Thursday, 31 December 2009

My New Year's Irresolutions

I don't, as the saying goes, hold much water with New Year resolutions. Either Our Hero lacks the willpower to carry them through - in which case he is just setting himself up for failure - or he has it, in which case why was he waiting for the New Year anyway? Such, at least, was my experience, in the dim and distant past when there were still facets of my personality yet to be polished to perfection.

Instead, I have a custom of ending the year with a series of Irresolutions which would be kind of neat to carry through, should the whim happen to take me. As the new decade approaches, hotfoot as an athlete with trainers soaked in tabasco, here follows my personal decade of desire for the first year of it.

  1. I will pull out of my ear the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot, the wisdom to know the difference, and the imagination to cheat until everything has been reassigned to my preferred category.
  2. I will resist the urge to change my name by deed poll to 'None of the Above' in order to triumph at the forthcoming General Election.
  3. At some point I will stop procrastinating.
  4. I will not ask my Muse to get mixed up with anything involving: cream buns; attempts to satirize the unsatirizable; any stardrive prominently advertised in New Scientist; multiple cantos of epic doggerel; Rachel Weisz in a rubber penguin suit; singing lampreys; Camilla Kinnison; Marty Stu; ten thousand years of meticulously worked-out backstory; or any magic system that requires the book to ship with a reference CD in order to make sense of the plot.
  5. Unless I really, really want to.
  6. I will not read any political matter at any time after my evening meal, unless I propose to do something concrete about it immediately.
  7. I shall introduce my bum to the seat of my computer chair at an early stage, and do all in my power to ensure that they become tolerably good friends.
  8. Fewer than one-third of the meals which I cook from scratch will be chilli con carne.
  9. In case by the year's end I have still not stopped procrastinating, I shall put it right onto the To Do list for 2011.
  10. I will not get arrested by accident.
  11. I will further my already advanced mathematical education.

And, finally, I will wish a very happy and prosperous New Year to my adoring public. And to the rest of my public.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Plain Sense

"Oh the world is hung with silver tongues
With good advice to give.
If you can't show me how to die,
Don't tell me how to live."

- The Plainsman, lyric by Peter Roche.

A haunting tune that is often running through my head, and a just maxim for our age.

I shall not venture to tell anybody to live by it. Be advised, however, that Rosie is a seriously delightful album.

Hwyl Fawr

One year ago today, my father Bruce Woodland - the best and bravest man I ever knew - died of a cancer at the age of 66, in his own home on Anglesey. That was on just such an ice-clear day as this. The last talk I had with him, the garden was full of bright finches chattering. He could not sit up to see them, so I described them to him as we sat, and he told me what each of them was.

I remember...

I couldn't write much about this for a good while. There is a little girl in the North who called him 'Grandad', and his death hit her hard. One day I found myself thinking about how I might answer her questions about what it meant. I don't really know the answers any better than the next man, so when the words came to me, they were pretty well all the answers I was going to get, too.

Hwyl Fawr

He has gone and left us standing on the white shores of the morning.
He is gone to sail our dreams upon the starry tides of night,
And the ebb that took his boat up left us little grace or warning,
But our love is undiminished, and he steers us still aright.
Peerless captain, spark-eyed seer; golden lover, steely friend;
Brother, son, great sire and grandsire – he is gone: he cannot end
While he still has ways to pilot, while he still has storms to stand,
While our eyes lend him a crow’s-nest, while his light still burns on land.
He is sped – but not past calling. He is taken – but unbound.
If our tears would float him back again, this dusty world were drowned
With sorrow; but they will not, and he would not have it so,
As we hear his laughter roaring in the sea-shells, and – we know!
He is gone ahead to scout us out the crimson shades of evening.
He has gone to walk our worlds, and left us living in the light.

Goodbye again, Dad. See you tomorrow, as always.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Naughtobiography: the Pipping

Polly the Apology Parrot - image by Jacques Barranband, c.1805 - public domain, via Wikipedia CommonsOh shame. My lovely word naughtobiography is not original with me, and I don't get to define its meaning after all. My November version, you may recall, ran:

Naughtobiography, n. An insignificant slice of the banal life of a person of ephemeral notoriety.

But over at celebrity word-game site Celebrity Addictionary

(head. wall. head. wall...)

contributor Ashley got there two months ago with:

A celebrity autobiography that shares way too much personal info.

and, though I still like my definition better, I have definitely been pipped to the priority.

