I won’t be blogging next week so I’m offering a few guest blog spots to my readers. If you’d like to be a guest blogger please send me a comment below with a link to your blog and I’ll let you know.
A Writer's Life: Moments from the Life and Work of a Self-Underemployed Writer
I won’t be blogging next week so I’m offering a few guest blog spots to my readers. If you’d like to be a guest blogger please send me a comment below with a link to your blog and I’ll let you know.
Worry not, dear reader – I’m taking a break to reconnect with pen and paper. Back soon.
Looking back over the last week I realise that I haven’t posted the link as promised to the Jo Berry interview. She, you will remember, was the daughter of an MP killed in the Brighton bombing who made friends with the bomber in order to effect some reconciliation. So here’s the link and I totally recommend giving it a watch.
In response to yesterday’s post on malapropisms OH came up with an overheard conversation where someone was going to ‘die of beetees.’ So keep your thinking caps on and send me your favourites. In other news, there is no other news except to say that I’m feeling exceptionally tired lately. I can’t blame it on lack of sleep – except that in some perverse rule of inverse proportion I often feel more tired when I’ve slept well than when I don’t – so I think it’s the fact that we’re coming to the end of winter. And what a winter! Most of it has been spent in lockdown (we were in Tier 4 before Xmas so lockdown hardly changed anything) we’ve had snow and ice and cloud and rain and now I’ve JUST ABOUT HAD ENOUGH. I too long for a holiday but my heart sinks when I hear of people booking flights for the summer – since Johnson posited the date of June 21st hordes of people seem to have taken that as the green light to book a holiday; very chancy if you ask me – but I despair sometimes of our ever getting to grips with climate change. It’s as if they watch David Attenborough, then open another tab and book with EasyJet. If we don’t stop flying climate change will get worse and worse and the tipping-point Attenborough warned us of will come and then what will we do? The government talks green but acts – well, whatever the opposite of green is. Since they’ve been in office they’ve approved a third runway for Heathrow (pity the poor people under the flight paths) given the go-ahead for a new coal mine and agreed a tunnel under Stonehenge.
On the other hand I can’t really blame people for wanting to get away. If you’re a key worker or someone cooped up in a flat or if you’ve been struggling with working and schooling from home it must be incredibly tempting to just jump on a jet and head off to a beach somewhere warm.
Ah well, at least we’ve discovered some Dennis Potter on Channel 4 – they have Karaoke and Cold Lazarus. And OH informs me that the opposite of green is magenta.
Don’t forget those malapropisms.
Yesterday on Facebook I discovered what may possibly be the best malapropism of all time. Here it is:
I laughed all day at that (if you don’t get it, here’s an explanation.)
I’m having trouble with my fonts today. They started off small so I enlarged them but because WordPress views EVERY BLOCK AS A SEPARATE ENTITY!!!!! (GROWLING EMOJI) you have to reset the formatting for each new paragraph. I’m sure other users will weigh in with helpful hacks and I thank you in advance but be advised that all such comments are as water on sand; they appear in my mind for a moment before sinking without trace. There are certain types of information that I just can’t keep in my head, and this is never more obvious than when I’m watching a quiz. As you know, the only two quizzes I bother with are Mastermind and University Challenge (my paragraphs have gone all wide now) and what’s striking is the contrast between types of information I have at my fingertips and that which requires some digging. On UC there’s more chance for digging but on MM you have to produce an answer immediately, so I’d be very bad at that – it’s a test not only of what you know, but of your ability to bring that knowledge to the forefront of your mind, and that’s a separate skill. Not that I’d be any better at UC; whilst I do well on literature and have a smattering of other areas the questions are too deep and wide-ranging for me, especially since at the moment I have the memory span of Dory in Finding Nemo.
OH has a theory about this: (ah! I’ve managed to recover the font size now; it was on ‘default’ and I’ve changed it to ‘normal’ – though why ‘default’ isn’t the same thing as ‘normal’ is anyone’s guess.) Years ago I used to have a much better memory; then the menopause hit and knocked it for six like a strike-out at ten-pin bowling. All of a sudden my maps turned to fog; streets I’d known for decades became terra incognita and I could barely remember what I’d done yesterday. It’s a lot better now, but there are still vast swathes of the past which remain in gloom – and the other day OH came up with the suggestion that it’s because I’m writing full time. I think this is true – there’s always a trade-off when you start something new. Anyone with a small child will know they learn stories off by heart when they’re small but as soon as they learn to read, that ability goes. This is true in evolution too: with everything gained, something is lost.
