Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Where are the Snowy Owls of Yesteryear?
In my first Children's Fiction class of the year I always ask the students to talk about a book that was important to them in childhood. This time, for the first time in a dozen years, not one of the 18 mentioned Harry Potter. The HP generation appears to have passed. No one sat a-tremble on the eve of their 11th birthday to see if an owl would bring them the anticipated letter to Hogwarts. (They ought of course have been waiting to discover whether they were an Old One, which is much cooler.)

There was only one mention each of Dahl (The BFG) and Blyton, specifically Malory Towers. Jacqueline Wilson held up well, though, breasting the tape with Percy the Park Keeper.
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Mouthwords from Lipfriends
As you will know if you’ve been reading this LJ for a while, I’ve been banging on about English devolution and the West Lothian question for a long time. In that sense, and that sense only, it’s gratifying to find it finally being taken seriously – or at least being discussed, which is not the same thing. Suddenly, having for 15 years treated the words “West Lothian question” as if it were the name of some scandalous uncle who must never be mentioned, the Conservatives have decided that fixing it is the most important and urgent problem in British politics.

Anyone who sees this as more than the mendacious gaming of a deeply unethical government trying to wriggle out of the sacred “vow” they’d made to the Scots two or three days earlier deserves to be hit with a Stupid Stick. In my last post I quoted the words of Prince John (a character we might see as George Osborne to Cameron’s Prince Hal) after his shenanigans at Gaultree Forest: they seem even more apt in the light of subsequent events. In a way, I admire the brazenness of it.

But of course the Tories wouldn’t have been able to seize this initiative had Labour (with a very few exceptions, such as John Prescott) not preferred to leave the question of English representation untouched. The reason they did so is very simple, and equally shameful: because they thought it played to their party advantage to allow Scottish Labour MPs to vote on matters that would exclusively affect England. Even now, I’m seeing people on Facebook discussing how to throw a spanner in the West Lothian works, because – horror of horrors – the English might vote the wrong way if they were given a chance! I’ve nothing but contempt for that attitude. If you want people to vote for you, persuade them that your policies are right - don't stuff the ballot.

That’s not to say there aren’t many, many practical problems, or that Miliband’s “back-of-an-envelope” jibe at Cameron is misplaced; but to be driven by a fear of democracy, as many within Labour palpably are, is low.

In their efforts to justify the status quo, some have pointed out that MPs often vote on matters that don’t directly affect their constituents. Here for example, one writer notes that an MP from Cornwall is able to vote on a proposed railway line that doesn’t go anywhere near the peninsula:

Let's look at the case of George Eustice. George is the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall, a new constituency brought into being during the 2010 election. It's right near the south-western tip of England. Only St Ives and the Scilly Isles are between it and the Celtic Sea. At the end of April this year, MPs voted on the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill in the House of Commons. This is an enabling bill to permit preliminary works on a proposed high speed rail link between London and Birmingham. It's not a high speed rail link to Penryn or Falmouth; it's going to have minimal effect on his constituents. But who walked through the lobbies to vote Aye? George Eustice. And no one, to my knowledge, has raised a peep of protest about that.

What this blogger does not acknowledge (and may not have noticed) is that this is an argument, not against English devolution, but against devolution tout court. Why shouldn't English MPs vote on Scottish matters, since George Eustace can vote on HS2? The argument is exactly the same. And yet this isn’t a writer who’s proposing to repatriate powers from Holyrood to Westminster – not a bit of it. The Labour Party has of course just promised to send a huge amount of power in the opposite direction.

It was Labour, to its credit, that set up the Scottish Parliament, in the idealistic first flush of its 1997 victory. But it was never meant to be a stand-alone measure – indeed, on its own it creates almost as many injustices as it redresses. The House of Lords, regional devolution – there was quite a list – but, like a man who gets bored of DIY easily and litters the house with half-finished jobs, Labour bodged the lot, and abandoned them when it saw shinier things to do, such as kill people in hot climates. And now they’re saying, “Are you on about that damp patch again? A bit of ceiling fungus adds character to the house!”

My guess is that the Tories and Labour will probably agree to a constitutional convention, which will report well after the election, and the recommendations of which no one in power after 2015 will feel bound by. The only question in my mind is how little they will be able to get away with giving to Scotland before that.