Amazon also offers a book from 1995 by one Arnold Rabin - The Rat and the Rose: a Naughtobiography - which appears to be some sort of exceptionally twisted fantasy. The product description reads:

But what, you ask, is this book about? It is about Good and Evil; Somethingness and Nothingness; War, Chaos and Void; Hot and Cold; Raw and Cooked; Sanity and Insanity; Yin and Yang; Impulse and Expulse; Love and Neglect; Swords and Scimitars; the Garden of Eden and Transexuality; Light and Dark; Cosmic Schizophrenia and Fleshly Pleasure; and, of course, Rats and Roses.

and a lengthy and reasonably eloquent quote from something preposterously calling itself 'Independent Publisher' begins by comparing it to a Candide for the 90's, and then goes on to explain in enthusiastic detail why it is both weirder and grosser. Mr Rabin's definition of naughtobiography, if ever explicit at all, does not appear in these reviews. It would appear, however, that he gets first-usage honours.

My google fu is weak and my parrot wears pyjamas. Polly begs your readerly indulgence for this little fiasco-let, and swears it will not - oh, okay, she's just swearing, my mistake there. Anyhow, I am firmly instructed to stop babbling, and go put the kettle on.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

On Moral Reform from Above

Every time I open my morning paper, I am struck anew by the stern determination of those who are set over us to raise the bar for our national conduct, leading us like good shepherds out of the Valley of the Shadow of Broken Britain into the sunlit uplands of a healthier, wealthier, more responsible and charitable lifestyle.

Who could quarrel with that?

There is no single force for good like a fierce personal aspiration to higher and better things, and an education that instils only this has already achieved its best purpose.

Moreover, even a goat like myself is quite capable of appreciating how our lout-ridden, chiseller-defaced, puke-painted streets could be restored to a much lovelier civility, if only we got into the habit of holding each other to loftier standards.

But all such exalted metaphors sink abruptly and without trace, when it is the scum floating on top of the pond who are trying to bring the rest of us up to their own level.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Fairytale's End

About this season in the year 2000, the adventurous and inimitable singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl was killed by a power-boat whilst scuba-diving off Cozumel, Mexico. She was a couple of years younger than I am today. Now her family and friends announce they are winding up their campaign of investigation into the somewhat questionable circumstances surrounding her fatal accident, on the grounds that 'Justice for Kirsty' has accomplished everything it can hope to. (BBC.)

Kirsty MacColl brought a witty, eclectic, folky sensibility to British pop music, and beat it over the head therewith until it acquired a better clue. She could conjure more erotic wickedness in a smoky vocal inflection and a glinting lyric, than Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera could manage by mud-wrestling in red leather sexy devil suits - or, when she would, put over a rough warm empathy beyond the range of commodity-pop altogether. She was one of the musical greats of my generation, and her songs inspired me to several stories I never finished, as well as one character I don't propose to finish with any time soon.

Like only a very few other artists - Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and Steve Earle spring chiefly to mind - she could touch me to the bone with sentiments which would normally find nothing but the sore spot on my spleen.

Every Yuletide for many years, and on any other occasion that seemed to warrant, Dad and I used to go out for some serious supping, and come back carolling the great MacColl/Pogues classic A Fairytale of New York to the frosty stars. Something about it spoke to the deep-down sameness in the ways we looked at the world, for all our passionate arguing about its details. Now he is gone too, and I have nobody to sing it with who feels quite the same way about it. I can never hear it without hearing his voice raised alongside mine - another good reason for me to listen to it, whenever the stars and the tides are right.

So in this year of her fiftieth anniversary, the winter has come when the MacColl kin lay her banner down beside her at last. Sleep well, fire-mouthed Kirsty, and dream bravely in the minds of we who outlived you.

Billy Bragg wrote it, and you took it and made it your own and sang it so that I could hear it, and turn it to my own mood:

I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England -

No, not quite! But you did better than most politicians and activists, on your side of the lines or mine: you changed the world and renewed your several tribes in the only way of an honest woman, within the reach of your own hand and the authority of your own voice. I am reminded that I have many seeds to cast and hearts to shake with my own craft, before I have as much to my credit as you wrought in your shorter day. And I remember, again, how and why it is worth trying.

We are still looking for another girl, for you do not come again.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

I Say It's Spinach, and I Say...

Tostitos brand creamy spinach dip, by John Stephen Dwyer, released by artist into public domain.  Via Wikimedia Commons.  I have no idea what this tastes like! ...over here with it! Monkfish florentine. A sophisticated meal of British fish fingers on a baby spinach salad with ranch dressing and crusty bread. A simple side of sag aloo. Grilled red snapper fillet on a potato and spinach curry à la Fat Cat... I would go on, but my drool is in danger of shorting out the keyboard.

