Sunday, November 30, 2008


At the Telegraph, Henry Hitchings offers an A to Z of word surprises. A good stretch:
N is for…

Namby-pamby. Nickname of the 18th-century poet Ambrose Phillips, coined by the satirist Henry Careybecause of his sentimental verses

O is for…

Onslaught, from the Dutch aanslag - related to a word in Old High German for a shower.

P is for…

Penguin, a compound of two Welsh words, pen and gwyn, which mean ''head" and ''white" - even though penguins have black heads. It is likely that 'penguin' was at one time the name of similar, now extinct bird which had a white patch near its bill.

Q is for…

Quack can be traced to the Dutch kwaksalver, literally someone who hawked ointments.

"Vive l'Haggis!"

Miscellaneous links:

Caleb Crain on horse-drawn vehicles.

Alice Boone on the non-horologist's mindset.

And finally, 20 things to do with a haggis.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Next Tuesday at 6pm, I'll be moderating a conversation with Jonathan Safran Foer as part of the "Literature and Terror" series, sponsored by Columbia's Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. The event is free, but I believe that tickets may be required.

Blue books

It is a professorial vice to do much of one's work in bed.

In point of fact this picture is from last December - I'm not teaching any classes with final exams this semester, so no blue books. But I feel this picture sums up how I always feel in the final weeks of the fall semester!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Holy Gospel Diner

I had a good visit to Philadelphia this weekend, with lots of help and support from various family members.

I owe particular thanks to my brother Michael and his lovely wife Jessi, who had me to stay in their spare room - I reproduce an attractive piece of art hanging on the wall (the painting is Michael's c. 1991, and the photograph was taken by Jessi). Charming!


Paul Collins stumps the reader.

Friday, November 21, 2008

More wolves

Jenny Diski does not think well of Mark Rowlands' wolf book.

A ham and coleslaw roll

Anne Enright loses words.

The round-up

Light reading very miscellaneous lately.

Some crime fiction: Linwood Barclay's No Time for Goodbye, which I liked quite a bit (but now I feel duped, why did I buy it in hardcover when it is already in mass-market paperback?!?); Elizabeth George's wonderfully trashy (it is a more compelling read than her last few, I think) Careless in Red and Stephen Booth's slightly lackluster Scared to Live (good, but not up to the standard of the first books in the series), both on loan from office crime maven M.; Rosemary Kirstein's Steerswoman books, a very good recommendation from the brilliant and likeable Jo Walton who has been on a delightful rampage of recommending at the Tor blog.

Most delightful by far: Joan Aiken's The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories, recently (re)published by Small Beer Press. Everyone should get a copy of this and read it!

I have been an utter Aiken fiend for almost as long as I can remember. In third grade, I devoured the Wolves of Willoughby Chase books (but really Black Hearts in Battersea is by far the best of that series - in fact, come to think of it, it might be partly to credit for the fact that it was later my heart's desire to play the oboe and later yet to study the eighteenth century and have a lot to say in adult life about Jacobites and counterfactual history!); around the same age, I had a volume of her children's stories that included a number of the Armitage ones (hmmm, the volume that I actually owned was this; I think I must have had all the other ones repeatedly from the library, though).

And not much later I was beating a well-worn path along the carpet at the public library to the A's in order to get her adult novels - they are for the most part rather trashier and a bit less strikingly imaginative than her writing for children, but they have that magical and compelling quality that makes someone like me read them about twenty times each - I think my favorites were A Cluster of Separate Sparks and Last Movement, but I have certainly reread almost all of them many a time...

The short story really was the form in which Aiken's genius most clearly shows, though. Here's a list that looks pretty complete ("The Rented Swan" is possibly my favorite story of romance ever, unfortunately it has been taken down from the Strange Horizons archive, but this is a story that everyone should read!) - oh, I must have had my own copy of A Small Pinch of Weather also, that is the one that has all the stories I particularly remember from childhood.

"Smoke from Cromwell's Time" is an absurdly and strikingly good tale, and a number of these Armitage stories are absolutely divinely good - "The Land of Trees and Heroes," "Harriet's Hairloom, "The Stolen Quince Tree" and "The Apple of Trouble" made indelible impressions on me as a child, and the title story "The Serial Garden" has really haunted me every since I first read it. Genuinely uncanny and wonderful stories....