As I was driving today I heard a Labour spokesman declare, as an argument against any change to the current arrangements, “I don’t believe in creating different kinds of MP. I believe in one Parliament.” The interviewer neglected to point out that there has been more than one kind of MP, and more than one Parliament, in this country for 15 years now.

But then they were both English, and probably both forgot.

If the sun don't come, you get a tan from standing in the English rain
This song was rattling round my head most of yesterday. Now I know why:

This morning it's been joined by another voice from the past:

I promised you redress of these same grievances
Whereof you did complain; which, by mine honour,
I will perform with a most Christian care.
But for you, rebels, look to taste the due
Meet for rebellion and such acts as yours.
Most shallowly did you these arms commence,
Fondly brought here and foolishly sent hence.
Strike up our drums, pursue the scatter'd stray...

Well, we shall see. Interesting times!

Reflections on the Revolution
If I were a Scot
I'd vote Yes like a shot
But I'm glad I am not.

A Fantastic Legacy
It just occurred to me that I forgot to put anything here about the Diana Wynne Jones conference I went to in Newcastle last weekend. I think I was hoping that someone else would do a nice juicy write-up that I could link to, but that doesn't seem to have happened, so suffice it to say that I had a great time. Ursula Jones and Nick Tucker both gave very interesting talks on the first day, with Nick drawing on the mores of the time to question whether the treatment DWJ and her sisters received from their parents was quite as bad, or at least as unusual, as one might imagine from her own accounts; while my favourite part of Ursula's speech was a hilarious story of DWJ (then about 9) "disguising" the 5-year-old Ursula as a six-year-old, so that she could get into a party at the local USAF base.

That was all at Seven Stories, but the second day was at the university, and consisted of some really good academic papers. I've put my own keynote online at, complete with typos, for the benefit of posterity and anyone else with nothing better to read.

I normally feel a little lost at conferences, so it was lovely to be one where I knew almost everybody (and everybody knew me). The secret to being a big fish is clearly to find a small enough pond, but the company in this one was excellent.

Anime Round-Up
I've finished three anime series since the last time I wrote anything on that subject here: Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Angel Beats. I liked them all a great deal, but even allowing for the different narrative conventions and tonal palette of anime (which are amongst the things that most attract me to the form) I can't love any of them unreservedly. In particular, the endings of all three seem badly matched with the series they conclude, however interesting in themselves.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Angel Beats have quite a lot in common. Both are based in secondary schools, with tsundere main characters who are observed by a more "normal" male point-of-view character. Both mix big cosmological questions and dangerous action scenes with comedy and elements more typical of "slice of life" style anime (e.g. baseball episodes).

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is the earlier of the two, and centres on a restless schoolgirl who (unbeknownst to herself) is a universe-creating deity. She has an interest in time-travellers, espers and aliens, and accordingly all appear in her class, although since they are disguised as students she does not realise this. Together with the narrator, Kyon, this unlikely crew has to work hard to keep Haruhi amused and interested in her life, and to steer her away from the melancholy that might encourage her - without realizing it - to dismantle the current universe and create another in its stead.

It's an incredibly ambitious premise, and for the first half-dozen episodes the series carries it off brilliantly, with Haruhi's capricious, vulnerable and energetic personality contrasted with the pragmatic and downbeat Kyon's to great effect, and revelation-fuelled excitement satisfyingly intercut with school life. After that, however, the series very quickly runs out of steam, and by the last episode of Season 1 (which is as far as I've watched) the writers appear to have made a virtue of necessity, contriving a deliberately dull final episode in which the most exciting event is Kyon walking to the shops in the rain to collect an electric heater. In one scene we spend three minutes watching a girl reading, while we hear (but do not see) the class next door, apparently rehearsing a play. And that's it. There's something rather admirable about the way the makers are prepared to take this kind of risk, and it adds to the show's quirky charm, but it's such a change from the first half of the series as to appear to belong to a different programme altogether. In the second season, I understand this will be taken to the next level with the notorious Endless Eight, in which essentially the same episode is broadcast eight times, as a result of a Groundhog Day-style time loop. I'll probably end up watching it anyway, because there's something very appealing about the whole series, even if it is ridiculously front-loaded.

