Saturday, January 31, 2009

Another post (In which Milkman Bragg meets Herman Dune)

Since YouTube won't let me embed this, I have to post something else for your weekend delectation.

Herman Dune, "1-2-3 Apple Tree"

Speaking in tongues

Ian McEwan’s thoughts on John Updike (bless ’im) in today’s Guardian are well worth reading. His assessment of Updike’s style is lovely, a real gem:
Like Bellow, his only equal in this, Updike is a master of effortless motion - between third and first person, from the metaphorical density of literary prose to the demotic, from specific detail to wide generalisation, from the actual to the numinous, from the scary to the comic. For his own particular purposes, Updike devised for himself a style of narration, an intense, present tense, free indirect style, that can leap up, whenever it wants, to a God's-eye view of Harry, or the view of his put-upon wife, Janice, or victimised son, Nelson.
I guess this style of conflicting perspectives and voices is what Mikhail Bakhtin meant by heteroglossia – the disruptive multi-tonguedness that he ascribed to the Dostoevskian novel. With reference to Bakhtin, therefore, I'd like to beg to differ with McEwan on the point that Updike is the sole representative of such a style (equalled only by Saul Bellow).

Here a passage from J.G. Ballard’s novel Rushing to Paradise (1994) – a viciously politically incorrect satire about an island commune of noble eco-warriors turned feminist dictatorship - which I had to think of when reading McEwan's article:
Neil tucked into the greasy mackerel with a plastic fork. His spirits rose as he remembered the savoury anchovies from Carline’s hamper that he had devoured on the beach. The waters of the lagoon teemed with snapper and coral trout, blue-fish and sea perch that many of the yacht-crews, not yet indoctrinated by Dr Barbara, grilled on open fires in the evening (84).
Dr Barbara, you must know, is the warrior queen/sadistic guard who oversees the utopian concentration camp in which the novel is set; Neil is the teenage admirer/alter ego/competitor with whom she exists in a destructive symbiosis.

It seems to be through the latter's eyes that this scene (as indeed much of the novel) is presented. In the third sentence, however, another perspective appears to intrude upon Neil's culinary and zoological contemplations, when a voice that might or might not be his suddenly, unmotivatedly raises the issue of indoctrination.

But is it Neil's voice? One the one hand, the reference to Dr Barbara's indoctrination would tie in with the image that he tries to project throughout the novel, namely that he is the last remaining sceptic in a microcosm of totalitarian madness. On the other, especially given his fascination with the feminist dictator to the very end of the novel, it seems doubtful that he is at all capable of such a rational stance.

Alternatively, this comment might be seen to come from another source altogether, like a distant, disembodied voice of reason speaking from elsewhere - possibly through the character - yet without influence upon his actions.

Rushing to Paradise hinges on the idea, central to Ballard's writing, that human beings are addicted to what destroys them and that no amount of rational analysis can bring them to their senses. Neil's problem - as well as that of the rest of Ballard's cast - is their inability to heed the voice of reason that they sometimes (as the example of Neil suggests) seem to ventriloquise.

This is the great contradiction explored again and again by Ballard: We like to think that we are rational creatures and do everything to leave that impression in public, but underneath the thin veneer of civilised rationality we are driven by impulses and passions that are beyond our control.

Is that different from Updike's writing? I think that yes, but not in principle. Where Updike uses heteroglossia to express his protagonists' battles with the world at large, Ballard's writing is all about the seductive enemies within that overshadow his characters' engagement with the world.

This does not mean that Updike is the more "social" (and realistic) and Ballard the more "psychological" (and surreal) author. What it means is that they approach their shared interest - the conflicts and contradictions of human existence - from different angles, only to finally meet somewhere in the middle.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Chill Out

It being the end of the week and me slightly exhausted, I thought I post a little mellow tune to welcome le fin de la semaine.

I've been listening to Herman Dune lately ....

"My Home is Nowhere Without You"

One of the 'helping kind'

Perhaps as a sort of sequel to my last post, here's another dispatch from the battle of the sexes, 1920s style.


Wives object to Their Fooling Round With the “Washing Up”


Is the good-natured husband who insists on wiping the dishes a real help or merely a nuisance?

Whichever he may be, he is certainly a very difficult person to handle.

“Helping husbands” are a product of these days of servant shortage, and Suburbia is full of them, poor dears, but whether they do any good, or whether their services are appreciated is open to question.

“Personally, I would sooner have my husband out of the kitchen,” a woman who possesses one of the helping kind, said to the Daily Sketch.

“But he means so well, that I haven’t the heart to tell him so.”

“Directly the evening meal is over he says: ‘Now, come on, let’s do the dishes; you wash and I’ll wipe,’ and he bundles off into the scullery and messes about and gets in the way and breaks things.”