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nameless heroes

Some great bits of language in the appealingly named Fuschia Dunlop's New Yorker piece on Chinese restaurateur Dai Jianjun:
“You just can’t trust the ingredients you buy in the markets,” Dai told me, battling his way through the undergrowth. “Vegetables laced with chemicals. Fake birds’ nests held together by glue. Even hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake—most of them are farmed elsewhere and simply made to ‘take a shower’ in the famous lake before they go to market.”
And again:
A waitress entered and laid a soup tureen on the table. She announced the dish as wu ming ying xiong—“nameless heroes.” Steam rose from a milky broth, in which a carp rested in the silky folds of bamboo-pith fungus. Scarlet wolfberries and sliced scallion were scattered on top, like jewels on pale flesh. The waitress ladled the soup into small bowls, each with a piece of fish and a lacy morsel of fungus. The liquid was xian, richly savory, replete with delicious fish flavors, and yet the fish itself was not overcooked. Dai explained that this was a gongfu cai, an “art” dish, whose elaborate preparation was invisible in the simplicity of its final appearance. Small crucian carp were used for the broth, simmered for their flavor and then discarded. The whole carp in front of us had been poached, briefly, in their stock. “So you see,” Dai said, “the vanished crucian carp are the dish’s ‘nameless heroes.’ ”

Real-estate confessionals

It's now sorted out for real - as of mid-December, I'll be in a new apartment. It seems like the window onto a new life!

I've lived in my current place for eight years, in other words for all of the time that I've been on the tenure track at Columbia. Now, I don't mean to grumble, I've been very lucky to teach here and to live in New York and so forth, but there is no doubt that beyond the already nerve-racking aspects of life on the tenure track when tenure is by no means a sure thing, the notion that one's housing is also entirely dependent on one's employment (almost all Columbia faculty rent from the university, because the housing stock is very nice and the rents are below market rates) represents another turn of the screw...

Now I have tenure, something that one of my colleagues (perhaps five years post-tenure) described as in her own experience working like a kind of IV of security, dripping reassurance and stability into her veins in a continuous and ongoing fashion. And I'm moving into a two-bedroom apartment - it's just round the block from my current place - so that I will finally be able to get my office out of my bedroom, an important development given that ninety percent of the time I'm working from home!

More room for triathlon equipment and bicycle, too.

I am still renting from my employer, so there remains a slight grace-and-favor aspect that I'm not crazy about, but given the realities of the New York housing market, that's just the way it's going to have to be, and I can definitely live with it!

I went over there this morning to take a few pictures, which I thought I would share here...

The floor plan, a classic instance of messy Davidsonian note-taking:

What you see when you first walk in (the view goes through to the south-facing bedroom/study at the front of the apartment):

The living room, which is the first room you come to after a short hallway (it's not super-bright, the windows look onto the building courtyard, but it's a gracious room, and the apartment has lovely high ceilings throughout):

Non-functional fireplace!

The kitchen (a dramatic improvement my current one, which has less counter space than you can quite imagine - I am going to get a counter-top coffee-maker, a novel idea!):

The sort of interstitial place that makes this type of apartment appealing:
The main bedroom, very bright (both bedrooms are south-facing and get a lot of light, a priority for me):

The study/second bedroom (corner door is a second bathroom - the other bathroom is in the hallway between kitchen and main bedroom):

The view from the study/second bedroom, which is what initially sold me on the apartment (I am a sucker for this kind of view - also, when I first saw it, there were still painters and workmen and dropcloths and ladders all over the place, it was too chaotic to get a really good sense of the space):

The feature that will change my life:
To the non-New York-dweller, it is inconceivable the extent to which a washer-dryer in the apartment is a luxury rather than a common feature - at my present place, I can do laundry in the machines in the basement, which is definitely a step up from the laundromat arrangement to which I became accustomed during grad school years, but there is something utterly lavish and decadent to me about the notion that I will shortly just be able to throw a few things in the wash without having to make a whole production of it!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Speaking volumes

