Dangerous Reading?

Let me start with an attempt to reassure the people of Berkshire.  I have no specific reason to believe that either ravenous wild animals or violently felonious persons have escaped from local incarceration and are now wandering the streets looking for victims.  Nevertheless, it is always as well to be prepared for the unexpected when leaving the relative safety of your home.

As so often, I refer to the imbibing of the written word by way of the optic nerve (and a whole bunch of ancillary equipment: or ‘my brain’ as I like to call it).  I am currently reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker: a very entertaining guide to the art of better writing.  If we are all very lucky, this could lead either to a marked improvement in the quality of blog posts or to the complete cessation of the blog as I am too ashamed of my terrible style to further subject it to public scrutiny.   The most likely outcome is probably ‘business as usual’, but with the author being rather more self-conscious about his soi-disant style for a couple of weeks.  Still, I think we should all take a moment to savour my commitment to an improved experience for you, the viewing few.

Almost the first imperative quoted in the book is ‘Omit needless words’ – a phrase which would mark the death-knell of GofaDM (in which, frankly, all the words are needless) – but fortunately he is quoting from an earlier sage and seems to soften this view once the reader leaves the introductory shallows for the abyssal deep of the book proper.  I currently live in fear of Chapter 6, where our hero will discover how irredeemably he has mis-used the humble comma over the last 690-odd posts.  Still, comma-abuse isn’t (yet) a crime under the Laws of England and Wales (though given the rate at which recent governments have been issuing new statutes, it may only be a matter of time).

As a counterpoint, I am also reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (in translation I would stress) which is a collection of his works.  I’m not sure that any style guru (past or present) would wholly approve of his work: though some of that may be down to the translation.  Rarely have I had so much recourse to Mr Collins to look up new vocabulary.  The short stories are commendably brief, but rich with unsettling ideas: I spend much of the day befuddled in one way or another (so no change there, then).

Before this latest wave of book-based befuddlement, I read David Adam’s The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: a fascinating insight into OCD.  From this, and despite my regular forays into somewhat obsessional behaviour, I can be pretty sure that I do not have OCD.  It did, however, suggest that I might be a psychopath.  Sadly, my reading in this field has been limited and nothing further is currently scheduled, so for some time I shall remain in a super-position of psychopathy and relative normality.  In my defence, I would note that, in recent years, my 8.25″ cook’s knife has only been used against targets from the Plant kingdom: so I probably won’t run amok in the near future.  Once again I must stress that I have no reliable foreknowledge of an imminent threat to the people of Reading.

Despite the dangers to both this blog and my mental equilibrium, I can thoroughly recommend a little unsettling reading.  Let’s hope it produces an improvement in quality, or at least style, in time for the celebrations to mark post 700!

† Subject to availability

The Danger of Short Stories

I’m not really a fan of the short story format: or so I thought.  As it transpires, I don’t know me very well – a fact which seems to be brought to my attention increasingly frequently as the days practise their merry dance across my ageing bones.  I am starting to think that my self-image was preserved in aspic some time in the 1990s and is badly in need of an update (very much the antithesis of the approach taken by Java).

My self-image is far from the only item of frequently changing data which has been subject to premature ossification in what passes for my memory.  The price of beer is forever frozen at 99p per pint (pace Joey Holts as once served in The Blue Bell in Moston) and a price as high as £2.50 is viewed as excessive and only to be entertained by the over-paid fools resident in London.  Sadly, the price of petrol is similarly fixed as 44.9p per litre – based on a price once paid at a petrol station lying somewhere between Sharpthorne and Lewes.  As a consequence, purchasing either liquid in 2015 is a painful experience for the author – though evidence would suggest he is better able to overcome the trauma of purchasing the former than the latter.

