Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A dispatch from the George Romero Institute of Brain Resarch

Trusting Geoff Coupe's judgment when it comes to recommending good articles, videos, photos, etc., I immediately clicked on what he promised to be a 'terrific article' on a brain institute's research work on mapping that important little organ in our skulls.

Geoff's right: the article is interesting. So, thanks Geoff!

But when you first arrive at it, you are greeted by a quite...striking?...photograph of a lab technician slicing into a brain with what appears to be a...bread knife.

You have been warned.

At least I know what I'm going to be dreaming about for the next month or so.

Article, and grisly brain picture, available here.

For thine is the (little plastic) kingdom

We're feeling rather desperately in need of a laugh at the moment, and just on the off-chance that you might be in the same boat, I offer the following two amusements.

First, The Wife has brought my attention to an article from the Süddeutsche Zeitung about Markus Bomhard, a pastor in the neighbouring federal state of Hessen, who has incorporated Playmobil figures into biblical scenes. This has led him into some trouble with Playmobil, which is unhappy about the public uses to which their products are being turned.

Pastor Bomhard has a website where he displays his creations. I must say, having turned my hand to this sort of thing in a far more amateur way, I'm impressed.

The article's in German (like Pastor Bomhard's website), but a couple of short, quickly translated excerpts might serve as a good introduction:

It's just not easy to crucify a little Plamobil person. The arms of the finger-length plasic figures are too rigid and they can't be spread out sideways. But Protestant pastor Markus Bomhard knows how to get around this. They just have to be held long enough over a burning candle or under a hot hairdryer, he says: 'Then the plastic becomes very soft and can be re-shaped.' Afterwards, the figure is briefly left to cool and harden before it can be nailed to the cross.


'We're bothered by the complete change in the figures', says a [Playmobil] spokeswoman, 'which infringes on our copyright.' Christ on the cross is a perfect example of that, as are Adam and Eve, whom the creative pastor gave, respectively, male genitalia and glued-on breasts. 'As long as someone makes changes in private, just for themselves, we're really quite tolerant', says the Playmobil spokeswoman. But with Bomhard that 'has taken on another dimension entirely.'
Indeed it has. But not, I think, in a bad way.

In other news, I was impressed by the eloquence and social awareness of Dayana Mendoza, the current 'Miss Universe'.

As reported at 'The Lede' blog at the New York Times, Miss Mendoza recently visited Guantánamo Bay as part of a USO tour. She was very impressed, and you can read her comments here.

I think I found her conclusion to sum it up best:

I didn’t want to leave, it was such a relaxing place, so calm and beautiful.

Cool. By all means, Miss Mendoza, do stay. Please.

(Thanks to Kristine for the tip.)

Monday, March 30, 2009

No news today

"Is this all we have to worry about?", FMOAK asks with regard to yet another embarrassing grand moment of British politics, aka Jaquigate.

Now, the home secretary's private porn collection really leaves me stone dead unaroused ("Jaqui Smith on a cold day" is just as effective as "Margaret Thatcher on a cold day" in toning down the effects of erotic excitation); however, I had a similar sense of flabbergastedness (flabbergastion?) as Peter Ryley when I read this here fashion jeremiad in today's Guardian.

The private quandary of disturbing dimensions around which the article revolves:
Wearing hijab is about more than throwing on a headscarf. It means committing to a broader dress code - for me clothing needs to cover everything but the hands and face, and be loose enough to hide my body shape. Since I like to shop on the high street, that's a bit of a tall order. Few among Topshop, H&M, Dorothy Perkins, Zara and Miss Selfridge can meet my needs in one or two garments. Fashions come and go, but I am committed to a life of layering.
I guess you can reproach Western high street fashion for a lot of things: collective tastelessness, non-sustainability, exploitation. But not catering to an individual shopper's personal religious convictions?

I mean let's face it: you don't order hosts in McDonald's, do you, and then complain when all they offer you is a McMuffin?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Girls gone wild...

...or not, as the case may be.

Women Go Crazy at Sales

Magistrate’s Comment on Husband’s plea

‘It is the sales that seem to make the women go crazy,’ pleaded the husband of Lilian Philips, a Brixton woman, charged at West London Police Court yesterday with shoplifting at Barker’s store, Kensington.

‘I know she has done a very silly thing,’ added the man sorrowfully.

