Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

RIP John Renbourn (1944-2015)
"Ten thousand pounds would I freely give
To say on Earth that my Franklin lives..."


"I Will Fight On"
One of my favourite Madoka Magica pieces is "Pergo Pugnare", which plays right at the end of the very last episode, as Homura prepares herself to take on the challenges of the new dispensation (that seems a sufficiently spoiler-free way of putting it). Yuki Kajiura's lush-stringed original can be heard here; but it always struck me as a piece that could be transcribed for piano quite successfully. However, unlike most such pieces associated with this anime, "Pergo Pugnare" appeared to have no piano version (or sheet music) available. This of course is where it pays to have a brother who's a composer. It took only minimal wheedling to get mine to transcribe it. Playing it was another matter for one of my relative rookiness, but I've managed to crank out a passable version for the benefit of the wider Madoka community. I'm sure someone more skilled will pick up the baton.

I tried playing this and the original simultaneously to see how I did in terms of timing, that being one of my impressive collection of Achilles heels. I begin by edging ahead, then the strings overhaul me in the middle, and finally we breast the tape together. Not good - but not too bad either.

Tangentially: I was listening to a programme about the Institute for Advance Studies in Princeton the other day, and it put me in mind of the year (1999) my brother was employed by them as their Composer in Residence. Isn't that just the coolest gig ever for a geek?

Not that he is a geek, in fact; but I'm happy to squee retrospectively on his behalf.

A Möbius Striptease
Those who share my taste for Japanese occidentalism, please enjoy these nineteenth-century views of London.

It's no secret that part of my fascination with Japan lies in my instinctive (but poorly evidenced) belief that it and Britain were separated at birth and brought up on separate continents, as discussed here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example. But I do worry a bit about my interest in occidentalism, and whether it may be just orientalism in a half-lotus. Am I actually interested in Japan for its own sake (or indeed sake), or just as it offers a perspective on my own country?

And yet, looking at oneself from the outside is also estrangement, which is meant to be very good for us, n'est-ce pas, demonstrating how our customs and beliefs are really contingent rather than inevitable?

And yet, if Craig Raine had believed in Martians, his poetry would certainly have been appropriative.

And yet, I'm interested in Japan for its own sake too, or so I let myself believe...

A Place for Everything, A Time for Nothing
Recently the teatime quiz programme Two Tribes asked a contestant to say whether the proposition that "William Shakespeare was born in the United Kingdom" was true or false. The contestant answered "True", and that was accepted as obviously correct, but I was of course left spluttering about the Act of Union, and dismayed at the apparent lack of historical sense of anyone involved. It's not that I mind the contestant's being awarded the point, but some acknowledgement that the question was problematic or ambiguous would have helped settle my dinner.

That story, combined with the various reports on the latest genetic study of the people of Britain (which every paper appears to have reported in such a way as to confirm its particular prejudices and obsessions), issued in the following mongrel autobiography, combining geographical precision with temporal indifference.

"Two Tribes"

Meet my folks – we’re into ochre.
Meet my folks – we’re into beakers.
My people winter at Stonehenge.
Doesn’t everyone?

My tribe? Why, I’m
Of the Belgae.
I hail from the province of Britannia:
A citizen of the Empire, where I was born.

In the Kingdom of Wessex I had my birth,
In the Kingdom of England
In the Kingdom of Great Britain,
with and without,
with just a bit of,
(and possibly France).
The EU is my native land.

Meet my folks – we’re into ochre.
Meet my folks – we’re into beakers.
My people winter at Stonehenge.
Doesn’t everyone?

Packing my Phrasebook
It's not long now till I go to Japan, and I'm getting nervous as well as excited: 多分ちょっと緊張した. The thing is, I have a very basic vocabulary (I'd guess about 1200 words) and a grasp of grammar to match. But that's only true in my house: when it comes to real encounters with real people, I suspect that most of this knowledge will drain away like the ichor from Talos's foot, leaving me an empty hulk of disarticulated linguistic scrap iron.

For example, I was chatting to the owner of my local Japanese restaurant yesterday, and she asked about my trip, so I tried a few halting phrases. She laughed and said my accent was "cute", which wasn't altogether encouraging (for "kawaii" read "kawaisou"). Nervous, I wanted to ask whether I was at least comprehensible, but instead of asking "Wakarimasu ka" (Do you understand?) - which is a very basic phrase that ought to come unbidden - I found myself asking "Rikai shimasu ka" - a verb that also means "understand" but would be more appropriate if I had just explained how to solve quadratic equations. This was even less encouraging, and brought my sorry childhood attempts at speaking French in France rushing back like a half-digested madeleine. (I am at the Gare du Nord, and my father is pushing me to buy a carnet of Metro tickets, and the man behind the desk is looking at my 50 franc note and asking if I have anything smaller, when he should - according to the conversation in the phrase book - be giving me change and wishing me a cheery bon voyage, and I don't know what to say or do.)