Whilst we seem to be digressing into the area of traumatic pricing (don’t you love the way I effortlessly implicate you in this digression?), it as at this time of year that I most miss living in Sawston.  In those heady days, I would gorge myself on a huge variety (and quantity) of plums purchased for significantly less than £2 per kilo from Cam Valley Orchards.  This week just gone, it was only by some shopping around that I manage to achieve a price of £4 per kilo.  I cannot say that the quality of the plums improves at this higher price (and the range on offer is vastly diminished), but what you lose on these desirable swings you make up in the unwanted roundabouts of added plastic packaging.  Anyway, I’m starting to sound like a curmudgeon even to myself, so let’s segue back to the main thrust of the post.

Recently, the short story has been worming its way into my life: but I thought I could control the habit.  In the case of All the Rage by A L Kennedy, each story – short though many were – was so rich that the temptation to immediately start on another was relatively easy to control.  In this, the experience was not unlike reading poetry – which has also begun to creep through the interstices of existence into my life – where each poem (unless of a relatively trivial or comic type) needs time for digestion before the next is consumed.  However, this last week I started (and finished) The Beat Goes On by Ian Rankin: the complete Rebus short stories.  These were huge fun and the writing is excellent, but they also proved very more-ish – it was very hard to just read one (or indeed two).  I suppose at least they are not directly fattening: ‘a moment before the eyes, a lifetime on the thighs’ is not yet a common coinage among the portly reading community.

Sometimes with a full size novel, reading on can prove a rather daunting prospect: one may lack the emotional strength or endurance to face what is coming next.  There may be several hundred pages left to travel and so little hope of a swift resolution – and it can be dangerous to attempt sleep while there are important lexical matters “to be continued” (but equally ill-advised to try and finish the book, especially should an early start be needed).  With a short story, you are never more than a few tens of pages from a conclusion – and so a resolution can be guaranteed before the head must make serious contact with the pillow.  This is how their insidious charms work, of course: there is always time (or so I can convince myself) for just another quickie – and then the whole afternoon (and/or evening) has been frittered away to little constructive effect.

I suppose I should come clean and admit that it is not only the short story that has this effect on me.  Carlos Ruiz Zafón seems to have discovered a similar trick and so The Prisoner of Heaven didn’t last long – perhaps fortunately, he takes a goodly while to produce new work and I have now consumed the full back catalogue (so I – and my afternoons – should be safe for a while).  However, now I find Alice Roberts taking his place with The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being yielding so much fascinating material that it is proving hard to ignore: still that is science, so counts as a slightly more productive use of time to the weird, internal temporal accounting system which retains some influence over my activities.

Anyway, I just hope by ‘coming out’ about my short story habit, I can save others from descending the same slippery slope: just say ‘No’, people.

Plus c’est la même chose

When I was nobbut a lad, my reading habits were not entirely as they are today.  I did make my way through some of the children’s classics (e.g. The House at Pooh Corner) and key works of the day (e.g. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) but also started my life with science fiction after borrowing Galactic Patrol by E E ‘Doc’ Smith from my dad’s bookshelves at the age of seven.  I don’t recall there being encyclopaedias in the house, but as a child I was obsessed by facts and the acquisition of knowledge (at least in some fields) and so my parents provided a number of works to feed this desire (and, I presume, in an attempt to shut me up).  I recall 365 Things to Know and another work with a title involving 3 or 4 of the key question words (i.e. how, why, what, where, when, who) and a conjunction – but I’m fairly sure there were others.

Not only do I remember the books, but I also remember hauling myself to the headmaster’s office on several occasions to show him my latest tome of fabulous facts.  He seemed quite good at evincing mild interest, which I feel may have been a mistake on his part.  I am starting to suspect that I might have been quite an annoying child (which I’m sure readers deduced several hundred posts ago).  However, despite my unpaid marketing efforts on behalf of the fact-based publishing industry, I did eventually rise to the primary school equivalent of head boy.  This may stand as my greatest achievement to-date.

Yes, even at primary school, I was preparing myself for pub quiz participation when I finally came of age.  Well, it was either that or I was training to be a QI elf several decades before John Lloyd came up with the idea for QI: which makes my continued lack of elf-hood all the more galling.  To return briefly to quizzing, I do not approve of people learning facts purely because they will be useful in a quiz environment: all my facts have been learned either for the sheer joy they brought or they arrived by chance and I have subsequently been unable to discard them.  I feel this is the true Corinthian spirit of quiz participation – anything else smacks of professionalisation and the grubby intrusion of market values.

