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Though justice against fate complain,
And plead the ancient rights in vain;
But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak.

There was a catch in my voice as I read these lines to a hall of first-year students yesterday, in the course of a lecture comparing Marvell's "Horatian Ode" with Horace's Ode 1.2 (in translation, naturally). I'd been asked to give a couple of lectures on rewritings, and this was the first: next week, The Owl Service and "Math ap Mathonwy"!

If there's one thing you take away from this lecture, I said, or words to that effect, remember those words and take them to heart. Rights aren't out there sitting immutably in some Platonic realm: they're human creations, and have to be protected by humans. (Pace the Declaration of Independence, there's nothing self-evident or innate about them.)

A little off-topic, perhaps, but it was hard to avoid the contemporary resonances of both poems at a time when Europe and America appear to be in the process of being "cast... into another mould". Not that either Trump or Farage (or any of the various continental Faragistes) has a scintilla of the genius of Octavian or Cromwell, but I fear that in today's world they don't need it.

On a side note, though, I noticed for the first time that this poem does the same thing that Trump does in his speeches, shifting register and providing self-translation or additional comment as if for his deaf granny. The long couplets tend to use an elevated register, full of abstracts, personifications and Latinate words, which is supplemented by a demotic, everyday, occasionally cynical register in the short couplets. You can see it clearly in the lines quote above, but they're not unique. Take, for example:

’Tis madness to resist or blame
The force of angry Heaven’s flame;
And, if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,

The first two lines are elevated, the second a kind of water-cooler village pump conversation, mulling over the recent news. Or, immediately following:

Who from his private gardens where
He liv’d reserved and austere,
As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,

The first two lines are serious, the second two parenthetical whimsy. In a more muted form we find the same contrast here:

He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try;

Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head
Down as upon a bed.

Elevated language in the long lines, with the short lines devoted to a) a piece of witty black humour, or b) a homely simile, in both cases free of non-English words. Well, that's by the by, but I record it here as an aide-memoire.
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It's a common meme amongst people who hate Jeremy Corbyn that his supporters are all cult-like devotees who are obsessed with their hero; but in recent months the only people who seem obsessed with Corbyn are his critics, who can't seem to shut up about him. To judge by the Facebook pages of some of my friends (friends only in a Facebook sense, in some cases), all the woes of recent times have been Corbyn's doing. You'd think that he had called the referendum; you'd certainly think that he had campaigned for a Leave vote; you'd think that he had insisted on leaving the single market - and now, apparently, the real significance of the Government's curtailing of the Dubs amendment lies in Corbyn's failure to stop it (in some unspecified way). For a leader of the opposition whose MPs have been in open revolt from before the moment of his election, he apparently wields an amazing amount of power.

Of course, if push came to shove my friends would admit that all these acts were actually perpetrated by the Tories, but it seems that they couldn't have done it (despite having a parliamentary majority) had Jeremy Corbyn not allowed them. That enrages them far more than the acts themselves. At any rate, they never post against the government but only against the opposition.

It seems to me that this constant blaming of the opposition for the acts of the government is the very essence of letting said government off the hook - the very thing, in fact, that they blame Corbyn for. It's bizarre; but it's been the pattern at least since last June, when the Labour rebels chose the moment of greatest Tory disarray - the aftermath of the Brexit vote - in order the launch their bid to replace Corbyn as leader. What a friend the Tories have in the PLP - and in their cheerleaders on Facebook and elsewhere (The Guardian, I'm looking at you).

A curious coda: in the tradition of Schroedinger's Immigrant, who simultaneously steals your job while lazing on benefits, we now have recently begun to witness attacks on Schroedinger's Opposition Leader - who is both the great betrayer of the Remain voters (for voting in line with the referendum result), and the darling of the liberal metropolitan elite, hopelessly out of touch with Labour's working-class heartlands. But clearly any stick will do, as long as it draws attention from the evisceration of the NHS, the betrayal of refugees, the uselessness of Trident, the shambles of the Brexit ministers, and such like minor matters.
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I encountered this person striking Anglo-Saxon attitudes in Romsey market place this morning. He cheerfully gave me permission to take his photograph, and seeing my quizzical look explained the reason for his get-up, namely the Anglo-Saxon Family Fun Day taking place at King John's house. We were getting on quite well, but then he had to spoil it by adding, "You might like to come along, if you've got children or, er, grandchildren."