From "A Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, on the Affairs of America," in On Empire, Liberty, and Reform: Speeches and Letters of Edmund Burke, edited by David Bromwich:
A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood. He would feel some apprehension at being called to a tremendous account for engaging in so deep a play, without any sort of knowledge of the game. It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance, that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven, (which in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I cannot resist posting these paragraphs from Christopher Benfey's NYRB piece on several recent books about Robert Frost (subscribers only):
[I]n 1900, Frost found in raising chickens an occupation that gave him money, time, and a landscape ripe with metaphors for the poems he had begun to write late at night when his wife and children were sleeping. Elliott, the Frosts' first child, died of cholera during the summer of 1900. During the decade the Frosts spent on their thirty-acre farm in Derry, New Hampshire, the four surviving children, Lesley, Irma, Marjorie, and another son, Carol, roamed the rock-strewn countryside as freely as Frost's three hundred Wyandotte chickens.

"Most philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms," Sherwood Anderson wrote in his story "The Egg" (1920). "One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic things that can happen to a chicken." It's clear from the eleven lively stories Frost published in the trade journals The Eastern Poultryman and Farm-Poultry, from 1903 to 1905, that he was imaginatively engaged by the tragic things that can happen to a chicken. In "Trap Nests," a couple new to chicken farming employ a device "intended to catch and hold the hen until she was willing to purchase freedom at the price of an egg." The trap nests "savor of vivisection and the Inquisition"; the city-bred farmer finds himself taking "a growing satisfaction in ruthlessness, for such, he felt, was life." In another story, a farmer's "first hatches were so exceptionally fine that the gods fell in love with them, and they died young."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Woodpecker hammer

Annals of improbable research. (Via the Bookforum blog.)

Figments of the auditory imagination

At the LRB, Andrew O'Hagan muses on the recordings of authorial voices recently released by the British Library:
There are two compilations, one British, one American, and the British one gets off to a startling beginning by bodying forth the ghostly voice of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom one expects to sound like Basil Rathbone. In actual fact he sounds like Gordon Brown. It’s somehow easy to forget that Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, and his voice, recorded in 1930, is here filled with lilting plangencies about the age of materialism and the fact that death is not the end. He was right about that, about death not being the end. Last week in Liverpool I found myself broadcasting with a woman who wants to create a social networking website for the dead.

Despite Auden’s thing about memorable speech, a strong literary style bears the same relation to everyday conversation that Matisse bears to the demands of home decoration. That’s to say, they feel friendly to one another, but where they might share content they don’t share form. That is why the conversation of writers can often seem so unbearably silly in the light of our expectations. We think Virginia Woolf should sound like her style, but she doesn’t: in her British Library recording (the only one in existence), she sounds like a person imprisoned by her sensibility and her class as opposed to someone who floats somewhere above it. Woolf was recorded in 1937 and we listen for the sound of her prose and find instead a person fast in the grip of banality.

The Longitudes Examin'd

At the TLS, Pat Rogers considers a hoax pamphlet that has taken in countless scholars of the eighteenth-century attempt to develop a method for ascertaining longitude. One of the genuine schemes Rogers also discusses
involved the use of strategically placed ships which would fire off a number of shells programmed to explode at a set time. Even during foggy weather the explosions would be audible, and, just in time for the project, a reasonably accurate estimate (very slightly on the high side) had been made for the speed of sound, using gunshot reports. The findings came from the Revd William Derham, himself a man well versed in clockmaking, and they were published by the Royal Society in 1709. The committee had already looked at the Whiston–Ditton proposal, and the pair optimistically drafted an advertisement to launch a heavy press campaign, declaring that their method had been “so far approved by this present Parliament, that they have passed an Act, ordering a reward of 20000£. for such a Discovery”. In the event, the flying bombs turned out to be unworkable and did not get into contention for the prize. If Whiston had restrained himself on the subject of the early Church and the need for a reformed liturgy, he might have sat in judgement on his own idea. Nothing daunted, he arranged a display to prove his theory in July 1715: this involved letting off rockets at intervals across an area of thirty-six square miles centred on Hampstead.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Former exuberance

In the New Yorker's Talk of the Town, Lizzie Widdicombe on the fate of the deal toy in an age of austerity:
On an afternoon not long ago, a conference room there [at Icon Recognition] had a day-after-Christmas feeling: boxes everywhere, rows of lonely Lucite toys (a cube with 3-D shoes etched inside, a fake bottle of suntan lotion). “This is definitely a tough time,” Stephen Sokoler, the president of the company, said. He’d been up early working the phones: “You call and ask, ‘Is there anyone who’s announced a deal recently or closed a deal? Anyone you’ve heard of?’ ” He added, “It feels like we’re a ship in the middle of a storm. Not only are you in the storm but there’s no visibility as to whether the storm’s gonna clear.”