Angel Beats begins with our point-of-view character, Otonashi, having lost his memory, turning up at a high school for the dead. Most of the children there appear to be computer-simulations, or non-playing characters (NPCs), but others, led by the fearless girl Yurippe, are real children who have died in horrific or at least unfulfilled circumstances, and have formed a resistance group called the Afterlife Battlefront. They are fighting against the girl known as Angel, who (so they believe) is a servant of God and attempting to move them on to the next stage of existence by reconciling them to their existence. The minute a student's problems are resolved they are "obliterated", disappearing from the school. Yurippe, whose own tragic history involves having unsuccessfully tried to save her younger siblings from being murdered by armed robbers, has devised an endless series of operations designed to disrupt and delay this process.

I really liked this show too. Like Melancholy it combines broad humour with action, but adds in a good deal of more serious matter, as we learn about the back-stories of the various members of the Battlefront and their variously tragic, stunted, or otherwise unhappy lives on earth. In this case, rather than running out of steam, the problem is that the 13 episodes at the series' disposal simply don't give it a chance to play out the story properly. There are many members of the Battlefront whose stories we hear nothing about, and even in the case of Yurippe we never learn how she died on earth. In her case, there's also the problem that once the necessity for her to lead the Battlefront ends (for reasons I won't go into here) she suddenly ceases to be a brave, smart, determined natural leader, and reverts to being a "normal girl" - i.e. indecisive and a little silly. It's not a pretty sight. Otonashii, meanwhile, the other main character, is given an unexpectedly tragic and unresolved ending. It's not a criticism of the show to say he deserved better, but the focus on Otonashii when Yurippe has disappeared without any fanfare halfway through the final episode feels oddly unbalanced.

Neon Genesis Evangelion I watched because many people had suggested that what Puella Magi Madoka Magica was to magical girl series, NGE had been to mecha - i.e. a "deconstruction" - although what people mean by that word is a little unclear. From what I can see it has little to do with Derrida, but slides between "general critique" and "showing what would happen in real life if the genre's tropes were taken seriously". I was at a slight disadvantage, never having watched an ordinary mecha series, but I think I manage to pick up the basics.

Well, I can see it in a way. NGE makes it clear that putting young teenagers in a position of extreme danger and extreme responsibility, combined with emotional neglect, lack of information, etc., is likely to cause them to break down mentally - and in this series they certainly do. As an exploration of depression (in Shinji's case) and general mental disintegration (in the case of Asuka), it's a fascinating and original series. But in other respects it's entirely unrealistic. The giant bio-mechanical hybrids known as Evangelions, which the youngsters are asked to pilot against the deadly "angels" (angels have a bad press in this post) that are threatening to wipe out humankind, are very impractical and unstable humanoids; while it seems that the organization on whose shoulders the fate of humanity rests is staffed entirely by people whose obsessions and psychiatric problems make them spectacularly unfitted for the role. By the end of the series, the original premise of Big Robots vs. Other Big Robots has indeed been displaced by a philosophical-cum-psychological disquisition on life and its meaning (if any); there's been a shift in genre at least as decisive as that in Haruhi Suzumiya. However, in this series as in the other two in this post, there was a slight feeling of unfinished business, that it had written a cheque it couldn't quite honour, even if it had done something else more interesting instead.

I shouldn't complain. All three of these anime have the virtue of trying out ideas and taking on themes that are spectacular and original, and I really did enjoy all of them. However, they all served to remind me again of the wonder that is Madoka - a deconstruction that nevertheless manages to be a beautifully formed, perfectly paced example of that which it apparently critiques. When I first wrote about it here I hadn't really had a chance to come think or feel through the experience, but since then I've given it a lot of mulling, and I can see that I may have to write a series of posts (one isn't enough) on Why Madoka is Awesome, and why it's been by some way the most intense aesthetic experience I've had in any medium during the last 12 months.

A Goddess in Uto
Some people get Nobel Prizes for an article in Nature, but Kathleen Drew became a kami known as "the Mother of the Sea" - all thanks to her study of Welsh seaweed.

This marvellous piece combines many things I love about Radio 4, about Japan, and about science, all rolled into one delicious piece of sushi and wrapped in nori.

Her Wiki page tells us that Dr Drew "married Henry Wright-Baker in 1928, which resulted in her dismissal by the university [of Manchester] which had a policy of not employing married women. She got around this rule by obtaining an Ashburne Hall residents Fellowship, which allowed her to become an honorary research fellow."

In other words, she did her world-changing research without the benefit of a salary. (And she never visited Japan.)