As so often arises at around this stage in a post, the audience is left wondering why the fool is sharing his largely irrelevant history – though, I should probably make clear that this blog may one day form the basis for my best-selling memoirs (the diary is so last millennium).  Well, if you are all sitting comfortably, I shall continue.

The availability of new non-fiction works in my personal library has recently fallen to a very low level (not having gainful employ does mean I hit the bookshelves rather hard): though following an unseasonal visit to October Books yesterday, the position has briefly improved.  As a result, my current and previous reading has reverted to a rather similar style to that which I used to share with my old headmaster – and, as in those far off days, both were bought for me by my parents.  Question Everything from New Scientist could have been written with the nine-year-old author in mind and did not disappoint his four-decades-later successor: it was full of interesting answers to some jolly fine questions (all I lacked was a headmaster to share it with – so you, dear readers, have been drafted in).

I have now moved on to 50 Moments that Rocked the Classical Music World, brought to us by Classic FM.  Its roots do show through in places, and its definition of ‘moment’ is rather flexible (at times smacking more of geology than music), but it still contains plenty to fascinate the late-forties fact-fan.  It is particular fun when read in conjunction with Spotify as I can listen to most of the pieces mentioned (some were never recorded) as I go.  In consequence, I have been streaming quite the range of classical music over the last few days.  From early polyphony with Tallis and Palestrina to a refresher on the Rite of Spring: indeed, even as I type budget-busting Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique accompanies me in commemoration of the first use of truly substantial orchestral forces.  However, the most fun was my introduction to Erik Satie – how can you not love the chap who composed Flabby Preludes for a Dog and the Bureaucratic Sonatina?  For some idiotic reason, I’d never imagined French classical composers having quite such an impish sense of fun.

What this recent reading makes all too clear, and which my parents had obviously realised, is that I have not changed very much from the boy who went to Lansdown CP School in the dark days of the 1970s (well, it was during the 3-day week).  Truly, the boy is father (and also nearer than expected) to the man.

Labial kinetics

At some point, as they learn to read, the vast majority of children become capable of following a text without speaking out loud and then without even moving their lips.  Given that my childhood has now vanished, coughing, into the pea-souper of history, I had fondly imagined that I too had mastered this particular skill.  So it was that, yesterday evening, I suffered the most impertinent of awakenings.  On mature reflection (or as mature as my essential childishness permits), I realised that there had been portents in existence for some time for those with the wit to interpret them.

Before the few, tiny quanta of respect GofaDM readers still retain for the author melt back into the foaming medium of space-time, I should make clear that I can read the phrase “bottle of beer” without resort to the hard sound associated with the letter G and with my mouth remaining tightly shut (well, except as required for breathing).  Indeed, I can read the vast majority of novels, web-pages and many a treatise on science or the humanities without recourse to my oscular musculature.  However, there are three major areas of exception to my otherwise condign mastery of this somewhat basic text processing skill.

1.  Foreign vocabulary

The voices in my head are entirely confident when reading my mother tongue, but sometimes require a little help with words taken from another language.  When I was reading a lot of Spanish, this task could also be accomplished while my lips slept – though given its current, very rusty status, the language of Cervantes might require a little help these days.  For a really unfamiliar tongue, one where I am feeling my way through the words and experimenting with possible pronunciations, I may even need to give voice (sotto voce) to the sounds.

2.  Dialect and accents

If the text requires the use of a strong dialect or a strong accent, then the unaided voices in my head can struggle to do it justice.  Sometimes a little labial motion or even voicing of the text can help – though, anyone who has seen me attempt an accent will recognise that this voicing may be counterproductive.  I can produce accents other than my own, but normally I have no idea what they will be until they have emerged, blinking into the world of sound – and often, not even then.  Even if the accent is recognisable, it will rarely have been what was intended – and, as a result, I try not to reveal the nature of the intended accent and just claim any available credit for the one that eventually issues forth from twixt my lips.