Now look how far I’ve travelled from the original intention of this post. I was going to write about malapropisms but that’s gone now and I’m all out of ideas. So please send me your favourite malapropisms and maybe I’ll make them into a post.
Sometimes it can happen that an actor you’ve never really rated can astonish you. It happened with Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal and it’s happened again with Steve Coogan. Not being a fan of cringe comedy I never particularly enjoyed the Alan Partridge series, and the edgy competitiveness of The Trip with Rob Bryden left me cold – but Stan and Ollie was an absolute revelation. To be fair Coogan had shown his prowess playing Martin Sixsmith in Philomena when he helped an Irish mother on a quest to find her son, in the process unravelling outrageous behaviour on the part of the Catholic church. But in Stan and Ollie he was Stan Laurel to the life. I’m old enough to remember when the pair were on TV; like Morecambe and Wise the format was corny and traditional but there was something that made them funny in themselves. You could plonk them down on a desert island and they’d be doing routines with the coconuts and dancing with the trees. I was utterly stunned by the brilliance of Coogan’s Stan Laurel and by the film in general; John C Reilly was pretty good as Oliver Hardy but Coogan played Stanley without a trace of mimicry. Nothing was self-conscious or overdone; he simply seemed to get into the skin of the character and play him from the inside out – which I guess is what good actors do.
It must be difficult playing real people, especially when those people are within living memory. Jason Watkins played a blinder as Harold Wilson in The Crown and he gives an interesting interview to Mary Beard about the process in her series on culture in lockdown. On the same programme there was a discussion about historical drama. How far should you go in taking liberties with the facts? Is there a distinction between fact and a deeper truth? Much of the fascination with historical drama is that it goes ‘behind the scenes’ and gives us action which, in the words of The Crown‘s preamble, is ‘imagined to be consistent with the facts.’ It’s this aspect of imagination, brought into play in order to tell a deeper truth, to which good drama aspires – but Simon Jenkins of Guardian fame didn’t seem to get this at all. ‘How do they get away with it?’ he wailed, clearly not understanding the difference between drama and journalism. (I was once in the same room as Simon Jenkins, at a CND conference.)
The weekend’s viewing also included a Victoria Wood-fest (Saturday night, BBC 2) and a retrospective of June Whitfield (Sunday, BBC4) as well as the inevitable Casualty. If I talk a lot about TV it’s because hardly anything else happens. I did a Quaker meditation and went for a drive to charge the car battery – and that was that. Next week I shall be taking a week off to do some decorating, so I’m looking forward to that; a nice trip out to B&Q to get some paint. Lovely.
Hope you had a good weekend. What were you watching?
The BBC in its infinite wisdom are repeating Elizabeth R, the famous dramatisation with Glenda Jackson in the title role. I love Glenda Jackson; she will live forever in my memory not only as Elizabeth I, but also Gudrun Brangwen in Ken Russell’s Women in Love where she plays opposite Oliver Reed and more recently as a woman with dementia in Elizabeth is Missing. I thought the BBC were repeating Elizabeth R because I heard that Jackson was set to reprise the role, but I can’t find any reference to this so maybe I imagined it – however I tuned in (as the quaint phrase has it) wondering if the 1971 series would seem slow and pedestrian. It really didn’t. Jackson is really superb and the action is thrilling.
I really think the BBC are missing a trick here. They have a massive back catalogue and I know much of it is available on DVD and other platforms but surely they could take advantage of lockdown by revisiting some of it? We could have ’70’s sitcom night or Play for Today week. We could have programmes placing classics side by side with modern equivalents – like Mike Yarwood compared to Rory Bremner, for example, or Morecambe and Wise put next to Fry and Laurie. And I’d love to see some of the Dennis Potter plays again. Instead of all this we get endless reality shows – celebrity this that and the other, which do not interest me But At All.*
In other news, my Proust has just arrived (that was quick) and I have dived straight in once more to Swann’s Way. Deep joy. In between all these activities I am listening to this recording of Beowulf in the original. Have a listen – it’s very epic.
*in fairness I should point out that there’s a Victoria Wood evening coming up either tonight or tomorrow, so that should be good.
