I had to have Jessie put down yesterday afternoon. She'd not eaten for two days, and her remaining eye was suppurating badly, and I think she may have been in quite a lot of pain.

She was a big part of my life, and I'm going to miss her a lot - but I'm also a little relieved, because I was worrying how a blind, arthritic, 17-year-old cat would cope with being in a new house. (Assuming my house move ever actually happens.) She found her way round this one entirely by memory, but a new layout would have been very stressful for her.

Sleep well, little one: you had plenty of practice.

Jessica's First Lair
Does Jessie Dream of Electric Mice?
"as swimmers into cleanness leaping" 1
Brave Gelert...

Beckoned by Beacons

My friend Ayako has often expressed the desire to visit Wales. So, thinking that St David's Shopping Centre in Cardiff might not cut it, I took her to the Brecon Beacons yesterday, and specifically the Llangattock Escarpment near Crickhowell. It was actually the first time I'd been up on the Beacons - I'm normally on my way somewhere else when I drive through Crickhowell - and I'm very glad she prompted me to make the trip.

We had a little hike - maybe four miles, but with a lot of ups and downs. Living in as hilly a city as Bristol certainly helps train for this kind of terrain. The weather helped too, mind: it was about 24 degrees, which would normally be a bit on the hot side, but with a pleasant breeze and low humidity it was just right.

What can I say? The Brecon Beacons are awesome. I'd bought a book of short walks for the occasion, and the one we took was ideal, with variety of terrains, from stream beds to brackeny slopes to post-industrial spoil heaps from 200-year-old limestone quarries.

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The Exiles of Parga

If you've ever submitted an article, a poem, a story, to a publisher, you will know how frustrating it is to have to wait for an answer. Conversely, if you've ever been an editor, you will know how annoying it can be when authors pester you for one.

This is not a new phenomenon. Witness my great-great-great-grandfather, Weeden Butler the second, whose most distinguished appearance in this journal thus far has been as the "translator" (but actually author) of Zimao the African (1800), a two-in-one abolitionist fiction and pamphlet, with a dedication aimed at persuading a royal mistress to engage her lover's sympathies for the cause.

Weeden Butler (1772-1831)

I own Zimao only in a modern reprint, but have just bought an autograph letter, albeit on a much more trivial matter. To be honest, the triviality is what makes it precious to me. In July 1821, Weeden, having submitted a piece to John Nichols, editor of the Gentleman's Magazine, was, like all authors, anxious for an answer, and decided that Nichols needed prompting. In those days of course there was no post as we have it today, so he sent a servant round to the magazine's office, and told him to wait for an answer. What modern author has not wished to be able to do this?

Weeden letter front

Here are the contents of the letter:

Weeden letter to Gentleman's Magazine

Gentlemen, | I lately sent you by post a careful review of Baron D'Ordre's “Exiles of Parga,” & offered to correct a proof for you. Have you any intention to print the same? If so, pray send a line by my servant: & if not, pray return by him my review.

The letter is civil, but as one who has composed many such letters (mostly only in my head, thank God) I hear too shrilly its note of querulous impotence. I think it's fair to say that the Gentleman's Magazine was not intimidated by the threat to withdraw the review. At the top of the page one 'A N.', presumably a staffer, has added the annotation: 'This came yesterday, did not answer it.'

Nevertheless, we have a happy ending, for the review was published the following month:


As the review admits, albeit under a thin disguise of anonymity, the author of "The Exiles of Parga" was in fact a personal friend of the reviewer, which may explain something of Weeden's urgency.

Was it worth the fuss? I think so, if only for the following passage:

We applaud highly in our quondam French Emigrant the bold exhibition of this generous spirit in an occasion of moment, such as the cession by Britons of Parga to Ali Pacha: yes, we applaud it, notwithstanding the ungraciousness of certain very free remarks, severe in the extreme upon the alleged conduct of our executive government touching the transaction: a conduct still open to fair discussion, and, let us express our hope and belief, to ample justification. But--poetry delights much in fiction.

