Philobiblon: July 2005

Sunday, July 31, 2005

A word for our times

Agnotology is a term that has been invented to describe "the cultural production of ignorance".

A call for papers explains further:

Examples include the ignorance of cancer hazards caused by the "doubt" peddled by trade associations (Brown and Williamson's "doubt is our product"), the non-transfer of birth control technologies from colonial outposts to imperial centers (by virtue of successive chains of disinterest and suppression), the non-development of certain technologies by virtue of structural apathies or disinterest, impacts of disciplinarity on agnotogenesis, etc.

...The idea is that a great deal of attention has been given to epistemology (the study of how we know), when "how or why we don't know" is often at least as interesting-and remarkably undertheorized by comparison.

Checking out the term, Google took me to a blog, Bloggence, Cunning, Exile, that explains more, (also here).

Another blog provides the example of doctors losing the ability to turn breech births.

An historical example: Towards the end of ancient Egyptian civilisation, it lost the ability to make "proper" mummies. The technology had always been closely guarded, and it must have been during a period of political and military turmoil that a few key people died, and that was that. (Incidentally that's how we come to call them mummies: the Arabic word mumiya was applied to the later "mummies", which were simply coated bodies with bitumen and wrapped.)

Happy birthday to me ....

Who'd have thought it? Philobiblon is one year old.

The curious thing is that I really can't remember what it was that prompted me to go to Blogger and start it up - I don't think I was even terribly clear what a blog was.

But I do recall making those first couple of posts, when I was thinking mainly of putting up fascinating little snippets of historical information - stories, mainly of women's lives - that I felt should be broadcast, but didn't fit within the other work I was doing.

And that's still a large part of what Philobiblon is (and it will probably get larger in the coming months, when I hope to get back to intensive research).

The book element has grown in recent months when, in large part due to my involvement with Blogcritics, I've started to write formally formatted reviews. That, combined with recent events, has also probably boosted the political content - I'm not sure how much of that will remain in the long term, or indeed if I should split that off in a separate blog, or leave the posts just on blogcritics. (Any comments, complaints?)

I started off saying that I didn't care about the level of readership - and in some ways that is true: one of the values of Philobiblon to me is simply its push to make a personal record of what I've read and seen.

But I doubt there're many bloggers who, once they've found a web counter, don't check it at least semi-regularly, and it is nice to think you are part of a community. For all of the complaints about the decline of civil society in the information age, there could hardly be a better way to gather compatible people together. (And it would be nice to regularly top 100 readers a day some time - such a nice round number.)

I thought the occasion should be marked, so I've done a little redesign - nothing too flash - Philobiblon has improved my HTML skills, but I'll never be a full-on geek - and I've only just worked out photo posting. (And yes I know it is showing my age, but I do marvel at the ease with which you can post to Flickr, get a URL and drop it in your blog. They even give you different sizes to choose from!)

And I've, finally, got around to cleaning up my blogroll and at least partially updating it. I still have many more Femmes Fatales I should add (and indeed a whole FF section in the sidebar), which I will get too soon. As indeed I WILL get to updating my website, which has been shamefully neglected in the past year, as several people have pointed out to me.

So for the next year? More of the same, I expect. Blogging and blog reading has, for good or ill, now become a fundamental part of my life. I'm probably kidding myself on the downward side when I say I spend two hours a day at it. (But it has led me to get rid of the TV that I never got around to switching on, so I count it as the equivalent use of leisure time - and it is considerably more productive and stimulating.)

Vive la blog!

Saturday, July 30, 2005

London bombs, part 2

My post earlier today here and over on Blogcritics provoked a small and perhaps predictable, storm.

So some more thoughts.

More than 3,000 people are killed on British roads each year. Now we could save the relatives and friends of those people all the agony of loss if we say reduced the speed limit nationwide to 10 miles an hour and enforced it with prison terms. (And yes I did lose a loved one that way, so I admit to being rather more than averagely concerned about the issue.)

That would be a good thing, wouldn't you say?


Well even though I'm broadly anti-car, I don't think so either.

The point I am trying to make is not to diminish the suffering of the victims and their families, but to point out that all of the measures proposed and undertaken have a cost (just as reducing the speed limit would have a cost.)

Flood the streets of London with armed police - more innocent people will get shot, everyone will become more fearful, the police will start to become more and more assertive. (As The Economist points out this week.)

Abolish rights that have belonged to British citizens for decades - you have a less free, less civilised society.

Target the Muslim community with obtrusive surveillance, verbal attacks etc - you'll get more terrorists.

My message: Don't act in the heat of the moment; don't react to the "flurry of opportunistic demands" from police, civil servants etc to increase their power and budgets; don't destroy what you are supposed to be trying to protect.

End the hysteria

I've been calling on and off for the past three weeks for calm and commonsense over the London bombings. The fact is, whatever might have happened; however many scary photos of nail bombs might have been leaked by the American security services to the American media (you have to ask why did that happen - media management if you ever saw it); 52 people have died, less than a week's death toll on British roads (the average was 67 last year).

If someone reported a week of road tolls in the same detail what might happen? Possibly some good things - a ban on city 4WDs (SUVs), more restrictions on new drivers, lower speed limits on residential roads ... etc etc. Oddly enough I've never heard a comprehensive set of calls like that.

But now the government, having already nibbled away at civil liberties throughout its terms, is planning to take huge more chunks out of them, as set out in The Guardian by one of the lawyers who has worked with Guantanamo Day detainees.

It really is time to hose down the official hysteria - for a good slap around the chops, as traditionally delivered to hysterical women in bad movies - for Tony Blair et al.

But there is hope ... I'm listening now to The Now Show on Radio 4, which is running some wonderful jokes on the subject. I enjoyed the description of stranded commuters walking home as though they were a herd of wildebeest, with mini-cab drivers cutting out the stragglers ...

Two wonderful women

Varying circumstances today took me to web resources on two fascinating women:

1. Louise Michel, a 19th-century French anarchist and social activist, whose web-biog has been put up by the International Institute of Social History to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her death. The illegitimate daughter of a maidservant and an aristocrat, she was given a good education before being thrown on her own resources by her stepmother. I won't summarise the life here - check the link! - but this snippet pretty well sums it up ...

The next five years were spent alternating between attending meetings or in prison. There was even an attempt on her life during a meeting in Le Havre, in 1888, when the extremist Pierre Lucas shot her, but she quickly recovered.

(There's also a French version.)

2. Mary Lamb, the English writer who suffered from periodic fits of madness, during one of which she stabbed her mother to death. Hers was perhaps the perfect Romantic life - she and her brother were friends with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Mary Shelley. One of these days I must put up a review of the excellent A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb by Sarah Burton, but in the meantime, there's this interesting web biography, structured something like a mind map, but with full use of hyperlinks. (If that's a bit conceptual for you, there's a short narrative version here.)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 16

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten posts.

I'll start with a first for this series: an elected representative, indeed a member of the UK parliament, Lynne Featherstone. I learnt about her on last week's Radio Four's Any Questions?, during which the presenter, Jonathan Dimbleby, said "if you don't know what a blogger is, you should". We've arrived, you might say. (I wonder if she's the first guest introduced on the show - which has a central place in British political debate - as a blogger?)

Then to a short post on a group blog, Cafe Liberty, by Jeanne Marie. It describes a political theory book she is working on with a co-author. I had to draw a diagram to make sense of it, but it sounds fascinating.

Back in the world of flesh and blood, Kathy on Liberty Street offers a reminder that while much fuss might have been made about the London bombs, Iraqis are living with the real threat of death every day.

Still, in a way, on politics and war, Giskin posting on Medical Humanities, a group blog that is "a conversation about the intersection between medicine and the arts", describes what she sees as an "attack of the metaphors", in which language usually applied to terrorism is creeping into medical dialogue.

The notably named Arse poetica - it occurs to me at this point there must be a PhD thesis in blog names, with a good bit of postmodern analysis - is finding enjoyment in America's much-discussed heatwave, while Everyday Goddess just missed a golden opportunity in the form of a second iced tea.

Also on the personal side, Unveilings is saying "no" to twisted and jealous lovers of all kinds, while Rebecca on Adventures with Applied Maths is exploring her complex relationship with time.

Jenny on State of Mind is collecting interesting images from the web: I was taken by this one's message: "From strange little girls, strange women grow.".

