Thursday, 1 November 2001

Drunken-ness and debauchery

Listening to:

Cesaria Evora, Miss Perfumado.

I’m an employee of St. Catharine's College. We have been in the news recently. In The Times and the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, there were stories about drunken behaviour by the students. So, there you go, real fame at last!

Monday, 5 November 2001

Writing well and Guy Fawkes

Listening to:

Bach, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, the “Wedding Cantata”, BWV 202.

Still reading:

James Joyce, Ulysses. Over the weekend I read Nausicaa (Bloom meets a pretty young woman on the beach), and The Oxen of the Sun (Bloom meets up with some others in a hospital bar (?) as a baby is being born elsewhere in the same hospital).

Some nice advice on writing well, from a Harvard philosophy professor.

Today is the 396th anniversary of an early failed terrorist plot; that of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament in 1605. I wonder how 11 September 2001 will be remembered in 396 years time.

Wednesday, 7 November 2001

Election turnouts and syndication

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 4 in C major, op. 112.

Electoral Matters

After the headlines this morning at 7:00, the Today programme had an interview with an MP from a committee on revitalising Britain's democracy. People reckon there is a problem because turn-out for the last general election was the lowest since 1918. The government is going to do all sorts of “mechanical” things, like investigate the possibility of internet and telephone voting. The MP said that we still use a system that Gladstone would recognise, pencils on paper in polling stations.

At the same time, the government is due to announce its plans for the reform of the House of Lords today. Apparently, it wants to have no more than 20% of its members directly elected. The rest will be appointees. If you’re a power-crazy politician in the House of Commons that can’t stomach the idea of elected politicians in another House, outside of your direct control, I reckon you should make members of the Lords be chosen for life by lottery. It would make for a representative sample, and if this sort of thing was good enough for the Athenians why shouldn’t it be good enough for us?

Of course, what they didn’t touch on, but should have, was the possibility of proportional representation. If people knew that their votes would actually contribute to the election of members of Parliament, they might be more inclined to go out there and do it. Consider my constituency, Cambridge. The results for this constituency show that 23000 votes were wasted; they weren’t cast for the winner of the seat, so tough luck. (Anne Campbell won the seat with 19000 votes.)


In other news, I’m pleased to announce that I’m now a syndicated columnist. This site for the “senior community” has started to put selected book reviews of mine up in their book review section. I wonder if I should ask them to link back to these pages as well.

Friday, 9 November 2001

The Ionian mission

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 6 (Sz 114).

Holiday reading:

Patrick O'Brian, The Ionian mission.

This is the eighth book of the series. I wasn’t as impressed with this one as I was with the first seven. It starts well, with Aubrey and Maturin “messing about in boats” in the western Mediterranean, blockading the French fleet based in Toulon, and getting to grips with a new crew and ship. The Ionian aspect of the story comes along quite late in the tale, and seems tacked on to the rest of the narrative in fairly desultory fashion. So, my verdict is: weakest of the eight, but I’ll still read the next one. (It’s on the List for a start.)

Another strategy they might adopt in the UK to “encourage” civic participation is to force people to vote. This is what happens in Australia (you can be fined if you don’t vote). I’m reminded of this because Australia is having a General Election tomorrow.

Tuesday, 13 November 2001


Listening to:

Haydn, string quartet Op. 50, No. 6 in D major.

Just read:

James Joyce, Ulysses.

I read the final four sections of this over the weekend. The four sections were Circe (Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Dublin's red-light district, principally them in one particular brothel), Eumaeus (Bloom and Stephen on their way home afterwards, stopping off in a night shelter), Ithaca (Bloom and Stephen back at Bloom's home), and Penelope (Molly Bloom's reflections after Bloom comes to bed).

First up, it’s worth saying that this is not an easy book to read. I spent quite a proportion of my time flipping backwards and forwards between the main text and the endnotes that explained obscure allusions, translated the Latin phrases, or pointed out that the four lines just read should actually appear at the top of the facing page. (The latter sort of problem arose because the edition I read aimed to be an honest reproduction of the first 1922 edition, which was itself plagued by all sorts of typographical problems. It had to be printed in France because no publisher in the US or the UK would touch it. Pity the poor French type-setters who had to deal with the world's most complicated English novel, full of neologisms, deliberately ungrammatical sentences, and allusions to obscure Irish politicians and personalities that they would never had heard of.)

