Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Your Name, and Other Stories
Well, I really enjoyed Makoto Shinkai's Your Name (Kimi no na ha) - the anime film that's taken Japan by storm this summer. I watched it at the local multiplex, but I think it's got a limited release more generally, and I highly recommend it as a film that is a) beautiful, b) funny, c) clever, d) touching. There's no doubt it deserves all its plaudits. Some of the scenes were stunning; there was a great running gag about breast-fondling; and I don't think I'll easily forget how to make sake from rice and spit.

And yet... I don't know, I was expecting to be more moved by it. Perhaps my expectations were too high (I'd been excited for weeks); perhaps the bottle of Wiper and True IPA I took into the cinema had its effect; perhaps I was in the wrong mood, although I don't think so. I cry easily at films, and at much worse ones than this, but Your Name left my ducts untapped despite having just the sort of plot that should have had me bawling. I've been thinking about it since with pleasure, but largely intellectual pleasure, mixed with a slight sense of irritation. I wonder why?

The feeling is rather reminiscent of the one I tend to get from the novels of Neil Gaiman. When reading, say, Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane or The Graveyard Book I feel, here is someone who is thoroughly steeped in fantasy convention, has all the tools well within his command, and knows exactly how to use them. A craftsman, in fact, and a good one - but still, there's something missing that makes my admiration fall short of love. When I read Gaiman, I involuntarily switch into a mode somewhere between writer and critic (rather than reader), noticing his techniques, his devices, his references, and quite unable to keep my head below water. I like his work, but can't bring myself to love it; many worse writers engage me more.

Probably the fault is in myself rather than these stars, but if I were to turn this into a kind of back-handed compliment, I'd say that Gaiman (at least in the books I've read) has stayed too far within his own safety zone, doing the things he knows he can do well. Because he can do many things well, his safety zone is very large - so large, in fact, that it's in danger of turning into a pocket universe from which he can't escape.

But escape he must.

Four Cities and a Market Town
Well gosh, it seems like days (because it is) since I went to Hyperjapan in London's glamorous Tobacco Dock. I was there last year, of course, and my return visit was strangely similar, with many of the same stalls in the same places - but stepping into the same river twice is no hardship if it's a pretty river. The highlight was perhaps my private photograph with Domo, the NHK mascot:


But I was also struck by this Teddy Bear, who was having difficulty getting into the role:


And by this texting angel:


Given that my father was an art teacher, it's sad that I've never had any facility that way - but this was brought home afresh when I paid £5 for a chance to be a have-a-go hero with a calligraphy brush. I realised belatedly that being left handed was actually a grave disadvantage when it comes to drawing Chinese characters, which demand a certain stroke order drawn in a certain direction (usually left to right). Why I hadn't thought of this over the years of using a biro for the purpose I don't know, but it was only when I got a brush in my hand that I knew how much of a disadvantage my hidarikiki-ness would be. But I can't blame that alone. I also have a very bad visual memory, so that (for instance) my attempt to remember the kanji for "dream" turned into a bit of nightmare - not only infantile in execution but also missing two crucial strokes:


Plus, I'm just very bad at drawing. They were nice enough to give me a version of my name, though - with the same "Fruit Poetry" kanji I have on my hanko:

Scan_20161201 (2)

On Monday I was visited by kalimac, with whom I toured Bristol (especially the bookshops, but also of course the Suspension Bridge), and whom I accompanied to Oxford on Tuesday evening for the launch of Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgin's edition of Tolkien's essay on invented languages, A Secret Vice

kalimac at the Clifton Suspension Bridge

I had to leave Oxford early because (like every week) my alarm was set for 5.45am on Wednesday morning, necessary if I'm to get to Cardiff in time for my first lecture - and it was the same story on Thursday. On Friday I went to Romsey to visit my mother, and returned yesterday. So, this is the first day I've had free to write about any of it, and now I'm too tired to make a good fist of it - but for the record, that was my week!

Ears. Blown.
Oh my! I only just realised, serendipitously, that the voice actress who plays Kaname Madoka in Puella Magi Madoka Magica is the same person who plays the vampire queen Mina Tepes in 2010's Dance in the Vampire Bund - which I reviewed rather lavishly here.

DITVB, and Mina in particular, made a huge impression on me when I watched it, despite being (by any objective measure) a flawed piece of work as a whole. I'd known it was a Shaft production and that Shinbou was director, but hadn't thought to check the cast list. I wonder if that voice in any way imprinted itself on me so that I subliminally recognised it in Madoka's, despite the huge difference in the two roles?

Obviously I'm going to have to rewatch DITVB as soon as conveniently possible...