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, on the day before BlogHerCon starts, I'll link to Surfette's post on the questions women bloggers need to ask themselves. I guess I'm answering a few of them in this series of posts: I think we all need to work to promote and support each other, not for glory or money or clicks (although they might be the by-product for a few), but because that way we can form networks to get more out of the web, whatever that more consists of.


Here's No 15 if you missed it.


Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Mary cancels out Eve

I was interested to learn that, at least in (some) early modern theology, Mary was supposed, through giving birth to Christ, have cleansed the "sins" of Eve, which have been used throughout Christian history as a stick with which to beat all women.

Dorothy Leigh, from The Mother's Blessing, 1616:

"...what a blessing God hath sent us women, through that gracious Virgin, by whom it pleased God to take away the shame, which EVE our Grandmother had brought us to ... man can claime no part in it: the shame is taken from us, and from our posteritie for ever. The seede of the woman hath taken downe the Serpents head ... "

Thus also the Virgin birth disproved theories that babies were made only with male "seed", with women being only the incubators.

Funny how this seems to have found little space among male theologians (of this time and later), and that "Eve's sin" was still being used as an argument against pain control in childbirth in the 20th century.

Above quote and views from Suzanne Trill, "Religion and the construction of feminity," in Helen Wilcox, ed, Women and Literature in Britain, 1500-1700, Cambridge Uni Press, 1996, p. 59

A real case for privatisation

So many times, governments have privatised institutions and organisations that have only suffered from the experience. But there is one case, today, in the United States, that is crying out for privatisation: Nasa.

No, I don't think you could sell the organisation off, but take a large chunk of its funding and use it instead for a series of space prizes - the ultimate might be to send a three-member crew to Mars and back, perhaps, with several incremental awards for progress towards that goal.

Why? Well as the events of today have only further demonstrated, with the suspension of the space shuttle programme, while space exploration and development is an inherently risky business, governments (at least Western governments) are becoming increasingly risk-averse.

In many ways this is a good thing - that governments should value human life and not waste it needlessly is not something to complain of - but it simply cannot be matched to space exploration. What would have happened had the European explorers of the early modern age counted the inevitable cost in our terms? They would have stayed at home.

If this is done by private enterprise, with volunteers freely choosing to take the risks, only then can real progress be made.

It is getting on towards 40 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Think of the progress that has been made in Earth-bound technologies since then, but human space travel has gone nowhere.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

"An excellent artificial Wine like Claret"

This isn't usually a cookery (or brewing) blog but I'll make an exception for a recipe from Hannah Woolley's The Gentlewomans Companion or, A Guide to the Female Sex: The Complete Text of 1675, Prospect, 2001, p. 198.

An excellent artificial Wine like Claret, but much better, and by many degrees brisker

Take two gallons of your best Sider, (some esteem Worcestershire Red-streak the best) and mingle it with six gallons of water, put thereunto eight pound of the next Malaga Raisins bruised in a Morter; let them stand close covered in a warm place, for the space of a fortnight, stirring them every two days well together; then press out the Raisins, and put the liquor into the same vessel again; to which add a quart of the juice of Raspberries, and a pint of the juice of black Cherries; cover this liquor with bread, spread thick with Mustard, the Mustard-side being downward, and so let it work by the fireside three or four days; then turn it up, and let it stand a week, and then bottle it up, and it will taste as quick as the briskest liquor whatever, and is a very pleasant drink, and much wholesomer than French-Wine.

The "brisker" bit I'd certainly believe, but I am puzzled by the mustard - I can't imagine the yeast would like that? I'm almost tempted to try it - I wonder if anyone has come across a report of someone doing so?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Review: What the Butler Saw

War and Peace is a a classic, Jane Eyre is a classic, Gulliver's Travels is a classic; applying the same adjective to Joe Orton's play What the Butler Saw feels slightly uncomfortable, yet if you were looking for a piece of literature that perfectly captures its time, while also having universal themes that will resound in any society but a utopian anarchy, it would be hard to beat. If you were selling it as a movie script you might call it Kafka meets Oscar Wilde meets Carry on Matron.

If you take the odd joke from the script in isolation, it could feel like an artefact of its time, and distinctly misogynist, but watching the whole play, staged at the Hampstead Theatre in London, its distinctly subversive and even feminist message are clear. Unjust power is not just corrupting, but perverting, and ultimately self-defeating.

The story begins in classic farce style, with a pompous psychiatrist trying to seduce a hapless young female job-seeker. Naked, she's shoved behind a curtain when the doctor's domineering wife appears, then more high jinks ensue when the government inspector turns up. A randy bellboy, who's trying to blackmail the wife, and a hapless policeman seeking the bronze penis from a statue of Churchill are soon in the mix, and much running in and out of doors, exchanging of genders and clothing, and general chaos ensues.

What makes the play, and this production, work, is that it is absolutely full on. No line is shirked, every situation is exploited, until the end, when the twist is that one final visual gag isn't played. Any faint hint of half-heartedness, any wavering, would turn this into a ridiculous farce, but fully played, it is real satire.

It seems the play has "has never been produced on Broadway". Perhaps it should be.

Here's the Guardian's review and the director's explanation of his admiration for Orton.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Found poetry

I owe this idea to the blog Notional slurry, whose author finds that some sets of footnotes, "as long as they’re not the minimalist Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. style (which wears so thin so quickly), make fine poems".

You might even call it a meme, if you like. He's asking you to guess the source of his found poem; I know mine won't be widely recognised, so I'll tell you it is the notes to Isabella Whitney's The admonition by the Auctor, to all yong Gentilwomen: And to al other Maids being in Love, from the Penguin Classics edition of Renaissance Women Poets.
And I've decided to reorganise and reshape them a little, to enhance the form ...
(But I haven't added anything, except capitals, just edited away.)

Ye Virgins: referring to women who fall in love
Cupid is the god of love.
Advice do lacke:
IW presents herself as having the authority
to give advice to young women
on love.

Slacke: lax, idle.
Painted: false, deceptive.
Mermaides: famed for their power
to lure mariners to their deaths
through deceit and their alluring singing.

Some use the teares of Crocodiles:
proverbial, cf. Erasmus, Adagia,
'Crocodili lachrymae'.
Cf. Chaucer's Troilus, who is advised by Pandarus
to splash his letter to Criseyde with tears
to convince her of the depth of his love.

Troilus and Criseyde
Ovid. . . Arte of Love
Trust not a man: a gendered use of Tilley
'Try before you trust',
In store: in mind.
Shrink: shirk responsibility.

SCILLA: not the mythological monster,
but the daughter of Nisus,
king of Megara.
Scylla was abandoned by Minos,
and punished by her father.

Haire by fate:
'The hair on which his whole destiny depended'

In Ovid's version Minos does not kill Nisus,
but leaves Megara.

The story of Oenone and Paris is found
in Heroides V.
Oenone was
a nymph on Mount Ida, loved by Paris
before he discovered his descent
from Priam. He abandoned her for Helen of Troy.

Demophoon and Phyllis fell in love when his ship
was washed ashore in a storm.
Phyllis gave him her virginity as a sign of her fidelity,
but Demophoon left Thrace never to return.
Phyllis hanged herself.
The primary account is found in Heroides II.
Transformed so: an almond tree grew on Phyllis' grave.

Hero was the priestess of Aphrodite.
Leander saw her at a religious festival and fell in love.
He would swim the Hellespont at night to see her,
And was drowned when a storm
Extinguished the light she used to guide him.

The mutual nature of their love distinguishes them
From the other figures IW discusses.

She scrat[ched] her face,
She tare her Heir:
Standard behaviour for grieving women in the Heroides.

Review: We Need to Talk about Kevin

I've never been a great believer in the "blood is thicker than water" theory. Just because you share 50 per cent, or 25 per cent, or even less, of a person's genes, there's no reason why you should have anything in common with them, or be able to get along with them.

Yet it is a persistent myth in our society, one that strikes particularly hard at mothers, who are supposed to instantly bond with their child, to feel an overwhelming surge of love and affection. This is the feeling of Eva, after giving birth to Kevin, who turns out to be a school shooting serial killer in We Need to Talk about Kevin:

"I was angry. I was frightened. I was ashamed of myself, but I also felt cheated. ... I thought, if a woman can't rise to an occasion like this, then she can't count on anything; from this point the word was on its ear."

When I learnt that the Orange Prize-winner was a novel on this subject, I'll admit I wasn't much impressed. This was the subject of the winner of the 2003 Booker, Vernon God Little and every review I'd read of that made me think: Definitely not for me.