The same issue can occur if I am trying to recapture the sound or cadences of the author’s voice, as I have recently tried with A L Kennedy, Adam Gopnik and David Sedaris.

3.  Poetry

The voices in my head are terrible reciters of poetry – perhaps a lack of experience tells against them.  They make a total hash of anything with metrical form, specific patterns of stress or alliteration or the use of caesura.  in consequence, to gain anything like the full heft of a poem, my lips must move and often my voice must be fully engaged.

Last night, I foolishly attempted to read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf in a relatively well-lit public space whilst waiting for a gig to start.  This, staying true to many of the precepts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, runs almost the full gamut of poetic devices and so my lips were in near constant motion.  An important lesson was learned!  In future, I shall only read this work in the privacy of my own home or while wearing a suitable poetry-reading mask: i.e. one which conceals (at least) the lower third of my face from view.  I wonder if this could be an accessory to accompany my earlier development of Bookshop Blinkers™?  From a branding perspective, I think I’d want my Verse Vail™ to avoid a look overly reminiscent of either a surgeon or dandy highwayman – then again, given that many a performance poet will stand to deliver his stanzas, the latter might be appropriate…

A smile and a stick…

According to Robert Powell will cover you for most situations in life, with only occasional need for recourse to the stick.  I fear he may have spoken these words before the development of that modern scourge, the selfie-stick (or narcissistick as I have seen it described).

As I was closing on Waverley Station on Saturday morning, I saw a very hefty smartphone being carried at the end of what I believe to have been a selfie-stick and realised that I objected to this technological development: despite my obviously rampant egomania.   Now this could just be a consequence of my age (and later this theory will be shown to have some weight) or it could be a reaction to my total inability to take a decent selfie – in any attempts I look not unlike a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (to quote the great Tom Lehrer) – but I would like to propose another reason.

As you will have come to expect, I shall not be relying on the more normal reasons to object to the selfie stick:

  1. The assumption that the captured image of any vista, monument or event can be improved by the gurning visage of the photographer filling half the frame; or
  2. the dreadful lack of consideration for others which ownership of such a stick seems to engender

but instead appeal to the joy of photography that the stick eliminates.

Despite some (half-hearted) attempts over the years, I am very far from being a great photographer – and even in these days where it could scarcely be simpler to capture an image, rarely remember to do so.  I can enjoy the work of much better photographers, but the actual process of taking a photograph offers little appeal to me.  However, there always used to be an exception – which was the rare attempts to try and include the self within the captured image.  In the good old days (with Leonard Sachs MCing), this could take one of two routes:

  1. Find a stranger and inveigle upon them to take the snap – and so encouraging social contact with your fellow humans; or
  2. Attempt to prop the camera in a somewhat stable position, set the timer and then race round in front and hope that everything has worked.

This second option was – usually – the most exciting with real tension and a risk of physical danger as the photographer attempts to get into “frame” in the few seconds available.   In the days before digital cameras, it could also be some weeks before you knew how well matters had gone.  There are a number of photos in existence, normally taken at the summit of Welsh hills or mountains, with the youthful author and his family captured in this way – and with my Dad just having made it into the frame at the last second.  It gives the shots a vibrancy and life that I doubt any selfie-stick can ever hope to replicate.

However, I can see one possible use for a (perhaps modified) selfie stick.  As presbyopia continues to ravage the accommodation in my eyes, it is going to become increasingly important to hold books further away from my face than even my pointlessly long arms can achieve and here I can see a potential use for the arm-extending capabilities of the “reading stick”.  As with the original selfie stick, the application is driven by o’erweening vanity – but does not destroy an existing pleasure or (if used responsibly) inconvenience others.  I do also wonder if both the selfie and reading sticks could double up as a very handy back-scratcher?

On Reading

As is so often the case, fans of Berkshire will be disappointed by the contents of this post.  As a small sop to them, I can exclusively reveal that I bought my first ever pair of jeans in Reading!  Not funny, but certainly true.

