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The first story in the current Interzone magazine is about a bizarre American apocalypse in which women inexplicably start giving birth to cute little bunny rabbits which then swamp the whole country and end human civilisation. Hmm. 

The second one is about downtrodden people surviving in an authoritarian dystopia in which Orwellian wall screens shout motivational crap at them all time and they are forced to attend futile job interviews. More believable than the rabbit story. 



19/9/16 13:56
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Benin Loot

This weighty (576 page) tome arrived in the post today from Sweden. It's a gift from the author as thanks for use of this photograph I picked up in a flea market for £1 two years ago, which turned out to be a unique record of these treasures in private hands in England before museums acquired them. I'm amazed at the stories that grow out of this 'junk' I find, all made possible by the internet. 


14/8/16 10:54
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I have set about reading some of the untouched second hand books I've been hoarding for years. One was a collection of essays called 'Along the Road' by Aldous Huxley, published in 1925. I had forgotten how amusing Huxley could be.

This is him writing about Italian renaissance church architecture: 

"The psychoanalysts, who trace all interest in art back to an infantile love of excrement, would doubtless offer some simple faecal explanation for the varieties in our aesthetic passions. One man loves masses, another lines: the explanation in terms of coprophily is so obvious that I may be excused from giving it here." 

And how prescient is this for 1925? Huxley 
guessing at what future people might do if they had increased wealth and leisure time:

"there would be an enormous increase in the demand for such time-killers and substitutes for thought as newspapers, films, cheap means of communication and wireless telephones"

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I was helping [ profile] anicca_anicca2 out with some translation yesterday. Well, I say "helping"; I hardly did anything but make a few suggestions. English speaking Germans never fail to impress me with their conversational fluency in my native tongue, and the same goes for numerous Greeks, Swedes, Norwegians, Netherlanders, Swiss and Austrians I've met too. In all cases these are people who did not have the advantage of a native English speaking parent, or a childhood spent abroad in an English-speaking country. No, they learned the hard way, at school and university. If you meet a British person who has done this it is a truly remarkable thing to behold. I remember once I met an Englishman who had achieved fluency in Hungarian. I was in awe of him. It was like meeting someone who had learned to speak to dolphins.

I think British language teaching probably suffers from some deeply engrained defect. Jerome K. Jerome shared this opinion over 100 years ago when he wrote his comic novel "Three men on the Bummel", which is about three English friends on a cycling holiday in Germany. The book was so popular in Germany that it was used as a standard English teaching text for some years. Here are some extracts.....

"For they have a way of teaching languages in Germany that is not our way, and the consequence is that when the German youth or maiden leaves the gymnasium or high school at fifteen, “it” (as in Germany one conveniently may say) can understand and speak the tongue it has been learning.  In England we have a method that for obtaining the least possible result at the greatest possible expenditure of time and money is perhaps unequalled.  An English boy who has been through a good middle-class school in England can talk to a Frenchman, slowly and with difficulty, about female gardeners and aunts; conversation which, to a man possessed perhaps of neither, is liable to pall.  Possibly, if he be a bright exception, he may be able to tell the time, or make a few guarded observations concerning the weather.  No doubt he could repeat a goodly number of irregular verbs by heart; only, as a matter of fact, few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs, recited by young Englishmen.  Likewise he might be able to remember a choice selection of grotesquely involved French idioms, such as no modern Frenchman has ever heard or understands when he does hear."

"In the German school the method is somewhat different.  One hour every day is devoted to the same language.  The idea is not to give the lad time between each lesson to forget what he learned at the last; the idea is for him to get on.  There is no comic foreigner provided for his amusement.  The desired language is taught by a German school-master who knows it inside and out as thoroughly as he knows his own.  Maybe this system does not provide the German youth with that perfection of foreign accent for which the British tourist is in every land remarkable, but it has other advantages.  The boy does not call his master “froggy,” or “sausage,” nor prepare for the French or English hour any exhibition of homely wit whatever.  He just sits there, and for his own sake tries to learn that foreign tongue with as little trouble to everybody concerned as possible.  When he has left school he can talk, not about penknives and gardeners and aunts merely, but about European politics, history, Shakespeare, or the musical glasses, according to the turn the conversation may take."
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Yes, he may have had his faults. His female characters are limited to two types, the grotesque frump or the enfeebled virginal or 'fallen' young angel. His personal life reflected this, forever falling for and idealising younger girls while ignoring (and eventually leaving) his faithful wife and ten children.

