Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

In case you were wondering...
... I've made the previous post private, until I've looked further into the question of permissions. Thanks to everyone for their helpful comments - and if there's any more news in due course I shall certainly make it known here.

Heirs and Graces
Plots involving the restoration of a True Heir and the concomitant dislodging of a usurper are staples of high fantasy and historical romance. It's usually a given in such stories that the usurper is evil, and that the heir is a good egg. But of course there's no reason why either of these should be the case. True, the usurper is by definition guilty of usurpation, but in other respects they might be a capable, fair-minded ruler and have many private virtues, and they may even have had plausible reasons for usurping in the first place - for example if the previous ruler was a tyrant. As for the heir, it's likely enough that a life spent brooding on what has been taken away from them will have warped their moral sense to an extent. Resentment and desire for revenge are likely to be the hallmarks of any realistically rendered usurpee. But you wouldn't guess that from the literature. And even in history, the vindictiveness of returning kings (e.g. Charles II) tends to get relatively overlooked, perhaps because historians too are seduced by the romance of it all.

Shakespeare has quite a few usurper/usurpee pairings: Macbeth and Malcolm, Frederick and Duke Senior, Claudius and Hamlet, Antonio and Prospero, Richard III and Edward V, Bolingbroke and Richard II. Richard II comes closest to challenging the stereotypes, with Richard and Bolingbroke both having their fair share of faults and virtues, and a relationship best summed up as "It's complicated". Hamlet, as I've frequently maintained, gives us Shakespeare's greatest villain in its title character, which is an interesting variation, and Malcolm at least conducts a thought experiment with Macduff in which he asks whether he would still be worth supporting if his character were worse than Macbeth's - the conclusion being that he would not. But that contingency remains in the realm of the hypothetical.

But it's not to Shakespeare that we should be looking for a serious interrogation of this topos. It's to the republican writers of fantasy and romance, surely? And particularly to those writers who like inverting fantasy cliches for fun. But here's where my lack of reading (and possibly memory) shows up. Where are the stories in which an evil True Heir attempts to take back the throne from a good usurper? I don't think Diana Wynne Jones ever attempted this kind of inversion, exactly - did Terry Pratchett? Did anyone? And if not, why not?

Earliest First-Person Fiction?
Meg Rosoff has been praising first-person narratives over on Facebook, but this got me to wondering: what is the earliest (extant) first person fiction?

By fiction, I mean presented-and-expected-to-be-received-as-such. I've no doubt that many of the Ozymandian boasts to be found on papyri, cylinders, tablets, etc. from the ancient Middle and Near East include a few stretchers, but they weren't presented as fiction.

Also, it must be first-person through and through. A first-person narrative embedded in a larger third-person narrative doesn't count, which rules out the epic of Gilgamesh, if I remember right.

I also rule out lyric poetry that presents generic situations (e.g. the lover is rejected and is feeling sad) that may or may not have actually occurred. We're talking stories here, in prose or verse.

I'm sure there will be many a borderline case, of course.

I haven't checked, but I think The Golden Ass is first person. Any advance on that?

Never be Mindful on the Motorway!
I didn't take driving lessons until I was in my first job and could afford them - which was in my mid-20s. I passed my test then, but didn't have the use of a car until I was in my thirties. So I came to driving, and particularly motorway driving, rather late.

At first I didn't enjoy the experience much. I was painfully aware that I was travelling along in a flimsy metal box at a speed that would make any injury very dangerous, and quite possibly fatal, to myself and others. That thought didn't make for relaxation, and being tense isn't what you want when you're driving: in fact it created a vicious feedback loop of tension and fear. My touchstone experience of this came about 15 years ago, when I was returning from Wales back across the Severn bridge in the rain, and found myself in the middle lane just behind two spray-squirting Tesco lorries either side of me. There were three small children in the back of the car, and I was terrified because one small movement of my arm to right or left might mean the end for all of us.