Now, it's true that someone of 54 may very well have grandchildren, and in fact I know several people younger than me who actually do, but this is the first time someone's put it to me quite so bluntly. Even muffled against the cold, surely my youthful mien shines through? Apparently not.

When I told my mother about it a little later, she cackled gleefully - like the wizened old crone she is.
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The other day I listened to The Film Programme's discussion of Alice Guy's 1906 film, "Les Résultats du féminisme", in which we are shown a world where "feminism" has triumphed and men and women have effectively exchanged roles. You can see it here (it's only 7 minutes):

Apparently Guy (by then Alice Blaché) made another film with a similar theme but a future setting, In the Year 2000 (1912). Alas, that one is now lost.

The studio discussion assumed that Guy was making a feminist point herself, highlighting the treatment that women receive in the real world by showing it happening to men. That may well be right - but more than anything I was reminded of the anti-suffrage postcards produced around the same time, with very similar images of a world in which feminism has triumphed and men are reduced to domestic servitude while their wives carouse and put their feet up. Nothing very feminist about those - nor indeed about the Two Ronnies sketch series The Worm that Turned (1980), which is actually cited as a parallel by one of the studio guests. (This compilation I've linked here is 90 minutes long, but watch the first four minutes and you'll find you've had quite enough. I remember it all too well from 37 years ago.)

It's not that I don't believe Guy's film is feminist: without knowing something of her political opinions, I really couldn't say. But it's a striking instance of how the very same (or very similar) images can have opposite meanings, depending on the assumptions with which one approaches them.
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Anyone doubting whether Trump's instincts were fascistic will I hope have had their doubts satisfied by his first week in office. Terrible as the events at the airports have been, in Pollyanna mode I'm hoping that they will have given serious second thoughts to people thinking of voting for Le Pen in France. This (and worse) is what you'd be voting for: don't say there's no way you could have known.

If Le Pen is defeated - better, humiliated - it may stop the populist right in its tracks in mainland Europe. If not - well, après elle, le déluge.
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I must get into the habit of writing down the snatches of conversation I hear while passing other people in the street. They always seem more intriguing than my own - or indeed than they would be themselves were they not tantalizingly curtailed. In the last 24 hours I've made a bit of an effort to do this. First, at university yesterday, walking to my seminar room:

"Of course, it's rare for my father to be best friends with someone who's not a policeman."

"I can't believe Stan Lee is still alive. That'll be such a sad day."

Then this morning, sitting in the cafe near the toilet, handy for passing traffic...

"Will it still be snowing? Will it still be snowing on the mountain?"
"If it's not still snowing, will we still be allowed to play?"
*thinks about it*
"When we go to Switzerland I want to take a carrot, some coal and some sticks."

"It's a whale, for sure."
"Yes, it's a whale."
"It's a killer whale."
"It's some sort of whale."
"It's a killer whale."
*I look up. The girl's toy is a killer whale, all right. But aren't they really dolphins?*
"What are you going to call it?"
"Killer whale."
"That's not its name, that's what it is. You could call it Sally, or Jimmy, or Freddy, or Julia...."
*they disappear into the toilet. I hope she sticks to her guns and calls it "Killer Whale"*
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I've been trying to remember (without looking it up) at what point in my lifetime certain kinds of takeaway restaurant became commonplace in the UK. By "commonplace" I don't mean "available somewhere in the country" but "available in a typical mid-sized city" - say, a Derby, a Southampton or a Swansea.

This is my impression (but remember I lived my first 18 years in a small market town, so my knowledge is limited):

Common from before I was born: Fish and Chip shops, Chinese takeaways

1960s on: Indian takeaways and other curry houses

Around 1975-80: American-style hamburger and pizza places (Wimpys had been around longer than that, but seems a bit different in my mind, and not that commonly encountered)

1980s: Kebab houses

1990s on - everything else.

Is that reasonable? Have I left anything out, or got anything badly wrong? Remember, I'm not talking about London or the other really big cities - and of course cities with large immigrant populations from a particular country would probably have that country's food ready in takeaway form earlier.

Also, when did people start saying "to go" instead of "to take away" in this country? My impression is that this Americanism started in coffee shops like Starbucks and spread from there, which would put it the early years of this century. Do you agree?