But then I started reading rave review after rave review for Kevin and I thought I'd give it a go. It was a decision I didn't regret.

I don't read many "literary" novels - I find them often too slow and too laboured in their cleverness, but this is very definitely a literary novel: it has a complex epistolary structure, not a linear narrative; it is no mystery - you know from the start how it ends, or at least for most of the book you think you do; and you quickly come to realise that every word, every phrase, every little incident, is there for a reason.

This is a supremely crafted book, but it is also a gripping read, not in my experience a common combination.

And it has a psychological complexity few novels achieve. Nothing ever has a single cause - Eva is, of course, asking herself "why?", but through layers and layers the impossibility of that question becomes evident.

There can be few readers who don't find something of themselves in Eva, and even Kevin. I was taken by the way she describes in her youth blackmailing herself into doing things that frightened her by just taking one small step at a time - ringing the travel agent, making reservations, paying for a ticket - none of these are in themselves momentous steps, and yet once done, you're publicly committed to doing something.

There's the suggestion of course, that Kevin may have worked the same way on the fateful day - a salutory thought when we think about the world today, and perhaps some of the answer to that bigger "how?" we are asking now.

And while there was a ridiculous, trumped-up debate around the Orange Prize about the allegedly "domestic" nature of women's writing, that charge can't be levelled at Shriver. Kevin is certainly a product of the politics of the American high school system, and the novel is played out against the background of the post-vote Bush-Gore struggle.

If any novel published in the past year deserves to become a classic, to be read in 100 or 200 years for the insights it gives into life then, this is it. And we can only hope that school shootings will by then be a curious artefact of its time, that has to be explained to readers.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Women who can't win

Mary Wollstonecraft and Hillary Clinton are not at first glance an obvious pair, yet Naomi Wolf makes links in the way they were regarded and treated.

I'd suggest it is part of a broader pattern - that also includes, I thought while reading this, women accused of serious crimes -- that there is no way these women can behave that will not attract criticism. If they act "womanly" they'll be "faking it"; if they act like sensible, strong adults, they'll be "ball-breakers" or "unnatural".

I'm thinking here particularly of the case of Lindy Chamberlain, who was convicted, if you bring it right down to brass tacks, because she didn't cry in public.

Illustrating that the same pattern occurs across cultures and centuries, there's the case of Catherine the Great. "Is it true about Catherine the Great and the horse?" one site asks, answering in the negative, but repeating another favourite set of sexual slurs.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The children of "today"

From the printer Caxton, who died in 1491

"I see that the children ben borne within the sayd cyte encrease and prouffyte not like their faders and olders; but for mooste parte, after they ben comeyn to theyr perfight yeres of discretion and rypnes of age, kno well that theyre faders have lefte to them grete quantite of goodes, yet scarcely among ten two thrive. O blessed Lord! when I remember this, I am al abashed; I cannot judge the cause; but fayrer ne wyser, ne bet bespeken children in theyre youth ben no wher than there ben in London; but at ther full ryping, there is no carnel, ne good word found en, but chaff for the most part."

As you probably guessed that's original spelling; I've got it all except the "ten two thrive" - is that maybe two-tenths?, and I can't work out "carnel".

This is from a delightful popular history book of 1904, London in the Time of the Tudors, Sir Walter Besant, Adan & Charles Black, London, p. 274

He also makes a nice collection of Elizabethan expletives: "The old Catholic oaths 'By'r Lady', 'By the Mass' and so forth, vanished with the Reformation. We now find a lot of meaningless ejaculations, such as 'God's Wounds', 'God's Fools,' 'God's Dines', Cocke's Bones,' 'Deuce take me', 'Bones a God' and 'Bones a me'. The now familiar 'Damn' makes its appearance in literature; but indeed it had flourished in the mouths of people for many generations." (p. 285-6)

I wonder why "bones" were so popular in this context?

Net Nuggets No 16

* A wonderful project: a grand survey of Women Latin Poets. I keep falling over early modern English women writing in Latin - nice to have my impression that there were many more around than is generally recognised. (One can only hope there'll also be an affordable paperback edition - £85! for the hardback.)

* I just stumbled across Notes on Rhetoric's collection of blog-commenting strategies. Check out which ones your opponents are using, or bone up on a few new ones of your own. (Well if you are into that sort of thing. Most of the comments here are delightfully informative, useful or otherwise constructive, and I'm happy to keep it that way!)

* As you've no doubt noticed, much of the reporting about the terrorist attacks in London is shown, in hours, days or weeks, to be total tosh. Matthew Parris, probably the best commentator in the British media, explores the problem and concludes:

From a certain point of view, the journalist, the politician, the police chief and the terrorist can be seen as locked in a macabre waltz of the mind, no less distorting for being unconscious. We should not to join that dance.

*The Telegraph deserves to be commended for its survey (as solid-looking as any such survey can be) of the attitudes of British Muslims to the London attacks. Get the facts here; it is one of those stories that is bound to be quoted and misquoted for some time to come.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 15

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten.

You've probably read about all you can take for the moment on the abortion views of US Supreme Court nominee John Roberts (my judgement: just look at who nominated him and there's your answer, sadly), but The Gimp Parade has information on his stance on disablity rights that you might not have come across.

Mind the Gap has got angry about Playboy merchandise in WH Smith (the largest chain of newsagents in Britain). She says: "I hate to think about the reactions in the mind of some Playboy reader when he sees a 12-year-old girl in a little T-shirt adorned with our bunny friend." In the post to which I'm pointing she suggests what you can do about it.

100 word minimum is a blog that is self-explanatory in intention. The author describes herself as a "recovering computer engineering student", and quotes Jane Austen: "it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated". That pretty well describes the post to which I've pointed, about making a coffee cake. Santiago dreaming is also concentrating on the details of life's sometimes messy fabric.

Moving on from food, I've got virtually no sense of smell, so have never worried much about perfumes, but this post by Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti, which sees scent as central to identity, almost converted me.

On to sight, and Breebop is an artist who, I'd suggest, is under-rating her own work. Judge for yourself: I find this "warrior woman" an attractive painting.

But you couldn't under-rate the bravery of one traveller. Unlike those males who load themselves down with a fridge to walk around Ireland, and similar such stunts, The Adventures of Gimpy Girl is recording a trip around China in a (necessary) wheelchair. (And I might add this will be highly educative for the locals, for my experience in Asia is that disability is utterly invisible, because it is hidden away as a source of embarrassment.)

Still on the adventurous side, 360 degrees of sky is written by an Irishwoman working in Zambia. This post contains "breaking news" about "code chicken", which reminds me of being a country journalist, when my all-time low story was "soaker hoses stolen from garden shed".

Completing the short international tour, Stitched in Holland has been making cross-continental links with her needlework, while La Coquette who begs "don't hate me because I live in Paris", is reflecting on an international bloggers' picnic.


Here's No 14 if you missed it.


Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A few minor pops

There have been a few minor pops in London - one on a bus and on a couple of Tube trains - with no one hurt. Let's hope a sense of proportion is maintained.

In the interests of that, I'm sharing a small piece from this week's Private Eye.

My bet is that this is a pretty amateurish effort to cause panic. The sensible thing is to ensure it doesn't.

I was planning to go to the library but have put it off, just because the traffic is bound to be bedlam all afternoon.

Those smart hominids

I have to thank the Blogcritic Roger Asbury for pointing me to a fascinating book, Peter Gardenfors's How Homo Became Sapiens: On the Evolution of Thinking.It is one of those all-too-rare syntheses of thought drawing in material from a range of fields and schools - lovely to find a generalist in a complex field.

Inevitably, this produces the occasional exclamation of "what!" when you come across something that seems questionable from a field with which you are familiar. My moment was the claim that "an oral culture has no experience of a lengthy, epic-size or novel-size climatic linear plot" (quoting W. Ong). To which I reply, Homer!?

Nonetheless, the exploration of the state of knowledge of evolutionary psychology generally seems well-informed and up-to-date. (Though I make no claim to specialist knowledge.)

My particular area of interest is hominid evolution: I hold in the British Museum a 350,000-year-old hand-axe made in what is now Kent by a predecessor of the Neanderthals and wonder: if you could hop in your time machine and go back to meet her (or him - no way of knowing, although they were obviously right-handed), could you communicate with them. Would they understand a summoning gesture as "come here" or a pushing-away motion as "go away"?

Then of course there's the fascinating question of the smile. At some point a grimace of anger or threat became an expression of friendship or pleasure: when?