No, this post – as so many before it – will reflect on my most persistent hobby: reading.  I have been a reader for longer than I can remember.  I am told that as a tiny tot I would insist that any text within eyeshot was read out to me, and in an abortive attempt to shut me up my mother taught me to read at a young age (possibly the most unsuccessful plan in human history).  In many ways, little has changed and I find it very hard to resist reading any text which passes into my visual field – whatever the language.  Slightly dangerously, this extends to reading any text displayed on other people’s clothing or, indeed, tattooed onto their flesh.  This can lead to me staring rather too intently (and sometimes obviously) at the bodies of others – an issue which has recently taken a worrying turn.  Over the weekend, I found myself staring intently at the body art of a burly chap in the changing room at the gym trying to decide which Mesoamerican culture’s art had been pastiched to decorate his upper back and shoulder.  I tend to think it was Aztec (or maybe Olmec), but am grateful he did not catch me pondering this weighty matter as I fear he may have found my explanation inadequate.

I am rarely without a book, as you never know when you will have a lacuna – a queue perhaps or an ad break – which could usefully be filled by knocking off a few pages.  In fact, I usually have at least two books “on the go” at any time – one for home (often a larger, less portable choice) and one for away (always a more modestly sized paperback).  I also like to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction and a range of genres – but sometimes a book just cries out to be read now and to Hades with the system!

All very well I hear you say, but why is he boring us with this information now?  Well, because I can (obviously) – but there are a couple of other reasons why reading was foremost in my mind.  Firstly, as recently reported I recovered my copy of The Silmarillion from storage.  This was to lend it to a chap how works on the bar at the Nuffield (though he is mostly a student, something in the biological sciences I think) who I got chatting to at a previous drinks do (my life is not just hob-nobbing with celebrities, you know).  How the conversation ended up with Tolkien’s LotR backstory I no longer recall, but I promised to lend the lad my copy.  Before handing it over, I did re-read a little of it – and it is very much my kind of thing, but I was left wondering how it would go down with a normal human being.  It would seem I needn’t have worried, before the evening was out he had read a little of the opening (when Eru made the Ainur and they began to sing Arda into existence) and seems to have been hooked.  I think my childhood love of creation myths, and mythology more generally, may be partly to blame from my relative immunity to the siren charms of organised religion (my mother may also need to shoulder some of the blame).  In many ways, Ilúvatar seems a much better bet than most of the gods actual religions have saddled us with – though even he has some explaining to do around the whole Melkor issue.  Re-reading some of the book as an adult, I was also forcibly struck by how few female characters it contains – other than a few Valar, there only seems to be Melian and Galadriel – though perhaps JRR was just following the model laid down by “real” religions?  Despite this, I must admit my re-reading suggests I haven’t changed that much over the nearly 30 years since I first read the book – a perhaps worrying degree of continuity.

My second reason was that I have just read The Quarry by Iain Banks.  I started with Mr Banks’ work in around 1991 with Espedair Street and swiftly went through all his M-free oeuvre.  I then knocked off his science fiction (with the M) and thereafter have had to read his books as they are written.  His work has, therefore, been my companion through most of my adult life (and nearly half my entire life) – but with his premature death in 2013, I always knew this would come to an end.  I read the Hydrogen Sonata a little while back, which will be the last I read of the Culture (a tragedy in itself – if there is one fictional place I’d like to live, it is in the Culture), but had been putting off reading his final work.  I really enjoyed The Quarry – and feel that Kit and I have quite a lot in common – but it was also sad to know that there were only 100 pages of new IB, then 50, then 25 and then it was all gone.  It was in many ways a good choice for a last work, started before he knew that it would be so – and so all the more poignant.

There have been many books from a whole range of authors that I have looked forward to over the years, but none held quite the place in my heart of a new Iain (M) Banks.  Still, there are a good half-dozen books in the bedroom awaiting my attentions and many more in bookshops and libraries (for the moment, anyway) across the land, so I shall learn to cope with the loss.  (And, of course, I can always return and re-read his work – so in a way, he is still with me).

