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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Your Passengers Must Die
The trolley problem is not just a thought experiment - it's a practical issue, at least for the AI programmers charged with teaching self-driving cars whom to spare and whom to kill in ticklish traffic conditions. That, at least, is the premise of MIT's Moral Machine project.

The programmers are of course aware that there is more than one conception of what constitutes a moral decision, so they're crowd-sourcing their morality in the hope of creating different driving strategies according to the cultural priorities of different countries. If you click on the link above, you can add to their database.

Anyway, I was very interested to read this article, which crunches some of their data to show how priorities differ in different countries. For example, should the self-driving car choose to run over young people or old people?
spare the young

Far-eastern countries, perhaps under Confucian influence, are much more careful of the lives of the elderly, whereas the West is in general keener to preserve the lives of the young - perhaps on the individualistic principle that older people have already "had their turn". The data doesn't give us explanations, but such graphs are of course an open invitation to draw on national stereotypes.

What about the importance of sparing more lives rather than fewer?

spare more lives

Again, there's largely an East-West split, with Westerners perhaps performing a kind of utilitarian calculus whereby three lives are worth three times as much as one. This doesn't mean of course that Japanese drivers will recklessly swerve into crowds, merely that they place less emphasis on numbers.

The one that interested me most was this one, concerned with whether one should spare pedestrians or passengers:

spare pedestrians

Here, suddenly, China and Japan are at opposite extremes, and how! Chinese drivers see random pedestrians as far more expendable than the friends, family or colleagues who are presumably their passengers. (Note to self: look both ways on the streets of Shanghai.) Japan, by contrast, sacrifices passengers to pedestrians to a very marked extent.

The obvious explanation, it seems to me, lies in the uchi-soto (inside-outside) principle, which demands that outsiders be treated with preferential politeness and consideration. The nature of the in-group depends on context: it could be one's family, one's school, one's company. When referring to members of one's in-group to an outsider, you always use humble language; when referring to outsiders, you always use polite language. For example, if I want to mention my son, I say "musuko", but your son would be "musuko-san". If I'm the humblest employee at Sony, then I will refer to my CEO as Yoshida, without any honorific, when speaking to people outside the company. (Inside the company, it would be a very different matter.)

Perhaps, for the purpose of the MIT experiment, passengers are regarded as "uchi", and pedestrians as "soto"? That's just a top-of-the-head theory, but I find it plausible.

Kitchens and Kitsch Outs
A little while ago I put this photograph on Facebook:


I'd been idling next to a kitchen shop, and on the van parked outside there was a Before and After picture of their work. To be perfectly honest, neither is much to my taste, but still, as I said on FB, I couldn't see why After was better than Before, or why anyone would spend significant sums to change from one to the other.

On FB some agreed, some demurred. One person suggested that the Before picture was dated. This may be true, but it's not a word I've really ever understood. Is 2018 not also a date?

Attitudes to the past are astoundingly inconsistent, of course. I often wish I'd photographed the jar of Tesco pasta sauce I once bought that boasted, on different parts of the same label, both of its "New Improved Recipe" and its "Traditional, Authentic Taste" - but similar examples abound. In the case of houses, it seems to me that there is a clear divide between different rooms. No one walks into a living room with an original Elizabethan fireplace and oak beams and complains that it is "dated," although once they might have. On the contrary, they'll praise its atmosphere and take good care of its original features. Kitchens, and to a lesser extent bathrooms, are a different matter. But then, even within bathrooms, a stand-alone Victorian, cast-iron lion-foot bath is an enviable item, as long as it's plumbed in; a Victorian water closet, not so much. This was where British hills in Fukushima jibbed, I remember, not quite being able to bring itself to install an authentic British toilet, despite having sent to England for all the other fittings:


Contrast Dreamton, which won out in the bathroom authenticity stakes. I don't appear to have captured it, but I think the toilet there was even operated by a chain, which took me back to my childhood:


(My main memory of the chain in the first house I lived in is that it was too high to reach, so my father added a loop of wire to the bottom - wire thin and sharp enough to cut cheese, or so it seemed to me as I dangled from the end of it by my thin fingers.)