But what a great story teller he was, nevertheless, developing a unique style of carefully balanced sentimentality, hard social reality and caricature...and what caricature!. Characters so vivid that they are instantly recognisable, even when adapted for film or TV, updated or played by any number of different actors with different faces. Scrooge is immortal, no matter what you do to him.

And this is maybe why he has become a victim of his own success, or a victim of TV's success. Through television these characters have become so well known, as iconic as 19th century Mickey Mice, that there is little incentive to go looking for them in the original books. Britain has given up reading Dickens. I certainly didn't bother until I was in my 20s, and I made an astonishing discovery. He's in them. The narrator is omnipresent, and he's hilarious. I never expected him to be there. This renders all dramatic interpretation of his work oddly hollow. While excising the dialogue and transplanting it into a TV script may function, Dickens himself is rendered mute. He's deleted. For example, take a very minor character from the Pickwick Papers, Mr Miller, who is thrashed at a game of cards. An actor may give a highly polished performance of Mr Miller feeling awkward and defeated, but we can't hear Dickens saying "he felt as much out of his element as a dolphin in a sentry-box".

Of course, Dickens didn't just narrate on paper, he did it in person too, giving hundreds of hugely popular public readings. Maybe this is what we are missing today, literature as a kind of intimate conversation. Literature as an extension of conversation. Indeed, as most of his novels were written in instalments Dickens was constantly responding to feedback and altering his story lines as certain threads and characters proved more popular than others.They were a two way street.

Which sounds oddly familiar. Isn't that what bloggers are doing now? Forget TV adaptations, if Dickens was alive today he'd be doing this. He'd be a 200-year-old blogger.

(cartoon borrowed from Kate Beaton)
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A blog entry by [ profile] bikerbar 's wife prompted me to start reading a collection of translated essays by Karel Čapek. My Kindle tells me I'm not even 12% in but already it is a delight. Such a generous spirited, optimistic man. Incredible that the Nazis considered him a threat. After the takeover of Czechoslovakia the Gestapo arrived at his house to arrest him, only to discover that he had already died of natural causes.

I loved his thoughts on education. As you may know, I often resent my formal education. Much of it did nothing to prepare me for paid employment, or even unemployment. I'd be hesitant to encourage my daughter to pay for university study in anything not strictly vocational. Yet, I love learning stuff. Not necessarily in an organised manner; informally learning from newspapers, the radio, talking to people and reading other people's blogs. Knowledge which is of no use to me whatsoever, except perhaps in TV quiz shows. Indefensible time wasting? Well, Čapek has an answer to that:

"Education cannot be defended by anything, except perhaps when the one on whom it descends as an ecstasy and a tongue of fire finds that it is, in some mysterious way, worth it - indeed, that it is worth more than any successful, profitable and generally respectable activity."
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I found this book most uplifting and extremely funny. It's a guide to professional writing, sort of. It's more than that really; it's an autobiographical account of media freelancing in the UK since the early 1980s. It's an industrial relations textbook. It's the antidote to all the 'careers' advice I was gievn as a teenager, which encouraged us to treat the cruel labour market as nothing less than a free shopping mall for the fulfilment of our personal fantasies. In response to George Orwell's "Why I write" the author opens his book with this:
"There was a particular fortnight in the early 1980s when I was signed off work, on the sick. As it happened, a friend of mine was in those days in the middle of a lengthy period of unemployment and was living in a bedsit just around the corner from mine

This was autumn going into winter. My friend lived in a room which had not been decorated since the day of its conversion, many years earlier. He had virtually no furniture, beyond a bed and am armchair. The heating came from a small, chatty, coin-fed gas fire. You had to sit very close to it in order to get even mildly warm..

He couldn't afford much food or new clothes - hell, he could barely afford booze and fags - but there were excellent public libraries nearby, and he had a little television which, though primitive, never actually blacked out. Naturally he couldn't afford to go out and so almost all he did was sit there in that room all day.

I spent most of that fortnight's sick leave with him, sitting by the fire, chatting, saving up my urine because I didn't want to have to go up to the next landing to the freezing lav.  Occasionally I'd wander over to gaze aimlessly out of the bay window, but I'd quickly become so cold that I'd have to scuttle back to the armchair by the fire, and we'd chat some more, play the occasional board game, smoke another cigarette, and soon I began to think....