“And he takes so long over everything! I know that I could do the job quicker by myself. About four minutes to every cup—and he dries and polishes it, and wipes it well round the ears as it were, before permitting himself to return it to the dresser.”

“It’s the same with other things. ‘I’ll run the sweeper over the carpet,’ he says, and amuses himself for half-an-hour doing it all wrong.

“He is a perfect dear, of course, and it seems awfully mean to speak of his efforts like this; but the fact remains that few men are really much use in the ordinary work of the home.”

“We had a discussion at our local debating society only last week on this very question and four out of five women who spoke declared they would rather their husbands didn’t help.”

“One woman was all in favour of the helping husband, but I happen to know that her husband is in a class all by himself. He is not only willing but capable, too, although even then I’d rather do the work myself.”

“Most women, I am convinced, would sooner the men put their slippers on, lit a pipe and settled down in the armchair with the evening paper than potter about the domestic domain under the impression that they are ‘helping’.”

“But the trouble is, how can we tell the poor dears that? When they have made up their minds to be considerate, unselfish, and helpful they’d be bitterly affronted.”

(The Daily Sketch, 21 June 1928, p. 26)

The slow-motion pedestrians of the bargain-hunting sex

Seeing as we're in for another media panic about girls gone wild, the following dispatch from another era--which I just happened to run across while looking for something else here in the newspaper archive--may be of interest.


From an overseas visitor comes a suggestion for dealing with the congestion of London’s footpaths. Having been impressed by the centralisation of trades that has taken place, our visitor considers that only certain classes of pedestrians should be allowed to frequent certain thoroughfares. So he advocates that the western side of Oxford-street should be reserved for “Women only.”

But if certain streets are to be reserved for window-gazers and slow-motion pedestrians of the bargain-hunting sex, mere man should enjoy the exclusive use of thoroughfares not associated with the display of feminine furbelows. In fact, some men, who, when suffering from the inconsiderate behaviour of women in streets and buses, acquire the male mental outlook of countries where the harem is still an institution, would willingly forgo the misery of intruding in Oxford-street if conditions were made more comfortable for them elsewhere.

Women undoubtedly are chiefly to blame for the delays which impede the London pedestrian or bus rider. Observe the manner in which before a bus reaches a stopping place women crowd to the rear platform. Not one will alight until the vehicle comes to a dead stop, and meanwhile mere men, ready to jump off while the bus is in motion, are kept fretting and fuming at the rear. Note, too, the way in which a woman will place herself squarely in the entrance to a Tube station and carry on a lengthy conversation with the ticket-collector.

Women, in fact, despite their vaunted emancipation, remain strangely anti-social. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our streets, where the bland obliviousness of the female of the species to the needs and convenience of others threatens at times to reduce pedestrian traffic to a state of perpetual immobility.

(The Daily Sketch, 9 July 1928, p. 7)

A 'furbelow', in case you're wondering (I was), refers to a ruffle, flounce or small, showy ornamentation.

A rather more risqué association was the first to pop into my head at the phrase 'display of feminine furbelows.'

But this was a more innocent time...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Truth and anachronism

I know exactly how Bing McGhandi feels:
I write because, often, while I talk my brain is pulling me in several directions at once.
That nicely captures the way I sometimes feel when I'm teaching, as my sacred professional duty to pass on reliable information to more or less alert and eager twenty-somethings tends to be marred by my pathological habit of random associationism. One of my New Year's resolutions was: "flick 'full stop' switch more often in class." Guess what: I haven't been all that successful.

The worst thing is: I tend to be completely, schizophrenically conscious whenever my mind gets off according to its own sweet will and urges me to tell students Things-They-Really-Don't-Want-to-Know. I can feel it like an aura – something goes "click" in my brain and and then it’s "oops, 'ere we go again."

So this is what I did on Monday, talking about the significance of Andreas Vesalius’s anatomical treatise De humani corporis fabrica in Renaissance culture (it is relevant - there's plenty of dissecting going on in English literature of the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries). I casually fling the transparency that I’d made of the book’s title page onto the OHP (I detest PowerPoint) and am about to launch into my extended comment, when all of a sudden I'm gripped in the guts by the knowledge that, rather than neutrally making my point, I am about to go off on yet another tangent.

So instead of simply commenting on Vesalius's place at the centre of the depiction of an anatomical lesson in progress, the body of the woman that he is in the process of dissecting, the moralistic skeleton hovering somewhat awkwardly above and and the flock of enraptured bystanders witnessing this feat of medical science - and then stopping - I ask:
“Do you know Mike Skinner of The Streets? He looks just like Andreas Vesalius.”
In retrospect, this is a not disingenuous conflation of a contemporary musician with the name of Skinner and a Renaissance scientist who skinned dead bodies in the name of science. In fact, it probably illustrates a mighty complex cognitive process. But the awkward silence in the auditorium suggested that this was another instance of the gratuitous anachronistic waffle that seems to have become my trademark.

