Philobiblon: December 2005

Saturday, December 31, 2005

The magic of the copy

Imagine that you are told that the whole of London is about to be destroyed. The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, all of the treasures about to be swept away. You've got a magic wand and can save just one room. Which would you choose?

Oddly enough, I think I'd chose Gallery 46A at the V&A - the Cast Court - which contains not one original object, but crams into one room an entire art history of almost two millenniums of Europe in a mad, exotic menagerie. There are tombs, fonts, doors, panels, freestanding statues and crosses, portrait busts, monumental memorials. The originals were in bronze, in stone, in wood, but here they are in plaster - that fragile but infinitely malleable magic dough - carefully copied and coloured, preserving every crack and grain, every indentation left by weary buttocks over the ages; not quite real but not quite fake. READ MORE

Joining the Greens for the new year

I made a resolution many years ago not to make new year's resolutions, and I've kept it pretty successfully, but I decided this was a good point to put off procrastinating and join the Green Party.

I've been thinking about it for a while, hanging back because I don't really see myself as the joining sort, and, let's face it, they do have a very specific image that I don't quite see myself as fitting - but the need to do something drastic about global warming is just becoming overwhelming.

The Guardian today has a fascinating interview with a palaeoclimatologist, whose speciality is the Jurassic.

"A few years ago people were saying, 'OK, well, we'll look back a million years or so, something like that, to see the effects of climate change'," she explains. "They thought that we'd still be in the kind of world that we currently know. But now we think that for a vision of what the Earth's going to be like in a couple of hundred years, we may have to go back to a time before the ice, to when it was a greenhouse world. Because if you look at the figures on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it's rising very, very fast. It's beyond the levels of CO2 that we classically know from before the last ice age. If it keeps accelerating at this rate then in a matter of just a couple of hundred years we'll have levels of CO2 that we last saw at the time of the dinosaurs."

And when I wrote to Camden Council as a leaseholder in one of their blocks - in response to a statement that they were going to let an electricity contract - asking about using green alternatives, I got back the standard letter about it being too expensive but they were still looking at it. So they're going to let a five-year contract to traditional suppliers.

I look around at all of the flat roof-tops around me, from four storeys to 17 storeys, and wonder how many wind turbines (and solar panels) you could put on top of them that have - according to this site - at least neutral cost implications, and considerable environmental benefits.

There's a council election next year; I think a few Green councillors would be a very good idea. Might concentrate some minds among the staff.

Party-time, 17th-century style

Having spent the afternoon at the V&A, I can report on the perfect style for a party - perhaps now to see in 2007. It has recently acquired two spectacular pieces of 17th-century wear, now on display in the fashion section:

At the top is a women's jacket dated 1630-40. The colour is quite subdued - a soft beige (assuming this is original), which allows all of the focus to be on the spectacular silver thread embroidery. There must have been many, many hours of work in that - and really skilled work. No wonder clothing was so expensive.

The men's doublet is possibly even finer, dated 1650-65 - I'd reckon it must be after 1660; it has a definite Restoration look about it - foppish is hardly the word. The description says it is made of very fine Italian silk, woven with silver gilt thread.

(Apologies for the quality of the photos - the lighting is understandably dim.)

Just what the UK needed

In a country already obsessed by football (mainly) and to a lesser degree other sports, the New Year's Honours - to every sportsperson the government thought it could get away with - is just what was needed - NOT.

If this, and the Olympics, were going to encourage people to play sport, well it might be defensible - but what is far more likely is that it will encourage people to spend even more time slumped in front of their televisions.

I can look out my kitchen window into a run of windows in flats some 50m away. I'm fascinated by one in which it seems at night (you can't see through the curtains during the day) the television is always on - and usually on sport. (The screen is so large that even from this distance I can see it quite clearly.)

Friday, December 30, 2005

Meeting Sir Stamford Raffles and hearing tall tales

Miss Williams Wynn is today meeting Sir Stamdford Raffles, and hearing some tall tales of Sumatra - including cannibalism of living bodies, with a side dish of salt and spices. Well I guess one of the rewards for enduring obscure foreign climes is being able to tell weird tales afterwards.

She does also, however, hear quite an accurate account of the "mermaid" (manatee).

Then for light relief she comments on a family of English aristocrats said to have tails like monkeys ....

(More on Raffles.)

A faithful greyhound

In 1400 a French knight, Chevalier Masquer, killed his erstwhile friend Aubrey de Montdidier, and in secret buried his body. But the dead man's faithful greyhound, called Verbaux, led one of his friends to the grave and scratched the ground to expose the body.

Then, whenever the dog saw Maquer he attacked him, although his temperament was otherwise good.

When the king learnt of these events, he ordered a trial by combat to allow God to decide the situation.

Beside Notre Dame, Maquer was buried up to the waist and armed with a stick and shield (the same arrangements were also used for trials between men and women). The dog was let loose and seized him by the throat. The knight screamed for mercy and promised to confess his crime. The dog, presumably, was dragged off - or else super-intelligently let go - and the knight was later hanged.

No record survives of the dog's fate, but one hopes he had the best spot by the fire and a nice meal every night.
(From Duel: A True Story of Death and Honour, James Landale, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2005)

There's a longer version of the story here.

I find it hard to imagine my faithful greyhound doing likewise - as I gather is typical of modern greyhounds he's definitely on the timid side; still you never know, he might be more of a guard dog than he looks.

Since I'm on (possibly shaggy) dog stories, a holiday ahhh tale - Keela, a 18-month-old spaniel and police sniffer dog earns more per day than the chief constable who employs her.

Her sense of smell, so keen that she can sniff traces of blood on weapons that have been scrubbed after attacks, has her so much in demand by forces up and down the country that she is hired out at £530 a day, plus expenses.

Essential Reading: Rape in South Africa

A full, expert analysis of the problem of rape in South Africa - a reminder of the fact so often denied or rejected, that the crime is about power, not sex.

They were also “desperate protests against men’s loss of control” over women. Over the past century, radical changes in South Africa’s economy have profoundly affected gender norms and expectations and altered the balance of power between the sexes. In reaction, violent men were reviving old “scripts of male domination” with deep historical resonance.

The cultural relativist would deny it, but there are some cultures that don't deserve to survive, due to their damaging, dysfunctional nature. The problem is how to change them with as little damage as possible.

(Via The Rhine River.)

Friday Femmes Fatales No 38

Ten new (to me) female bloggers, ten top posts, on my way to 400. It answers the question: where are all the female bloggers?

To start on an inspirational note for the new year, Kirsten on InHer City provides an account of a Young Women Drumming Empowerment Project. Come to think of it, why is it that drummers in commercial music always seem to be male? (Answering my own question, because, it seems, women are usually only allowed to be singers and dancers.)

Then, turning to another form of invisibility, Green Whale on I Am My Own Country reflects on the obliteration of women that is full purdah.

Being explicitly political, Wendy's Thoughts turns towards the upcoming Canadian election. Get out and vote is her message, since "just like with pennies, if everyone drops one into a bucket eventually a dollar will be made".

Rabfish on Brown Rab Girl Fish enjoys cross-cultural discussions with taxi drivers.

Laura on Derivative Work reports on some
surprising figures for the British Medical Journal. Most of its referrals are coming from Google and Google Scholar, rather than medical sites. (There's also an interesting case of "diagnosis by Google Scholar".)

Also on the practical side, Melly on All Kinds of Writing offers advice on keeping track of your writing submissions.

Then turning creative, an all-haiku blog, appropriately called The Little Things. Here Kimberly is reflecting on winter, and summer. Very effective - even if poetry isn't usually your thing.

On Tuckergurl, a rave recommendation for an independent film, Down to the Bone. "What a real, complicated, compelling protagonist. Finally a great woman's role!"

I was almost going to ban the C word this week on the ground of humanity's general exhaustion with the whole concept, but I couldn't resist Divinebee's account on Accidental Mother. Those in northern climes might be surprised to know that Christmas on the beach is no picnic.

And finally, anyone thinking of having a child might want to read post by Crazy Rockin' Foxy Mama on ChunkyRhino, about a day of shit - literally. Those who already recognise the experience might want to go over and commiserate.


You can find the last edition of Femmes Fatales here.

Nominations (including self-nominations) for Femmes Fatales are also hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Women's NGO job

Was browsing around Craiglist (yes the job section, really, and I can prove it) and stumbled across this job posting, which I thought might be of interest to some British readers, or people they know.