Football crazy

I’m staying in a house with some real men – well, realler than me in terms of many masculine stereotypes (not hard, if I’m honest) – and so upon my return from a day of theatre, art and comedy I caught up with Match of the Day for the first time in many years.  I must admit that it came as somewhat of a surprise that the football season had started already – though that be part of a more general feeling that we cannot possibly be in the second half of August.

What a strange world football is!

One manager, after his team lost 5-0, made a solid attempt at suggesting that this was good news and even planned.  He seemed to be arguing that the pasting would act as some sort of inoculation against further defeats as the season progresses.  I am no expert on association football, but I’m pretty sure that losing is neither like a vaccination nor like catching chicken pox – exposure to a weakened form of the experience confers no protection.  If it did, the England football team – not known for its winning ways despite an incongruously high FIFA ranking, one which makes me suspect that money has changed hands – would have little to fear from any opposition or the dreaded penalty shoot-out.

During another game, a player was praised for staying on his feet.  I’ve managed to stay on my feet – except when an at least partially recumbent posture was appropriate – for many years now.   No-one has come up to me to offer their congratulations or a multi-million pound contract.  What am I doing wrong?

The most extraordinary spectacle, and the one where I realised that football has “jumped the shark” came towards the end of the programme.  As the Reading game (cf the Berkshire town rather than anything more cerebral) developed it became clear that the team were sponsored by Waitrose.  The soi disant beautiful game is now truly a middle-class affair.  It guess it was inevitable with all the money flowing into the sport, but soccer has finally been gentrified.  Or is this an attempt by Waitrose to broaden its appeal to the more affluent of the working classes?  If they can afford Sky Sports and the cost of a ticket to a football match (which seem to have prices only marginally lower than the opera) then they are clearly in a position to take a step up from Tesburys and Sainscos.  Let’s face it, since Sky invented football back in the early 1990s it has never been knowingly undersold, so it’s a natural partner for the John Lewis Partnership.  I eagerly await shirts bearing the names of Harvey Nichols or Farrow and Ball!

The Other End of the Stick

I like to think my mind is associative in its operation – but others might, less charitably, compare it to a butterfly or describe me as easily distracted.  Being positive, this enables me to make intuitive leaps – and, occasionally, these do not end up with me landing (intuitive) face first on a hard surface.  Less positively, it does mean my mind wanders into places where its journey is probably not justified by the source material.

In the first of a new strand, I thought I’d explore some of these journeys to see if, as I rather fear, I am alone…

The Royal Academy is soon to hold an exhibition of drawings by the master of the fête galante style, Antoine Watteau.  Unfortunately, whenever I read his name I can’t help but think of P G Wodehouse and the standard greeting between members of the Drones Club.  (Well, that or Jules suggesting his work for a bona tattoo for Mr Horne.  Very bold!).

Yesterday lunchtime (an illusion I know, but one I am doubly keen to retain) I spent listening to the Britten Sinfonia.  For their encore, they played an arrangement of Bach’s Air on a G String (utilising the same forces – mostly electromagnetic – as Schubert required for his Trout Quintet).  Sadly, throughout this beautiful piece of music I could only picture Gregor Fisher in the photobooth with a cigar – which would be rather an unexpected end to a game of Cluedo.

Cycling to the gig, I passed a hostelry advertising a forthcoming (always a better use of any marketing spend than a past) event – an Old Skool [sic] Disco.  What a debt, I thought, we owe to Nigel Molesworth.  However, it struck me that as he was in form 3B in the mid-fifties, disco would seem an unlikely choice – I think the jive or perhaps the cha-cha-cha would be a more historically accurate dance for those claiming St Custard’s as their alma mater.

Many years ago, I worked in the education department of one our red-brick universities.  Around the faculty, I kept seeing posters about KS3 Reading (also KS1 and KS2) – and did wonder why the ceremonial county town of Berkshire should loom so large in the National Curriculum.

At the same time, I found myself pondering the ancient oriental art of the tea ching – which I presume (given my limited Chinese) revolves around the examination of tea leaves for predictive ends.

Now, who among us can say, in all honesty, that similar thoughts have not disturbed the equanimity of their own minds?  As I thought…