Not Had a Bath for Twelve Hundred Years

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:

Image result for Granada cathedral image removed on request

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.

Kirk out

Cross Words

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?

Kirk out

Primed for a Shout-out.

I think it’s time for a shout-out to some new followers who have joined us since Christmas. A big Lizardyoga welcome to these new bloggers:


Gosh, there’s so many of you I’m going to have to do this in two parts. Rest assured, if you’ve joined me since January I will give you a mention – except, of course, for those of you who are – or appear to be – selling something. There’s a quite staggering number of you out there but please don’t bother following me because I’m really not interested in investments or bitcoin or doubling my money (though I could try doubling my debt…) so it really isn’t worth your while.

But to those of you who are genuine bloggers or just readers interested in blogs, I send a heartfelt thanks. Without you it’s just me burbling to myself in a corner of the house, so I really appreciate you being there. And thanks again to those of you who take the time to like and comment – it really makes a difference.

In other news, my Anglo Saxon Primer has arrived. So today I shall be mostly grappling with strange vowels and weird consonant clusters, in between writing ideas for a new radio play – of which more anon.

Kirk out

Monday Greens

I’ve been learning some new words today, the first of which popped up in today’s Friday poem by Annie Freud (I can’t find a link to the poem but here’s the author) and the word is Mondegreen. OH will probably pop up in the comments and say I already knew this from a conversation years ago but if so I have forgotten it. As you probably already know, mondegreen defines a misheard song lyric which is better or at least funnier than the original: examples include ‘scuse me while I kiss this guy’, ‘just a bit of stockwater tea’ and ‘there’s a bathroom on the right’(from Purple Haze, Evita and Bad Moon Rising respectively.)

Trump has been learning some new words too. True, they don’t include the much-needed words ‘sorry’ or ‘concede’ but they are significant nonetheless. Late, inadequate, self-serving as it was, in his latest video he condemned the riots he himself incited without claiming responsibility for them, and acknowledged that there would be a peaceful transition without actually admitting defeat. Well, it’s not great but it’s something and hopefully now his supporters will stand down to allow that peaceful transition. Whatever his motives – and I imagine the threat to invoke article 25 and remove him from office will have concentrated his mind wonderfully – he has moved out of the way, at least for now. He seemed to signal that he would come back in 2024 but we’ll see. I think he’s dished himself but I may yet be proved wrong.

Another new word I’ve learnt today is apocalypse. Well I did already know this word of course but what I didn’t realise was that it doesn’t mean disaster so much as a massive upheaval, one which leads to a revelation. To put it in the words of Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

So there are my new words for today. And on this auspicious Friday I invite you to practise the art of losing… Trump!


Kirk out

PS Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve had a short story accepted by those wonderful people at Stand magazine. It’ll be out later in the year.

Let Me Splain it to You

Just in case you’re not familiar with the word mansplaining, it refers to the tendency of some men to inform women of what they already know. A good example is this, which happened to me a few months ago. I met a man at a Council of Faiths meeting and as soon as I told him I was a Quaker he proceeded to give me a run-down of Quaker history.

The starting point seems to be that we need to be kept informed and they are the man for the job. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that we might know this stuff already – that we might even be experts in our field – that, god forbid, we might actually be able to tell them something about it! No. They are like search engines picking up on a word and spewing out information on it. Except that I haven’t googled anything and I already have the information, thank you very much.

Of course as the definition above suggests, man– is not the only kind of –splaining. I may in the past have been guilty of whitesplaining, telling people of colour about their own culture or religion, though I hope not; there’s also ablesplaining, which I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you as you already get the idea.

Basically all types of splaining are about power relations. It’s about saying ‘I know more than you about this,’ even when it is blindingly obvious that the person concerned is living with whatever ‘this’ is and is therefore the definitive expert. It’s about positioning yourself above the other person, being the expert, the spokesperson.

So now I’ve explained this, you can stop bothering your pretty little heads about it…

Kirk out

What Utter Twaddle!

I’ve been writing utter twaddle all day because sometimes that is the only way to go. The hope is that you write yourself into some sort of coherence if you just keep going; sometimes it works, and it sort of worked today though I’m not terribly happy with most of what I did. Still it’s better than the other day when I was forced to resort to writing obscenities for several paragraphs like George VI trying to overcome a stammer (come to think of it, the principle is probably the same: The King’s Writing, anyone?)

But basically the only way to get through these days is not to let yourself care. Don’t care about quality, don’t care about inspiration, don’t care about structure, don’t even care if you’re making any sense or conforming to any of the rules of grammar throughout the known galaxy – just write. To paraphrase a character in Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise, Write, write, effing write! Write, write, effing write! If you’re interested the relevant clip’s at about 13.40. And here’s Richard E Grant commenting on my work:

Indeed, Richard, I have written twaddle today. But it’s my twaddle.

Kirk out

Word of the Week

Shee-eesh, but it’s cold! Those of you reading this in less temperate climes than the UK may scoff but it was below freezing last night and this morning a clammy cold pervades the atmosphere; the sort of cold that reaches into your bones and which any sane person would stay in bed to avoid. Normally by this point I’d have turned off the radiator in my room but not only is it on full-blast, I also have the halogen heater wafting warmth in all directions. It’s definitely time to put up the plastic double-glazing.

See, it’s not just the cold that makes us run for cover, it’s the damp. Dry cold I can deal with; wet warmth I can deal with – but damp cold is the worst of all worlds, and we have it in abundance here in the UK. Still before I complain too much let us spare a thought for those flooded out of their homes – and another, deeper thought for those who have no homes, flooded or otherwise.

