Dogged by Dirty Beasts

There's a nice John Finnemore sketch in which Pachelbel gets annoyed by people only ever wanting to hear his Canon and ignoring his more ambitious work. This is of course a common phenomenon. My brother, serious contemporary composer, is dogged by his setting of Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts poems (initially narrated by the author himself), which has been performed and recorded far more than his other pieces. Richmal Crompton came to resent William Brown, Conan Doyle couldn't shake off Sherlock Holmes, and so on. Rather than be grateful for having had one more hit than most people, it's easy to focus on the fact that you are going to be remembered for something you don't consider your best work.

My father greatly took to a picture I drew at primary school, a portrait in pastels of six duckling chicks which had recently taking to wandering up our lawn. He framed it and hung it on the wall, perhaps as an earnest of things to come. Later, when I was a published novelist, he would still hark back to that picture in a way that clearly implied my creative output had been going downhill ever since.

You are Not to Agree with Him

So anyway, I was looking at my page just now, and had a similar sensation. Not everything I've put up there is for download, but of those that are the top 3 are an eclectic mix, and don't necessarily represent anything like what I'd have predicted or think of as my best:

1: 'Tolkien and Worldbuilding' - 3,920 views.

This 2013 casebook essay is far and away my most read piece. I think it's a pretty solid piece of work, but why so much more successful than the rest? I suppose it got on some reading lists.

2. ‘“You are feeling very sleepy…”: hypnosis, enchantment and mind-control in children’s fiction’ 1,435 views.

This is a surprise entry - from an article published in 2005 (and written three years earlier). It doesn't connect to any of my main research themes, but it's an original piece. I once saw it recommended on a page written by a hypnotist, which I found flattering - perhaps it's mostly hypnotists who download it?

3. ‘Experimental Girls: Feminist and Transgender Discourses in Bill’s New Frock and Marvin Redpost: Is He a Girl?’ - 530 views

This 2009 article is to date my only publication on gender stuff, and has done pretty well in download terms - I assume for the theme rather than because the world is awash with Fine or Sachar researchers.

Contrarwise, the lowest scoring piece is the only one that ever actually won an award: ‘Alan Garner’s Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of “Tam Lin”’ was ChLA Honor Article in 2002, and is about one of the authors on whom my critical reputation rests. It has 47 views.

Go figure.

My Bookshelf is an Ossuary

Well, it’s very strange to think that I’ll never be going back to the house where I spent most of my childhood (from the age of 8, but even before that it was my grandmother’s for a while). When the sale finally completes on Friday, I’ll have no official connection left to Romsey, and no urgent reason to there again – although, since it lies halfway between Bristol and Brighton, my brother and I have agreed to meet there regularly and chew a wad of melancholy fat.

Meanwhile, my mother’s ashes sit in a pot, in a jute bag, on a shelf above my sofa. We’ll get round to scattering them at some point, but there’s no hurry. Various piece of furniture are in storage in Bristol, my current house being too small for them. I ended up taking more mementos than I’d meant, on the principle that I could get rid of them later if they turned out not to spark joy (or even memory). My mother was not sentimental about objects, though, and her house was not exactly awash with keepsakes. We left much of the bulky brown furniture that she herself inherited, but I took the cabinet that used to house my grandmother’s television, and that my mother had had made into a cupboard for glasses. I took her childhood copies of The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh; some of my father’s pots. My daughter, whose eye is excellent, had the run of her clothes.

I thought I was handling it all rather well till I burst into tears on the threshold as I was leaving for the last time, but that’s to be expected.

In other news, I am watching another in the Fate franchise on Netflix – a series that pits “heroic spirits” from myth and history against each other in a war for the Holy Grail. If mythic eclecticism and gender bending are your bag, you’re in for a treat: the last episode pit Chiron, Joan of Arc, and Astolfo (goofiest of the champions in Orlando Furioso – hippogriff included!) against Jack the Ripper, who was ably supported by Atalanta. Astolfo and Jack are both female* in this version, as for that matter is Mordred. I remember when I first watched a Fate anime, I was surprised to find Cúchulainn and Gilgamesh in the same show – but that was just the beginning.