And, on a different topic, have you noticed that "tsunami" has now almost entirely replaced "tidal wave" in common usage? It was not always so! On the other hand, I sense that "rickshaw" is being edged out by "tuk tuk", so the tide of Japanese-origin words is not entirely unchecked.
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The old mobile phone advertising slogan, "The Future's Bright, the Future's Orange" has been going through my head for the last day or so - can't think why...

Anyway, idly searching the phrase on Youtube I came across this 1999 advert, imagining a dystopian future world in which Orange has become a vast, all-controlling panopticon, micromanaging the lives of everyone and interposing itself in human relationships at every level.

Although at one point (0.51) we read that Hillary Clinton is running for the US presidency, the news is greeted with scornful, uncomprehending laughter by the complacent white family at the film's centre, who are unaware of how their autonomy has been usurped by the all-powerful Orange Corporation.

It's nightmarish stuff - complete with creepy clowns (4.05). Watch it (and then live it) if you dare...

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When I went to Taiwan in 2013 I had exactly two words of Chinese at my disposal - meaning "thank you" and "hello". I was ashamed of this lack, naturally, but got by just fine because English was everywhere on signs, and my host (Dutch herself) was fluent.

Anyway, I just had a bit of "Duh!" moment, which makes me realise that I actually know quite a bit more Chinese than that - albeit the Chinese of some 1,200 years ago. The thing is, when the Japanese imported characters from China, they not only assigned those characters to native Japanese words, but also kept the Chinese readings (as I discussed here). The general rule is that native readings ("kun" readings) are used when the kanji is on its own, and Chinese readings ("on" readings) are used in compound words involving more than one kanji. So, for example:

Character: 山
Kun reading: yama ("mountain" in Japanese)
On reading: san
Japanese for "volcano" (火山): kazan

Character: 小(さい)
Kun reading: chiisai ("small" in Japanese)
On reading: shou
Japanese for "primary school" (小学校): shougakkou

Character: 年
Kun reading: toshi ("year" in Japanese)
On reading: nen
Japanese for "annual" (年間): nenkan

Character: 心
Kun reading: kokoro ("heart/mind" in Japanese)
On reading: shin
Japanese for "worry" (心配): shinpai

And so on - several thousand more times...

Anyway, it only just occurred to me to check the on readings against modern Chinese, and results are pretty striking. Take examples above:

On reading: san
Modern Chinese for "mountain": shān

On reading: shou
Modern Chinese for "small": xiǎo

On reading: nen
Modern Chinese for "year": nián

On reading: shin
Modern Chinese for "heart": xīn

Assuming this works more generally (and I've tried it on quite a few words now), it means that if I ever get around to learning Chinese I'll be off to a flying (if somewhat antiquated) start.
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To be a one-hit wonder: first, catch your hit. Alternatively wince along with John Finnemore's sketch, starting at 4.58. With a "musical" reprise at 23.46...

And, while I'm linking, RIP Clare Hollingworth.
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So, in my dream I was reading a free newspaper, which reported that Ollie Murs had been killed in a freak accident, in which a deer had somehow got into a party he was attending and kicked him in the head at a spot where his skull was of unusual thinness. It was an accident waiting to happen, apparently.

How do these things find their way into print, even in dreams? I've barely heard of Ollie Murs - I don't think his name has ever passed my lips, and I certainly couldn't have told you his hair colour - yet there he was in my dream newspaper, his red hair caked with blood. I can only imagine that a hazy memory of Princess Beatrice stabbing Ed Sheeran in the face with a sword while pretending to knight James Blunt must have been at the back of it.

Not content with that, my subconscious (which clearly still had some copy to fill) added that by bizarre coincidence it was forty years to the day since rock drummer Ginger Baker was strangled in bed by an octopus that had escaped from a nearby aquarium. There was even a helpful inset picture of an octopus, so that I'd know what one looked like. Cheers for that - and for the five minutes of anxious Googling I spent on waking, checking up on the health of Mr Murs.


Jan. 3rd, 2017 08:26 pm
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I went to the bank to sort out some business for my mother today, and the man there needed to ring her to check some information. "It takes her a while to get to the phone these days," I said, "so it'll probably go to voicemail while she's mid-dodder. If it does, ring her again in a minute."