Will I be able to clear the massive hurdle of my own self-consciousness in the more relaxing setting of downtown Tokyo? We shall see. I know from visiting Taiwan 15 months ago that the world now comes with English subtitles, but I'd really rather do without them as far as I can.

We'll keep a Welcome in the Glen, Begorrah
This is so bizarre that I can't just let it sink below the billows of Facebook's sea foam but must preserve it here for future generations. All aboard for the Pan-Celtic tour...


Pratchett on Teenage Sex
I didn't know Terry Pratchett, but I've seen a lot of nice memories and anecdotes about him being posted in various parts of the net, so I'll throw in mine - although I was present only as a bystander.

The only time I saw him was at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow. I first glimpsed him queuing patiently, way down the line outside one of the more popular panels, on sex in YA fiction. A con newbie, I remember being impressed at the democracy of it. He was much in my mind anyway at that time, having just publicly slapped down J. K. Rowling for expressing her dislike of fantasy - an act of which I thoroughly approved.

He took his place in the audience for the panel, which got on with the important task of discussing YA sex. For one panellist, YA simply wasn't explicit enough. It was too oblique, too "tasteful" in its descriptions. "Sometimes," she complained, "you're even not sure whether sex has taken place at all."

"My wife often says the same thing," came a voice from the audience.

That, of course, was Terry Pratchett.

Cat and Doggerel
"Jessie Butler's Sunday Afternoon Service"

jessie on bed 1

Sleeping deep as a Kraken
When will you awaken?

In the long run we're roadkill
Crushed under Time's chariot wheel
So let's haste to Life's water dish
And drink long and full.

Why not get off the bed
And catch songbirds instead?

But Jessie I don't want to hurry you.

Whilst the cat is asleep
Forth my fears, mouselike, creep.

You lie on the bed
With a lump on your head
That may be a tumour
Or so the vet said -

But let's hope it's a cyst
For you'd be sorely missed.

Ah Jessie, why doesn't it worry you?

Having a Butcher's, Then and Thenner
I just had occasion to put this juxtaposition (long forgotten) on Facebook, but can't remember whether it ever appeared here. Anyway, we described it (but didn't show it) in Reading History in Children's Book. It features illustrations from the Ladybird books Shopping with Mother (1958) and Julius Caesar and Roman Britain (1959). Might they possibly be related?


(The article that prompted me to post this is here.)

While I have your attention, let me put you an unrelated question. The other day my mother noticed that I had taken to wearing my watch on my right wrist, and asked why. I explained that, being strongly left-handed, I was a little worried that my right arm didn't have enough to do. Hence, for example, my learning to eat with chop sticks right-handed as a kind of brain exercise. While my watch is very light, I reasoned that wearing it on my wrist all the time it would over the course of a day amount to a significant amount of physical work, equivalent to lifting a far heavier weight over a much shorter period, and that this might help appreciably redress the imbalance in strength between my right and left arms.

My mother was, shall we say, sceptical. But who was right?

Breaking Badly
How about this for a pitch?

Our story concerns a humble copyeditor, who is having trouble making enough money to pay his ever-increasing vet's bills. One day, he receives a phishing letter from an African prince, who requires his help in transferring 7 million USD out of the country. Although not taken in, our hero finds himself idly correcting the letter's spelling and grammar out of professional habit.

Then the revelation hits him. All over the world, fraudsters, phishers, bogus companies and fake websites are brought low by their inability to use standard English and their insensitivity to register. Everyone knows that poor English is the first thing to check for if ever one receives a suspicious-looking communication. Someone who could help fix that - for a fee, or a percentage - would stand to make a lot of money, fast. Rufus would never want for worming tablets again.

Before long, the copyeditor is at the centre of a vast criminal web, and making more money than he's ever seen before. He opens up Francophone and Chinese franchises in Marseilles and Shanghai. Soon, jealousies and rivalries begin to emerge...

But for that you must wait till Season 2.

Cream Dreams
I recently started taking milk deliveries, partly to help dairy farmers get a reasonable price for their product, partly through a kind of 1970s Unigate nostalgia. It works well enough, but my milkman (unlike my mother's) delivers milk in plastic cartons, not recyclable bottles, and there's half the point gone right there.

