Thursday, 30 June 2011

Some things I read in May and June

I didn't post about what I'd read in May, mostly because I didn't read a lot in May, but also because I was too lazy.  I've read rather more in June, though I am still only halfway through The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose.  It's quite interesting but it moves quickly, so I only really get what he's talking about if it's something I've encountered before, and he makes some great things, for example imaginary numbers, sound much duller than they are.

1. I reread the first Flavia de Luce mystery and then read the next two. (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, and A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley.)  They're excellent unsentimental murder-mysteries about a precocious girl growing up in genteel deprivation after the war.  Flavia is ten or eleven and a bit of a terror.  She lost her mother as a baby and her father has been emotionally absent ever since, while her older sisters bully her to keep her down (at least partly in self-defence).  She's intelligent and bratty and obsessed with poisons.  It's a bit I Capture the Castle but without all that love stuff and with a lot more about fatal toxins.  Go Flavia de Luce!  I hope she escapes to a proper school, or at least eventually to Newnham.

2. I read two wry and quite funny books, Elinor Lipman's Dearly Departed, and Kate Christiansen's The Great Man.  I think Lipman is excellent but I like some of her books more than others.  This was definitely one of the good ones.  Christiansen is a completely new one on me.  It took me a while to get used to her style, but I ended up really enjoying it.

3. I worked through the whole of Wilfrid Hodge's Logic: an Introduction to Elementary Logic.  I don't really feel like reviewing it so much as reviewing myself.  My review reads: "Well done me!"  It may seem conceited to review myself in that way but wouldn't it be more conceited to imply that textbooks on elementary logic are something I just crunch up casually?  There are a few small errors in it.  A list of most of them can be found in a pdf linked to from this page on the Oxford Philosophy website, but I think I found a few more.  I made a note of them on this page.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Books as objects

Imagine a teenage girl without much money who has run out of things to read, browsing the shelves of the sort of charity shop where they sell paperbacks cheaply (not Oxfam).  She spots a book called The Deptford Trilogy and likes the cover, or the blurb, or the fact that it's a lot of book for not much money.  She buys it, reads it, and starts a life-long appreciation for Robertson Davies, an author who is underappreciated in the UK, and this brings her great pleasure.

It's a nice story.  So why, when I spotted The Deptford Trilogy in a box of books I was taking to a charity shop for my brother and sister-in-law, did I pounce on it so avidly and remove it?  I have my own copy.  This is not sensible behaviour.  I'm a big fan of Davies so I ought to want other people to get the chance to read his work.  A book for sale in a cheap charity shop is almost a better way of promoting things than giving them out for free, because the small cost involved gives the buyer an investment in reading the thing.  I could have helped some more poor kid marooned in Tiverton to discover one of the best writers of the twentieth century.  There are some books which I even find myself compulsively buying whenever I see them in secondhand bookshops or charity shops.  I find it almost impossible to pass by a copy of G. V. Desani's All About H. Hatterr, for example.  But I would love nothing more than to meet someone who had read that and enjoyed it like I did, and when I remove a copy from circulation I make that less and less likely.  I remember how great it was when I first met Ray Page, emeritus Bosworth and Toller Professor of Anglo-Saxon, to find that we had read many of the same obscure things, like The Wallet of Kai Lung.  But I don't think I know anyone else who is a fan of G. V. Desani.  Maybe I should dig out my spare copies and start distributing them.

I found Robertson Davies by accident as a sixth-former because I had a book token to spend and the shop was just about to close.  I grabbed The Deptford Trilogy because at the time the word Deptford meant only one thing to me, the mysterious and sordid death of Christopher Marlowe.  I had a big literary crush on Marlowe and was writing a long essay about him for my A-level English.  Although I think The Cornish Trilogy is marginally better, I love The Deptford Trilogy because I found it so randomly, and because when I first read it I had no idea who the Bollandists were.  The narrator Dunstan Ramsay is very proud of publishing with the Bollandists despite not being a Catholic priest.  And six or seven years later, I too published something in Analecta Bollandiana, even though I am so far from being a Catholic priest that I am actually a Protestant woman.  Hurray!

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Some interesting stuff

This video (off of Boing Boing) shows a 3D printer which is entirely solar powered, and sits in the desert printing sand into glass.

This sixteenth-century mechanical monk is disturbing.

This song called Magic has quite a magical video (off of popjustice):

Friday, 24 June 2011

PS re: Britney

Also does anyone know what's going on in the Britney video where the driver pours milk all over his head?  Is that a thing now?  If it's something rude please tell me euphemistically, or in Latin.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Some videos and a thought

1. Maybe I should have a tumblr not a blog.  If I had a tumblr not a blog then this paragraph could be an entire entry instead of needing bulking out with videos.  But if I had a tumblr not a blog then this paragraph would not exist!  Therefore I have no need of a tumblr.  QED.

