Not reverting to type


I often marvel at how far I seem to have time-travelled in less than one life’s span. We are all, in fact, time travellers, living a life partly dreamt but sometimes barely imagined when we were younger. Driverless cars, 3D printing, seeing almost to the edge of the known universe, was this not the stuff of science fiction in the not-so-distant past?

And how frequently have our elders and betters misjudged our present future in times past: regular visits to the Moon, a pill for everything with no side effects, an end to poverty, superstition replaced by science.

My musings have been kickstarted by simply sitting down to write this post.

Continue reading “Not reverting to type”

Cutting out the middleman

Christmas visitor
Caught in the act, and in broad daylight too …

It’s such a weird idea, isn’t it, the notion that we’d encourage our kids to feel OK about an old man whom they didn’t really know creeping like a cat burglar into our houses, all while they’re asleep in their beds on the night before Christmas. In an era when ‘stranger danger’ is still a buzz-phrase, when bygone celebrities are sent to jail for past misdemeanours with underage victims and when cyber-grooming is second only to terrorism in the public perception, what a muddled mixed message to pass on to future generations.

At the other extreme of the chronological spectrum — when you get to a certain age, and sometimes a lot earlier than that — you know that all this hype about getting your heart’s desires is just so much guff as you open presents containing stinky perfume, socks you wouldn’t be seen dead in or that cut-price book about Hitler (because somebody thought that a specialist interest in King Arthur meant any old history title would suit). If it’s better to give than to receive it’s no wonder my heart sinks as the end of the year approaches: all those happy faces smiling as they hand over gifts and my rictus grin as I pretend to contain my simulated excitement.

Admit it, you too have a bit of the Scrooge DNA lurking in your genes, don’t you? And if your knowledge of history extends back before the Second World War you’ll know that all this gift-exchange hysteria that we’ve been told is traditional is — relatively speaking — recent, serving only to increase the comfort and joy of a few senior executives of, and investors in, supersized commercial corporations. In the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the only gift-exchange of note was the chance to behead a stranger who gate-crashed King Arthur’s party, followed by a return beheading a year later. That’s the way to do it! as Mr Punch would say.

Here’s my suggestion for the future, a practice which increasingly seems to work for many families with grown-up children. We each buy what we ourselves want, and a ceremonial reimbursement and handover occurs at a pre-Christmas meet-up so that presents can be wrapped before the arrival of the Big Day. Then on the day itself we exchange presents, make suitable noises of delight as we open them (the choice of wrapping paper will be the biggest surprise, occasioning suitable exclamations of appreciation) and settle down to the ritual meal and postprandial walk. Honour is satisfied, goods properly valued, tradition upheld and, of course, big business will continue to reap their ill-gotten rewards.

Grinch Cynical? Moi? Probably. It’s the prerogative of age, though I probably sound just like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. Myself, I’d be happy to simply give and/or receive book vouchers — everyone gives what they can and gets what they want, job done.

And for goodness sake, let’s cut out the middleman. You know, the one who supposedly slithers down the chimney in the dead of night. He’s over-rated, overweight and over here. Get over him.

*  *  *  *  *

Lest you think I’m a total curmudgeon, this is of course all totally tongue-in-cheek, a post in search of a cheap laugh, a diatribe laced with childhood disappointments: ’tis the season of goodwill, after all! So Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays / Season’s Greetings / Happy Solstice / Nadolig Llawen / Joyeux Noël [delete as appropriate] — my fervent wish is “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too …”

And did you spot all the unsubtle literary references?

A Vitruvian guide to England

Old College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
Old College, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales ( showing this Victorian Gothic Revival building’s Neo-Gothic features

Philip Wilkinson
The Pocket Guide to English Architecture
Remember When / Pen & Sword Books 2009

This is one of those books the title of which says it all: a guide that you can carry around with you when visiting towns, cities or country houses to view the buildings of England. (And it really does mean only England, not the other currently constituent countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though much of the information here is transferable to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.)

Explicitly excluded from the notion of custom-designed architecture — except for a brief mention of building materials — are all those examples of fine vernacular structures, whether thatched cottages, terraced houses or tithe barns, though I suspect the last-mentioned cathedral-like storehouses may well have been planned by the same individuals who directed the building of the associated abbeys.

The book is simply structured, starting with a timeline taking in twenty-two broad stylistic categories — from Saxon and Norman to Modernism and Art Deco — and covering the period 600 to 1939. This is then followed, after a short introduction, by chapters summarising the principal features of all those styles, with occasional ‘interludes’ to discuss changing tastes or available materials. Before the final index there are useful appendices illustrating diagnostic details to aid identification of periods: pillars, windows, doors, arches, vaults and towers.