"Women for Women International is seeking an individual to serve as the Office Coordinator in London for a period of one year. The Office Coordinator is the official representative of Women for Women International in the country, overseeing staff, programs, fundraising and administrative activities.

(As they always say on email lists - contact the organisation for more info. I know nothing more, about the job or the organisation than I can read on the web, although it does look interesting, being an individual sponsorship-type set-up, operating in war-zones and former war-zones.)

Remember those fiendish, witchlike, dreadful Iraqi women?

... the ones that the press dubbed "Mrs Anthrax" and "Dr Germ". Who were accused of all sorts of Nazi-concentration-camp-style crimes?

They've been released without charge by the Americans.

Blair's police state takes aim at morality

The Blair government, rather than reforming the 50-year-old law on prostitution, has decided to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to street prostitution. (Thus employing, again, one of its favourite phrases.)

This is supposed to be linked to services to help the sex workers off the streets - the government says 95 per cent of those on the streets are drug addicts. In theory, fine and good. Ditto that male clients are supposed to be as much the target as the primarily women workers.

Except, what is easier? To swoop along the street and pick up women leaning against telegraph poles dressed in fishnets and miniskirts, or to pick up men who stop - men often who will have the money for top lawyers, and a neat cover story about being lost and asking for directions. Who do you think is most likely to be nicked, and convicted?

And what will be easier, fining those women (where WILL the money come from?) and locking them up for a few days or weeks, or meeting their complex needs for addiction treatment, counselling, support, accommodation, etc? Will the government really put in the money to make that happen? What WOULD the Daily Mail think?

Reading through a chronology of London history I came to 1506, the headline "Brothels suppressed". "A royal ordinance this year suppressed the 'stews', or brothels, of Southward, but 12 of the 18 were allowed to reopen shortly afterwards." (From The Annals of London John Richardson)

It seems governments never learn.

An anniversary worth noting: 30 years since the British Sex Discrimination Act.

That link is to a reasonably positive view, but the Indy has gone for the negative:

Women working part time today earn nearly 38.4 per cent less than men performing equivalent work. In 1975 the figure was 42 per cent. For full-time workers the gap is 17.2 per cent compared to 42 per cent 30 years ago. ... each year about 30,000 working women are sacked, made redundant or leave their jobs due to pregnancy discrimination.

I tend to think we should be celebrating; there's a lot to do, but one hell of a lot has been achieved in three decades.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dangerous 4WDs

A link to share with anyone who bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle (SUV) because it made them feel safe:

FOUR-wheel-drive vehicles were involved in all three NSW fatal road accidents in which four people died over the Christmas period.

And yes the dead were all passengers in the vehicles. (Although of course they are also highly dangerous to other road-users.)

And then there was Agatha Christie ...

Even the defenders of The Mousetrap, which has been filling a London theatre for 52 years, admit that its artistic merits, if any, have long been eclipsed by its status as an institution. It will continue, perhaps even should its audience mutate into another species, but can Agatha Christie survive as a writer who still have something to say to the modern world?

Her fiercely protective estate had put a moratorium on theatre productions of her work, in an attempt to "freshen them up", so when And Then There Were None, in a new adaptation by Kevin Elyot, opened at the Gielgud it was not just this production, but the whole theatrical future of Christie, that was at stake.

The play is still reasonably true to the original tale of a party of ten people, who are morally if not legally murderers, summoned to an isolated island to meet their just desserts - well except of course that the old title, Ten Little Niggers has long been sentenced to death. Rogers, the butler, keeps a lower-class stiff upper lip as he continues to minister to 10 guests invited to the house party by the mysteriously absent hosts, within minutes of learning of the death of his wife, and the stage is filled with crusty military types, proper spinster ladies and all of the other inhabitants of an ideal English village circa 1920. READ MORE

Tube history

How to win the pub quiz, or set the unanswerable one. When did the last steam train run on the London Underground?

Astonishingly, the answer is June 1967 - they were used for transporting night-time maintenance crews. No wonder the native mice are soot-coloured.

And with the new Wembley Stadium apparently in trouble, it seems the site has a problematic history. Sir Edward Watkins, the chairman of the Metropolitan line, set out to build a tower higher than the Eiffel that was supposed to attract customers. It was not a success, and was never completed.

The Northern Line, as it is today, started out badly, as it was to continue. The carriages were called "padded cells", because there were no windows - the theory being there was nothing to look at.

From: Underground London: Travels Beneath the City Streets Stephen Smith, Little, Brown, 2004.

There's no such thing as a free lunch

It is an old adage, but one scientists seem to never learn. If you ramp up biological productivity, by breeding cows to be mere milk-producing machines, by using huge quantities of fertilisers, or by dumping shit in fish ponds, you might get more output, but you'll also get environmental and other side-effects. The latest, quite possibly the spread of bird flu:

Bird flu may be spread by using chicken dung as food in fish farms, a practice now routine in Asia, according to the world's leading bird conservation organisation.
Fertilising fish ponds with poultry faeces, which can dramatically improve fish growth, may set up major new reservoirs of avian influenza infection if the chickens providing the manure are infected themselves, according to BirdLife International, the Cambridge-based umbrella body for bird protection groups in 100 countries.
The suggestion, which has echoes of the BSE outbreak in Britain - when cattle were infected by their food - puts a question mark over a technique firmly backed by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as a primary means of providing protein for mushrooming populations in developing countries.
Known as integrated livestock-fish farming, the technique involves transferring the wastes from raising pigs, ducks or chickens directly to fish farms. At the right dosage, the nutrients in the manure give an enormous boost to the growth of plankton in the ponds, which are the main food of fish such as carp and tilapia.

(I've quoted quite a bit of that because it will disappear behind a paywall in a few days.)

But in an early bid for an IgNobel prize, a scientist has calculated Earth could hold a population of 1.3 million billion. That is on the basis of their heat production alone not overheating the planet. Which means?

Assuming that every person emits 120 watts of heat and that it would be uncomfortable if the average temperature at the Earth's surface rose too much, the researchers declared the Earth could sustain 1.3 million billion people without overheating.
Writing in the journal, the researchers acknowledge the Earth's resources could be put under severe strain long before the theoretical population peak is reached. "Constraints like food availability or physiological necessities may become critical in the relatively near future. But they are subjected to a continuous change as a result of the development of human civilisation and technology," Dr Badescu said.

It seems some parts of science have still to recognise the dangers of their own arrogance.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The sale cycle

I had cause to cross Oxford Street a couple of times today (a great exhibition at the National Gallery was one of the causes, but more on that tomorrow). It was heaving, swarming, overflowing - it is hard to think of an adequate adjective - with sale shoppers. The radio also carried the usual reports of traffic chaos around the big shopping centres; the hunters were out after so-called "bargains".

No, I wasn't joining them, at least not directly. I do most of my shopping these days on eBay (or on La Redoute for staples like white T-shirts). I don't go into an actual physical shop unless I can't possibly avoid it.

But I do eventually expect to be a beneficiary of the sales; lots of the items I buy on eBay, usually "BNWT" (Brand New With Tags) have sale markings on them. For example I've got a pair of bone-coloured leather boots that I bought, unworn, on eBay for £20. The woman who sold them to me explained they "didn't quite match the colour of her outfit". She'd paid £50, marked down from £150.

She no doubt thought she was getting a bargain, but it is hardly a bargain if you never wear the item concerned.

I suspect that will be the fate of many of the sale items bought today - buying something "because it is cheap" can be terribly tempting.

Chinese girls and the Pill

China is strengthening penalties for those involved in the abortion of female foetuses. With the ratio of males to females 119-100, it seems to me this won't be enough. More needs to be done about ensuring girls are valued, although I suppose eventually the value of shortage will take care of that.

Taking the Pill may greatly reduce the risk of MS. There are undoubtedly both health advantages and disadvantages about the Pill. I'm suspicious of those who make great fuss about disadvantages, as there's often some moralistic agenda behind it: women controlling their own bodies - terrible, unnatural!

I was sold some years ago on the theory that to have 12 periods a year, year after year, is entirely "unnatural", so changing that, by taking Pill packets three at a time, is actually taking your body back closer to what countless generations have experienced before us. Also has the great virtue of convenience!

Finally, surprise surprise "Make Poverty History" has done nothing of the sort. You'll see in the sidebar one of the charities that I support - Ethiopiaid and particularly its Fistula Hospital - and I wanted to note that Tim Worstall is using "Mr Google" to raise money for it.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Carnival of Feminists - early call for nominations

The next carnival will be on Reappropriate. Submissions are due by January 3, by email to jenn AT reappropriate DOT com. Or there's a nifty Technorati tag submission method.