2. This person is going to tell us all about Plato's views on the holiness of objects... or is he?  Watch the video, it's only 37 seconds long.

I bet this man has received at least one proposal of marriage as a direct result of that YouTube clip, like those cat engineers.

3. Britney is good at music and good at music videos, even if her decision to use her latest to reposition herself as a sex pest is in some ways an odd one:

I remember the first time I ever heard about her, before I heard any of her music, she was described as having a vocal range like Whitney and being a postergirl for all that supremely-creepy True-Love-Waits stuff.  In some ways it's surprising that they don't still use her as a postergirl.  "Look what happened to Britney when she discovered sex!" they could say, and scare young girls into going to parties with their fathers.  If she'd had more of a normal teenagerhood I expect she'd be a bit better balanced now, poor thing.

Friday, 17 June 2011


I found E. F. Benson's Dodo when it was deaccessioned from my local library. I think I was about 14 or 15. I really liked it and for a while it was one of my favourite books. It's the sort of thing that people are often sneery about now, but it was a big sensation in its day, not least because it was supposedly based on Margot Tennant, soon to be Lady Asquith. E. F. Benson went on to write the Mapp and Lucia books, which everyone loves, but also great underrated novels like Secret Lives and Paying Guests. Imagine if Jane Austen went really bitchy, and stopped bothering to write about people under the age of about 35 -- like if Pride and Prejudice were about Mrs Bennett and Mrs Lucas (Charlotte's mother) instead of about Elizabeth and Jane. I would put E. F. Benson only a little way behind P. G. Wodehouse in the great comic novelists stakes.

I've just finished reading a very good book about E. F.'s mother, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil: the Impossible Life of Mary Benson by Rodney Bolt. She had to deal with her many precocious offspring (they all wrote books constantly) at the same time as ministering to their father, Archbishop of Canterbury E. W. Benson, who creepily proposed to her when she was just twelve years old. She seems to have been quite a remarkable person. Let's admit that it wasn't so difficult in those days to be a lesbian, because no one batted an eyelid at two women sharing a bed, but nonetheless well done Mrs Benson, who juggled lots of different lives, none of them really her own, without falling into despair more than occasionally. Here is the first sentence:
On Sunday, 11 October 1896, Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, insufferable to the end, died on his knees in church saying the Confession, ending a life of relentless success.
One of the interesting things about this book is that E. W., who was a sort of pious vampire, seems to have been tolerant of his wife's need for close female companionship, understanding that it allowed her to carry out her difficult role as Mrs Archbishop. (Maybe their friend Queen Victoria did know what lesbianism was, but didn't legislate against it having seen its positive side.) Mary Benson was said by Gladstone to be the cleverest woman in Europe, and held her own as a society hostess at Lambeth Palace. Her children were not always easier than her husband. There's a brilliant scene where Mrs Benson gets her three literary sons to parody each others' styles, which each of the parodees in turn fails to find very amusing. But I also like the way that this author intersperses quotations from contemporary writings by the Bensons and others into his text. This quotation from Ruskin's divorce proceedings, quoted in the chapter where young Mary Benson first tries to adapt to the duties of being Edward's wife, is fantastic:
I married her, thinking her so young and affectionate that I might influence her as I chose, and make of her just such a wife as I wanted. It appeared that she married me thinking she could make of me just the sort of husband she wanted. I was grieved and disappointed in finding I could not change her, and she was humiliated and irritated at finding she could not change me. . . I soon began to observe characteristics which gave me so much grief and anxiety that I wrote to her father saying that there was slight nervous affection of the brain. [The principal cause of which] was her always thinking that I ought to attend her, instead of herself attending me.
Poor patient Ruskin, "grieved and disappointed", while his young wife is "humiliated and irritated"! And clearly teetering on the brink of insanity in expecting him to look after her.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Devon in June

There is nothing I know more like heaven than walking through Devon footpaths and country lanes on a warm breezy day in mid-June.  I took some photos and videos this morning as I walked down to Uffculme.

My mother asked me to count the female alpaca herd on the way.  They will soon number 23 and she wanted me to check that hadn't happened yet.  Here they all are having come down to meet me in the race, a long thin field which provides access to a lot of other fields:
Beth is indicating pretty strongly that it would be a good idea if I opened the gate and let them all into the adjacent field, where the grass is long and plentiful, since they have been in the lower field at the far end of the race for a couple of weeks now. I saw Beth being born -- she was actually the first alpaca born at ours -- and she was bolshy from the start. Now she's herd matriarch. I told her she'd have to take it up with my mum.