Mr. Mead: Silly? It isn’t silly. It is wicked to steal. Silly—that is the way people look at it. People seem to have lost the sense of standards nowadays. They talk of being in prison as if it is an accident; something they can’t help.

Mrs. Phillips was ordered to fourteen days’ imprisonment in the second division.

(Daily Herald, 4 July 1928, p. 1)


Slander on Southend

Unfounded Tales of Girl ’Drunks‘

The Truth

Happy Holiday With Few Police Cases

Southend is ‘up in the air’ about a report that ‘girl “drunks”’ among its visitors caused trouble on Bank Holiday. Indignation is expressed that this unfounded story should have been published in London evening papers yesterday, as well as broadcast all over the country by a news agency.

‘Two very quiet days for the ambulance men,’ was the way in which this Southend tale began. ‘Most of the cases were caused by broken bottles on the shore and the “drunks,” and several people dived head first into shallow pools with painful results, and were more or less injured.’


Then followed the allegation which is resented as a slander. ‘Though there were fewer men drunk,’ it ran, ‘there was an appreciable increase among young girls, and they caused considerable trouble.’

To a Daily Herald reporter the authorities at Southend dismissed this statement as absurd.

‘Nothing of the kind,’ said the Mayor, Mr. Arthur Bockett, when he was asked whether any drunken behaviour among girls had come to his notice.

‘The people who came to Southend on Bank Holiday were excellently behaved and we had no trouble at all.’

‘It was a very quiet holiday. There was no rowdyism of any sort.’

At the police station the story of trouble with intoxicated girls was also flatly denied. ‘We have not seen any,’ declared the police.

In fact, it appears that of all the thousands of men and women who visited Southend on Monday three only came under the notice of the police as having ‘taken a drop too much,’ and even these cases were not serious.

Indeed, no arrests were made, and there were no charges of drunkenness at the police court yesterday.

(Daily Herald, 8 August 1928, p. 1)

Rather an extensive article to conclude, essentially, that nothing happened.

Das grobe alte Salz ihrer Haut ....

Music for rapidly ageing country bumpkins. I like.

bergen, "Haut aus Orange"

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thought for the day

Norm Geras on the frayed postmodernist mantra that "we can only get at the world through language":
True, but we can also only get at language through the world.
Thank you!

On condition

Just for the heck of it and because the mood in the household is kind of nervous right now:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Camping out" with the Queen of Sheba

While looking through all the 1928 editions of the Sunday Express as part of a current research project, the fascinating advert you see below caught my eye. (Click for a larger view.)

(From the Sunday Express, 30 December 1928, p. 14)

Perhaps, were she still alive, my mother would be able to reminisce fondly about Camp Coffee, as it appears to be a product with some serious nostalgia value in Britain. (Though it has more recently been subject to some controversy. A case of "political correctness gone mad," no doubt.)

In any case, the text for the above ad reads:

Charades or Forfeits, Blind Man's Bluff or Queen of Sheba (you out to try that, at your next party!)--whatever the game may be, "Camp" is the Coffee your guests will appreciate afterwards.

More and more hostesses are serving "Camp" nowadays, because it is always such good coffee--and so easy to make, without leaving the jolly crowd for more than a moment.

At Dances, too, "Camping out" has quite taken the place of "sitting out." There is no refreshment more really refreshing than a cup of "Camp" Coffee.

"Camp" is made by experts, from coffee beans of the finest quality. You have only to add hot water and it's ready to enjoy.

Be sure to order a bottle of "Camp" Coffee in time for your New Year festivities.

But even more interesting than that--and more than a little baffling--is the description of the game "Queen of Sheba."

How to play "Queen of Sheba"

Every guest except the veiled "Queen" and her attendants goes out of the room. Each then returns, to kneel with uplifted hands on the rug before the Queen, and to ask her three questions, to which she must answer Yes or No. At the third question, the man at the end gives the rug a sudden pull--and then the fun begins!

Does it!? Why!?

What happened at these parties?

I mean, the image depicts a bunch of costumed party-goers of both sexes hopped up on coffee, so I suppose any kind of total madness is possible.

I'd be interested in your experiences.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Music: From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

No time, no mind to write. I'm too busy and preoccupied. Why do days only have 24 hours? Why is there always too much work to do? Why is my mind a sad heap of everything?

Have some music instead.