Jenn is asking particularly for posts about "feminism of colour, and the intersection between race and gender". But all other subjects are welcome. And don't forget, you can nominate yourself!

The fates of London

London has always been a city of incomers. In medieval and early modern times, "foreigners" were people who came from a different county, and Londoners mainly were foreigners. With its birth rate less than its death rate, the city needed, and still needs, new blood coming in all of the time to keep it going, let alone growing.

I'm one such incomer, but count my blessings in that I came into the city with professional skills, a bit of capital, and a few friends to start a support network. Many others start with far less.

This week's Time Out continues the story of a 23-year-old Pole who arrived in London from a small, poor village, not speaking English. Wiola Andrzejewska started working in a factory without proper employment conditions, was sacked without notice, but gradually developed a network of cleaning and babysitting jobs. Going back to her home town - flying for the first time (having arrived by bus!), wearing London fashions and comparing her achievements to those of her peers who stayed at home, she realises that she has come a long way.

For others, however, London is not a place of upward mobility. That's the case with Najwa, the central character in Leila Aboulela's novel Minaret. She arrives as an asylum-seeker, but one who, at first glance, has all of the resources necessary to make a success of her life in the city. Her family has money - rather a lot of money - which is what got them into trouble in their native Sudan in the first place, with her father held and then executed for corruption after a coup. She has at least part of a university education, excellent English from a private school education in Khartoum, and a network of helpful relatives - everything, it seems to succeed. READ MORE

A Christmas tale

Cycling into work last night (was doing one last shift at the Indy), I was stopped outside South Quay station (near Canary Wharf) by a 30-something Sri Lankan man, with a strong accident, who asked me, in tones of some shock, where he could find a church.

Now in the temple of Mammon that is Canary Wharf, that is quite a question. I sent him off to the older area of the Isle of Dogs which, looking at the map, I see was more or less the right direction. (Although whether any church would have been open would be another question.)

A church, in London, at Christmas. What an odd request. Not one a local is likely to be making.

Survey season

One of those pieces of research that makes you feel slightly better about human nature: Parents who have daughters tend to become more left-wing.

There's been a lot of fussing about gender stereotypes about this, but it seems quite obvious to me - leftwing policies in general provide more health and community services - more of a safety net. And the reality of society is that women are far more likely to need the net - if they are left as single parents, in they want the Pill for free, etc etc.

Google search terms - one of those glass half-full/half-empty tests. For the year the second and third most popular search terms were respectively Hurrican Katrina and tsunami, and a book character! - Harry Potter of course, came in at No 10. (Who'd be nasty about JK Rowling for that result?) But of course the rest is celebrity pap.

More on J.K. - this time keeping children out of hospital. Emergency hospital admissions of children went down significantly on the weekends the books were released.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

After Culloden, the executions

My 19th-century "blogger", Frances Williams-Wynn, is engaging in a little historical recording, copying a letter reporting, in great detail, the execution on Tower Hill of two of the lords (Kilmarnock and Balmerino) captured at Culloden in 1745, when the "Young Pretender" was defeated. This is - seriously - not something to read if you get nightmares; it is one of those pieces that make you realise the past is a foreign country.

Then again, I suppose people today do still slow down to look at car accidents.

There's an image of the scene here. (Not gory.)This site records that "a pub called 'THREE LORDS' was built at 27 Church Street, Minories, London E. The Inn sign showed them with the executioner's axe and the block."

No back-up, and an obit to die for

You know that business about always backing up your work? Well if it needs reinforcing, here's a tale of a woman whose only copy of her master's thesis was stolen. But she couldn't face re-writing it, so she went bin-diving.

Then, an obit to die for.

Peter Brunt, who has died aged 88, was Camden professor of ancient (Roman) history and fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, ... his most important contribution was his innate sympathy with the Roman proletariat demonstrated in his 700-page book, Italian Manpower 225 BC-AD14 (1971). It may be unreadable - it ends as it begins, with a table of figures - but it includes everything you need to know about the Roman proletariat, whose suffering in the creation of the Roman empire is enthusiastically quantified ...By the end of the process we are so exhausted that we do not notice that there is no conclusion...

(Hat-tip to The Little Professor.)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Sister Anne: A cautionary tale

Everyone is posting Christmas stories, and while the following isn't exactly that, it seems appropriate to the season. It might also be given as a cautionary tale to those women who think it is a good idea to throw their fate and future into the arms of a man.

Sister Anne

from The Spell of London, by HV Morton (first published 1926)

In Bloomsbury there is a captive lady. I have seen her. She sits at a window in a tall, grim house, too near the roof to be the owner and not quite high enough to be the maid. She reads a lot, I believe, and thinks more than she reads, for whenever I see her she has just looked up from a book, and is gazing down into the rather too consciously respectable square with eyes which may, or may not, see the life that goes on there.

She reminds me of Sister Anne of the fairy-tale turret; only she is a much older Sister Anne, with a something about her that tells me how long ago she renounced all hope of seeing a horseman come spurring down the road to rescue. She is the lady of the bed-sitting-room ... 'a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances.'

'Bed-sitting-room, with use of bath.' There are thousands in London, in every great city, and in many of them a woman is sitting 'like Patience on a monument smiling at Grief. It is good for us now and then to know hard times, but it is tragic to fall into that hopeless category among those who 'have known better times'. Sister Anne has known better times, and that, I think, is what she is always thinking about when she forgets to read and sits looking down into that too self-consciously respectable square.

'I remember when my dear Henry was alive,' she always says, if you listen long enough; for that is the burden of all her thought. Dear Henry, however, died and left her stranded. He either crashed on the Stock Exchange, or she discovered that everything was mortgaged, and she turned to face life alone—imagine beginning life alone at fifty—in a bed-sitting-room 'with use of bath'!

There is little that Sister Anne can do. What can a woman who has been nursed all her life learn at fifty? Sometimes, I think, I have seen her steal into Bond Street shops trying to look like a customer. She unwraps a brown paper parcel and takes out embroidery; for her mother fortunately taught her to be 'clever with her needle'. They give her a few shillings and some more work. Out into Bond Street she goes, still trying to look like a customer, for, you see, she has the pride of the poor and the shame of 'having known better days'.

'Poor thing!' they say in the shop. Or perhaps: 'Do you remember when Mrs. X used to drive up in her carriage?'


In the bed-sitting-room in Bloomsbury are those few things which she managed to snatch from the creditors and the auctioneer; a silver frame, that looks so alien in a tawdry room, from which dear Henry gazes out with the blithe and dashing expression so characteristic of his more prosperous day. A chair or two; a carriage clock: useless knick-knacks which look as queer in that nakedness as the strange things the sea leaves when the tide goes out. . . . Sometimes there is a photograph of a child who, had he lived, would be a man now, capable of picking his mother up from the humiliation of a bed-sitting-room.

In the winter, when coal is dear. Sister Anne leaves her turret and spends the day in the rest rooms of the big Oxford Street stores, writing innumerable letters, reading magazines, and watching other women; remembering things about the other half of her life.

Or she haunts, like a ghost, those parts of good hotels where there is no danger of being handed a bill. The porters and the clerks know that she has no appointment in the lounge or the writing-room. Sister Anne just sits there because it is warm,, and because it is what she was once accustomed to do before dear Henry escaped from this life.

London is cruel to the lonely. As long as you have a pound note to squander, you find a friend. When the last penny goes, and you are too proud to exhibit your poverty, Solitude and Memory perch on your window-sill like birds of ill omen; and you grow inward and talk to them; and people think you are talking to yourself.

So whenever I walk through Bloomsbury and see Sister Anne's refined white face at a window, I wonder why some of the altruism that runs waste does not trickle in her direction.

How much happiness a Bed-Sitting-Roomers Club would bring into the world I am not prepared to say, knowing a little of human nature. But it always seems to me that if Sister Anne could, without any loss to her dignity or any hint of that kind of charity which thrives on the enjoyment of pitying be drawn away from that lonely window she might learn how to smile again—as she did before poor, dear Henry, with characteristic dash, flung his widow at Fate.


The fairytale Sister Anne reference appears to be to the story of Bluebeard.

London the World City, Except at Christmas

You've got to pity tourists who thought Christmas in London would be a good idea. I've just done a zip around the major museum/gallery websites and they are all closed 24-26 December, there's no public transport at all on Christmas Day - really folks, the world hasn't stopped, it just seems like it.