Sokoler, who is twenty-nine, came to the company in 2002, and he recalled, with some wistfulness, the go-go days of the business, when, for example, he made a faux emerald-and-ruby crown to celebrate a deal for Merrill Lynch, and J. P. Morgan ordered up a batch of ten-by-fifteen-inch Lucite blocks with dinosaur heads inside (three hundred dollars each)—a “Jurassic Park” reference—to celebrate a deal involving Universal. “That was just a monstrous piece,” Sokoler said.

The most recent era of toys—the one that just ended—had been exuberant, too: a gold-plated replica of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, in Las Vegas, commissioned by Merrill Lynch; a Lucite banana split, commemorating Sun Capital Partners’ acquisition of Friendly’s; a snow globe made for Northoil (“Inside the snow globe we have placed a pewter casting of an oil rig,” the ad material says). Sokoler pointed to a catalogue picture of a little banjo, commemorating a deal that Merrill did for G.E. called Project Bluegrass. “Isn’t that cool?” he said. “You can actually play it.”
(And a follow-up in this week's letters column...)

Frazzled-out members of society

The word that most sums up my state of being: frazzled.

I had a sudden fit, while lying in bed last night, of wondering whether I had actually made this word up! No such thing - here is the OED...
trans. To fray, wear out, tear to rags or ribbons. lit. and fig. Also intr. Hence {sm}frazzled (-out) ppl. a.; {sm}frazzlings, ravellings.

a1825 FORBY Voc. E. Anglia, Frazle, to unravel or rend cloth. Frazlings, threads of cloth, torn or unravelled. 1872 Congress. Globe 30 May, App. 577/3 The ends of the switches were all frazzled. 1893 Amer. Missionary (N.Y.) Dec. 418 One's garments get frazzled in the grass; one's mind and body and spiritual sense sometimes become frazzled, torn to pieces, good-for-nothing. 1895 Nebraska State Jrnl. 23 June 3/1 Everyone believed that Thomas would..plant the frazzled banner of the distillers in its place. 1896 J. C. HARRIS Sister Jane 344 He's the genuine article, guaranteed not to rip in the seams or frazzle at the sleeves. 1912 J. H. MOORE Ethics & Educ. 34 Many a frazzled-out member of society owes his failure in life to no greater misdemeanour than the mere failure to make connection with his calling. 1912 J. LONDON Son of Sun viii. 285 Loose ends of rope stood out stiffly horizontal, and, when a whipping gave, the loose end frazzled and blew away. 1912 Chambers's Jrnl. Mar. 194/1 For bed a mud kang with a frazzled mat on it. 1927 J. DEVANNY Old Savage 43 His fight had left him ‘frazzled’, as he expressed it. 1960 Guardian 6 Jan. 1/7 The insistence of frazzled parents that merry~making and goodwill to men have got to stop somewhere.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The ghostly wolf

Interesting excerpt at the Telegraph from Mark Rowlands' The Philosopher and the Wolf (I must get this one):
One morning, while I was writing in the study, I heard a succession of loud thuds from the living-room. Not content with taking the cushions into the garden, Brenin had decided it might be a good idea to take the armchair too. And the thuds were caused by his repeatedly banging the chair against the door frame as he tried to drag it through. It was then that I realised a more radical approach towards Brenin's entertainment was required, an approach based on the premise that, all things considered, it would be best for both of us if Brenin were constantly exhausted. And so we began running together.

