Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Taenia Memoriae meets Google Translate
I've been trying to 'lay down' (as the young people say) some more Madoka Magica tracks recently, and today I had a go at 'Taenia Memoriae', which as I understand it (not having the Latin for the judging) means "Ribbon of Memories". And indeed that's very appropriate, since it is the background music for the scene toward the end of the final episode in which Homura, who retains her memory of Madoka through possession of her hair ribbons, talks to Madoka's mother, who first gave her those same ribbons at the start of Episode One.

I thought I'd run the translation through Google Translate to be sure, though, and was amused to find that it came back as 'Tape Recorded'. Well, you can see how it got there - but these days we're strictly digital:

Sadly, I get a text from Richard Branson at 1:02, but if Bowie could get away with the phone ringing at the end of 'Life on Mars', I suppose I can get away with that.

"That’s the Second Time You’ve Killed Me, But This Time You Showed Me Your Technique"
And so, with this Sunday’s papers, the end of the latest Greer spat has probably been reached. Much of it has covered extremely familiar, indeed predictable territory, and it’s not really worth going into what Greer had to say, none of it being new, true or helpful to know. Besides, there's masses of comment out there already, and has been for years - for she is repetitious. Such interest as there is lies in the complicity of the media with her shenanigans.

Now, Greer is a fairly smart operator, but on this occasion she really didn’t need to be, since the media (broadcast and paper) were falling over themselves to help get her message out there. Consider the facts. First, she is invited by Cardiff University to give a talk - a pretty un-newsworthy event, in truth; then the Women’s Officer of the SU starts a petition to no-platform her, and that gets a bit of traction. Immediately she is invited onto Newsnight to say that she’s pulling out – cue protests at the infringement of her free speech (even though the invitation hadn’t been withdrawn), and predictable outrage at the transgender "lobby" (even though the person who started the petition wasn’t trans).

But that was a lie, because of course she didn’t pull out at all, and in fact gave the talk last Wednesday. This was then reported as her bravely standing up to the trans bullies who’d been out to silence her, a narrative the rattled university duly legitimised by arranging for police to be on hand to hold back the raging hordes. (In fact there were I believe about a dozen peaceful protestors.)

In the talk, apparently, she declared “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock” – a statement reported as if it were some kind of slam-dunk anti-trans zinger rather than a statement of the obvious. Does anybody believe in the equivalence of those terms? (The only men without cocks I know are trans men – but something tells me she wasn’t trying to affirm the authenticity of their identity.)

More interesting than such click-bait apothegms themselves is the way they’ve been reported - often with a prurient glee at being able to repeat something rude because it’s in quotation marks, sometimes with a defiant “Je suis Germaine” flourish, as if it were only the freedom to insult transsexuals that stood between us and ISIS (though, to be fair to ISIS, they’d love to join in the fun and would certainly top off the evening by killing us en masse). In general, either the media has been very stupid in not seeing what’s going on under their noses with the whole business of Greer and the sacred right to Free Publicity, or else they’ve been happy to go along with her narrative. While I would never want to underestimate the stupidity of the Press, I’m pretty sure the latter is the case here, partly because many of them agree with her, and partly because she always makes good copy, allowing them to alternate between “You are awful – but I like you” articles and ones hailing her as a victim of the All-powerful Trans Cabal (whose voices, despite their cultural dominance, were as ever strangely absent from the papers, Newsnight, etc., almost as if they weren’t that powerful at all). In this way she’s a rather similar figure to, say, Jeremy Clarkson – and indeed, both have found similar niches on programmes like Grumpy Old (Wo)men and Have I Got News for You. The main difference is that my university is unlikely to invite Clarkson to give a distinguished address on the future of race relations.

And now I’m bored of talking about it. But please consider the above a kind of warm-up act for two excellent articles that came out of this latest incarnation of the same row we’ve seen so many times before. Both focus on the reporting, and (from different directions) effectively skewer the hypocrisies of the liberal left. Do read.

First, the excellent Julia Serano (of Whipping Girl fame), on writing a “Political Correctness Run Amok” article from a liberal left perspective.