I was having thoughts this morning at 5 am, as you do, about the life of the imagination. I have blogged before about my dislike of the phrase ‘it’s just your imagination’, meaning ‘it’s not real and therefore not worth your consideration.’ But today I’d like us to consider the proposition that imagination is as important in science as it is in art.
I’d better say at the outset that I’m not a scientist. But I am married to someone with qualifications in various sciences and who, moreover, is able to tell their quarks from their gluons (don’t ask me, I just know they’re something to do with particles.) But from reading about scientific discoveries I’ve learned this: that imagination is key to scientific discovery. There must be a ‘what if?’ moment, a moment of imagining or positing that something hitherto unreal might just turn out to be real. You take the idea and then you test it: what if time were non-linear? What if dark matter made up most of the universe? What if two different particles could occupy the same space? CP Snow complained loud and long about the two cultures but I’m not sure we’re any further forward than in 1959 when he gave the lecture. Yet there is more that unites us than we know. In science you take a theory – something imagined, sometimes wildly imagined – and test it until you find out whether it works. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In art it’s the same: you imagine a character or a story or an idea: What if there are other worlds next to our own? (His Dark Materials.) What if there are wizards living amongst us? (Harry Potter.) What if an ordinary Belfast girl was recruited into the IRA without realising it? (Milkman by Anna Burns.) What if I write a novel about time (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu) or even outside time (Ulysses)? What if I write a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence? Will that work? (Spoiler alert; I tried it and it doesn’t.) You imagine it and then you test it to see if it works in reality. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t – but there’s more that unites science and art than divides us, and the more I write the more I am convinced of this.
Speaking of having more that unites than divides, I watched a stunning video last night on Owen Jones’ Youtube channel. I subscribed to this as a Patreon supporter a while back and this week he’s posted two amazing interviews; one with Patrick Magee, the Brighton Bomber, and the other with Jo Berry, daughter of a Tory MP who was killed in the blast. You’d expect the interviews to be confrontational, combative, telling widely differing stories: what you wouldn’t expect is that in 1984, a matter of weeks after Jo lost her father, she arranged to meet Magee in order to try to understand why he had done what he’d done and to attempt some sort of reconciliation. The very last thing you’d expect is that these two would become friends.
The interview with Magee is difficult to watch: he acknowledges the pain he caused but stops short of apology, saying instead that this was a war and there was violence on both sides. But the interview with Jo Berry was stunning. She was more understanding, more forgiving and more restrained than I even want to be (I don’t go for revenge but at least give me self-righteousness when I’m wronged!) This interview will be up tomorrow so I’ll post a link (we Patreon supporters get to see it ahead of time.) There were many issues raised by these two interviews so I’ll come back to those in a day or two (or three, seeing as it’s the weekend tomorrow) but I guess all these projects of reconciliation are about imagining something better. I’ll drink to that.
One of the delights of living in Spain was its Arabic history. The Spanish language is mostly Latin-based and therefore easy to get along with, but about a third of the words derive from Arabic and are therefore (to me) unguessable. But it’s not only in the language that this heritage survives; it’s also in much of the architecture. You have only to go to Granada to see a magnificent rambling collection of spare Islamic architecture, all the more beautiful for being unadorned and all the more fascinating for the mathematical sequences contained in the decoration. The Arabs were – and probably are – great mathematicians and this is reflected in the art and architecture, the more so because depictions of the human form are haram, forbidden – and when you reach the cathedral which was built on top of the mosque, the Catholic kitsch seems sentimental and overdone beside the spare Islamic arches. There’s something dry and unsentimental about Islam, especially set side by side with the emotional outpourings of Catholic architecture. You can see something of the contrast in this picture:
And now in Seville a hammam, or bathing place has been discovered lurking under a tapas bar. I may well have been in this bar at one time – it’s impossible to know – but this is a hugely interesting find and is the most completely decorated Arabic bathhouse in the whole Iberian peninsula.
Cross the Pyrenees and you don’t merely enter another country, you enter a whole new world. The cultural differences between France and Spain are far greater than between Britain and France, and the further south you travel, the more evident this becomes. Of course there were Romans in Spain as well as Britain but after they left our histories diverged dramatically and by the time Beowulf was being composed and England a collection of warring tribes, most of Spain was under Arabic rule. Al Andaluz – the country of light – was an organised kingdom comprising Jews and Christians as well as Arabs and although the two former groups were somewhat circumscribed they were generally able to get along together. The Arabs ruled Spain for 800 years and left behind buildings which, to my mind, are far more beautiful than the Christian architecture which supplanted them.
