Sunday, 31 May 2009

something that bugs me more than it should

If there is an article about the triathlon, which there usually is as far as I can tell, then 90% of the time that article will claim that triathlon is the fastest growing sport in the world. This has been the case for three years to my certain knowledge and I am pretty sure for five years. Quite apart from the fact that it is an absurd claim full stop, it's never fixed to any external standard. It is a very minor rhetorical datum of the swan-and-broken-arm variety. This does not make it evil. But it drives me crazy.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

three things

1. This fact is so strange it will blow your mind: I live in a block of flats with four staircases. On each of these staircases is a set of lights which turn on when it's dark. At least twice a year, for periods of between one and three weeks, the lights on our staircase and only our staircase start going on during the day and off at night. Crazy but true.

2. I have just got a new card from stupid Barclays because my old one got a crack in. I am reliably informed that these new cards, which have a magic cashless paying capability for sums under £10 that I don't much care about, make Oyster cards have conniptions, so you have to move them into separate wings of a wallet or some such. If this turns out to be the case, I shall be enraged and tell you about it all. If not, then no news is good news.

3. Here is a long discussion about an emblematic nineties floorfiller to play at a wedding. Since I was a student for almost literally the nineties, I found myself completely unable to resist this. My guiding principle, and I will complete the playlist relatively soon, is to try not to be clever and choose songs that happened to be my favourites at various points. I am looking for the songs that filled the floor, and that's it. Except for Angels, which I have never got to grips with and so I'm not putting it in. Also, if I only let every band have one song, then surely I am allowed Don't Look Back in Anger, which I massively preferred to Wonderwall and which had a similar effect. The people in the discussion have done a lot of the work for me, of course.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

ok, so i know that kaye anthony's 1932 book, The Passionate Calvary, has an amazing blurb, but how does it start?

This is how:

Anno Domini 1947

This story belongs most soberly to that miracle, The Conquest of England by the Forces of the Unknown, and more particularly to William Bundle, grocer, founder of the Peckham Guild of Thought, and later King of England; also to William Bundle who, with no more than a handful of apples for his wedding cake and a strand of her auburn hair for a ring, married Erica, my wife, while yet I, Claude Washington Yorke, her rightful husband by the laws of the United States of America, remained alive.

Blurb is here, in case you missed it.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

funny germans 2: donald duck

This is a really interesting story from Light Reading over there on the right about how the translator of Germany's Donald Duck gave the Germans a more considerable literary and comic achievement than the rest of us enjoyed. German Donald quotes from the classics and sub-textualises about politics. Telling quotation from the piece: 'many Germans credit him with having initiated them into the language of the literary classics.'

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

further 2 - drugs in the trenches

Yo Sushis. Anyone who knows me has heard about how Shackleton and his boys, brave and enduring as they naturally were, got some help from Forced March cocaine tablets ('DIRECTION - one to be dissolved in the mouth every hour when undergoing continued mental strain or physical exertion'). I learned this from Dominic Streatfeild's Cocaine, which I have bought for quite a few people over the years.

Deep down we sort of all know that hard drugs used to be allowed over the counter. I've read about opium recently, for various reasons. It was one of the world's biggest commodities in the 1880s when we were using it to pay for India and so on and so forth, and it was particularly popular in East Anglia. The rurals guzzled it like chocolates while they (presumably) scythed each others' feet off.

I don't have time to find the references to this just now, but I also read about how one of the things that loving families sent their brave boys in the trenches during WW1 was packets of opiates - heroin and morphine in various forms. I was reminded of this by the Duff Cooper diaries quoted below, because when Steffie was grieving the loss of Tommie, she got Sibbie to buy her a lot of morphia, but Sibbie bought a placebo, so Steffie went and found some chloroform which she used to put herself to sleep.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Further 1

Post-tragic Duff Cooper stuff, I have things to say about drugs and war, but first this:

Capt. the Hon. Thomas Agar-Robartes, MP for St Austell and West Cornwall since 1908 (below) had a previous and very brief stint as MP for Bodmin. His predecessor there was Sir Lewis Molesworth. His successor was Freeman Freeman-Thomas. The second of these names is even better than the first, but the name is nothing compared to the biog.

As well as being a Liberal politician, F F-T was a first class cricketer, a major in the Sussex Artillery and at various points the PM's secretary and Lord-in-Waiting to the King. He then set off on a glittering colonial career which saw him become the Governor of Bombay and then Madras, and then Governor General of Canada, and finally Viceroy of India. He returned and was made the first Marquess of Willingdon and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. He was very big in the scouts. He doesn't merit a biography, though, unlike Jordan.

(I know, I know.)

Friday, 22 May 2009

heartbreaking wodehouse

If you haven't read Duff Cooper's diaries, it's literally not my fault.

A young-ish Duff is in London in 1915 (he was F/O and wasn't allowed to join up until 1917, or that's the story in the diaries, and I think Duff believes it, and I can't remember whether I did, but I think so). He dines with Lady Goonie, Winston (yes, that one) and Bongy, who argues stridently against conscription.