And, in a very different idiom, here’s Paris Lees on the hypocrisy of the Left. Read for the argument, but stay for the links that underpin that argument over and over and over again.

Oh, just before I go, I'm going to share something that's been knocking round my head for a while, but which I've been reluctant to air because I'm not a big fan of pop-psychological diagnoses of people I've never met. But in Greer's case, since she's diagnosed me as a Norman Bates figure not only without meeting me but without even being aware of my existence, I feel no such scruple is necessary.

One thing I've noticed over many years is that Greer's animus against trans women derives in large measure from her inability to believe that anyone could find the idea of being a woman anything other than horrific. Unless, that is, they're Norman Bates, or desperately trying to avoid facing up to their inadequacy as men, or involved in some kind of sinister attempt infiltrate womankind as a fifth column. And while there are of course some good reasons (cf. Patriarchy) why a woman's lot might seem less desirable than a man's on many fronts, in Greer's case her animus seems to derive very specifically from the idea of being in a female body. She talks about the horrors of menstruation and of pregnancy, and has repeatedly claimed that if it were possible for the full female reproductive system to be transplanted into male bodies we would see the end of trans women overnight, because of course even they wouldn't want that horror. This remark is of course notable on the one hand because it shows just how laughably unacquainted Greer is with trans experience and desires; but it's just as remarkable in showing how unpleasant - indeed, repellent, she finds the female body. Which is kind of problematic for a feminist.

This thought saddens me, in fact, because the one thing I remember from reading The Female Eunuch back in the 1970s (it was a friend's copy and I'm afraid I didn't finish it) was a kind of hymn to the vagina, in all its wonderful flexibility and sensitivity - a passage I read as a teenager with a good deal of wistful envy. But more recently they've become "big, hairy, smelly vaginas", and I now suspect that she always rather wished she didn't have one - not because I think she's trans, necessarily! - but because, well, cooties.

Kerr, Curtly
I've been a bit crap about posting properly just recently - but it's been a busy time, and I'm correspondingly frazzled by the competing clamour of numerous small but importunate jobs, which gape for my attention like so many baby sparrows. That will pass, but in the meantime enjoy the wit'n'wisdom of Judith Kerr, if you please.

Wassup, Wasabi?
Last time I bought some Hampshire wasabi I kept it too long, and it turned to mush in the fridge before I got around to eating it. This time I gave it no chance to repeat any such knavishness. Here it is, fresh from the box, with grater and cute bamboo brush:

Wasabi in the rawCollapse )

And here is a nice dinner of tuna sashimi, tuna and salmon nigiri, tuna hosomaki and edamame beans (which you can now buy frozen from Tesco - who knew?). Accompanied, of course, by freshly grated wasabi.

Wasabi on the plateCollapse )

It was yum.

But the wasabi you can get from a tube is pretty good too, to be fair.

Gotta Catch the Mall
This weekend I found myself in Toys-R-Us at the local out-of-town mall for the first time in a few years, and it seemed to me that the savage division of its aisles into Pink and Blue that was such a feature not long ago is now far less noticeable, which I see as a shuffling step in the right direction. The name of the shop has lost none of its power to irritate, however.

Also, and by the way, a quick shout-out for Pokemon, which are still much in evidence. Pokemon is the only franchise I can think of that was loved equally by all my children at various times. Like Lego in the old days it was designed to appeal to every gender, but unlike Lego it's maintained that universality to this day. Battlers, collectors, ecologists, kawaii-ists, gamers and nerds are all catered for within the roomy fabric of its world.

By the way - and this I suppose is especially for UK people - do you pronounce "mall" to rhyme with

a) the road the queen takes on the way to Buck House
b) something that's done to you by an angry lion
c) something else?

I find I can't settle to any pronunciation.

Triple Sprung
Three springs of kind action:

a) empathy
b) an "abstract" conviction that it is the right thing to do
c) fear of guilt if the action is left undone.

