I rather like this view taken from Dolebury Warren yesterday, looking along the line of the Mendips towards the Bristol Channel and Wales beyond. The distant lump on the left is Brean Down, and in the centre, more distant still - Steep Holm.

It's like looking in a mirror.


Fireflake and Hemlock

Before the lockdown, Ayako and I visited Diana Wynne Jones's son Micky and his wife Noriko, mostly to catalogue the books in DWJ's study. While we were there, they kindly let me photograph the original "Fire and Hemlock" picture, which inspired the novel of the same name. Today, they even more kindly gave me permission to post the photograph, which I do here:

Fire and Hemlock

As you can see, mine is not a great photograph: there's reflection from the glass, the angle's wonky, and the picture is in any case somewhat faded from having been hung in sunlight for some years. Still, hopefully it gives you an idea.

Micky mentioned that the photograph was not unique: Diana had bought it from a studio, but it was one of a limited print run. Perhaps, if I did a Google image search, other (perhaps more pristine) copies might turn up?

I just tried that, and, by some kind of ambiguous magic, up popped this album cover:

album cover

This is the sleeve of the Adrian Snell's debut album, Fireflake (1975). You can hear it in its entirety here, should you wish, but probably the list of track titles will give you a sufficient idea of its genre:

A1 – I Was A Stranger
A2 – Song For John
A3 – My Soul Alive
A4 – This Is The Time To Say
A5 – Making Me Real
B1 – Gethsemane
B2 – Judas Song
B3 – Simon Carry My Cross
B4 – Golgotha
B5 – Jesus – Alive!

In some ways it's hard to imagine a more inappropriate set of songs to hum along to while watching those strange figures loom in and out of the fire, threatening to take you back down that not-so-bonny road to Hunsdon House. Adrian Snell is certainly not one of the acts Seb was so into. Still, I'm sure that DWJ would have been amused by the juxtaposition.


Bristol is a city where temporary art often pops up overnight like midnight mushrumps. Recently we had the statue of Edward Colston replaced - for a day - with one of Jen Reid, while a couple of weeks ago members of Portishead, Massive Attack and others took to the skies to serenade the city from hot-air balloons in an event by the ever-creative Luke Jerram.

A couple of days ago this sculpture appeared in a niche opposite a multi-storey carpark - a young person being comforted by a Winnie-the-Pooh style bear. I saw it in the paper, but today I walked over to look at it with my daughter.


I find it a strangely moving piece of work. I expect that it too will be ephemeral - but aren't we all?

From You Have I Been Absent in Late Summer

I've not posted lately, largely from lack of matter, or rather of motivation (coruscating squibs about the political situation project a continual firework display against my cerebral cortex, but I mostly don't share them because to point out the criminality of people committing crimes in plain view seems otiose), but also because my life in the last couple of weeks has been in a weird suspension.

The people I'm meant to be buying a house from told me to expect to move on 28th August, and I accordingly started turning my own house upside down in readiness, while busily preparing online lectures and seminar materials against the imminent arrival of students eager to learn. However, for various non-too-clear reasons the move got delayed, and I now don't expect it to happen for another month, i.e. well into the new semester. Having a few days without internet will be an interesting experience in Week 1, as I prepare to lead the core first-year module by the medium of online seminar.

Meanwhile, I just heard Louis Bird on the radio, talking about how he was commuting from Bristol to Cardiff to work on some "terrible TV show" and felt that his life was in a rut and that he simply had to follow in his father's footsteps and become an ocean rower. I can't say that the same commute has had that effect on me so far; on the other hand, at this point I haven't been to Cardiff for six months! Perhaps the ocean-rowing bug will bite only once there's a vaccine?

Fun fact: the Japanese for vaccine is "wakuchin" - pronounced something like "whack chin." It's easy to remember - just picture someone receiving an upper cut.