The problem abated as the years went on, and I grew to tolerate motorways, though at night or in the rain they still gave me problems. I found that distracting the top level of my mind (which likes to dwell on unpleasant contingencies) with music or the radio helped a lot. In automatic pilot I was a safer driver.

Just in the last six months, though, I seem to have become more prone to these panicky motorway moments again. It happened the other day, as I was overtaking a lorry on the M4.

"What should I do?" I asked myself panickedly.

"You need to relax," I replied. "Why not try mindfulness?"

"Oh, er, okay. You know I don't have a very good history with mindfulness, though, don't you?"

"I know, I know."

"You remember how it seemed to be telling me to 'Suck it up, one moment at a time!' as a cure for unhappiness rather than encouraging me to do anything to change my situation?"

"I was there, and I suspect you judged it hastily. Anyway, it's worth a shot, right?"

So I tried to be "in the moment": "I am travelling along in a flimsy metal box at around 75mph right now! Right this fucking minute! Jesus Christ!!"

Somehow I managed to get through that, but it convinced me again that there's a time and a place for mindfulness, and the place is probably not my head. On the contrary, I think it helps (me at least) to be relatively out of the moment when driving, because the reality is too ghastly to contemplate.

On a Referenda Bender
I wonder what position the SNP will take regarding the forthcoming EU referendum? They're a pro-EU party, so can hardly be seen campaigning to leave; and yet, if the UK votes to leave it will give them their best shot in the foreseeable future to demand a second independence referendum, which they will almost certainly win on a Scotland-stays-in-the-EU slate.

It's an interesting dilemma for them; but certainly a lot more pleasant than the corollary dilemma faced by the rest of us, which is that of how to live in a rump UK with no EU, no human rights and a permanent Tory majority, being governed by wankers for the benefit of bankers. But such is apparently the earnest wish of many.

Bristol West - My Prediction
No doubt you've been wondering about my views on the election (right?). Well, I can't speak as to the likely result nationally: I hope for the best and fear the worst, of course.

Bristol West is another matter. It's a fascinatingly fluid seat, which has been Tory, Labour and LibDem within the last 20 years. There's no such thing as a safe seat, here.

In 2010 the LibDems won by a 20-point margin. Partly this was because of their cast-iron pledge on tuition fees (there are a lot of students here, and a lot of parents of students); partly it was because of residual Clegg-mania (already on the wane by the election but still non-neglible). But mostly I think it was because there was a large group of voters who would never dream of voting Tory but had become disillusioned with Labour, not on economic grounds so much, even if their love affair with market capitalism had made them almost as vulnerable to the crisis in the banking sector as the Tories would have been in their place, but because of their centralist, authoritarian and anti-civil liberties stance. This was the party of control orders and identity cards, after all - to say nothing of the damned spot of Iraq, which no rude seas would easily wash out. So, a vote for the LibDems as a more socially libertarian alternative seemed attractive.

All that went west when the LibDems installed a right-wing Tory administration. That betrayal (with the tuition fees U-turn as icing on the cake) led to a collapse in their support - how could it not? There's a huge anti-Tory majority here, and a vote for the LibDems being (as we now know) potentially a proxy vote for the Tories, of course they're screwed.

Even so, it wasn't clear just how screwed the LibDems were until Ashcroft conducted his poll in the constituency, from 16-23rd April. That showed the LibDems lying a poor third, on 20% (down from 48% in 2010), with Labour on 38% and the Greens on 25%. In 2010 the Greens had polled only 4%.

So, at that point, Labour looked a shoo-in for the seat, bouncing back from 2010. But here's where it gets interesting. Bristol West has a higher proportion of people with university degrees and doctorates than any other constituency in the country. It's a hot-bed for anarchists and for eco-warriors. In most places, the Ashcroft poll would be tomorrow's chip paper, but people here read about these things and talk about them too. There's a sizable number who had been intending to vote Labour only to get the LibDems (i.e. the Tories) out. When Ashcroft showed that the LibDems were already effectively out, it became much more thinkable for these people to vote Green, a party more in line with their actual beliefs, and potentially (given the likelihood of a hung parliament) giving their MP a real say in policy, much more so than if they turned out to be just one more in the three-line-whipped ranks of Labour lobby fodder. I suspect a lot of the 38% Labour support that Ashcroft polled was very soft, and I suspect a lot of it has now moved over to the Greens.