I'm Proud It's Monday
It's often intrigued - and, to an extent, bothered - me, the way people use the words "humble" and "proud" in what seems on the face of it to be an arse-about-face kind of way. Say, you've saved someone from drowning and are receiving a bravery award. More than likely, your acceptance speech will refer to the fact that it's a very humbling experience. The same goes for Oscars, and indeed most occasions when it might seem that, because you're having your personal achievements recognised, pride might be a more likely emotion.

Well, perhaps that's not so very mysterious. An expression of humility might just bespeak the person's desire to be seen as modest. Perhaps they feel they didn't really deserve the award - like when I won the fancy dress competition at my primary school and cried, because I thought it wasn't actually the best costume. I wonder how often that happens to grown-ups?

Conversely, people often say "I'm proud to be X", where X is a nationality or some other thing for which they can claim no credit at all, being merely a card dealt them in the lottery of life. While they might reasonably feel pleased or lucky to be born in X, or to have famous ancestor Y, where do they get off feeling "proud" of it? No one says, "I feel proud to have won the lottery": if they did, they would be laughed at. What's the difference?

I suppose it's that people's sense of self is partly social, and that you can feel pride in achievements of the wider group of which you are a part, even though you personally may have contributed nothing towards them - an attitude memorably mocked in this sketch. Similarly, you may feel shame in the actions of your wider group should you disapprove of them, despite personally having taken no part in them and even fought to prevent them. Hence the sight of Americans apologising on social media for the election of a man they never voted for.

On the one hand, the communitarian bonds this speaks of are admirable - but this way of thinking can obviously lead to injustice and prejudice of the "tarring with the same brush" variety.

It also explains the ease with which politicians and commentators are able to amalgamate populations with a wide variety of views and speak without qualification as if they were all of one mind. Thus Theresa May is able to talk about leaving the EU as "the will of the British people" and Nicola Sturgeon is able to say that "Scotland voted to remain", as if the millions who voted the other way were of no account - or rather, did not even exist. The fiction that "the British people" or "Scotland" are entities capable of will and decision-making, rather than groups of individuals whose individual decisions are triaged by an electoral formula, clearly has a powerful political function. You will never hear May say, for example, "Most British people voted to leave", let alone "Most British people who voted, voted to leave", still less "Most British people who had a vote and who also voted, voted to leave" - any of which would represent the case more accurately. The fiction of "the people" and its "will" legitimates the extremity of their actions. But without it, perhaps there would be no action at all?

Have With You to Saffron Walden
How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

Thus Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless (1592), a passage familiar to many because it appears to refer to 1 Henry VI, and thus constitutes one of the earliest contemporary references to Shakespeare's work. I came across it again recently in that excellent book, Comeuppance, and was suddenly struck by Nashe's dodgy arithmetic. In 1592 John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, had been in his grave not for 200 years, nor even for 150, but for just 139. Of course it suits Nashe's rhetorical point to stretch it a bit, but still - could one get away today with saying that Henry Fox Talbot (who died exactly 139 years ago, in 1877) had been in his grave for two hundred years? ("How would it have joyed him to see so many people taking photos!") I don't think so. So, why one Talbot and not the other? Does it say something about a change in education or in historical sensibility, or just about Nashe's style as a controversialist?

While I'm on Nashe, I recently wrote a piece in which I cited without too much qualification the standard line that the historical novel began with Walter Scott's Waverley. But even as I wrote it, I was bothered by the counterexample of The Unfortunate Traveller, which is set during the reign of Henry VIII and has a fictional protagonist, Jack Wilton, who (like Edward Waverley) rubs shoulders with historical figures, notably the Earl of Surrey. Why isn't that hailed as "the first historical novel"? I find it hard to come up with a line of argument that doesn't smack of special pleading.

Trump and Brexit
My friend Dru's FB post appears to have gone viral, to the extent that she's now had it made into a T-shirt. In case you want one, here's the link.

She's just the kind of person Trump would probably hate to think of as benefiting from his election, so it's in a good cause.

Hannibal ad Portas - or, Donald Trump and Dual Address
I realise this isn't the most significant aspect of today's events, but while there's been a lot of ink spilled on Donald Trump's style of speechifying, it was only today that I noticed how consistently he glosses his own words. He says something in relatively normal political language, and then he adds a demotic equivalent, often in a different tone of voice, as if interpreting himself to a slightly hard-of-hearing companion.

Thank you very much. Sorry to keep you waiting. Complicated business. [Complicated]

Thank you very much. I've just received a call from Secretary Clinton. She congratulated us [it's about us]

on our victory, and I congratulated her and her family on a very, very hard-fought campaign. [I mean she fought very hard.]

Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country. I mean that very sincerely. Now it's time for America to bind the wounds of decision. [We have to get together.]

Well, now I've noticed it I dare say I'll carry on noticing for the next four years.

Kings, Bishops and Lords
I went to Bishop Road Primary School for the fireworks last night. In light of last week's "Enemies of the People" headlines about the judges (don't they teach them Ibsen in schools these days?), I'm inclined to hum:

When reason is treason
And fingers are freezin’
A dose of nostalgia
Is awfully pleasin’.

Bishop Road Primary, as I've probably mentioned here before, is probably the only school in the world to have had both a future Nobel Physicist and a future Hollywood Oscar winner in attendance at the same time. (One was the son of an immigrant, the other became an immigrant himself.) That was over a century ago, but they still do a mean infant samba (you have to click on the picture to see it):


And so to the main event. It's not Lewes, but given their burning crosses, etc., that's no bad thing:


May we all escape being hanged, drawn and quartered for another year, is my heartfelt blessing.

"But I don’t want to go among mad people."
The Museum of the Mind in Fishponds, on the site of the old Glenside Lunatic Asylum, is only open on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. I've been meaning to go for a while, but today I finally got my act together.

Welcome to the Uncanny ValleyCollapse )

Unten Daiko
Being interested in two cultures is bound to alert one to myriad business opportunities in the field of import-export. Of course I want to sell Marmite to the Japanese, and fill the empty shipping containers with kotatsu for the return journey. Who wouldn't?

In particular, though, I wonder why no one in the West (as far as I know) has taken up the idea of "unten daiko"?

Imagine that you've driven to work and get asked out for a drink afterwards. You can't go, or at least you can't drink alcohol, because you've got to drive home afterwards. Annoying! Or, imagine you've been invited to a party, in a place that's not well served by public transport. Obviously, if you mean to drink you can't take your car, and will have to get a taxi both ways. Expensive!

This is where unten daiko (運転代行 - roughly, "substitute driver") comes in. The unten daiko taxi has two drivers. One gets into your car with you and drives you home, while the other follows behind. At the end, your driver hops back into the unten daiko car and they disappear into the night. Yes, it's a bit more expensive than an ordinary taxi (you're paying for two people, after all, and presumably they need extra insurance for driving other people's cars), but now your car isn't stranded far away from your house.

This system seems such an obviously good idea for any place that doesn't have excellent public transport (i.e. almost anywhere outside a big city) that I can't believe it's not found its way to the West. So, if you feel like it, set up an unten daiko company with my blessing, and watch the profits roll in!

(I only want 5%.)

Holy Smoke
On Sunday afternoon I was working in one my habitual cafés, a pot of green tea at my elbow, when I became aware of the smell of burning. So did several other people. Indeed, some us stuck our noses outside and looked up and down the Gloucester Rd., but saw no blaze.

It turns out that it was the smell of St Michael the Archangel on the Mount Without, the gloriously named (but much neglected) church at the bottom of St Michael's Hill, a mile and half to the south, going up in flames. It looks as if the fifteenth-century tower has survived, but not much else.

In happier days....

A Tale Told by an Idiom
Yesterday one of my Japanese language partners asked me about the "故事" (koji) used in English. What are koji, you ask (as I did)? Apparently they are "idioms derived from historical events or classical literature of China". Did British history yield many idioms in common use?

I have to admit, my mind went blank. It's easy enough to come up with idioms swiped from literature, notably Shakespeare, but history? Most English idioms seem to come from common experiences, crafts and professions, the natural world, and so on. They don't tend to involve famous people or events - or, if they do, they don't stretch beyond a single word (Canutian, anyone?). The best I've come up with so far is "met his Waterloo".

There are some from the classical world - which stands to Britain much as classical China to Japan: "cut the Gordian knot", "Caesar's wife", or even "a cobbler should stick to his last". I could probably think of a few more, but it's still surprisingly thin pickings.

It's not that my mind is badly stocked with interesting facts and anecdotes (many of questionable veracity) about British and classical history, but that they've somehow failed to morph into idioms. We know about Alfred and the cakes, for example, or Robert the Bruce and the spider, but there isn't any common idiom derived from either encounter that might be muttered by people in similar circumstances.

Is there a rich vein of such sayings that has somehow slipped my mind? I would of course be happy to hear suggested examples!

If you Go Down to the Wood Today
Chris Wood has a new album out, and I'd like to make two recommendations from it.

