Monthly Archives: April 2016

Why is Turner dead when you want him?


Cold reunion


We converged in the cathedral, which was at least out of the weather, and proceeded by way of the park, which wasn’t. Then there was the mill, where the mill race threw water at us from below, as we poised dizzyingly above its tremendous speed and heft.  Finally the playground and leisure to talk; I’m happy to say that we went in for afternoon tea just before it snowed.  Yes, seriously.  Though not for very long.

A solitary bookshop visit sustained my divergence as we went our ways.  Woodwork or the talents of the octopus:  difficult to choose, and I went home with both.  Woops.

(For cathedral collectors who haven’t been:  Winchester.)

Things to do when you can’t sleep: lxii


lxii  :  Grab and go

At 4.00 it was deplorably clear that sleep would not come again.  By 4.10 the legs were being stuffed into thermals.  At 4.15 I was saying good morning to the Summer Triangle.  And at 4.20 the 5″ and I, randomly embraced, went teetering out of the front door in the dark like Laurel and Hardy.

Saturn and Mars are both tucked down in Scorpius.  Mars in particular is making Antares look feeble; opposition is next month.  It should be possible to observe some planetary detail by now, but the scope and I were both bleary from our sudden bounce from cosiness to cold, and there was no time to get clever with either planet.  Saturn too is approaching (opposition in June) though unfortunately it will not be high in the sky even then – I always have trouble observing Scorpius as it tends to get tangled in the local trees.

By 5.00 the cosmos was vanishing into the unmeaning blue.  Although dawn was coming in at 3°, and the grass was stiff with frost, summer must be on the way.

Suspension of disbelief


1 minus 1Some of my experiments are in the kiln; I am yet to discover whether they come out as fine upstanding pots or a mortifying fifty fragments.  And I may say that it was pretty chilly loading the kiln this morning clad in slippers and a dressing gown (though the thermocouple is not very well calibrated for the low end of its temperature range).

This weekend I read:

2 tall shipsThis copy is from the third 1915 printing, an economical volume, bound in thin book cloth, roughly printed on cheap paper (now foxed and embrowned throughout), and what were its odds then of surviving a century of boys, dusty shelves and second hand stalls?  Yet here it is, being read once more.

The stories are all based around one fictional naval ship in the early months of World War I, when patriotism was fresh and Jutland no more than a premonition.  How difficult it is to re-cast oneself as a fourteen-year-old boy in 1915, even to decide if they found these innocent tales inspiring or risible. Did the first recipient hunker down in a quiet corner and devour the chapters in one sitting, or indite formal thanks to an aunt and then stuff the volume into a dark cupboard?  Indeed, although the context in which I acquired this suggests boys, I’m not completely sure what its target readership was:  some stories have female protagonists, though perhaps this was meant to enshrine Womanhood in the imagination of unregenerate youth.  Or were the books, as some reviews suggest, meant for adult civilians, to keep their spirits up?

A faint familiar whisper teased me as I read; though Patrick O’Brien was too good an author to copy direct, I have a personal bet that Bartimeus was on his reading list.

Not very obedient


I wanted a calm and mindless task to round off the day.  Sieving compost: just the ticket, and I’m late with the vegetable sowings.  Collecting up the equipment and various bags of ingredients, one thing was inexplicably missing.  Soon I was stomping about.  “Vermiculite!  Now WHERE are you?”  Stomp.  Rummage.  Open doors.  Poke.  “Where have you GONE?”  Close doors.  Stomp.

It was time to learn another sad life lesson.  Vermiculite is not obedient.  It doesn’t come when it’s called.


Why do I say these things?


I said:  wouldn’t it be interesting to try throwing porcelain?

I said:  that clay stash is going to be USED UP before I order any more of anything.

The two sayings, widely separated in time, have come together at last.  Because I have no more clay, except beach clay; and a bag of porcelain.

So first:  intensive cleaning of tools and surfaces.  Some potters introduce coarse dark clay in swirls and marbling to their pristine porcelain for dramatic impact, but I don’t think random smears of buff stoneware would have the same effect at all.

Next:  rehydrate and wedge up the big stony sack which has been ignored for years in the back of the garage.

And then:  the sun has moved round far enough to shine into the conservatory for an hour or two and make it livable while using the wheel.  No more excuses.