The Remembrance of Puzzles Past

The other day I received a very nice present from my friend Chiho: a set of karuta cards based on famous lines from「千と千尋の神隠し」, i.e. Spirited Away


I'm a late developer, and Spirited Away was the first Ghibli film I ever saw - or, at least, saw properly. (In retrospect believe I may have come in halfway through a showing of Laputa on television at an earlier date: I remember thinking that, if this cartoon was an adaptation of the third voyage of Gulliver, it was certainly a loose one...)

Anyway, I loved Spirited Away, and it raised many questions in my mind, among them being:

a) Why do they drive on the left in Japan, when usually only countries that were in the British Empire do so?

b) If "Chihiro" is written "千尋", how come "千" on its own is pronounced "Sen"?

I wondered these things fleetingly during the film, but they evidently didn't weigh heavily enough for me to find out the answers immediately on leaving the cinema. It was only years later, when I started learning Japanese, that I discovered the history of British involvement in the development of Japanese railways, and (more importantly for me) the on-yomi/kun-yomi distinction in the pronunciation of kanji. When I did learn these things, though, I remembered my former puzzlement with all the urgency of a crumb of stale madeleine finally being dislodged from my teeth.

Before Breakfast

In Japanese, 朝飯前 literally means "before breakfast," or (even more literally) "before the morning meal" - but is used to refer to something that's really easy, a bit like "a piece of cake." The idea is that something so easy that it can be accomplished without the sustenance provided by a full Japanese (rice, miso soup, natto, grilled mackerel, etc., with a health-giving pickled plum on the side) must be child's play indeed.

I suppose it must be a coincidence that the same expression exists in English - although I think it's a little old fashioned now. Think of the Red Queen's "six impossible things before breakfast." Or did Carroll coin it, in fact? It's easy to hear the Red Queen echoed in later usages, such as the "six VCs before breakfast" won on the first day of Gallipoli.

But was "before breakfast" used earlier than the Red Queen? Google Ngram is, as so often, our friend in these situations. In the decades prior to Through the Looking Glass people doing things before breakfast are generally doing them for the sake of their health:

These facts show the importance of breakfasting soon after rising and dressing, at least in many cases. I am fully aware that there are numerous exceptions to this. Some persons not only suffer no injury from but actually appear to be benefited by active exercise taken before breakfast, its effect being with them to create or augment the appetite. But in others the effects are those which I have already stated. I am satisfied from repeated observation that in children disposed to spasmodic and other brain diseases the practice of making them attend school for two hours before breakfast is injurious, and I fully agree therefore with Dr Combe that in boarding schools for the young and growing, who require plenty of sustenance, and are often obliged to rise early, an early breakfast is almost an indispensible condition of health. Epileptics, especially those disposed to morning attacks, should invariably breakfast soon after rising. (Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, Vol. 6, 1842)

A walk to Priessnitz Quelle by the Silver and Fichten Quelles, and back the same way, is more than three miles, and this is the regular walk before breakfast in winter. In summer the guests usually extend their excursions much farther. As they return many stop to drink again and some return by the douches having become sufficiently warm to take that bath before breakfast. ... In his Graefenberg dishabille the patient, whether he be count, baron, captain, general or priest, forgets all his dignity in the feeling of irrepressible joy and energy produced by the plunge bath and the bracing morning air. A few stalk along the path in stiff and formal dignity as if offended at the liberties taken by the careering sporting winds and the merrily waltzing snow that surround them. It is deeply interesting watch this infinite variety in the guests they ascend the mountain on a cold morning before breakfast stopping now and then to pant and breathe, and look back upon the glorious amphitheatre around them. (Water Cure Journal, 1849)

I think the Red Queen probably did kickstart the meme, at least in the English language. The only person doing an impossible thing before breakfast turns out to be Mozart, who uses that opportunity to write the overture to Don Giovanni:

Showers of crotchets and quavers now gushed from the rapid pen. At times, however, and in the midst of writing, nature would assert her sway and cause the composer to relapse into a nod or two. To these, it is generally pretended, the leading passage in the overture turned, repeated, and modulated into a hundred varied shapes, owed its origin. The somnolent fits, however, soon gave way to the cheerful converse of CONSTANTIA and the excellent punch which formed its accompaniment. The overture was completed before breakfast and the copyists scarcely had time to write out the score. (Proceedings against William Hone before his Trials, 1817)

As for me, all I did was write this rambling Livejournal post.