Yes, today Google reminds me that it's the birthday of the late E C Segar, creator of that spinach-loving battler Popeye the Sailor Man. The indomitable little guy who is always ready to pick himself up and fight to liberate his silly and fickle inamorata Olive Oyl from the thuggish forces of the Blutocracy, Popeye is truly a hero for our time.

As a kid, I never cared all that much for the Popeye cartoons. Then again, my opinions on spinach came straight from the vile canned stuff their hero loves to guzzle, and I said, "The hell with it!" But even with this handicap, his arch-individualist battle-cry has never ceased ringing in my bonce down all the long years:

"I yam what I yam, and that's all what I yam!"

Long and long, while we yet have faces, may that most stubbornly human of outcries yet ring.

One small but perfectly formed work of art it has inspired is this , by Kip W at New Pals Club Web-Log. I no longer remember where I first found it, but the sheer magnitude of its win compelled me to write this post the moment I saw today's Google homepage. Kudos!

Monday, 7 December 2009

Friendly Old Girl of a Town

The Little Mermaid, by Vilhelm Pedersen, reaching out for the bright elusive butterfly of chaos - public domain As our betters descend by the jumbo-jetful upon Copenhagen in order to replace Gaia's failed hippy-dippy 'ecological' mechanisms with the modern corporate central planning that She really really wants, the Lord Mayor of that fair city is afraid they may take 'doing what comes naturally' too far for her liking (hat tip: Brad Taylor):

Copenhagen's city council in conjunction with Lord Mayor Ritt Bjerregaard sent postcards out to 160 Copenhagen hotels urging COP15 guests and delegates to 'Be sustainable - don't buy sex'.

A cheaper chap than I would immediately poke fun at a woman who claims to object to prostitution, in the very act of welcoming great shovel-loads of politicians and their sycophants into her manor. Responsible persons, however, know that any attempt to liken the world's two oldest professions is both trivializing and offensive. It is true that both make their living by screwing total strangers for money - but only a genuine prostitute will take "No thanks!" for an answer, or leave most of her clients happier for the screwing. Nor is she likely to develop the delusion that all of them love and admire her. By the things my people swear by, if there were more respect for oppressed harlots and less for oppressive varlets, the world would be a kinder and a nobler place!

So it should come as no surprise at all that the organized harlotry of Copenhagen should be showing far more wit and class than its pompous civic pimpery:

Now, Copenhagen prostitutes are up in arms, saying that the council has no business meddling in their affairs. They have now offered free sex to anyone who can produce one of the offending postcards and their COP15 identity card, according to the Web site

"This is sheer discrimination. Ritt Bjerregaard is abusing her position as Lord Mayor in using her power to prevent us carrying out our perfectly legal job. I don't understand how she can be allowed to contact people in this way," SIO [Sex Workers Interest Group] Spokeswoman Susanne Møller complains. "But they've done it and we have to defend ourselves!"

Myself, I can't pretend that I'm turned on by the thought of sex with somebody who finds me so boring or skeezy that they want compensation for it. Nor am I a big enough fool to delude myself that such a person would love or admire me really. But I do know where one huge bolus of professional bores, skeezes, petty domineers and rhino-hided narcissists is assembling, bulging-pocketed, at this very instant.

For those able and willing to cater to their very special needs, this looks like the business opportunity of the century.

Go, Little Mermaids, go!

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Totally Gaga

This labour of typographical love (hat tip: John Scalzi) is already spreading like wildfire - copped a mention in the London morning paper the other day - and deservedly so. It is a very font of geeky awesomeness. The Safety Elf says: Carefully remove all coffee from mouth before proceeding!

Those of you who have yet to experience the disco diva do-WHAT-bop-a-loo-bop? phenomenon that is Lady Gaga, may wish first to see the original here in order to maximize your keyboard-destruction potential.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Student Speak with Forked Tongue

Portrait of Jadwiga Łuszczewska as Diotima by Józef Simmler - public domain, via Stefania Krzysztofowicz-Kozakowska at Wikimedia Commons I work in a school. Professional ethics, personal taste, and basic commonsense all support my general policy of not blogging about it. But a school is a place of education, and not only for its pupils. Sometimes one will stumble across an idea that - like the dodecahedron and the sonnet - belongs to the world. This week I experienced such an epiphany, and hasten to report it accordingly.

As I come in a-walking, one moist and mucky morning, I spied a brisk young teacher and a student they was warning. The student's response displayed, in almost Platonically pure form, an argumentative fallacy I never met or imagined before. I was so impressed, I nearly dropped me whack-foddly-doo-dah on my foot there and then.