These work in combination, of course, and are to an extent mutually dependent, or at least connected. You wouldn't feel guilt if you didn't think kindness was right, for example. But in so far as it's possible to separate them out, the order in which I've listed them is the order in which (it seems to me) they are most valued in this society. For example, I would like to minimise the proportion of c) (which smacks of self-interest) while maximising a) and (to a lesser extent) b).

On the other hand, I imagine there are people for whom the top two places are reversed - the Kantians among us, for example. And it also occurs to me that there's an element of neurotypical bias in place in valorising empathy. And also self-interest again - for if c)'s fear of guilt looks to protect one's own psyche, let us not deny that a) comes with its own reward in the form of a little endorphin rush - so there's self-interest there, too.

By the time I had finished turning all this over in my mind, the beggar was half a mile down the street.

Thunder in the Temple
As promised in a recent post, this morning I rose early to visit the bombed-out Temple church in which Sanctum is being held - a 24-day, 24-hour-a-day concert with a secret schedule. I wondered whether I might be alone in the audience if I arrived at 5.30am, but no - there were five or six others, middle-aged chaps well wrapped against the cold, with a slight trainspotterly vibe.

The church is normally shut - in so far as a bombed-out shell can ever be shut. I'd never before stood beneath its leaning tower (which remains) looking up at the perpendicular tracery of its glassless windows, let alone done so in the dark. The only sound was some nameless distant siren not unlike the one that was the last thing the church heard, no doubt, on the night it lost its insides to the Luftwaffe. That was seventy-five years ago, almost to the day.

Competing with the siren and the slurping of the trainspotterly men (mugs of tea had been distributed gratis to the brave concert-goers: I declined) was one other sound - that of a thunder storm. This was coming from within the large, Tobleronish wooden structure that had been erected in the nave, and in which the concert was to take place.

Gingerly we entered. The sound of recorded thunder was loud here, but our attention was drawn more imperiously by the sight of a gigantic, anatomically-correct human heart on a metal pole, and a young man with no clothes on standing next to it. Indeed he was attached to it, by a string that ran from his left arm to its right ventricle.

The men with mugs and I found some fold-out wooden seats and settled down to watch what turned out to be a solo ballet performance in which the naked young man cavorted very very slowly around the heart for some 40 minutes to the sound of thunder. At a certain point the thunder began to face competition from the dawn chorus, with occasional sarcastic comments from herring gulls. For my part I was worried that the dancer would catch a chill, for even in my coat and fingerless gloves I was none too warm, and he had very little fat for insulation.

At length he appeared to come round to my opinion, and pulled on a T-shirt, which I took to be the end of the performance. We clapped, and I slid off into the steely day...

What the Templars of yore would have made of it I have no idea. But yore had its own oddnesses, and the Templars more than most. I admired the young man's tenacity and poise, but must admit to being a little bored, and slightly disappointed at the lack of actual music. But maybe I'll go back. Next time I may strike lucky and get the consort of viols I have long wished for.

Mobile Cock-up PSA
Anyone who ever texts or phones me on my mobile take note - I left my phone at my mother's house by accident this morning, and won't have a chance to collect it until the 21st. Until then I'm reachable via email and landline.

A nice handwritten letter is also more than acceptable.

Larkin Letters Redux
As I mentioned here some time back, my mother has a number of letters from Philip Larkin, dating from the mid-forties (when he was engaged to her cousin Ruth) to a few years before his death. With the Larkin Estate's permission I wrote them up as a short general article, but failed to excite the interest of the TLS, LRB or other likely journals, so now I've just uploaded it to - for your reading pleasure, and the record.

Christmas Mysteries
My understanding had always been that the British were more likely to say "Merry Christmas" than "Happy Christmas", but that it was the other way around in the States, and that under American influence the H word was gaining currency here too. However, an Ngram of British written usage suggests that Merry is not only maintaining but increasing its ascendancy, at least in published sources:

Screenshot 2015-11-07 14.32.34

More than that, Merry is even more dominant in the States, and always has been.

Screenshot 2015-11-07 14.32.21

So there you go. Live and learn.