Neither Here Nor There

I've been looking at this review of a book on Shakespeare's sonnets. The writers have come up with what they seem to consider a startling conclusion: “Some of these sonnets are addressed to a female and others to a male. To reclaim the term bisexual seems to be quite an original thing to be doing.”

Is it, though? Really? Isn't it actually the most obvious conclusion? Other readings are possible, but all require a degree of wrenching. Why would anyone find it implausible that a man who wrote poems of love and sexual desire to both men and women (or to at least one of each) was romantically and sexually attracted to both men and women?

Occasionally I'm reminded that resistance to the idea of bisexuality still exists. I have to be reminded, because it seems such an absurd thing to be sceptical of that I have difficulty retaining the fact. Women and men are pretty similar in many ways, after all - much more like each other than either is like, say, shoes, yet apparently no one has any trouble believing in heterosexual shoe fetishists.

Perhaps it reflects a more fundamental preference for binary choices. I dare say I could come up with many examples, but here's one that's fresh in my mind. A few months ago I was in a research seminar on an article about George Herbert's The Temple. According to the article, the scholarly orthodoxy had been that the architectural structure of the book (which is divided into sections such as 'The Porch', 'The Altar', and so on) was purely metaphorical; but our author argued that, as a rural vicar, Herbert was very concerned with the literal fabric of his church, too. The answer to the question, 'Is the temple in The Temple metaphorical or literal?' turns out to be, 'A bit of both.'

It's convincing, but frankly I didn't need to be convinced. My immediate reaction was one of surprise that everybody didn't already take that for granted. Flattering as it would be to conclude that all this makes me a particularly subtle and clever thinker, I don't buy it, because these thoughts aren't subtle at all - on the contrary, they take (what seems to me) the path of least resistance through the texts. It's all a bit of mystery.

Does it Spark Schadenfreude?

If all goes according to plan, I should be moving house in just under a fortnight - albeit only about a mile. Nevertheless, it's necessitating quite a bit of going through stuff and deciding what's worth keeping, and what not so much.

One folder contained all my rejection slips from the early nineties, before my first book was accepted. I've always been a bit bemused at people's surprise that Harry Potter was rejected by numerous publishers, because that's most authors' experience, and, as the folder reminded me, it was certainly mine. I'd forgotten I'd kept them, but I suppose it was so that I could comfort my former self, in an 'It gets better' spirit, or perhaps gloat over that same self's suffering (which sounds counter-intuitive, but is not out of character).

That was definitely the reason I hung on to the last software manual I wrote while working as a technical author for McDonnell Douglas in Cambridge, from '89-90. It's for a program that allows you to specify where and how to reinforce concrete, should you happen to be building a reinforced concrete monstrosity. Still, I think that it's served its purpose now. I'm beyond gloating about no longer doing that work, and am ready to consign it to the recycling - but not before I take its photo for old times' sake.


North in the East

It's really strange how researching my Japan book (at least the nineteenth-century part of it) keeps me bumping into my relatives. First it turned out that Isabella Bird, author of Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (and more recently, protagonist of the manga Bird in Wonderland) collaborated with my great-great aunt Fanny to build a hospital in Srinigar. Then I discovered that Fanny's sister Annie wrote a children's book about Japan.

Just recently I've been reading Recollections of a Happy Life by the botanist Marianne North, who travelled to Japan in 1875. And who should pop up in the early pages but dear old Uncle George Butler, initially in his capacity as a headmaster and latterly as a family friend?