The next day, Duff learns Tommie Robartes has been killed (Capt. the Hon. Thomas Agar-Robartes, MP for St Austell and West Cornwall since 1908). Steffie is mad with grief. Duff goes on: 'I do hope that Osbert, Bim and Yvo are alright, the last especially. It seems a lot to hope as they are all in the Grenadiers who I hear have suffered as usual.'

As it happened, Bim (or Bimbo) Tennant, first cousin of Duff's friend Kakoo Granby, would die on the Somme. Yvo Charteris, fourth son of the Ear of Wemyss, brother of Ego, was killed at Loos. And for the rest of the war, Duff recounts a paralysing litany of dead young friends that makes you realise that Wodehouse wasn't going out on as wild a limb with his names as it sounds to us.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

i don't like cricket

It's raining, it's pouring, and the cricket updates on the BBC are wandering off piste. Between 11.00 and 14.30 there is quite a lot about cricket music. There's an interview with Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy, whose Duckworth-Lewis method is a cricket song-cycle. There is When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease by Roy Harper, which is lovely. Of course, there are Howzat and 19 Not Out (still funny - N-n-n-n-346; side-on, side-on).*

*If you are well young, contextualise 19 Not Out here. It's still a good song.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Thank you, Cricket Australia

I am not saying, in so many words, that England are going to win the Ashes, but Cricket Australia haven't done themselves any good leaving out Andrew Symonds. Don't they remember that sending Mike Hussey home after he'd slapped England silly in the 2005 one-dayers basically cost them that series? I do.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

monkey sex

Edward Bliss Foote was a very important voice in 19th c. birth control in the USA. He invented a sort of condom made of fish bladders, a penis cap, a 'womb veil' and a device which he claimed would prevent conception by altering the woman's 'electrical conditions' during intercourse (see here).

He also wrote Sponsie, the Troublesome Monkey, an extremely graphic children's book teaching the facts of life via a story involving the twelve year old son of some freed slaves, and Sponsie, a monkey. Among the highlights: Sammy the black boy kisses a white daughter of cotton riches and the Foote figure shouts to someone who is protesting that, 'White men are constantly decrying miscegenation, miscegenation!—while they are the only ones that want to miscegenate...'; Sponsie is shot in the rectum so Foote can explain incontinence; he gets addicted to alcohol and tries to commit suicide so that Foote can discuss the perils of addiction. It sounds amazing. More details, and some pictures, here.

Monday, 18 May 2009

the all-time greatest book review

On the page for Tibor Fischer's The Thought Gang (which is a book I really, really loved), is the perfect reader review: 'Of the many books I have read so far, I have come to the conclusion that "The Thought Gang" is the best.'

I thought of this when I read the latest super-enticing 1932 book description:

The first critic to read this book, wrote: 'To tell the story of this novel is impossible, but it is the most amazing manuscript I have read.'

Against a background of the destruction of England sixteen years hence, Kaye Anthony tells with alternative drama and original humour the story of William Bundle, a humble grocer, who is destined to rule an England restored to Eden. Added to this is the love affair of Erica Yorke, the young and beautiful wife of a famous American diplomat, who is discovered by her husband bathing in a Surrey sheep-pool with this same man. No reader could guess the outcome of such a delicate situation.

Hold on! I can guess! I guess that the humble grocer is destined to rule England because he and Erica Yorke have bathed in a sheep-pool, which means they catch ovine flu before it mutates into anything too dangerous, and they are therefore the only two people immune to its later more deadly ravages. England is emptied, and only the grocer and his Eve remain to repopulate the shattered land. They go at it hammer and tongs, chapter after blistering chapter. Eventually, Erica gives birth to a sheep.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


or A Malayan Romance, by Hubert S Banner BA, FRGS, author of The Clean Wind and The Mountain of Terror.

This novel is concerned chiefly with the reactions produced upon a small English community in the Far East by the sudden arrival in its midst of a woman of mystery--Mavis Estcott, a restless wanderer over the face of the earth, wanton saint and angelic sinner, even to herself a riddle beyond solution.

The story gives us a glowing and faithful picture of native life such as only Mr Banner's long personal experience enables him to present. The scene of his story is the lovely Dutch East Indian island of Bali.

Given the first paragraph, the second paragraph seems, to me, unlikely. The wanton saint, angelic sinner, riddle to herself bit is fantastic. I think that all these books I keep writing about exist because there was no telly. Thus people idled away the time writing books and reading them. I have no proof.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

fellow travellers

Today I got a single delivery of flyers through the door, all rolled up in each other. The outside one, addressed to me, exhorted me to vote for the Liberal Democrats. The inside pair asked me to reconsider in favour of UKIP and the BNP respectively. Churchill is pictured on the UKIP one (not a cleverly-selected icon, history fans); the BNP one pictures a doctor. I want to know where he is a doctor. It is not that I want only to be treated by doctors who agree with my political views, but I'd prefer not to be treated by doctors who are demonstrably idiots.