Anyway, here's the visual evidence that my hunch is more than linguistic:

(Image via).

David Attenborough is, like, so cool

While taking a quick lunch break here at the Colindale Newspaper Library (by the way: there are, it seems, few things more essential to the British experience than eating sandwiches from triangular plastic containers), I ran across this short article at the Guardian that recounts some highlights of a recent interview with David Attenborough.

I think it caught my eye because a recent Daily Fail story had also commented on Sir David, emphasising his 'longing for the comforts of faith' in its subtitle.

I found that a bit odd, since if you actually read the article, you'll find that it's David's brother Richard who said he ('almost') wished he'd believed in God because of the spiritual comfort it might have provided after the sudden deaths of his daughter and granddaughter.

David, for his part, says that he's an agnostic and notes that he ('almost') wishes he could have had a religious background, but this is only because in that case he'd have been able to actively reject it.

But, this is the Naily Quail we're talking about here, which also managed to mis-caption two of the article's photos as 'Richard' when they were actually of 'David'.


Anyway, the Guardian article is briefer and not annoying at all, and it highlights Sir David's receipt of hostile mail from creationists (many of them, no doubt, avid Mail readers).

Telling the magazine that he was asked why he did not give "credit" to God, Attenborough added: "They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

He also states:

"It never really occurred to me to believe in God - and I had nothing to rebel against, my parents told me nothing whatsoever. But I do remember looking at my headmaster delivering a sermon, a classicist, extremely clever ... and thinking, he can't really believe all that, can he? How incredible!"


If we were in the business of naming patron saints for this humble blog (and, who knows, maybe someday we will be), David Attenborough would be well toward the front of the line to receive that honour.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

On the day your love came screaming through me

Just because we haven't highlighted the brilliance of the Mountain Goats recently:

(TMG, 'Song for an old friend')


In an imperfect union

Like perhaps more than a few Obama supporters, I was not exactly thrilled by the prominence of God-talk in and around the inauguration.

Still, as an American, I'm not only familiar with this kind of thing but also aware that anyone openly hostile to religion wouldn't get anywhere near occupying White House.

And Obama is not, as is quite clear, such a person in any case.

Ophelia tries to put some of these issues in perspective. Helpfully, as I see it:

I wish we could ditch all the God-talk. I'm very glad he included non-believers, but I still wish we could ditch the God talk. But...(this is where things get really sinister) I don't mind it as much as I would from someone else, or as much as I did from Bush or Clinton. Have I lost my mind? Partly, maybe - that is, the euphoria of the whole thing motivates me to bury my normal reaction so that I can go on being euphoric. That's not what you'd call sound intellectual practice - so that's a fair cop. I'm giving Obama a break that I wouldn't give other people. (Fortunately, it makes no difference to him or to them - I don't want to come over all self-important here! I'm just exploring how this stuff works, from the inside; I'm not saying What I Think Matters.) But some of that is because the God talk trails with it the old civil rightsy rhetoric. I wouldn't want to be without The Promised Land or All God's Children or (perhaps least of all) 'Thank God almighty, we're free at last.' That's in spite of the fact that in any other context that line would irritate the hell out of me, because stricly speaking it's absurd - thanking god for freedom and just politely ignoring the previous four centuries. In any other context I would rudely ask why god gets the credit for the good stuff and none of the blame for the bad stuff; I would ask why, if god could free the slaves, god didn't just prevent them from being enslaved in the first place. But - in the civil rights context, I don't. If I had the choice, I would keep all the presidential language secular, but since I don't...I feel inclined to turn a blind eye. That's a double standard. Nolo contendere.

The rest is worth reading.

As is a somewhat older post from Dale (and even somewhat older one), responding to a challenge from Norm directed at atheist supporters of the (sometimes demonstratively) theistic Obama.

Dale quotes Obama himself, who expresses the crucial issue very well:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

And Dale comments:

I do not want to see any candidate presume to be god's proxy (cf. this and this) -- such talk is, by my lights, deluded and dangerous, and must be subject to sharp criticism in all cases. But here on earth, political engagement requires choices between concrete and imperfect alternatives.

These constitute, I think, a couple of useful guidelines on this topic for the next four (and, with any luck, eight) years.

Mein Führer! I can walk!

Among the odder paragraphs I've run across in the post-inauguration coverage:

As for Cheney, he attracted various arch valedictions after he appeared on Inauguration Day in a wheelchair, having apparently strained his back while filling a removal box. Comparisons with Dr Strangelove were criticised by members of the US disabled community who said it reflected unfairly on wheelchair users.

