Through a Glass Marnie-ly

I met her on a house party in Norfolk.
Very flat, Norfolk.
There's no need to be unpleasant.
That was no reflection on her, unless of course she made it flatter.

I took both Urn Burial and When Marnie Was There with me on my overnight trip to Norfolk this weekend - my first ever foray into that county. I turns out that they are set in pretty much the same place on the north Norfolk coast, and it was quite interesting to overlay Browne's 17th century meditations on death and memorialising with Joan G. Robinson's twentieth century ones. It was Marnie that was the main pull, though. Having recently both reread the book and rewatched the Ghibli film (albeit that's relocated to Hokkaido, where I also hope to go at some point) I realised I would have visit the spot, to shake hands with its genius loci and to take my own photographs at the minimum 300dpi required by the publisher.

Haruka came to keep me company, and the night before we stayed in King's Lynn, about 25 miles away (i.e. 90 minutes by bus). I had little idea what to expect of King's Lynn, but it was an interesting place in itself, with plenty of history from its time in the Hanseatic League and earlier, though also a degree of barely papered-over poverty. We took a ferry across the River Great Ouse and got this rather lovely view in exchange:


Perhaps the most striking things, though, were the great Seahenge inverted oak (now in the Lynn Museum next to the bus station) - which I'd entirely forgotten was there - and the illuminations at night, which seem to be in aid of nothing but fun. For example, the central tower of the old Greyfriars monastery church is a ruin by day, but by night becomes a retro video game than can be played via pedals in the adjoining park...


Yesterday morning we went to Burnham Overy Staithe, where we found the original of Marnie's Marsh House and windmill. I hope you'll agree that comparing them with the Marsh House and silo of the film is instructive:

DSC06177The Marsh House

DSC06196The Silo

Of course, the missing link between these pairs of pictures is Robinson's prose, which does at least some of the transformative work.

After, we walked to Burnham Overy Town and Burnham Market - nor did we by any means thereby exhaust the store of local Burnhams. There were many farms called Marsh Farm, too, and as many pubs devoted to the memory of Nelson, a local lad - all rather dizzying. Burnham Market I particularly recommend for a visit, if you're round those parts - it's really quite lovely. Nowhere, though, could we find anyone who had heard of Marnie - whether in the pub, or the second-hand bookshop, or any other shop, or in the taxi back to King's Lynn. The one exception was the man who lives in Marnie's house, but he definitely didn't want to talk about her. I feel somehow that this is as it should be, though.

Afterwards we went back to London and ate a bao bun in the spectacular Coal Drops Yard, which has mushroomed up since I was last in the King's Cross area.

Did I made Norfolk flatter? I hope not... but perhaps I flatter myself.

You Look Ravilious Today, Darling!

One of the great sadnesses of not being able to go to Japan this autumn is that I have missed the 10th Anniversary Madoka Magica Exhibition... Luckily there is this report at least, but how I wish I'd been there!

Even the pictures are useful, of course. I hadn't realised how much the shot of Madoka cradling Homura was modelled on a pieta until I saw it as a cardboard cutout, for example:


Anyway, instead I went to Devizes today, and the Wiltshire Museum, there to see the Eric Ravilious exhibition, 'Downland Man.' No one else has ever quite captured the chalkland like Ravilious - I highly recommend this exhibition if you're in striking distance. His white horses are wonderful, of course, as is Beachy Head, and overall there's something about his slightly bleached, mystical, yet tough-minded modernism that appeals to me very strongly - and I'm not alone. Driving there, I saw the sunshine strike the cupped hills outside Calne, and thought I was looking directly at a Ravilious painting. The best artists can change the landscape in that way.

Meanwhile, up an alley in Devizes, there's this hat shop. Sophie Hatter, anyone?


Not Tokyo Bound but Earthbound

This morning I should have been travelling to Heathrow, there to board a plane that would have taken me to Tokyo for the next six weeks. It would have been my first taste of autumn in Japan, a season that's normally inaccessible because of my teaching duties, but which a semester's research leave had prised opened like an oyster. Alas, in the words of the poet:

O moul, thou marres a myry juele,
My privy perle wythouten spotte.