Even if you had a perfect, error-free edition in front of you (the very interesting introduction to the edition I read explained how this is still probably an unrealisable dream), Ulysses would be difficult. The initial chapters (up until Aeolus) are relatively conventional in style (particularly if you've read Portrait of the artist as a young man), but from that point on things get more difficult. Each chapter after that point tends to be written in a different style. For example, Aeolus is written in short paragraphs with various “headlines” interspersed through the text, Penelope is written as one very long continuous internal monologue in just four sentences, and Circe is written as if it were a dramatic script (but with parts also given to inanimate objects like buttons).

In addition to difficulties you might have because of the style, some of the subject matter can be difficult to follow because Joyce really does try to “put everything in”, or at least convince you that this is what he’s done. The text is full of names, and comments about the people behind them. Some of these are fictional people, so you can only expect to know as much as Joyce is willing to let you, but many more are the people who really would have been thought about by the Irish of Dublin in 1904. I had a vague idea of who Parnell was, but most of the other references went right over my head (prompting yet more turning to the endnotes).

It all makes for an over-poweringly rich, though somewhat bewildering, experience. I think I can see why some Joyce fans try to recreate the characters’ peregrinations around Dublin on 14 June every year. I will have to read it again.

To read next:

A history of London in maps, by Felix Barker and someone else.

Thursday, 15 November 2001

Some Links

Listening to:

Vaughan Williams, symphony no. 3.

Some links

Monday, 19 November 2001

Entry #234

Listening to:
Arnold, symphony no. 7, Op. 113. This recording is of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, conducted by Andrew Penny, on Naxos. It says that it was ``recorded in the presence of the composer''. It's still a little strange and new to me, but I think it's a piece I'm going to like.
Just read:
Felix Barker and Peter Jackson, The history of London in maps. This book is a survey of London's history as a city, as portrayed by a long series of maps. As the chronology progresses, it's neat to see the city grow across the countryside. For example, what is now Euston Road near King's Cross and Euston Stations was originally conceived as a London bypass and called the New Road. It went through fields, and nearby estate owners complained that dust from the traffic would adversely affect their animals. (See also here for an aerial photograph of the area.)

The book covers all of the ``usual things'': the Great Fire of 1666, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the Blitz in WW2, as well as a slew of others, like maps put together in the 19th century for cab passengers to use to calculate distances and thus correct fares (just in case their driver was cheating them; there were no meters in cabs until after 1900). All of the maps are accompanied by prints, paintings and photos of relevant things as well. The closing map is of the Docklands area, which seems a little prosaic, but it probably was the most extensive change to the large-scale structure of London in the early 1990s, when the book was published. The narrative thread is a bit disjointed, presumably because the available material dominated what was to be said.

Now reading:
Kenneth Clark, Civilisation; a book based on a famous BBC TV series from 1969.

Wednesday, 21 November 2001

Moulin Rouge

Listening to:

Mendelssohn, symphony no. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish”.

A recent movie:

Moulin Rouge. I quite liked this film. It’s essentially a film musical, with frequent interruptions for songs. (See also Woody Allen’s enjoyable Everyone says I love you for another recent example of the genre.) Somewhat unusually, the songs are all existing, relatively modern pop-songs, and rather incongruous because the movie is set at the turn of the 20th century. Surprisingly, this works well and is part of the movie’s charm. However, I felt the finished product wasn’t totally sure about whether it wanted to be a farcical comedy or a tragedy. Tragedies often include comic elements (Shakespeare’s tragedies exemplify this), but Moulin Rouge didn’t succeed in putting the two things together. I’m not sure, but maybe the comedy was too farcical (the remake of Madonna’s Like a virgin was hilarious but also completely ridiculous), or maybe there was just too much of it. The music was very good, particularly the remake of Roxanne, though Ewen Macgregor doesn’t have much of a singing voice.