Heard this on the radio on my way to work and found it vaguely intriguing:

Soap & Skin, "Spiracle."

Which was oddly offset by the instant-depressant I heard on the radio on my way home. Yes, the 'eighties were a shit time, not least because video killed the radio star gave B-glamrock combos plenty of opportunity to pretend they were Fritz Lang:

Styx, "Mr. Roboto."

I'm sorry.

Also about this:

Olli Schulz und der Hund Marie, "Mach den Bibo."

I tend to like Olli Schulz, who has a knack for clever tunes and is on the whole nicely sarcastic, but I really don't know what this is all about.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Perchance to dream

Natasha Richardson's death has made me melancholy. Not that I'm a great fan of hers or her husband, but man - what fragile critters human beings are! Which of course explains their inventing "invisible friends" to take away the fear and make sense of the futility of it all: from oversized rabbits to bearded guys that look like Graham Chapman. But that's another story.

Richardson's freak accident is reminiscent of how J.G. Ballard fictionalises the sudden death of his wife Mary of pneumonia - an event, I believe, that is far more central to his writing than all the kinky prosthetics and erotically overcharged car-crashes that have made him famous - in The Kindness of Women.

In the book - which is neither a novel nor an autobiography, but a weirdly life-like hallucination in-between - the "protagonist's" wife Miriam dies from injuries to her brain after slipping and hitting her head while on holiday in Spain.
While the practicante sat beside Miriam in the bedroom I went into the kitchen and prepared the children's supper, then carried the tray to the Nordlund's apartment. When I returned, the practicante was on the telephone. He spoke to the doctor, and then told me to be calm while he summoned an ambulance. I went into the bedroom and held Miriam's shoulders. She had lost all feeling from her left leg and arm, and was moving in and out of a shallow consciousness, smiling in a faint way as she seemed to recede from herself. She frowned at me with one side of her face, touching her numbed body with a small hand.

When the ambulance arrived I was already dazed with panic. the driver and his attendant were trying to assemble the collapsible wheelchair. While they argued with each other I lifted Miriam from the bed and carried her in my arms to the elevator. Her eyes stared vaguely at the falling lights of the floor buttons, and her body was cold, as if she had spent hours in the sea. We eased her into the ambulance, waving away the tourists returning from the beach, watched by the expressionless children on the Nordlund's balcony.

Miriam could no longer see them. I heard the rear doors close behind me, and saw Lykiard smiling stiffly with a fist clenched in encouragement. I crouched on the jump seat behind the attendant as he secured Miriam under the blanket and readied his oxygen cylinder. We sped along the Figueras road, siren wailing, and began to swerve in and out of traffic. I massaged Miriam's calves, trying to feel the pulse in her legs. The oxygen from the mask had driven the sweat from her face, which seemed as small as Lucy's at the moment of birth. Only her right eye was focused, moving across the lace curtains on the windows and the ambulance. She was forcing herself to breathe, but her rib-cage had collapsed.

We stopped behind a bus that blocked the road to the bullring. The attendant opened the rear doors and remonstrated with the driver, who slowly reversed out of our way. We reached the hospital ten minutes later, as the last crowds dispersed from the football stadium. The flower-sellers by the ticket office were wrapping up their unsold blooms, and the news vendors were taking down their metal racks. But by then Miriam was already dead (159-60).
This passage always makes me gasp: the closeness of life and death, the constant threat of the life-ending and -changing event overshadowing everyday banalities is almost too much to bear.

Ian McEwan, too, is good at depicting this slippage from mundane reality to the existential terror that awaits us around each corner, and it seems oddly ironic that Richardson starred in a film version of one of his earlier novels, The Comfort of Strangers.

And just for old times' sake, here's a sweet little snippet from Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. Spot Richardson's relative!

Oh dear, I completely forgot that the Margaret Lockwood character is knocked unconscious by a flowerpot in the film - is this another odd instance of life imitating art? I'm beginning to believe in the "eternal curse of the Redgraves (ever since Grandpa Michael came out of his closet ....)."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On productive myopia and getting to the bottom of things

I find a lot to agree with in the following observation by John Darnielle:

In an abundance of information - in this glut which is if not a permanent reality then at least the one we expect to have with us for a few generations - the soundest strategy is focus. The future belongs to the myopic.