Does anyone in these homogenized days say "Top of the milk"? It was a phrase much in use when I was young, and milk had a top - but now the cream does not rise, although through long habit I still find myself upending any new bottle or carton to mix it up.

I've always assumed, by the way, that this is where the phrase "Top of the morning" came from. Is that true?

Shakespeare Trolls TripAdvisor
Shakespeare trolls Tripadvisor

Feel free to add your own...

I keep getting this strange sense of déjà vu with respect to the affair of the Observer letter and its aftermath. Two years ago, shortly after Fleet St's finest had lined round the block in order to trumpet the right of Julie Burchill to be offensive even if what she said amounted to hate speech, and Toby Young had defiantly republished her words on the Telegraph website, the Sunday Times published a Gerald Scarfe cartoon that showed Benjamin Netanhayu building a wall that included the body parts of Palestinians. It was offensive to many, and Rupert Murdoch apologized grovellingly. But, as I noted at the time, neither Toby Young nor any of the myriad defenders of free speech who had lined up to defend Julie Burchill and to castigate the Observer for its similar apology just days earlier felt like sticking their heads above the parapet on that occasion. Funny, that.

Now, barely a week after 131 academics, journalists and activists blasted protests against transphobia, warning that that fundamental liberties of expression and academic freedom were at stake, I read that the students of the University of Westminster are protesting against an invitation to Haitham al-Haddad to speak on conceptions of the prophet Muhammed, because he holds offensive views about homosexuality.

Now, I'm not on Twitter as you may know, but I'd be very interested to know whether any of the 131 self-appointed defenders of academic freedom have protested there (or anywhere) against the attempt to exclude Haitham al-Haddad. Peter Tatchell, for instance, or Bea Campbell? Have Mary Beard or Jeremy Hardy rushed to the defence of academic freedom in this case? Or is it a matter of speakers with offensive beliefs being okay, but only if their target is weak enough?

I did try googling Tachell's name with al-Haddad's by the way, but all I came up with was this...

Bristol versus Babylon
I walked to the Gloucester Rd this afternoon to pick up a few things. You can basically buy anything on that street.

Bought shallots at greengrocer (for coq au vin tomorrow)
Bought one rasher of streaky bacon from butcher (ditto)
Bought landline phone from local electricity shop to replace apparently broken one
Bought fillet of sushi-grade salmon from fishmonger for supper tonight
Bought potatoes at a second greengrocer (forgot at the first)
Donated some books to charity shop
Had spare key cut at locksmith/cobbler
Bought small multiseed loaf from baker
In freezing rain, gave £1.50 to beggar for coffee (i.e. an excuse to get some shelter)
Bought bottle of wine at supermarket
Bought coffee at cafe (actually that was free, as I'd filled my loyalty card)
Bought nori at Vietnamese supermarket for tonight's sushi

Total cost of expedition: £23

Let's compare that to The Hundred, the main street in my home town, in the 1970s. Actually, it doesn't come out too badly: you could perform most of the same transactions, with the following exceptions:

No sushi-grade salmon
No beggars
No nori
No phone (we did have phones, but they were only available via a Post Office engineer coming to your house to install them, I think)

Also, the coffee would have been pretty awful.

However, both the Gloucester Road and The Hundred look good when compared with the city of Babylon, as described in Walton's libretto for Belshazzar's Feast (riffing in turn off Revelation):

Her merchandise was of gold and silver,
Of precious stones, of pearls, of fine linen,
Of purple, silk and scarlet,
All manner vessels of ivory,
All manner vessels of most precious wood,
Of brass, iron and marble,
Cinnamon, odours and ointments,
Of frankincense, wine and oil,
Fine flour, wheat and beasts,
Sheep, horses, chariots, slaves
And the souls of men.

So, if I'd gone out with the same shopping list I wouldn't have been able to buy anything except the wine. Pathetic.

Come on, Babylon, pull your finger out!

Another Week in the Cabal
The iron grip of the trans lobby over the public discourse may be tight, but since last Saturday a few desperate voices of resistance to our tyranny have manage to smuggle out some messages.

First there was the letter to the Observer, signed by 131 of our most influential public figures, academics and journalists, protesting against our Stalinesque power to quash criticism.

Then came an article in The New Statesman from "Terry MacDonald", the terrified TERF who dare not speak their name for fear of a visit from the trans Thought Police, although that didn't deter them from repeating several verifiable untruths, and inventing a few more. (My favourite was their straightfaced assertion that "Feminists across the political spectrum support the right of trans people not to be discriminated against at work, harassed or subjected to physical and sexual assault." Uncle Joe would have been proud of that one.)