Friday, 15 May 2009

proper joke

A spy in Quicksilver is writing to his boss, Louis XIV:
Of my journey to the Hague, much could be written in a vulgar and sensational vein, if I felt that I could better serve your majesty by producing an entertainment. But it is all beside the point of this report. And as better men than I have sacrificed their lives in your service with no thought of fame, or of reward beyond a small share in the glory of la France, I do not think it is meet for me to relate my tale here; after all, what an Englishman (for example) might fancy to be a stirring and glorious adventure is, to a gentleman of France, altogether routine and unremarkable.
I arrived in the Hague on the 18th of October and reported to the French embassy, where M. le comte d'Avaux saw to it that what remained of my clothing was burned in the street; that the body of my manservant was given a Christian burial; that my horse was destroyed so he would not infect the others; and that my pitchfork-wounds and torch-burns were tended by a French barber-surgeon who lives in that city. On the following day I began my investigation...

Thursday, 14 May 2009

of snowflakes and golf balls

Sometimes non-sporting friends ask me how come golfers ever don't hit it straight, since it's all they ever do, all the time. Similarly: 'How come bowlers ever don't bowl the ball where they want?' My answer, which I have noticed doesn't satisfy anyone, is that it is very difficult to hit a golf ball straight, because the tolerances are so tiny. The usual response to this explanation is: 'Obviously I'd worked that out for myself, I'm not an idiot. I want to know why? I mean, really.'

I haven't got a proper answer to this yet, but I got a glimpse of the start of one watching the BBC's programme on snow last week. Snowflakes are six-sided because the root molecule is a hexagon, and the arms spread out from the six points. This root molecule is always the same, and yet every snowflake is different. Thus, unbelievably tiny differences at a root level lead to impossibly complex variations.

Different actions at sport are more easily repeatable. Some are more repeatable (snooker, for instance). With hitting a golf ball, a tiny difference in input leads to a huge difference in outcome. I know this is the same explanation I started with, but I think the snowflake thing is the start of being able to metaphorise an explanation more cleanly.


Wednesday, 13 May 2009

but i still have sputum

I have just flicked open my newly-arrived and second-hand copy of the enormous The Magic Mountain, and that was the sentence that yelled up from the battered page.

I have a real problem with moths. Not phobia, not vainglorious metaphor, just lots of moths.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

research sucks

As I have said elsewhere, some people will wrongly never read Neal Stephenson. I don't want to go into it, or write apologetically about things which don't need apologising for, but once in a while the research shows through a little. But how can you mind when you're learning something like this?:
[A pirate ship chasing our protagonists off the North Eastern seaboard of the United States is never going to catch up because, as the seaman Dappa says, 'of her appalling Zog.']
'There it it again--what, I ask, is the meaning of that word?'
'Her wake, look at her wake!' Dappa says, waving his arm angrily.
'Yes--now that we are so, er, unsettlingly close, I can see that her wake's enough to capsize a whaleboat.'
'Those damned pirates have loaded so many cannon aboard, she rides far too low in the water, and so she's got a great ugly Zog.'
'Is this meant to reassure me?'
'It is meant to answer your question.'
'Zog is Dutch for "wake", then?'
Dappa the linguist smiles. Half his teeth are white, the others made of gold. 'And a much better word it is, because it comes from zuigen, which means "to suck".'
'I don't follow.'
'Any seaman will tell you that a ship's wake sucks on her stern, holding her back--the bigger the waked, the greater the suck, and the slower the progress. That schooner, Doctor Waterhouse, sucks.'

This is great to know anyway, but The Baroque Cycle is all about the birth of science, and the early natural philosophers, for whom flow was a crucial concept. It's also about the nature of money, by the way, in ways that have massively helped me understand things that are happening here and there.

Monday, 11 May 2009

bit late

But if you have fifteen minutes a day, or a total of 75 minutes broken up in some other way more suitable to your jet-set lifestyle, last week's Ladies of Letters was great (you have to act fast to get the first one, but if you miss the first one you won't get lost and it's well worth starting later in the series).

Saturday, 9 May 2009

open your heart

This is part of Jane Seymour's Open Hearts range for Kay, America's biggest jewellers. Her inspiration was her mum, who said that if you don't keep your heart open, you can't give or receive love. It wasn't a jewellery designer who gave her some options. Jane's wish, according to a promotional video I have just watched at (will Favre unretire AGAIN!), is that her design, which we see her painting in red in the manner of one of those Chinese calligraphers, 'becomes a universal symbol of hope and love.' Seems like a perfectly reasonable ambition.

Friday, 8 May 2009

ou se trouvent les aiguilles de hier?

I walked around the ancestral estate in the sunshine yesterday. In one of the more far-clung corners I saw our most recent Christmas tree. It was pale brown, naturally, but its needles were all still attached.* I gave them a tug. They were firmly attached. We all know (blah) that the crystal rattle of falling needles every time you walked within five yard of the old-style tree has gone the way of the dinosaurs, but I hadn't realised just how resilient the new breed were.

Yes, yes, I am back, and this is not the only interesting thing I have learned or thought during my break. Be still your beating hearts and so on and so forth.

*Due diligence: I did not check ALL the needles.