If I can start early enough in the morning it seems one of the few things to do tomorrow is walk down to Hyde Park for the Serpentine Swimming Club annual race. Although it is so ridiculously warm for this time of year, it won't have quite the usual thrill of danger.

No, you're right, I don't really do Christmas - but merry Saturnalia to all!

The dog formerly known as Prince

... has been renamed Champ. This is actually short for "Champagne", but when he needs his street-cred I won't mention that.

I just couldn't quite see myself yelling "Prince" across Regent's Park, should we ever get to that stage of recall. Everyone would be expecting to see a King Charles spaniel or similar.

He had his first real off-lead run this morning, in an estate garden about half the size of a football pitch, and it went pretty well. He does know what a whistle or "come here" means, and usually obeys it, unless something else more interesting is going on around.

It is interesting comparing him with Beanie, who being a Staffie was very smell-focused. Greyhounds are classed as "sight-hounds", and that's just what he keeps doing; looking around with great intensity and focusing particularly on movement. And he's certainly be off after it given the chance.

Digging through his paperwork, I find that his racing name was Alfa Focus, and would you believe it, the web yields the first part of his racing record, from Ireland! (I'm pretty sure it is the right dog, since the whelping date matches.)

So I can call him Champ, since he did win three races in Ireland, as a one-year-old, on this record. Although since according to this site his prizes were a grand total of 51 euros, so perhaps they weren't very big races.

And here's his pedigree, back to his great-grandparents (better than I can do!)

And I'm struggling to interpret them, but the British Racing Board results suggest he also won or came second in races at Romford, Nottingham and Peterborough. So he's had an adventurous life - more adventurous than some people have.


But I think he might be ready for the quiet life now, and to fit in with Philobiblon ...

Friday, December 23, 2005

More on Napoleon

Miss Williams Wynn is back on the subject of Napoleon, having met two relevant officers at public balls, apparently in Hastings - then rather more fashionable than now, I suspect.

She's also writing on a young officer on the ship taking Napoleon to exile who was related to (I think she means) Sir Wm Sydney Smith, who refused to speak to Napoleon because of the way he perceived his relative had been treated by the emperor.

He was frigate captain at the start of the French Revolutionary War and in 1795 was captured on the coast of France during a cutting-out expedition and imprisoned in Paris until early 1798, largely because the French thought he was also engaged in espionage: at this he was also accomplished, aided by his fluent French.

Her other posts on Napoleon can be found here and here.

Seventeenth-century Scrooges

Complaints about Christmas are nothing new. The puritan Humphrey Howell in an almanac during the Interregnum complained that the feast derived from the pagan Saturnalia was blasphemous towards Christ in its origin and its conduct "for when in all the year is he more dishonoured. What less pleasing to him than swearing, drunkenness and all manner of villainy."

Even more of a Scrooge was another almanac compiler, who argued that the time spent on religious festivals should properly be devoted to work, since God had ordained six days of week for that and "here is no room left for holy days". (p. 152-153)

And I was commenting last night about lawyer jokes. Well the only - that I know of anyway - female almanac compiler of the 17th century, Sarah Jinner, wrote that they:

Have lined their gowns, and made them pistol-proof,
And Magna Carta clad in coat of buff.
And with a bolder confidence can take
A larger fee for Reformation sake" (p. 109)

She also has some comments on useful antiaphrodisiacs - rue "made a man no better than a eunuch", while for women she prescribed a powder made from "a red bull's pizzle". (p. 122)

Pretty bad, but not as bad as Sir Christopher Wren, who claimed to have cured his wife's thrush "by hanging a bag of live boglice around her neck". (Anyone know what boglice are?)

And an interesting tie to a recent post of mine on marriage, which attracted some considerable heat on Blogcritics; Nicholas Culpepper on marriage - "We all know that marriage is a civil thing, therefore ought more properly to belong to the civil magistrate than the clergyman; but the clergy get money by it, that's the key of the business." (p. 155)

From Astrology and the Popular Press: English Almanacs 1500-1800, Bernard Capp, Faber and Faber, London and Boston, 1979.

While astrologers in general and the almanac writers are now little regarded, the book makes an interesting case that they were important in spreading at least elementary knowledge of science and mathematics to the masses. They spread knowledge of the shape and size of the solar system, of the nature of eclipses and other natural phenomena, and assisted in the replacement of Roman numbers by Arabic. Their lists of weights and measures, ready reckoners and tables of simple interest aided in economic development.

Friday Femmes Fatales No 37

Ten new (to me) female bloggers, ten top posts, on my way to 400. It answers the question: where are all the female bloggers?

To begin with the seasonal, a Christmas story from Tayari Jones and L on Random_Thoughts says angrily the war on Christmas must end. Remember: Jesus will hate you if you take your lights down, ever.

Then Becca on Not Quite Sure offers advice for parents on surviving the Christmas concert.

In India, the Blank Noise Project is collecting information on "Eve-teasing" - harassment of women in public - and campaigning against those who would blame the victims. Jasmeen reports on a university's skewed view. And the blogosphere is far from free of such behaviour.
The Fat Lady Sings finds misogyny at its finest in comments on posts about violence against women.

SexPosFemme is angered by an article about black women's sexuality.

Maryscott on My Left Wing solidarity with striking transit workers.

Girlbomb - whose book is out in the new year - check out the link on the left of her blog - has a brief foretaste of fame. If you'd like to range further afield for reading material, the Accidental Blogger offers a South Asian reading list.

Femme Feral (love the name) on Fluffy Dollars finds a good skirt is hard to find. Capitalist fashion strikes again.


You can find the last edition of Femmes Fatales here.

Nominations (including self-nominations) for Femmes Fatales are also hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The oldies: off with their heads

Eugenia is a frustrated woman. Even atom of her body aches to be free of her aged husband, to throw herself, with his money, into the gay life of youth that is hers by right of her birthdate. He, however, is destined to die soon, on a set date, the date that he turns four-score years of age, for that is the decree of an absolute monarch, Duke Evander of Epire. Women get only three score, and those of no further use can be bumped off even earlier, should their relatives so request.

That's the scenario that guides A New Way to Please You, written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley in about 1618. Then, a scholarly essay in the programme indicates, there were all sorts of issues around conflict over the Common Law; indeed its original subtitle was The Old Law. Now, while that's all history, the central clash of the play - between young and old - is still fresh, and ensures that this modern dress production seldom seems anachronistic.

The Royal Shakespeare Company production is part of Gunpowder season, marking the anniversary of that monumental plot. Yet this is a play that today is less about politics on the big stage than the personal politics within families. Eugenia - gloriously played by Miranda Colchester in the midst of a typically fine ensemble cast - made her pact with her bank balance in marrying the old man, but thinks she's paid an adequate price. READ MORE.

The laws for terrorists?

In Britain, Australia and the US laws have been brought in to deal with "terrorists", sweeping away civil liberties in the process. But these were only for terrorists, we were told.

So who's been caught?

The latest, in Britain, is an an "over-enthusiastic" A-level chemistry student.

In Australia this week, it was entirely innocent, indeed random, bus passengers and car drivers, on routes heading towards Sydney beaches where there have been racist clashes that no one has suggested have anything to do with "terrorism". Police were confiscating their mobile phones and reading through the text messages. So much for privacy.

And of course there's is the US, where the situation is even worse, since George Bush is not even bothering to try to get a law or legal backing for wire taps, instead employing the Louis XIV-style of government.

Finally, however, I get the feeling that the pendulum is swinging. It is not just those who pay reasonably close attention to issues such as human rights who are starting to get concerned, but the general public. Of course the problem is that it is a lot harder to get rid of laws than bring them in.


Elsewhere, while I don't believe in the death penalty, it is hard not to give a little cheer at the end of a Japanese "groper", chased by a group of men after his woman victim had the courage to speak up. (He had a heart attack and died in hospital.)

I doubt there's a woman - at least a woman who's lived or visited a city - who hasn't suffered from this sort of assault. It is the sort of thing that makes women feel they are living in perpetually hostile, male, spaces.

And hopefully this event will empower more Japanese women to speak up and protest.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Luvvy laughs

Aspiring writers are usually told "write about what you know", and that is what first-time playwright Sam Peter Jackson has done in portraying 20-something actors coming to terms with the difficulties of their profession and personal lives. But if he is really writing about what he knows, then all of the stereotypes about self-obsession, ridiculous angst and general luvviness are also true.