Previous attempts have been entirely feeble, so my self-appointed task was to learn the material by trying to make sixteen different shapes.  The only thing which came to mind for sixteen small experimental lumps was posy or bud vases, so off I went (labouring away like a five year old trying to make her os round and her bs sit on the line), using as little water as possible and attempting to make every touch count so as not to overwork the material.  Each fistful of porcelain sneered at me in a well-bred way, asserting its sense of the indignity of being thrown by an amateur.  And then my poky squat little objects went loppy coming off the wheel.

Potters:  is porcelain really as difficult as I am finding it, or am I just making a fuss about nothing?

sixteen blobs

Reading list


Dallying with audiobooks has left a few gaps for the written word.

As always, fond of factual books.

1 factThe make-do-and-mend and terrifying precariousness of the early SBS exploits is of course gripping stuff, though the later missions are still under security and social wraps to some extent.  I’m guessing that the unvarnished details which may emerge in the future might be nearly as remarkable.

Steve Jones’ book carries many fairly gloomy ecological messages, but also a faith in the adaptability of organisms which may be summed up in his own words as ‘grim optimism’.  Along the way, he adduces a number of attention-getting statements, of which my favourite is probably that human sperm are attracted to the scent of lily of the valley (p 146).  What I want to know is, why did it occur to some bright spark to test this proposition?

Visiting a second-hand bookshop is always risky.  I managed to confine my purchases to three:

2 fictionIt was interesting to re-read the title story of Consider her ways with an adult and post-feminist-movement eye, and see the mysogyny which Wyndham would barely have been aware of in himself.  Salutary!  I enjoyed some of Trader to the stars, especially the conceits of Hiding place, though the admittedly cartoon figure of Nicholas van Rijn presents other gender-related difficulties and is pretty irritating in any case.  Pohl’s anthology at least represents women SF writers of the period, and a good variety of classic story types.

And then there is the family saga, which lightened my burdens as an undergraduate and cheers me up still:

3 saga… the ludicrously dramatic but true story of the Hauteville clan, petty knights from Normandy who made it from hired mercenaries to royalty in two generations. Robert Guiscard, in particular, is an unforgettable character, an extraordinary combination of guts, cynical realpolitik and joie de vivre. I’ve just re-read the first volume, The Normans in the south, and will save my re-reading of the second part, The kingdom in the sun, for another time.

These are some of Norwich’s earliest books, and have a rollicking zest in the language which makes things and characters memorable:  the ‘glutinously emasculate statue of the Archangel’ of Monte Sant’Angelo;  the unreliable historian Radulph Glaber with ‘a fair claim to have been expelled from more monasteries than any other littérateur of the eleventh century’; Empedocles’ ‘long and tedious apprenticeship as a shrub’; Sichelgaita, ‘the closest approximation history has ever dared to produce of a Valkyrie’; and Abbot Desiderius, who ‘felt safe from his enemies; but God … refused to protect him from his friends’.

The last few chapters were helped along by some little herby stars, a surprisingly successful experiment except that the lovely big salt crystals tended to fall off between the plate and the mouth.

4 starlets

And do it I did


I said I would do it.  And do it I did.  I listened to the very end of the 18th disc of the apparently unabridged Moby Dick.  I would not entirely claim to have remained conscious for the whole of it, however…

1 disc 18The reading did show up some of the limitations of audio formats, and for me I think the main problem is that it is impossible to control or vary the pace.  Reading a text, one can skim, or slow down and savour, or skip like a stone across the surface.  In the cinema, it is true, one must proceed with the director’s gait, but when did you last see a film 21 hours long? And with home video, it is possible to fast forward through less congenial sections and, as the protagonists gallop across the screen, still be aware of the plot development and when to start paying proper attention again.  But it just doesn’t work with a spoken word book.

All that said, I am quite pleased to have finally got some sort of grip on one of those novels I’ve spent many years not getting around to. Many of the chapters were highly digressive, and others partook of the shaggy dog.  I particularly noted chapters about the peculiar significations of the colour white, and about the phrenology of whales. The latter, Ishmael admits, is difficult because a) they do not have faces b) do not have noses and c) have brains so deeply buried that the bumps on the surface of their heads bear no relation to the projections of intellect, magnanimity etc. within.  Nevertheless, he takes a crack at the subject.  In view of this, I feel empowered to deliver a judgement:  Moby Dick is, on the whole, a portentous Tristram Shandy with added cetaceans.

While listening, I have knitted, and run some more experiments with the hand-building clay.  Don’t think it is my style really, and not sure about this one at all:

2 hmmmHighlight of the day was a particularly elegant cloud:

3 grace