So, what do I predict tomorrow? I think the Tories and LibDems will do very badly, but very slightly better than the polls, on the principle that there are "shy" voters for both parties, and because the LibDems in particular have an efficient polling day machine. I expect Labour to win - but by a far, far, smaller margin than the Ashcroft poll might have suggested. I expect the Greens to run them a close second place, and be poised to take the seat next time if events run their way.

I also expect to be wrong, because I usually am. But for fun, here are my predictions tomorrow, set against the results in 2010 and the Ashcroft poll. Sorry about the colours and the cognitive dissonance - I haven't got time to work out how to fine-tune this in Excel:

election results

When I get the chance, I'll edit this post to add the actual result - then you can all point and laugh. [ETA: I've now done that. As you can see, I was pretty much on the money with the Conservatives and LDs, but overestimated the extent to which Labour would lose votes to the Greens, post-Ashcroft. Not badly enough to be laughable, though.]

Piecing together Kiniro Mosaic
In this entry a week or two back, which was mostly about something else entirely, I mentioned in passing that I’d run across Kiniro Mosaic, a charming slice-of-life anime about an English girl and her friends at high school in Japan. The first episode was largely set in England, and I commented: “They do seem to have done some pretty good research when it comes to the look of the Cotswolds, though: I felt I'd seen the town before, but I'm not quite familiar enough with the area to be sure.”

Well, thanks to some crowd-sourced research on Facebook (thanks adaese amongst others), I can confirm that the town near which Alice lives is in fact Cirencester – a place I’ve been to innumerable times, though not much recently – hence the tantalizing familiarity. I feel foolish for not recognizing it at once, but anyway, it was fun getting Google Streetview to line the shots up:
location shot

Two other location shots from the same montage are taken from the same town. The church is further back on the same street:
kiniro church

And this is apparently the entrance to nearby Home Park:
kiniro manor

Of course, now I want to pop over to Cirencester (it’s only 40 minutes in the car) and pose like Alice and Shino. If only I knew someone who’d be willing to be my accomplice in so silly a mission.

Figure and Ground - a Mid-Terrace Allegory
Here is my garden. It's not much to look at.


I like my apple tree, and I keep the lawn mown (apart from the bit on the left, which is sacred to the memory of guinea pigs past), and this year I've been squirting the aphids out of their hideouts in the honeysuckle buds with a water spray, so I hope to have some honeysuckle soon. But - well, I'm not much of a gardener in truth.

Sometimes, in 70s sitcom fashion, I look over at my next-door neighbours' place. It's a very different kettle of fish.


It's a bit too everything-in-its-place for comfort, perhaps, but it still makes me feel inadequate by contrast. On such occasions I need do no more than look at my other next-door neighbours' garden to feel like the love-child of Capability Brown and Gertrude Jekyll.


(The missing fence, by the way, is theirs. They've been just about to replace it for four months now.)

So here I am in the middle, treading a path of moderation, a bit like a horticultural Nick Clegg, neither as regimented as my left-hand neighbours nor as chaotic as my right-hand neighbours. I might even manage to convince myself that my garden is really the best garden in the best of all possible worlds.

Then I look at it again, and remember that actually it really is a bit shit.

Green Shade
Ed Miliband was in Bristol yesterday, speaking at the cricket ground; and today Natalie Bennett was in the pop-up shop the Green Party have opened at the other end of the Gloucester Rd. The glamour of being in a marginal seat!