Pondering a Vote I Don't Have
what did you do

My father told me once that this poster (or its accompanying slogan) was one of the things - along with a general sense that he was missing out on history - that made him stop being a CO and join the army in 1942. The context for the remark was my rather priggish teenage disapproval of his relenting. "I never expected the criticism to come from that direction," he said, or words that effect.

I've made a slight change to the classic poster, to reflect the increasingly successful strain of mood music being played by the Yes campaign in Scotland. There'll only be one chance to think of your children, to do what's right for Scotland, etc. (The No campaign's rendition of the same tune has been rightly mocked.) In the end, it's much easier to envisage today's children berating their parents in future years for bequeathing them a lifetime of austerity rule from an indifferent city hundreds of miles away than for giving them an independent country which is slightly less prosperous than it might otherwise have been - which appears to be the scariest prospect the No campaign can muster. And you'd have to be a fool to give much credence to the Westminster parties' last-minute floundering to give Scotland "Something (but we don't know what) some time (but we don't know when)". At this rate I half expect David Cameron to announce free neeps for all under-5s.

Ah, if only they'd listened to me in June they wouldn't be in this mess, but I fear that's destined to go down as one of history's great missed opportunities, along with Jim Callaghan's autumn 1978 election, and Byrhtnoth's defence of the causeway at the Battle of Maldon.

Uncle Dan
Yesterday I attended my Uncle Dan's funeral in Teddington. He died aged 86, as did my father and grandfather before him. (My children have told me that I should do the same for the sake of tradition, but I'd rather follow my great-great grandfather's example and die at 97.)

His first names were Daniel Weeden, appellations that hark back to the Daniels and Weedens who throng my family tree in the hundred years from 1750-1850. Like many of them he was a sailor - although in his case not on the open ocean. For the Norfolk Broads, though, he was your man.

Dan was eccentric in the Butler fashion, in his case perhaps to excess - or so I gather from talking to his friends and neighbours yesterday. There was no animosity, but in the way of eccentrics my father and he each went their own tangential ways, meeting little in their final decades, and thus I barely saw him after early childhood. I think the last time was in 1998, when he came to my father's 80th birthday celebration. Mostly I remember his rather surreal home-made Christmas cards, involving trick photography, toy soldiers and castles made of sugar cubes, etc. Here's an example:

Dan 1966 Xmas

He was my father's youngest sibling, and with his death the last of the seven brothers, sisters, half-brothers, half-sisters and double-first cousins who made up my Aunt-and-Uncle-dom is now gone. Only my mother remains of that generation. Alone of all of them Dan never married or had offspring, thus I and my cousins were his next of kin at the funeral and ushered to the seats of honour, though in truth we knew him less well than most people there.

Anyway, I was asked to look through my voluminous Butler records for a photograph to be used in the Order of Service - if that's the proper phrase for what was in fact a rather proselytically Humanist event - and came up with the following, all carefully dated in my grandfather's hand. Like many of his family Dan had bright red hair, to which black-and-white photos do no justice, but here is my selection, taking him up to the mid-sixties, after which the record peters out (largely because my grandfather did). I think you can see a clear trajectory...

1935 Dan 35
1944 Dan 1944
1947 Dan 47
1956 Dan 1956
1962 dan 62
1967 Dan 1967 Xmas side 1

That figure of 1,400 girls sexually abused in Rotherham over a 16-year period is shocking. So shocking, in fact, that I was moved to do some sums.

The girls were aged between 11 and 18. There are about 3.5 million girls in the UK in that age range, an eighteenth of the population as a whole. Assuming that Rotherham (a city of about 250,000) reflects this, there are some 13,900 girls in that age range at any time from that city. The abuse took place over a 16-year period, so we can slightly more than double that, to (say) 28,000, to get the total figure for girls who were in that age range in Rotherham during the period covered by the report.

If the report's findings have been correctly reported, this means that 1 in 20 girls in the city were abused. That's one or two for every classroom, for at least a generation. My maths and/or facts may be wrong, of course - I welcome corrections.

The head of children's services at the time, a master of the passive voice, "regrets that more wasn't done at the time."

Lots of Islands have a North
Oh, Christopher Eccleston! I quite enjoyed Richard III: the New Evidence, but how could you wind it up by describing him as "Britain's last true warrior king" because he was the last king of England to fight and die in battle? Have you forgotten Flodden Field so soon?

Okay, I realise you were just narrating and probably didn't write the script, but still, this is the kind of thing that seems likely to swing the all-important Pedant vote behind the Yes campaign.