In case your Balkan history escapes you, Parga, long a Venetian possession, then held by Napoleon, had in 1815 come under British "protection" only to be sold four years later to Ali Pasha and the Ottoman Empire, where it remained until 1913. I suspect Weeden of a degree of irony here, and also in this parenthesis:

Our loyal and patriotic Baron begins his piece with an apostrophe to the love of one's country: and for himself, declares that, binding a branch of oak (British, no doubt,) upon her lofty head, his Muse aspires to the honour of first chanting the uncommon devotion of warlike citizens to the cause of freedom.

But that may be wishful thinking on my part. In any case, I can't say that the review has inspired me to read "The Exiles of Parga." And that, I feel, is as it should be. I'm going to have the letter framed and hang it in my study, as a kind of vanitas vanitatum reminder that very few of these anxious-making matters really make much difference in the end.

Balcony Alchemy

At least once a year I make a crumble from the apples growing in my garden and the blackberries growing wild a hundred or so yards away. Free food always was the most delicious - but if I ever manage to move house, this will be the last year I do it, I suppose.


Coronavirus Mysteries

One of the regular topics of conversation with my Japanese friends over the last few months has been the relative scarcity of COVID-19 in Japan, compared to the West in general and the UK in particular. I've had similar conversations with Haawa in Uganda, where the death rate is precisely zero. Of course this could all change, and there have been recent spikes in Tokyo in particular, but so far they seem tame by UK standards. I thought it might be interesting to list some of the factors that have been suggested, lest I forget in the future.

A culture of mask wearing. Japanese people (like many in east Asia) have long worn masks at the drop of a hat, so were early adopters in the case of COVID.

A culture of not touching. Bowing is much more the thing than handshakes and hugs, so less chance for transmission.

An early and strong emphasis on the importance of good ventilation and good hygiene. Seems very plausible to me, though perhaps not a sufficient explanation. The necessity of not living in crowded conditions would probably fall under this heading.

Body shape. Japanese people tend to be thin, and problems such as high blood pressure (a risk factor for COVID) are less prevalent.

Diet. Could it be something in the food that gives resistance to some but not others?

Genetic differences. Could there be some form of genetic resistance shared by east Asians and Africans but not Europeans? I discussed this with Haawa, but it seems unlikely, given that black people in Britain seem to be more vulnerable to the disease, not less.

Climactic differences. Given the diversity of the regions in which the virus has spread, and also of those in which it has not, this early contender has recently lost favour.

The Japanese have a higher "mindo". This suggestion, which I include for the sake of completeness, was recently thrown out by a Japanese politician, Taro Aso, who has a habit of saying embarrassingly semi-racist things. Mindo (民度) essentially means "class of person."

I think I've probably left a few out, so may add to this list as other things occur to me.

Meanwhile, here's another big mystery: why is the UK's death rate so large? According to official statistics, in this country about 15% of people who test positive for COVID go on to die of it. This is far higher than, say, the USA, which has the most cases and the most deaths but where the death rate figure is more like 3 or 4% (something Trump was boasting about the other day, although of course there are many countries with better rates than that).

Possible reasons:

a) the UK is just really really bad at keeping COVID patients alive. This seems unlikely, when the medical care here is on a par with that of most Western nations.

b) the UK is home to a particularly deadly strain of the virus. Odd that no one has mentioned it, if so.

c) far more people are catching the virus than appear in the figures, and the real death rate is thus artificially depressed. This seems plausible at first glance. Testing in the UK is now at a very respectable level, but it may be that the lack of it in the early days of the pandemic is still skewing the total figures. However, even if you just take deaths vs. new cases for the last seven reported days, you still get a death rate of over 11%.

If you have other suggestions, I'd be very interested to know them.

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis

MCB to Naomi

This may be the last letter my grandfather ever wrote. It was written on the 3rd May, 1970. The envelope was post marked on the 4th, and the addressee, my aunt Naomi, probably received it on the 6th (for my grandfather used a second-class stamp). By that time, however, the writer was dead. He was found on 5th May, in his bath, having died from heart failure.