Anyway, the bifurcation of attitudes regarding different rooms, and the desirability or otherwise of modernness in them, has led to a lot of temporal inconsistency within houses. Happily my own small house, here in the orphans' graveyard, was only built in 2006, so it's not something I need to worry about. Everything is magnolia but the mould.

Falling off a Blog
One more sleep till the Christmas break, and I'm hoping not to wake up to a pile of marking at the end of my bed...

Yesterday was my last time paying a toll on the Second Severn Crossing, now officially renamed "The Prince of Wales Bridge" by politically correct history-rewriters (or doesn't that argument count when it's done by royalists?). The cost of the bridge was paid off a year ago, but the Treasury has been collecting the the Going-to-Wales tax, disguised as a toll, since then. As I write this the toll booths are being broken up for firewood, and their surly inhabitants pushed out into the night to wander the Severn's treacherous foreshore under the crystalline sky - just in time for Christmas. I wanted to ask about that as I paid over my last £5.60, indeed, but there was a queue behind me.

I still have some things on my plate - work from PhD students, various articles and books to review, Children's Literature in Education business and so on, but basically I have until Christmas to do some research of my own - something to which I've been more or less a stranger since September. In particular, the hefty pile of material from my Japanese voyage has yet to receive its final, triumphant transfiguration into scholarship, and looks more like an early draft of The Key to All Mythologies.

It's been a particularly busy term, not least because I packed in a lot of external examining (MA programmes in Wolverhampton and Roehampton, PhDs in Valencia and Dublin), as well as various extras on university home turf. I can blame no one but myself for all this, and in fact the work was generally interesting, but I do feel more than usually exhausted at this point, from the constant travel as much as anything. Hence my recent tendency to fall asleep at the wheel of this blog.

That's all going to change now, though! Look forward to vexatiously frequent entries from now on!

Bogs, Dams and Revenants
In the early 1940s they drowned the village of Derwent in Derbyshire to make the Ladybower reservoir, to slake the thirsts of Sheffield and Nottingham. Shortly afterwards, the new reservoir was used by the "Dam Buster" squadron, as practice for destroying the Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe Dams.

This year the dry weather revealed part of the village again, and it drew tourists, some of whom amused themselves by drawing graffiti or taking stones from walls. This has caused quite a lot of angst. For example:

There's a fair amount of graffiti and defacement on the ruins. It's a huge part of our history and now "Cheryl" and "Steve" have scratched their names in the rock. We need to look after it, we have a responsibility like you would at any historical site. (Steve Rowe, Edale Mountain Rescue Team)

Whilst we understand that people are fascinated by the appearance of these usually hidden ruins, the structures remain an iconic archaeological feature of the Peak District National Park. As we wouldn't expect people to vandalise any of the National Park's many heritage buildings or other archaeological features, the remains of the homes and other submerged buildings are no exception. We urge people to leave these features intact to open a valuable window onto history, not just today, but for future generations to enjoy. (Anna Badcock, Park Authority Cultural Heritage Manager.)

Well yes, I kind of agree, and yet it wasn't "Cheryl and Steve" who destroyed the village in the first place, nor bounced bombs on top of it shortly after. If Derwent is such a valuable part of our heritage, why is it at the bottom of a lake?

The answer is of course that it's only valuable because it was destroyed - or rather, its destruction led paradoxically to its partial preservation. We must be grateful to the large-scale municipal vandals of 1940, even as we condemn the small-scale private vandals of 2018.

Similarly, if I marched into the British Museum and took an axe to the Lindow Man I'd be arrested - but it is only thanks to the actions of the people who did the same thing 2,000 years ago that we have his body at all. We owe those people a debt, it seems, for killing him and leaving him to our mercies, tender or otherwise.

Of Chance and Chimpanzees
Give a million chimpanzees typewriters, and one of them may end up writing a sonnet by coincidence, they say. Even so, no one will think that chimp is a poet.

Equally, give a million entrepreneurs a start-up loan, and they will make various business and investment decisions. Some will pay off, many will crash and burn; but perhaps at the end of it all, one of that million will be a billionaire. That billionaire will not be treated like the lucky chimp, though. On the contrary, they will be interviewed by Forbes magazine about their business philosophy, and in general will be treated as if their wealth were entirely the result of their savviness and cunning, rather than the likely result of a million coin tosses. Since human beings are inclined to narrativise history (especially their own) they will likely come to believe this themselves, seeing purposefulness and connection between events that were in large measure unpredictable and serendipitous.