As you will know (if you’ve been paying attention) I do the Guardian cryptic crossword every morning. I’ve got better with practice and can usually spot an anagram at twenty paces, though expert compilers mix it up and have definitions pretending to be anagrams, or vice versa. But it’s come to my attention of late that I do have certain expectations about crosswords and that these plug in to a sense of fairness. I don’t mind a tough puzzle so long as it’s eventually doable, but a couple of crosswords have ruffled my feathers lately. There was a Prize one a couple of weeks back (no prizes are given at the moment, but unlike the daily cryptics there’s no ‘check’ or ‘reveal’ button) where you had to solve the clues first and then put them in the grid wherever they would go – to help you the clues were alphabetical so you had the first letter of each. I know this type of puzzle and I often enjoy them because to compensate for the difficulty of filling the grid, the clues are not too hard. But this particular one was very difficult; I got some clues but the two long ones which I really needed in order to begin filling the grid, eluded me; even when I looked them up I thought What? How the hell did they get that answer? To give you an idea the answer to one was ‘budgie-smugglers’ – the definition, ‘pants’, was not exactly made clear and that’s not a common expression to me either. So to my mind this puzzle was not playing the game as it didn’t really give me a chance.
Yesterday’s was a tribute to Araucaria, a stalwart of the crosswording world, who died a few years ago. I liked Araucaria and was always pleased if I managed to finish one of his. Araucaria is Latin for ‘monkey puzzle’ and so half the answers were on the theme of monkeys. I got the theme fairly early on, but could I finish the crossword? I could not: half the solutions were monkeys I’d never heard of. At this point I usually check the comments to see if others are struggling, and they were – lots of people saying they’d given up, that it was too obscure and no fun. I very rarely give up on a puzzle but I got annoyed with this one and in the end I too gave up. To give you an idea, the ones I didn’t know where sajou, kenken, saimiri, entellus, mangabey, colobus, wanderoo (wanderoo?) and sai. See what I mean? That’s eight new words in a grid of 32, a quarter of the answers – and the clues weren’t exactly easy either. To my mind that’s just not playing the game, so I commented that I’d found this too hard and given up, as did others.
Today the discussion has become, if not heated then gently warmed. One of the compilers (for there were two) was sad that some of us had given up, and others weighed in saying we shouldn’t expect things to be easy and that back in the day you had to sit with a dictionary to do a themed Araucaria. They may be right; so do we have different expectations today? I guess twenty years ago you would buy a paper, start the crossword on the way to work, come back to it at lunchtime and finish in the evening. But I usually finish the crossword before ten, when I start my blog post; it takes a great deal of discipline to leave some of it undone.
Then again perhaps it’s about performance. If I find a puzzle too hard I experience a creeping sense of inadequacy; rather than seeing it as a challenge to which I might rise, I see it as an indictment on my capabilities. This leads to impatience and a desire to find the answers. Nowadays we’re all about ticking boxes, not about sitting with something and cogitating on it.
I do make an exception for the Prize crossword though; we buy the actual newspaper on a Saturday and I sit down to tackle the grid with pen and paper. I think this is an entirely different process from filling it on the computer – akin to the difference between ebooks and paper books – and sometimes I take an entire weekend to mull over clues. Even so I can get a bit miffed if it comes to Sunday afternoon and I’m still – ahem! – clueless.
I daresay OH will comment now that all those types of monkey are perfectly common and ‘everyone knows them.’ We wait to see… anyway, here’s the puzzle if you want to give it a go. I’ve already given you a quarter of the answers – what are you waiting for?
You won’t believe this. I know I’ve blogged about Proust before but it’s not something I do very often – maybe once a year or so – and on the very day I decide to start reading him and order a book, guess what happens? This happens:
I guess in France this is headline news but so disinclined are we to philosophise that over here it barely gets a footnote. Nevertheless, it’s potentially very exciting: seventy-five previously undiscovered pages of Proust have been found; pages which give the background and an early draft of parts of ‘Swann’s Way.’ They’re going to be published in March, so I’ll look out for that. Then again, it may prove to be as dull as the undiscovered Beatles single that was found some time in the 90’s. There was a huge fuss about this and in the end it turned out to be dull and pedestrian in the extreme. I can’t find a link to that one but I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile here’s some Synchronicity:
youtube.com link removed on request
Here’s the Beatles track, thanks to OH:
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