Offered without comment.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Coughing your guts out (in theory and practice)

Like well-nigh everyone else around me, I have been ill for the last week or so and am only now beginning to emerge from the flu-like exhaustion and concussion-inducing coughs that have forced me to lie very low indeed.

There are good sides to being ill (if "ill" means the kind of ailment that I'm just getting over, rather than a fatal disease).

First, you appreciate your usual physical condition so much more once whatever virus has come to visit you unbidden has worked its way through your system.

Second, for the first time in ages you feel rested because you've had so much more sleep than usual.

Third, being ill provides a certain intellectual satisfaction, as it defies the infantile anti-materialism of the untested "theories" that suffuse your professional world and thus feeds whatever scepticism you might have been harbouring about the same for a while.

Being ill reminds you -- painfully, annoyingly, but also somehow pleasantly -- that you are not a discourse.

Which is why right now, with my lingering repertoire of coughs, rattles and pains, I am particularly sensitive to the eloquent stupidity/stupid eloquence of some of the popular ideas about the body vented in academia not too long ago (a fashion in which I, sadly, participated, too).

Take Jonathan Sawday's The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (1995) -- a study that was enormously influential during the late 1990s, when it fed into a general cultural craze about all things anatomical (manifesting itself for instance in the way that hitherto hardly known names like Andreas Vesalius and Nicolaes Tulp began to be dropped at sub-academic cheese and red wine parties like there was no tomorrow).

On page 16, Sawday writes:
In the twentieth century it is virtually impossible to think about the body outside a prevailing medical-scientific discourse.
Hm. There was a time when I thought lines like that were poetry. No more, though. It's all cheese, as we say here in Germany.

Just for the record, let it be noted that even in the twenty-first century I can still recognise that the stubborn blockage of mucus in my lungs is more than a mere narrative construct. What is more, I want my antibiotics, however prevailing the medical-scientific discourse that has brought me that marvellous gift.

And without the Foucauldian chaser, please!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Just the end of the beginning

Having spent three cold mornings on 'the Mall' witnessing inaugurations in person (one with youthful optimism, one with already chastened disappointment, one with a sense of palpable discomfort...I'll let you figure out which was which) it was with a curious jumble of feelings that I watched today's event on a small (and often interrupted...clogged tubes, no doubt) window on my computer screen.

Other than the fascinating experience of viewing a parade of American political elites wander onto the stage (my, how frail does the elder Bush look? And how hale the Mondales and Carters!) there is some strange combination, I must note, of appalling and stirring in inauguration ceremonies.

It's perhaps the odd mixture of grandiose empire and humble republic that is uniquely American.

I must confess to a busy confluence of emotions today, most of which I want to keep to myself.

But, to put it briefly: a bit too much of the Almighty, but, all things considered, a very inspiring beginning, the kind of thing that makes one clutch one's passport with a sincerity not usually felt.

Much of the rest of the administration is going to be engaged in grubby politicking; but, you know, that's the nature of a republic, and I hope that President Obama proves he has the mettle for making headway in that game. Still, the guidelines set today were, as far as I could hear them, quite a good beginning.

Enough prologue. Let's get down to business.

(Image via the Washington Post)

Monday, January 19, 2009

A few sacrifices must be made...

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman reports a good idea for solving the current economic crisis.

My wife suggests that we might try sacrificing a few bankers — central bankers, investment bankers, whatever — to appease the financial gods.

Who knows, it might just work.

And if it doesn't work? Well...would you honestly care? Just make sure to bring plenty of barbecue sauce.

And, while we're at it: here's to wives, who have all the really good ideas!

(Thanks to Andrew for the tip!)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A case for the language police

The Guardian's Decca ("EMI") Aitkenhead on Our Lady of the Fishfingers:

In person she is dainty, almost exaggeratedly ladylike, and much more playfully ambivalent than the public debate about her book.

"Playfully ambivalent" is the kind of phrase taught in "Introduction to Literary Theory" classes all over the world that any sane and salaried person over the age of 27 ought to cull from her or his vocabulary. It's the graduate's version of "awesome" and just as frigging grating.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Of watery tarts and enemy snails

In Court Culture and the Origins of a Royalist Tradition in Early Stuart England (1987) R. Malcolm Smuts describes the following cute little pageant laid on in honour of Elizabeth I during one of her progresses through the home counties:

When the Earl of Hertford heard [the queen] was moving toward one of his small country residences in 1591, he hired 280 workmen to erect a small village to house the court and construct the setting for a pageant. They dug a pond in the shape of a crescent moon of Diana, goddess of chastity. In it stood an island fortress and a ship, to symbolize England and her navy, and a huge snail made of trimmed hedges, to represent the queen's enemies. When Elizabeth arrived, water deities came out of this enchanted pool to pay homage in song and verse to the mistress of the seas. Then the ship and fortress attacked the snail with blazing cannon, blowing it up in a profusion of fireworks. The entertainment dragged on through three days of drizzle as both court and country folk watched. Finally Elizabeth departed, to the doleful laments of the water gods, whose deserting them, in the direction of her next host.