The cases are of course not exactly alike. Diligence, intelligence and imagination will indeed give some entrepreneurs a better shot at success than others; but theirs is a trade where chance is far more responsible for success than it is generally given credit for. I feel similarly about generalship, and indeed any profession so at the mercy of an environment full of unpredictable “noise”. “Pang Juan will Die under this Tree” is a great story, but I don’t believe it’s history. Similarly, whenever I see the latest business guru’s book of ideas, I read it as if were entitled Shakesepeare – My Way, by Bono the Bonobo.

Dreamless Winter
I mentioned in my last (I think) that Yume Kitchen has just closed down. Today, as I put on my winter coat for the first time in a while, I found a receipt from February 2015 in the pocket, recording being served there by my friend Midori. This exquisitely emotional moment seemed to cry out, not least because of the requisite seasonal element, for a haiku. Also, I've been musing recently on the possibilities of the kanji 儚 (hakanai), which means 'fleeting' and combines the kanji for 'person' (人 hito) with that for 'dream' (夢 yume). I've no doubt this kind of visual kanji pun is thoroughly exploited in Japanese, though I've not yet encountered it.



Found inside my
Overcoat. People and dreams,
Both are transient.

Self-Portrait with Insufficient Sleep
Can it really be only a week since my colonoscopy?

It's hard to believe, but it's been a pretty busy, tail-chasing sort of week, with far too much travel - and the next ten days look like being a similar story. Without much embellishment, and really for my own later reference, I'll just record that I went to Birmingham last Saturday, to spend the day with Clémentine, before accompanying her to see Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Hippodrome. Here we are sharing some pork and a cup of Glühwein at the unseasonably early Christmas market.


It was lovely to see her, and I even enjoyed the opera (I find Prokofiev simpatico and always have), but it's not an art form I've ever quite been able to get my head round. Andrei is dying of his wounds, yet still singing at the top of his voice? I suppose I should be able to accept it as a convention, just as I do stage sets in plays. I remember Philip Sidney holding out for the unity of place in terms that seem endearingly ridiculous:

Now ye shall have three ladies walk to gather flowers, and then we must believe the stage to be a garden. By and by we hear news of shipwreck in the same place, and then we are to blame if we accept it not for a rock. Upon the back of that comes out a hideous monster with fire and smoke, and then the miserable beholders are bound to take it for a cave. While in the mean time two armies fly in, represented with four swords and bucklers, and then what hard heart will not receive it for a pitched field?

I know my doubts about opera are no better founded than Sidney's, but there you are.

On Monday I was with Dimitra Fimi, giving a talk on Ursula Le Guin at a public engagement event in Cardiff. Dimitra's teaching in Glasgow now, but still commuting from Cardiff. She was due to catch a 7am flight the morning after, which puts my own travel blues in perspective. I at least got to stay with my friend and colleague Ann, in her huge Victorian house in Newport.

dimitra and cathy at Cardiff Booktalk 19 Nov 2018

On Tuesday, I got the very sad news that Yume, my favourite restaurant, has closed suddenly, for reasons I will make it my business to discover. Nothing here long standeth in one stay, as the poet has it. Or in Japanese, perhaps, 「夢は儚い」. Ephemerality has aesthetic value in sakura, but in favourite restaurants, not so much.

Yesterday I was in London, being inducted as an External Examiner for the MA in Children's Literature there, which gave me a chance to catch up with my friends Alison and Lisa. It wasn't an onerous thing in itself, but yet another train journey, with an early start and late return. And tomorrow I drive to my mother's house, with sherry for her and box of matoke bananas for her carer (only matoke will do, but small Hampshire towns cannot supply them). In the cracks, I've been teaching a full timetable.

Come, 10-tog blanket of night, and cover me!

The Politics and Pathology of Transphobia - A Fantasy Conference
One of the main problems with trans politics is that trans people seldom or never get to frame the public discourse, which is typically presented either as an explanation of trans people (benign version) or a debate around whether trans people are deluded and/or dangerous (malign version). The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there's room for a debate, not about trans people, but about transphobes - one that puts them under the same kind of spotlight. It's not my academic field, so I'm not the ideal person to organise it, but I'd love to see a Call for Papers something like this....