This is absolutely wonderful! This is the life for me! Not having to go to work every day: what more could anyone possibly ask for than that?

That's my 'Why I write'"
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Gabriel Garcia Marquez saved my friend Ray from death-by-95mph-fireball the other day. He wrote about it here.
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I was leafing through a collection of old Richard Scarry stories with my daughter and couldn't help noticing that a rather fanciful story about an anthropomorphised panda in Hong Kong includes a fairly accurate impression of the old Kowloon station building, which was demolished (apart from the clock tower) in 1978.
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I was fascinated by this 1917 annual I discovered at my mother-in-law's house. It is a mixture of Catholic religious instruction, idealised 'factual' articles about the war and fervently pro-empire patriotic short stories, some of them with an anti-semitic element. There must have been a whole industry churning out this sort of stuff. I wonder how many Czechs at that time were loyalists who really bought into it. This picture shows cowardly Russians being beaten in Poland.

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This is the funniest and most informative book on architecture that I've ever come across. Has anybody else heard of Osbert Lancaster? Apparently he's the only cartoonist ever to have been knighted. This book was first published in 1938. There's a photo of him here.



6/1/08 19:15
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Went to Lewes yesterday (which is where I bought that book) and walked around the back of the castle, which I've never done before. There's this hexagonal house there, which is the stump of a former windmill. Virginia Woolf used to live in it. I never knew that.
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(the cover shows Bezděz castle)

I was so pleased to find this in an antiquarian bookshop yesterday. A little expensive for me (£30) but I couldn’t resist. This copy appears to date from 1908 but the British author explains that he first visited Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) in 1873. It was published by the Religious Tract Society and has a strong protestant bias; lingering much on the history and relics of Hussite Protestantism, which was and still is a small minority religion in the country and, arguably, not particularly representative of Czech culture. This aside, however, there are many fascinating details. The author is an enthusiast of medieval castles and romantic landscapes, and describes these in detail in the manner of a travel diary. More relevant to the country’s post-war history of ethnic cleansing, he describes the changing mix of Czechs and Germans as he travels deeper into the regions; coming across some areas in which the villages are alternately wholly Czech or wholly German. He also furnishes us with more prosaic details, which I find most interesting, of the cost of hiring horses and drivers, the interior décor of inns, differing styles of folk dress and, of course, the food (which is exactly as my mother-in-law still cooks it: fried pork and potatoes).

The front of the book has a map of Bohemia with the German or Germanised place names which were then commonly used. You can see Votice (the nearest town to my wife's village) there as ‘Wotitz’. This makes the book somewhat challenging as all these place names were changed to their Czech versions after 1918. I’m going to have to translate them before I can be sure exactly which towns and castles the author is describing.

Here is the map and a few extracts. My wife found the first paragraph quite entertaining.

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The hospital keeps a library of large print romantic novels for patients to read. Today I found a small group of young female doctors giggling over the title of this one that had been left lying about. I had to share it with you. I do believe that the choice of words was entirely innocent.
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My friend Alan has just had this book of his poetry published....and I mean published, I'm not talking some tacky vanity job here, this is beautifully produced.

I've known Alan and his brother since we were teenagers. I've always known that Alan wrote poetry but had never seen much of it. I've never even taken much interest in poetry which, to my mind, is often arcane and irritating to read. However, this I like! It was a big surprise to me.

When Alan and his brother were children their father was offered a job which allowed the family to move to a seemingly idyllic cottage in Cornwall. Unfortunately he was made redundant almost as soon as they arrived. As well as being a popular holiday destination Cornwall is the most economically deprived county in Britain. The family fell, hard, into a poverty trap which no amount of  low-paid work by both parents could get them out of. Their living standards slid inexorably; an unbearable situation for these very honest, self-educated people.

This background was known to me before I read Alan's book. But I really had no idea how bad, and how sad, it was. Many of Alan's poems deal with his impoverished youth; the leaking cottage, the humiliation, the hunger, his father's guilt, his mother's mental illness. It is painful but also sentimental and relieved by humour. He recalls the delight in cheap pleasures; cigarettes, tea and "transubstantiated packet meals". I like it. I believe it.

I'll leave you with one of the least serious poems in the book, and my personal favourite. A swift two-line job......