Unfortunately, Smuts doesn't tell us what kind of staged fracas awaited her majesty at the next stop. But I have no doubt that the owner of whatever country manor next blessed with her benign presence would have done his utmost to please his royal guest with an equally bizarre stirring tribute to national heroism.

Now, how might a modern monarch be appropriately entertained? With "The Clash of Civilizations on Ice" (performed in the shadow of the London Eye)? That sure would go down a treat with Madeleine Bunting! Or a panto-style reenactment of Prince Harry's Afghan adventures with his dusky comrades? No, that'd be a tad too inclusive.

I'd draw on another inspiration altogether: the UK's ongoing collective delusion that Albion has become a heliport for extraterrestrial tourists.

In fact, I'd get John Carpenter to direct the climactic battle between an Anglo-Saxon space Galahad and a rubber orange from beyond the stars:

Or, if the rubber orange is unavailable, maybe a blancmange from the planet Skyron will do:

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It's the naily tail!

In an essay on the Renaissance debate about witchcraft in Michael Hattaway's Companion to Renaissance Literature and Culture (2000), the historian Jim Sharpe (much esteemed in this household) describes an emerging early modern print genre which he calls "wonder literature":
... short and accessible works at once sensationalist and moralistic, sometimes clearly aimed at a wide audience, and usually concerned with describing an unusual event and employing it to demonstrate God's providence on earth. Thus cases of witchcraft were recorded and their significance pondered along with monstrous births, earthquakes, floods, whales washed up on beaches, cities destroyed by fire, and frogs rained down on the earth from the heavens.
Sound familiar?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

At least I'm the epitome of something

The Wife has drawn my attention to a short article, 'It's the history, man', by Alexis Petridis, in which he observes:

the corduroy suit has to fight against certain preconceptions: it's symbolic of an early-70s Open University professor nerdiness.
No comment.

'After the brooding, then the firepower.'

A few bits and bobs I've run across in my last few days' reading that seem, somehow, to fit together.

Via Norm, an intriguing excerpt from Charles Baxter's interesting-sounding novel, The Feast of Love:

They sulk, men, so many of them. They bear grudges and they get violent almost as a hobby, the ones I've known. Didn't you realize this? Ask around. As a gender they're - you're - always scheming or at least they seem to be scheming because they never ever tell you what's on their minds. The sample I've had. They just sit there day after day and they brood. After the brooding, then the firepower.

A case study that appears in an article by criminologist Fiona Brookman, 'Confrontational and Revenge Homicides Among Men in England and Wales':

Since Jeff (aged 34) married into the victim’s family a great deal of animosity had occurred between him and his brother-in-law (Ian, aged 39). Specifically, Ian had, on two separate occasions, physically assaulted his sister, Sue (Jeff’s wife) in respect of trivial matters. The day before the killing, Jeff went to work at 4.00 p.m. on a night shift. Some time after 10.00 p.m., Ian arrived at his sister’s house in a drunken state, shouting to be allowed into the house. On gaining entry he became abusive towards Sue and punched her, breaking her nose. When Jeff arrived home from work he saw his wife’s injuries and was informed of the previous night’s events, to which he responded, “I’ve had a gut’s full of him hitting you around”. Jeff went to bed and when he got up he proceeded to put into action his plan to avenge his wife’s beatings. He cancelled work for that evening and obtained a shotgun and cartridges from an acquaintance. At around 11.20 p.m. he walked the short distance to Ian’s flat, knocked on the door and, without saying a word,shot him twice in the head at close range. Jeff then telephoned the police to explain what he had done stating, “he got what he deserved, he gave my misses a kicking. I hope he dies”. (pp. 44-45)

A couple of excerpts from David T. Courtwright, Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City:

[T]here is an abundance of other evidence that Gold Rush California was a brutal and unforgiving place. Camp names were mimetic: Gouge Eye, Murderers Bar, Cut-throat Gulch, Graveyard Flat. There was a Hangtown, a Helltown, a Whiskeytown, and Gomorrah, though, interestingly, no Sodom. Even innocuously named places could explode into violence. The city of Marysville reportedly experienced seventeen murders in a single week, prompting the formation of a vigilance committee. Suicide and violent death occurred in all mining regions. Witnesses wrote of men suddenly pulling out pistols and shooting themselves, of bodies floating down the river, of miners stoned to death in gambling disputes. They described men who had become beasts, biting and pulling hair, flogging one another without mercy, cropping boys' ears, laughing at executions. (p. 75)

But whatever the cowboys' guns brought in the way of deterrence and emergency use was paid for by an increase in accidental death and injury. Cowboy and noncowboy alike died when guns tipped over, dropped from pockets, or fell from blankets. The Caldwell Post, a Kansas cattle-town newspaper, estimated that five cowboys were killed by accidental gun discharges for every one slain by a murderer. Those who survived accidents were often horribly injured, living out their lives with shattered knees or shot-away faces.