These are both the strength and the weakness of his Minor Irritations, on at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington until January 8. The audience is ready to laugh at his characters, and when Jackson gives them a succession of delightful one-liners, to really laugh. But this sits rather oddly with the angst-ridden moments of quarter-life crisis that the characters are apparently suffering. Jackson has a real talent for word-play and the comic scene, but needs to lighten up and keep that mood throughout; perhaps what is needed is just a bit more growing up - something that could definitely be said of his characters.

The author plays the central figure of Minor Irritations, Ben, a "resting" actor who's working in a call centre, auditioning for a chicken burger commercial and yet to get over his ex-boyfriend, Jay (Luke Evans), who's living in New York and succeeding. Ben's best friend/fag hag is Harriet (Dulcie Lewis), who cheerfully hams up her role as an air-headed part-time air hostess and Jewish princess who arrives on stage obsessing about her recent purchase of The Big Issue. She says of her interaction with the vendor "I always want to say, 'Don't you have Vogue or Vanity Fair?" READ MORE

We wish you a merry Carnival of Feminists ...

No V is up now on Scribbling Woman, and it is another stunning selection, with the added bonus of Christmas cheer - BYO eggnog, however.

You can travel around the world, learn why your Christmas wardrobe doesn't fit, and have great sex. (Or at least read about it.)

More seriously, don't miss every post in the "institutionalized violence" category. Something to think about for your activist New Year's reolutions.

And it's guaranteed to contain no calories whatsoever. Definitely better than eating that extra mince pie.

Please help to spread the word!

And don't forget, in the festive haze, that the next carnival will be on Reappropriate on January 4. So if some inspiration strikes amid the festivities, don't forget to write it and nominate it in time, to jenn AT reappropriate DOT com.

Technorati tags: ;

My Lord and Laddy

I've said before that the chilled manner in which Britain has taken civil partnerships for gays and lesbians in its stride has been an illustration of what I love about the place, and there was a further example this morning.

I woke to Radio Four, and an only slightly tongue in cheek discussion about what you should call the civil partner of someone with a title. Laddy, for the male partner of a lord, was one of the better suggestions. (Doesn't seem to be on the web unfortunately, although you can find Today here.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A golden age of bookshops?

Somehow it seems, wherever and whenever you visit a place, you've just missed a golden age. You always should have found this Thai island 10 years ago, "when it was paradise". And when you read 84, Charing Cross Road, it seems as though just after the Second World War was a paradisiacal age of bookselling, when dedicated experts spent their days sifting through classy hardback editions of obscure classics, just waiting to fill the orders of a New York woman - Helene Hanff, who describes herself as "a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books".

She complained, in a letter of October 5, 1949, to Marks & Co Booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, that decent editions were impossible to obtain in America. That was the start of a beautiful, long-distance friendship between herself and the staff of the shop, and, finally, their relatives, that continued into 1969. Together the collection of the correspondence forms one of the finest epistolary books I've ever read.

In such few words, a lasting bond was form, cemented with American food parcels that Hanff sent to obviously hungry post-war Britain. She's certainly the strongest personality in the book. You can only imagine the reaction in "proper" London of 1949 to the epistle that started: "Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They'll burn for it, you mark my words."

Frank Doel is the chief correspondent from the bookshop side. He starts out all proper, professional English gentleman, but gradually unwinds, while Cecily Farr steps into an immediately friendly relationship and is soon sending detailed instructions for the proper preparation of Yorkshire pudding, to someone who has never seen and tasted it.

It is one of those books that should be on anyone's must-read list, but perhaps it would be better to read it after visiting the modern Charing Cross Road. While it is still one of the primary clusters of bookshops in London - rivalled only by the group of second-hand/specialist stores around the British Museum, just to the north-east, it has fallen prey to the untender grasp of commercialism and development. READ MORE

A highly paid barrister is, ah, highly paid

The London Evening Standard has outdone itself this evening. Its splash is just what the headline says. Of course the barrister in question happens to be the wife of the PM, but there's no suggestion there's anything else unusual about it.

Wonder if it was the husband of the PM, would it get the same attention?

Story not on the web - perhaps they were too embarrassed. No, I didn't buy a copy - I refuse to these days, since it has become Daily Mail-lite - but read it going past the newstand.

But she's certainly lost the turkey vote, with the No 10 Christmas photo op.

Merry Christmas

The figures say that the average Briton (not sure if this also includes babies) is this year spending £366 on Christmas presents. That's an enormous sum, particularly since there must be an awful lot of people spending only a fraction of that, like me.

And lots of those items will be clothes, many of which won't stay in wardrobe until next Christmas. The link above discusses the widespread environmental and economic effects - including the fact, which I hadn't thought about, that the export of second-hand clothes prevents the development of indigenous clothing industries in Third World countries.

But on a more cheerful note, if you're engaged in nefarious pursuits, watch out for the carol singers. Showing a rare intelligence, police in Dorset dressed up to get close to a suspected drug den. The door opened and a woman "she would give us a pound to go away". Sounds like they were authentic then.

One the science side, satellite photos seem to show what happened to Beagle 2 on Mars - an unlucky landing in a hole. And there's a new, high theoretical theory, about the origin of life. Life may have emerged from the quantum realm directly, without the need for chemical complexity. No, I don't claim to understand this.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Not shelving the question

Take a look at your bookshelf. What do you see? Bindings, titles, paperbacks ...? No, I said take a look at the shelf. The furniture not the contents. It is not something I'd paid much attention to, but after reading The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski, I'm looking at the lines of steel and wood with new eyes.

His books is, put simply, a history of the bookshelf. Must be short, you might think, but the story is considerably longer and more complex than you'd think.

First, of course, came the scroll. Not, on the whole, terribly convenient. The Iliad would have filled a dozen rolls, "nearly 300 running feet of papyrus" in total. Which provides an explanation of why the separation of words by spaces did not become general until after the invention of printing; it would have added 30 feet to Homer.

The valuable scrolls had their own slip-cases, sets were usually kept in boxes "not unlike a modern hat box", while a "library" had a series of pigeonholes. But in one of those wonderful ancient/modern parallels, Seneca the Younger complained about the "evils of book-collecting" -:

"It is in the homes of the idlest men that you find the biggest libraries - range upon range of books, ceiling high. For nowadays a library is one of the essential fittings of a home, like a bathroom ... collected for mere show, to ornament the walls of the house."

I've read elsewhere that the Christian preference for the codex helped it defeat the pagan, scroll-based religion, but here is an earlier story. Papyrus was for many centuries the writing material of choice, but when Ptolemy Philadelphus in the second century BC forbid its export, Pliny's Natural History reports that King Eumenes II of the Greek Kingdom of Pergamun, who wanted to establish a grand library, instead ordered the preparation of sheepskins to be used instead. The material was called charta pergamena, which led to the word "parchment". (It had, however, been known earlier, if less used.) And parchment could be sewed to hold the codex together, which papyrus could not.)

In storage of codexes first came the books chest. It could be locked - frequently with multiple locks, and different monastery officials each had a separate key, so all had to jointly agree to get out a book, and witness its removal. Often it was set on a rack, so that the front edge was at a convenient height for resting a book on while reading. But if a book was being set out for regular reading, it would be placed on a slanted lectern - a word that comes from the Latin legere "to read.

The next step was an armarium, more or less a chest sitting on its end, with the "lid" forming the door, and shelves dividing it, each holding one book, with its cover, often highly decorated, facing out. There was a problem as these multiplied, however, because you couldn't put more and more into a room, as they would block each other's light, and the librarian couldn't keep a stern eye on his charges. So instead books started to be arranged on long, wide lecterns. For further security, and to ensure they stayed in place, each book was chained in its place on a lecturn. This avoided the need for complicated arrangements of keys and locks, allowing broader access to the books, and more books to be made available.

Chains were attached to a ring on the coverboard of the book, often near the clasp which, on the opposite side to the spine, held it closed. But, as all we booklovers know, the number of books you own inevitably multiplies and exceeds the storage place. (Had the 17 million books in the US Library of Congress in 1999 been so placed, they would require about 2,000 acres, or three square miles of floor space.)

Then came the stall system. Two facing lecterns were placed a little apart and a shelf run between them. Books could be placed on this, still chained to the original lecterns rail, but placed down on the lectern only when needed. Then after one line of stalls, why not two? If you feel like the story has been a long one thus far, and we've only just arrived at something looking like a bookshelf, well we're now in the late 16th century. Pretty recent really.

But remember these books were still chained, and the chain was attached to the side opposite the spine. So the spine went into the depths of the book stall - now increasingly called a press, with the pages facing outwards. As at the 16th-century library in Hereford Cathedral ...