However, now I'm intrigued by the 20-year decline in American festive greetings from the early '40s to the early '60s - an era I think of as the epitome of the chestnuts-on-an-open-fire, ultra-wholesome American Christmas, with Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Stewart, 34th St and all. Yet the number of Christmas greetings (at least in print) more or less halved in that period. Perhaps the association between Christmas trees and the Red Flag brought the festival under suspicion with the McCarthyites?

Time No Longer
It's always been quite hard to get a good look at the Mill House in Great Shelford, where Philippa Pearce lived as a child and which served as the model for the house in Tom's Midnight Garden. Luckily it came on the market not so long ago (asking price £3.5million), and the estate agent put up a some nice pics...

The clock strikes thirteen...Collapse )

Three Triangulations and a Takeaway
My friend Tomoko runs half-marathons. When she runs them in Japan, the spectators will encourage her by shouting, "Keep it up!", "You can do it!" and the like. When she ran in Honolulu, though, she was surprised to hear the spectators shouting "Good job!" While one set of spectators exhorted her to finish what she had started, the other congratulated her on having tried in the first place.

Does this reflect a deep cultural difference between Japan and USA? And if so, on which side of the line would the British fall? I've never spectated at a marathon (I can think of few things less interesting if one didn't know anyone personally, except perhaps watching a cycle race), but I find it hard to imagine Brits shouting "Good job!" On the other hand, "You can do it!" seems only marginally more plausible. A sprinkle of polite applause is what you'd get if all the people were like me, but the ability to ululate enthusiastically is now commonplace among younger folk, so perhaps that's what marathon runners are used to hearing here.

In America, "Happy Halloween!" appears to be a common greeting (at this time of year, at least), and it has been taken up in Japan too, to judge by this video of the celebrations at Shibuya crossing. To my ears, though, it seems an oxymoron. Halloween might be enjoyable in a ghoulish way, but happy? It just doesn't sit right.

While American-style trick-or-treating has been well established in this country for a while now (I met my first trick-or-treater in York in 1984), it's interesting that we've not adopted the same dress customs. Ghosts, witches, and other scary stuff, sure - but not superheroes, not cross-dressing, not cartoon characters. Again, we've filtered out anything that makes Halloween "fun" rather than at least nominally scary. (The Japanese, as you can see, have followed the American route here.)

Tomoko tells me that in Japan it's common to ask someone "How old do you think I am?" or "How old do I look?" I told her that in my opinion this was a question with no answer safe from giving offence, and therefore should never be asked - except possibly by the kind of very old person who sees longevity as their proudest achievement and will generally answer themselves before anyone else has a chance. It does seem odd to me that a culture rivalling my own in terms of giving a wide berth to potential causes of offence should find this question unproblematic: I think it can only mean that the Japanese are just less hung up about age than most Westerners, and that this is seen as a safe, neutral topic, like the weather.

On Whiteladies Rd on Saturday lunchtime there's a stall that combines two of my favourite things: Japanese food and puns. It's called "She Sells Sushi". And she does. I bought half a dozen takoyaki, topped generously with katsu sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed sprinkles and bonito flakes. What charmed me most was that this was all served in a disused egg box.

Like so...Collapse )

Jesus was a Trans Man
I already shared this on FB, but while I'm in linky mood let me point you to this awesome cartoon, which I'm definitely going to produce next time someone (especially be they of a Christian persuasion) asserts that sex is entirely a matter of chromosomes.

Meanwhile... I never got to see Banksy's Dismal exhibition in Weston-super-Mare, because it was instantly booked up by trendy folk from that Lunn'on, but I have better hopes for the next wacky installation here in Bristol. It's called Sanctum, and it's a concert taking place in a bombed-out church (a resource in which the city is surprisingly rich) twenty-four hours a day for the next twenty-four days (22 now). I plan to turn up in the wee hours one frosty morning. I'll let you know what happens.

I thoroughly recommend John Finnemore's "Red-Handed", a 30-minute play on Radio 4 today. It's a kind of comic version of Sleuth, and like Sleuth it's really all about class.

