Friday, 4 June 2004

The Aussie -o, and a great worm story

Listening to:

Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante in E flat, K.364.

I’ve recently been noticing the truth of a claim I first read about a while ago: when Australians want to form a diminutive, they often add o. For example, a bottle-o is a bottle shop, or what an American would call a liquor store. A book I spotted in a shop recently was a DIY volume, all about how to do renos (renovations), and at a catered buffet meal I went to on Monday evening, the vegetarian plate of sandwiches was helpfully identified as the vego meal.

This is yet another way of distinguishing Australians and New Zealanders: I’m pretty confident that you’d never hear any of the above in New Zealand English. (This list features more examples that I can’t claim to have heard myself: garbo, and servo.)

And if you felt that was all a bit abstruse, I’m sure you’ll just love this story about a man and his tapeworm (it’s very amusing, and not really that gross, honest).

Tuesday, 15 June 2004

Clarissa Oakes

Listening to:

Beethoven, Cello sonata no. 3 in A major, op. 69. Played by Sviatoslav Richter and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, Clarissa Oakes.

This, the umpteenth volume in the 20-book series, is quite a good read, though perhaps a little slow-moving. It has Aubrey and Maturin back in Polynesia for the first time since The far side of the world, and features lots of ship-life: the ways in which a cloistered, and rigidly hierarchical society reacts to changing circumstances. In this book, the changing circumstances are mainly brought about by the unexpected presence of a woman, Clarissa Oakes, on board. The series’ familiar characters react to her in a variety of ways, and she’s an interesting character in her own right.

All in all, this volume’s focus is definitely the study of character. O’Brian does this well, but the plot is pretty low-key. A dastardly French scheme is eventually dealt with in the later sections of the book, but there’s not a great deal of “action” otherwise. Moreover, this scheme’s defeat has something of a “tacked-on” feel, though it’s not as bad as in The Ionian mission. There are no dramatic sea-battles at all, and the one violent conflict in the whole novel happens very much off-screen.

Thursday, 24 June 2004

Europe in the High Middle Ages

Listening to:

Bach, The well-tempered clavier, Book 1. This recording is played by Angela Hewitt on the piano, and is published by Hyperion (serial number CDA67301/2). I bought this recording just a fortnight ago, and I definitely like it. My other recording has Bob van Asperen on the harpsichord. What with the Naxos recordings of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which are all on the piano too, and a version of the Goldberg variations on piano, my music collection is losing its ideologically pure cast.

Particularly with Bach, one can’t afford to be too precious about this: Bach clearly intended lots of his keyboard music to be played on whatever instrument was available, and towards the end of his life, was even approached to try out new-fangled forte-piano instruments that were being developed at the time. In any case, the criterion for judgement has to be whether or not one finds the music beautiful. With Hewitt there’s no doubt: I’ve had the CDs on many times in the past two weeks.

Just read:

John H. Mundy, Europe in the High Middle Ages, 1150–1309.

This big fat book covers the given period in detail, but without often managing to convey much of a unifying theme. If there’s a big, simple story to tell to summarise this period, Mundy doesn’t come out and give it to the reader explicitly. Instead, the reader has to construct it themselves. Given that I read the book over too long a period, I didn’t often feel that I had enough detail in my head to allow such a synthesis.

Here’s my best attempt: this period is characterised by the growth in power of the states, particularly France, the miniature states of northern Italy, and also England. Simultaneously, the German empire is collapsing. In the religious sphere, the papacy asserts its dominance over local ecclesiastical hierarchies, but otherwise loses influence over the states.

This story is very much behind the scenes in Mundy’s book. Instead, his pages are dominated by descriptions of various aspects of medieval life in this period. For example, he talks about various social classes, many aspects of the Church (monasteries, itinerant orders, cathedrals), and the economy. I was particularly fascinated to hear that in this period, various states started issuing tradable debt. In other words, you could buy (and trade in) the equivalent of national bonds. Mundy is very good on how this activity interacted with the Church’s prohibition of usury. In an earlier section, he also discusses how Jews fared in performing this activity themselves.

Hinted at, but never explicitly dealt with because they come after his time period, are the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Mundy gives the impression that these are going to completely devastate a continent that is otherwise developing in a variety of fascinating ways. Sometimes it seems the best efforts of humanity count as naught in the face of random environmental hostility. (No doubt they brought the war on themselves, but the Black Death doesn't seem fair to inflict on anyone.)

All this good stuff is tied together in a way that is rather bitty (again, not helped by my reading it over such a long stretch of time). Mundy also has a writing style that is quite dry, and that occasionally results in sentences that have to be read twice in order to figure out what they mean.

Now reading:

Joseph Conrad, The duel and other tales.

Monday, 28 June 2004

Love for sale; links

Listening to:

Dinah Washington singing Cole Porter’s Love for sale. This is a pretty seedy song:

Appetising young love for sale.
Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that’s only slightly soiled...

I have another version of this song, sung by Ella Fitzgerald. Though she sings more verses than Washington, and is as musical as ever, Fitzgerald really doesn’t compare, in this instance at least. Washington’s distinctive, almost raspy, voice is perfect for this lyric and she nails it with a slightly derisive, cynical tone. Fitzgerald sings the same words in a smooth and melancholy tone, making the song rather disturbingly creepy. Creepiness is a perfectly reasonable feeling to convey when singing a tale of sleazy prostitution, but that doesn’t make the song as enjoyable to listen to.

Some links:

Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Good on the Supreme Court

Listening to:

Beethoven, cello sonata no. 2 in G minor, op. 5 no. 2. Played by Richter and Rostropovich.

At stake in this case is nothing less than the essence of a free society. Even more important than the method of selecting the people’s rulers and their successors is the character of the constraints imposed on the Executive by the rule of law. Unconstrained Executive detention for the purpose of investigating and preventing subversive activity is the hallmark of the Star Chamber. Access to counsel for the purpose of protecting the citizen from official mistakes and mistreatment is the hallmark of due process. Executive detention of subversive citizens, like detention of enemy soldiers to keep them off the battlefield, may sometimes be justified to prevent persons from launching or becoming missiles of destruction. It may not, however, be justified by the naked interest in using unlawful procedures to extract information. Incommunicado detention for months on end is such a procedure. Whether the information so procured is more or less reliable than that acquired by more extreme forms of torture is of no consequence. For if this Nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

Justice Stevens, quoted in SCOTUSblog

Salon has a good summary.