The other evil associated with gun toting was the increased incidence of unpremeditated homicide. 'I always carried a gun because it was the only way I knew how to fight,' [cowboy 'Teddy Blue'] Abbott admitted. 'That was the feeling among the cowpunchers. They didn't know how to fight with their fists. The way they looked at it, fist fighting was nigger stuff anyhow and a white man wouldn't stoop to it.' (p. 91)

From comments made by a former 'sweet boiler' describing dispute settlement in late 19th and early 20th century Manchester that I quote in my book (which I was re-reading, astonished to find out all the things I once knew):

You always settled your arguments with a fight. You see it was the only expression you had. They wouldn’t listen to you arguing, you know what I mean. He’d be looking while he’s arguing with you…he’d be looking for an opening to let you have one. You see…it was very common. In fact, in the workshops, the public houses at the time of Sullivan or Corbett, the men were always fighting. In fact, behind my grandfather’s house there was a canal and a croft. Any quarrels which my grandfather and any of his sons had with anybody would be settled by one son on the Sunday morning on this croft. [...]

Question: How do you mean…how do you mean by one son?
Answer: Because one son was kept for that purpose, fighting.
Question: He was a fighter for the family?
Answer: He was a fighter for the family. Bare fists…and very often his opponent was knocked out. They’d throw him in the canal and then bring him out when he’d recovered. ‘Course, often as not, a ducking would be enough. (p. 91)
From an excellent essay by Simon Sellers at Ballardian:

[...] Birmingham proceeds to whip up a storm of hatred against all cyclists (an extremely dirty tactic that, as we shall see, he decries when used by others). In the comments section of his blog, his followers took up the call, branding cyclists ‘poofs’, ‘clowns’ and ‘dickheads’ and coming up with more ways to kill them — like ‘rotating knives on car tyres’ (Birmingham might think such comments are harmless fun, but in Britain the journalist Matthew Parris advocated stringing piano wire across cycle paths to decapitate cyclists, then had to apologise and retract his attempt at ‘humour’ when real-life stories of cyclists being garroted subsequently came to light; I’ve also written previously about my own experiences observing how anti-cyclist hatred is rife on the roads after such articles get printed).

From the Sunday Pictorial, 12 February 1928:


Home Team Protect Him from a Hostile Crowd

There was a remarkable scene after the football match at Minehead yesterday. The referee, Mr. F. Chidgey, of Watchet, had to be escorted to his hotel by members of the Minehead team to prevent a large and hostile crowd from molesting him. But for the team's action Mr. Chidgey would have been roughly handled. The match was a Somerset Senior Cup game between Minehead and Wells City, Wells winning by a penalty goal. (p. 2)

Have a nice weekend.

[UPDATE] Here. Via Boing Boing.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A few notes on awsome udders and excellent mammary systems

Language will take you to strange places.

For instance, researching a small translation assignment I took on this week led to one of the most remarkable websites I've visited in a while:

The translation in question comes from the agricultural sector, so--rest assured--my reason for being there was completely legitimate.

You see, cattle breeding not being one of my areas of expertise ('it's not my field' as we academics are fond of saying), it's helpful sometimes to get a sense of the kind of wording and syntax common to the sort of text you're working on.

And this was indeed a fascinating journey into a world I had scarcely considered before.

The site, we are informed, is 'a new online facility for the ordering and purchase of bull semen for dairy and beef cattle from world-renowned, international genetic breeding organisations.'

Which is, you know, absolutely understandable.

I mean, I eat meat (if rarely), drink milk and eat cheese (in large quantities).

I am aware that to have these things we need cows (or goats...but I haven't checked for yet). And I know--at least theoretically--how baby cows get made.

So, I recognise that this is a serious and necessary business and I wish them well.

Still, I find the site to be some of the best entertainment you can find on these here internets.

Just check out that great logo! Or the photo of the call centre associate with her come-hither stare juxtaposed with text like ' Great bulls at fair prices'.

Or even the the brochure in .pdf format with the stirring slogan, 'Start The New Year With'.

I can you argue with that?

And if you click on, say, 'Holsteins' under 'Order semen', you are offered a remarkable selection of...well, semen, that you could comfortably order from where you're sitting right now. (It comes, apparently, in 'straws', which is a nomenclature I admit I've not yet developed the courage to investigate.)