I was sitting in the window of Lashings, later, marking third-year dissertations, and to judge by the people I saw coming up the road from the direction of the Green Party shop I'd say Bennett's visit was having a galvanising effect:

First they came in single spies...Collapse )

...and then battalionsCollapse )

My friend Htay, who lives over the road, happened to sitting outside the cafe as the bearded bloke passed by with his rustic marker pen (which appears to have replaced the bladder of yore). Here was the resultCollapse )

I don't know what other effect this experience may have had on her, but let history record that a Green Party poster has appeared in Htay's window in the two hours since this photo was taken.

Eating in the Library!
Today the University library was full of posters and fliers like this:


For a minute I couldn't decide whether this was a stroke of genius or just ridiculous, but I've come down firmly in favour of the former, with a small side-order of silly. (But who gets muffins, and who dried fruit?)

Stump Study
On the way back home this afternoon I stopped at Otterbourne Wood to pay my respects to my father's ashes, which just now are all bluebells and moss.


Will in Overplus
A lot of hogs have been washed in the last month or so. What could be more absurd than Tory Central Office tweeting that for the Labour and other parties to deny a minority Tory administration a Parliamentary majority would be "to sabotage the democratic will of the British people"? What could be more ludicrous than Nick Clegg pontificating about democratic legitimacy, while still proposing that as the leader of a party likely to garner less than 10% of the vote and less than 5% of the seats he could still “legitimately” be Deputy Prime Minister, with LibDem colleagues holding several ministerial posts?

Well, we shouldn't be too surprised: politicians will always try to play the system to their best advantage. But these on-the-fly speculations and constitutional bullshitting – of which we seem likely to hear much, much more in the next couple of weeks – have got me thinking about that phrase, "the will of the British people". What exactly is its referent?

It strikes me that there are three readings in play.

The first I will call the Atomist, and it's the one I am most in sympathy with. This holds that there is no such thing as the will of the British people. Rather, there are as many wills as there are electors. These millions of individual preferences get filtered through whatever electoral system is in place, resulting in 650 MPs being elected. The elected government will be whichever party or combination of parties is capable of commanding the support of a majority of those MPs. That's really all there is to it.

The other approaches tend to reify the collective national will. The first, which I will call the Averagist, we can deal with quite quickly. It's the idea that the will of the British people can be established by averaging out all the views that they vote for. Some vote for the left, some for the right, so the real will of the British people is somewhere in the middle. Many's the time I've heard Government ministers (not just in this present government) say that because they're being criticized from both Left and Right they must have "got it about right". Naturally the Averagist approach is most favoured by parties that are middle of the road, and it's hinted at in Nick Clegg's Wizard of Oz idea about adding a brain to the Labour Party or a heart to the Tories. As a way of saying, in effect, "We don't care who we go with as long as we get a ministerial car" this was quite smart (even if as a literary allusion it was astonishingly maladroit) because it spoke directly to the instincts of Averagists.

Then there's what I'll call the Holistic approach. This also reifies the Will of the British People, but in a different way. It looks at the tea leaves at the bottom of the cup of democracy and instead of respecting each individual leaf it sees an overall pattern. If there is a hung parliament, it talks of the WotBP as being for a hung parliament – even if no individual voter wished for that.

To make the point clearer, allow me to quote Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and in particular the conversation in which an Anteater describes his friendship with an ant colony known as Aunt Hillary:

Tortoise: Pardon me, my friends. I am sorry to have interrupted. Dr. Anteater was trying to explain how eating ants is perfectly consistent with being a friend of an ant colony.

Achilles: Well, I can vaguely see how it might be possible for a limited and regulated amount of ant consumption to improve the overall health of a colony-but what is far more perplexing is all this talk about having conversations with ant colonies. That's impossible. An ant colony is simply a bunch of individual ants running around at random looking for food and making a nest.

Anteater: You could put it that way if you want to insist on seeing the trees but missing the forest, Achilles. In fact, ant colonies, seen as wholes, are quite well-defined units, with their own qualities, at times including the mastery of language.

