Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Buried by rubbish

This morning as I was waiting for my metro a young couple, mid-twenties perhaps, came to stand on the platform. They were well-dressed in a very businesslike style. The man was in a smart dark suit, the woman in smart light grey one. Both had briefcases. As they stood there, they took out their breakfasts and started to eat. The sandwiches were wrapped in foil which they dropped to the ground letting it blow away down the track. They washed them down with bottles of juice, throwing the plastic bottles to the ground. The man obviously wasn't very keen on crusts as, as the tram approached, he hurled the remnants of his sandwich into the bushes.
It was all done completely casually as if it had never even crossed their minds that there might be something wrong with anything they had done. Of course I didn't say anything, I never do, even smart people are likely to turn unpleasant confronted by someone calling them "irresponsible mindless litter louts".
The trouble is that I've seen where it can lead. A few years ago I was in Mexico. My first realisation that they might have a litter problem was as we killed time on the car park in the no man's land between the American and Mexican border posts. It was a pretty unpleasant couple of hours as we passed the time counting the types of rubbish that went blowing past, but it was nothing compared to where we camped. As it had been dark by the time we got into Mexico we had to pitch camp at the first apparently open ground we came to and next morning, seeing it for the first time in daylight we discovered a wilderness of broken bottles, empty cartons, rusty cans, cigarette packets, human and animal faeces and every other conceivable form of detritus. It wasn't a rubbish dump but it might as well have been. It would be facile to suggest that poverty is to blame for though it certainly plays a part it isn't really the cause. Just like the couple on the metro platform, it's more that people don't seem to care but in their case they may just have too many other priorities to worry about the rate at which the tidal wave of waste is destroying their ecology.
There is overpopulation - Mexico City alone has 22 million people - and over-industrialisation. There is the iniquity with which the indigenous Indian peoples are treated and the corresponding problems when they try to strike back. Mexico may just have too many other problems to get concerned about what is seen as 'litter'.
On the other hand the extent of the problem shouldn't be underestimated, a point made pointedly and poignantly two weeks later when we visited the Canon el Sumidero. This is tourist country, the kind of place where you show your best face to the world. Boatmen take visitors along the river and through the canyon. It is a spectacular and beautiful place with dramatic waterfalls plunging down from precipitous cliffs watched by the crocodiles as immobile as sand sculptures on the bank. At one point water cascades down for hundreds of feet over the trees washing the leaves and branches down as if the foliage were dark green blankets draped in layers across the hillside. The force of the water fills the air for dozens of yards with a fine cooling mist, like a gentle balm against your sun scorched skin. It is a gorgeous and magical sight. Until you look down at the river. It isn't the greasy unhealthy sheen that stops you dead, nor the sickly vivid green of the clogging algae. It is the sheer volume of the flotsam. there are plastic bottles and bags, pieces of broken furniture, rusty cans - all drifting slowly towards an ecological catastrophe. Where the eddies and currents wash it into the caves and crevices of the shoreline it is worse still. In places the water is scarcely visible at all such is the density of this grim tide.
For one night I thought we had avoided it. We made camp on one of the beaches somewhere on the gulf where there is a small turtle sanctuary. The water and the sand were clean. In the early evening we watched as a large bucketful of day old turtles were released at the water's edge to swim away into the ocean. I wandered away up the slope of the beach to where the dunes were covered in grass, where they started to turn into swampland. There, just out of site from our encampment were more plastic bottles and more discarded food wrappers. Who I wondered could have come all the way out here to dump this stuff ? I went to bed feeling depressed by the inevitability of it all.
The following morning there was a slightly more optimistic coda as I watched a group of men clearing some of it away in black sacks. I only hope they weren't taking it to dump in the river.
I'd like to mention one other incident, from another time on another continent. It was when I was on holiday in Switzerland. After leaving these grubby shores I had been astonished at how clean and tidy the place was. One day we went for a walk up to a lake in the mountains. It was a gorgeous day and everything was perfect. As we approached the lake there was a shock waiting. There, blowing around on the grassy lake shore was a single chocolate bar wrapper. I couldn't bear to see it so I went to pick it up to throw away later. And discovered that it was an English Kit-Kat wrapper. It was probably dropped by somebody in a suit.

Parts of this article previously appeared, in a slightly different form, on my website and as a column in the Express and Star newspaper.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 21

Rene Cloke puzzles me. I have a number of editions, including one in Chinese, which show her as the artist. All but one of them have the same illustrations, as shown above, but one has significantly different illustrations in a much simpler styles. I have been unable to confirm whether she illustrated it twice or the different edition is incorrectly annotated.

Alice, now returned to a smaller size, makes good her escape from the house while the animals are busy trying to revive the stricken Bill.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Quote of the day

I do not intend to comment at all on this quote I heard on the news yesterday.

"Heads of the automotive industry will meet to examine Peter Mandelson's package."

Alices in Wonderland: Part 20

We have already seen one Purnell edition and this illustration is from another, the Purnell Colour Classics edition (1976). Unlike the 1982 edition, this one contains some artist information. It was illustrated by Gordon King. He has become renowned for his portraits of girls and though his Alice illustrations are relatively early and perhaps not as well developed as his later work they do show the beginnings of how that reputation was established.

As Alice waits to see what will happen next, the animals outside start throwing stones in through the window, and when they land they turn into cakes. Alice, applying the logic that as she can't get bigger, they must make her smaller, eats them.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Happy Birthday

Today is the birthday of that fellow who wrote the book I've been posting about for all this time. Happy Birthday Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 19

In 1968 there was an edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by Ralph Steadman. Steadman's work is aggressive, quirky and instantly recognisable. I have the 2003 Firefly edition which uses the illustrations to great effect.

Alice is unimpressed by Bill's efforts and with a swift kick sends him flying out of the chimney.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Military encounters

One piece of advice for the traveller which I think we can all agree is good, is to stay clear of both the police and the military. Taking pictures of police stations or army bases is likely to result in any one of a range of sanctions starting with having your camera confiscated, working up through a stay in whatever the local variety of prison is and culminating in being shot. None of these are happy outcomes. But you don't need to be a careless photographer to find yourself looking at the wrong end of a row of guns carried by men in uniforms. In June 2001, having completed a fascinating, if, in some ways, rather trying, couple of weeks in Egypt we were racing back up through Syria, Jordan and Turkey, heading for the Iranian border. Our modus vivendi at the time was all about rough camping: that is to say camping wherever we could find free ground for our tents. If there are any official camp grounds in those countries we hadn't managed to find them so the operational procedure for that few days was to drive as fast and as far north as we could, stop only to reprovision and, when it got dark, pull of the main road, find somewhere to camp and pitch our tents.

The day that we crossed into Syria was mostly unexciting and uneventful but turned rather more dramatic towards the early evening. It was our practice on long driving days to pull off the main roads and look for somewhere a little quieter to pitch camp at about an hour before sunset. Tonight was no exception. At about seven O'clock Dave turned off the main road and started to head through a series of small villages. All the way we were watched by smiling waving villagers. If only we had understood why they were smiling and waving.
We turned right at a cross-roads and drove up the hill. In the distance there was a large gate and what looked like a military checkpoint. Dave decided that we would avoid it and started to turn the truck to go back down the hill but it was too late. Three men had exited the building and were running towards us. One of them was carrying a machine gun.
Before Dave could complete the manoeuvre more men had joined the first three and we were completely surrounded. The man with the gun was in front of us pointing it at Dave's head. Others held their guns down but with an air of casual menace. Steve, our driver, told us to do nothing and that if they asked for our passports we should under no circumstances hand them over. This instruction was rather easier for us to follow than the one he gave to co-driver Dave
"Keep driving, just edge forward. He won't shoot."
Dave was understandably reluctant to put this theory to the test and when a second gunman joined the first in pointing his gun rather too specifically at him, he turned off the engine and Steve and Dave sat arguing with our unwelcome visitors. It was beginning to look rather hairy when out of the blue another man who we took to be an officer appeared and with a combination of gestures and grunts indicated that we should follow his car. There was a palpable feeling of disappointment from the group who had been surrounding us.
We did as requested, as it was going back the way we had come and away from the trouble, and he led us back to the main road. Here he let us go with indications that we should in future stay on the main road and avoid poking our noses where they weren't wanted.
We still had no idea what we had stumbled on. It might have been military but if it was there was a distinct lack of military discipline about the whole encounter and the ragtag assortment of uniforms certainly showed no clear degree of co-ordination. There was a great deal of speculation about what had just happened but none of it led anywhere so we drove on but by now it was eight thirty and already dark. We pulled off into a limestone quarry and attempted the impossible task of pitching tents on ground hard enough to bend tent pegs. I gave up, spread my tent out as a ground sheet and went to sleep on top of it.

The next day we crossed into Turkey and the day after that had another military encounter, though an altogether less sinister one. We had stopped for lunch and shopping in San Liurfa, which is supposed to have been the birth place of Abraham. It was a pleasant place and I liked it a lot but all too soon we were on our way again, heading towards the Tigris where we intended to camp before making our last push for Dogubayazit and the Iranian border.

We had once again left the main road top find a camp site, this time seeking something on the banks of the river. Suddenly we were stopped short by the fact that strung across the road was a tyre bursting trap similar to the stingers used by British police. At the side of the road was large, modern military base and in a guard post outside it was a single soldier. After our previous experience, it’s fair to say that we were all a bit edgy. He motioned for us to pull off the road but when we had complied he seemed completely at a loss as to what he should do next. Fortunately as he pondered another soldier - who had the bearing of an officer in spite of being clad not in uniform but in a football strip having just come from a kick around with the lads - sauntered over and started to question us. It was the usual stuff. Where are you from ? Where are you going ? How many of you are there ?
As he spoke to us another soldier asked him a question in Turkish and he relayed it to us.
"Would you all like a cup of tea ?"
Soon we were sitting drinking tea and coffee with half the base and when that was finished they said that they could show us a perfect camping spot and, as good as their word, led us down through the nearby village of Tepe to the riverside.
It was a splendid place although there were hundreds of sheep and it seemed hundreds of local children.
Last night we had camped by the Euphrates, tonight by the Tigris. They were exotic names that I remembered from my schooldays even though whatever facts I once knew about them had long since been erased by time from my mind. Whatever I had learned it was a certainty that it had failed to mention frogs. Specifically I was willing to put down money that it hadn't mentioned the noise that the thousands of frogs that live in the reeds make. It's loud and continuous but oddly soothing.

Eastern Turkey had so far proven to be one of the most genuinely friendly places of the whole trip and had been extremely enjoyable. We had a couple of days more here before crossing into Iran. I hoped they would prove to be as good.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Even though I don't usually respond to memes...

... I thought I'd do this one, as there were so many things on it that I'd done. OK Cat, I've done one of your memes.

Bold whatever you have done.

1. Started your own blog. Well duh!
2. Slept under the stars. Many times. My favourite was in the White Desert
3. Played in a band. My brother had a band, briefly when we were teenagers. I played bass. We were called Azrael.
4. Visited Hawaii.
5. Watched a meteor shower.
6. Given more than you can afford to charity.
7. Been to Disneyland. Assuming that Disneyworld counts.
8. Climbed a mountain. Many times while travelling.
9. Held a praying mantis.
10. Sang a solo. I once did a very drunken rendition of King Crimson's Epitaph in a Chinese Karaoke.
11. Bungee jumped.
12. Visited Paris.
13. Watched a lightning storm at sea. Does on a Scandinavian lake count?
14. Taught yourself an art from scratch. Never had a single poetry writing lesson!
15. Adopted a child.
16. Had food poisoning. Inevitable when you visit foreign parts as often as I do.
17. Walked to the top of the Statue of Liberty. Not really, but only because I got interested in the museum part and lost track of the time. Also I couldn't be bothered standing in a queue that stretched from top to bottom and was moving at about one step every two minutes.
18. Grown your own vegetables. Well my Dad grows them actually but I'm sure I used to help him as a kid before I discovered my abiding loathing of gardening.
19. Seen the Mona Lisa in France.
20. Slept on an overnight train. Yes, many times. The next time will be in April going from China to North Korea.
21. Had a pillow fight.
22. Hitch hiked. A couple of times when I was much younger.
23. Taken a sick day when you're not sick. I'm sure I must have. Though I can't pin down a specific instance.
24. Built a snow fort.
25. Held a lamb.
26. Gone skinny dipping. Alcohol makes us do strange things.
27. Run a marathon.
28. Ridden in a gondola in Venice
29. Seen a total eclipse. Seen a couple of near total eclipses, not quite total though.
30. Watched a sunrise or sunset. Hundreds. They are one of my favourite photographic subjects.
31. Hit a home run.
32. Been on a cruise. Up and down the Scandinacian coast.
33. Seen Niagara Falls in person. Of course, but this item should be deleted and replaced with the vastly more impressive Iguazu Falls.
34. Visited the birthplace of your ancestors. Do the houses where my Mom and Dad were born count?
35. Seen and Amish community.
36. Taught yourself a new language. Up to a point anyway.
37. Had enough money to truly be satisfied. I'm satisfied with whatever money I have providing I have somewhere to live and something to eat. And enough left over for beer.
38. Seen the leaning tower of Pisa in person.
39. Gone rock climbing. Kind of. Lot's of hiking in the mountains, some scrambling.
40. Seen Michelangelo's David.
41. Sung karaoke. See 10 above.
42. Seen Old Faithful geyser erupt. Yes, but there are much more impressive geysers in the park.
43. Bought a stranger a meal at a restaurant.
44. Visited Africa. Quite a lot of it actually.
45. Walked on a beach by moonlight. Many. Sadly, mostly on my own.
46. Been transported in an ambulance. When I had appendicitis, or possibly alcohol poisoning, I had drunk several pints, a bottle of wine and a bottle of Southern Comfort at the time.
47. Had your portrait painted.
48. Gone deep sea fishing.
49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person.
50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
51. Gone scuba diving or snorkeling. Scuba only in a pool. Snorkelling in a few places. Neither is very easy with my eyes as I can't actually see anything when I'm underwater and without my glasses.
52. Kissed in the rain. Though the vast majority of my life is a sad and lonely morass that reminds me of Jon Arbuckle's, * I did have someone briefly. We met in the Philippines. It rained a lot. (*make sure you have the sound up, the accompanying music is great!)
53. Played in the mud. Every child in the world has played in the mud.
54. Gone to a drive-in theater.
55. Been in a movie.
56. Visited the Great Wall of China. Twice. Soon to be thrice.
57. Started a business.
58. Taken a martial arts class.
59. Visited Russia.
60. Served in a soup kitchen.
61. Sold Girl Scout cookies.
62. Gone whale watching. In Alaska.
63. Gotten flowers for no reason. Although it's not a British cultural thing, one of my female Arabic students once gave me some at the end of a course.
64. Donated blood, platelets, or plasma.
65. Gone sky diving.
66. Visited a Nazi concentration camp.
67. Bounced a check.
68. Flown in a helicopter. Over the Iguazu Falls
69. Saved a favorite childhood toy. There are a number that I had for a long time but sadly all have now long since been lost, I wish I still had the Etch-a-Sketch that got broken in the cupboard.
70. Visited the Lincoln Memorial. Yes, and very impressive it is too. It's a pity that the ending of the remake of Planet of the Apes makes so little sense as the scene with the ape-Lincoln is pretty impressive.
71. Eaten caviar. I've eaten pretty much everything that doesn't contain mushrooms.
72. Pieced a quilt.
73. Stood in Times Square. Only in the daytime, unfortunately.
74. Toured the Everglades. Well, sometimes I do touristy stuff too.
75. Been fired from a job.
76. Seen the changing of the guards in London. See 74 above.
77. Broken a bone.
78. Been on a speeding motorcycle.
79. Seen the Grand Canyon in person. Hiked down into it, and with a great deal of effort, back up out of it.
80. Published a book. Didn't actually get it published but it is now appearing a chapter at a time on my other blog.
81. Been to the Vatican.
82. Bought a brand new car. Yes, about ten years ago and I intend to go on driving it until it falls to bits.
83. Walked in Jerusalem.
84. Had your picture in the paper. I published a series of travel articles, they all included my picture.
85. Read the entire Bible.
86. Visited the White House. Does looking at ith through the fence count?
87. Killed and prepared an animal for eating. Chickens.
88. Had Chicken pox. Hasn't everyone?
89. Saved someone's life.
90. Sat on a jury.
91. Met someone famous. Rolf Harris, Damien Lewis, a few other minor celebrities and - the one that means most to me David Crystal
92. Joined a book club. Ones for purchasing, ones for reading and even ones for writing.
93. Lost a loved one. Again, it would be hard to live for fifty years without losing a loved one.
94. Had a baby.
95. Seen the Alamo in person. Again, see 74 above.
96. Swam in the Great Salt Lake. Actually no, but I have swum in the Dead Sea so I'm counting that.
97. Been involved in a lawsuit.
98. Owned a cell phone. Who doesn't, these days?
99. Been stung by a bee. Who hasn't?
100. Read an entire book in one day. Yes, sometimes I'm that slow but usually I read faster than that.

I might have miscounted but I make that 54. Not bad given that some would be physically impossible!

Alices In Wonderland: Part 18

Harry Rountree was a very popular artist in the early part of the twentieth century. His Alice in Wonderland, published in 1908, with its ninety colour illustrations, is one of his most enduring works.

As Alice lies in the house wondering what to do, the rabbit arrives and consults with his gardeners about what to do about the arm that is waving from his window. His solution is to send Bill, a lizard, down the chimney.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Well I wouldn't have put it there

I've just glanced through the section of the Guardian's 1000 novels everyone should read devoted to science fiction. I was thoroughly unsurprised to find that I have read at least fifty of them, possibly more as there were a few that sounded familiar that I probably read when I was a schoolboy.
I was however interested to discover that both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were in there. I think that there is little doubt about my love of the books, and the section is actually "Science Fiction and Fantasy" but I wouldn't have put it there.

It isn't the only odd choice. Others that had me puzzled were Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory (he does write Science Fiction but this isn't it), Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Kafka's The Trial, and those are just some of the ones I've read.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 17

The Hildebrandt brothers
, Greg and Tim, are heavy hitters in the world of fantasy art, having illustrated everything from Harry Potter to Star Wars, from Poker tournments to Alice in Wonderland. Their detailed, densely coloured paintings are always a joy to behold, especially for their fascinating use of light and contrast. In the image above, look at the way the light from the window picks out detail on Alice's face while the rest of the scene is blocked into shade by her body.
The edition this comes from (Running Press,2004) is illustrated with twenty-five full page images of stunning detail. The abridged text is the Julia Suarez version.

In the story Alice, who was foolish enough to drink from the bottle shoots up to giant size again, filling the room to a point where she is unable to move at all.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, the 44th President of the United States

I have no idea what kind of President Barack Obama is going to make but I'll tell you this, when he retires he'll make a fortune as an after dinner speaker. That guy knows how to make a speech!

Chess in Lijiang

An encounter from one of my previous trips.

Most of Lijiang is an ordinary, modern, even unlovely city but the old town is perfectly wonderful. It is a maze of streets, some more touristy than others but all delightful. In the tourist sections no two shops seem to sell exactly the same thing: all of them are individual and unique as fingerprints. The buildings too are fascinating. The ground floors may have been converted into shops or bars or restaurants or hostels but a glance upwards shows that they are indeed old buildings remodelled rather than new imitations. In places the buildings follow the lines of the old canals, separated from the water by narrow footpaths from which you can step directly into any one of the bars for your lunch. The roofs lean towards each other like whispering conspirators leaving only a narrow strip of sky visible.
A few minutes ago that strip had turned from blue to grey as a prelude to rain and now, as I sat inside a pleasantly rustic cafe the rain started to penetrate the gap and spread throughout the spaces between the buildings. It muddied the reflections in the canal but wasn’t strong enough to create any ripples.

The wooden shutters of the cafe were opened all the way back, pressed against the walls, leaving a large opening through which the world could be watched. I ordered some corn soup and bread and a beer and sat doing just that. I had finished eating and moved on to a second beer when a Chinese teenager entered. He wore dark trousers and the ubiquitous high-collared blue jacket but had made a concession to individuality in the form of a perfectly hideous pendant of an old man’s face worn on a leather lace about his neck.
He sat down in the far corner and I didn’t give him another thought until I glanced back from th window and found him standing opposite me. My Chinese was limited to “hello”, which I duly used, but lacking any further vocabulary found to be an ineffective gambit. He pointed to the shelf behind me and, turning to look, I found a chess set. He clearly wanted to play. While I can play chess I’m not actually very good but I thought I’d give it a go. He sat down and we set the board up.

As we played he tried out a few phrases of English. They were quite elementary but considerably better than my Chinese. We took our time, spending more effort on trying to converse than on playing. Suddenly I realised that I was two moves from a mate that he obviously hadn’t seen. I played the moves and won. He seemed happy enough with the result and started to set up again. Half an hour later I had won again and he still seemed happy. He did, however have to go. He suggested, or rather I thought he was suggested, that we should meet again to play tomorrow. Unfortunately tomorrow I would be heading out of the city straight after breakfast. He gave a small nod of departure and left me sitting there. I packed up the set, ordered another beer and went back to watching the world go by.
Later, I thought, I shall go for a walk, or perhaps return to the pleasant walled courtyard of my old city dormitory.
Or perhaps, I added to myself, I shall just stay here and watch the rain.

Guilt for being human

I was reminded yesterday of the quote, usually attributed to Stalin, that a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths are a statistic. What brought it to mind was a post on a friend's blog about Martin Luther King day. She wrote, quite rightly, about the great courage and the great legacy of Dr King and then went on to talk about the embarrassment she feels that her blogging is about such trivial matters as the weather in Chicago. She shouldn't feel that way though, not really, should she?
In the great scheme of things the vast majority of us lead trivial lives. Most of us do nothing that significantly affects the world. Most of us will die unremarked by all but a handful who will mourn us and most of us will be unremembered fifty years hence.
Only a very few will touch, or be touched by, greatness. Martin Luther King was one such, with good luck and a trailing wind Barack Obama may yet turn out to be another, but for most of us we are dust in the wind. Or to put it in a different and more extended metaphor, we are small pebbles in a fast flowing river with just a few who are boulders and the very occasional dam.
Because of this, because our lives are so utterly mundane, it's the mundane stuff that affects us; that becomes the focus of our concern; that we worry about. Of course the world is filled with big problems: disease and genocide in Africa; war in Iraq or Afghanistan or Gaza; financial collapse and ruin everywhere; poverty in Asia; starvation; child slavery. These are all monstrous injustices . The filled is filled with misery and suffering.
The trouble is, and there is a real danger that this will sound callous and uncaring, that for most of us we can't spend our time worrying about those things; and we shouldn't. For me it isn't that I don't care but that these are things that I can do nothing about and that, if truth be told, have little or no impact on my day to day life.
A missed tram that will make me late and cause the eighteen people in my class to miss a single English lesson is, to me, of more urgency, more significance and yes, more importance, than genocide in Darfur. And I know just how that sounds and I say it unrepentantly. There is absolutely nothing I can do to stop the genocide but I can make those eighteen people's lives better just by getting up earlier and making sure I don't miss my tram.
So, when blogging, which am I more likely to talk about? Will it be trivial, inconsequential stuff like the weather, the trains or students who don't do their homework; or will it be big matters of great import like war, injustice or global warming? Of course it will be the trivial things. They may not in any worldwide sense matter more but in a very real sense they matter more to me. They matter more to me because they affect my daily life and I can, sometimes, exert a little control over them. For the big stuff, it doesn't affect me immediately; there is nothing I can do about it anyway and there is probably nothing I can say that hasn't been said before by other, more eloquent commentators.
The great trick of the matter is to concentrate on the things that, while unimportant generally, are important to you and to, and this is the thing, not feel guilty about it. It isn't your fault if a snowstorm in your neighbourhood means more to you than a drought in Africa. You shouldn't feel guilty if you rail and rant about increases in your utility bills while you know that many many people have no utilities to be billed for. Guilt, other than personal guilt for your own actions, is probably one of the least productive of all human emotions.
If you don't care more about your own family's relatively minor trials and tribulations than you do about the most hideous things half a world away then you probably aren't human. Of course you should care about all those things. Of course you should do anything that you can to help. But the bottom line is that you can only care about them in an abstract and impersonal way. The death of a million people is a statistic. The death of one, one who is known to you, is a tragedy. Big things far away are bound to mean less to you than small things nearby. There is no point in feeling guilty for being human.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 16

This particular image is a bit of a puzzle. The style is definitely 1950s but the book it comes from is the Purnell Children's Classics edition which is dated 1982. There is no artist credit given anywhere on the book and it's possible that they have reused illustrations from an earlier edition, although there is also no information about that. This particular style doesn't really appeal very much to me but I'd be interested to find out who it actually is, just for the sake of completeness.

Anyway, in the Rabbit's house ALice immediately begins looking around and when she finds a bottle, in spite of previous experience, she decides to drink it.

Monday, 19 January 2009

My favourite American city

This entry refers to a visit to Chicago in 1999. A slightly different version of it has previously appeared on my other blog.

I like Chicago much more than any other city I have been to in America. It was something that I realised very quickly on my first visit. In spite of the terrible weather (when it wasn’t raining it was foggy) I enjoyed every minute of my short stay in the city, from my visit to the Art Institute to my night watching Blues legend, Koko Taylor - 71 at the time- it was all good.
Even the architecture appeals. There is the same abundance of skyscrapers as Manhattan, each with a weird, wonderful and unmatched design, but unlike Manhattan they are spread out. The streets are wider and lighter and less crowded. People aren't in such a hurry to get to wherever it is they are going and the whole place generally feels spacious and relaxed.
As we strolled through downtown on the first afternoon one of fellow travellers, Vanessa who had an infallible eye for a photograph, who spotted the cow. Spotted the spotted cow in fact. The first bizarre thing about it was that its spots, against the brown of its hide were bright blue. As we approached I realised that in reality they weren't spots at all, they were holes through the body with the insides painted blue. And it was wearing spectacles.
Suddenly the whole world was filled with cows. It was like a magic eye picture where something interesting is lurking unseen but suddenly leaps out at you as your eyes take on the proper focus. There was a cow on roller blades wearing a walkman, a cow painted to resemble a milk float, a carousel cow and another whose hide had been sculpted into a relief map of the world. A red and green cow jumped over a crescent moon. They were everywhere.
It was, I discovered, the Chicago 'Cows on Parade' exhibition which businessman Peter Hanig had instigated after seeing something similar on a trip to Switzerland. Chicago had taken the idea on board with a vengeance. Scattered around the city were more than 300 of them decorated by local artists in every conceivable style. For a city which was burned down in 1871 by a conflagration allegedly started by a cow kicking over a lantern it was a remarkably appropriate theme. I loved it and added 'great sense of humour' to the things that I liked about the city, joining its general appearance and the numerous blues clubs at the top of the list.
Down in the art museum things just went on getting better. I can spend days wandering around art galleries and this one was one of the best I'd ever seen. Its collection is mixed by any standards. Any artist of note that you have ever heard of is likely to be represented somewhere among the 300,000 exhibits. Renoir rubs shoulders with Picasso, Warhol sits side by side with Monet. In keeping with the cow theme I was particularly taken with a plaster relief by Giovanni Caccini in which a king was having one of his enemies stuffed into the hinged back of a brass bull to be roasted alive.
Most interesting though was the contemporary art section. It occurred to me that this would be the ideal place for Damien Hirst to exhibit a cow sawn in half but no, there was nothing like that there. There were however a great variety of pieces, some of which I liked, some of which I disliked and some of which were so risible that they should be eligible for the Turner prize, a competition that regularly has me breaking down into fits of helpless laughter. One 'sculpture' consisted of a piece of electrical flex and some light bulbs - I mistook it for a piece of unfinished wiring until I noticed that it had a label with a title. By far the weirdest though was 'Clown Torture.' This was a large square white walled room with videos showing a clown rolling around screaming and the same clown sitting on the toilet with his trousers around his ankles. It was accompanied by a soundtrack of groans , screams and maniacal laughter. It wasn't clear if the clown was being tortured or the audience.
I went back to the comparatively less self indulgent works of Andy Warhol. As I was looking at them I chatted to Murray the huge security guard. In a London gallery the security staff usually sit solemnly on plastic chairs at the end of the room eyeing everyone with suspicion. I have never heard one of them speak and I've visited a lot of galleries. In America it's different. Wherever you go ten seconds after you enter the room and start looking at the paintings the guard is your lifelong pal. Murray had introduced himself as I stood looking at a painting by Gerhadt Richter that was a huge oil painting of an out of focus photograph of ablurred street scene, with the remark. The novelty of a good painting of a bad photograph appealed to me.
"Kinda messes with your eyes don't it?"
I had to agree that it did.
"You Australian?" he asked.
It was a mistake that I found all too common and totally inexplicable. My Wolverhampton accent sounds nothing like an Australian but everywhere I go in the United States people always ask the same question.
"English." I corrected.
At least Murray didn't go on insisting that I was from Down Under as so many of his countrymen have in the past.
He did shed some light on the mystery for me though by explaining that while Australians were usually happy to talk to him most English seemed less eager to respond to his friendliness. Presumably taken by the novelty of an Englishman prepared to listen he followed me around on my circuit of the room giving me his opinion of virtually every piece there. He told me he'd never liked modern art at all until he'd been transferred to this gallery. He'd always preferred pictures that were 'of something'. Here though, over the months, he'd spent so much time looking at the work that he'd started to find something good in most of it. His enthusiasm was as infectious as only that of an amateur can ever truly be as he showed me around some of his personal favourites. Intrigued by his insights I asked him what he thought about 'Clown Torture'. He scratched his head and pondered.
"I guess some things you gotta work at harder than others," he said "I'll be retired before I figure that one out.

I'm not sure if I've used this poem here before, though I suspect I might have, but if I have, here it is again - a poem I wrote after my visit to the Art Institute.

Clown Torture

If I live to be a hundred, and see it all before I die
Some things I'll never figure out, I'll have to let them lie.
There is no such thing as justice and no such thing as truth
There is no such thing as contact - we can't share a point of view
There is a distance that's between us that is more than miles or years
I can no more laugh your humour than you can cry my tears

In a corner of the institute
In a room that's walled in white
There is a scream that lasts for ever
From a clown that no-one likes
I thought I didn't understand
But suddenly it's clear
The dichotomy of terror
Turning laughter into fear.

If I live to be a hundred and spend every minute searching
Some secrets I know I'll never find, some pains will still be hurting
But there's no such thing as sorrow and no such thing as love
And no such thing as failure when there is nothing left to prove.
There's a distance lies between us that is more than miles or days
I can no more chose your dreams than you can guide my way.

Holding out for a hero...

The Guardian is, over several days, printing a list of "1000 novels everyone must read". Now, leaving aside the fact (as raised by the person who drew my attention to this list) that if you read a novel a week it will take you almost twenty years to complete the task,something struck me about one of the reviews.

The review of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho says

"a scene in which the hero's former girlfriend has her hands nailed to the floor, her tongue cut out, and is then forced to fellate her tormentor before being killed"


"The hero, a young drugged-up, obsessively stylish Wall Street broker, also axes a gay man he encounters on the street and casually eviscerates the man's dog."

Maybe I'm wrong, but that doesn't sound much like a "hero" to me. Of course you can argue that in literature the word "hero" simply means "main protagonist" but surely it carries at least some implication of praiseworthiness or goodness. To me the hero of a novel is ,by definition, the good guy. He may be flawed, he may may be unpleasant, he may not be perfect, but he must be the good guy or he isn't the hero.

Well, I think so anyway.

Incidentally they have chosen to divide their list into some oddly arbitrary sections. Love, Crime, Comedy, Family & Self, State of the Nation, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and War and Travel. The ones for Love and Crime have been published so far. I have looked at both lists and can state that while I have read twenty three of those listed under crime I have read none of those listed under love.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 15

Another edition that has been abridged for young readers is from Usborne Young Reading (Series Two). It has nice illustrations by Mauro Evangelista although to my eye they look rather too much like the familiar John R, Neill illustrations in the Wizard of Oz series. This is, of course, not a bad thing but it does distract me a little.

Alice hurries off to the Rabbit's house to fetch him more gloves and a new fan, having presumably lost the others in her unexpected swim.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 14

Alice editions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. This one, from Parragon, is a hardback with nice glossy illustrations by Jenny Press and a retold version of the story by Stephanie Laslett and it measures approximately three inches by four. The illustrations, while not among my particular favourites are all very bright and colourful and well done.

The caucus race dries everyone off but unfortunately Alice then attempts to engage the various animals and birds in conversation and her frequent references to her cat, Dinah, scare all of them ito running away. As she stands there all alone the White Rabbit appears again and mistakes her for his maid. He tells her to go to his house to get him some new gloves and a new fan.

Existential Angst

I see that the excellent Garfield minus Garfield strip has wiped the floor with all the other contenders in a recent internet poll. Quite right too. I'm not going to repost here from it: you should all go out and buy the book or, if you don't fancy spending any cash, just read the web site.

For anyone who has managed to miss it, the central concept, by Dan Walsh - but approved of by Jim Davis - is the removal of Garfield from the cartoon strip which leaves a portrait of Jon Arbuckle as a sad, lonely and deeply disturbed young man trying to cope with the alienation of modern life.

I identify with him almost completely. Only the "young" doesn't fit. My favourite one is the one for 12th January.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Sometimes they just don't think it through, do they?

We've recently had an email with regard to a college event called "Healthy Living Day".

It lists some of the elements that the day includes.

Advice and information will be available on a wide range of issues including:

Mental Health

Drugs & Alcohol

Sexual Health

Healthy Diet

Financial Health

Good Citizenship

And concludes with "These events will also feature have-a-go activities."