Japanese Diary 25: Translating the Impossible
I learned this word today - 珍紛漢紛 (it's pronounced "chinbunkanbun").

Apparently it's Japanese for "double Dutch" (though that's an unfortunate equivalent, since the Dutch were in fact the Europeans whom the pre-Meiji Japanese were the mostly likely to be able to talk to in their own language, being their sole trading partners for more than two centuries prior to the arrival of Commodore Perry). The English naturally used the Dutch as the epitome of incomprehensibility because they were near neighbours and rivals. Shakespeare employed a similar idea when he had Casca coin the phrase "all Greek to me" of Cicero, while the Greeks themselves invented "barbarian" (or so I've always heard) in imitation of the babbling and incomprehensible languages of nations beyond the Greek world.

This makes me curious about "chinbunkanbun", not least because it uses the same pattern of repeated plosives as "barbarian", but also because the third kanji (漢,"kan") is typically used to refer to things of Chinese origin. It occurs in the kanji for "kanji" itself, which means "Chinese characters". It's tempting to wonder whether 珍紛漢紛 is effectively a way of saying "double Chinese".

A Day with Dr Duck
Sometimes I have ideas for picture books, but I can't draw for toffee so never bring them to fruition.

Of course I could ask someone else to do the pictures, but this feels a bit of a cheat, since in my heart I believe that illustrators have a much bigger and more difficult job on their hands: they are Elton John to the writer's Bernie Taupin. I'm well aware that picture book writers agonize over every word and all, but even so, if I took my 300-word story (no matter how well crafted) to an artist and said, "Here, illustrate that!" I'd feel a bit like one of those people who accost authors at signings, saying, "I've got a great idea for your next book! How about I tell you the plot, you write it, and then we'll split the royalties 50-50?"

I picked up an old notebook of mine today, and came across the jottings my daughter and I had made for "A Day with Dr Duck" when she was feeling poorly once, many years ago. It was just to amuse her as she lay on her bed of pain, but as we plotted Doctor Duck's routine I remember feeling that we were on to something - something big... if only I could draw. First on Dr Duck's rounds were "A slug with a bug" and "A chick feeling sick", both of whom my daughter lovingly illustrated (better even then than I could have). My scanner's on the blink, or I'd reproduce them here. ETA: They are now proudly displayed under the cut:

Slug 'n' chickCollapse )

I see the story continuing with visits to:

A beaver with a fever [Note to illustrator - please provide adorable, hilarious quirky picture]

A weasel with the measles [ditto]

A roo with the flu [ditto]

A snake with toothache [ditto]

A fox with chicken pox [ditto - and feel free to have some chickens looking in at the window and laughing.]

A whale looking pale [ditto - n.b., a snail is not an acceptable alternative]

A crow feeling low [ditto]

We never got as far as the ending. I imagine that Dr Duck, now "tired as fuck", would go home and have a stiff glass of pond water. I could probably tweak it if we looked like getting a contract: that's a writer's job, after all. But then again...

Oh. It looks like someone beat us to the punch. More than one, in fact.

"Gorilla's got a terrible case of super-stinky bottom burps!"?

I can't compete with that.

Please Ensure that you have your Copy Book at Hand
I missed this first time round, and yet I feel I spent my whole childhood watching it. If you spent your nonage in the UK in the 1970s, I do recommend Look Around You, which my daughter introduced me to yesterday. It's just pitch perfect (and there's a whole series!).


Notes from a Big Island
Okay, I realise this is beside the point, but one thing that irritates me almost more than anything else about the referendum debate is the assertion that Britain is "a small island". This is mostly heard from the No camp, with the implication that it would be ridiculous to split the island into two (but that if we did, Scotland would definitely be Haiti to the UK's Dominican Republic).

So, once and for all, Britain is a big island! Excluding continental landmasses, it's the ninth largest island in the world. That's big, right?

Steep Holm is a small island, if you like.

I'm glad I got that off my chest.

As you were. Carry on.