At the other end of the political spectrum Brendan O'Neill in The Spectator also stood up bravely to brand trans activists as berserk, illiberal censors.

And, coming out of left field, the Pope found time to declare the campaign for trans rights as dangerous to the world as nuclear weapons.

So, yes, altogether we dropped the ball multiple times this week. But surely this was all drowned out by the voices of trans people themselves, who as we know exercise such a monopoly on the outlets of free expression? As I scanned the national media, however, confident that the Press would be true to the journalistic standards about which they are so vocal and try to find out whether there might just possibly be another side to the story, I found... er, no trans voices at all. Nor did I see any attempt to represent their point of view by non-trans journalists, with the exception of one supportive and very welcome column from Owen Jones in The Guardian. And that's it.

True, there were some excellent analyses in various blogs, and if you're still interested I particularly recommend this longish but fascinating essay for its discussion both of the details of this case and its history, and of the underlying principles. (I don't agree with every word, but 90% is excellent - a high strike rate.) But such blogs get a few dozen or a few hundred readers at most.

There were also no doubt some Tweets; but Tweets, as we know, are bullying.

The Silenced Maid
"The Silenced Maid"

(With apologies to Thomas Hardy)

"Oh Julie,* my dear, this is quite a surprise!
To find you in Broadcasting House telling lies,
With a news slot at one and a chat show at three!" —
"O didn't you know I'd been silenced?" said she.

— "You left us in tatters and buckets were shed,
You were hounded off Twitter by trannies, you said,
Yet look at you now, getting prepped for TV!" —
"Yes: that's how we dress when we're silenced," said she.

— "I wish I had contacts, a column or so,
The PM on speed-dial, my own TV show!”
"My dear — a raw trans woman, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain't silenced," said she.

* Note that other trochees are available.

Twitter Mobs versus Letter Mobs
I've been following the latest trans row from a slight distance, and I'm not planning to go into all the details of it here. (The tl;dr version: the original letter that caused the fuss is here; and here is one articulate response that draws attention to its numerous errors of fact.) I just want to note a couple of things about the fall-out.

During an eerily similar spat in the newspapers a couple of years ago I wrote a post about the double-standards involved when it comes to pronouncements in the press by well known journalists, or indeed others who are in a position of privilege in terms of having opportunities to make their views known to the public (nationally-known activists, regular panel show participants, academics who've been given their own TV series, and the like, to pick three professions not at random). Two years ago, and again yesterday, it was made clear to the rest of us that when they wish to speak we are duty bound to give them a platform from which to do so, either literally or in a newspaper, or else we will be involved in censorship. If we don't turn up to listen, that too is censorship. I was even informed by a classicist on Facebook yesterday that "refusing to be on the same platform as a speaker is a form of shutting down debate"; so it seems that our duty goes further, and includes turning up to debate, with whoever wishes to discuss it, the stimulating topic of whether we should be allowed to exist. I'd hope the screwed-upness of this thinking was evident to most, but I'll take the opportunity to link you to this truly wonderful blog post, which skewers that kind of privilege better than I could. (It's longish, but do read it, if you haven't - I've been reminded of it numerous times over the last couple of days.)

Anyway, yes, back to the row du jour. I think it was unsurprising that the letter generated quite a lot of debate; presumably that was part of its purpose. It's also pretty unsurprising - indeed, entirely predictable - that a couple of the signatories who had been widely considered trans allies, or at least thoroughly good eggs - namely Peter Tatchell and Mary Beard - received tweets from numerous individuals (trans and otherwise) who were disappointed at the stance they had taken. After all, no one was going to be surprised at Sarah Ditum or Caroline Criado-Perez putting their names to such a letter. But many people who admired Tatchell and Beard felt saddened and even shocked.

Now, I'm not on Twitter, and I've certainly not seen every tweet - but I had a look via the rather clumsy medium of the Twitter website, and read quite a few exchanges that way, particularly those addressed to Tatchell and Beard. Some were straightforwardly expressing disappointment; others were putting alternative points of view. None of the ones I saw could reasonably be construed as abusive. Apparently, however, both Beard and Tatchell found the number of tweets oppressive, and there was talk of them being bullied, of people "piling in", etc. And this, of course, rather than being an example of the kind of uncensored exchange of frank views that they had called for that very day, was parsed as bullying by a mob.