I was reminded of a comment by computer science professor Donald E. Knuth that I have admired for some time.

In the process of explaining why he became a happier man after giving up his email address on 1 January 1990 (after having used email for fifteen years...I note, only in passing, that this was about the time that I was receiving my first email address....), Knuth states:

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.

I suppose we're not going to be seeing Dr. Knuth on Twitter any time soon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A further victory in the eternal struggle between man and pigeon

Another article from the Daily Herald, 1928.

M.P. Wins Race with Pigeons

Modest Taxicab and Train Champion

Five hundred pigeons raced a Labour M.P. home from the House of Commons on Saturday, and the M.P. won.

He was Mr. J. Tinker, and the goal the Borough of Leigh, in Lancashire, which he represents.

Mr. Tinker must be added to the very short list of sporting champions who have not expressed their absolute confidence of victory before the race.

‘I am afraid the betting is on the pigeons,’ he said while awaiting the start in Palace Yard, Westminster.

‘In spite of the strong west wind they should win. They are fine birds, and I calculate that if they fly 1,032 yards a minute they will reach Leigh first.’


At ten past one Mr. Allen Parkinson, M.P. for Wigan, released the pigeons from 30 baskets.

Simultaneously, Mr. Tinker got off the mark and dashed—into a taxi-cab!

He caught the 1.30 train from Euston, arrived at Warrington a quarter of an hour late, took another taxi-cab and clocked-in at Leigh Town Hall at 5hr. 58min. 5sec p.m. No birds had then arrived.

The distance travelled was roughly 200 miles for Mr. Tinker and 175 miles for the pigeons, and the novel race was part of an effort by pigeon fanciers in aid of Leigh Infirmary and Children’s Holiday Camp.

Daily Herald, 2 July 1928, p. 5.

It's quite a nice story on which to end the week, I think.

And one should never pass up an opportunity to use the word 'pigeon fancier'.

Friday Music

This has been a musical day indeed. In the morning I went to see a medic who absolutely requires a musical backdrop of 1970s oldies in order to perform an anamnesis. Once in a while she will burst into song as she prods and probes you, professing her joy about Don McLean, Manfred Man ... and your general health. Don't get me wrong: I really like her. "Wo man singt, da lass Dich ruhig nieder", etc., etc.

But the musicality had begun even earlier, thanks to my regular bout of Radio Rockland between Ingelheim and Finthen, which today culminated in an unexpected exposure to The Beatles's "Strawberry Fields." Now, that's not exactly a song you hear a lot on the radio these days (but then again for some reason Radio Rockland also plays "#9 Dream" on a regular basis, so I've given up being surprised a while ago).

Uncannily, I remember every single bloody line of the song. "Strawberry Fields", that is. Why is it that I can recite in full this silly little dope-drenched ditty and not, say, Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"?

Be that as it may, as I was karaokeing along in the early morning sunshine, I realised that probably my favourite song by The Beatles is the following:

At school I once gave a presentation on "Strawberry Fields" and "I am the Walrus." For some reason, my teacher was extremely chuffed by my analysis.

I'm still waiting for a comparative study of late Beatles "video" footage and early Monty Python. There are distinctly Pythonesque moments in the "I am the Walrus" clip (such as the collage of elderly biddies in sepia that marks the song's break and the Cleesian Hitler type towards the end) and foreshadowings of the style of HandMade Films - the production company formed by George Harrison (bless 'im) and Denis O'Brian in 1979 responsible, among other things, for Life of Brian.

Next stop: salted potatoes (or war)

Good friends know that there are few people I hate more than Chris Martin - he who brushes his teeth before going on stage (and then putting the world to sleep). These monkeys in Thailand, however, surpass him in matters of dental hygiene:

For the war thing, click here.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Your drunken kisses as light as the air; maybe everything that falls down eventually rises

This one starts out slow, but it builds up nicely.

The Mountain Goats, 'Game Shows Touch Our Lives'.

For Sayed Pervez Kambaksh. Again.

Terry Glavin brings our attention to the continuing case of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, whom I wrote about more than a year ago after he was sentenced to death in Afghanistan for alleged blasphemy.

The sentence was subsequently reduced to a (still ridiculous) 20-year term of imprisonment, and this has recently been upheld by the Supreme Court.