[My father] was born in 1800, and when a mere child of eight years old was sent to Harrow to fight his way among his elders, and endure many a hard hour of bullying and fagging. But he always spoke with pleasure of those days at school, and his sorrows came more in the holidays at home. Years afterwards, when opposing the election of Mr. Brisco,* he used to say, it "vexed him to have to do so, as he could not help remembering how he (a big boy at Harrow) had interceded with the others to put little North on the top of the victims who were to be folded up in a press bed, he was so very small" (a mode of torture very fashionable amongst school bullies then).

My father stayed at Harrow till he was Captain of the school in Dr. Butler's house, and the old Dean** used to say jokingly in his latter years that he would never have been able to get married, if my father had not kept such good order in the school and given him time to go a-courting. His daughter was one of my first friends, and is my best friend still. (3-4)

* Musgrave Brisco, along with his brother Wastel Brisco, was a name to conjure with in nineteenth-century St Leonards.
** George became Dean of Peterborough.

I'm pleased to see Louisa, George's daughter, get a mention, because she's always been a cipher to me. It was she who went on to marry Francis Galton, which I think must have been a hard row to hoe, for various reasons, although the impression I get from this book is that they were a happy couple. They pop up here and there throughout, in kindly guise: Galton also helped regularise North's spellings on Indian and Javanese place names. I suppose none of them knew what would become of eugenics the following century, and I doubt they would have approved, but still... Knowing that connection makes me revisit North's assessment of the Japanese:

The Japanese are like little children, so merry and full of pretty ways, and very quick at taking in fresh ideas; but they don't think or reason much, and have scarcely any natural affection towards one another. Everybody who has lived long among them seems to get disgusted with their falseness and superficiality.

I mean, even under the kindest reading this hasn't aged well, but in the shadow cast by eugenics it looks quite a lot worse.


Inspired by my recent purchase of my great*3 grandfather Weeden's 1821 letter about a poetry review, I decided to do a bit more digging.

I've often thought that Weeden was not a particularly happy ancestor. His father, Weeden Sr., was quite a difficult person to live up to; he may also have felt overshadowed by his younger brother George, who was not only Senior Wrangler at Cambridge but went on to be Headmaster of Harrow, while Weeden just carried on with the family school in Chelsea. Hints dropped in a memoir by his granddaughter suggest that Weeden Jr. was cast into a depression by the deaths of his wife and teenage son - the latter, in 1830, being followed swiftly by his own, at the age of 58.

That happened in 1831. Working backwards, we can see a kind of trajectory, and it's a rather unhappy one. In 1821, in his late '40s, he's writing his slightly snippy letter to the Gentleman's Magazine. Do we hear a batsqueak of disappointed literary ambition - or am I just projecting?

In 1814, he's taking over the school from his father, who's just retired - shaken, no doubt, by the death that year of Weeden and George's younger brother Charles, who was master of the East Indiaman William Pitt and drowned with all hands off Algoa Bay. Still, it's a new beginning of sorts, and Weeden's pupils include a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose family lived down the road.

In 1800, still in his late '20s, he's writing his passionate-if-eccentric anti-slavery volume, Zimao the African. How widely read it was I don't know. No one speaks of Weeden in the same breath as Wilberforce, but he was doing his bit for the cause...

Then there are the Bagatelles. This collection of poems and translations was published in 1795, when Weeden had only just come down from Cambridge - it includes some pieces written in his teens. What kind of person do they speak of?

Well, here's the Preface, in which literary ambition is scarcely suppressed:

bagatelles preface

The contents are a very mixed bag. The first poem, "The Slave," is striking enough in its subject, which anticipates Zimao. The first-person speaker, the slave Maratan, adopts a very eighteenth-century idiom, but Weeden's sympathies are clearly already engaged by the cruelties of the slave trade. Weeden was no fair-weather abolitionist:

Can I think upon the day
When I left my native home,
Forc'd reluctantly away,
To these barbarous climes to come?
Torn from countries, friends, relations,
Torn from all my soul holds dear,
To endure the worst vexations,
Under cruel bondage, here!