According to his blog the author has written “The English Buildings Book, England’s Abbeys, Restoration, the book of Adam Hart-Davis’s series What the Romans Did For Us, other books about architecture and buildings, and various books on other subjects, including Dorling Kindersley’s handbooks on Mythology (written with Neil Philip) and Religions.” So he definitely knows whereof he speaks.

An added attraction of this unpretentious and accessible guide is the inclusion of vintage illustrations, from the line drawings of Colen Campbell’s 1715 Vitruvius Britannicus and Victorian reference books to historic postcard photographs. The picture research was done by Fiona Shoop who had access to the postcard collection of the Estate of Stanley Shoop, and they add greatly to the character of this 136-page guide.

Repost of review first published in April 2014

Congo odyssey

Congo trading steamer c 1890 [Public Domain]
Congo trading paddle steamer c 1890 [Public Domain]
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
Introduction and Notes by Owen Knowles
Penguin Classics 2007 (1899)

The Dark Continent. Darkest Africa. How often do we still — more than a century later — hear these terms bandied about. Though it’s often assumed that the phrases have racist connotations the original intention seems to be that much of the heart of Africa was still unknown territory as far as Europeans were concerned. And why were they concerned? Because at the root of European imperialist dreams was the drive to expand and exploit, to extract the commercial potential of a region before your rivals. In a way nothing much has changed in the intervening years.

Heart of Darkness is set in the Belgian Congo (later Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century. But the tenebrosity of the title alludes more to the blackness of white men’s hearts than to the interior of Africa. The novella begins, unexpectedly,
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Westward Ho!

Map of the Countries near to the Land of Oz

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …
— Kipling 1889

Many years ago I had a Chinese poster from the Communist era showing the interior of a classroom. On a wall was a world map which — and this is what particularly interested me — positioned China dead centre. In a flash I understood where much of that country’s paranoia came from: to the left was Western Europe and Soviet Russia and its satellites, to the right was the USA, and it was quite clear that Red China felt completely beset by rivals or foes. Are we surprised that Chinese corporations are now busy exploiting commercial opportunities all around the Indian Ocean, South America and elsewhere if their maps continue to suggest China’s a beleaguered country?

It was a natural step for me to realise that America’s own Cold War paranoia stemmed from its world view, US maps showing the country surrounded by Chinese communists to its west and, to its east, communist Eastern Europe and Russian Soviets. No wonder conservative Americans worried about Reds under the bed and commie sympathisers.

On the other hand, the British psyche was long buoyed up by its being centrally placed on its world maps, the globe’s chronology even being set by Greenwich Mean Time. Huge swathes of the world were coloured pink — Canada, bits of Africa, Australia and innumerable colonies and possessions — until, in the mid-20th century, that Empire was slowly but surely eased from its hands. Right now Britain also feels embattled, cut loose from its former Empire, increasingly casting itself adrift from Europe and encouraged to believe itself menaced by ‘swarms’ and ‘floods’ of immigrants.

It’s interesting how we create and maintain a view of the world from our own perspective, despite Donne’s reminder that  Continue reading “Westward Ho!”

Thoroughly unpleasant

Clerk of Oxford, Ellesmere Chaucer
The Clerk with his books, Ellesmere Chaucer

Ivo Stourton The Book Lover’s Tale Doubleday 2011

Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente.

Anything with ‘book lover’ in the title is bound to attract, is it not? And The Book Lover’s Tale has such echoes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that it comes as  little surprise that a late 15th-century printed edition of the Tales plays a crucial role at the climax of the novel. But take note: Chaucer is nothing if not ironic. The Clerk, who appears so idealistic, the antithesis of greed and worldliness, a man who would rather “have at his beddes heed | Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,” is — like all the Pilgrims — not quite what he seems. His tale, following on soon after The Wife of Bath’s Tale with its theme of women’s sovereignty over men, appears to favour the model wife: The Clerk’s Tale tells the misogynistic story of Patient Griselda, uncomplaining despite everything thrown at her by a husband determined to test her obedience. However, the Clerk then adds some surprising comments: women should really stand up for themselves and follow the example of the Greek nymph Echo who, of course, always answered back. His further advice is that wives should aim to make their husbands worry, weep, wring their hands and wail.

All this background, I think, is important in trying to understand what is at first sight a pretty grubby tale told in the first person by a real Lothario, a book collector by the name of Matt Le Voy. Continue reading “Thoroughly unpleasant”