Gardenfors doesn't answer those questions, but he does provide some hints about the intelligence of hominids.

Some are convinced that Homo habilis in Kenya and Tanzania carried flint tools and raw materials for them several kilometres, indicating a form of planning well beyond chimpanzees; "the longest time elapsing between the manufacture and the use of a tool by a chimpanzee that has been observed is 17 minutes". (p. 79)

There is also the point that humans sweat much more than other primates, meaning they must either remain close to water sources, or learn how to carry it. Sadly, if H. habilis did carry water, the chances of an organic vessel - probably a skin - being preserved are vanishingly small. But when I hold that Homo heidelbergensis hand-axe, I think she would have worked it out.

This slim volume ranges well forward of this point, however, also saying that much of our current mode of thought didn't evolve until the Middle Ages.

"Before the Middle Ages writing only functioned as a support for memory - it was never a replacement for memory. The content of what was treated existed in the mind and not int the text. The idea that written language carries an autonomous meaning, that is independent of the author and the reader, is established first in the Middle Ages - that is when writing is assigned a literal meaning that does not change with a change in context ... linguistic markers for speech acts such as 'claim', 'doubt, 'deny', 'confirm' and 'interpret' are introduced first during the Middle Ages or even later. Such markers are not needed in an oral tradition where sentence melody and other expressive forms make it clear what kind of speech act is performed."

I'm going to have to think about that one (is this only a European view, I wonder?), but it does remind me of the fact that in the early Middle Ages, at least, university students were not allowed to read books on their own, for fear they would get the wrong idea, but had to listen to their teacher reading it out to them. (This is a reminder of one of my favourite themes, that books and the written word are not some fixed reality like gravity, but cultural artefacts with different meanings in different contexts.)

Read this book and I can pretty well guarantee you'll find some new view of one of your favourite puzzles.

A letter from my MP

From the Rt Hon. Frank Dobson, MP.
The House of Commons
... "Thank you for your letter, dated 2 July, about EDM 146. I have now signed the EDM, please contact me again if there is anything further I can do on your behalf ...

Would you believe it, democracy in action. (And the letter and envelope are both recycled paper!)

(This is is a motion demanding increased charges for high-polluting vehicles. It won't have any legislative effect, but it is something.)

More on the letter I wrote and the early day motion here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Net nuggets No 15

* What is the relationship between historiography and the writing of historical novels? What happens if the facts get in the way of the story?

The Little Professor is engaged in a fascinating study of the fictional treatments of Anne Boleyn, perhaps THE most popular single character in historical fiction. (No, on second thoughts probably that is her husband, or maybe Julius Caesar? Has anyone ever done a study on that?)

And I do have to look up the one book the prof has found in which Anne doesn't die: Nancy Kress, And Wild for to Hold.

* As a child I once had the misfortune to draw with a chess grand master who was visiting my club, which instantly made me their "great junior hope", a pressure that quickly freaked me out, particularly when I realised that to get anywhere I'd have to rote learn vast lists of moves.

But Bobby Fischer has solved the problem. With his form of the game it could be pure thinking and calculation again. (Via Robot wisdom.)

* I've enjoyed browsing a selection of presents for the person in your life who already has everything, from the Unemployed Philosophers Guild. I was particularly taken by the St Sebastian pincushion. (Via Grow-a-brain.)

* Want to know where you can find an animal you're longing to add to your selection of snapshots? The World Wildlife Fund has put up Wildfinder, which will identify locations by common or scientific name. (Via Worldchanging.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Bus bombings: a sensible explanation

This article, by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, is the best I've read on the London bombings and what might have motivated the perpetrators.

Book quiz

Via Breebop:

You're The Things They Carried!

by Tim O'Brien

Harsh and bitter, you tell it like it is. This usually comes in short, dramatic spurts of spilling your guts in various ways. You carry a heavy load, and this has weighed you down with all the horrors that humanity has to offer. Having seen and done a great deal that you aren't proud of, you have no choice but to walk forward, trudging slowly through ongoing mud. In the next life, you will come back as a water buffalo.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Water buffalo? Well not too bad.

More about the book here.

Monday, July 18, 2005


I learnt today that my grandfather, Ralph, died on the 18th of last month. He was 86, and had had little contact with our family since he left my grandmother when I was 11. It was a midnight flit, and I don't think anyone knew where he was for years, although he did spend Christmas with us when I was 17, and I spent a few days with him in Townsville about five years after that.

Mum was always going to visit him, but he was two flights and quite a lot of money away, so she never got around to it. Calling him to tell him that she had been killed was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do.

He found himself a new family in Townsville and I think they did a wonderful job of looking after him. But before he died, they tell me, he destroyed virtually all of his papers, and consequently they had no contact details for me or his ex-wife or anyone else.

It was only because he kept a few of the newspaper articles that I'd written and sent to him that they were eventually able to trace me.

I don't know why I feel the urge to blog this - I guess it is a small record of a life. By profession he was a radiator mechanic, he had a sister Ina, I believe now dead, and a brother Noel Lee White, whom we are trying to track down (last known location the Gold Coast, I'll add on the off chance). His life was limited for many years by glaucoma and high blood pressure, and he became very deaf, which made phone conversations pretty well impossible.

That's really all I can think of to say.

Normal blogging will resume tomorrow.

Beware the backlist

Philippa Gregory's The Queen's Fool is an entertaining, well-researched novel of Tudor times, based on an interesting premise, the female "fool". Its title character moves from the endangered household of Princess Elizabeth to the unhappy court of Queen Mary. (More here.)

So when I was looking around for a bit of light, entertaining reading, I picked up her The Wise Woman, set earlier, during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries. I thought it would be an interesting contrast to Dissolution, the novel set in the same period that I wrote about recently.

I was, however, severely disappointed with The Wise Woman. The research seems scanty - the characters assume a human gestational period of nine months, which I'm sure was not the belief then, and Alys, the title character, moves from peasant's shack to castle with ridiculous ease.

But what is really wrong with the book is the nature of the main character. As a foundling she is taken in by a horribly poor "wise woman"; then she becomes a nun; then ends up as a waiting woman in that castle, and throughout she shows not one skerrick of compassion or interest in anyone who helps her - in fact her actions cause, directly or indirectly, the death of all of them. The message of the book seems to be: don't trust anyone who's lived in poverty, because they'll only ever be out for the main chance, and will be thoroughly unreliable.

Aside from the ridiculousness of that message, as a central character in the novel, Alys is just not someone you want to spend time with.

Just how this novel got published I find hard to imagine. Perhaps the editor saw potential in the writer, and was prepared to wait for it to come out, but in the meantime, this is a cautionary tale: just because an author has written a good book, it doesn't mean their earlier work was worthy of your attention, or your cash.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Net nuggets No 14

* A different perspective on Arab women - their military roles.

*Staying in that part of the world, a sensible, nuanced short account of the wonderful Lady Hester Stanhope, although unfortunately it is not much impressed by the biography it reviews.

*On wonderful female characters, the ODNB today highlights Elizabeth (Betsy) Davis another 19th-century traveller, but an unusual one, at least of those we know about, in being from a humble background. The daughter of a Welsh smallholder, she only learnt English as a teenager. Her catchphrase seems to have become "I must see more of the world", and that's just what she kept doing.

* My knowledge of American history is scanty, so I was interested in this brief history (with extensive links) of the annexation of Hawaii, which involved the overthrow of the native monarchy. Women were prominent in the local resistance.

* Moving into the present, a short bibliography on Women in development and IT.

* Finally, a bit of inspired madness. Jacob Berendes is making a stuffed toy each day for a year. And you won't find any cute bunnies here.

Sunday donkey bloggging

Since I've finally got my scanner working again after the move (and I hope the printer, although I haven't been game to try that yet), and having just stumbled across more Aleppo pictures (an earlier set was posted here and here), I thought I'd share some of my pics from the wonderful bazaar in the city. (And that adjective is being applied by a person who hates "normal" shopping.)

But shopping in London is never like this ....

It was in a shop like the last that I bought one of my favourite pieces of jewelry, a necklace containing an Australian 50 cent coin of the Queen's silver jubilee (1977). There's nothing special about the coin in Australia - you might easily get it in change some time, but in Aleppo it must have seemed something special, and was set in a very fancy silver setting, with a heavy chain. I had to bargain very hard indeed to get it down to a price I was prepared to pay.

* This is also the first time I've used the new Blogger photo tool. I'd appreciate a quick note on how this displays on your browser.

NB: If you are thinking of using these, or any other pictures on the site, please note the terms of the Creative Commons Licence, at the bottom of the blogroll.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Well it wasn't how I was going to spend the day, but after Amazon's delivery man (or rather Royal Mail's) had stuffed a card through more door and ran away early today, I went to pick up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince from the parcel office, and thought "what the hell". It was a gorgeous day for sitting in the sunshine in a pub garden with a Pimms (tried it today, once was enough) enjoying an unchallenging but entertaining read.

Furthermore, it is wonderful to think that tens of thousands of people, of all ages, all around the world, were doing the same today. The hype does get a bit wearing, but the fact that the world is getting this excited about a book can only be a good thing.

On most levels, The Half-Blood Prince is more of the same old Potter. The standard of writing is as before: simple and a bit clunky - how you'd love to get in as an editor to tighten it up and straighten it out; the story lines are getting a bit repetitive in their twists and turns - one lot of magic seems much like another.

But the story has moved on with the age of its characters. It does end with a funeral, with the emotions of those watching fully described (no don't worry, I'm not going to tell you who is interned), although there seems to be less gory action than in The Order of the Phoenix.

Boy-girl relationships too are a large part of the story (which is I fear certainly going to put off boy readers). These are, however, curious. In their depiction of early teen, confused, messy, lasting days or weeks, the form seems accurate, but they are curiously bloodless and passionless. That might, from a charitable view, be a deliberate attempt not to lose the younger readers, but I'm not sure it will work.

What is very different this time is a distinctly political tint. Most younger readers are going to be puzzled by the opening scene, not Privet Drive and the unlovely but entertaining Dursleys, but what looks very much like No 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister is waiting anxiously after a terrible week. Then he's interrupted by his "magic" (and of course more powerful) compatriot, the Minister for Magic, or rather the former one, who's just fallen in a political coup:

"Fudge was looking distinctly careworn. He was thinner, balder, and greyer, and his face had a crumpled look. The Prime Minister had seen that kind of look in politicians before, and it never boded well."

That sounds very like descriptions of Tony Blair during his recent bad patches, and the Prime Minister waiting hopelessly in No 10 while waiting for a more powerful government to tell him what is going on and what he should do - well the comparisons are obvious.

That continues even when we finally get to Privet Drive, where a purple leaflet lies on the floor of Harry's room, titled "Protecting Your Home and Family Against Dark Forces". It suggests a collection of obvious or ridiculous safety measures, much like the ones the British Government sent thudding through our letterboxes after 9/11.

It is gently mocked soon after by Dumbledore:
"I received one myself," said Dumbledore, still smiling. "Did you find it useful?"
"Not really."
"No, I thought not. You have not asked me, for instance, what is my favourite flavour of jam to check that I am indeed Professor Dumbledore, and not an imposter."
"I didn't ...," Harry began, not entirely sure whether he was being reprimanded or not.
"For future reference, Harry, it is raspberry ... although of course, if I were a Death Eater, I would have been sure to research my own jam-preferences before impersonating myself."

The political references continue, on a lower key, through the rest of the book; the new Minister for Magic, effectively the magic world's prime minister or president, keeps trying to enlist, by devious means that Harry immediately sees through, his support to shore up the government's position. It is suggested that he might just be seen going in and out of the ministry a couple of times, in a classically Alastair Campbell-style piece of spin.

Harry is even showing a nascent political sensibility. When tackled by the minister to become his instrument of spin he keeps returning to Stan Stunpike, the Night Bus conductor, who's been imprisoned for months even though everyone is sure his links to the dark forces were pure adolescent boasting. Almost the last action of the book is a confrontation between the minister and Harry:
"So," said Scrimgeour, his voice cold now, "the request I made of you at Christmas -"
"What request? Oh yeah ... the one where I tell the world what a great job you're doing in exchange for -"
"-for raising everyone's morale!" snapped Scrimgeour.
Harry considered him for a moment.
"Released Stan Stunpike yet?"
Scrimgeour turned a nasty purple colour highly reminiscent of Uncle Vernon.
"I see you are -"
"Dumbledore's man through and through," said Harry. "That's right."

This is a new J.K. Rowling, and an interesting one: a satirical novel for grown-ups from her might be an interesting read. Having reached the penultimate book in the planned series, it is possible to start to imagine a writing life for Rowling after Harry Potter. There are just faint hints in this novel that if she can branch out, break away from the boy wizard's spell, the results might be worth waiting for.

The big question

I'm reading a fascinating book about the evolution of human consciousness at present (more on that soon), but I did have to wonder about its curious pathways.

After lighting a candle last night I stood holding a match, wondering if it was OK to put in my new wormery. Nice to know how your brain can come up with the oddest of formulations.

On the wormery, I splashed out, after having the "garbage-bin" sort, which worked fine, but required a very messy process to dig out the compost from the bottom, with a flash tray sort, which I bought from the Green Gardener. (No I don't get commission.)

So now I've got lots of fat, happy-looking worms on the balcony munching away on celery leaves.

But does anyone know about matches?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Friday femmes fatales No 14

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten.

The blogosphere seems to have been leading the way on the Karl Rove story this week; Out Loud has an excellent, angry, summary and link set.

Deserving of mention for her stalwart defence of abortion rights is Crazy Cat Woman, but I have to select for special note her post on the man arrested for showing his chest in public - that's what you call equal rights. (He seems to have had what are known in the UK as an extreme case of "man-boobs", which are not usually considered an attractive feature.)

Culture kitchen is meanwhile using what is obviously broad psychology/philosophy reading and bringing it into everyday language to try to understand what is the big deal about rape.

But I think I've found a solution to teen pregnancy - all potential mothers (and fathers) should be forced to read Raising Weg's post about how replacing daipers (nappies) with potties is not necessarily all it is cracked up to be. (Well she does have triplets.)

If that's not enough, sympathise with This woman's work, who wakes up counting the hours until she can get to sleep again.

Slightly later in the lifecycle, Through the cellardoor of existence has a personal take on the exams versus coursework debate. The Underwear Drawer, written by "an anesthesiology resident in New York City trying to get used to the idea of calling herself 'Doctor' without using those finger air quotes", is meanwhile enduring the tests that really matter - at least to her patients.

Going cultural, Broad View enjoyed seeing the "Britgirl rapper" Lady Sovereign, despite being trapped in the middle of a crowd "dancing like they were knee-deep in aerobics class". In a more relaxed format, Surburban Guerrilla relished a rare day away from the front line.

And I guess I'd better finish with a Harry Potter link (hey anything that gets kids reading has to be commended, even if the hype is now hardly bearable): and The Austen Blog finds one attempt to tell a part of the story in the new book (or is it? - tomorrow will tell) in the style of you-know-who.


Here's No 13 if you missed it.


Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The lady of Bleeding Heart Yard

To a talk last night on Bleeding Heart Yard (a small shared courtyard off Greville St in Clerkenwell). It is at the edge of the area known as Hatton Garden, for it was the yard of the palace of the Bishops of Ely, planted to make an earthly model of the Garden of Eden. At least it was the bishops', until Kit (later Sir Christopher) Hatton, one of the many favourites of Queen Elizabeth I, persuaded her to ensure he got possession of half of the palace and most of the garden.

There's a picture here if you scroll down)of what it looks like today, but the talk focused on the Victorians' view of it. They were typically excited by its name, but had already forgotten the earlier legends that were attached to it.

Some thought that it was named for a plant, known as bleeding heart vine that had grown profusely in this part of the Hattons' garden; others that there'd been a pre-Reformation pub on the site with a sign showing the Holy Virgin's heart pierced by five swords (not something that would make me go into a pub personally) still others that a young maiden had been locked away from her lover here until she had pined away for want of him.

But the real origin of the tale seems to have been an account (wholly fictitious) of the death of Lady Hatton, the wife of the second Sir Christopher Hatton to own the house (he'd been adopted by his uncle and taken the name). This was rediscovered by "Thomas Ingoldsby" (the pen name of Rev. Richard H. Barham), a friend of Dickins, whose Fireside Family stories were rollicking versions of traditional tales.

This has Lady Hatton making a pact with the devil to win her husband's hand, with the inevitable ending seven years later ....

Of poor Lady Hatton, it's needless to say,
No traces have ever been found to this day,
Or the terrible dancer who whisk'd her away;
But out in the court-yard -- and just in that part
Where the pump stands -- lay bleeding a LARGE HUMAN HEART!
And sundry large stains
Of blood and of brains,
Which had not been wash'd off notwithstanding the rains,
Appear'd on the wood, and the handle, and chains,
As if somebody's head with a very hard thump,
Had been recently knock'd on the top of the pump.

(An alternative version of this tale blames the Spanish ambassador - in English terms then more or less the same as the devil.)

The poem is here and there's a couple more of the Ingoldsby Legends here.

You might wonder why Lady Hatton, who actually died peacefully in her bed, was the subject of this tale; well she was a strong-minded woman who lived for decades in a state of public war with her husband - perfect material for a bit of witch-slander.

If that seems a depressing note to end on, well think of a more cheerful Victorian tale for the Yard; some Italian street musicians who lived there were looking for an easier life, so they trained animals and boys to work together, then leased the animals to the boys for "busking/begging" on the streets.

The price list (per day):
Porcupine 4 shillings
Monkey 2 shillings
Monkey in uniform 3 shillings
Dog and money 3 shillings (the monkey rode on the dog's back)
It is said that some boys made the princely sum of 6 or 7 shillings a day - although whether this was clear profit or before expenses is not clear.

More on this series of walks/talks can be found here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A little more Gwen John

This evening I'm off to a talk on Bleeding Heart Yard, on which more tomorrow, but that led me to a book of poems of that title, by William Scammel, and I think his poem, titled "Retrospective", has Gwen John rather well, if very much from a male POV:

In part:
"Gwen John's women only just
make it onto the canvas. Pale blue's
the colour of the birth they choose
not to announce. They're fading fast

into a future of unreachable
addresses, high single bed,
cats, letters posted or unposted,
three or four cowslips on the table ..."

Bleeding Heart Yard, William Scammel, Peterloo Poets, 1992, p.17.

My earlier posts on John are here and here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Bonk ...

... was the name for an irregular ingot of copper in the Dutch East Indies, and indeed in modern Dutch means "lump", so I learnt today from one of the numismatic lists to which I belong. (And yes the subject line did get my attention.)

It reminded me of the Thai word for pumpkin, fook, pronounced as though the middle letters were "u" and "c".

And in Thai, the word for water buffalo differs from the word for penis only in the tone; I once spent a very annoying day in a central Thai village being followed around by the original peasant dirty old man trying to get me to name in animal, in the hope I'd get it wrong.

It's nice to know I've learnt so many useful things in my travels.

Elmina's Kitchen

On Friday evening, partly as a small gesture of defiance to the terrorists, I went to a subdued West End for an evening of theatre. By pure chance (it was the only show I found starting at 8pm and I was running late - why DO most theatres start their shows so early?) I ended up seeing Elmina's Kitchen, happily, since I might easily otherwise have missed it.

Set in Hackney, east London, it is entirely played in the eponymous cafe, where a black father, Deli, is trying to deal with his failing business, his son's fall into the hands of his old friend, a Yardie gangster, his brother's release from prison, and his own father's attempt to sponge off him, after decades of absence.

Shakespearean is an adjective that might well be applied to this beautifully structured work: in its effective transition between slapstick comedy and genuine tragedy, in its dramatic but entirely believable ending (which I won't give away), and its lively, witty language of the street, the comparison with the Bard is warranted.

The playing is uneven: Shaun Parkes as the gangster Digger exudes menace, George Harris as Deli's sleazy father and Dona Croll as the saucy waitress whose motivations are complex and perhaps nefarious, are all excellent; Croll particularly holds the stage, but Kwame Kwei-Armah, the author of the piece, doesn't seem to me to live up to being the best-known actor here (perhaps it is significant know for TV). He doesn't quite force you to look at him the way he should.

Nonetheless, the production is gripping, despite the fact that the language is entirely that of the street, and this viewer certainly missed some details in the dialect. I'm still trying to work out an insult/swear word that sounded something like "blood cloot" that occurred several times - can anyone translate? A black woman in the foyer at interval was amused when I commented that the programme should have a glossary, but really I wasn't joking.

It is salutary that this is a language of London with which I'm entirely unfamiliar. The play also addresses many issues that I read about only in newspapers: the problems in the black Caribbean community of maintaining relations between fathers and sons, the attractions of crime, and guns, and the general seductiveness of violence, yet it is never preachy or driven by its "issues": this is a story, not a piece of social work.

But it was great to see the audience was about half Black, and mostly young, which is certainly not what you usually see in the West End. The (all white) ushers in their bow ties looked rather uncomfortable and out of place.

But if the West End is to survive this is an audience it needs to attract, and for the actors it is a wonderful audience - far noisier, more reactive and lively than the average; it must have been rather like that in the Elizabethan Globe.

(The Guardian's view is here.)

* The play has also, I found, been filmed by the BBC and is available on video.

Shake that belly

I just came across a reference to this fascinating sounding article ...

"How does she do that?’ Belly Dancing and the Horror of a Flexible Woman"
University of Wollongong, NSW Australia
Abstract: The role of belly dance and the meanings attached to this dance for both the women who perform it and their spectators have undergone radical change since it was first introduced to the West in the 19th century. This article raises a series of questions about the process of bodily transformation through the practice of belly dance and explores the mechanisms by which women attain empowerment through the moving body. In particular, the complex intersections between ideas of display, spectacle, and the “grotesque” moving body are examined.

It is from Women's Studies, Volume 34, Number 3-4 / April-June 2005, pp. 279-300.

It don't have online access, but it sounds like a fascinating article; when you think about it men always seem to look uncomfortable around belly dancers - at least the Western men I've seen. It's quite an aggressive form of movement.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Net nuggets No 12

* I've been remiss in neglecting to point to the latest Carnivalesque (a collection of posts on early modern history). I particularly liked the early sexual harassment case", which perhaps unsurprisingly saw the "victim" transported to Australia, but check it out - the range is so broad you're almost bound to find something in your range of interests.

* Seeking inspiration for a radical career change? Here it is.

* Bloggers and professional journalists co-operating? Surely not. The Washington Post sees a new trend in the role of "citizen journalism" in the London bombings.

* You'll remember the huge health scare about hormone-replacement therapy. But a high percentage of women, for good reasons, are going back on the treatment, and there were anyway flaws in the study. A sensible report on the issue here

* Item No. 3,254 to add to my two read list, The Wilder Shores of Love, by Lesley Blanch - not some bodice-ripper, but an account of four 19th-century women travellers by the delightfully adventurous writer and journalist Lesley Blanch, who's still going strong at the age of 101. There was an excellent article in the Guardian review.

* Echidne of the Snakes has an interesting theory on why small numbers of women can appear to assume prominence well beyond their numbers in otherwise male-dominated areas of society.

My new toy

... is a cycle "computer", so-called, although that's a rather grand term for a £7 item that works on the simple principle of a magnet on a front spoke passing a detector fixed to the fork. You tell it the size of your wheel; it works out how far and how fast you've gone.

But the "speedo" as I prefer to call it (that means speedometer, for those who need the translation from Australian) has provided me with hours of amusement.

First, it allowed me to calculate the shortest route for my new commute - 6.7 miles home from South Quay, through Shadwell (on nights when I'm feeling brave - I've only had a rock thrown at me once), past Bank Tube, then along New Oxford St in the bus lane and straight up Tottenham Court Road.

The longest option is around the Regent's Canal (daytime only of course), which is 8 miles - I keep meaning to do it, but it does take about 10 minutes longer and I live in a perpetual condition of running late, so I seldom get to it. (In fact I've done it once, but the wild birds etc were lovely, and I must do it more often.)

Second, it has allowed me to check my top speed, which until the weekend was 16mph. About that point in London I start getting nervous about stray pedestrians, dogs etc and my stopping distance, but on the weekend adventure I actually got up to 22mph! Yes I know that's standing still in serious cyclist terms, but it felt pretty fast to me - and the bike felt about as unstable as I fancy, for the moment anyway.

So, my recommendation is: if you've got a bike, get one of these! (In fact I regret not lashing out on one of the more expensive ones, which have a tripmeter. Mine is only cumulative, so you have to remember the starting distance on each journey to calculate its length.)

Some good news

They've cancelled the softball and baseball in the 2012 Olympics, so Regent's Park won't be ripped up for the purpose of building a huge temporary stadium. I withdraw some of my earlier cumudgeoning (although not all of it - the Games are still bound to cost a mint and cause lots of disruption).

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Architectural cycling

I expected to wake in agony this morning, after cycling 25 miles (40km) through the Kent countryside yesterday - nearly double what I've ever done in one day before - but was pleasantly surprised to find my hamstrings unknotted and my heels touching the ground. Maybe I'll pay tomorrow.

Whatever agony might result, it was in a good cause - I'm now much clearer on a range of architectural terms that I've been reading in guides for years, have acquired lots of new thoughts about medieval society - and all of that exercise, albeit balanced out by a huge cheddar ploughman's lunch and some lovely local cider. (Well you've got to go with the theme.)

The occasion was a Lambeth Cyclists architectural tour of the Kentish Weald, which I found on the London Cycling Campaign Rides and Events listing. (You can also sign up for email reminders.)

We started in Headcorn, with the classical wooden hall house known as the Headcorn Manor House, behind the church. Built around 1500 as a vicarage, it must have been a near-palace in medieval terms - with fine filagree decorating the windows of the central great hall, lit by double-height bay windows. (Hey it even had a chimney in the hall, whereas with earlier versions there'd just been a hole in the middle to let the smoke out. Brick was still a high-status item, so this was pure luxury.)

Here, as we were told by our delightfully patient guide and knowledgeable guide, Benedict O'Looney, that the hall had later typically been split by a floor at its middle level, providing extra space. This style of wonderfully organic wood-framed house was the main subject of the ride, a reminder of the great oak forests that once graced the area, and the rich yeomen families that lived in them. (Typical of the sort of house is Sewards, here well, if technically, described.)

Another theme of the day was the wonderful range of reds to be found in the bricks and tiles of Tudor Kent, well illustrated by the run of houses beside the church of St Peter and St Paul. Tiles were hung on the side of houses, as well as being used on the roof, to protect them from the elements, as well as for decorative effect. (Between 1784 and 1850 when roof tiles were taxed there was lots of tile hanging - you can imagine the arguments about the definition of "roof".)

Here too we first encountered a delightful architectural term - the "cats-slide roof", referring to the extension of a hipped roof down, sometimes almost to ground-level, when an extension was built on the side of a house, producing that extended line the must also sometimes have been a delight for adventurous children. Continuing the animal theme, we were later to learn about the "dragon beam" - the great curved piece that supports the jetties of the upper story at the corners.

(There's some lovely historical snippets about Headcorn, and pictures of the church, here.)

After a detour to the pie shop - highly and deservedly recommended - next it was the short ride to Smarden, where after a stop for that ploughman's in a lovely pub garden with pond - where we appropriated all the seats, to the disgust of the locals, we visited the church of St Peter, which lives up to its nickname of "the barn of Kent" with a huge, beautifully light and airy nave.

Smarden's a funny place, for in the 1330s, when it was granted market privileges by Edward III, it was obviously a boomtown - also the time they built the church - but something went wrong, the traffic went the wrong way, and now it is just a little - if richly architecturally-endowed - village.

Curiosities included the entrance to the churchyard - which requires you to walk under someone's first-storey bedroom; the wafer-oven in the chancel: no need to worry about the town baker falling down on the job; and the dragons' house - featuring a line of the creatures lined along the fascia board. "Are they breathing fire?" someone asked of the arrows that separated them. Close study revealed, no, they were farting it. (A medieval builder's sense of humour perhaps?)

Also in Smarden we were initiated into the difference between Flemish bond and English bond, with regard to the arrangement of headers and stretchers: if you want to sound really knowledgable, while guaranteeing your audience will not understand you, here's a page that explains it all.

The sun came out about now - after some threatening morning clouds, in time to warm the trip on to Bethersden, famous locally for its "marble", from which was made the rather battered font in St Margaret's, although not the "moronic corbel" idenitifed by our invaluable guide Mr Pevsner, which we eventually found outside the church. It did look rather like a person's suffering from Down's Syndrome, to give it a more comfortable modern label.

This was where the riding got going, and we made a serious run (well by my standards) on to Woodchurch, with a view stop at a windmill with a lovel view and some friendly local horses - the piebald definitely fancied trying out our water bottles.

Then on towards Appledore, on the Romney Marsh - away from all that lovely Kentish clay. We'd been promised a lovely long downhill, but it was more of an undulating run. My London flat-bits-only cycling legs just about coped with one long uphill, although several members of the party went past as though I was standing still.

I'd learned a lot, although we didn't resolve several questions debated through the day: why were so many fine houses built in each village, when you might expect only one manor in each? what was the open passageway between the great hall and the service rooms for? and why did they jetty out the first storey on houses in country villages where space was not at the premium that it was in London?

Answers in the comments please ...

Friday, July 08, 2005

Friday femme fatales No 13

Where are all the female bloggers? Here, in my weekly top ten.

I thought I should start today with Thoroughly Modern Millie, who claims to be, at 79, one of the oldest bloggers on the web. (Just out of interest does anyone know of any older female blogger?) The post to which I'm pointing here could be a message to us all: "If you don't go out, nothing will happen".

I feel I have to include a London bombing post, but just one, reflecting my personal concern that it not be allowed to loom out of proportion. Catherine Redfern is quoted on MsMusings raising some of the broader issues around the attacks.

Of greater long-term importance, in a week when US abortion rights faced a new threat, Bush v. Choice's is a blog to follow on the aftermath of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement.

The British government might meanwhile be shilly-shallying on the banning of smoking, but Fascinating History reports on a ruler who had an effective, and very final, solution to the problem.

But to gentler political climes: maybe it is just the pastures across which I graze, but Canadians seem to be represented in the blog world, both in quality and quanitty, far beyond their proportion on the world population. It thus seems appropriate to point to Promptings' post on Canada Day.

The delightfully named Booklust is meanwhile finding that she (unfortunately) has seven degrees of separation to Norman Mailer, while Paper Napkin, whose title is explained as "all the news that's fit to wrap your gum in", is finally closing on the purchase of a house, with all of the ensuing stress, and wondering what watching aliens would make of the scene.

I have to give The examining room of Dr Charles an honorary mention here for introducing me to a whole range of female bloggers on topics green. The World of Botanical Girl introduces "Spyro", her Bryophyllum tubiflorum that just grew, and grew, and grew .... Jane Perrone on her organic gardening blog meanwhile offers tips in this post of how to help plants cope with hot weather - she's got lots of great advice on organic gardening and is certainly going on my "regular read" list.

Finally, on along the botanical (and very funny) line, Woulda Coulda Shoulda is talking about the problem of maintaining the yeast/bacteria balance, with the help of oatmeal and baking soda. (Not recommended for males of a delicate disposition.)

But wait, there's more, as the telesales people say. Check out a blog pursuing a similar aim to this listing by a different method: Blogs By Women.


Here's No 12 if you missed it.

Please, if you're impressed by something by a female blogger in the next week - particularly by someone who doesn't yet get a lot of traffic - tell me about it, in the comments here, or by email. Remember, I'm going for a list of 200 different female bloggers. (The first 100 are here.)

A plea for proportion

Before everyone runs around proclaiming that the world's going to end, that we really have to have ID cards now, and abolish the civil liberties built up over centuries, can I just step back and point out the actual scale of yesterday's London bombings?

The death toll is going to end up in the region of 50 - about the size of your medium-sized rail crash, with perhaps three or four times that many people suffering long-term serious injuries, physical or mental. Now that's horrible for them and their families, but it is about the equivalent of one week's death toll on the roads.

Then there is the disruption in central London - "chaos on the streets" as the media proclaims. Well actually, the problems were in the same order of magnitude as is achieved quite regularly by a good semi-tropical storm, working in cahoots with the inadequate Victorian drains.

Perhaps we should look at this from the other end of the telescope, and realize that despite the endless scare stores about "dirty" bombs, chemical weapons, even nuclear bombs, this was all al-Qa'ida could achieve.

There will be endless post mortems, and indeed there are good questions to ask. I'll admit the advantage of hindsight, but wasn't London, on the day of the G8 summit, when Bin Laden's enemies were making at least a reasonable stab at portraying themselves as environmentally aware humanitarians, in a notably similar position to the Spanish just before their election?

Bin Laden, or at least those working on his model, have patterns that can, and should be checked and predicted, yet we're told London was on the lowest level of alert for years.

Accounts have it that 1,500 Met police are being rushed home from Gleneagles. Shouldn't they have been here in the first place, rather than tearing around Scottish fields trying to stop men in clown suits and women in tie-dye getting within shouting distance of George Bush?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

After the first shock

I cycled to work this afternoon at three, six hours after the bombings. (It had been my day off, as it was on 9/11 - perhaps they should institute extra security according to my rota).

The streets of central London were filled with a tide of people, yet oddly quietly. Few were talking, and even those on mobile phones were moderating the volume. These commuters turned pedestrians - pudgy men sweating in once-ironed shirts, suit jackets slung over their arms, and women in heels trailing disconsolate, unhopeful arms at the odd passing cab - had decided like some giant organism that they now owned the streets, and were taking no notice of traffic lights, road rules or anything else, presenting a new cycling hazard.

But there was little need to worry about traffic. The authorities had blocked huge areas around the affected Tube stations; there were no effective routes through the city, and hence no vehicles.

Police and the new fast-multiplying breed of "community support officers" were much in evidence, but were doing only the traditional job of the London bobbie, providing directions to the lost, not, this time, tourists, but workers suddenly discovering the ribbon of land between work and home that they usually burrow beneath.

Pubs were full of those who'd decided the drink their way through the duration, but a continual stream of the hopeful or the clueless was pouring into Fenchurch Street station, which must have been about to burst its worn seams. They were hoping for a train, some time; who knew when they'd get one.

On Cheapside many of the shops were shut. "Security reasons" said a handwritten sign on the door of an expensive cosmetics boutique. Starbucks too was dark and empty, without explanation.

But the banks were open, as was Boots, and shoppers were about their ordinary business. It was as if this ancient market; which has seen in its time Norman, Viking, French and Dutch raiders, had shrugged and said: "This too will pass."

Near Tower Hill, the lights were still shining from St Olave's church hall - an undistinguished lump of 1950s brick that replaced ancient stone knocked down by the Luftwaffe. A banner was strung from its windows: "Antique Fair today". It had customers.

Most, though, had adopted the classic shoulder-set of a refugee, trudging slowly but steadily on; their routes were radial - fanning out from the scene of the disaster.

Outside the central ring of the city, the traffic was also disaster movie-style - mostly stationary and intermittantly panicky, the road hog monsters of the rich suddenly at a disadvantage.

They were passed by a man wheeling a bicycle, his daughter of seven perched uncomfortably but excitably on the seat, her feet on the crossbar. Her long blonde hair was tied back in a bright ribbon.

A woman with a central European accent, riding a surely borrowed bike that was far too big for her, asked anxiously: "Which way to Stratford? I don't know where I am." I set her on the simplest route I could map.

London bombings

Well it is still early days, but monitoring the coverage it seems that there were three bombs on the Tube and one on a bus, which may have been a suicide bombing. The death toll is likely to be at least in the scores, the count of serious injuries similar. The general mood is slight shock, covered by a gritty determination to get on with whatever needs to be done.

London 2012

Damn: I'd fled Sydney to escape, but now they're following me.

I was going to try not to be curmudgeonly - and I'm talking about the Olympic Games if you're that proverbial blog reader who's just returned from Mars - but then I learnt that the softball and baseball, and 18,000 spectators, will be plonked into the gorgeous, peaceful Regent's Park, which I count as my backyard. So I decided to let the curmudgeon out.

Since a large part of the British public already seem to think that sport (watching it on the television, not playing it, that is) is the most important thing in the world, it is hard to see how this is going to improve the nation.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Net nuggets No 11

This article has some fascinating figures on how fundamentalism is heading in the direction of destroying America's technological advantage. (Although I don't agree with its conclusion on Turkey's membership of the EU, which sneaks into the end as though it is the writer's pet subject.) It would be interesting to look at the parallels between America and 15th-century China, which likewise turned its back on innovation and the outside world.

* A 2.3m-year-old "factory" (via Mirabilis).

As the date for humans in America is put back significantly, to about 40,000 years, you have to think just how smart our ancestors were. The current date for the emergence on anatomically modern humans emerging is about 100,000 years ago in Africa, and if you look at some of the suggested but still controversial dates, they colonised the planet in an astonishingly short period of time. We think we live in a world of massive change, but just imagine 98,000BC (or thereabouts).

* Time magazine has caved in and handed over a confidential source. This article explains why this is a dangerous thing (although some of the commenters present the other side of the argument rather well). The problem of journalistic confidentiality isn't going to go away.

*The women of Kuwait have made some great political advances in the past few months. This article sums them up and also has interesting figures on international representation. I didn't know that 49 per cent of the Rwandan MPs are female.

* A popular medieval history magazine in French, Les Temps Medievaux. (Now I must get back to my French studies, soon ...)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


It's ages since I read this now, but I did want to record a couple of snippets from A Life of Colette: Secrets of the Flesh, by Judith Thurman ...

* It's often forgotten that Colette was very much a journalist as well as a novelist. "She would be one of the first women to report from the front lines of World War I, and go up in an airship and an aeroplane. One of her specialties would be crime, particularly domestic violence, and criminal psychology, and she would cover some of the great trials of the century." (p. 218)

* As the row ignited by Jacques Chirac over English food rages, we should perhaps be thankful he wasn't commenting on female sexuality. Thurman is referring particularly to Colette's The Ripening Seed, which a New York Review of Books review (full text requires payment) says contains her defining lines: "Ces plaisirs qu'on nomme, a la legere, physiques" (these pleasures lightly called physical.)

The biographer says: "At least since the Puritan revolution, and probably since the reign of the first Elizabeth, ambitious Anglo-Saxon daughters have been taught that their greatest worldy leverage - the route to influence in art, politics, or anywhere else in the public sphere - lies in abstention. Despite misogynistic laws and traditions, French culture ultimately prizes and respects sexual appetite and daring in women and, as these women age, values their prowess and wisdom - one reason Colette would become a national treasure." (p. 316-7)

Is there some truth in that? I suspect there is, but looking at yesterday's post, perhaps the absence (and always lesser importance) of the nunnery as an alternative for Englishwomen, meant celibacy IN society, as opposed to outside it, was a significant option, which it wasn't in France - have to think about that one.

* But I have to admit, I struggled to really sympathise with the woman who "had always been a misogynist, but she became an increasingly entrenched one. In 1928 Colettette had published a polemical pamphlet entitled 'Why I Am Not A Feminist', explaining in her preface that 'I have never had any confidence in women, the eternal feminine having betrayed me from the outset in the guise of my mother'." (p. 381)

She seems, like too many successful women, to have preferred to regard herself as exceptional, above the rest of the female half of the human race. So no, I'm not a fan.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Get thee to a nunnery

... whether you like it or not.

I have been reading about the "superfluous daughters" in early modern Italy who were, with varying degrees of force, pushed into nunneries.

Unsurprisingly, there's little detail about the process or the fate of the women, so it is said the best account is the story in Allessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi, which was inspired by the life of Marianna de Leyva, known as "the nun of Monza" (Monza being a city near Milan).

After eight years of education in a convent she writes to her father saying she does not want to be a nun. Taken home, she is held in virtual solitary confinement and allowed not the smallest of pleasures. Finally she gives in and is whisked back to the convent:

"I am here," began Gertrude, but on the point of offering the words that were to have almost irrevocably sealed her fate, she hesitated for a moment and fixed her eyes on the crowd in front of her. She saw, in that moment, one of her companions, who was watching her with an air of compassion mixed with maliciousness, and seemed to be saying, "Ah, the clever one has fallen into the trap!" That sight, reawakening with even more force in her soul all the old feelings, restored a little of her old courage and she was already searching for any answer other than the one dictated to her when, raising her eyes to her father's face, as if to tests her strength, she saw such sinster anxiety, such threatening impatience that prompted by fear, with the same readiness with which she would have taken flight before a dreadful object, she continued, "I am here asking to be admitted to take the habit in this convent where I was so lovingly raised."

Later, she took a lover and murdered a servant who threatened to expose her. There's been at least one movie made of her story - it is described as "nunsploitation", so I doubt it has much value.

The text, described as "the first modern Italian novel" is available in Penguin classics, and I note from Amazon that one of its "statistically improbably phrases" is "poor innocent girl", which isn't exactly resassuring as to its value as an account.

Even Google scholar doesn't throw up anything - sounds like a topic ripe for re-exploration.

This from Musical Voices of Early Modern Women: Many-Headed Melodies, T. Lamay (ed) Ashgate, 2005, "The Good Mother, the Reluctant Daughter , and the Convent,: A Case of Musical Persuasion, Colleen Reardon, pp. 271-286.