The Politics and Pathology of Transphobia

It is a common refrain of transphobes that the issues need a free and open debate, but the phenomenon of transphobia itself has received little or no academic attention. This conference attempts to amend that situation. As the conference organisers we are open to suggestions for panel sessions, but possible topics include:

Transphobic History – a Twice-told Tale
Transphobia has risen to prominence on our television screens and in books over the last generation, especially with the rise of social media – but is it really a modern phenomenon? Arguably the discourse and ideology of transphobia, and the psychopathology underlying it, have a far longer history. In this session we explore the history and heritage of transphobia, including the striking parallels between the hostile framing of homosexuality some thirty years ago (notably as a threat to children), and that of trans identities today.

Transphobia and Feminism
One of the characteristics of transphobes who also self-identify as feminists is the compulsion to speak for feminism in general, and indeed for all women and girls; yet most women (including most feminists) repudiate transphobic beliefs and assumptions. This panel looks at the complex and conflicted relationship between feminism and transphobic discourse, especially in an age of social media and “echo chamber” platforms such as Mumsnet, which allow transphobes to live in a world of constant affirmation and unchallenged reinforcement of their views.

Transphobia and the Evangelical Movement
Many transphobes present themselves as politically left-leaning, while other base their transphobia in conservative religious dogma. The common purpose of these two apparently disparate groups has sometimes evolved into active collaboration, as in organisations such as “Hands Across the Aisle.” How do these different brands of transphobe reconcile themselves to being bedfellows? Is it a marriage of convenience, or does this alliance indicate a more fundamental convergence of political and moral outlook?

Transphobic Regret
No one knows how many transphobes eventually come to regret their involvement in transphobic ideology. Much more research is needed – although major academic institutions seem unwilling to fund it. This session will look at desistance from transphobic ideology, and the social and psychological repercussions for those who dare to leave a belief and value system that has contributed so much to their sense of identity and purpose.

Science, Junk Science, and Statistics
Transphobes frequently invoke science to support their worldview, but their use of science typically resorts to inaccurate or simplistic categories, and tendentious, selective use of statistics. This session is devoted to the discussion of transphobia’s unhealthy relationship with science in general, as well as their support for clinical practices such as conversion therapy.

Transphobia as Fetish
Transphobes have created many theories to “explain” the existence of trans people, such as autogynephilia, “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” among still more fanciful aetiologies. In this session we consider the extent to which such theories are born of projection and/or paraphilic interest in the lives and genitalia of trans people – a range of pathologies we propose to gather under the general title of “Blanchardism.”

Transphobia and the Rhetoric of Victimhood
Transphobic articles and viewpoints are extremely frequent in the press, on television and radio, and other public fora. Yet one of the commonest refrains of transphobic discourse is the complaint that transphobic views are being silenced, penalised or censored, and that this is both a threat to free speech and evidence of a powerful trans cabal. In this session we explore the intersection of paranoia and projection involved in positioning transphobic discourse as victimised and silenced.

The Media and the Exploitation of Transphobia
The media have often been willing partners in the transmission and amplification of transphobic viewpoints, whether for reasons of genuine transphobia or because of the “pulling power” of transphobic tropes and rhetoric. In this session we analyse the particular forms of transphobia employed by the media in facilitating moral panic about trans people.

Ark Angels
Does reading make you a better person? A few days ago I posted this video to Green Knowe appreciation group on Facebook. Watch it: it's about a Syrian refugee who was offered shelter in an English stately home, not unlike (it seemed to me) the way that Ping was offered shelter by Mrs Oldknow.