I suppose my first question is this: why is it that a hundred individuals speaking for no one but themselves can so easily be cast as a Twitter mob; while, by contrast, 131 well-connected journalists, broadcasters, academics, etc., all putting their name to a letter penned by (presumably) a few of them at most, are not called a Letter mob? Yet they were surely the ones "piling in", if anyone was. I'm happy to be corrected, but I very much doubt whether many of them bothered to investigate the version of events presented in the letter independently before signing it. And of course, they are the ones who are truly intimidating - not through their numbers alone but through their status, their reach, their influence. Indeed, they were invited to sign the letter on that basis: this is no random selection of individuals who happen to share a point of view, it's a phalanx of movers and shakers, who between them have the power to change the political weather. And, while their letter was ostensibly about free speech, it's no coincidence that the examples they used all involved the "censorship" of anti-trans and anti-sex worker statements by soi-disant feminists. (Clue: the reason for this is not that trans people and sex workers constitute the prime threat to free speech, in universities or elsewhere.)

My second question is: why is it that people calling for free speech and debate were so offended when they got it? Hypocrisy is an easy charge, and perhaps a just one, but is it enough? Privilege is another explanation: disdain for (and fear of) the "many-headed multitude" is alive and well, it seems, and people speaking back to the powerful is still a cause for disquiet. What is liberty in the elite appears as licence in others, to invoke an old distinction. Yet the residual Mary-Beard-respecting part of me jibs at closing the case there. Looking from the outside, at least (and I may be missing something important here), I'd have to add that Twitter seems like a medium designed to make people fraught and defensive. A hundred people speaking their individual thoughts to you on Twitter in a hundred different tweets, even though by any objective measure it's no more than a light spring shower compared to the high-powered water cannon of 131 eminent intellectuals and public figures speaking with one voice in a national newspaper, may still feel more intimidating. We are better able to handle single messages than dozens, no matter how expert at multitasking we may be. Throw in Twitter's 140-character clumsiness in conveying both tone and nuanced content, and add the defensiveness of someone who's feeling got at (after all, very few people like being told they're wrong over and over), and you have a recipe for frayed tempers and a world-famous classics professor "wanting to cry" - even though (as far as I can see) no individual treated her badly, unless joining in the debate she had called for constitutes bad treatment.

One of Beard's tweets was particularly telling from this point of view: "oh dear, cant win on this. Either I'm an out and out transphobe or dear old lady who hasnt quite understood the issues. Which is preferable?" In context, this describes not two kinds of tweet, but two strategies for not engaging: any straightforwardly critical tweet could be dismissed as insulting, and any tweet that made an attempt to put across an alternative point of view could be dismissed as patronizing. These are the hermeneutics of siege, not of intellectual enquiry: I can't begin to imagine a tweet (other than a purely supportive one) that Beard would not have consigned to one or other of these categories at that moment.

That said, I hope she puts her head above the parapet again at some point. I don't demand it, though, because unlike the letter writers I don't think that's what free speech means.

Eerie Ears and Pointless Points
When young I associated pointy ears primarily with Mr Spock - although I see that Bram Stoker describes Dracula's too as being "extremely pointed", and that's reflected in most portrayals (it must admitted that Dracula's ears have been overshadowed by his teeth). The spitefully spiky pine elves who were the most frightening denizens of my youthful Rupert annuals had pointy ears, I suppose, but then everything about them was pointy.

That elves have pointy ears is one of those things everyone knows, and Peter Jackson has probably helped spread the meme further (there's an interesting discussion here about how and whether Tolkien himself intended his elves' ears to be pointed); but where does the idea originate? Certainly you can see examples in the work of Arthur Rackham and Cicely Mary Barker - but what about earlier artists? And is it purely an artistic convention, or does it have literary corroboration?

Would the players have been gluing points to their ears for the first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

Dream Children
I dreamed last night that I'd just finished a YA novel, my first for several years, and was rather pleased with the result. The denouement was that the POV character, a teenaged boy who had been through quite a lot of dangerous adventures and thought he had successfully completed them, discovered in the last few pages that everything that had happened up until now had been orchestrated by, and was for the benefit of, his younger sister, who was in the middle of a far larger adventure of which the book's events were only a fragment.

The book's final lines, which are all I remember:

"You mean, all this time I've been part of a sideshow?"
"Yes," she replied coolly, "but if I were you I wouldn't dwell on it."

Thus I awoke, and realized that I hadn't written that book at all, though perhaps I had lived it. Then I drifted back to sleep, and as I did so I remembered another unpublished novel that I really had written quite recently. Then I woke again and realized that that one wasn't real either. Sigh...

Thanks to my flist for beta-testing my "1960s Puffin title generator" a few weeks ago. The finished post is now up at The Awfully Big Blog Adventure - now with a bonus "YA title from around 2000" generator thrown in absolutely free.

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