Wednesday, 12 October 2005

The Tower Menagerie

Listening to:

Louis Armstrong, Sweet little Papa.

Just read:

Daniel Hahn, The Tower Menagerie.

This is a cute history of the royal menagerie that was housed in the Tower of London. The menagerie probably began in 1235, when Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, gave Henry III three lions because he, Frederick was marrying Henry’s sister, Isabella. It’s an interesting comment on the zoological knowledge of the time that these animals were actually called “leopards”.

So, yes, this is a very specialised story, but it’s also an interesting one. Hahn has found a number of references to the menagerie in various histories, and is able to tell all sorts of curious stories around and about the menagerie’s evolution through the centuries. For example, the menagerie seems to have been a real tourist attraction for much of its history, allowing people without access to nature programmes on TV to see real live lions. (The lions of the Tower were apparently the biggest draw, in keeping with their role as royal symbols, but there were other animals kept there as royalty received various gifts from overseas.)

People’s attitudes to the keeping of wild animals evolved over this period, and the more humane environment of the modern zoo was eventually seen as more appropriate. The Tower Menagerie, always cramped in its castle setting, was ultimately merged into the Regents Park zoo in the nineteenth century.

This is an enjoyable read about an obscure, but easily appreciated corner of English history.

Monday, 17 October 2005

The ACT city-state

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Remember by Irving Berlin.

I saw a headline in today’s Canberra Times saying something like “Stanhope reckons ACT can inspire others as sustainable city-state”. Of course, the word “sustainable” suggests that he was saying something about the ACT’s environmental credentials. But I wondered about its general ability to inspire as a city-state within Australia.

Stanhope is the ACT’s chief minister, and won my approval when he put a draft of the federal government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation on his web-site (here). John Howard packed a bit of a sad about this one, but it’s not as if Stanhope is revealing state secrets. This legislation, or something like it, is going to be on the publically available lawbooks soon enough. Indeed, Howard wants this to happen as soon as possible, and seems to be objecting to Stanhope’s actions on the basis that letting people get a good look at the bill might just lead to them coming up with unanswerable objections to all its infringements of our human rights.

But what the ACT really needs to be an admired city-state far and wide is better book shops.

Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Walking on glass

Listening to:

Prokofiev, symphony no. 6. Seiji Ozawa conducting the Berlin Philharmonic.

Just read:

Iain Banks, Walking on glass.

This novel is by Banks in his non-science fiction guise, and there is thus a chunk of it set in modern London. However, in a sci-fi like way, another significant chunk of it is set in a mysterious castle, on a planet that otherwise seems to be completely deserted. The castle seems to be set up entirely as a very elaborate prison for two people who are forced to play seemingly meaningless board-games with each other in order to win the right to find an answer to a question. If they get the right answer they will win their freedom. This castle story is all quite intriguing, and the setting is rather reminiscent of Gormenghast (which fact the story explicitly acknowledges at one point). So I definitely liked this bit.

The modern setting has two almost entirely separate narrative threads: one features a nutter who thinks he’s secretly an intergalatic warrior, and another features a lovelorn young student. This latter thread of the plot shares the honours with the castle for emotional heft, but is wrapped up in a rather brutal way. This is not horrific, but simply made me think Feh. The nutter and castle threads eventually come to parallel one another in a rather intriguing way, so there is a bit more connection there, even though I eventually decided it didn’t really make sense. (The love-story thread isn’t really connected to the rest of the novel at all.)

Not a glorious success then, but some cute ideas. Ultimately, only one of the threads (the castle) has a story-arc I found dramatically convincing, so the other two have to be regarded as padding, with one of them an opportunity for Banks to draw an incoherent parallel.