I think the event is best commemorated and anonymized in a fittingly Platonic dialogue:

DIOTIMA, a Teacher: If Socrates has spent the entire lesson throwing weasels at the wall, then in a just school, ought he to have a Friday detention?

YOUNG SOCRATES, a Philosopher: No, it would be most heinously unjust.

DIOTIMA: In what does this injustice consist?

YOUNG SOCRATES: In that it respects persons, and not the law.

DIOTIMA: In what sense does it do so?

YOUNG SOCRATES: We know that Xanthippe also threw weasels at the wall, but we further know that Miss did not detain her, chizz chizz! Therefore Socrates cannot justly be detained either.

DIOTIMA: Will we not think the cases differ in both degree and intent, since Xanthippe was at least making some effort to restrain herself?

YOUNG SOCRATES: No she wasn't! I was too!

Truly, only the young and fresh of brain could come up with such a cast-iron stopper.

In related news, I was talking over lunch to a colleague who happens to have a teenage son, and had occasion to introduce her to Harry Frankfurt's great insight for our times. Now, there is a philosopher who has worked his way up to the top of my to-read list!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

More Worms and Worse Ones

Tina the Tapeworm says 'Remember, kids! Just say NO to the download deadbeats!' - Image from US Government via Wikipedia Commons - public domain Big bag of 'em. Once more Charlie Stross lays the smackdown on Minister of Truth Peter Mandelson's urgent project to protect the Free World from terrorist pirates and vainglorious noisemakers. Unlike him, I am not convinced that we have mere venal dopiness to contend with.

The nutshell version, if we are to believe the copyright bods at law firm Beachcroft LLP: the Digital Economy Bill introduces into British law the principle that publishers and agents should in future require a licence from the government - and pay cold cash every year for the privilege. With licence withdrawal or open-ended criminal sanctions for anybody deemed to have broken whatever 'codes of conduct' the Secretary of State or his lackeys deign to dream up.

The nutcase version: publication, or representation to publishers, by anybody without a Government licence to become a serious crime in the United Kingdom.

Do I think the mandarins missed this detail? Do I, Bacchus's big brass beer bong! I think that the Minister smiled angelically when this was pointed out to him, and said, "Yes, Sir Humphrey." Or, elsewise, "You might very well think that - but I could not possibly comment..."

The DEB does not yet do the whole nut. As I understand it, not all publication - in particular, no self-publication - or representation, will be covered. So individual bloggers, at least, will not need the proverbial blogging licence this go-around. Well, whoop-di-doodle do!

As I note in a previous post, bloggers who annoy anybody important will in fact be removable by a simple and automatic process for which the politicians will not be responsible at all. Only an irresponsible malcontent could even consider making a fuss about that. So liberal democracy will not be endangered thereby.

Which no doubt explains why an unpopular and scandal-ridden Government thinks that State control of publishing and extra-legal corporate gagging powers over individual households are the absolute top priority things to ram through before the next election.

An election whose conduct, I grow daily more confident, will involve no irregularities to speak of at all...

I Dream of Meanies

If a shonky-looking Egyptian guy should sidle up to you in your sleep and offer you cheap tourist-class tickets for your personal Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, just say no. Especially on any night when you have to go to work at sparrowfart the next morning. Take it from one who - now - knows!

The demon-ridden cannibal tribes in the disused laboratory complex are particularly objectionable. And I don't care if you're Conan, that giant red thing they summon is a bloody sword-dodger. He's a bad sport. Luckily, a proper Catholic exorcism will do the job just fine. Unluckily, even in my dreams, I am not a Catholic. Luckily, though only in my dreams, I am a pretty fair field alchemist.

But thanks to treachery and treason and ginger-haired proto-Libyans waylaying the banks of the Nile outside Cairo airport, the attempt to summon Azathoth using me as a material component remains unresolved. Yes, after all that I got flipping cliffhangered! Tune in next week to see...

...King of the Rocket Men instead. Or anything else. Please!

For here is the truly eldritch thing. When I woke up, I really had a half-eaten brain! OO-ER! as HPL and the guys would, more or less, put it.

I shall just be shambling it into work now.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Worm Ouroboros Sighting

Ouroboros by Theodoros Pelecanos (1478) - scanned by Carlos Adanero for Wikipedia Commons - public domain There is an antique symbol of eternity and recurrence, called by the ancient Greeks the ouroboros, and taking the form of a serpent devouring its own tail. This is of course a quaint fancy of our unscientific forebears, which does not occur in nature. Oh, yeah?

Reggie the King snake of the eldritchly named Faygate, West Sussex, would beg to differ.