In case you're having trouble with the typos, handwritten corrections, cut-off words, and the stains from Naomi's tears, I've made a tidy transcript:

Sunday 3 May 1970

Dear Naomi

This is just a short business letter.
You very kindly suggested that I might visit you somewhere about May 23, or a little earlier, and return 28th or 29th if you could arrange transport.
I should be very pleased to come, if you can do this easily.
I should like to pay you all costs of petrol there and back. That is the least I could do. If Myfy has taken me in I have usually paid her a reasonable amount for bed and board (this is between ourselves) which will not of course in any way […] for the trouble caused her in many ways by my visit. I should wish to do the same for you…. Of course.
I have cut off all engagements here, of various kinds, for that period, and rearranged visits to me from the chiropodist or home nursing (injection). So I could be ready to come any day from the 29th onwards (if I have notice), returning about 28th or 29th at latest.
If you find it inconvenient please call it off.
The Choir at the Methodist church in Kingston (Fairfield) where I usually attend, have taken my MAG and NUNC and think of performing this. The choir meets on Friday nights, and they had the music Friday night May 1st, so I suppose that they might be ready to sing it end of May or beginning of June. I rather hope it won’t be June 4th as this is the Esperanto Service. But it might I imagine be any time from May 31 onward. I have told them that I shall be away from May 24th.
If I have the date I shall send a circular round to various people to let them know. It will be a red letter day for me as the Mag and Nunc has been performed only twice since I wrote it in 1905, and I should like to hear it again.
If I get envelopes ready perhaps I might be able to duplicate a circular about it when I am in Rugeley and post the circular there. I suppose you know of some firm in Rugeley able to do duplicating.
The Esperanto Congress (British) is in Harrogate May 22-25, but in any case I can’t think of attending this. It would be too much for me.
Thanks to you, I have at last got two pairs of trousers and two pullovers. Also new shoes. So I am a real daddy.
I am rushing this off just to give you these details. There really is not much news otherwise. In haste,
Much love to all,

I look forward to eating the strawberries, peaches, figs and apricots, in your garden.

It's a very ordinary letter, but I think his personality comes through quite strongly, all the same. One thing I'm struck by is how much Avo lives in the future. (He was 86 when he wrote this, which in those days was a fair age.) It's all about his plans and arrangements, and even his one moment of looking backwards (to 1905) is in the service of a splendid future revival.

Otherwise, that combination of anxious consideration for others with a garrulous focus on his own affairs fits what I know of him, and indeed what he wrote of himself. For yes, he wrote his own obituary for the Esperanto Association ("to help them when I die"), and in it he remarks:

What chiefly attracted him to Esperanto was the amazing beauty and literary capability of the language; propaganda stunts and organization problems interested him little except as necessary evils. As a lecturer he was at home on the platform - if he had to speak on a definite subject - and he knew how to keep the attention and interest of an audience of children. But he was a social failure, being too shy to make friends and unable to take part in small talk; he was happiest when alone. An inability to remember faces was a life-long handicap, and a continual source of embarrassment. He loathed controversy, but was forced continually to write controversial articles in reply to opponents of Esperanto, or on other matters - this was necessary and useful work, but foreign to his nature, and (he felt) sometimes increased his isolation and endangered friendships.

I can't pretend that I don't recognise my own character in quite a lot of this - and certainly my prosopagnosia. What he might have made of an age of people being so profligately Wrong on the Internet, though, I shudder to think.

The Order of Things

There are many difficult aspects to learning Japanese as a native English speaker, but I think one of the hardest is word order. Japanese is a language with left-branching syntax, whereas English is most the other way round: think of the difference between "the woman who stole my jacket" and "the my-jacket-stealing woman." While the difference in pattern isn't too hard to grasp in principle, in practice when the sentences get a bit complicated it's hard to construct them properly in real time.