The only unconvincing thing is that Bird uses "criteria" rather than "criterion" for the singular. (Twice.)

The Gwlad Archipelago
I don't know whether my move to Cardiff was a catalyst, but my mother's Welshness (very much sotto voce during my childhood) has found increasingly resonant voice recently. The other day she surprised me by singing the Welsh national anthem (in Welsh) - perfectly, as far as I was able to judge. I'd never heard her do that at any time in the previous half century.

Perhaps it's only natural that she thinks about her childhood, and wants to pass on what she can of it. A couple of days ago she said, apropos of nothing, "Whenever my father served Fray Bentos corned beef from a tin, he would always say, 'Have a slice of Harriet Lane.'" Apparently Harriet Lane had been a murder victim, and referring to tinned meat in this way was a piece of naval slang my grandfather had picked up in the navy at the start of the twentieth century.

"But hang on," said I. "I heard exactly the same story about Fanny Adams. Can they both have been dismembered murder victims whose remains were made the basis of a grim joke about navy rations? It doesn't seem very likely."

However, it turns out to be true. Seven years after young Fanny Adams was butchered in a Hampshire field in 1867, Harriet Lane was murdered and cut into "manageable pieces" by her lover (and father of her children) in Mile End. I don't know whether Harriet and Fanny's names coexisted in the Navy, perhaps in different services (my grandfather was in the merchant navy before WWI), or whether it was a case of Fanny's being supplanted by a later victim. It's odd, though, in a grisly way.

Later the same evening she asked, "What's all this about Germaine Greer? I watched her on Newsnight last night and she looked quite mad."

I explained about Greer's history in this regard, and for my mother's education and amusement read her this choice quotation from The Whole Woman, which shows Greer at the aphelion of her eccentric orbit of rationality:

"There is a witness to the transsexual's script, a witness who is never consulted. She is the person who built the transsexual's body of her own flesh and brought it up as her son or daughter, the transsexual's worst enemy, his/her mother. Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her."

"What a dumbass!" said my mother. (Actually, that wasn't the word she used, but I'm translating it into American for reasons of decency.) She laughed like a crone, and I like a crone-in-training. And of course the situation does have its absurd aspect, especially when you see someone like that invited to give a distinguished lecture on 'Women and Power' at one's own university - an institution that boasts of itself as a safe and welcoming place for LGBT+ staff and students that will "in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind”.

And then you read about Tara Hudson, the 26-year old transgender woman who has just been sent to an all-male prison less than a mile from my house. And you remember that Greer's "You're really a man" poison has real effects on real, vulnerable people.

From Woking to Grover's Mill... and Beyond!
Orson Welles had form when it came to Americanizing British novels - obviously. But I'm surprised that when he came to write a screenplay (unproduced till now) of Heart of Darkness in 1939, the year after The War of the Worlds radio show, he bothered to tow its frame-story 3,000 miles west from the mouth of the Thames to the mouth of "the old New York river" (which one?). After all, it only takes a few pages of the book.

I can see why he might want to make Marlow an American, given that he intended to play him himself, but Marlow has to be in Europe anyway to get his Congo gig. Why couldn't he be telling his tale in London? It would require far less rewriting of Conrad.

The answer is I suppose that Welles wanted to rewrite Conrad. Moving Marlow's telling to Manhattan means that his disquisition on how this too has been "one of the dark places of the earth" now applies to America, not Britain. The evocation of the hard times endured by Roman soldiers is transferred to the earliest European colonists, when "our fathers first came here". (This, according to Marlow, happened "four hundred years ago", which is way out for Manhattan, or indeed for any English colony - but perhaps the Spanish are "our fathers" too for his purposes?) And of course it implies a parallel between the Native Americans and the Africans colonized by the European powers of Marlow's own day, as well as obliquely asserting the nature of America's imperial present and future.

At the very least, it's an interesting choice. But how well does it work? And how convincing is James McAvoy's accent? I'd be interested to hear a transatlantic view on the first five minutes, even if you don't listen to the whole thing.
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Margaret Mahy - Librarian of Babel
I don't think I've ever had an article with such a long gestation time as this. I gave the paper it's based on in Cambridge, one very snowy day in January 2013, and it's only just appeared - even though the journal issue is officially dated April.