Trying to keep a wolf under control by making sure it's constantly exhausted is one approach. But even a moment's thought will tell you that it's not a very good one. Our runs did tire Brenin out initially. Me too - but that was of lesser importance, since I wasn't the one trying to drag the furniture out into the garden. Brenin, on the other hand, became fitter and fitter, and therefore more capable of wreaking havoc on the house and its contents at any given time. Soon, runs that used to plunge him into an exhausted slumber for the rest of the day he came to regard as a gentle loosener. And so the runs, of necessity, became longer and longer. But, of course, Brenin just got even fitter; and you can probably see where this is going. Bicycles were an option. But folks didn't take kindly to bicycles in Alabama back in those days - a fact I discovered through a near-decapitation incident involving me on a bicycle and some liquored-up rednecks with a baseball bat and a pick-up truck. Only pinko, commie, hippie bedwetters travelled under their own propulsion in Alabama back in those days. And so the bicycle option wasn't one I was really keen to explore at that juncture.

And so I kept running, and Brenin kept running with me; and we both got fitter, and leaner, and harder. This pragmatic impetus for my new-found fitness, however, quickly changed into something else. On our runs together, I realised something both humbling and profound: I was in the presence of a creature that was, in most important respects, unquestionably, demonstrably, irredeemably and categorically superior to me. This was a watershed moment in my life. I can't ever remember feeling this way in the presence of a human being. But now I realised that I wanted to be less like me and more like Brenin.

My realisation was fundamentally an aesthetic one. When we were running, Brenin would glide across the ground with an elegance and economy of movement I have never seen in a dog. When a dog trots, no matter how refined and efficient its gait, there is always a small vertical vector present in the movement of its feet. Depending on the type of dog, this movement will be obvious or almost indiscernible. But it's always there if you look carefully enough. With Brenin, you could see no such movement. A wolf uses its ankles and large feet to propel it forwards. As a result, there's far less movement in its legs - these remain straight, and move forwards and backwards but not up and down. So, when Brenin trotted, his shoulders and back remained flat and level. From a distance it looked as if he was floating an inch or two above the ground. When he was especially happy, or pleased with himself, this would be converted into an exaggerated bounce. But his default motion was the glide. Brenin is gone now, and when I try to picture him it is difficult to furnish this picture with the details necessary to make it a concrete and living representation. But his essence is still there for me. I can still see it: the ghostly wolf in the early-morning Alabama mist, gliding effortlessly over the ground, silent, fluid and serene.


At the NYRB, David Bromwich has a wonderfully Burkean piece about Dick Cheney (note, especially, his use of the units of the sentence and paragraph, as well as the style of thought):
Never before, in the history of the United States, has there been an ideological camp so fully formed and equipped to extend itself as neoconservatism in the year 1999. It was, and remains, a sect that has some of the properties of a party. There are mentors now in the generation of the fathers as well as the grandfathers, summer internships for young enthusiasts, semiofficial platforms of programmed reactions to breaking news. But to grasp their collective character, one must think of a party that does not run for office at election time. They can therefore evade responsibility for botched policies and the leaders who promote those policies. Donald Rumsfeld had his first and warmest partisans among the neoconservatives, but they were also the first, with the solitary apparent exception of Cheney, to identify him as a scapegoat for the Iraq war and to call for his firing when the insurgency tore the country apart in 2006.

With the peculiar tightness of its loyalties and the convenience of its immunities, neoconservatism in the United States now has something of the consistency of an alternative culture. Its success in penetrating the mainstream culture is evident in the pundit shows on most of the networks and cable TV, and in the columns of The Washington Post and The New York Times. In the years between 1983 and 1986, and again, more potently, in 2001–2006, the neoconservatives went far to dislocate the boundaries of respectable opinion in America. The idea that wars are to be avoided except in cases of self-defense suffered an eclipse from which it has not yet returned, largely owing to the persistence of respected opinion makers in urging the spread of freedom and markets by force of arms. More particularly, and to confine ourselves to recent events, the nomination of Samuel Alito and the drafting and legitimation of the "surge" strategy by Retired General Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan of the AEI could not have succeeded as they did without the early and organized advocacy of the neoconservative camp.