The photos, the more observant of you will notice, are from the females that said seed has been selected to produce rather than of the prize sires themselves.

And the profiles of the...donors?...are linguistically fascinating constructions in themselves. Fortunately, my client didn't need anything nearly this detailed.

Consider, if you will, the following descriptions of....


Upstanding daughters exhibit strength and width in bodies which support near perfect udders. A very steep foot angle and ideal rump setting have added to this bull’s popularity.


Jurus is from an outstanding cow family. His dam was a VG Essentation and the next dam was the EX 92 Finabell - by Ugela Bell. Jurus has the longevity and milk from his sire but combines this with good components from his cow family. He produces medium sized dairy cows, that have excellent udders and very good feet and legs (1.27).

...or, my favourite, 'Satire':

This Addison son produces daughters with tremendous production from awesome udders. His dam is G.G. Patron Satin who has milk production records of over 18000 kg’s. She is scored Ex93 for confirmation with an excellent mammary system. Satire scores very well for feet and legs with good bone quality and steep foot angle.

And what red-blooded male can resist, I might say, the combination of an 'excellent mammary system' and 'steep foot angle' (let alone the 'awesome udders')?

I thought so.

(Image: 'Friesian Holstein', via Wikimedia Commons)

Hosanna, Heysanna, or: Sufjan, why?

Beautiful music on the radio today: a group called The Welcome Wagon warbling heart-warmingly wonderful tunes -- amongst them a truly charming cover version of The Smith's "Half a Person" -- that involve chanting and clapping, clever rhythmic shifts and breaks and a highly effective use of the Sousaphone (or some such wind instrument). The whole caboodle comes dressed in Sufjan Stevens' own special wall of sound (but then again, he produced the album -- which might mean that the Sousaphone is actually a French Horn) and therefore just.sounds.nice.

So where's the problem, you ask. Just go buy the album!

The problem is: The Welcome Wagon is a Christian folk band staffed by the Presbyterian Reverend Thomas Vito Aiuto and his wife Monique, and when they're not pilfering depressive ditties from Morrissey they sing about Jesus and fountains full of blood.

Please check for yourselves and tell me whether this is music a discerning atheist may listen to without fear of losing her or his mind (or credentials).

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Fox in the snow

Saw one this morning when out running. Fox in the snow, that is. Here's the soundtrack to the moment:

Of the twits and the twittering

The aspirants for the post of Republican National Committee Chairman gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, a couple of days ago to offer their visions for how the party can reverse its apparently declining political fortunes.

As the Washington Post reports (via), appealing to the youth through electronic media will be a key part of that strategy.

"We have to do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering, the different technology that young people are using today," [incumbent Chairman] Duncan ventured.

Some of the candidates have up to 4,000 friends 'in the Facebook'.

Thus, compared to former Sen. Ted 'Series of Tubes' Stevens, they certainly have every right to sit at the cool kids' table in the school cafeteria. They are no doubt aware of all internet traditions.

A stirring image, indeed, of today's conservative movement:

(Image source)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009


In a determined act of (long) post-Reformation iconoclasm, the Vicar of Dibley Rev Ewen Souter, vicar at St John's Church in Horsham, West Sussex, ordered the removal of a 10-foot sculpture of Jesus on the cross just before Christmas.

Why? He deemed the sculpture by Edward Bainbridge Copnall -- not exactly a local macramé artist -- "unsuitable" and "a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering".

Quoth the Reverend:
We're all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.
That, honey, is called euphemism, which is a rhetorical device not liked at this blog. And just to point out the hypocrisy contradiction of your words, vicar, let me remind you of the subtle soft focus portrayal of the "good news" in your holy book (I'm sure you know them by heart):
Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him.
And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe,
and said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands.
And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Gol'gotha:
where they crucified him, and two others with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.
After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst.
Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

Uplifting and inspiring indeed!

As John says: Christ didn't come to earth to spend a day at the seaside (although there are places on the British coast which might make good crucifixion sites).

New favourite bird

So there I was, minding my own business, walking to the supermarket when what should I encounter but one of these:

Having never seen Regulus regulus (the goldcrest or Wintergoldhähnchen) before, I was a bit mystified and fascinated.

The bird was tiny (it is apparently the smallest bird in Europe), seemed to be vaguely shaped like the also micro-sized wren (though without the upward-pointing tail) and also had similar, slightly mouse-like movements. But the colouring was both wrong and very striking. (I mean: check out that headgear! Lovely wings, too.)

I could be wrong about the resemblances: perhaps I'm just a bit hung up on wrens. (No, it seems that they were once known in Britain as gold-crested wrens, so it's not just me.)

Anyway, I must have stood there a good three or four minutes observing the goldcrest from quite close: along with whatever other characteristics they have, they also seem to be quite fearless, as he was apparently unbothered by my presence, the noisy street running along the hedge he was exploring or the busy petrol station across the road.