What did you do today while you waited?
I read a bit, slept, then masturbated.


3/8/06 19:54
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Started reading 'Tom Sawyer' to find out why Mark Twain is so revered. He's a bit like Dickens in comic vein; not as heavy on the religious moralising as him but with similarly wicked observation of frail vanity. He describes a librarian as "running hither and thither with his arms full of books and making a deal of the splutter and fuss that insect authority delights in".

"Insect authority." Fantastic. This dead American has just reached across to me over a gap of 130 years and given me a label for all those middle managers I've ever worked under.


1/8/06 18:07
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‘I’ am a crowd, obeying as many laws
As it has members. Chemically impure
Are all ‘my’ beings. There’s no single cure
For what can never have a single cause.

The Nurse’s Rhyme. (Aldous Huxley 1962).

I'm going to try and get this into my next essay somewhere. Well, they're always talking at us about h-h-holistic care. I think it would be nice to give the mescalin saint an airing.


22/7/06 09:40
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I'm reading Alain de Botton's book 'Status Anxiety' (2004), an excellent examination of a pernicious social phenomenon which I know only too well. This is a paragraph from the opening section of the book:

"Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first - the story of our quest for sexual love - is well known and charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second - the story of our quest for love from the world - is a more secret and shameful tale. If mentioned, it tends to be in caustic, mocking terms, as something of interest chiefly to envious or deficient souls, or else the drive for status is interpreted in an economic sense alone. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful. There is heartbreak here too, suggested by the distant, resigned eyes of many whom the world has elected to dismiss as nobodies."

De Botton suggests that the more meritocratic society becomes (or believes it is) the more intense and widespread is the status anxiety experienced by its members, because low-status becomes the 'fault' of the bearer. He points out that our closest peers, usually our oldest school friends, are the main source of status anxiety, because it is with them that we identify most closely, whether consciously or not.

I can see why many may look back with nostalgia on wartime or the Great Depression. Such global crises in some part suspended the idea of meritocracy and allowed people to occupy low-status positions without loss of 'social love'. Kurt Vonnegut describes how during the depression people would throw a party to celebrate getting a job; only at the bitter end of the evening would anybody bother to ask what the job was. A common joke reply at that time was "cleaning bird shit out of cuckoo clocks". In other words, it didn't matter.

de Botton's website is at
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Dear Mr Vonnegut,

I read ‘Timequake’ last week and felt as if it had been aimed at me personally, like some paper dart lobbed across the Atlantic. I’m now on ‘Fates Worse Than Death’. I haven’t finished it yet. This isn’t because I believe that two-thirds of a masterpiece is enough, but because I’m trying to make it last longer by rationing it. (If I enjoyed food as much maybe I wouldn’t be getting fat so quickly.) I carry it around in the breast map-pocket of my jacket. Aldous Huxley’s ‘Island’ was similarly accommodated for a while too. I like to imagine being randomly shot by some maniac and then describing, with quivering lip, to journalists how the bullet was miraculously deflected by a work of atheist humanism.

Not that I would enjoy, or even be able to bear, being shot at. If I had been born in 1922 and not 1972 I would probably have been an even worse PFC than Billy Pilgrim. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. As a student nurse working on hospital wards it is my privilege to be continuously befriended by old soldiers, sailors and airmen of World War 2 (British, Canadian and German too). Some of them die very shortly afterwards. (Don’t worry, I don’t have this effect by post.) Many of them are eager to the point of desperation to relate stories of personal wartime survival. I’m all ears. To hell with taking blood pressures. I spent three years taking a degree in archaeology (the anthropology of dead people) and learned virtually jack shit about the past.

Only last weekend, working on an unfamiliar ward, I met a cadaverous old man, too weak even to hold a cup, who could speak only in an urgent whisper. I rolled him off a bed pan and accidentally flopped his broken arm over the side of the bed. He went apoplectic with pain, but very quietly. I’d hardly time to apologise, however, before his face lit up with a huge toothless smile and he’d transported both of us back to 10th April 1940 and the freezing, burning waters off Narvik. It was a Billy Pilgrim moment. Narvik, as you may know, was one of the great British military cock-ups. An attempt to invade Norway during winter. Even I could have told them that was a bad idea. My new friend had his destroyer, HMS Hunter, blasted out from beneath him (it had become a destroyee) and was left thrashing around in the sea, entirely coated in and blinded by spilt oil. They were dead meat. But then a German captain, who had lived in London before the war, decided he couldn’t sit and watch any longer, and ordered his crew to man the boats and rescue the survivors. I told my friend that they must have looked like black puddings when they pulled them out. His face lit up even further. “Ooooh I’d love a bit of black pudding now. Fried. Slices an inch thick so they don’t fall apart!” I want to be like him when I grow up.