How did they get so close to Dick Cheney? The answer lies in the fact that Cheney has an inquisitive mind, but from the accidents of his career and placement, he was for a long time a thinker deprived of intellectual society. Neoconservatism, as it developed in the 1980s, came to have its own heroes (Robert Bork), its canon of revered texts (Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind), and a set of prejudices delivered in a reasonable tone: hostile to individual liberty, appreciative of modern technology, friendly to religion as a guide to morals and an engine of state power. It was, to repeat, a substitute culture of satisfying density. The AEI along with journals like Commentary and, more recently, The Weekly Standard offer, for those who take the full course, a total environment, an idiom of managerial-intellectual judgment that blends the rapidity of journalism with the weightier pretensions of an academy.
I take this opportunity to note that David (who was one of my dissertation advisors, and a huge & ongoing influence in my intellectual life) is giving the Irving Howe Memorial Lecture this Tuesday at 6:30pm at the CUNY Graduate Center; his subject is "What Shakespeare's Heroes Learn."

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Pink milk for breakfast

An elegiac piece, by Elizabeth Day for the Observer Review, about Roald Dahl's widow:
He would produce pink milk for breakfast or make jelly with hundreds and thousands suspended in the gelatine.

'He would make the most mundane thing seem fantastic because he would reinterpret it.' On a trip to Zurich to meet Dahl's European literary agent, they caught a funicular railway and noticed that each time the train stopped at a certain platform, the driver would get out, put his hand up into a ceiling beam and pull out a part-smoked cigar. 'He lit it, had two puffs, put it back and got back into the train to drive down again,' says Felicity. 'All day he did this - up and down. When we got back to the city, Roald bought the most expensive Monte Cristo cigar. We went back up the funicular. At the platform, he took the old stubby cigar out and put the new one up in the beam. Then we went back to the hotel. He didn't wait to see the driver's reaction. That's the sort of guy he was. He was always looking to help people and just make their day a little more interesting, because most people's days were very dull.'

The look and feel of the seventies

Phil Nugent on life lived through the movies:
Watching movies on late night TV is one of my two big hobbies, one of the things that settle and restore my soul. The other is standing by the barbed wire fence that separates our front yard from what had been the cattle field before we stopped raising cattle, and watching the road on the far side. It's a long way away. The road bracketing the field forms an upside-down "L" that I can watch cars move along. Not constantly; maybe not even all that often. The waiting is part of the excitement. Wait long enough, and you'll see a tiny car moving along, heading for the crossroads. If the car turns right, it'll head down the upper length of the inverted L, towards the turnoff that might lead it down the driveway to our house. If that happens, my heart will almost stop--maybe it's the Manson family, busted out of jail and on their way to let us know what they think of all the smart remarks my mother and I made watching Helter Skelter together. Because there's a big old barn blocking my line of sight, if the car keeps driving I won't see it; the car will disappear behind the barn, and then I have to gulp and wait, wait, to see if eventually the car will come tearing down out driveway, delivering certain doom.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Temples of books

At the Times Online, Simon Callow has a lovely piece on falling in love with the London Library:
When I was a member of the National Theatre Company in 1979, working with Michael Kustow on performances of a speculative re-ordering of the published sequence of Shakespeare's sonnets, I was impressed by the number of arcane publications on the subject that he was able to lay his hands on, all distinguished by an elegant little red label saying “London Library”. I'd somehow never heard of the place. Kustow promised to take me along, and if I liked it to propose me for membership. To say that I liked it is a feeble understatement: I felt, in an almost literal sense, that I had come home. It was the Tate Library apotheosised. The building is discreetly tucked into a corner of St James's Square; the front doors used to give directly on to the reception area, filled with leather-bound catalogues and wooden bookcases going up to the high ceiling, with a phalanx of librarians toiling over returns, filling in dockets for books being withdrawn, dispensing the while erudite bibliographical information. There was nothing epic about this space: it was human and intimate and private, a sort of book brothel where all special needs and tastes could be catered to. Book located, one would penetrate into the library proper, where the real romance begins.
Two further observations:

1. My English grandfather purchased a lifetime membership to the London Library in the early 1950s. He was very pleased when he contemplated (he lived well into his 90s) what good value for money he'd obtained thereby, but my frugal grandmother grumbled that there really should be a way for him to pass it on to me, perhaps in his will!