Reggie's owner found him with a mouthful of himself, and headed straight for the vets (sic) . Little did he know that Reggie was close to digesting himself. Removing his tail required patience and skill because the snake's teeth face inwards.

Stupid owners, getting him vetted on spurious health 'n' safety grounds just as he was about to become an incarnation of immortality! (No, not this kind, in which case he might have rather more to thank them for.) Boo hiss, sssaith Reggie!

The ouroboros's evil twin - that tutelary spirit of bureaucracy which might in its serpentine form be dubbed the ouroborarse - continues to elude the most earnest efforts of modern zoology.

The Worm Ouroboros is also the theme and title of one of the foundation-stones of modern fantasy, which was written by E R Eddison in 1922 and which subsequently blew my mind at the advanced age of eleven. Interestingly, this is supposed to be about the age at which the story began to come to him. Like many foundation-stones, its public visibility is not especially high. It is written in a dense, ornate, heavily archaising style better illustrated than described:

So huge he was that even here at six miles distance the eye might not at a glance behold him, but must sweep back and forth as over a broad landscape, from the ponderous roots of the mountain, where they sprang black and sheer from the glacier up the vast face, where buttress was piled upon buttress, and tower upon tower, in a blinding radiance of ice-hung precipice and snow-filled gully, to the lone heights where, like spears menacing high heaven, the white teeth of the summit-ridge cleft the sky.

and, like Marmite, this tale divides its acquaintances sharply into opposing camps of lovers and loathers. Also like Marmite, the 'loathly' camp is noticeably the stronger.

This ain't just a question of style. Eddison's heroes and villains alike are drawn on a genuinely heroic scale. Not only do the heroes positively ooze the classical virtue of magnanimity, but rarely will even the villains stoop to a mean little wickedness. Summon devils from the vasty deep to dive-bomb your unsuspecting enemies as they sail away under truce, right on - kick their cat, not so likely.

Unfortunately, a part and parcel of this very aristocratic virtue of magnanimity is - at best - a benevolent contempt for the lower orders, i.e. just about everyone. "All's fair against such dirt," says the mostly-sympathetic villain Corund of the entire population of barbarous Impland; and whilst his heroic enemies would object to the all's fair, it isn't at all clear that they object to the dirt. As they obligingly explain at one point to the Impish princeling they do befriend upon their quest, they exceed him as demigods exceed men, and do things for breakfast that he could barely imagine on an opium supper. And they're right, too - and he knows it.

Wisely, Eddison doesn't let them spend too much time in the company of their inferiors. On the one occasion we meet a common soldier and his family, it is at home when their lords are absent. This lad is more than a bit effusive about his master Brandoch Daha, but at least is neither servile nor even especially impressed by rank as such. Nonetheless, the overall reader-experience is often a bit like going down for a quick one to the Rat and Carrot with Coriolanus - and keeping the Shakespeareian idiom, to boot.

My temper is not aristocratic. I admire magnanimity, real greatness of soul, as indeed the crown of all virtues, and I despise the pettifogging minions of the ouroborarse above all for their ceaseless labours (in the name of the common good) to stamp out any sign of it amongst common men and women. But much as I love to read about Brandoch Daha and Corund and Gro, they are not altogether humans as I know them. Amongst my own species, somebody who talks and acts like Brandoch Daha is almost certainly a crazy sociopathic braggart to the bone - though considered purely as a historical character, they may be quite as magnificent and entertaining. Unless you are stuck in their story...

And that last is how the Worm became one of the firmest subterranean foundations for my own Three Katherines of Allingdale, with its driving opposition between the hard careful magnanimity of the peasant-girl Katy Johns on the left hand, and the savage glorious vanity of her overlord Golden Kate and the local Prince Charming on the right. If that were all there were to it, William Morris might have given me inspiration enough in The Well at the World's End, another archaically-fashioned work which has influenced my Muse most variously.

Yet only through reading and loving Eddison could I have ended up writing something like my present project Killer-Kate, about those ways and hours in which my battered old monsters - a little wiser now, a salt ocean sadder - are more nearly right than Katy. Like them, this tale will succeed nobly or fail horribly. I can't say which way it will go, yet. If there is anything in Three Katherines that will last as well as the Worm, it will be because I've finished it with this, and done it justice along the way.

That is a lot to owe an ouroboros, and what can I do but be grateful in advance? Read The Worm Ouroboros, if you don't know it yet and the spirit so moves you. You might also consider Eddison's later tales of Zimiamvia, which are much philosophically denser and politically grittier, and of which some foretaste may be caught here.

You will probably not much care for either. Most people don't. But if you do... if you do...!