These fields are badger territory, crossed with lots of badger tracks and full of little holes they've started digging and then abandoned. I took some video of one of the tracks:

Beth was not that impressed by my attitude concerning the field.

Here is the hidden cost of beer festivals:
This was the field my parents lent for the parking. It's not as bad as it could be, but it's still going to take some time to recover. And here's a view back down the hill. The field with the pinkish tinge is the one Beth's so keen to get into.
You can see her point.  Actually I expect my mother will let them in there sometime this week.

The footpath to Uffculme goes through one of the fields my parents are keeping back for hay.  Everyone's been moaning about the dry weather, and what will the animals eat this winter, etc, but actually it looks pretty good to my ignorant eyes.  It was very beautiful waving in the wind so I tried to video it.  I'm afraid you'll have to forgive the noises the wind makes on my camera's microphone, and also that Youtube doesn't always play these things back very well:

This is everyone's favourite tree.  A lot of people consider sycamores to be weeds because they're hard to get rid of, but even those people love this tree.  There's a photo of it in the pub.  It's not unusual, it's just a really really good tree. 
Sometimes I worry that we're all too fond of this tree.

Down Corks Hill the hedges on either side of the lane are even taller than in most places, about nine feet high instead of about six.  Here's some cow parsley with bees, seen just as it looked as I walked underneath it.
The smell on Corks Hill was particularly ripe, a mixture of cow dung and meadowsweet, with a hint of a dead creature which I came across liquefying on the tarmac halfway down.  That's the countryside for you -- everything's very alive except for the things that are dead and even those are alive just in an unpleasant way.

Here are some ducks napping by the side of the river Culm, just at the edge of Uffculme.
The Culm joins the Exe further down.

Actually today was my birthday so I made like the Culm and headed into Exeter (only by bus not by flowing). I had lunch at Strada because it's a place where sometimes it's a bit like eating in Italy. Every now and then I miss Italy quite intensely for a moment but I'm rather ashamed of this because it's always to do with food, and even when I try to think of something non-food-related that I might miss my thoughts end up wandering back to some amazing aperitivo or fantastic little biscuits.

More about village life

The singer Joss Stone lives in our village, in the house where she grew up.  It's at the other end of the village from us, a little way out on the road to Honiton.  You may have seen this Guardian article saying that the police have arrested some people who are alleged to have been planning to attack or perhaps kidnap her.  At first I thought Well done those alert neighbours!  Then I read in the less-bashful Sun that both of the arrested men are black.  Anyway, the neighbours seem to have been quite right, and now there are journalists in the village.  Hopefully they will go away soon.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Brief news

1. I tasted all the beers at the Ashill Beer Festival except for those which had sold out by the time I got to them, fifteen out of the possible nineteen.  My favourite was Forge Brewery's Litehouse.  Now I am all beer-festivalled out.

2. I'm not in a position to get a dog but if I were I would ask for one from a litter of Labrador-Poodle crosses being born today in North Devon.  The breeder's blog has a link to a webcam.  She leaves the webcam up all through the puppies' youths and it's pretty addictive.

3. 3D printers now seem to be where laser printers were when I was a teenager, e.g. expensive for an individual but within reach of a small business or a serious hobbyist.  I really want one, but not for any good reason.  Just because it would be cool!  In the meantime there are services which will print things for you from your designs.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Nevermind the 80s, it's still acceptable in mid-Devon (and long may it remain so)

I went back to the beer festival with my brother and sister-in-law.  Everybody seemed to be there, even the lady who won't say the Peace in church but just sits with her arms crossed staring at the floor while everyone else shakes hands. The Thorvertones showed us that you can get away with covers pretty well if you just go up there and do them with confidence in your own style, and they rocked the village with their guitary versions of Personal Jesus and Don't You Want Me Baby.  People ranging in age from teenagers to the retired were walking like an Egyptian or doing the Timewarp -- it's been a while since I did the Timewarp, and I expect it will be a while before I do the Timewarp again.  Lots of people were really throwing themselves into that one -- "great thrusting, Ashill!" as the singer shouted between choruses. It's one of those occasions when you think that perhaps you've lost something through the amount of choice on offer in ordinary life.  I wouldn't go to an event like this in a city, but when it's next door in the middle of nowhere it seems foolish to miss it, and so everyone's there enjoying themselves together, while dogs scrounge bits of pork roast and children play complicated games of tag round the outside of the tents.  And goodness there was some creative dance going on -- some people seemed to be just trying to get their limbs as far away from their bodies as possible in unusual ways.  Hurray for mid-Devon!