2. One of the best novels I have ever read about a librarian is Garth Nix's lovely Lirael; it is also just one of my favorite novels of all time, librarianship regardless.

The pure ice

Possibly autistic Wittgenstein son's first word was "Oedipus."

Fighting with bicycles

At the Telegraph, Tim Martin on Neal Stephenson:
[F]or now he's instructing me, over a pint, about longsword-fighting, walking-stick self-defence and an Edwardian martial art that used a bicycle as a weapon. "When I was writing the Baroque Cycle," he says, "I had to write some swordfighting bits, and it became obvious to me that I was writing rubbish: there's nothing like writing something down to make it clear that you have no idea what you're talking about. So I started trying to get more information about rapier-and-dagger fighting, which got me onto the trail of what's known as historical European martial arts, or western martial arts.

"The premise is that we all know about the Chinese or Japanese martial arts; they have this quasi-mythical status now for people. But if you think about it, the Europeans must have had equally sophisticated martial arts and we just forgot them as soon as we invented guns. So people have been going through German and Italian manuscripts, that are kind of like longsword fencing manuals, and bringing this stuff back to life.

"So we'd mostly been doing longsword, in my little group," says Stephenson. Ropes of muscle on his forearms attest to this, as do the pictures online of a Stephenson-designed spring-loaded practice sword that flexes on impact to soften a blow. "But we became interested in cane-fighting, which was taught in London a hundred years ago or so as part of this school of Bartitsu, founded by EW Barton-Wright, a railway engineer who'd picked up ju-jitsu in Japan. And he brought in a Swiss guy called Vigny who'd taken informal methods of walking-stick-fu and codified them into a system called la canne: he taught the part of the curriculum which involved fighting with walking sticks." No way, I say. "Yeah. There's a whole curriculum over fighting with bicycles. Pictures of an Edwardian lady in a floor-length dress and a huge hat with flowers, riding primly down a country lane, and when a ruffian comes out she uses some trick with the bicycle to flatten him and rides off. It's great stuff. The bicycles we're not sure how to approach, but we've created a little assembly line to make rattan canes, with a knob on the end. But there's, you know, how to use a bicycle pump as a weapon. How to defend yourself with a parasol. Crazy."

"Perhaps there is a Lord somewhere"

At the Independent, James Woodward on British amateur horticulturalist Mike Hillard's success growing bananas in his Gloucestershire home:
The bananas bloomed in his hi-tech solar room, which stays between 10C and 16C above outside temperature all year, and is just warm enough for the east Asian crop to grow healthily.

Now Mr Hillard intends to fry them up in a tasty curry. He said: "This has all been done by the English sunshine in my solar room, which provides my house with an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

It has been called the most energy-efficient house in the world. I was surprised when they flowered because I was told, 'Oh they'll never grow fruit'. Now they are growing into a forest, and I've got seven babies. I asked the Royal Horticultural Society and they told me to get down on my prayer mat because they had been trying for years to get theirs to bear fruit. Mine have grown to four or five inches and they are edible.

"Perhaps there is a Lord somewhere who has done it too but I don't know where he is. It looks like a giant beehive and the trunk is full of water. You would call it a palm. The leaves grow about 5.5m up, nearly touching the roof."

He said that he would be cooking the bananas in a slap-up meal despite the RHS's warnings that the fruit will taste odd. He said: "I love bananas and will probably cook them like a plantain; they will be very nice fried with rice."

Great geniuses of literature

I have just had a great treat, namely rereading the first two volumes of Jo Walton's Farthing trilogy in preparation for a delightful light-readingish wallow in the third. The books are Farthing, Ha'penny and Half a Crown. (Previous Light Reading discussions here.)

These really are the perfect books - the obvious comparisons are to recent literary WWII-related alternate histories by Philip Roth and Michael Chabon, but they are so beautifully inflected with the whys and wherefores of some of my utter longtime favorites that reading them is like being magically given fresh new books by writers I have reread almost to death (Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, Peter Dickinson). I think the first book in the trilogy is still my favorite, but these books are just delightful...