And he seemed far less put out by the bitter cold that eventually drove me off.

Nice to meet you, neighbour.

(Image source.)

Monday, January 05, 2009

Year of the dead?

Rather like Harald Martenstein, Charlie Brooker does not expect 2009 to be, as Ol' Blue Eyes once put it, a very good year.

Dim your lights. Here's the highlights reel. The worst recession in 60 years. Broken windows and artless graffiti. Howling winds blowing empty cans past boarded-up shopfronts. Feral children eating sloppy handfuls of decomposed-pigeon-and-baked-bean mulch scraped from the bottom of dustbins in a desperate bid to survive. The pound worth less than the acorn. The City worth less than the pound. Your house worth so little it'll collapse out of shame, crushing you in your bed.

It goes downhill from there (the year, I mean, not the enjoyment of Booker's prose), though even a pessimist like me doubts whether my relatives will actually have to sleep on brain-stained bedclothes, "shivering in the dark as they hear bombs dipped in bird flu dropping on the shattered remains of the desiccated city above."

But it's the thought that counts, I suppose.

So, the new year is already looking pretty nightmarish, which is one of the reasons I decided to ring it in by spending its first few evenings re-watching George Romero's zombie trilogy.

There are few things like a good old fashioned zombie apocalypse to cheer a body up: the world may be bad, you think, but at least I'm not trapped in a shopping mall trying to keep my entrails from being ripped out and eaten by the undead.

Yeah. A little perspective is always useful.

Something else that might also help you get through the grim times to come might be a couple of wonderful (and quite remarkably zombie-like) photos of party-goers offered to us by Sorry I Missed Your Party (previously celebrated on this blog here.)

There will be many moments in 2009 when you need a little cheering up, a little, you know, laughter.

Just bookmark this page and come back whenever you need that little lift.


Don't you feel better now? Good.

And remember: when it comes to real zombies, aim for the head.

(Image sources: here and here. Frightening combination thereof: here.)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Is there life on Mars?

In the midst of an article at the Washington Post on optimistic and pessimistic versions of science fiction (the article's OK, though a bit breezy, and it rushes a bit lightly over the complexities of, say, Brave New World or the work of Robert A. Heinlein) we run across a reference to Edgar Rice Burroughs's famous character John Carter.

Partly because of the name, I suppose, I was aware of John Carter from a relatively early age (though at first through the Marvel comics adaptation rather than the books), so I know he has been represented as looking something like this:

(Yes, the Frazetta girls who appeared on the covers of those books were always one of the appealing things about the series.)

However, the hyperlink in the Washington Post article that appears at the first mention of "John Carter" leads to something quite different (click image for a larger view):

Our Martian warrior (referred to here as 'sword-fighting and ray-gunning his way across Barsoom') seems to have returned from the red planet, shed the swords and abandoned the scantily clad chicks to become a Republican congressman in Texas.

I would never have guessed.

Though I'm sure the Marvel version of this will be better than it sounds.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hitlermania in Linz? Computer says "no"

An article in today's Telegraph about this year's European City of Culture, Linz in Austria, is marred by yet another of the sensationalist headlines so beloved by what will henceforth be only referred to as "The 'Great' British Press" at this blog:
Adolf Hitler at the centre of Austria's City of Culture campaign
This, however, clearly misrepresents what is actually planned in Linz for 2009.

As the article itself reveals, Linz uses its special cultural status as an opportunity for a bit of what we Germans call fondly "Vergangenheitsbewältigtung." The city is not in the process of creating some kind of Hitler themepark (as the headline implies), but is facing up to the city's connection with Nazism: Linz, where Hitler spent nine years of his life, was his favourite city, though the great plans that he had for the city thankfully remained unfulfilled. What will be offered as a part of a much broader cultural programme are exhibitions, installations and historical walking tours to remind visitors of that past.

Sorry to disappoint -- if you wish to feed your Nazi-fetish, Linz might not be the place to go this year (and it's not because the computer says "no"). How about Bogalusa, LA.?

Anyway, this passage from the article has just been nominated journalistic clanger of the day:

Liverpool naturally highlighted its connections to the Beatles, its most famous sons, when it became City of Culture in 2008. But the Austrian city of Linz, with no lederhosen version of the Fab Four to exploit, has instead decided to showcase the works of the architect of the Third Reich.

People get paid for writing stuff like this! I'm amazed.

If you're interested in real information on the topic (because believe me, what they tell you Brits about Germany is a cartoon version of reality), here's a somewhat more balanced and interesting Deutsche Welle piece.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Party like it's 1941

Notice anything...odd?...about the selection of stories the Times has decided to run on New Year's Day 2009?