Just a month or two ago, in my review of Portrait of the artist as a young man, I provided a link to a web-site all about Joyce that seems to have subsequently disappeared. (It has apparently fallen off the Domain Name Service.) So, just in case you’re desperate for more Joyciana, here’s another site, written by someone who also maintains their own weblog.

Friday, 23 November 2001

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Listening to:

Shostakovich, violin concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor, op. 129.

A recent movie:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I saw this on Tuesday night, and thought it very enjoyable. It’s a good adaptation of the book, so that I’m sure that if you liked the book, you’ll like the film. It’s quite an honest adaptation; nothing very significant gets missed out, and there isn’t any addition of spurious material either. The film has to get through quite a lot of plot, so it does perhaps feel a little rushed. It’s possible that people coming to the film without having read the book will find a little confusing. Here are some Web reviews:

This more general article from The New Yorker is also interesting, though a little bit gushing (a good review of the film is also linked to from there).

Tuesday, 27 November 2001

Civilisation & The Railway Children

Listening to:

Mozart, The Magic Flute.

Just read:

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation.

The book of a TV series? Is this the sort of thing a high-brow publication such as mine should deign to consider? Well, it does date from over 30 years ago. In those days, TV series, particularly if made by the BBC, were serious, fine, morally upstanding affairs with real intellectual weight and grit. Not like the trash we get today, of course. Kenneth Clark was also the father of a famous Tory MP who fancied Margaret Thatcher, so I’m sure that makes all the difference.

Regardless, I liked this book. It’s a slightly odd survey of European art since the Dark Ages. In the first few chapters, Clark insists that he’s not interested in Art, because it’s quite possible to create Art without being civilised. Instead, he wants to track the progress of civilisation. This is a somewhat unusual slant, and I don’t think he really thinks the ideas through properly. However, they make for some interesting interludes.

Clark is also quite happy to make broad statements of a contentious nature without really backing them up. At one point he says something like the great tragedy of Germany is that it never developed its own clear prose style. This sort of thing is perfect for after-dinner debate, and it certainly makes you sit up and take notice. I found it stimulating, but I can imagine others finding it very irritating. I was willing to ‘cut him some slack’ for being a reactionary Tory because he wrote well, and also because he says lots of sensible things too.

The book concentrates on the visual arts and architecture. When it briefly digresses to sing the praises of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven it illustrates what I found with jazz in On the road; it’s nearly impossible to write about music and really convey the experience that listening to it would elicit. (The TV show would have at least been able to play samples of the music.)

Clark finishes his detailed coverage at the end of the 19th century, and writes just a little about the 20th century and how it might score in terms of civilisation.

E. Nesbit, The railway children.

I read E. Nesbit’s books a lot as a child, and enjoyed them all. They’re appealing stories, written without condescension and a nice ear for children’s dialogue and thought processes. The Edwardian setting didn’t put me off at all; rather, I enjoyed the exotic-ness of the horses, carts, gas-lights and servants. I think I liked the books that featured magic and/or time travel the most (books such as Five children and It and The story of the amulet), so I don’t have any real memory of reading The railway children. Coming to it again as a Much Older Person, I found it to be an impressive mix of charm and emotional oomph. It has a happy ending, and everything turns out well within the book’s various sub-plots, but you would have to be a cynic with a heart of stone not to be moved by the emotional climaxes of the story.

Interestingly, Harry Potter also gets most of its emotional oomph from the “lost parent(s)” theme. I guess it’s a safe staple for children’s literature.

To read next:

Granta 68: Love stories.

Friday, 30 November 2001

Swimming goggles

Listening to:

Handel, concerto grosso in B flat major, Op. 6, No. 7.

I went to buy some swimming goggles on Wednesday. Going into a likely looking sports shop, I was somewhat amused to see that at least three quarters of its floor space was given over to clothes. No exotic implements for strange and unheard of sports hanging from the ceiling, just piles and piles of leisure wear, football shirts and crap pop music. Still, I did eventually find some goggles.