Achilles: I find it hard to imagine myself shouting something out loud in the middle of the forest, and hearing an ant colony answer back.

Anteater: Silly fellow! That's not the way it happens. Ant colonies don't converse out loud, but in writing. You know how ants form trails leading them hither and thither?

Achilles: Oh, yes-usually straight through the kitchen sink and into my peach jam.

Anteater: Actually, some trails contain information in coded form. If you know the system, you can read what they're saying just like a book.

Achilles: Remarkable. And can you communicate back to them?

Anteater: Without any trouble at all. That's how Aunt Hillary and I have conversations for hours. I take a stick and draw trails in the moist ground, and watch the ants follow my trails. Presently, a new trail starts getting formed somewhere. I greatly enjoy watching trails develop. As they are forming, I anticipate how they will continue (and more often I am wrong than right). When the trail is completed, I know what Aunt Hillary is thinking, and I in turn make my reply.

Achilles: There must be some amazingly smart ants in that colony, I'll say that.

Anteater: I think you are still having some difficulty realizing the difference in levels here. Just as you would never confuse an individual tree with a forest, so here you must not take an ant for the colony. You see, all the ants in Aunt Hillary are as dumb as can be. They couldn't converse to save their little thoraxes!

Like most people, I can easily foresee a situation in which a minority party with a small number of votes and/or seats will – because of the mathematics – hold disproportionate power after 7th May. If that party is led by Nick Clegg, I also foresee that he and his supporters will try some version of the holistic argument to justify their position: "The UK voted for a coalition, and a coalition is what it got." (If the party in question is the SNP then of course it will all be terrible and illegitimate and the same argument won't apply at all because mumble mumble.) But the interests of ants and the interests of ant colonies are not the same, and pretending that they are through some kind of magical thinking is dangerous. Whoever ends up with disproportionate power will do so because the quirks of our electoral mathematics made it pan out that way, not because of some mystical entity called the Will of the British People.

Democracy should be about supporting the ants.

Of this Parish
For anyone who might be interested (don't get trampled in the rush!), here's quite a good profile of my constituency, Bristol West. If you want to picture how I spend my time, at 2.32 you can see the reporter at the cafe where I go most days to memorize grammar and vocab.

Madoka Watch
How exciting! I've had this book on pre-order for months, and it's finally arrived!

tart magica cover

As you might guess from the title, Puella Magi Tart Magica is a spin-off manga from Madoka Magica. I've already a read a couple of such spin-offs, one of which (The Different Story) was very good, while the other (Oriko Magica) I was a bit less struck by. This new effort is by the same artist as Oriko, but I still have high hopes for it because of its angle of approach. It picks up on a visual hint in the last couple of episodes of the anime that Joan of Arc (along with several other well known young women of history) may have made a contract with Kyubey, and become a magical girl in the fifteenth century. To quote the Amazon blurb:

Joan of Arc is revered as a hero of the Hundred Years' War and a saint of the Catholic Church. But her leadership and strength of character in her time did not escape the notice of Kyubey, who, even in the fifteenth-century, sought Magical Girl candidates for their valuable energies. With her friends and fellow Magical Girls fighting at her side, Joan fights the English occupiers of France--but will she soon find herself fighting something much more sinister?!

And, sure enough:

tart puella

(Yes, of all the many names by which Joan has been known over the years, the writer of this manga decided to go with Tart. Never mind; that's a but trifle here.)

I naturally hope the manga will be good, but even if it's embarrassingly bad it still ticks several of my boxes, particularly the ones marked "alternative history" (I've got to write a chapter on that for an encyclopedia by this autumn) and "canonical fanfic" (see these entries from before Christmas, which I'm also planning to work into something more substantial), and of course "Japanese appropriations of Western culture and history". Puella Magi Tart Magica may in fact be as close as I ever get to reading the mythical Pretty Petra Pope.