I'm particularly pleased to see it, because I think I had more fun with this than with any other article I've written. Mostly this was due to Margaret Mahy herself, whose work is always such a pleasure and a provocation. In fact, I was so into it while writing that I started (rather obviously) channelling her habits of thought and style, which could be a dangerous strategy, but in this case I think worked. And I also got to talk about Borges and John Wilkins - whose Selected Works I was once ambitious to edit.

Like the man said: "I thought it all out twenty years ago."

The Hell that is America
I've been very lucky in the matter of Japanese gifts lately. Not only did I get a pair of hanko (see previous entry), but yesterday the owner of my local restaurant, Yume, gave me a pile of simple books in Japanese for my reading practice. All but one were for small children, and I'm looking forward to getting to them shortly; but the other caught my attention immediately, being an English textbook for Japanese learners, with the title Whatdya say?.

Why deny it? The attraction was the possibility of juicy examples of Japanese English and the mistakes therein, and I didn't have to look further than the cover to find some:

Such as...Collapse )

I love the idea of a world in which common English phrases include "Too bright!" and "Become you well". Such examples of Japanglish have the double attraction of a) offering a penetrating insight into the linguistic and cultural differences between Japan and Anglophone countries, and b) being hilarious. (I recommend the Youtube blogger Chris Broad on the subject.) To begin with, I flicked through the book looking for further instances of poor English, and indeed there were quite a few....

Such as...Collapse )

But I had only just begun my descent into the rabbit hole. Soon, I noticed a strangely Beckettian quality to some of the dialogues:

Happy DaysCollapse )

Slowly it dawned on me that the author of the book saw learning English not as a useful life-skill or a way to visit interesting countries and make new friends, but rather as the passport to a sickening dystopia - a dystopia by the name of "America". This was clearest in the series of strip cartoons that were scattered through the book, a veritable rake's progress of life among the gaijin. We begin with the process of "becoming American", which apparently requires nothing more than a year's study of the language:

Welcome to Panem Flight 101Collapse )

Hanko Chief!
My italki friend Chiho-san from Kyushu very kindly sent me this pair of hanko or inkan (I'm not sure whether there's a difference in meaning between these words). These seals are much used by Japanese people when they need to sign their names, and mine, as you can see, come with a pouch and integral ink pad.

One of the seals simply has my name, Cathy, in katakana - i.e. Kyashi = キャシー. The other has a pair of kanji representing the sounds "ka" and "shi". Of course, there are numerous possible pairs of kanji that have those particular sounds associated with them, so I had a choice. The shortlist came down to: 佳志 (roughly, "great faith") and 果詩 ("fruit poetry"). Naturally I chose the latter.


If for some reason you wish to know much, much more about name seals, you find out here. Meanwhile, I'm very pleased with mine!

Two Questions about the Old Religion
I'm currently rereading Carrie's War, published in 1973 but set in around 1940. The action takes place in a rather dour South Welsh valley: the two evacuees around whom the book centres are billeted with a strict Methodist. However, they often escape to the friendly farmhouse at Druid's Bottom, where (as Carrie is told by the rather intellectual boy, Albert, who's been evacuated there) there was once an Iron Age settlement (at another point he says "temple"). He adds: "they've found similar temples in other parts of the world, the same sort of arrangement of stones, so they think this religion must have been everywhere once."

First question: who is "they"? Apart from Margaret Murray, perhaps? Who was arguing for that kind of universal prehistoric religion by 1940? (By 1973 I think plenty of people were.)

Secondly, Albert refers to both this ancient faith and the herbalist-wisdom-bordering-on-benign-witchcraft of the housekeeper at Druid's Bottom as "the old religion". I'm fairly sure that at the turn of the twentieth century that phrase would in most British contexts still denote Roman Catholicism. By 1973 its primary denotation was pagan. On which side of the divide does 1940 stand?


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