An Old East India Hand
I'd never been to that part of London before, east of the Tower. It's a strange mixture. In Shadwell, the very next stop from Tower Gate, there are red-brick working-class flats - just post-War, I would guess - with washing strung across their balconies (though the cars parked in the streets suggest wealth, at least for some). It doesn't take long, though, for the genres become mixed. The Docklands Light Railway runs, often some way above ground like a train from Dr Seuss, though a landscape that's part grungy post-Apocalypse, part shiny hyper-future: here's a run-down estate, there's a vanity project, here a building site, there some waste land, here Canary Wharf sticks from the mud like a set of iron filings magnetized with money. In the midst of this we find the Excel Centre, floating between the London City Airport, some cable cars, and a derelict pet food mill. The DLR station names are evocative of the past: I presume East India, location of my Travelodge, harks back to the Company of that name and its eponymous dock. Some, like Galleon's Reach, seem to have been imported from the set of Pirates of the Caribbean. The centre itself is so long that it has a DLR station at either end.

I was there for Worldcon, of course. Though I couldn't stay for the whole thing (which no doubt continues apace as I write) I had a great time on Thursday and Friday, including a couple of panels (which I didn't screw up - a win!), and lots of interesting conversation with fascinating friends, including kalypso_v, nineweaving, gillpolack, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Gili Bar-Hillel, Connie Wagner, and (more briefly) fjm, Cheryl Morgan, Ali Baker, Mike Levy, Frances Hardinge, Jessica Yates and Mark Oshiro. Also, no doubt some who have momentarily slipped my mind (apologies, if so - it's been a whirl). I saw but for one reason or another didn't get to speak to papersky, chilperic (at least, I think it was him, very fetching in a sky-blue tabard) owlfish and rozk, but didn't even catch sight of gillo, nwhyte, la_marquise_de_, sarahtales, wellinghall, jemck or adaese, though I know (think?) they were there, as were DWJ-ites Kylie Ding and Meredith MacArdle - though I hope to catch several of these at next month's conference in Newcaslte.

(I was of course pleased to see today's Howl's Moving Castle Google Doodle, which was shown in Japan as well as the UK - and an interesting selection of other countries in Europe and Asia - but especially that they based it on the book, not the film. At least, the fourth entrance leads to Wales, to judge by the rain.)

The journey back across London was a bit chaotic, due to various engineering delays - including an unfortunate disembarkation at Embankment, where I tried to get on the Bakerloo line only to find it was out of service. (The announcement on the train had, in fairness, said simply, "The next stop is Embankment. Change!" - the details of how one might change or what into being cut off in a strangulated way.) Later, worried about missing my train by this point, I was rushing up the steps between different parts of the District Line at South Kensington when I heard an announcement ask for "Inspector Lane" to make his way immediately to the Operations Room, which sounded ominous. I wasn't surprised, then, standing in the carriage ready to limp the last few stops to Paddington, to hear a very calm voice say on the loudspeaker, "Due to a reported incident, we would like to ask all passengers to leave the station." My fellow passengers and I rolled our eyes. Typical - planting a bomb when we're in a hurry! But almost immediately another voice (much less calm) announced that it had only been a test. A test, I presume, that we - or the PA system - had passed. Or perhaps the terrorists were late, due to the engineering at Embankment.

On the train to Bristol two men in their late twenties were talking about work, thusly:

A: Friday is the "bring drink to work day" at our office.
B [surprised]: They let you drink at work?
A [In a "Doesn't Everyone?" voice]: Yes, of course!
Steepholm [Nonverbally]: Please don't be an air traffic controller. Please don't be an air traffic controller.

They got off at Swindon - so my guess is he works for the National Trust. But how common is it for office workers to get pissed on a Friday afternoon these days? In the office, at least, at with the blessing of the boss?

A Weird Juxtaposition
Last night I happened to be watching this with my daughter, then went to read my mail - maybe five minutes later - and saw the news about Robin Williams. (Of whom, by the way, my daughter hadn't heard.)

Japanese Diary 24: Polysemies
Japanese, being poor in phonemes, has a particularly large number of homophones (e.g. "kami" means "paper", "god" and "hair"), but in the written language they are usually distinguished by their kanji. Hence:

Kami (hair) = 髪
Kami (god) = 神
Kami (paper)= 紙

To that extent, the kanji serve the same purpose as the weird system of English spelling, which gives us "two", "too" and "to". Both may seem arbitrary and unnecessarily complex to non-native speakers, but both help disambiguate the written language - as well, of course, as enshrining many features of historical interest.

That's not to say that a single kanji can't have many different meanings too. That would be too simple! After all, people will always use language creatively, coin metaphors, etc. And connotations will always attach themselves to words, like drifting river weed hooking itself around a rock. Indeed, I have just learned this word, which pleases me greatly with the range of its meanings: 参る (まいる) = mairu: to go; to come; to call; to be defeated; to collapse; to die; to be annoyed; to be nonplussed; to be madly in love; to visit (shrine, grave).