First, here's his setting of Housman's poem about Victoria's Golden Jubilee, "1887" - a work that's not as straightforwardly patriotic as may first appear. I mention it here particularly, though, because my brother worked on the setting with him, and accompanies him on the track.

Also, there's "Shallow End", which I heard him perform live a couple of years ago, and loved. It's just as good now.

I Thought it All Out Twenty Years Ago
Today is my ten years anniversary of being on LJ/DW. Looking back, I see that my first ever entry was about someone who'd covered some Beatles songs in Cornish. There's a now-broken link to the site. "Ah, so many links have been broken!" I sigh, more or less automatically. But as many new ones have been forged, and reforged, through being on social media. I'm grateful to everyone who's been here (both online and off) in the last decade. It's definitely enriched my life.

On the other hand, I suppose I have to admit:

Number of novels published in the decade before I took up LJ - 6.
Number of novels published in the decade since I took up LJ - 0.

Correlation is not causation, though, and there were other things going on in my life that got in the way of novelling. I officially transitioned 5 years ago last month, almost exactly halfway through my LJ career to date, and of course a move like that doesn't come out of the blue; it was preceded by years of anguish and drama of a kind that I had and have no wish to splurge abroad. Still, even if social media is considered as a symptom of my spiritual condition rather than a cause, it's a striking statistic.

Or perhaps writing novels in the first place was the symptom? One of its functions was certainly to act as a kind of safety valve (a role currently played by learning Japanese), a place I could go to when other things became a bit grim. And it gave me opportunities for expression otherwise denied me: it's no coincidence that all my first-person characters were female.

Anyway, taken as a whole, I think it's worth celebrating these ten years, and in that spirit I made an impulse buy yesterday, at a children's-book art exhibition. It's Paul Howard's cover art for the 2008 edition of Tom's Midnight Garden, which I've always liked but is far more beautiful without the writing and bar codes. It's in pastels, and has a depth in reality that my crappy camera struggles to convey. I particularly like the combination of wonder and forlorn vulnerability in Tom, dwarfed as he is in this wider perspective by the house and its trees. (It would be idle to deny that I also like his pyjamas.)

Tom's Midnight Garden

book cover

I'm embarrassed to say how much it cost, but arguably I couldn't afford it.

Crews Control
In default of a proper post, here's my latest Awfully Big Blog Adventure post, which is on "voice" in children's literature, and especially Jacqueline Wilson. I tried to row back on the whole Boothian apparatus in this not-especially-scholarly piece, but even so, the phrases "Milnean voice" and "Christophoric ear" are never entirely absent from my mind when I write on this subject...

Raisin' Raisins
sparkling wine

The English sparkling wine was very nice - and all the more so because it gave us an excuse to get out the hollow-stemmed glasses that were once my great-grandmother's. (They're quite old, but not valuable.) Many's the time I put a raisin in these glasses as a child, watching it collect bubbles in the wrinkles of its venerable skin, then float to the surface where they would burst on contact with the air, then sink again. It seemed a kind of perpetual motion - but the grown-ups were curiously reluctant to sacrifice their champagne to the cause of science.

Dining and Whining
It's my mother's 92nd birthday this weekend. My brother is doing the cooking, so I've been put in charge of the booze, an equitable division. With this October's augustness in mind I went to a proper wine shop rather than the bargain shelf of the Co-op (my usual resort). I'd meant to buy some champagne, but on a whim decided to get English Sparkling Wine - a first for me. Eventually I found one made in the Test valley, where I grew up and where my mother still lives. The chalk soil is perfect for the job, the label tells me, producing "English effervescence". I just hope it won't taste too Brexity.


The other bottle was more obviously topical. It cost more than I usually pay, but even what I consider an expensive bottle of wine is still far too cheap to trouble the attention of a banker, so perhaps the makers were safe in using the label (front and back) as a place to sound off about the bankers who refused to lend them the money to get their business off the ground, a refusal made on the basis that wine is "not a seizable asset" (why not?).


It seems a rather eccentric use of a label - a space more normally reserved to describe the wine itself - but I imagine these little piggies know their market. If we feel that we're somehow getting one over on the bankers we'll buy half a case, and the overdraft be damned!

Triangulation Approaching Zero
Immigration may not be the only relevant issue here, but it's the obvious one - not least because it reportedly played such a large role in the Brexit vote.

Immigration is one of those cases where the evidence seems to be almost all on one side, and perception very largely on the other. Without immigrants, the NHS (and plenty of other services and industries, not least in agriculture) would fall over tomorrow. Immigrants more than pay their way in taxes: they're an economic good. Where immigration has led to problems (for example in Lincolnshire) it's because immigrants are perceived to be taking houses, school places, hospital beds, and other things from people who already live here. But, since it's the job of government to provide those things (with the taxes that immigrants among others pay), shouldn't the government rather than immigrants be getting the blame?