So anyway, yesterday I showed Ayako Stanton Drew, which she really liked - perhaps because, unlike some other stone circles we could mention, it lacks any vestige of commercialisation. Whenever I go there there's always at least one person hanging about (yesterday a middle-aged American in Lycra), and we have the statutory conversation about what a fine circle it is, and how it's strange that no one much comes to see it, considering how close it is to Bristol. Then, quite a party of young men and women came walking among the stones, and we were forced to lament Stanton Drew's relative abandonment in a large huddle. The sky was romantic in a smudgy, watercolourish way.


In the evening I watched the Diana Wynne Jones crowdcast event, which I'd had a small part in organising. Colin (Diana's youngest), his colleague the children's writer Katherine Rundell, and Neil Gaiman all spoke very well and warmly. Gaiman mentioned that DWJ was always honest in her appraisal of his books, and gave him both praise and constructive criticism. I can vouch for this myself, but in particular it brought back the time when she read my Death of a Ghost and told me that she'd written me a long email about it. That email I never received, so I asked her to resend it, but she never did, or at least it never reached me.

To this day, I don't know whether the email was full of praise or criticism. I'd like to think the former, but the latter seems more likely, given that it never found its way to me. Perhaps it's better that way round, but not knowing is (like so many things) a little frustrating.

Remembered Hills

I had a little adventure from Wednesday to Thursday, travelling into the debatable Welsh marches, and the even more debatable borderlands of Herefordshire and Shropshire, to check out the setting of the 2017 anime, Mary and the Witch's Flower. The film was based on Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick (1971) - which I saw in Kichijouji shortly after its release. I'd suspected from the beginning that it was based on a real place, but had been unable to track it down until recently, when a colleague who happens to be a Shropshire lad gave me a clue.

So, off I went to spend the night in the same house where Mary was staying in the film - which in real life is a B&B and country farmhouse. Back in 2015 the director and crew stayed there too, taking lots of pictures of the owner's furniture and fittings, many of which reappeared in cartoon form in the film. I showed the owner the DVD, and she was surprised to see the coffee mug from which she was drinking appear on the screen in front of her, among many other things.

Normally at this point I'd entertain you (or at least myself) with lots of side-by-side pictures of real-vs-anime versions of various views, but since most are interiors of someone else's home I'm a bit shy about doing that today. For what it's worth though, here is the wood where the witch's flower is found in the film, and alongside it Coxall Knoll, which the filmmakers used as a model. You'll have to take my word for it.

crash landingDSC06136

Glastonbury Half Full

Last Thursday I took Ayako back to Glastonbury, mostly to meet up with Eriko Kawanishi, my anthropologist friend, who has been studying the religious practices of Glastonburians for many years now. I feel a bit jealous of her, because she was able to leave her Osaka university to come here for a few weeks (albeit some quarantine was necessary), whereas I've had to cancel (for the third time) my flight to Japan, where I was due to spend 6 weeks this autumn to research my new book. If only I'd been an Olympic-level athlete they might have let me in, but I left it a bit late to train up, and so must do the best I can without access to a Japanese library.

Anyway, while in Glastonbury I bought a postcard book that I'd noticed last time I was there, called Crap Views of Glastonbury Tor, and we spent a happy morning recreating the various views therein. You can see a few at of the cards at the book's website. Their irreverence is amusing of course, but I couldn't help be reminded - perhaps because I was with two Japanese friends - of the "Views of Mount Fuji" sequences of Hokusai and Hiroshige, in which Fuji-san is often discreetly nestled, Where's Wally style, in the background of a mundane scene. And so here with Glastonbury Tor, Somerset's Fuji, hiding behind a recycling plant or the local KFC.

Magic is where you can find it.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

In the summer of 1829 my great-great grandfather Thomas, then 19, and his younger brother George decided to turn the former playground of the school at 6 Cheyne Walk into a "fine garden."