As printing developed, and books became far less valuable, the chain started to become an unnecessary nuisance, and was dropped for the cheaper books, they were still placed this way, because that's what had always been done. But with more books, even the spaces under the lectern, or desk as it increasingly became, were utilised for storage. Here, books were vulnerable to kicks and scuffs. Turning them around, with spine outward, provided some protections.

So finally, in the 17th century, we've arrived at the bookshelf as we recognise it. But it isn't, Petroski makes clear, in any way inevitable. It is a wonderful lesson in the ways in which we think practices that are "natural", "obvious" and "the only way to do things" often aren't.

You sometimes feel that Petroski is living in another world - "modern" and "hat box" is not a phrase I'd be likely to form (don't think I've ever seen a hat box), and sometimes he gets bogged down in rambling philosophical debates, such as that about "which came first" of the standing or the sitting lectern. But this is a fascinating book, the product of a truly original mind. If you consider yourself a bibliophile, you should have it on your shelves.

How to fold your Metro

I seldom catch the Tube at peak times - being an Australian I don't cope well with personal space slightly smaller than the width of my shoulders - but I did this morning, and marvelled anew at the British ability to develop new social rules for changing circumstances.

Metro is a free newspaper picked up at Tube stations and usually left by users on the train. (Its articles are, to be polite, brief, and largely based on wire copy, but do give you the basics of the day's news.) It started no more than two, or perhaps three, years ago, and there are now, I realised with an anthropological eye on the Northern Line this morning, all sorts of "rules" about its use.

When leave it you should carefully fold it in half - preferably still in pristine condition - as though your butler had just ironed it, as tradition says aristocrats used to get their Times. It can either be left on the seat, or the ledge behind them, although the seat seems preferable. It is then allowable for someone who wants to read it to select this seat, although normally you can get nasty looks if you leap down the carriage for a particular position.

But the protocol suggests you should wait until the person who left it has got off the train before leaning over from another seat to pick it up, it seems.

I'm always amazed when people suggest that Londoners are rude and abrupt - having moved here from Bangkok, I've always found them to be astonishingly polite and mannered.

And if you want people to smile at you, get a dog. On the way home from Battersea this afternoon (laden with Battersea logo bags and with Prince) I struck up two conversations with total strangers, and exchanged smiles with several more.

A new member of Philobiblon

Apologies for my absence all day, but I've been to Battersea Dogs' Home (twice! - long story) and the Philobiblon household has now grown by one. I promise not to turn this into a dog blog, but thought you'd like to meet Prince:

He's really more handsome than this photo indicates, but hasn't really got used to the camera, yet. Prince's an ex-racing greyhound, aged about five, who has spent the last two years already in a house (so he is housetrained - handily!)

He's a bit bigger than I would have ideally liked - he's having to wind himself around the house - but he came with rave recommendations from Battersea's greyhound specialist, and he does curl up into a rather neat ball - as he's just done, which suggests he's already feeling at home.

I'm not entirely sure about the name Prince; alternative nominations are welcome - a blog first - "Name the dog competition?" A guy on the train to Victoria said he was the colour of champagne, but maybe that's a bit too posh a name for an honest working dog. Then again, he does come from a long line of aristocrats - think of all those early modern and 18th and 19th century oils in which greyhounds feature.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

19th-century literary profits

Miss Williams Wynn is today passing on literary gossip about payments to Sir Walter Scott. Her editor, at considerably greater length, is commenting on the literary marketplace in the middle of the 19th century and its financial realities. I don't know how reliable were his sources, but might be of interest to anyone into literary economics.

America and history

The United States, compared say to most European countries, doesn't have a lot of visible history. Which might be a good job, given what it does with what it has.

Browsing around this morning I found that "Uncle Tom's cabin" is for sale. Surely it should be a museum?

And, there's a wonderful 2,000-year-old archaeological site. Or rather, it is a golf course, that occasionally, in a very limited way, lets the archaeologists in.

Break out the Christmas sun hats

I was having a debate with someone last week about global warming. His stance was: "does it matter?" Well it matters to polar bears who are drowning and puffins, which are losing their nesting sites.

And this year, depending on which figures you believe, has been the hottest, or the second-hottest, on record. And so have nine of the last ten. (And the extra one in that set is 1990.)

Surely no one can now doubt the climate, not just the weather, is changing, fast.

As I look out the window on this crisp, clear December morn, I don't see a poor man gathering winter fuel, but I do see, in the eighth of the sky visible from my window, one jumbo jet turning right into Heathrow (there'll be another along in about two minutes) and the clear vapour trails of seven other planes and a smaller plane heading for the City airport. That can't continue.

The reality of pre-teen life

The Observer reports today on a television programme certain to provoke a storm.

Laura-Anne Hanrahan is sitting on her doorstep, playing with a pumpkin as she describes how she felt when her boyfriend kissed her.
'Tingly,' she says, dreamily. 'He used to come over and cuddle me and put his hands up my top. It used to feel cosy. I feel desperate to go up to him and say "Ben, why don't we kiss any more". It hurts so much that we don't kiss that I want to rip my heart out and throw it away.'
Laura-Anne, from Siddick, a two-street village near Workington in Cumbria, is nine years old...
Although the programme is not sexually explicit, Steven told The Observer he first had full sex when he was 11, and had been several times to the family planning clinic. All the children said they had their first 'proper kiss with tongues' when they were six or seven.

You can already see the Daily Mail et al going ape over this, but it is a documentary, and it is reality. The reaction in this story is all talking about the sexualisation of children by society, but the fact is that children this age are, in large numbers, starting puberty, the hormones are flowing, and this is what is going to happen.

When I look back to this age at primary school, well it wasn't so much age nine (fifth grade), but certainly by sixth grade (roughly age 10) talk about the other sex, about puberty etc, was a huge part of the school day. (Although come to think of it in fourth grade there was a lot of fuss about a boy in the class who had a mild mental disability. The cruelty of children: the claim was that he had "VD" and that if you touched him you would catch it. I don't think anyone knew what VD was, but there were posters on the train about it.)

My nickname in sixth grade was "bra baby" because I was the first to wear one - and that was because I had to, although several others quickly followed suit with "training" bras. And there was one girl - the class rebel - who reportedly took payment to let others watch as she kissed her boyfriend in the sheltered area behind the loos.

That was thirty years ago, so you can't blame any recent "sexualisation of society".

I can see how it is hard for parents to acknowledge what is happening, but if they don't provide sex education and give children the tools to work through what is going on, the results won't be pretty.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A genius or a representative? The Nobel Prize question

There have been 776 winners of Nobel Prizes - for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and (more recently) economics - since they began in 1901. Yet were they recognition for astounding, outstanding individuals, or parts of teams and milieus that happened to be picked out of a communal project?

That's the central question of an exhibition that has just arrived at the British Library, Beautiful Minds, the Centennial Exhibition of the Nobel Prize.

One view starts the exhibition, that of Sir Alexander Fleming: "It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought and perception of an individual." Yet further on you go back to Lucretius in 55BC: "Nothing can be created out of nothing."

The story certainly begins with one man, the founder of the prizes, Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite in 1867. He proved himself not just an inventor - with more than 300 patents to his name, for goods ranging from artificial silk to aluminium boats - but a brilliant businessman, growing his explosives empire to nearly 100 factories around the globe. Some of their products - or at least one hopes only their packets - are on display. READ MORE

Snippets of printing history

From Printing and Parenting in Early Modern England, DA Brooks (ed) Ashgate, 2005.

For writers and critics who bemoan the commercialisation of the literary world: "Andrea Alciati is usually given credit for 'inventing' the emblem in his Emblemata (1531), but in fact, as Rosalie Colie astutely notes, Alciati 'began simply by combining two short forms, adage with epigram: it was his publisher [Heinrich Steyner] who conceived the idea of adding figures, or woodcut pictures' in order to make the text more accessible, and thus more marketable." p. 198
(The "first English emblem book" is credited to Geoffrey Whitney, sister of Isabella.)

Print as a corrective to manuscript:
"Abraham Fraunce prefaces one of his books with a dedicatory epistle, explaining that he was forced to publish the work himself because it had been so terribly distorted by manuscript circulation ... the heroine of his story is figured as the reader of the book, who would prefer an accurate text of her lover." p. 202

This blog and others have previously had interesting discussions about "monstrous births". This collection has an article about them, including an interesting predecessor in Martin Luther's writings which "included two woodcuts depicting a 'monk-calf' and a 'pope-ass' in a 1523 pamphlet whose features were meant to suggest, by analogy, the monstrosity of the papacy." p. 228

The origin of the "red letter days"
In almanacs that used red ink "to announce feast days, commemorated the anniversary of the monarch's birth or accession to the throne, noted the shift from first quarter to full moon, marked the start of the four legal terms and 'dogdayes ende'" p. 239

There's also a article on the annotations on Anne Clifford's copy of A Mirror for Magistrates, which gives a fascinating insight into the persona of a scribe of the time ...
"There are at least three hands discernible in the marginalia. The principal one ... that of Clifford's secretary William Watkinson, whom she refers to as her 'chief writer' during the last years of her life ... She dictated the diary to him, as she dictated most of the marginalia. And like a true Renaissance secretary, Watkinson wrote in whatever persona was required. For some narratives, the heading he provides takes the form 'This was read to your ladyship on such a date at such a place'; some are headed, 'This your ladyship read over yourself on such a date,'; but in some, Watkinson disappears, and the heading reads 'This I read myself on such a date' and even 'This was read over to me on such a date' - Watkinson's mistress at these moments speaks through him, just as she does when he writes her correspondence in the first person.

But there is a second hand which also writes 'This I read on such a date', a rather shaky italic hand. This hand also makes more personal comments, noting particular passages for emphasis or praise: 'A good verse'; 'Marke this'. This is Clifford's own hand; she was taught the italic that ladies used, and in her youth it was a careful, very controlled hand ... By the age of 80 she had less control over it, and in a few places seems to require help in completing her marginalia .. which she gets not from Watkinson, but from someone with a less professional scribal hand. The personae throughout the book shade into each other as Clifford's sense of herself incorporates her servants, and as they ventriloquize her voice." p. 275-77

There is in that passage, I think, something very deeply significant about the different nature of identity then - at least perhaps of aristocratic identity.

Curious facts about blood

My latest blood donor magazine has some doozies:

* Claret-coloured blood suggests haemoglobin may be leaking from the red cells, a natural process of aging. (So you get less blue-blooded with age?)

* If you had a fatty meal the night before your blood might be pinkish - probably not good if you're trying to impress the nurse!

* Some oral contraceptives turn your plasma bright green (no they don't say which ones), while self-tanning pills can make it flourescent orange.

So does this mean you glow in the dark?

Weekend reading

* Downward social mobility in China: a Ming dynasty mansion sees probably the last generation of its builders' family. I think of travelling around Xian 10 years ago. The roads were all blocked with building materials for new houses. In the countryside at least, it is probably still another generation before the Chinese start treasuring and restoring such treasures.

* The media is still hounding Joanne Lees. She was the victim of a terrifying attack, showed great courage to escape and save herself, knowing her partner had been killed. And yet you still get ridiculous headlines like this, "jury still out". NO IT ISN'T. A Northern Territory jury, who knows its own very well, has found that Bradley Murdoch killed her boyfriend and subjected her to the ordeal she described. A judge made it VERY clear he believed her. Yet on Monday coming out is a book questioning the verdict. Pure sensationalism - but then you learn it is from a Daily Mail journalist - so a good dose of misogyny mixed in too.

* Turkey is teetering on the brink of what could be an enormous step: Could it really become part of the EU? (What a wonderful thing that would be if that happened - a great blow to the "clash of civilisations" thesis.) But as the trial of Orhan Pamuk shows it still has a long way to go.

* American tactics in Iraq: "A 30-year-old Oxford graduate with no public relations experience has been handed a $100m contract by the Pentagon - to plant false stories in Iraqi papers." So, that's what you call encouraging democracy?

* Finally, the death of a brave man. This was the only story I found identifying a teacher killed in Afghanistan for daring to ignore Taliban threats to stop him educating girls. He is recorded by the single name Laghmani. You can only hope, perhaps against hope, that another teacher will step up to take his place.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Carnival of Feminists - Call for Submissions ...

The deadline for guaranteed consideration for the 5th Carnival of Feminists, which will be on Scribbling Woman is tomorrow night (the 17th). Nominate early, nominate often ....!

And if you could help to spread the word that would be most appreciated.

Nominations should be sent to jones at unbsj dot ca

Friday Femmes Fatales No 36

Ten new (to me) female bloggers, ten top posts, on my way to 400. It answers the question: where are all the female bloggers?

First the stunning Within/Without, on which Neha posts about working with street girls in Bombay. Also check out the post below about a child welfare official who employed am 11-year-old maid!

On Conversations with Dina, a report from the Global Voices Summit and Rebecca posts her impressions of the Les Blogs conference.

Tokyo Girl provides a deadpan but highly illuminating account of gender/national differences revealed at a Swedish housewarming party. Staying on the national customs side, on Frizzy Logic an explanation of a German Christmas tradition.

Then, on the British media, Sashinka reports back from a taping of Have I Got News for You.

Turning personal, on This, That and the Mother Thing, Anita is blogging day by day about dealing with a miscarriage.

Less seriously, Masked Mom suggests taking those dog days of February and adding them to December, while on Little Red Boat, Christmas looms as a menacing wave.

On This Too, Jean meditates on order and disorder, while (at the top as I write), Natalie on Augustine's Blog wonders if God would have chosen to be self-published.


You can find the last edition of Femmes Fatales here.

Nominations (including self-nominations) for Femmes Fatales are also hugely welcome - I'll probably get to you eventually anyway, but why not hurry along the process?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Lysistrata: Girl power for the Naughties

"I loved his willy. I really loved his willy." This is not the sort of audience reaction you expect to hear outside a staging of an ancient Greek play, but the new show at the Arcola Theatre is Aristophanes, and Lysistrata, and a Lysistrata far closer in intent to the original than the po-faced American translation (Douglass Parker's) sitting on my shelf in which the introduction proclaims the play is about "Love Achieved".

Of course it is not about love, but sex, and women exercising the power of their bodies to achieve the highest of goals, peace. So the four-foot-long flourescent tubes rising, and rising, and rising, from the groins of the magistrate, the Spartan amassador and Kinesias are entirely explicit in their meaning, and the actors, and the text, have no problems with that.

To an ancient Greek audience this was ludicrous fooling, but today it has a more serious meaning. The young women in the audience were cheering on Lysistrata (a powerful performance by Tanya Moodie) all of the way, as she dominated the play, and the men - this is girl power for the Naughties, and a far more admirable model than that offered by the Spice Girls in the 1990s. READ MORE

The National Portrait Gallery: Eight of my favourite women

There's a curious conundrum at the heart of Britain's National Portrait Gallery. The institution collects people, as recorded by art. So as you walk around the rooms, are you looking at historic individuals, or at paintings?

These are certainly not "the best" paintings in British history; they can (by definition at least) be found next door in the National Gallery. (The strong presence of Sir Peter Lely here, and his total absence in the rooms overlooking Leicester Square demonstrate that.) Yet these are not (mostly) a photographic record, rather an image that is a blend of what the artist saw and (usually) what the sitter wanted him to see.

Yet somehow, these two sides of the galleries do come together. When I pick out my "favourite women of the NPG" I am looking at the paintings - these are the faces that through which I can find something of the woman behind them, and I like what I find. A little research reveals, however, that they were also great characters, with real achievements to their credit. Somehow you can identify, even from a flattering, fashionable portrait, those who were more than a vapid aristocrat or a lucky courtesan.

This listing is by date, which also conveniently makes a trail through the gallery, starting at the top floor and working down. It is entirely personal - by all means add your own favourites in the comments.

Mary Neville, Lady Dacre (1524-c.1576), painted by Hans Eworth, probably early in the reign of Elizabeth I, after she had succeeded in having the family title restored to her son, after her husband had been executed. Statuesque might be the polite adjective for Lady Dacre; she's painted with one double chin, which probably meant she had several. Her lush auburn hair is tightly combed behind a lavishly pearled, black velvet head-dress. She looks stern and formidable, but satisfied, like a woman who has achieved her life's work. A short biography. (Gallery 2) READ MORE

There were two intellectuals in a bar and ...

“After a dinner party two intellectuals kept taking it in turns to escort the other home in accordance with the rules of etiquette. The result: neither of them ever got to bed”

It seems being nasty about "elitists" has a long history. This is from a collection of historic jokes, found via History Carnival No 22, now up on Frog in a Well. As usual it is a wonderful collection, from how Harry Potter tapped into the medieval (which reminds me about how I got a story about astralabes and a sentence of medieval English into The Times)to a fascinating history of swimming in the early modern world.

Check it out!