As reported by Human Rights Watch, the circumstances of the court's decision are, to say the least, ridiculous:

The court upheld the sentence on February 11, 2009, without informing Kambakhsh or his lawyer, or allowing the lawyer to submit arguments in Kambakhsh's defense. On March 7, the lawyer, Azfal Nooristani, discovered that the decision had been made.

The case is far from an isolated one:

Human Rights Watch said that the Kambakhsh case is emblematic of a general diminution of freedom of expression in Afghanistan. In February, the Payman Daily newspaper was forced to close after it was accused of apostasy by the Ulema Council (a council of clerics). The paper had published an article downloaded from the internet about the apocalyptic prophesies of a Bulgarian mystic and self-proclaimed clairvoyant known as Baba Vanga, who raised questions about the afterlife. Staff members received death threats and the news editor, Nazari Paryani, spent 10 days in detention. Charges appear to be pending against him.

Another journalist, Ghows Zalmai, is facing a 20-year jail sentence for blasphemy after publishing a translation of the Quran in Dari, one of the languages of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing his case.

"The Karzai government is allowing blasphemy cases against the press to go forward to keep the support of religious conservatives," said Adams. "Afghans were silenced by the Taliban, and do not want to be silenced again. The government must recommit itself defend freedom of expression."

Yes. They must.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

German sex film shown in Britain: women riot, men faint

Today, another dose of research bycatch from the pages of the late 1920s Daily Herald (which later became The Sun, though at the time it was the voice of the trade unions).

Looking for something else entirely, I ran across these two articles dealing with public reactions to a German-made film called 'The Dangers of Ignorance' that apparently sought to educate people about sexually transmitted diseases.

The result was...well, see for yourself.

By the way, my five-minute Google search exhaustive research hasn't brought up any information about the film itself, but if any of you know or find something about it, I'd be delighted to know.

It sounds like strong stuff.

(Text in bold was highlighted in the original text.)

The Dangers of Ignorance

37 Men Faint at Film

Full Nursing Staff to Deal with ‘Casualties’

Amazing scenes are reported by a correspondent to have occurred at Leeds Town Hall, where the film “The Dangers of Ignorance” has been showing.

A full nursing staff had to be requisitioned to deal with the people who found the strain too much for them, and at one performance no fewer than 37 men were carried out in dead faints.

The film is shown to men and women separately. Women have been in greater evidence than the men folk, and it has been no uncommon occurrence to see a queue of over 1,000 women waiting to see the performance.

During one performance, when the hall was packed, the women in the queue attempted to rush the doors, and the attendants had all their work cut out to frustrate the persistent demand for admission.

When the film was first shown in London, “M.E.,” the Daily Herald film critic, raised the question whether the picture should be shown, adding, “it is doubtful. Only the strong of heart—and stomach—could sit it out.”

(Daily Herald, 7 May 1928, p. 5)

Women’s Riot at Film Show

5,000 Crowd for 1,400 Seats

Attack on Police

Bradford, Wednesday.—Five thousand women attempted to gain admission to a picture house here which seats only 1,400 persons, and when the house was full there was almost a riot outside, the police being roughly handled and reinforcements having to be sent for.

Scenes unprecedented in the history of the entertainment business in the city have been the rule this week in connection with the exhibition at the Regent Picture House in Manningham-lane of the picture, for adults only, “Dangers of Ignorance,” which deals with the danger and prevention of venereal diseases. The film was made in Germany, and is sponsored by the Central Council for Health Education.

The house has been filled to capacity at each of the six shows a day. The picture has thus been shown to 8,000 people daily, and quite a many have been turned away.
The audiences have been composed respectively of men only and women only, and last night a crowd of women, estimated at 5,000, were responsible for the amazing scene of disorder.


Hundreds of them waited in queues for about three hours, and when the notice “House full” was put out there was a riotous scene.

The few policemen present were knocked about and were utterly helpless. Their helmets were knocked off, and they were roughly used.

When reinforcements arrived in response to an urgent summons, the women became furious and resisted the efforts of the police to disperse the crowd. Hats were torn, umbrellas smashed, and a score or so of persons required attendance by ambulance men.

The manager, Mr. Grant, said to-day he had been in the business over 20 years, but had never seen or heard of anything like this before.

“I have never,” he said, “had to handle such a crowd. It was overwhelming.” Mr. Grant said that at last night’s performances 22 men were attended for illness, but only two women.