It happened just as I'd said. Later, my mother asked: "Did you really say 'mid-dodder'?" She pretended to be offended, but was actually laughing. She added that the secret to staying safe in the house at an advanced age was: "Do everything at a pace that makes snails sneer."

I hope I'm a phrase-maker when I'm 92.
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Does anyone today use Barthes' five 'codes' (hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic and cultural) except in the context of teaching Barthes' ideas?

I mean, I see (for example) Bakhtin's concepts and terminology being used all the time, but I can't remember the last time I saw an essay that drew on those codes because the writer thought they were the most helpful way of understanding a text. But perhaps I'm just living in a non-Barthesian bubble?
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Remember Facebook? I don’t suppose anyone else gives it a thought, now everyone’s gone over to Livejournal, but for me and my generation it was a godsend. Knowing that all my embarrassing rants would disappear into grateful oblivion with a matter of days, that I would never be able to link to any of my posts, that there was virtually no nesting structure for comment threads and that the site was constantly reformatting in attempts to hoover up personal data and maximise advertising revenue... That lack of functionality was just what I needed to get me out of the house.

We shall not see its like again!

(Oh, and Happy New Year, everyone!)
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That was a bit strange. I just watched the 8 Out of 10 Cats Christmas special, which I'd recorded on the 21st. To my surprise, one of the panellists was Carrie Fisher - talking about her plans for Christmas, among other things...

The most unfortunate line was from Aisling Bea: in answer to the question, "Which is more exciting, waking up on Christmas morning or going to the new Star Wars film?", she remarked, "What's the alternative to waking up on Christmas morning?"

I don't see this episode getting a repeat any time soon.
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British Winter Solstice tradition: pop over to Stonehenge (round about now) to watch the sun rise over the heel stone. Except that it's drizzling there at the moment...

Japanese Winter Solstice tradition: take a hot bath with a few dozen aromatic yuzu and some friends.

Which to do, which to do?

Stonehenge is only an hour away by car, but I feel strangely drawn to the yuzu option. Except that I can't buy yuzu in this country! Would satsumas do at a pinch?

(In Satsuma, by the way, they don't call satsumas satsumas, they call them mikan. My friend Chiho was surprised to hear that the region had somehow become the name of a fruit in English. I, conversely, had to stop myself from laughing every time she mentioned "the Satsuma wars" or "the lords of Satsuma".)

I was so enamoured of yuzu when in Japan that, wandering around the streets of Kyoto (as I think I mentioned here at the time) I made a little rhyme to express my love, in the style of Cole Porter:

There's a fruit called the yuzu I eat all the time;
It's bitter, but better than lemon or lime.
If you too like yuzu, feel free to share mine!
Won't you do the yuzu with me?

Now it occurs to me that, many years before, I had also improvised a paean to the humble satsuma - to be sung to the tune of "We'll have a Dalmatian plantation":

I am a satsuma consumer,
Consuming satsumas all day -
It's not just a rumour,
Consuming satsumas
Has chased my blues away.

But - oh no! I don't have any satsumas either!

Oh well, Radox it will have to be... And happy sun-returning.
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Christine Lagarde must be delighted that Donald Trump was elected President. Perhaps only in the era of moral topsy-turvydom for which he has now become the figurehead (having been elected partly on the platform that he is a braggart and a liar) could being convicted of a criminal offence be spun quite so brazenly as if it were an acquittal. From the BBC report, for example:

"There's a point in time when one has to just stop, turn the page and move on and continue to work with those who have put their trust in me."

The French government also confirmed its confidence in Ms Lagarde, who was reappointed to a five-year term at the IMF in February.

On Friday, she told the trial she had always acted in good faith and the suspicion she had lived under for the past five years had been an "ordeal".

Reading this out of context, I think anyone would assume that Lagarde had finally proved her innocence after a long trial, rather than being found guilty of criminal negligence in her duties as a Finance Minister. If that doesn't disqualify you for being head of the IMF, what does?

But of course there are other things to concern, distress and distract us. A terrorist attack in a Christmas market. The total balls-up that is the current British Government both at home and abroad. Trump's latest appointment of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel. And Aleppo - already fading from the news after, what? Two days?

Recently I've had an old Genesis song running through my head...