* Jack is a small girl, who embodies the misery and anger of the poor in Victorian London. As good a theory as many.

An Area the Size of Wales

Today I'm in my mother's house for the last time ever. All being well, the sale should go through next Friday, and I don't expect to be here again before that. I'll write a proper post when I have more time, but before I head back to Bristol I just want to share this, from her official Welsh school atlas (published 1936). You know how people always talk about geography, rain forest loss, etc., in terms of "an area the size of Wales"? Well, in 1930s Wrexham that comparison was gloriously realised in page after page. Here, for example, is the map of northern Africa:

Wales map

But what's that indomitable splodge of pink in the bottom left-hand corner? You guessed it...

Wales map crop

There were giants in those days.

Anglo-Saxon Attitude

I had no idea until today that the word "Anglo-Saxon" was in any way controversial. Apparently it's because I hang out in the wrong part of the internet.

Anyway, I learned from a colleague that "Anglo-Saxon" has been co-opted by white supremacists in America, and that because of this there are demands that the term be dropped by scholars (e.g. historians of Britain between 500-1100C.E.) generally. My colleague is writing about just that period, and is having difficulty finding acceptable alternatives.

Is that a fair summary of the situation, or am I missing important context?

I feel fairly conflicted. On the one hand, if a term is being used by racists I'd rather avoid it, to avoid a) giving them credibility and b) appearing racist myself.

On the other hand...

a) I'm not sure what alternative terms are both available and widely understood.
b) Racists have also adopted terms such as "English" and "British," but there's no demand to drop them: why is this different? (Also, letting racists effectively dictate what words can be used seems like a kind of capitulation.)
c) There seems something imperialist in the idea that because something is unacceptable in the USA it must be so throughout the world. (I was sad to read that the Japanese government intended to efface the swastika symbol from tourist maps - where it indicates a Buddhist temple - because it might be misinterpreted by Westerners. Isn't this similar?)

Anyway, I'm sure neither of the facts nor of my own opinion, so I'd appreciate any help in clarifying either.

A Commutation

At 7.30 this morning, halfway across the Second Severn Crossing, I had Wales and the setting full moon framed by the bridge arch ahead of me, England and the rising sun framed by the other bridge arch in my rear view mirror. Steep Holm was to my left, and to my right the Marches; the blue sky above, the sea below.

It was beautiful, but although I felt momentarily that I was the centre of the universe - or of a diagram of the universe - it was also strangely vertiginous, as if I were a recording angel hanging from a trapeze.

And then I was commuting again.

Japanese Diary 41: What do they know of English, who only English know?

Being made to think about the hidden rules of English is a major side-benefit of learning Japanese. The other day I watched a helpful Youtube video about the passive voice. Now, I'd learned the grammatical form of the Japanese passive a while ago, but I hadn't taken in how differently it's used.

For example, in English we would use the passive for a sentence such as "This castle was built 700 years ago," and the same would be true in Japanese ("このお城が七百年前建てられました。"): so far, so similar. However, the Japanese also tend to use the passive in other places where English speakers would not. Suppose someone stands on your foot in the bus. In English, you might say "Someone stepped on my foot." Grammatically, you can make that same sentence in Japanese ("誰かが私の足を踏ました"), but it sounds pretty unnatural. More likely you'd say "My foot was stood on" ("足が踏まれた"), leaving the "somebody" out altogether.

Of course, that would sound slightly unnatural in English - but then, why don't we also say, "Someone built this castle 700 years ago"? What are the rules in English for determining when the passive is used and when we use a "dummy" marker like "someone"?

I'm sure linguists have thought about it, but I don't know what their answers are.

Henge Wars

Possibly no one before me has hit on the notion of taking photographs of Stonehenge. Well, today you are in for a treat! But what's the best way of seeing it? All moody in the lowering clouds?


Or with the stones' bright shadows telling the hours like so many gnomic gnomons?


Or in close up, now with added crow and some heel stone groupies off to the left?


Or, finally, with Ness coming back to survey the scene of former triumphs in Nintendo's game Earthbound (or so I was informed by my companion)?


The forecast for yesterday was strong winds and heavy rain, and so indeed it proved, but there were also moments of relief, as you can see, and my second expedition with Moe, this time to Wiltshire (the first, to Somerset, being recorded here), was a lot of fun, scary floods at the bottoms of valleys notwithstanding. It's become our established pattern to do far too much in one day, and yesterday we covered Stonehenge, Avebury and Lacock (village and Abbey). I'd not been to Stonehenge since they built the visitor centre and grubbed up the road that used to branch past it from the A303 - although I often see the monument itself from said A303, going back and forth to my mother's house. In fact, I think my last proper visit was in around 1982, and rather disappointing it was, with the stones being set (as I remember it) quite a way off from the makeshift fence. At that time, though, I was still probably griping about not being able to walk among them as I had in my childhood. The new set up is actually pretty good, with a little shuttle bus taking visitors the half mile or so between centre and stones. Of course you can walk in the rain if you like, and some did.

But still, I will always prefer Avebury, I think, trilithons notwithstanding, because you can get up close and personal, and put your feet on the Devil's chair. It's really become as Wicca-ish as (and rather more Druidic than) Glastonbury in the last generation, which may irritate some, but not me.


We were in Lacock for Harry Potter-related reasons, but did take time to see the window from which in 1835 Henry Fox Talbot took the first photographic negative, kick-starting modern photography. Which was kind of cool.

There were soggy sheep everywhere yesterday. In a field of about a hundred just beside Lacock Abbey, not one was moving and I wondered whether they might even be ornament, not living animals. Then one did, but rather than infer that they must all be alive, my immediate thought was that this was the only animate sheep in a field of sheep statues, and that it must be seriously weirded out.

In fact, however, the only weird one was myself.

Further up and Further In!

Ancestry has updated its DNA estimate for me twice since my first results, and I'm getting less and less cosmopolitan as a result. At first, my genetic tentacles stretched more or less through the continent.

DNA map

A later revision saw a considerable retrenchment, though I was still to be found in France, Germany and the Low Countries, and had a charming pied a terre in sunny Sardinia.

DNA map updated sept 2018

The latest iteration, however, has me confined with almost offensive exclusivity to the British Isles.

DNA 23-10-19

It's true that I'm not aware of any continental forebears since Jean Renatus Giberne and Marie Le Menuet escaped here from France in the 1690s, and together they make up less than 1% of my genetic inheritance - but is it likely that my family would be quite so insular? Perhaps it is.

The graphic sequence irresistibly reminds of the opening credits to Dad's Army; but that's probably just a sign of the times we're living in.

Summer's Setting

Yesterday was likely to be too stressful (for Brexit-related reasons) to stay at home, but luckily I spent it very pleasantly in Somerset instead, with my new friend Moe (whom I met through Toki, who in turn was a stranger who interrupted me in a cafe a few months ago to ask whether I was studying Chinese).

Our schedule took in Stanton Drew, Cheddar, Glastonbury and Wells, which added up to a day of just the right length for October. I don't think there's anything here that won't be at least a little familiar from former entries, but it's always nice to see it through fresh eyes, and Moe was an entertaining and appreciative companion. I had the pleasure of introducing her not only to these places but also to Melton Mowbray pork pies. Here are few photos, anyway:


We were lucky in our choice of day: not only was the view from Glastonbury Tor particularly good, but we happened to land in the town on the day both of a Fairy Fayre (sadly I took no photos, but refer you to the Cottingley girls) and a zombie parade, including this Zombie Morris (click through to the video):


Wells Cathedral's west front was particularly attractive in the late afternoon light, but the moat around the Bishop's Palace was sadly swanless. Could this be a Tower of London/ravens kind of deal?