The hospital and I are part of a town called xxxxxxx created by accident when the London & Brighton railway passed through in 1841. About the same attention to detail seems to have prevailed ever since. Apart from the supermarket the only source of vitamin C is one small greengrocer (or ‘groan greaser’ as my Czech wife, Eva, once called it by accident when she was tired.) The only building of note is a huge Victorian lunatic asylum, now converted into flats for rich people. This is not an unusual thing to do to Victorian lunatic asylums in England. When we briefly lived in my ancestral homeland, Warwickshire, Eva made friends with a Slovak au pair (servant) who was paid to live with and help a couple of rich people look after their children. They really needed help because they were depressed alcoholics who could barely look after themselves. When we dropped her off home one evening I was astonished to realise that she and her insane employers were living in a luxury housing complex converted from the very same lunatic asylum that had detained my manic-depressive grandmother in the 1950’s. Maybe I have uncovered a clever plot to trick the wealthy mentally ill into paying for their own incarceration.

We were in Warwickshire so I could take a masters degree in industrial relations (you call it ‘employment relations’ in America.) Eva says the only reason I did this was because it was more effective than a mental hospital. It was a good laugh. Warwick University is so named to disguise the fact that it is actually built on the edge of my mother’s native city, Coventry, a crumbling concrete and tarmac abortion built on the rubble of strategic bombing (as you know). The Germans had good reason to bomb it because my grandfather was working away right there making Merlin engines for Spitfires. After the war he became a foreman and found himself caught up in another war, between the trade unions and management. I think this caused him more stress than the bombs. The union stewards gave him a hard time. Years later I discovered that I was being lectured at Warwick University by one of those very same stewards. “We took your grandfather to the cleaners several times” he told me, apologetically.

I was telling you about our town. One small part of the Victorian asylum, I think it was the laundry, was not developed into flats but was incorporated into the new general hospital built next-door in 1993. This little building became the psychiatric rehab unit. My sister Jo is a nurse there. It was her idea we move to xxxxxxx. Eva works on the stroke ward. Quite honestly living here has done nothing to cure my Folk Society Deficiency. The natives seem to want nothing less than to transform Sussex into a rainswept ersatz southern California, with no fiddly little medieval hedges or human-scale streets to get in the way of the motorways, ‘power malls’ and faux-Victorian housing developments. I think I’ve been afflicted with FSD since 1978 when my architect father took us away from London to a new life in colonial Hong Kong. I clearly remember sitting on the floor of our Hong Kong flat organising my toys into imaginary Robert Redfield folk societies inside walled zoos or on board large spacecraft. My Dad was doing something similar at work, designing whole towns for imaginary Hong Kong Chinese people, which would eventually become real towns occupied by real Chinese people paying danger money to real Triads for the privilege of living there unmolested. I’ve entertained many fantasies about possible locations for folk societies, including Cape Cod, which we visited during a family holiday in 1986. Well, you blew that one out of the water Mr Vonnegut! Interestingly, Eva actually grew up in a real folk society, with a real extended family (I’ve met them), in rural, communist-era Czechoslovakia. She’s told me some things about it which I didn’t like the sound of at all. When we returned to the UK I spoke English with a slightly American Pacific-rim accent, couldn’t understand London dialect, and didn’t understand the coinage. (Why is a 20p smaller than a 10p?) To quote Dickens I felt “as out of place as a dolphin in a sentry box” or, to quote myself, “as out of place as a strip-o-gram at Ayatollah Kohmeini’s funeral.”

I think I’ve written quite enough now, much of it a style semi-consciously aping your own. When I used to read Dickens a lot I found myself using an excessive number of semi-colons. I hope I have reassured you (if you needed it) that your books continue to address total strangers directly. In fact I only discovered your books by reading amateur reviews on the internet written by other total strangers. That can’t be a bad thing.

Best wishes for 2005.

Yours sincerely,

September 2017

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