That's why it seems worth recording, as a mark of progress, that yesterday when I was talking to a friend on Skype and she asked me whether I'd taken a photo of the Mona Lisa when I visited the Louvre in 1986, I was able to reply that I thought the postcards on sale in the gift shop were probably clearer than any I could have taken from the back of the crowd around the painting. And I was able to do it in real time:


Picture-before-crowd-behind-taken photograph is shop-sold-postcard than clear not think.

It may not be brilliant Japanese, but the word order at least is more or less right.

Rowling's Coming-Out Essay: resources

I'm putting these links here for my own reference, but they may be of wider interest. As you can imagine, I've been following the whole Rowling situation fairly closely, and I've seen many responses to it, some good, some not so much. I thought it might be useful to curate some of the more helpful and informative ones and put them in one handy place. This list may be expanded in future (indeed, feel free to recommend additions).

Rowling's essay.

We the Mudbloods: long, heavily referenced, point-by-point refutation of Rowling's essay. NB. It's in three parts, with a link to part 2 at the end of part 1.

Video essay by a cis woman and a trans man (who are also partners). Quite user-friendly for people who aren't particularly familiar with the issues.

Video reviewing the Rowling's essay, and also discussing the ways it may or may not affect the reading experience of Harry Potter fans uncomfortable with the author's views.

Blue is a Colour, Chelsea is a Name

Longterm readers of this journal (and, let's face it, I don't have many recent ones) may remember that Suzanne Moore - author of some trenchant feminist articles that I unreservedly applaud - is, nevertheless, pretty TERFy.

Her recent article in The Guardian deploring so-called 'cancel culture' is typical of its kind. If I had infinite time I could spend a fair bit of it dissecting Moore's article. Why does she cite the recent Rowling, row, for example, without making any reference at all to JKR's views about trans women, which is what made her essay controversial? Anyone reading Moore would think that she was called out for daring to speak about her physical abuse by a cis man, rather than for her transphobia.

Again, if she really wanted to argue against cancel culture, why didn't she mention the most topical example of that phenomenon - i.e. the sacking of David Starkey from various posts (rightly in my view) for his views on slavery and his reference to 'damn blacks'? It's easy to inveigh against cancel culture when those being cancelled are advancing views you agree with. The real test of principle comes when you are forced to do a Voltaire-face, as it were, and defend the expression of views you personally find offensive. That Moore chose not to do so is telling. (Of course, there are right-wingers who are defending Starkey on the internet, using arguments very much like Moore's; however, they are groups with whom Moore would probably hate to recognise her affinity.)

I seem to have spent some time on those matters despite my best intentions. Oh well. What I really wanted to talk about was a certain phrase that Moore used:

I write this as someone who I know some would like cancelled because I continue to think biological sex exists.

You may be puzzled by this phrase, because - well, hardly anybody denies that biological sex exists, do they? Of course, some of us might say that sex is neither binary nor simple, and that chromosonal, hormonal and phenotypical varations make for a complex biological picture; but that's not to say that it doesn't exist - on the contrary. "Biological sex exists" is such a "Duh" statement that it passes almost unnoticed.

Nevertheless, it's become quite a catchphrase. When J. K. Rowling defended Maya Forstater, for example, she wrote incredulously: "Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real? @ istandwithmaya."

The reality was, of course, nothing so fatuous. This NBC News article summarises the situation, as described by the judge in the case:

[Forstater's] contract expired in December and was not renewed; she sued in March and waited for a ruling — while continuing to make transphobic statements, including (but not limited to) a link to a piece comparing the use of proper pronouns to the date rape drug rohypnol and her commentary in defense of not using people's preferred pronouns, a defense of using transgender people's prior names in public settings, another series of statements misgendering another gender nonbinary person and another defense of her right to refuse to use the correct pronouns and to openly misgender people.