What's more, I have now tasted all but two of the festival beers.  There's no point my trying to remember which they are right now, though I've got marks for them all on my tasting sheet.  Tomorrow's the last day so hopefully I'll finish them then and maybe put some notes up here.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Beer festival part 2a

Butcombe Gold, 4.4%
Eddystone, 4.3%
We took my little nephew down to the beer festival, and he had an amazing time pointing at the drummer (he plays drums himself, on his dad's drumkit) and then dancing around like a mad thing.  It was his first ever festival.  He begged bits of pork from his indulgent Grandad's roastie bap and danced round in circles until he fell over. He looked like he felt life just couldn't get any better that this.  I may have lost him to rock and roll -- a remedial series of Pet Shop Boys listening sessions may be required.  It was quite a good band, and he particularly enjoyed their version of Stairway to Devon.  Once he's gone to sleep we're most of us going back to hear a band called the Thorvertones.  My brother and sister-in-law know the drummer's mother, who goes to all of their gigs wearing a special t-shirt that reads "The Drummer's Mother".  And they know someone else who likes them so much they have a Thorvertones tattoo.  I rather like their website, which explains that they're a band who take what they do seriously so that you don't have to. If I drink enough beer I will request Toxic by Britney...

On the beer front I have now tried Butcombe Gold, which I found just a tad disappointing, its summeriness overpowered by a strong bitter aftertaste, but only because I had high expectations; Forge Brewery's Dark Horse, which was a very good darker beer, though not quite what I was in the mood for; and South Ham's Brewery's Eddystone, which is a very good light fresh beer, but not as lovely as yesterday's Litehouse.  Litehouse is currently my favourite.  The beer certainly helps with tolerance for cover versions -- right now from my desk I can hear the mid-evening band thumping out Tainted Love.

The importance of being middle class

I have to get my signature on a document witnessed.  The document specifies that the witness must have known me for at least two years, mustn't be retired or related to me, and must be in one of these professions: solicitor, bank manager, financial advisor, police officer, doctor or qualified nurse, head teacher, member of the clergy, accountant, vet, dentist, magistrate, or ranking officer in the armed forces. So if you're not a regular church-goer, and you and your pets have been blessed with good health, it must be necessary to be pretty middle class to sort this out -- after all you're asking for someone who actually knows who you are, not just someone who will check it's you signing, and not everyone is chums with bank managers and solicitors.  I think I'll be able to get it done by asking the vicar of a neighbouring parish, if I can track her down.  But then maybe only the middle class have life assurance policies relating to mortgages.  The passport regulations are a little bit easier -- even teachers and lecturers can sign those.

I was mulling over this need to be middle class when I opened the next thing in my post, a book on logic from Amazon.  I started reading it at once -- I think I'll enjoy it more once it gets onto the Maths and stops trying to do "real world" logical analysis of things people say at after-dinner speeches.  Here's one of the little exercises at the end of the first chapter, which you have to inspect for internal consistency:
Walter joined the friendly club two years ago, and has been one of its most loyal members ever since.  Last year he paid for the holidays of precisely those club members who didn't pay for their own holidays.

Whilst of course I'm familiar with that particular "he shaved others, himself he could not shave" paradox, I was bemused to read in the answers at the back that this statement is inconsistent because of the question of who paid for Walter's holiday.  I had just assumed that Walter would avoid this excessive amount of self-definition by not going on holiday, especially if he has to work hard to pay for the holidays of others.  Since when has it been assumed that everyone goes on holiday?  Is that now an intrinsic part of human existence?  The fact that I can't read something like this without being really annoyed and even stopping to blog about it makes me worry that I am just over-educated, and that the excellence of the teaching in my first degree has spoiled me for normal just-let-it-go life.  But surely if one's allowed to pick pedantic holes in anything it's a textbook on logic.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Village life

Forge Litehouse, 4.3%
Teignworthy Old Moggie, 4.4%
One of the ways in which this village is great is its annual beer festival. There can't be many villages this small that have one. It's on all this weekend in the village hall, a few minutes' walk away, and one of the alpacas' fields has been turned into a carpark for the occasion. It started at about 6pm, and the sound of samba drums lured me away from my desk. Unfortunately by the time I got there the samba band had been replaced by an Oasis tribute act called Awaysis. They have a lead singer with round sunglasses, a moptop wig, and a long camel-coloured coat, who puts on a Paul Calf accent as he tries to get people to shout things. I only stuck it out for two halves and a Kenniford Farm roast-in-a-bun. I can hear them belting out Champagne Supernova as I type this back at home. Anyway, I'll go again tomorrow with my brother, and on Sunday I'll go again for the craft fair. So far I have tasted Forge Brewery's Litehouse, a delicious light golden beer, and Teignworthy's Old Moggie which is just a fraction darker and a bit more hoppy. This year one of the beers will be crowned the festival favourite, so I'm going to taste as many of them as I can manage and cast my vote.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011


We live on the surface of a massive rock that's spinning through space: