Tiny Traumas

"You have cute elbows," said a small piece of graffiti that I passed this morning.

That may seem rather a random message, but it brought back very clearly a time, about 15 years ago, when I actually did secretly pride myself on the cuteness of my elbows. Other parts of my body might have started to sag and wither, I would reflect, but my elbows were pristine - pert and smooth, and altogether (as it seemed to me) in remarkably good condition. I even said as much to the person I was with at the time, when the subject of "body parts I can bear" came up.

I was surprised and rather appalled when they laughed at me. Even now, I'm not sure whether it was the general idea of elbows being cute or my particular claim that elicited such mirth. Either would have been humiliating in its own way. In any case, it knocked my elbow confidence for six, and I've been careful not to flaunt ever them since.

Meanwhile, yesterday I took a turn around Bristol harbour. I realised I'd never actually sought out Banksy's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' with or without its COVID-19 addition, so I finally did, before moving on to the the boatbuilders in Underfall Yard, where they are halfway through fashioning a tidy keel for 'Mad Ray of Rye.'


A Ridgeway Encounter

Yesterday I went with Ayako to White Horse Hill, to see the cluster of prehistoric sites that are gathered within convenient walking distance there: the Uffington White Horse, Dragon Hill, Uffington Castle, the Ridgeway and Wayland's Smithy. I'd been there only once before, I remembered, and after a bit of casting around I realised it must have been in the summer of 2004, when I was driving from Bristol to Oxford to consult back issues of Cherwell as part of the research for Four British Fantasists. Little did I know on that occasion that I would be spending the night in one of the filthiest B&Bs in England, but that's another story. It must have been around mid-August, because I remember seeing the Boscastle floods being reported on the news that night.

Anyway, it was quite a long time ago, and I realised that I'd filed White Horse Hill away in my mind under the heading "a long drive," because at the time I had far less driving experience altogether. In fact, however, it's only just over an hour from my house, as I realised yesterday with some embarrassment.

The weather was a bit cloudy, but that at least meant we had Wayland's Smithy to ourselves - us and the weird grove that guards it.


The horse of course is hard to see as a whole from close up. The best I could do was from the top of Dragon Hill, the weird chalk outcrop with a flattened top that sits like a giant pimple on the lower slopes of White Horse Hill.


This is the landscape, I'm pretty sure, that gave rise to the Ridgeway Hills in DWJ's The Merlin Conspiracy, and to be sure it's easy to see these ridges, going down to what I presume was once a marsh or lake, as so many ribs of the White Dragon of England.


At one point, walking back along the Ridgeway from Wayland's Smithy, I was caught short, so I told Ayako to go on ahead while I found some convenient bushes. I looked up and down the white chalk path that is the Ridgeway at that point, saw that it was clear in both directions for a good 100 yards, unbuckled my jeans, and squatted down, as travellers have been doing on that same stretch of path for over 5,000 years.

Hardly had I begun to bestow my urinary blessing on the grateful earth when I heard the distinct sound of approaching footsteps. Not particularly fast, but purposeful, and definitely coming my way. Alarmed and surprised, I stemmed the acrid spring as best I could, and squatted a bit lower. Though I was behind some bushes, the cover really wasn't very good, and I could easily be seen from the path.

Shortly a bearded, middle-aged man came into view. He was jogging in the direction of Wayland's Smithy, albeit at a very slow pace, with a backpack on his back. Surely he couldn't fail to see me? I kept very still, relying on the frailty of human peripheral vision. Luckily he must have been in the zone, because he passed by in apparent obliviousness. His back receded, and with it his footsteps, and at last there was no sound on that chalky crest of Oxfordshire but the full-throated gargling of the nesting skylarks and the residual tinkle of an amber fountain.

Jane Austen, Quantum Physics and Melanie Klein

My daughter, who is currently reading Persuasion for the first time, met me for an outdoor lunch on College Green today. She mentioned that Austen fails the reverse Bechdel test. Not that she disapproved of this - on the contrary. As this blog on the subject puts it:

Austen, of course, being a proper Regency-era lady would never have been able to witness men talking to each other without any women around, and being the brilliant author that she was, she wouldn’t settle for secondary resources illuminating the matter.

It's certainly true that the men would have behaved differently had Austen been there to watch them. This kind of observer effect is of course familiar to those working in quantum mechanics. Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft no doubt spend much of their time talking about waves, but in Persuasion they are always particles. Perhaps, though, we should blame Austen for not boring spy-holes (double slits, if you will) in the eyes of a family portrait to allow her to eavesdrop on the men next door? More importantly, does this excuse hold good for male authors who fail the ordinary Bechdel test?

Another urgent point that came out of our discussion was the wetness of Anne Elliot. When my daughter claimed this quality for her, my immediate response was, "Just wait till you meet Fanny Price!" But then I immediately retracted, for Fanny is nothing if not incredibly strong-willed. She may be mousy, but she is a bone dry mouse.

And, walking home afterwards, it occurred to me that the story of a chaste young woman who resists the blandishments of an eligible young man over the course of several hundred pages, and whose parents live elsewhere in straitened circumstances, was one I had read before. More to the point, so had Austen - in fact it is the plot of one of her favourite author's most celebrated books. Was Mansfield Park effectively a rewrite of Pamela, in fact? The moment I saw this, I realised its truth. Except, of course, that in Mansfield Park the role of Mr B has been split, a la Melanie Klein, into two figures: Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram.

Is this a commonplace observation, or my own discovery? It startled me, at any rate. I love Pamela (guilty pleasure though it be) and have never warmed to Mansfield Park, but armed with this new insight I may give it another go.

I Dissect a Riot

Like the Giant Himalayan lily, Bristol riots bloom every ten years or so. Last time, in April 2011, it was centred on Stokes Croft, where incidents around a squat and the new Tesco opposite formed the centre of a tangled tale I did my second-hand best to chronicle at the time, at least to the extent of collecting links, most of which tended to show the mendacity of the police, who propagated fairy stories about petrol bombs to retrospectively justify their own violence.

Last summer, of course, we had the little incident with Colston's statue, when (to give due credit) the police behaved extremely well, deciding on their own initiative that they'd rather sacrifice the bronze bonce of a slave trader than the living noggins of any actual Bristolians. (This decision appears to have infuriated the Home Secretary.) However, things have reverted to type over the last few days.

I see that Boris Johnson, who is trying to pass a bill to ban protests, has condemned the protests that the bill provoked (shocker!), and that his cry has been enthusiastically taken up by the press, soi-disant Opposition, etc. And why wouldn't they, you ask? After all, the protesters broke police officers' arms, punctured lungs, and did all kinds of mayhem, as widely reported in the press the next day.

Oh, except that it turned out that this was a pack of lies. As Owen Jones has pointed out, it's pattern that has been repeated on a regular basis for the last forty years, from Orgreave to the Kingsnorth power station climate protests. Protestors are accused of violent behaviour, which a) justifies the violence of the police and b) takes up all the headlines, robbing their actual cause of publicity. Then, a few days or weeks later - or decades in some cases - it's quietly admitted that it was all bollocks.

I've no idea what happened at the protests over the last few days, since I was safely behind my front door about a kilometre away; but given the fascistic bent of the current government and the police's history of mendacity in such situations, why on earth would I trust their narrative?

A Green Thought in a Green Shade

The moss-covered trees are now flourishing in my bedroom!


Is it just a bit tacky? Possibly. Do I care? Not really. I've not slept there yet, but will be trying it out tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I've been reflecting guiltily on the fact that when I see this sign:

colston logo

my distaste at seeing Colston's legacy celebrated (at least for now)* is mitigated by my involuntary satisfaction at seeing not one but two apostrophes correctly placed - such a rare treat these days! Whereas, when I saw this on Colston's plinth the other day:

colston poo

my approval of the sentiment was almost overwhelmed by an urge to correct the spelling. I suppose this is what's meant by trahison des clercs.

* Colston's Girls' School was one of three in Bristol named after Colston. The first, my children's old primary, changed its name a year or two back; the second, a private school, is retaining it. CGS voted recently to become Montpelier High School, Montpelier (one 'l') being the area of Bristol it's in. The logo will be designed by Michelle Curtis, who also designed the Seven Saints of St Pauls - an excellent choice.

Surprise Hiccoughs!

I've now chosen and received, in roll form, my statement wallpaper. In the end, I decided to square my love of trees and my love of moss by getting a picture of moss-covered trees. What I may not have mentioned here is that my garden, being basically north facing and surrounded on all sides by fences, only gets sunlight on one half, so I'm hoping to make use of that fact to introduce moss there too. Even now, a local company is coming up with designs (which I never could) to transform my square of astroturf into a bird-and-insect-friendly haven of shivering long grasses, moss, culinary herbs and water, with tubes of bamboo that occasionally go bonk. That was the brief I gave them, anyway, but looking over it now, I think it may be hard to turn into a cohesive vision. It's perhaps a bit more like this picture, which hangs at the foot of the stairs to my room:

British hills sign

Meanwhile, I had my AstraZeneca jab, felt ill for a day, recovered, and am busily turning myself into an antibody factory. Bish bash bosh. Now all I need do is avoid catching COVID in the next week or two, by which time the resistance should have built up. I'm not sure I could stand the irony.

I've been reading about The Mikado, and also Gilbert's children's book based on the same, The Story of the Mikado, published in 1921 but written some time between 1907 and his death in 1911, when he was clearly smarting from the temporary banning of all productions during the visit to the UK of Prince Fushimi.

Obviously, the names and so on in The Mikado (Pish Tush, Pooh Bah, Nanki-Poo, etc.) are not making any attempt to sound Japanese, but oddly there are a few snatches of Japanese verse in there, such as the lines Yum-Yum's bridesmaids sing to prevent Kati-sha revealing Nanki-Poo's true identity:

O ni, bikkuri shakkuri to!
O sa, bikkuri shakkuri to!

"O," "ni" and "to" have multiple meanings in Japanese, and it's difficult to pin down just what they're up to here, if anything. But "bikkuri shakkuri" make a sort of sense, being the words for "surprise[d] hiccough." A G&S site I consulted said that no one had been able to make sense of the lines, but I wondered whether "bikkuri shakkuri" might indeed be a set phrase, and duly Googled it. It turns out that "Bikkuri Shakkuri" is at any rate a song from 1980, which can be heard sung by many a Japanese school choir of that time, and perhaps since.

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As you can see, in the 1980 version the song is about the importance of retaining a sense of childlike wonder, a project on which I am continually working, even by writing this post. Now, my question is, was Akira Ito (who wrote the lyrics) a) drawing on a well-known Japanese phrase, b) making a sly allusion to Gilbert and Sullivan? Might it even be a coincidence?

Child-like minds want to know.

Annoying Anime Titles

Things are sometimes lost in translation - I understand that. Cultural references can't always easily be preserved. Quite a lot of anime titles in English are not exact translations of the Japanese original, and that's fine.

But there are some cases where they seem to have gone out of their way to shoot themselves in the foot before sticking it in their mouths. And I want to take a moment to rant about a couple here.

Attack on Titan. When I first saw this title, I assumed that it was an about an attack on Titan, the moon of Saturn immortalised by Kurt Vonnegut. Or, if not that, an attack on a titan from Greek mythology. Or just on something very big.

In fact, it's about giants (many of them) attacking a small remnant of humanity. Japanese doesn't have plurals, so there is indeed an ambiguity in the title Shingeki no kyojin (進撃の巨人), but the natural translation is surely "Attack (or Charge) of the Titans"?

Then there's Weathering With You, about a girl who is able to control the weather. In Japanese, this is Tenki no ko 「天気の子」, which translates as Weather Child - a perfectly adequate name in my opinion. Whereas, in English the word "weathering" suggests, at best, a stone being worn away over time. It might be appropriate if the film were a tribute to an aged Baucis and Philemon couple who'd gone through thick and thin together, who'd weathered storms and come out of it a bit weathered themselves. But that is not a good description of the film's teen protagonists. The English title is awkward, unnatural and confusing.

In both those cases, you wonder how much trouble it would have been to find an English speaker to run those titles past.

I also have a third grumble, though in this case it's no fault of the Japanese. The letter at the end of Dragonball Z is, naturally enough, pronounced "zee" by Americans, but in Japanese, where they take their hint from British pronunciation, it's "zetto." What is slightly annoying is that even British and Australian fans invariably pronounce it "zee" - even when they are also fluent in Japanese (yes, Joey the Anime Man, I'm looking at you). What gives with that?

Yes, these are trivial matters, but I have a lot of marking to do, so I had to come here and write about all this instead.