That said, there are limits to my taste for appropriation, and while I wouldn't mind seeing a spin-off based on Cleopatra, I'd feel queasy if they did a manga about Magical Girl Anne Frank - another of the figures whom the series glancingly suggests may have contracted with Kyubey. I just hope they don't go there.

Meanwhile, according to this report, "Tokyo's Tokai University, known for its focus on sciences and engineering, has started exploring how the emotions of young girls can stop the heat death of the universe". As the photos demonstrate, it's standing room only.

Play up and Play the Game
Having idle occasion to look into the origins of baseball, I was led by Wikipedia to this image from John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), which is apparently the word's first appearance in print.


Isn't it curious that the first mention of baseball and the first children's book (depending how you define it) coincide in the same small volume? But I'm as interested in the rhyme, which takes running round the bases as a metaphor for Britain's maritime trade.

The Ball once struck off,
Away flies the Boy
To the next destin'd Post,
And then home with Joy.

Thus Britons for Lucre
Fly over the Main;
But, with Pleasure transported,
Return back again.

Echoes here of Donne's compasses, perhaps, and the poem also gives an interesting resonance to phrases such as "naval base" and "trading post". It may be the earliest example - unless you know different? - of a poem in which a childhood game is taken as a model, and perhaps a preparation, for adult imperial endeavours, a trope that found its locus classicus 150 years later in Newbolt's "Vita Lampada". (Rolf Harris's version of "Two Little Boys was perhaps a step too far down the same road.)

Centre of Population
I suspect that this is a well-known and easily accessible piece of information if you know how to ask, but I'm not sure how to frame it in googlable terms.

Imagine that the UK is a plane (geometric not aeronautic) with no thickness and no weight, but infinite strength. Standing on this plane is every person in the UK. Imagine also that they all weigh exactly the same - shall we say 10 Stone?

Now, if you wished to balance the UK on the head of a pin (having first evicted the angels), where geographically should the head of that pin be?

Trident Trusted
I'm puzzled. There was an interview with John Swinney (SNP) on the Today programme this morning, much of which focused on whether the SNP would "hold the Labour party to ransom" over Trident in the event of its being in some kind of arrangement with a minority Labour government after the election. I gather that several of the papers are also talking in these terms.

Personally I wish Labour would drop Trident, but it seems to me that any future Labour government that wished to keep it could ask for support from the Tory opposition for that purpose, making SNP support on the issue unnecessary. Obviously the Tories could sit on their hands, but even if they abstained that would very likely be enough for Labour to get its bill to renew Trident through. Or would the Tories want to be seen walking through the lobbies to vote against the UK's nuclear deterrent, merely for reasons of party advantage? I don't think that would play very well in any subsequent election.

In other words, I don't see what the fuss is about. Have I missed something?

A Beached Fleet
Today was the first day of the "Withdrawn" exhibition by Luke Jerram, the same installation artist who brought us last year's water slide in Park St and, some time before that, outdoor pianos - both ideas that were exported to many cities beyond Bristol.

This time Jerram has arranged for a small fleet of five retired fishing boats to be brought to Leigh Woods (just on the other side of the Clifton Suspension Bridge) and left there for six months, as if beached by the Flood. It was a lovely afternoon today, so as the shadows started to lengthen I wandered over the bridge to have a look...

In the Woods todayCollapse )

Meanwhile, you will know that I love seeing anime evocations of England, so I was delighted to find the first episode of Kiniro Mosaic, which is very cute indeed in that regard - not least in the English spoken by the English characters. They do seem to have done some pretty good research when it comes to the look of the Cotswolds, though: I felt I'd seen the town before, but I'm not quite familiar enough with the area to be sure.

A Voyage to Japan - Gustatory Coda
Square MealsCollapse )

Yukata!Collapse )

Sayounara KonnichiwaCollapse )

A Voyage to Japan - 5th-6th April
Tokyo in the RainCollapse )

A Toilet BreakCollapse )

Sanpo Shimasen KaCollapse )

MaidreaminCollapse )

Last Okonomiyaki in TokyoCollapse )

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