(Attentive readers will note that Walton includes, in this final volume, the gym shoes with rosettes from Miss Pym Disposes! And a number of other nods to other fictions of the time - I was thinking in particular, at the end, of Scott's Heart of Midlothian...)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Flies, ointment

I am having a relaxing week out of town - unfortunately marred by a modest but troublesome cold and some fairly bad weather! But life cannot be too bad when this afternoon I was greeted with this lovely spectacle (I was here, with Wendy, who took this delightful photograph - click to enlarge):

Winter words

At the TLS, Ian Bostridge has a very interesting piece on the latest volume of Benjamin Britten's letters. Random funny detail:
Gloriana was one of the “great disasters of operatic history”, as George Harewood described it in his memoirs. With a libretto by Plomer (in one of cultural history’s more unexpected cross-currents, Plomer was the dedicatee of Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, with an enthusiasm for things Japanese reflected as much in Britten’s later Noh play-influenced Curlew River, for which he wrote the libretto, as in the Bond thriller about a Japanese suicide garden, You Only Live Twice, which he edited), it was a deft interweaving of the public and private lives of Elizabeth I.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The portfolio existence

At the FT, Gideon Rachman lunches with Alastair Campbell (site registration required), whose new novel I must confess I have rather a yen to read:
For the moment, Campbell is enjoying a portfolio existence. He is already at work on his second novel. He gives lectures. He makes television programmes. He gives advice on communications to a variety of clients, including the South African government. He works for charities – in particular, leukaemia research. He watches a lot of football.

I, too, am a football fan, but, I tell him, I haven’t subscribed to any sports channels for fear that I will waste too much time watching them. Campbell not only watches Sky Sports, he has developed an interest in the fan channels run by individual football teams – even ones he doesn’t support. He warms to his theme: “I mean, for example, Celtic TV recently showed the entire 1967 European cup final. When Celtic won. The Lisbon Lions. The whole game. It was awesome.”

I am impressed by his devotion, but also slightly depressed (in the non-clinical sense). It seems odd for a man so full of energy and passion to be whiling away his time watching 40-year-old football matches on TV.

He claims to be enjoying the free time his new life offers him. But he admits that the lure of full-time politics could eventually draw him back: “I may wake up again one day, still in my early 50s, and say it’s time to start getting up at 5.30am again and working round the clock.”
Bonus link: Jenny Diski's review of the novel for the LRB.

"Oh shimmy!"

At the Telegraph, John Preston has an interesting though slightly bizarre piece on Jonathon Green's dictionary of slang:
Not altogether surprisingly, Green is a man at the outer edges of obsessiveness. An ebullient, helplessly loquacious 60-year-old, he has spent his life truffling through books, newspapers, movie scripts and comics looking for choice words or phrases to plunder. On the day we met, he was in a state of high excitement, having just turned up unexpected treasure in the bowels of the British Library - or what passes for treasure in Green's world.

'While the word "shit" has been around since the 14th century, the expression "to take a shit" is a comparatively modern one,' he says in an earnest, scholastic sort of way.

'The Oxford English Dictionary has it down as dating from the early years of the 20th century. But my partner, Susie, who also acts as my researcher, was reading a book this morning published in 1705 in which there's a reference to "the Duchess of So-and-So taking a shit". So there, you see, we've pre-dated the OED by at least 200 years!'
Also, a selection of new entries in the Chambers Slang Dictionary.

"My grandmother wore a wig"

I am sorry it has been so quiet round here - too much running, not enough time at home frivolled away on the internet! Hoping to have a bit of blog-intensive down-time over the next few days, but in the meantime, a few tidbits...

Soliloquies in the bath!

Amanda Craig has a nice piece on Neil Gaiman at the Times Online.

If you are in New York and have a few dollars to spare (or even if you do not), go and see Wig Out! at the Vineyard Theater (through November 16). It is quite, quite lovely, a magical evening of theater - it gave me cause to reflect that though it and Cato could hardly be more different, they do have that thing in common that is something elusive and transformative that happens in theater alone and not in novels or poems or essays however delightful they may be. (Here is Ben Brantley's review for the Times.

(NB this show also gave me cause to reflect that the vampire balls in novels by Anne Rice and Laurell K. Hamilton could not exist without the culture of drag balls having been in place first. This play takes you into a richer alternate universe than any but the very best fantasy novels - interesting, it is a thing I rarely think about a play...)