(Daily Herald, 17 May 1928, p. 5.)

So much, it seems, for the 'weaker sex'.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Casting the first stone

A chimpanzee in Sweden has exhibited what is perhaps the first known example of non-human foresight and planning.

His apparent purpose: to wage war.

Cue music...

And we know what this might lead to:

Identified: the worst result of the economic crisis

There I was thinking that financial melt-down, increasing unemployment and worsening poverty were going to be the worst parts of the ever-more-frightening economic crisis now gathering pace.

No: it seems we're also going to have cope with the resurgent popularity of Ayn Rand's long-winded, petulant, and frankly laughable novel, Atlas Shrugged, also known in these parts as The Worst Book Ever Written.

Apparently, some people are finding it prophetic regarding the economic catastrophe. This is odd. The story, after all, revolves around a small cadre of genius entrepreneurs confronted by a World of Parasite Losers, most sinisterly embodied by a government that produces nothing but incompetence and enforces only inefficiency. Confronted by over-regulation and exorbitant taxes, our heroes essentially organise a capital strike that brings down the corrupt society.

Perhaps those who see the book as a template for the real world haven't actually read it (claiming to have read books you haven't is, after all, as recent surveys have suggested, all too common), since here in the real world it would be the former Wall Street masters of the universe--after decades of reductions in taxes and lightening state regulation--who brought about this collapse, taking the savings, profits, capital and potential credit of a lot of hard-working, productive people--and even whole nations--with them.

Maybe it's just that those who are praising the book have a greater capacity for irony than I have given them credit for.

I doubt it, though. The key psychological trait I've noticed with admirers of Rand's work is their natural inclination to identify with the swaggering, self-absorbed Übermenschen who populate her novels. (The fact that some of said admirers were students attending state-funded universities using state-subsidised grants or loans has never seemed to quiet their rage at the state for some reason, but this is by the by.)

Their capacity for self-aggrandizement is inevitably as voluminous and tiresome as Rand's prose.

Out in the banking world, as you might imagine, Rand has had no shortage of fans, and my favourite recent Rand-related anecdote comes from the story of BB&T Corp., as related by va at Whiskey Fire:

A banking company, BB&T Corp. of North Carolina, has given $30 million in grants in the last decade for various universities to teach the book. Most recently, in March, 2008, BB&T gave UT-Austin $2 million for a Chair in the Study of Objectivism. Then in October, BB&T took (wait for it) $3.1 billion in bailout money.
I think this is what the kids these days are referring to as 'epic fail'.

Reality: saner than fiction.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The overplotted life: worth examining

We were in Berlin for a few days, attending a literature conference on the works of Ian McEwan.

The conference was very worthwhile. As was Berlin, despite grim weather. It was only my second time in the city, but there is some undefinable-but-wonderful way that the place combines opposing characteristics: cosmopolitan internationalism and rooted localism; an inescapably deranged past and a reassuringly easygoing present; a grey, bureaucratic sheen and a warm, earthy creative spirit; national grandeur and modest reticence.

Yeah. I like Berlin.

And the conference was great fun.

Since one of the presenters brought up a recent New Yorker profile of McEwan (Daniel Zelewski's 'The Background Hum') that I had seen but not read beforehand, I was inspired to spend some time with it (it is a rather long piece) this evening.

If you have the least interest in McEwan's writing, I'd suggest that you take a look at it. Although we have enjoyed several of McEwan's books (and for our contributions to McEwan criticism, scroll down to the bottom of the pages here and here), I must say that I've never paid much attention to his biography or personal life.

It might be simply that it is in the nature of such author profiles to bring out certain personal connections in their work, but Zelewski's essay does a fairly good job of laying to rest any rumours of the Death of the Author.

It's even possible to see a lot of the themes and plot elements of various books emerging from McEwan's own personal journey, from his somewhat unhappy childhood and early dabblings in hippie mysticism through his growing interest in science(which, it seems, may have led to his divorce from his New Age obsessed first wife).

There are many interesting passages in the essay, but I found this one to be notable, since the division between the 'early' and 'mature' works was often mentioned at the conference:

Much has been made of the diminishing ferocity of his work—if “In Between the Sheets” is a wolf, “Saturday” is a lamb—and devotees of McEwan’s early fiction often regard him with the same pity that music fans have for rock stars who turn to symphonies in their dotage.