I’ve begun to wonder how safe we are here in Loughborough. It’s a fairly low-lying town and the drains get blocked at the best of times; the park over the road is regularly turned into a swamp with rivers running through and although the council have taken the excellent measure of planting absorbent plants in specially absorbent soil next to the stream, I can’t help wondering how effective they will be in the long term. I imagine it: first the underpass will fill up (it’s already six inches deep) then the footways will become impassable, threatening the leisure centre; then the park will become a pond and finally the water will creep over the road and start on us.

The frightening thing is that once it starts there’s little or nothing you can do. Water is one of the most pervasive elements on earth, and potentially one of the most destructive – which is why we all need to do what we can right now. And I suggest the first thing would be to elect a government which takes the climate emergency seriously – which is not one led by Boris Johnson.

All of which makes my word of the week look a bit trivial. Applied by The Guardian to Jenifer Arcuri, it’s ‘sublebrity‘, someone ‘famous for being famous.’

A much-needed word, I suspect.

Kirk out

Constructing the Other Half of the Policeman’s Beard?

I have discovered, via my perusal of various Nano groups, that I am what is known as a ‘pantser’, in other words, one who flies by the seat of their pants and does not plan much, if at all. I’m not sure I embrace being in the ‘Pantser Division’ (ho ho) but it’s good to know I’m not alone. As I’ve said before if I knew what was going to happen in each chapter I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing.

I’ve also discovered the meaning of that bizarre phrase ‘Save the Cat Beats’ – at least I have a vague idea of what it means; that there is a sort of structure which your novel should follow in order to get the right measure of ups and downs. Insert crisis here. Here be dragons/ghosts/murderers. Your main character should make an entrance here. That sort of thing. But even though I have a vague idea of what Save the Cat Beats means, I still don’t get why it’s called that. Is there a cat that needs saving? Or is ‘cat’ short for category? Do ‘beats’ refer to… actually, what do beats refer to? It’s all too much effort and I’m sure I could find out but right now after all that effort, I need a lie down. In any case I utterly reject this phenomenon because it sounds horribly close to another, which is (or so we are constantly told) that soon all novels will be written by computer.

Still it might be a while: up to now the results have not been terribly coherent: ‘The Policeman’s Beard is Half-Constructed‘ was one early effort and an attempt to make a digital film (if you see what I mean) resulted in this. But even if some machine manages to pass for human my response is, ‘bring it on.’ Although some more formulaic novels might possibly one day be written by algorithms (I’m thinking Mills and Boon, perhaps, or the more predictable sort of genre writing) I believe there’s something so fundamentally unpredictable, so weird and outlandish and unexpected about human creativity, that digitised fiction can only sharpen the sense of what it means to be human.

Kirk out

Uninterested? Not Any More!

You know a word’s in trouble when an otherwise fairly erudite and intelligent writer uses it wrongly, for today this canard cropped up in my daily readings from Richard Rohr, and I put my head in my hands and groaned. It seems almost everyone now uses disinterested to mean bored or uninterested, so that the original sense of the word as defined here – not having a vested interest, being impartial or above debate – is lost. What’s more no-one seems to mind. Not wanting to look like frowsty old professors or grizzled grammar geeks, everyone stands by and allows poor old disinterested to be hacked to pieces. Well, not on this blog! We stand for the fearless protection of words! We will not allow people to tell us they’re ‘good’ when actually they’re ‘fine’ – we will not allow them to say ‘disinterested’ when they mean ‘uninterested’!

But in the end all this is just Canute holding back the tide (although supposedly he did this to demonstrate his lack of power). It’s the Academie Francaise trying to stem the flood of English words by issuing French alternatives and it is doomed. In the end what decides the meaning of words is general usage, and if everyone chooses to redefine disinterested – as I think they already have – as uninterested then that is what it now means.

Thankfully though, Peterborough has not been redefined as Brexit city; Labour won by six hundred or so votes. Phew!

Kirk out

The Blandest Thing on the Menu

What am I doing at the moment? I’m glad you asked. I’m rewriting a story I first wrote years ago for Woman’s Weekly magazine. Why? Because women’s magazines pay squoodles of dosh for a story and I thought it was worth a bash. I had several bashes at it in fact and I did ‘study’ the magazine as you’re supposed to before submitting, the conclusions of my study being that I should make the story as bland as possible. Now, things have moved on since then and it may be that Woman’s Weekly is as raunchy these days as Cosmo once was, but in those days the stories were so gentle as to be practically soporific. Well, I gave it my best shot (of valium)and when one story was rejected I wrote another, even blander one. Of course there’s no way of knowing why a story has been rejected so I might have been completely on the wrong track, but I couldn’t help thinking of Goodness Gracious Me and the guys who get hammered and ‘go for an English.’

I guess blandness isn’t in my nature… but it can be problematic to find out what is in your nature and other people’s guidelines are a very blunt instrument for doing so; sometimes they help and sometimes they don’t. If I’m feeling secure, I just sweep the unhelpful ones aside. But today I discovered Colm Toibin’s rules for writing and they made me feel thoroughly inadequate. He suggests writing all day with a short break for lunch and then another for the news, then writing until bedtime. No sex, alcohol or drugs while writing (yes, I agree with that) but not much of anything else either. I know I can’t work like that, and I ended up feeling quite inadequate. ‘I’m not doing enough! I’m not dedicated enough!’ And underneath it all the sly whisper of conditioning, is this because I’m a not a man? Am I actually the blandest thing on the menu?

But what’s missing here is context. From the tone of these rules I suspect that he wrote them for himself rather than for others; I also suspect that he has periods of writing and periods of rest as no-one could keep up such a schedule 24/7/365. In any case other writers’ rules are very hit-and-miss, and when they miss we should give them a wide berth.

Kirk out