At that point it was beaten down earth, and had been so since Thomas's grandfather, Weeden, acquired the house from Dr Dominicetti, who had used the garden to house his hydropathic baths, where from 1765 to 1782 the great and the gullible of Georgian England came to be fumigated, as shown in this cartoon:


Once Weeden's son (the younger Weeden) gave up the school, being sunk too deep in depression to carry on, it lay fallow until Thomas and George took it on. Thomas's daughter Annie wrote later of their achievement:

What a joy that Cheyne Walk garden became—in consequence partly, I suppose, of the toils of the next few months! What a paradise to us, the children of the next generation! The soil was bad, and we came continually on bricks which we children considered the remains of Dr. Dominicetti’s baths ... But what did bricks or the quality of the soil matter when hedges of cabbage roses and a thicket of many-tinted lilacs flourished here, and lilies many kinds, from the Turk’s head to masses of lily of the valley; when wallflower sowed itself in the mellow brickwork boundaries, and stonecrop ran over the wall; and when jessamine, southernwood and lavender breathed their sweetness through the walks? Immense sunflowers and peonies were here too, and a very wealth of double dahlias; while Aaron’s rod blossomed forth in its golden glory by the side of other flowers which are but seldom, if ever, seen now. They took kindly, these old-world flowers, to the unimproved soil. So also did the great bed of giant rhubarb and the cat’s-head apple trees, the monster fruit from which might have taken a prize at any horticultural show.

Sadly, a few months later younger brother George died, aged sixteen, which was the final blow for Weeden, who followed soon after. Thomas and the garden thrived, though, the former living till 1908 and almost making his century. Is gardening good for you? The evidence is mixed.

This has all been on my mind as I've faced up to my own garden. My new house, built on a car park, was provided by the builders with a small garden, with a generous amount of decking, and also some astroturf, lying atop clayey aggregate incapable of supporting life.


Seeing this arrangement, did my heart quail? No? Did I make like Thomas and George and get gardening? Even more no. Rather, I remembered Hilaire Belloc's wise fable:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

How much more honour there is in paying someone else to do the work and watching them through the window than in selfishly having all the fun oneself and doing a poor job into the bargain. It's the way I choose, anyway. Watch the story unfold...


Here are twelve tons of soil that had to be wheelbarrowed through my living room (click the video to see it slide):


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Yesterday I had a bit of a Burnham Wood moment when I opened the front door and found a group of people bearing pot plants and small trees. But here they are in situ, looking for all the world like a computer simulation.


We're still not done - there's a water feature to come, for one thing - but this is how I've been spending my time (or having someone else spend their time) over the last few weeks.

When I comes to gardening, I play by Lord Finchley rules.

City of Illusion

Someone at the local shopping centre has done these rather cool pictures, that pop into 3-D if (and only if) you stand in the right place and take a photo. From the side:


From the viewpoint:


Here's another:


I'm not sure why they all have to be pictures of bloodthirsty animals committing vandalism, but I suppose it shows the technique to advantage. The strange thing is, though, that even if you stand in the right spot, the illusion doesn't work unless you take a photo. Then, everything pops into place. Of course, I can't show you how unconvincing it is if you don't take a photo because to do so I would need to... well, you see my problem. So, you will have to journey to Bristol to see for yourself - and Bristolophile though I be, perhaps it's not worth doing that specifically to fail to be convinced by an illusion. I do find it interesting, though. Presumably the addition of a frame cuts out all kinds of peripheral information that our brains involuntarily use to detangle what we see?

Or, you can come to the Cathedral and look at the moon that's been installed there, which is also kind of cool.

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Or even take part in a Wallace and Gromit Fix-up-the-City augmented reality game. That's still on my to-do list, for when my daughter gets better after her bout of what-might-possibly-be-COVID-although-the-tests-keep-coming-back-negative.

Here, nothing is what it seems.

An Expotition

When I was last in Tokyo I went to a Winnie-the-Pooh exhibition that had recently transferred from the V&A. There, I photographed a reproduction of the Pooh Sticks bridge, or プーさんの棒投げ橋 (Pooh's-stick-throwing-bridge) as they call it thereabouts. As I wrote at the time, I hadn't realised that W-t-P was big in Japan, although I'd known that Miho, my friend from Tokyo Joshidai, was wont to take groups of students to the Ashdown Forest.


I'd never been there myself, though, until the other day. It turns out that Ashdown was on Ayako's literary to-do list, and so we set off to Sussex, picking up Haruka (who had a day off from her London job) at East Grinstead station en route. It had been raining hard for several days, but we were hoping that we'd get lucky, and so we did, overall, although we couldn't do much about the resulting mud.