I think it's clear at this point that "biological sex is real" has become a kind of shorthand for "I'm a TERF." Although crude, it is quite powerful, inasmuch as anyone coming across it without much knowledge of or interest in the subject will find it commonsensical. For example, I encountered Moore's article via a Facebook post by a friend (whom I respect) who had commented, simply, "Excellent article". Anyone objecting will, unless they can persuade people to commit the time and emotional energy to following the arguments, sound pretty unreasonable and/or pettifogging.

I suppose the racists got there first, as ever. "I'm proud of my country" sounds pretty unobjectionable, shorn of the intolerance that often attends it.

Still, I wonder whether a leaf might not be usefully taken from this book? Is there some similarly "Duh" phrase that might stand for the other side of the debate?

I believe there is, and I propose: "Blue is a colour." From now on, I intend to insert sentences such as, "People want to silence me just because I assert that blue is a colour," into everything I write on this subject. It makes at least as much sense as "biological sex is real," after all. Nobody actually denies either statement, but beyond that, while "biological sex is real" makes an appeal to "objective fact", "blue is a colour" makes an appeal to the power of culture. Blueness is deeply cultural: one language's blue doesn't match another (the "blue" of Japanese includes much that English speakers might call "green", for example). In that sense, we might say that blueness is "nothing but a cultural construct", much as TERFs say about gender. On the other hand, blueness has a real connection to physics, and can be defined in terms of certain light frequencies. More importantly, who is going to argue seriously against the proposition that "Blue is a colour?" Anyone who did so would look at least as silly as someone accused of arguing that biological sex isn't real.

To proclaim, loud and proud, that "Blue is a colour" is to highlight the ambiguous nature of the truth-claim being advanced; it is to testify to the authenticity of lived personal experience; and it is, most importantly, to state the bleeding obvious.

"Blue is a colour." It ticks all the boxes.

A Proper Gander

Montagu Christie and Amy Butler plus cousin Jane

I came across this 1939 picture of my grandfather, aged 55 (to my eye he looks rather older - perhaps because he remained pretty much like this until his death thirty odd years later), with my grandmother to his left. On the far left of the picture is cousin Jane, one of the two sisters immortalised (if such a thing can be claimed for a book long since remaindered) in Llewelyn Powys’s Skin for Skin, as detailed here. I'm particularly pleased to have Jane as an adult, as I only had pictures of her in childhood and old age until now.

Anyway, along with the picture, my grandfather had saved a contemporaneous clipping, 'reviewing' his performance as an Esperanto propagandist ('propaganda' was his word). He was indefatigable in this activity, clocking up an average of 178 lectures a year in schools and similar places over the years 1936-39. I feel this review conveys the experience of being in his audience rather vividly.

"As Others See Us!"
Having received several conflicting accounts of this language, I entered the Hall with mixed feelings, and awaited the arrival of the lecturer, Mr. Butler.

He had a captivating appearance. He literally jumped on to the platform, and gave the table such a hearty hug that that dignified piece of furniture shuddered. He beamed on us with a truly Pickwickian smile, and began his narrative of the events that led up to his first acquaintance with Esperanto. I was fascinated with his appearance. He had a high forehead, bright glasses, and a perfectly adorable little beard that waggled as he spoke.

Next he fixed up his simple apparatus, the while he entertained us with humorous anecdotes. Then he seized a packet of envelopes in which were letters and words in various colours. It is surprising how the appearance and nature of a speaker can influence one, and this speaker had personality. I was interested in his subject, perhaps, because I grasped the fact that it saved a good deal of work, which I regarded as most important. He waxed eloquent--he waxed so eloquent that his dear little beard wiggled and waggled, his eyes flashed and sparkled, and he gesticulated to an alarming extent. The real object of his lecture was somewhat lost to me in the enchanting music of his voice. He was just finishing his talk, when the same annoying clamour that releases us from our tutors sounded over the building. It was with infinite sorrow that I arose: I shall long remember my first lesson in Esperanto.

R.D. (in a school magazine) British Esperantist, Dec. 1939