Criminal justice in the US: an astonishing statistic

A fascinating account of how films and TV are in love with the idea of the calculating "Black Widow". But a majority of women who kill their partners are long-term victims of abuse. It seems, however, that the US legal system doesn't take this into account:

Women who are charged with the murder of their partners have the least extensive criminal records of any group of convicted offenders. Yet the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that the average prison sentence of men who kill their female partners ranges from two to six years, while women who kill their partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years. In states ranging from Florida to South Carolina, many are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

How are the men getting such lenient sentences? I suspect they're probably using "provocation" defences - such as they believed the woman was having an affair, or was "nagging" him - as has been the the case in the UK.

What sort of hang-over of "women as property" is the former? And as for the latter, well there is a simple - non-criminal - solution: leave!

Finally, at least British law is trying to make this fairer - and perhaps protect more women.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Australian tribalism erupts

After Britain and France's "race riots", it is now Australia's turn, or at least so a simplistic analysis would have it.

The ignition point in Sydney was access to and use of a beach. Two surf lifesavers were beaten up by some men from a Muslim background who had been told to stop play soccer, and then the conflict was off. The site of the start of the problem was Cronulla and other southern beaches of Sydney - which will be familiar to anyone who's read the novel Puberty Blues, or seen the film, and the misogynistic, tribal world they portray.

I lived in Sydney for the first 20 years of my life and never visited one of those places - Sydney is a very spread-out place, and very divided. But it was generally agreed the image the novel presented was accurate, and I doubt much has changed.

They'll know that even among the white tribes of the southern beaches (estimated to be 90 pre cent-plus Anglo-Celtic) conflict was common. But when the "Westies" (from the poorer, far more ethnically mixed inland suburbs) try to assert their right to the public space, the conflict is likely to be even more heated.

It is probably true that race is only peripheral. Both sides have absorbed the often-destructive masculine-dominated theory of "mateship". And that's the real fuel.

This SMH piece is the best analysis I've seen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Behind the scenes at the museum

I spent this afternoon in the company of some amazing objects, prime among them a 10.5m-long, broad and solid-looking boat. A Bronze Age boat. That's right, a boat well over 2,000 years old, hewn from a single massive oak.

What's more, unlike most such finds, which come out of bogs, so have spent much of their life buried, this came into the British Museum in the 19th century, when it was found being used as a bridge.

And it looks like a piece of old oak, maybe a couple of hundred years old.

The amazing thing is that no one has done any significant research on it, because there aren't the funds. The hope is one day an interested PhD student will come along ... sounds like a good idea to me!

Researching around it, I found there is something even more amazing in Dover, a sea-going Bronze Age boat. (Which I really have to see.) And the a pretty spectacular one from Fiskerton.

This was on a behind-the-scenes tour - I also saw the new icon room, of which the Prehistory and Europe Department (which is responsible for around two-thirds of the 6.5m - approx. - items in the museum). It is a brilliant setup in that the icons can be studied on slide-out trays, so that they don't have to be moved at all.

There's also a small but spectacular collection of European armour - including a helmet that consensus thought was probably of the Agincourt era (complete with the straw/raffia - not sure of the proper term - padding).

... Then back to reality. I spent an inordinate amount of time in the post office trying to post the Christmas stuff. You have to wonder, are they trying to put themselves out of business?

A moral question

As I walk up Tottenham Court Road, accosted on all side by the wielders of brochures for cheap international phone calls, "PC modding*", "mobile phone unlocking", and other obscure goods and services I'm unlikely to ever to use, should I:

1. Take one from the poor shivering individual waving it under my nose, on the ground that they'll thereby be able to get somewhere warm faster. (Since I suspect they are paid a piece rate.)

2. Refuse it on the ground that this is killing trees, wasting ink, the energy used to transport it here, etc?

* Slang for modification. (I had to look it up.)

Carnival time!

The Second Asian History Carnival is up on Muninn, and a lovely wide-ranging selection it is. I found a post on a book setting out the Chinese Communist Party's view on domestic exploitation particularly interesting.

(And the History Carnival will be up on Thursday - get your nominations in ... )

And I should also mention that the Britblog roundup again went travelling this week, this time to a hot place in Edinburgh (shhhurely a contradiction in terms) - and nice to see a couple of women there who were not nominated by me. Don't forget to nominate yourself this week, if you deserve it!

The 'problem that has no name' returns

It is said that those who don't read history are doomed to repeat it. Salon is looking at a magazine for opt-out mothers, who formerly had high-flying careers - this year's "great, definitive trend" for women according to well, just about every major news outlet - and finding its articles seem designed for women "desperate for a ray of positivity in what sounds like their hellish daily lives".

One chart called "Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda" compares, "just for fun," what CHOs are obligated to do during the holidays vs. what they would actually like to do. Among the required tasks? "Do all the shopping for my entire family and my husband's relatives," "Buy a new dress for my husband's company party," "Cook endless batches of cookies" and "Put the decorations away and clean the house on New Year's Day." Among the things that CHOs would like to do are "Sit in front of a cozy fire drinking wine," "Buy a whole new winter wardrobe" and "Send my husband to the bakery."
Another table listing "20 ways to amuse yourself on a bad day" includes suggestions like making "pancakes in the shape of those really nice Jimmy Choos you used to wear before you had kids," and affixing "a smiley face sticker to your forehead, because frankly, it's the only smile that's been on your face all day." (You have to sit through the Salon advert for that link.)

The article includes an interview with the editor who keeps answering desperately that this is all meant to be a joke, that it is merely tongue-in-cheek.

It sent me looking for a passage from Marilyn French's The Women's Room, a book that should be compulsory reading for every high school student (or at the very least the girls):

"Husbands were rarely discussed, but they were always in the background. They were usually brought up to illustrate some absurdity or some construction:
'Paul likes his coffee strong, so I make it strong and water mine.'
'Norm refuses to eat pork.'
'Hamp will not touch a baby's diaper. Never has. So when they were little, I couldn't leave them with him at all. That's why I toilet-trained them so early.'
No one ever questioned such statements, asked why Natalie or Mira didn't simply insist, or Adele make the coffee the way she liked it and let Paul make his own. Never. Husbands were walls, absolutes, in small things at least. The women would howl and cackle at their incredible demands and impossible delusions, their inexplicable eating habits and their strange predjuduces, but it was as if they were de black folks down to de shanty recounting the absurb pretensions of de white massas up to de big house."

An essay question: compare and contrast this passage with the words of Erika Kotite, editor of this new ornament to the newstands, called Total 180! -
One of the feature stories for the next issue is called "My Husband Is a Single Man Who Happens to Have a Family." I mean, I'm sure you found from reading the magazine that we're trying to be humorous. I don't know how to put it, but men, as we know, maybe even biologically are able to focus on one thing at a time. Women juggle. The fact that I stay home and watch my kids gives my husband the freedom to not wear that pager because he knows I've got it covered. When we're both home we share. But we had to have that discussion many times, about having shared duty. It's the same thing women talk about all the time, that their husband doesn't clean the house or doesn't do this or that. A man will step over the bag of garbage to get to the beer in the fridge, and a woman will pick up the bag of garbage as soon as she walks into the kitchen.

(I also just love the infantilising, pink-dominated design of the magazine website. Nothing like publishing for grown-ups as though they were 10-year-olds.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Swimming through Soho

Soho now is the haunt of tourists and theatre day-trippers, swanning advertising executives and swooping shoppers. But it was not always thus. For centuries this area was home to some of the poorest and most desperate people to be found in London and it was a measure of increasing civilisation that in 1931 what are now known as the Marshall Street Baths were opened to "improve the health and wellbeing of the local people". There were two swimming pools, slipper baths for those without facilities at home, a public laundry and a child welfare centre.

It is no praise to our age that this wonderful facility, built to the highest of artistic and structural standards, has stood derelict since 1997, its fate undecided. But that has provided an opportunity for its use for a unique performance, Deep End, by Corridor, a group that specialises in site-specific events.

The visit begins with a "health and safety" briefing from an officious clipboarded man in a reflective vest, who tells you, in a patronising tone, how developers plan to again make this structure great - mostly with (no doubt astonishingly expensive) apartments, and with one small part restored for public use.

Then you plunge into the building's past, for an experience that covers all of its history, and seduces all of your senses. At the top of the gorgeously sculpted, gold-railed staircase, you listen as far below, water drips slowing into a galvanised bath that sits in the foundations of the workhouse that occupied this site in 1854 when John Snow in nearby Broadwick Street identified the well that caused a disastrous cholera outbreak. READ MORE