McEwan told me that he was “trying to shock” with his early experiments; there was a tone of disavowal. “I began to feel that I had written myself into a corner,” he said. “As I got older, the rather reckless pessimism of my early fiction deserted me.” In fact, the change in his work is not as extreme as it may seem. McEwan’s presiding interest has always been psychology, and, like many scientists of his generation, he has shifted his intellectual allegiances. At first, he studied perversity; now he studies normality. His first god was Freud. Now it is Darwin.

Not, of course, that there still ain't plenty of perversity in the Darwinian mind: but still, the shift seems to have increasingly shaped his writing.

But I wouldn't underestimate the ability of 'normality' to shock and irritate. Indeed, there were a few conference participants who were put off by Saturday's depiction of a 'happy family'. I didn't remember the Perowne family being all that idealised, but it turns out that McEwan was being deliberately provocative:

The portrayal of familial contentment in “Saturday” was meant as a provocation. “No one ever says, except in conversation, that they’re actually enjoying their children, that they might be a source of interest and pleasure,” McEwan said. “I thought there was some bad faith in omitting that as a possibility.” The book is equally rosy about marriage; Perowne has sex with his wife twice in one day. John Banville, in The New York Review of Books, seized upon that detail, writing, “Apparently in the purlieus of north London, or at least in McEwan’s fantasy version of them, no one suffers from morning breath, and women long-married wake up every time primed for sex.” McEwan says, “The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife’s teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book.”

(If McEwan's retort seems a bit overly icy, you should read the review that inspired it.)

Another criticism that one hears of McEwan is that his books contain unbelievable plots. But after a lengthy look at the lives of McEwan's parents, Zelewski observes:

Critics have noted that many McEwan novels hinge on a single, transformative event: the balloon, the abduction, Briony’s accusation. (In “Black Dogs,” in what may be a self-inoculating gesture, McEwan has his narrator tweak the idea: “Turning points are the inventions of storytellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by a plot.”) Yet the story of his parents conforms to this template. It may be true that some of McEwan’s novels are overplotted; it is also true that some lives are overplotted.

As might be some blog posts.

And this one is overdue for an ending.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The eternal drawl and whine of the syncopated song

Scenes from a debate appearing in the letters column of the London Daily Herald, spring 1928.

The Tyranny of Jazz?

Are we never to get away from the eternal drawl and whine of the syncopated song—or whatever the row is called—which at present bulks so largely in the broadcast programmes?

‘Heaps of people must like it, though, seeing we get so much of it,’ say my friends. But when I ask whether they have ever met a single individual who admits to liking it they confess they cannot name one. And neither can I.

Yet, despite this evident want of appreciation. We are forcibly fed night after night with the terrible stuff. Cannot something be done to put us out of our misery? We might perhaps then get the chance to hear mere music for a change.

Eric T. Beckwith
Grimsdyke-crescent, Arkley, Herts.

(The Daily Herald, 3 May 1928, 4.)

The Tyranny of Jazz?

Mr. Beckwith says he cannot name any individual who likes jazz.

Well, I do, for one, and I shouldn’t be surprised if there were many more, if they took the trouble to inform him.

He also says it is a misery to him to listen to such stuff. Why does he listen to it? He isn’t forced to.

How many working men and women returning home at night, weary and tired, after doing a hard day’s work, want to listen to symphony concerts and so on? What they require is something more cheerful to liven them up and revive their spirits, not to make them drowsy and sleepy.

If it were put to the vote I am certain jazz would come out on top.

C. W. Margerison
Chorley-street, Warrington
[We have received several similar letters.—Ed., D.H.]

(The Daily Herald, 8 May 1928, 4.)

Das Urteil der Paris

I have, in the past, been scolded by textual purists for turning the random associations that typically cavort in my mind into blog text for public consumption.

To defend this charming feminine skill of mine against the masculine wit of some of our virile readers, I would like to point out the cognitive benefits of my little bouts of lateral thinking. Just remember those illuminating moments in the past couple of years when I merrily married vicious dogs and boring contemporary fiction, Jacques Derrida and a well-known Swedish furniture outlet and Jacques Demy and Charles Darwin. You did enjoy those, didn't you?

Not to mention the never published post on "Gordon Brown, the fifth seventh Python."

Yes, he does look a little like Terry Jones's long lost fraternal twin.