Let's skip the news boy (I'll go and make some tea)
Arabs and Jews boy (too much for me)
They get me confused boy (puts me off to sleep)
And the thing I hate, oh Lord!
Is staying up late, to watch some debate, on some nation's fate.

But of course, that's just how we're meant to react.
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Chris Broad is one of my favourite J-Vloggers, but in this Christmas special he has excelled himself. If you've ever wondered why I'm hooked on Japan, watch - and wonder no more.

For more information on the village where Jesus spent the last 70 years or so of his long life as a garlic farmer, see this article, linked from the video, which also has compelling evidence for the story in the form of Hebrew survivals in the local dialect. (Okay, Jesus spoke Aramaic, but let's not split hairs.) Oddly, the place has been visited by the ambassador of Israel; but from the Pope? Not a dicky bird.

Also: why isn't Shingou twinned with Glastonbury?
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My friend Marie was kind enough to invite me and a plus-one to the preview of the Strange Worlds exhibition on Angela Carter which she's curated at the RWA, so last night I went along with my other friend (I do have more than two friends, I hasten to disambiguate), Htay. It's a truly fabulous exhibition, and I highly recommend it if you have more than a passing interest in that old Bristolian, or in unsettling art generally. I saw quite a few of my old colleagues and students too, which was nice.

While I was there, I was buttonholed by a researcher doing a survey on reactions to the exhibition, which I happily gave. At the end there was the usual information about age, race, etc., for their equality stats, and as usual under "gender" they had "Male", "Female" and "Transgender" as three separate and mutually exclusive options - language which mirrors the Equality Act (2010), which habitually refers to "men, women and transgender people" as if there were no possible intersection between these categories.

This is annoying in several related ways. First, it forces trans people to choose whether to erase their gender or the fact that they are trans. Given that choice, I imagine that most (like me) answer according to their gender; but if they want the information for some legitimate statistical reason, the information on the number of trans people will inevitably be rendered inaccurate in consequence. At an art exhibition this is probably of no great moment; but in other contexts it could be used as an excuse for not providing services for trans people because we're too few in number.

But also, it's just such a clunking category error: a bit like saying, "Which is your favourite kind of car? Fiats, BMWs or blue ones?" Trans is not a gender, after all, but a fact about the relation of one's gender to one's body. Logically, they should have boxes marked "trans" and "cis" if they want to collect that information - but that of course would be horribly oppressive to cis people...
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Well, I really enjoyed Makoto Shinkai's Your Name (Kimi no na ha) - the anime film that's taken Japan by storm this summer. I watched it at the local multiplex, but I think it's got a limited release more generally, and I highly recommend it as a film that is a) beautiful, b) funny, c) clever, d) touching. There's no doubt it deserves all its plaudits. Some of the scenes were stunning; there was a great running gag about breast-fondling; and I don't think I'll easily forget how to make sake from rice and spit.

And yet... I don't know, I was expecting to be more moved by it. Perhaps my expectations were too high (I'd been excited for weeks); perhaps the bottle of Wiper and True IPA I took into the cinema had its effect; perhaps I was in the wrong mood, although I don't think so. I cry easily at films, and at much worse ones than this, but Your Name left my ducts untapped despite having just the sort of plot that should have had me bawling. I've been thinking about it since with pleasure, but largely intellectual pleasure, mixed with a slight sense of irritation. I wonder why?

The feeling is rather reminiscent of the one I tend to get from the novels of Neil Gaiman. When reading, say, Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane or The Graveyard Book I feel, here is someone who is thoroughly steeped in fantasy convention, has all the tools well within his command, and knows exactly how to use them. A craftsman, in fact, and a good one - but still, there's something missing that makes my admiration fall short of love. When I read Gaiman, I involuntarily switch into a mode somewhere between writer and critic (rather than reader), noticing his techniques, his devices, his references, and quite unable to keep my head below water. I like his work, but can't bring myself to love it; many worse writers engage me more.

Probably the fault is in myself rather than these stars, but if I were to turn this into a kind of back-handed compliment, I'd say that Gaiman (at least in the books I've read) has stayed too far within his own safety zone, doing the things he knows he can do well. Because he can do many things well, his safety zone is very large - so large, in fact, that it's in danger of turning into a pocket universe from which he can't escape.

But escape he must.


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