The opportunities for hilarious misunderstanding are legion.

ETA: I forgot to add that 人参 (ninjin) means "carrot". Go figure.

The Way is Blocked
Thomas Bowman

Thomas Bowman (1838-1912)

The mind that has not been formally educated is not trapped in linear time. Memories of named individuals are identified for about three or four generations. Then the way is blocked, usually by a patriarch, beyond whom there is nothing, and to whom accrete tales and exploits of a giant. But I suspect that they are the accretions onto an individual of generations of history; for, beyond linear oral memory, we are in mythic time, where everything is simultaneously present.

Thus Alan Garner – and I can see what he means. Indeed, I have a good linear-mythic contrast in my own head, corresponding to my paternal and maternal lines. On my father’s side are the educated and linear Butlers, with their obsessive hoarding curatorial habits, gentle birth and Forrest Gump-like habit of standing in the frame (though well off centre) of so many famous lives and events. Researching them is easy and rewarding. On my mother’s side stand the working class, underdocumented Bowmans. I’ve written a lot about my grandfather Percy, the sailor, and even arranged for his incorporation into Our National Story in Greenwich, but beyond him the way has been blocked. I knew that Percy’s mother Mary ran a pub in Wrexham and outlived several husbands. (She is in fact the second matriarchal innkeeper I’ve come across in my researches – the first being Mrs Dewberry, the mother of my great*5 grandmother Catherine (born c. 1706) – and both appear to have been formidable figures.) But my great-grandfather, Alfred, drank the profits and died at 36 in 1901. All he left behind him was 1½d, which was found under his pillow. My grandfather, 12 at the time, drilled holes through the centre of the coins and kept them on a ring – a hollow patrimony.

As for Alfred’s own father, Thomas Bowman, all I knew about him was that having been a labourer he became a quartermaster sergeant in the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, and spent a peripatetic life in the military, including service in the Ashanti war. Though he and his wife Emma ended up in Wrexham, neither was Welsh (he was from Devizes, she from Yorkshire). Alfred was their only son, but a year after Emma died in 1892 Thomas married a twenty-year old local woman (he was then in his mid-‘50s, and Alfred was thirty), by whom he had seven more children.

Thomas outlived his son by 11 years. Then, one night in December 1912, at the age of 74, he slit his throat with a razor.

Here's a newspaper report:

Thomas Bowman death report

My mother knew nothing of this until a couple of weeks ago, when my cousin found it out. She had a sense that her great-grandfather wasn't to be talked about, but since no one did talk about him she didn't know why. It's very hard to know what to make of it, and I find myself snatching at scraps as I try to make some kind of empathetic connection. ("He had lower back pain? I get lower back pain!") But it's sad end to whatever kind of life he led. I wish there were someone to tell its story - but through alcoholism and an early grave in one generation, and depression and suicide in another, the way is blocked.

Let it Go
My latest anime is Neon Genesis Evangelion, which has been recommended to me on numerous occasions as a deconstruction of the "mecha" genre, much as Madoka is of the Magical Girl genre. The trouble is, I've never seen a mecha series, so have no point of reference. However, having got just over halfway through the series I'm happy to report that it has leapt well clear of the "angel monster-of-the-week" slough into which it appeared liable to sink early on, and is diving instead into unknown territory. I gulp, and follow.

As if in reproof of my project of building happy moments week by week into a handsome album called Satisfactory Life (see recent locked post), one character just suggested that "No one can justify life by linking happy moments into a rosary." Well, that told me. (I note that the series' creator, Hideaki Anno, wrote it in the wake of depression, which does not surprise me.) On the other hand, I'm not sure I need to take lessons from an anime that subtitles one section, "Those women longed for the touch of others' lips, and thus invited their kisses."

So, laughing in Anno's teeth, I shall record that this morning I visited our local branch of frozen food store Cook early in order to buy a moussaka for mine and my mother's supper tomorrow. It was already quite warm at 10.30, but as the assistant handed me back three pound coins my palm was refreshed by the sudden thrill of chilled metal.

"Why, even your change is frozen!" I exclaimed, emitting a batsqueak of jouissance.

"Now you know where we keep the money overnight," she replied enigmatically.

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