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Anyway, here is the Pooh Corner tea room in Hartfield, where we visited a small Pooh museum. We called there first, hoping to get a map showing the locations of the various places in the Hundred Aker Wood, but they'd run out of information sheets in English. All they had, instead, was a large pile in Japanese! Thanks to COVID, Japanese tourists have disappeared from the scene, if we exclude our own party and the Anglo-Japanese family that happened to be there at the same time - hence the surplus, which was lucky for us, of course. We found throughout the visit that signs were in English and Japanese (but no other languages), much as is the case in parts of the Cotswolds.

Anyway, after various adventures executed in the medium of mud, we won through to the Pooh Sticks bridge, and of course had a game with sticks collected on the way. Unfortunately, the river was in spate and churned up from the recent rain, which made Pooh-sticks a less leisurely affair than I'd been anticipating and more like white-water-rafting for twigs. I got my photo taken with my mother's well-thumbed 1934 copy of The House at Pooh Corner.


That was followed up with a nice cream tea from a Tigger teapot, back at Pooh Corner.

And now I feel I have Pooh under my belt.


This is another insomnia post, but its origins go back to 1974, when I first took classes in German. Then, I noticed that the word "ganz" sometimes meant "fairly" or "moderately", and sometimes "very" or "absolutely." It's usually translated as "quite," which has the same characteristic. I thought that an interesting coincidence at the time.

Much more recently, learning Japanese, I found that "kekkou" (けっこう) shared similar characteristics. Perhaps it's a general feature of terms of degree that they're liable to semantic drift, and hence ambiguity.

But how much ambiguity? It occurs to me that there are very strong rules of thumb in place for determining the meaning of "quite." (I speak here of British English - I believe it's a bit different in America.)

In short, moderate adjectives/adverbs are made even more moderate by "quite," while intense adjectives/adverbs are intensified by it. Hence, in "She is quite pretty"="She is fairly pretty," but "She is quite beautiful"="She is very beautiful." You can try this with other pairs: "quite useful" vs. "quite essential," "quite annoyed" vs. "quite apoplectic," etc.

There are of course some borderline cases that have to be sorted out by context. "She was quite insistent," for example.

But then I noticed that "quite" has not two, but four degrees of intensity.

1: "Moderately": It is quite hot today.
2: "Above a certain threshold": He is quite tall.
3: "Extremely": This food is quite delicious."
4: "Absolute": He is quite dead.

Last thought: I wonder how much the British addiction to understatement is involved in this proliferation. For example, if I say of a maths problem, "It's quite tricky," the net meaning is that it's a very difficult problem. So, you might think I was using "quite" in sense 3 above. However, in my head I'd be using it in sense 1, but with a suitable dose of understatement. Likewise, "He is quite tall" might once have meant "He is (only) moderately tall," but a few inches have been added to allow for understatement.

I think that's all I have to say on the matter.

The Latin for the Judging

Because my comprehensive school had (until the year before I went there) been a Secondary Modern, it didn't teach Latin, preferring to specialise in woodwork and cross country running. This made me really cross, aged 11.

Now I hear that Gavin Williamson wants to introduce Latin to state schools, basically so that they can be more like private schools. (Although, if he wants them to be more like private schools, giving them the same budget per pupil would be a shorter way.)

He also adds that Latin will help pupils learn modern languages - which it might with some of them, although perhaps not as much as, you know, actually teaching those languages. (Data point - the number of primary schools employing a foreign language assistant halved between 2018 and 2020.)

Both these reasons seem manifestly specious/dishonest. Why else might Williamson want pupils to learn Latin? Could it be that he's keen to see people being able to enjoy Latin poetry and prose for its own sake? That would be an excellent reason, but his recent pronouncements on the uselessness of the arts suggest it's an unlikely motivation.

Which leaves what was always the most plausible option - that Gavin Williamson is driven by venal sucking up to Boris "Greats" Johnson, and a shallow Latin-tag-dropping snobbery. Perhaps he's also compensating for the fact that he too went to a cross-country-running comp? It takes people different ways: some of us prefer to conjugate, others simply decline.