Yet, though thus deceiv'd I be,
And by fraud enroll'd a slave,
Still the inward man is free,
And unfetter'd as the wave.

Nor is Maratan the only oppressed speaker in the volume. The first four poems are all laments by various persecuted peoples of Weeden's time: 'The Indian Warrior, bound to the stake,' 'The American Warrior, after a defeat' ('the sad Carandoc left his native home/ Compell'd through drear Columbia's wilds to roam') and 'The Indian in Despair.' They may not be great poetry, but they're hardly the kind of frivolous production implied by 'bagatelles.'

However, after this quadruple whammy of contemporary oppression, and a fifth more historical piece, 'Belisario' ('A young Roman recites the misfortunes of his general, to a concourse of peasants, upon an extensive plain'), we move to a far more mixed set. Sadly, I have to report that much of it is the kind of thing that Lyrical Ballads (published just three years later) was destined - and designed - to make obsolete. Take the opening of 'A Night Storm':

Now gloomy Night expands her sable wings:
Now a dread silence o'er the plain is cast,
Save where the warbling Philomela sings,
Or dry leaves rustle in the eddying blast.

I mean, it's not terrible, but it's sixty years out of date. No need to look ahead to Romantics: put it next to Thompson's Seasons from the 1720s and its stiffness is too plain.

There are love poems (in which Weeden assumes the poetic moniker, Edwin); there are poems in praise of Chelsea and his father, a number of translations, a comic poem written in the person of 'A Rusticated Cantab' under the name Phileleutherus Cantabrigiensis, and so on. One possibly telling composition is called 'On Poetry,' and records Weeden's preference for poetry over science, in which study he admits that he has little skill:

Ill suits, dear Emma, with thine Edwin's powers,
The mighty lore of Newton to peruse,
[He first explain'd dame Nature's laws abstruse,
In that great work whose ample volume showers
A blaze of light, rich knowledge to diffuse
O'er each young student's mind, midst Granta's bowers.]

I love to cull the gay luxuriant flowers
Of gentle poetry, and rather chuse
To greet with numbers wild the fleeting hours,
And taste those joys Ambition's sons refuse.

I can't help wondering whether this is a preemptive attempt to claim (in the way some families have) a certain territory for himself, while ceding the fields of mathematics and ambition to clever brother George, whose Senior Wranglership happened the year before Bagatelles was published. (Having struggled with the Principia myself, I do sympathise.)

Another poem, 'Upon the Death,' is dedicated to 'A Gallant Young Naval Officer, Who Was Shot in the Action of the First of June, 1794.' The officer in question is Weeden's cousin, Richard Dawes, two of whose brothers had already been killed in the service of the East India Company, in Mysore and Bangalore. (Another cousin, Daniel Southwell, whose earlier adventures with the First Fleet I've recounted before, was present at the same battle, and wrote an exultant letter to Weeden Sr. the same day, being presumably ignorant of Richard's death. It would be three more years before Daniel too was killed, in Tenerife.)

In 'The Wish,' we find Weeden looking forward to the moment of his own death:

So, when the close of life draws nigh,
All anxious fears may I defy,
To leave this world unmov'd.
And may each liberal person say,
As tow'rd my grave he bends his way,
"Him all the virtues lov'd:
No sordid views his mind opprest,
In blessing he himself was blest,
He scorn'd all foolish pride:
The tears he wip'd from every eye,
And, ripe for Heav'n, without a sigh,
At length serenely died."

I would like to think that happened. However, the only time I find Weeden really happy is on his nineteenth birthday:

Thanks to kind Providence that plac'd me here,
To-day I enter on my twentieth year.
Oh! may no future time disturb the bliss,
The peace of conscience, that I feel at this.

I'd like to think that happened, too. But appearances and circumstances both are against it.