It is £29 before discount as a paperback; as an ebook it is 128 dollars. Plus I used a CUP ebook once before and it was infuriatingly terrible. Boo, CUP, boo. Seriously, CUP, give me a job as one who formats ebooks for you -- you're missing a trick. It's when companies do that sort of thing that people yearn to pirate. Now, I'm not going to pirate CUP books, and I imagine that legally I am not allowed to make my own personal ecopy of a book just because I own the paperback, but morally I feel like it's more of a grey area. Unfortunately a while ago I decided that it is morally wrong to break the law unless it's a matter of principle, and I don't think that wanting to read a book on Kindle is a matter of principle. Heigh ho.