That is the burden of Corbyn's song, and it seems a no-brainer to me. However, while many people in Labour would agree on the facts, they argue that the perception matters more. These people believe that the general population is too stupid, or too racist, to be persuaded - that they are in fact intractable in their opposition to immigration and that, this being the case, the Labour party must set out its stall against immigration too, as a sop to the ignorance and prejudice of its core demographic.

This is called realism - or triangulation, if you prefer. To me it seems a hugely patronising attitude. It also seems like appeasement, if not of racism then of ignorance, but more likely both. It's a doomed strategy too, because no matter how "tough" Labour may be on immigrants UKIP will always be tougher: there's no winning on that wicket. It's lazy, because it foregoes the real job of trying to persuade people in favour of making "the right noises." It's fundamentally dishonest, because it involves blaming immigrants for a situation that these people know (and privately acknowledge) is the result of government policy. Finally, it's just plain wicked, because no matter how anodyne a packaging you wrap it in, it's going to sow mistrust and almost certainly abuse and violence too (those things the right wing of Labour has spent all summer decrying) - all in the hope of swiping a few, halfhearted votes. And the people who advocate it know this.

Three Ages of Japanese Man
Three factoids I picked up from three different conversations with my Japanese friends on this week.


When Japanese women give birth, it is customary for the hospital to take the umbilical cord and put it in a little box. The mother is then presented with it as a memento on leaving the hospital.


There is a kami who specialises in straightening out badly behaved children. His twisted staffs symbolise the crooked behaviour of the children he has to deal with, usually as a result of a prayer of the parents.

mami kami

Also, he gets to ride on a fox.

Man's Estate

Whenever a train is late and it is deemed to be the driver's fault, the driver is made to write a letter of apology to the customers. However, whenever a Japanese salaryman feels that it's all too much and throws himself in the path of a speeding shinkansen (as happens all too often), the family is made to pay a large amount of compensation to the train company - pour encourager les autres, presumably.

Musical Seats
Ever since Corbyn was first elected leader, I've heard a lot from the right wing of the party (and thence the media) about the threat of deselection of sitting MPs. It hasn't actually happened, though - to anyone. Whereas there has been a very messy attempt to "deselect" Jeremy Corbyn, and what one can only conclude was a systematic attempt to prevent his supporters from voting in the leadership election - another form of deselection, if you will.

(Digression: that attempt was so blatant yet has been so under-reported that it's worth bringing out the key facts here, for reference. Here are the voting participation figures, first for members and then for registered supporters - i.e. those who paid £25 in order to take part:

non-voting members

As you will see, only just over half of members are counted among the votes in the contest. We don't know how many of those were due to suspension, exclusion, "lost" ballots, etc., but even allowing for the fact that some members would have decided not to take part that seems that an awfully low percentage of the electorate for such an important vote. But the real killer is the figures for registered supporters. These are people who paid precisely in order to be able to vote, so one would expect turnout among this group to close to 100%. In fact, however, more than a third - that's 62,000 - are recorded as "without a vote". The NEC compliance unit were working their Delete keys into the night, one might reasonably surmise. As a former foe of Trots once said, it's not who gets to vote, it's who gets to count the votes...)

Sometimes it seems that the right wing of the Party is a little paranoid, because it fears that the left will behave in the same undemocratic way that it's shown itself so capable of. (Indeed, back in the days of Blair I seem to remember the NEC itself drawing up lists of left-wingers for deselection...)

Corbyn doesn't seem at all keen on mandatory reselection, in fact - unsurprisingly, if he's trying to build a consensus (or at least a modus vivendi) in Parliament. The issue is probably only going to arise when boundary changes are introduced by the Tories - but even then, convention dictates that where two MPs are unseated by the disappearance of their seat and are forced to compete for a new one, only sitting MPs are considered. In most cases, the Labour CLPs will be given a choice between two people who voted to get rid of Corbyn. There will also be a few cases, no doubt, where there is a choice between a pro-Corbyn and and anti-Corbyn MP. In those, it's true, a left-leaning CLP may well opt for the former. I don't see how that's an affront to democracy, to be honest, or anything that the party at large should be losing its shit over. If MPs' numbers are being reduced by 50 and fewer than 50 MPs are willing to bow out, then obviously choices will be made, and if not by the local parties then by whom? But I expect to hear much, much more in the coming months about how this is the worst thing since the Terror - and nothing at all about the purge of the Labour electorate.


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