Doors and Walls

It's all change here at Steepholm Towers. Although the UK has been under lockdown for the last several weeks, Haruka has managed to land a job with a Japanese company in London, and moves there today. The interviews, conducted by Zoom, were in Japanese, with a bit of English customer-service role-play. I'm really very impressed - both because she managed to beat some 30 other candidates at her first attempt, and that such an opportunity existed in the first place. Of course, it helps to be Japanese to get it, or even to know about it. It seems there's a whole sub rosa world - a Jafia, if you will - of Japanese job, accommodation and childcare sites, through which expats here support each other. No doubt it's the same for immigrant communities everywhere.

I'm very happy for her, though I'll miss her company. However, I'm not letting my Washlet go to waste! My other young Japanese friend, Ayako, will become my tenant in almost exactly a month. Until then, I have the run of the house.

My last two big projects for the house are a) the garden - currently halved equitably between plain decking and equally plain astroturf - and b) some kind of statement wall in my bedroom. Of the garden, more in a future post, but I'm currently musing about the wall. Because my room is below a sloping roof, one of the walls is very tall (about 3.3 metres): it seems a shame not to do something dramatic with it.

Getting wallpaper from Photowall is one possibility, and I've been having fun browsing their catalogue. At first I thought something natural and foresty would be good. Unfortunately, most woodland scenes are landscape, and my wall is basically portrait; cropping out most of the trees makes such views far less atmospheric. Still, a single Yggdrasil-ish tree could work. Tunnels and paths look good, but tend to lead straight into the room as well as out of it, and I've no wish to create an inadvertent portal for something from the Thither Side. Since it's a bedroom, the moon is also a strong possibility. Then again, I appear to have discovered an unexpected appetite for kitsch.

What do you think? Which of these would you put on a way 2.9x3.3m wall - if any? Feel free to browse the catalogue!

Teaching Your Grandfather that Eggs Suck

I've had occasion in these pages to reflect with melancholy ambivalence on my family connection to Francis Galton - but this week brought to light another connection to another rather dubious Francis, albeit the link is not in this case familial.

In the roll of causes and activities that were considered respectable in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but are now very much not, eugenics probably tops the list; but also present is the collecting of birds' eggs. In my attempt to build a small library of Butler productions, I recently bought a copy of great-great-uncle Arthur's British Birds, Their Nests and Eggs, published in six volumes in the mid 1890s. I've left the armchair in shot, to give a sense of scale:


I do like that quintessentially 1890s lettering, don't you? The illustrations within are mostly line drawings, by Frohawk, but he also provided several full colour plates of various birds' eggs:


Of course, there's nothing wrong with a scientific book providing this kind of information. This is a book of facts about birds, right, not a collector's manual? I'm far from having read the whole text, but so far I haven't caught Uncle Arthur with his hand in a nest - however, his disarmingly conversational descriptions, full of personal reminiscence as they are, reveal him as an avid trapper and breeder of wild birds, which is hardly much better.

What really struck me, though, was the inscription at the front of my copy:


The recipient, Francis C. R. Jourdain, was at this time a mere curate, and had as yet published nothing on ornithology, but that would change within a couple of years of reading Arthur's book. Of course, I'm not claiming that the shells fell from his eyes on that occasion, although the volumes contain numerous memoranda of errata in what I assume is Jourdain's hand, and I think we can say that he read the work with close attention.


From around 1899 to his death in 1940 he would be an ornithologist of renown - though with a reputation for ill temper that earned him the title Pastor Pugnax, so Wiki tells me. With Lord Rothschild, he founded the British Oological Association, renamed in his honour at his death as the Jourdain Society. In an age when stealing eggs had ceased to be seen as a respectable hobby for either scholars or schoolboys this organisation became notorious, and a police raid at a Society dinner in the mid-1990s led to six convictions. What a difference a century makes!

I'm not sure who the giver, Frances Jourdain, was. Wife? Sister? Not his mother - she was Emily, apparently. His siblings were quite a distinguished lot, it turns out. Among the rest, I'll just mention Margaret Jourdain, who besides her personal achievements became the partner of Ivy Compton-Burnett, one of my favourite mid-century English novelists. Does anyone else read her now?

Admittedly, inspiring Francis Jourdain to steal eggs probably isn't in the same league, morally speaking, as inspiring the Nazis to practise eugenics. But it does continue a rather sinister trend. To quote one of my favourite lines in Compton-Burnett (the speaker is a young child, the subject a hen), “Perhaps it ought not to do a thing that ends in dying."