And since I'm clearly not the only one who violently yokes random ideas together on a regular basis, I refuse point blank to kick this habit of mine.

For instance, in his fetid rant space in the miasmic depths of tabloid Britain, Peter Hitchens elegantly hopped from private loss - the recent death of David Cameron's handicapped son Ivan at the age of six - to death in action - three British soldiers killed in Afghanistan the week before - in order to gripe about the government's lack of patriotism. Because, you know, whinge, whinge, the Commons cancelled Prime Minister's Question Time out of respect for the former, but didn't do so for the latter.

While in London, we watched Channel 4's mildly interesting programme about the crazy cold snap that paralysed Albion earlier this year, Britain's Big Freeze. The show compared, with Tourettish regularity, the heroism displayed by ordinary British bus drivers, alchemists and stock market analysts in the face of A FEW DAYS OF SNOW with that of ordinary milkmen, pantry boys and market gardeners during ... wait for it ... you sure won't guess what's coming next .... The Blitz.

Why is it that whenever the UK has to paper over embarrassing facts - such as that the country only owns three rusty snowploughs and a couple of bags of kitty litter for grit - with references to their glory days?

Meanwhile, in Germany, Walter Mixa, bishop of the Bavarian city of Augsburg, has reiterated the Catholic oldie-but-goldie that abortion is like the Holocaust.

And today’s Guardian is shocked at the proposed use of Berlin's Tempelhof airfield for a rock concert. Undertaking one of those great mental leaps so beloved by the Great British Press, Sean Michaels opens his piece not with a whimper, but - hey - with one hell of a bang: "If 2009 is to have a Summer of Love, the season's biggest event may take place at a former Nazi airfield."

Well folks, if you want a Nazi analogy, how about taking on Paris "Valium" Hilton? During our sojourn in London I had the dubious pleasure to watch a couple of instalments of that perfectly useless waste of time called Paris Hilton's Best British Friend - a show in which a bunch of fake-baked wannabes are bundled together in a claustrophobic space to compete for the privilege to "chill out in LA" with a dim anorexic heiress (wearing what seem to be whole minks for fake eyelashes) by a strategic combination of obsequious arse-licking, devious backstabbing and voluntary auto-humiliation.

Life's all smiles, "sweethearts" and touchy-feely camaraderie in the house until the next symbolic liquidation. The Big Brother banality is regularly broken up by show trials that inevitably lead to the "eviction" of members of the group for failing to "click" with The Führer Paris, or not seeming "real" enough. Usually, the choice is made not by La Duchessa, but by her weekly favourite (aka "the pet").

And you know what: They all dig the psychological cruelty of and absolute submission to their passive-aggressive, all-American dominatrix.

Yes, it would take a brave cultural analyst to discover the underlying totalitarian structures of this show, investigate their subtle fascism and then elucidate what this all tells us about contemporary Britain.

Direct hit

What, the infinitely powerful and awesome deity now hates cricket?!

The Sri Lanka wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara told Pakistan's Geo TV: "Many players were injured. The third umpire was also hit by shrapnel. This incident is unfortunate. I don't regret coming to Pakistan but I regret the incident. I would just like to go back home and be safe with my family. I had shrapnel inside my shoulder, [Sri Lankan bowler] Ajantha [Mendis] had some in his scalp and he also had a thigh injury. We are fine now. We are all out of danger now. I am very happy that I am safe."

It could have been worse, I suppose.

But it was bad enough.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Feminine discrimination

As The Wife noted, we were in Britain last week, and -- along with getting a lot of research done -- we also saw some good friends and did some interesting things outside the libraries in which we were working. Details, if we get around to it, might follow.

(Andrew Hammel has given a pretty fair run-down of an interesting talk by Cory Doctorow that we attended. Many thanks to Chris for letting me know about the lecture.)

Along with (an astonishingly vast amount of) project-related material, my trawl through the newspaper archives brought up a lot of bycatch that is either intriguing, amusing or appalling -- or some combination thereof -- which I will be sharing as time allows.

For now, I leave you with this somehow delightful Daily Herald (London) newspaper advert from 1929. It appeared shortly before that year's general election, the first in which British women participated with voting rights equal to men's. (Click for larger version.)

Daily Herald, 20 May 1929, p. 3.

Ten for sixpence: those were the days, eh?