Category Archives: Paper

You epigone, you

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Starting a new subject with a reader is more difficult than picking up an introductory text written with novices in mind.  It does, however, have the advantage of offering a full technical vocabulary, and introducing significant writers in the discipline through their own words.

Sadly, the ‘own words’ of cultural theorists (up to Part 3) seem to be quite remarkably dreary – an uglification of English which is hard to forgive, and there are 450 pages still to go.  Some of the content is moderately interesting, but Oh! if only we could have it better said!  One honourable but momentary exception:  Laclau and Mouffe describing their critics as ‘fading epigones’.  I had to look ‘epigone’ up in Chambers, and joyed in it, a word at once compendious and splendidly disdainful.  Then it was back to uglification for fifteen pages.

This is going to be a long, long, long, long, long, long read.

Thoughts and shades

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I carefully consulted the forecast to travel on the coolest day this week, and then the Met Office sneakily turned it into a hot one instead.

I came home with eight; a limit imposed not by the librarian, but by my powers of traction.

Things to do when you can’t sleep: lxviii

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lxviii   :   Read about a hopeless case

Richard Savage was obviously a disaster of a man.

His claims to be a neglected (indeed persecuted) illegitimate child of the Countess of Macclesfield and Earl Rivers seem to have been accepted whole by Samuel Johnson, though posterity sees a possible case of fraud and blackmail.  Even allowing the dubious circumstances of his birth, it is painful to read of Savage’s appalling behaviour to his friends and acquaintances, and his extraordinary fecklessness.

Johnson treads a complicated path through his personal knowledge of Savage’s worst behaviour; a delicate hint or two of his own attempts to support Savage; his affection for Savage as his own charming friend; his awareness of other friends’ attempts to help; and his tenderness towards Savage’s failure to cope with life, which amounted almost to a disability.  I walked with Johnson through concern, disgust, pity, contempt, regret, and, like Savage’s friends, at last you can only throw your hands in the air, and declare him beyond helping.

But I couldn’t quite join Johnson in his tenderness towards this utterly selfish and infuriating man; which is why I love Samuel Johnson, especially in the middle of the night.

Compressed lives

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There was something curiously sad about reading The complete robot, though I am puzzled to pin it down.  Perhaps it is seeing Asimov’s lifetime of robot stories compressed into one slightly dog-eared volume.  The stories are arranged thematically (‘Some immobile robots’, ‘Powell and Donovan’ etc.) so there is no sense of an arc or chronology in the writing, yet time weighs on the volume.  Perhaps it is sad to be reminded how thin some of the stories are, how long ago the Golden Age happened, how much more challenging and entertaining the tales were when I was fourteen. Maybe this is the last time I will read them.Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography is mis-named, consisting only of four fragments, written at wide intervals and with purposes which changed as her life altered.  The fragments have the immediacy (almost) of a diary, unhomogenised for publication, and often raw with grief or self-knowledge.  The letters, of course, were written to be seen by at least one pair of eyes, yet again are created in the immediacy of a particular moment and purpose.  Her family life included much loss, disappointment and sadness, and her editor (who was also an adopted daughter) describes the relief with which Margaret Oliphant turned from life when informed that her final illness would be mortal.

And yet the vigour of her literary production was enormous.  I’ve read scarcely any of her journalism and none of her non-fiction works, and only a small proportion of the fiction.  Those novels I have read are not the easy romantic crowd-pleasers one would expect from a Victorian hack writer, though they are often flawed.  On the contrary:  Oliphant was capable of a moral complexity at least as challenging as anything to be found in her contemporaries, and sometimes tougher than almost anything I’ve ever read. (She could also be exceedingly witty.)  Most of her readers seem to agree that Miss Marjoribanks is the masterpiece, and certainly for me it’s pure joy from cover to cover.

A woman of so much drive and talent, but so religious, so conventional and with so few pretensions, was always going to be a puzzle to the Victorians, and I suspect she remains a stumbling block now, in spite of a developing cloud of critics and apologists.  Sometimes I think I’ll try one of the modern biographies; but then again, perhaps I’ll just let her continue to speak for herself.

All on a summer’s day

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Well it was about 80° by 9 o’clock again, so I went to water the plants before it became intolerable.  While on this placid duty, the

biggest

blackest

hugest

enormous

VASTACEOUS

WALLUMPING

bumblebee flew straight down the neck of my shirt.

Having in this compendious manner tried to achieve heat stroke and heart attack in the same encounter, I treated myself for shock and proceeded with the day.