Most people got the connection, but perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised to find one commenting:

our streets are full of English born homeless and a Syrian draft dodger ends up in a Stateley home - yeah thats sounds about right

I went and checked - this is no professional troll, but someone who's posted several relevant links to the group over time, and clearly loves the books in his own way. But what way is that? Could he really not have noticed their continuing preoccupation with offering homes to the homeless, and particularly to refugees? I think the first comparison to the Ark occurs in the first chapter of Book One, and the theme only continues from there: Tolly, Jacob, Oskar, Ping, Hanno. They come from four continents, and all find a home in Green Knowe. It's a quintessentially English series, yes, and I'm not surprised Julian Fellowes got his paws on it, but if you miss its internationalism you're not looking closely enough.
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Recorder Workout
I always keep a recorder handy when I'm working. When I'm stuck for ideas, I often find that a bit of jamming on a descant really helps me think (while robbing anyone nearby of that capacity, sadly, but what are you going to do?). It's been that way for a long time - roughly since I gave up recorder lessons at primary school. My favourite instrument is a pear-wood one that I bought when my father died, but the plastic Aulos range gets a workout, too.

My daughter sometimes expresses wry exasperation that my one superpower is apparently the ability to play any tune by ear on the recorder, just the format in which no one would want to hear it, and I admit that the situation does seem to bear the fingerprints of a vindictive fate. People are sometimes intrigued by my party trick, but they don't stay intrigued for long: a distinct air of "You have delighted us long enough" typically settles in by the second minute. That's okay, I only play for myself, really, and, as I say, to help jiggle my neurons into more cooperative constellations.

I've had a bad cold for the last few days, which is very frustrating as this is a rare non-teaching week and I'd had it earmarked for all kinds of useful tasks, which are now proceeding only at a snail's pace. In these circumstances, after writing about Lolly Willowes and Madoka yesterday, it seemed a fun idea to play Kyubey's invitation to the world of magic, Salve, Terrae Magicae, with a black cat on my lap. So I did. (Breathing was a problem, of course.)

A Witch in Waiting
I just finished Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes (1926), which I'd been meaning to read since forever, and I'm very glad I did. It's funny, and sharp, and Laura's gradual metamorphosis from Fanny Price to Mother Shipton is handled really well. One of my friends on FB called it "stealth SFF", which seems fair enough. I should say that I was sufficiently spoiled that I knew in advance the story's general direction of travel, but that didn't ruin it in the least (I was able to spot some foreshadowing that I would otherwise probably have missed), though it did make it a different experience from the one I'd have had cold.

Attentive readers of this blog will know that I am rather attracted to stories that change genre halfway through, or seem to. I've written about the phenomenon here, and elsewhere. But today the most relevant link from my previous maunderings is this one from six years ago, where the issue is much more personal to me. For I too am a story that changed genre - or seemed to - halfway through. The "seemed to" is explained at length in that entry, but briefly, my subjective experience before and after transition was largely one of continuity - I seemed to myself the same person - but some people found a jarring disconnect between me before and me after. In the entry I attempted to explain this by offering an analogy between reading genre and reading gender. People who'd read me in one way had to start reading me in another, according to another set of genre conventions, and for some it was a wrench; whereas for me (on the inside track, as it were, and thus "spoiled"), there was no such rupture.

So, does Laura really undergo a change from acquiescent maiden aunt to Satan-worshipping witch? Isn't it rather that certain qualities, interests and dispositions, present throughout, are allowed to assert themselves when her circumstances change? That she always was a witch in waiting, as it were? Her eventual pact with the Devil comes as no surprise to her, nor does it cause her any apprehension; that comes earlier, when she "comes out" to her family, defying social and financial pressure to assert her selfhood and move to a life of isolation in Great Mop. From there the step to witch-hood is almost inevitable. What else could such a woman be seen as?

(No such disquisition would be complete without at least a glancing nod at Madoka Magica, in which girls enter into a Faustian bargain to gain magic and, as it turns out, become witches. That revelation is certainly widely seen as a plot twist, and many viewers have seen it as triggering a change in genre, from idealistic shoujo anime to cynical seinen anime, but that change too may be more apparent than real, as I have argued here.)

"You should be women," says Banquo, "And yet your beards forbid me to interpret/ That you are so." Recognising witches - or indeed women - is a matter of the beholder's eye, and of the assumptions brought to the task of interpretation. No doubt Macbeth saw something different from Banquo; no doubt James I saw something different from Reginald Scot.

