Monthly Archives: October 2012

All have won, and all shall have prizes


Dark evening, public transport, dirty night, too many people, strange canapés uniting fishpaste and jam, curry and marshmallows, applaud forty-seven times (one of them sincere), dirty night, public transport.  Car.


Grimly considering which roads had fewest trees to fall and were least likely to have foot-deep floods, I swooshed and peered my way home along the most remote but highest route in the roaring blackness, driving on the crown of the road with a bow-wave on each side.  I reached home at 11.30 pm, and my front door has seldom looked so entirely lovely and virtuous.

More downs


I’d been meaning to read this for some time, and I’m mostly pleased that I have.  The author is an academic geographer, and his account of the evolution of the Downs (through clearance, interdependent sheep and corn production, the enclosure and high farming movements, agricultural depression, wartime food production, and the eventual abandonment of sheep for intensive arable monoculture) was definitely enlightening.

Brandon’s description of the cultural identity and ‘mythologising’ of the South Downs  felt less successful, partly because, while deprecating uninformed romanticism, he develops his own tendency to purple prose.  Even so, he can sometimes turn an ironic phrase:  “This belief that chalkland had a special place … was enhanced by its rarity outside England, so making it more English than any other rock …”

The final chapter is a somewhat depressing account of twentieth century tussles between conservationists and developers, between central and local government, and between agriculture and local pressure groups.  We all know who is winning, don’t we?

So I forgave the purpleness.  The chalk does engender a peculiar and passionate loyalty.  And occasionally causes one’s prose to overheat.

Outrageous charm


Zoo Quest to Madagascar has turned up on iPlayer, half a century after its first broadcast, presented  (of course) by David Attenborough.  It is the very first natural history programme of which I retain a distinct memory – especially the scene in which he re-assembles the fragments of a giant egg, which totally astonished my infant mind.

It makes a fascinating companion piece to the recent BBC series about Madagascar, showing how far natural history and ecology have progressed, and how badly the environment has declined.

And it is full of its own intrinsic pleasures,  especially the moment when young David meets the tenrecs.  Separately, both are ridiculously charming;  together, they have enough star power to light small cities.

Star stuffing


On a wet Sunday afternoon, what would one do but put swathes of pabulum on the dvd player, and start trying to get one’s head around Christmas?

The baubles are just cut and stick.  (I got the idea from here)

Before getting a face, this snowman looks very sinister:

It’s so long since I did any patchwork that I’ve lost all my templates and had to measure up and cut some new ones.

I machined up my little stars – it isn’t as accurate as hand-sewing, but much much quicker.  Now they need some bows and loops to hang them up.

Othello without the jokes


We went to Verdi’s  Otello tonight, the latest in the series of Live at the Met broadcasts shown at the local cinema.  While it’s not the same as the live experience, it’s a lot better than watching opera on tv, and a lot cheaper than a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera (not to mention the transatlantic air fare).

And Otello?  It looked and sounded like several million dollars (as it obviously ought).  The action was tragic and pointless, as it should be.   I had one or two sniggers at some unfortunate close-up shots – they can be very unforgiving – but the best giggle was the subtitle translating one of Iago’s lines:  “I feel the primeval slime within me”.  But these were mere inadvertencies.  There weren’t any intentional laughs, and  if the subtitles in any way reflected the Italian, Verdi left out all the  Shakespearian humour.

It is actually a major loss.  In a good production of Shakespeare’s Othello the audience will soon be chuckling along with Iago’s wicked soliloquies, and at least part way to cheering him on.  When it comes to the mysteries of human nature, it is still five-nil to Shakespeare.

Snoter and smerciende


I’m off into Teach Yourself Old English, skimming briskly through the first few units to get my eye in before trying to do anything serious with the Exercises.  The language has a teasing half-familiarity on the page, which emerges sometimes into comprehension when I hear it read aloud.

How, for example, would one guess that gehalgod means ‘blessed’ until you realise that the ‘g’ gives an unstressed ‘yuh’ sound, and remember our word ‘hallowed’?  Equally, flod-græg suddenly becomes ‘flood-grey’ without any problem, and once you’ve identified the thorn, on þissum geare is quite plainly ‘in this year’.  (Small cheer for WordPress putting the thorn and eth in among their other special characters – how convenient.)

But snoter and smerciende, however delightful as words, are perfectly impenetrable, leaving me tantalised in anticipation of their meaning.



Following my snide remarks about academic illiteracy in the previous post, I was delighted to find this today on the BBC news website, with one of their journalists erroneously transcribing an interviewee, one Dr. Dahl.  The context is an article about deciphering Proto-Elamite script, which has apparently defied our best minds for many years.

He admits to being “bitten” by this challenge. “It’s an unknown, unchartered territory of human history,” he says.

No surprise that a journalist (or spelling checker) doesn’t notice the difference between a charter and a chart.  However, pure joy that the item continues:

Dr Dahl suspects he might have part of the answer. He’s discovered that the original texts seem to contain many mistakes – and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.

He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.

This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years. “It’s an early example of a technology being lost,” he says.

“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”

I’m amused to see that the error has now been amended – there must be many alert people in Tunbridge Wells.

Irritating but interesting


–  or possibly interesting but irritating.

Kelly Lambert is ‘a Professor and Chair of Psychology’ and spends a lot of time with rats.  Her book includes material about rat behaviours and neurological developments in various early years conditions, mating behaviour, motivation and reward behaviour, upbringing of rat infants and the maternal imperative, and consequences of different types of stress.

The lessons to be learned from neurological activity in rats may or may not be fully transferable to human contexts, but some of them sound horridly plausible – for example, the stress responses in rats when their lives are out of their own control.  The author draws the parallels and this is indeed a major purpose of her book.

One of the things she professes is fascination with and respect for her rats, but there is an elephant in the room:  very little reference is made to the ironmongery introduced to their brains during life, and their inevitable end on a slab.  This is no book for anti-vivisectionists to read.  Leaving aside the principle itself, I’d have liked to know how she mentally accommodates her respect with the ongoing slaughter.

The irritation?  Well, quibbles in a way.  But I could do without her matey all-pals-together tone.  It felt intrusive, like someone who starts giving you proprietorial pats when you’ve only known them five minutes.  And the writing was sloppy.  For example, a professor of anything, not to mention their publisher, ought to know the difference between ‘diffuse’ and ‘defuse’, especially when the context is not in the least metaphorical but refers to land mines.  Alas for the demise of the reasonably-educated copy editor!