At 10 o’clock we headed to a convenient beach.  There was a ruffling breeze and on the fairly steep-to shingle the waves made aggressive dashes at our knees.  Wet skirts were not a problem in the circumstances …

At noon the curtains were pulled against the sun and with local old-fashioned milk (full of old-fashioned top-of-the-milk) we made raspberry ice cream – yum, zingy.

And having run out of tosh for the moment, another book at 1 pm:

 

Wendy Moore has written an interesting double biography of Thomas Day and Sabrina Sidney/Bicknell.  The key narrative element is that Day, a dogmatic, wealthy and eccentric 18th century bachelor, tried to create a wife to his own specifications by acquiring and educating his own personal orphan, naming her Sabrina Sidney.  The morality of this is more complex than at first appears – less obnoxious because it did not in fact seem to cloak sexual abuse or pædophilia, and did in fact benefit his protégé in terms of prosperity and education; and more obnoxious, because the bald description of ‘apprenticeship’ barely indicates the mental manipulation, ownership, occasional physical cruelty and minute control he expected to exert over Sidney.  What could possibly go wrong?  Quite a lot, but again, no simple moral to be drawn.

It seems that the story was too good to waste, its afterlife leaking into several novels, and perhaps eventually into Shaw’s Pygmalion.  Having read this account of Day’s experiment (and also Pygmalion), I can well believe it.

And now at another 9 o’clock, it’s time to water the frazzled pot plants again.  Dare I brave the invertebrates?

Tosh

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It’s hot.  And I’m not very good at hot.  After trying to keep going yesterday, I slept eleven hours out of eighteen, so I’ve taken the hint.  Productive work has tailed off to minimal, and tosh rules.  I always feel some residual guilt at finding tales of murder diverting, but for the next day or two this is going to be the schedule.

 

Oh – and did I mention the whiff of death by the back door?  Luckily only a minor whiff, so I trust it is only a minor corpse. Perhaps it accounts for the blowfly plague, though the timing seems off.   Can’t find the body yet, so I do hope that mummification will be swift.

Recent intermission

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Reading time has been rather gobbled up.

I may have selected this based on a subconscious connection with grass and the breaking of impenetrable sod:

Somehow I have managed to miss reading it down all the years; meeting as an adult, it raised quite a few questions.  One concerns the apparently reckless way the father takes his family off on a dangerous journey.  We have gone soft now.  Or perhaps it didn’t seem as dangerous, when any life was dangerous – even staying tucked into the most secure and prosperous home could not protect you from the epidemics of infectious disease which cut swathes through many a family.  Or perhaps pressure of poverty was strong enough to drive the migrants on. Then there’s the way Ingalls apparently makes the decisions without input from his wife (ah the good old days – ‘she for god in him’ etc.) And worst, of course, are the passages dealing with the native Americans.  Ingalls is portrayed as liberal, humane, but assumes that the western country is his to take because the inhabitants “weren’t using it”, and he is furious when, having illegally moved into Indian reservation land, he and other settlers were required to leave “their” farms. Ugly.

Then there is this delicate little sippet of a book.

Ah, the pure sensory pleasure of its satiny dust jacket, the smooth crispness of the coated paper, the careful balance of text and image, the reposeful colours, the spine coherent without wilful springiness, the clean smell rising from every page turn. This made it quite difficult to concentrate on the actual subject matter, but it too was charming in its miscellany of science, technology, art and history, and although the coverage is very slight, there’s a further reading list handy at the back.

One phrase, though originally intended to be satirical, spoke truth to me as an observer:  Thomas Tomkis in 1615 characterised a telescope as “an engine to catch starres”.  Out in the darkness with the Dob, that’s just what it feels like.

Remnants

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Reindeer and the garden have cut severely into reading time.  In a remnant, I have caught up with one of my Bargains.

Reading about the ancient games was a strange mixture:  some aspects so familiar, and most so entirely alien.  I offer one quotation.

Kleomedes of Astypalaia, though denied victory in the boxing at the 492 BC Olympiad – because he killed his opponent – and despite a subsequent fit of madness that caused the deaths of sixty schoolchildren, … was likewise paid heroic honours, sanctioned by the Delphic oracle.  (p 168)

Hmmmm.

Elsewhere, I stole some time from the garden to go shopping.  Prize of the day was buttons.  Not quite sure what to do with them, but buttons always come in.  (Don’t they?)