Mirai (review)
I watched Mamoru Hosoda's Mirai yesterday (in Japanese Mirai no Mirai [未来のミライ], or "The Future Mirai," a wordplay that doesn't carry over). I had very much enjoyed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, though not thinking it flawless, but had been put off by Summer Wars, a film that was widely acclaimed but seemed to me a more boring version of the The Digimon Movie (on which, I discovered only today, Hosoda was also a director). So I never made the effort to seek out Wolf Children or The Boy and the Beast, although the former, especially, intrigues me considerably. (Have I missed much?) But I saw posters for Mirai in Japan last May (it wasn't out there yet), and decided it looked worth a punt.

Anyway, Mirai was excellent. It deal with time slips in a confident, unfussy way that didn't feel obliged to erect a Heath-Robinson metaphysics to explain everything; it had Summer Wars's interest in family, but didn't bite off more than it could chew. Its use of a four-year-old (or thereabouts) as a protagonist was daring, but really worked. Funny, feel-good and affecting.

I was pleased with myself too, for spotting an early joke. When asked what they should call his baby sister, Kun-chan (who's into trains) suggests "Nozomi", which means "hope" or "wish". It's a reasonable suggestion, but he's made it only because it's also the name of a type of bullet train - something I spotted before his parents. Admittedly they're fictional characters made entirely of pixels, but they're native Japanese pixels, so I felt justified in my self-satisfaction.

Finally, for aficianados, the film gave a nod to Tom's Midnight Garden, the fons et origo of Japanese time-slip fantasy (as my friend Mihoko Tanaka has so eloquently shown in her book on the subject), by including a copy on young Kun-chan's bookshelf.

He must be a little young to read it yet, but when he's ready, the garden will be waiting.

For the Love of Three Yuzu
Perhaps you remember my yuzu poem and its chequered non-publication history? If so, you'll understand how excited I was to see that the Wasabi Company, based near my home town, is now selling fresh yuzu, albeit at great expense. I gulped and ordered a box, and here it is:


Aren't they pretty? I just shared half of one with my daughter and her boyfriend, neither of whom had eaten yuzu before, and they were naturally impressed. The other half I intend to make into a ponzu sauce, and the other two will be gifts for my Japanese teachers (because I am a teacher's pet, as well as a teacher).

Tongues of Confusion
"He sometimes works in the pet shop next door," I said to my Japanese teacher, referring to the man who had approached us in the cafe where we were sitting to say hello. "We got to know each other a bit because we came to the same cafe quite often."

"It's a good job you said that in Japanese," she replied (because I had). "What if he overheard you?"

I don't think he would have cared, frankly - his work as a part-time pet shop assistant is hardly a secret - but it got us talking about the way lesser-known languages are sometimes used as a secret code. My teacher's daughter, for example, has been known to make personal remarks about the appearance of people in the street, safe in the knowledge that she won't be "overheard" because she's making them in Japanese.

I can certainly see the appeal of using a language this way, but it's not something an English monoglot can ever do, given how widely English is understood. Even in Japanese it's a risk: who knows whether the person whose big behind you've just dissed may not also be studying for her JLPT1? Even if you're prepared to take the risk with Japanese, what about, say, German or Italian? How obscure would a language have to be for you to be publicly catty in it?

My friend Miho once told me how she and her husband were on a train in central Europe, going to a language conference. The only other person in the compartment was a European man, travelling alone. She and Hiroshi chatted in Japanese, naturally; but when they came to their destination, their companion surprised and (more interestingly) shocked them by making a polite remark in perfect Japanese as they disembarked.

What interests me about the story isn't that Miho was a little retrospectively embarrassed at being understood (though, knowing her, I don't suppose she had been poking fun at their companion), but that she felt quite strongly that the man should have made it clear that he could understand them much earlier. Apparently he felt it too, because later at the conference (where it turned out he too was a delegate) he found her and apologised for not speaking sooner.

To be honest, I find that quite hard to get my head round - but then, it would never occur to me to assume that no one could understand my native tongue.

Time and Taid
My cousin Vicky (daughter of my mother’s elder sister) visited my mother yesterday when I was there, and in telling of some cute thing that her granddaughter had said, inadvertently revealed that the girl addresses her as “Flo(w)”. The reason, apparently, is that her daughter-in-law’s parents had already bagged the titles “Gran” and “Grandad”, and they had to find an alternative. “What about Nain and Taid?” Vicky suggested, these being the Welsh equivalents. Her husband, however, who is very English, complained, “Taid? She may as well call us Ebb and Flow!” And so it was decided.

I suppose this must be a common problem, and potentially a tricky diplomatic one. Vicky seemed to believe that the mother's parents always (and rightly) had first dibsies, but is that a widespread convention? There was no such competition in the case of my own grandparents: they were Nana and Grandpa on my mother's side, but my paternal grandmother died before I was born, and my grandfather on that side preferred to be addressed in Esperanto, as "Avo". (To be honest I thought that was his name until years after he died.) The conventions for my own children's grandparents were dull enough, but evenhanded: Grandpa/ma + First Name. It seemed to work.

Vicky is always stylish, and on this occasion was wearing a very nice Alexander McQueen cardigan. When my mother admired it, she gave it her - and I think it suits her well.


My mother turned 94 the other day.

A Walk Around the Floating World
Well, that was a very Japanese and yet quite Bristolian day. It began with my walking to a disused church near my children's former primary school, the site of many a school disco and bouncy-castle party in those days, but today home to the "Bristol Japan Cultural Showcase 2018" - an opportunity to load up on Umaibou (the chicken curry flavour, if somewhat caricatured in design, lives up to its name in taste)...

DSC02243 crop

... and other snacks; to have people doing kendo shout Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: to try my clumsy hand at calligraphy (can you guess which is mine and which the actual calligrapher's?...


... of course you can); and have a go at ikebana, which was rather more successful:

DSC02236 - crop

I also got to talk Japanese to a lot of new people, of course, which is always fun. I don't think I embarrassed myself.

The plan was to walk from there to the city museum, about a mile away, where there's currently an exhibition of Hokusai and Hiroshige prints. However, the ikebana people kindly wrapped my effort in cellophane and gave it me, which (considering I was also carrying a couple of bags, including a PhD thesis) was a little cumbersome. I couldn't simply dump it in a bin en route, though, after they'd been so nice, and besides, I was genuinely quite pleased with my effort. Before long I walked past a shop called Kimonokimono, which turned out to sell... well, yes, kimonos and lots of other Japanoiserie, all very good quality. On impulse I offered the shopkeeper my ikebana, which he accepted and quickly put in place among his stock (arranging it rather better than I had), which seemed an elegant and appropriate solution to the problem:


Unencumbered, I made a quick detour to the Bristol Porridge Project for lunch - something I'd been intending to do when opportunity arose. I went for the "Crazy Clifton Combo", with toppings of cacao nibs, cinnamon spiced apple, dates and cranberries. Not half bad for £3, and I'm definitely going back.

The Hokusai and Hiroshige were as good as one might expect: the Tokaido trail and the views of Fuji in all seasons and weathers. I was just as intrigued, though, by the museum's collection of late-seventeenth-century Japanese pottery, imported at a time when the supply from China had been interrupted by civil war. I don't think I'd been aware of the sakoku-era fashion for this ware:


Then to Coffee #1 to drink tea and read the PhD thesis (on Irish children's literature) before a walk home in high winds that made the plane trees on Welsh Back gong the sea's sound through puffed cheeks, and drove white horses across the floating harbour.

Knights Who Don't Say "Ni"
Though I'm now relatively confident about writing emails in simple Japanese, I still like to paste the final result into Google translate, imperfect as it is, lest I've made some awful faux pas. There was a time at the beginning when I would write "henshi arigatou gozaimasu" (変死ありがとうございます)rather than "henji arigatou gozaimasu" (返事ありがとうございます), thus inadvertently thanking my correspondent for an unnatural death rather than their reply. It scarred me.

I haven't done anything quite that egregious for a while, but today I wanted to say that someone had been "helpful throughout". I decided that "zutto yaku ni tatsu deshita" (ずっと役に立つでした) might be the way to go. (I don't think it probably is - "yaku ni tatsu" means something more like "useful", which isn't the vibe I'm after.) However, I forgot the "ni", and ended up with "zutto yaku tatsu deshita" (ずっと役辰でした), which Google assures me means "It was a long-awaited dragon".

I don't quite know how Google came up with that, but it charms me, and makes me wish that I had occasion to write emails where that was the intended meaning.

Valencia Without the Beach
In the unlikely event that you've been asking yourself "Where's Steepholm?" over the last couple of days, the correct answer was "Valencia". I was part of a jury for a public doctoral defence - the first such procedure I've ever taken part in. (UK-style vivas are quite a different and more private thing, though not necessarily less tense.) Very interesting it was too, though since it's not my story to tell, I'll leave it at that, except to say that the defence was successful, and everybody was happy at the end of it. Unless of course the candidate had some secret enemies in the room, but if so they had the discretion to hide their chagrin.

It was a bit of a harsh trip, logistically. I had to catch a bus from Bristol to Gatwick at 2.25am on Friday, fly to Spain, and then preside over the defence in the afternoon. The following day I asked for an evening flight home so that I could take some time to look at the city, but that meant (thanks to some French air-traffic-control shenanigans) that my flight was delayed, I missed the last bus back to Bristol, and had to spend five hours in the early hours of Sunday at Gatwick, before catching the 5.40am home. It's now Sunday evening, and I've not had a lot of sleep.

Given that, here are some illustrated highlights of my trip, rather than a connected narrative. Some of the facts here come via the doctoral candidate, Catalina, who has also worked as a tour guide in Valencia, and kindly gave me and the other examiner a city tour yesterday.


First, paella. Almost the only thing I knew about Valencia was that it's the home of paella. In many places paella is made with seafood, but the traditional ingredients in its home town are, it turns out, chicken and rabbit, with snails and the local water rat as optional extras (mine had neither, sadly, but it was still delicious). Valencians never eat paella in the evening - it's strictly a lunch dish.

That was lunch yesterday: Friday evening was a rather opulent, multi-course affair, which was all delicious (though since I was among strangers I resisted the urge to photograph it). I think the strangest single dish contained the following elements, all of which had equal billing: pork snout, salmon roe, artichokes and parmesan cheese. It tasted nice (especially the artichokes), but in what fevered pipe dream did anyone come up with that combination?

Valencia is a Spanish city built in (or around) a Moorish city, built on a Visigothic city, built on a Roman city. I love places like that, and have done ever since I lived in York, which is similarly palimpsestuous. Here, for example, is the medieval "mountain gate", outside which barbers used to have their stalls, ready to shave any shaggy mountaineer coming to the big city for trade or talk:


Impressive, isn't it? But just a few yards inside, built into existing houses and shops, much of the Moorish city wall still remains. The Valencians are a practical people. Here are a couple of Moorish towers, about a thousand years old apiece, just being parts of people's houses, down back streets and beside little car parks:


The Moors themselves were far from averse to a bit of bricolage. Witness this walled-in arch, featuring bits of saints from a Visigothic church:


In the more on-show parts of the city, there's a good deal of Catholic bling, especially here in the church of St Nicolas:


Even St Raphael seems to be bragging about how much bigger his fish was:


More impressive to me (of the austere tastes) is this market hall, once home to traders in the silk that was for centuries Valencia's main commodity (before competition and disease in the mulberry trees made them turn instead to oranges). Each skeined pillar twists toward the heavens:


But besides the old Valencia, there's an ultra-modern Valencia, built by modern architects and sculptors. Here is a scene from circa 2100, near my hotel:

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There's some controversy in the city as to whether such expensive projects should be indulged in, when the old town needs so much support, and the country's on its uppers. As to that, I stay loftily neutral; but I'll be going back next year, Brexit sakoku notwithstanding, to look round Valencia again!

Rachel Real and the Amazing Time-Travelling Bed
Each night Rachel goes to sleep in her seemingly-ordinary bed, only to wake up on an entirely different day! Join Rachel on her amazing time-travel adventures.

Who knows, perhaps your bed is a secret time machine too?

*. *. *

I offer this revolutionary book idea to whoever want to write it. It could be the biggest seller since Go the Fuck to Sleep.

Every Railway Tunnel Deserves a String Quartet
But only the one in St Werburgh's has one, as I discovered this lunchtime.

Here's a view of the audience, both well rapt and well wrapped, it being nearly October. Those distant figures at the far end of the tunnel are graffiti artists. St Werburgh's is always in artistic ferment.


Finally, a topiary pig, to underline the point - if there was a point:


St Werburgh's, over and out.