Personally I fancy having a go at the alcohol part of it.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 13

There is a very nice modern edition that I have with illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger that I'm rather fond of. Although the illustrations are very stylised they also have look about them like no others that I own. Actually I have quite a few unique ones, several of which will be cropping up later but this one is unusual in that it manages to have such a distinctive style but still retain a certain charm and simplicity. Some of the others sacrefice charm in search of novelty but not this one.

Meanwhile, back at the story...
Having failed to get dry by listening to the mouse more vigourous remedies are suggested in the form of a caucus race. In this everyone starts running whenever they like and stops running whnever they like and everybody wins.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

An unexpected silence

It is, I think, time for another of my old poems. I have found one which I don't entirely despise but I must confess that it has been slightly rewritten. In the introduction to his book The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett says that it is a book with "two authors, and they were both the same person". He originally published it in 1971 and then published a substantially reworked version in 1992.
Well this is a poem with two authors, and both of them were me.

An Unexpected Silence

All the world’s pain is in a single tear in the night,
A whimpering in the darkness.
All the world’s pain is in a shadow missing from the window,
A footfall that is not heard.

It is not in the deaths of hundreds in disaster.
It is not in the deaths of thousands in catastrophe.
It is not in the deaths of millions in war.
It is not in numbers.

All the world’s pain is in the sudden death of one person,
In an unexpected silence.
All the world’s pain is in a room filled with ghosts
And graveyard dreams.

I'm sure that I could do better than that but I'm reluctant to do much with the early poems as I prefer to let them show where I started because that way there is a chance that some progression in my abilities might be evident. Or it might not.

One take on take

Recently, in passing, during one of my ESOL lessons, I had to explain a bit about phrasal verbs. They were all familiar with them but had been thrown by "catch up with my work" and "keep up with the course" in a text they were reading.

It was, of course, only the work of a moment to define the terms but then they wanted to know what the "catch" in "catch up with" has to do with "catch" as in "catch the ball" or the "keep" in "keep up with" with "keep" as in "I'll keep it forever".

I managed to contrive a couple of highly speculative explanations but I do wonder sometimes about how the meanings of phrasal verbs develop from the root meaning of the particle-less non-phrasal verb.

Take "take" for example. Some years ago I spent a few weeks doing Cambridge FCE exam marking. (Hey, it's tedious but I was out of work and you have to put food on the table somehow.)

One of the sections was a gap fill into which a word needed to be inserted after "take" to make the sentence make sense. I can't remember what the actual question was, but I do remember the incredible array of answers that were presented. Let's have a look at just a few of the many possibilities.

take - get, sieze, capture, grasp

take on - accept responsibility for, make a fuss

take off - leave the ground, remove (clothing), impersonate, run away

take in - deceive, comprehend, give shelter to

take out - go on a date with, kill

take up - start something new, accept an offer

take down - make notes, remove, kill

take up on - accept an offer

take after - resemble

Now in a few of these I can see a connection either between the phrasal verb and the main verb or between two meanings of the same phrasal form but for most of them I'm baffled as to how the meaning developed.

For example, I can see that "take off", meaning run away, might develop metaphorically from the aviation meaning as when your plane takes off you are going somewhere... but how on Earth did it also come to mean "impersonate"? And what do any of these meanings have to do with "get, sieze, capture, grasp"?

And "take on" for "accept responsibility" seems a slight extension of "get" but what about when it means "Make a fuss"? Where did that come from?

And how did the modern meaning of "I'll take them out" (kill) develop from "I'll take them out" (treat)?

Not to mention that if you take something in you understand it but if you take someone in you might be doing a kindly act in giving them shelter or a despicable one in deceiving them. Why?

I've had a couple of book recommendations from a usually reliable source on one of the language boards that I post on so I'll be trying to hunt them down to read up on all of this. Meanwhile I'll just have to go on making it up in class and hoping that nobody notices.

An indelicate matter

Now that's what I call a long drop toilet!

I’ve talked about various aspects of travel in this blog but I’d like, if I may, to discuss a rather indelicate topic that I have so far avoided - toilets. Travelling around the world you encounter all sorts of facilities, from those best described as basic to those which are positively palatial. Some years ago a friend, who - as I’d like him to remain a friend - had better remain nameless, introduced me to someone in a pub as, “This is Bob. He likes shitting in a hole in the ground.” In his defence (or maybe not) he was already pretty drunk when he got there but he was also completely wrong. I had just returned from trekking in Nepal where for the entire duration of the six day trek I had suffered chronic constipation. The simple fact is that I find the hole-in-the-ground squat toilet almost impossible to use unless I have something to hold onto or lean against. In all my travels I don’t think I have ever managed the trick no matter how desperate the situation has become. Mind you, the extreme reaction at the end of the trek when I was again in a hotel with a western toilet made both me and the management very happy that the design of the bathroom meant the toilet and shower could be used simultaneously. Sometimes I suffer for my travel.
The worst facilities I ever came across - and the squeamish should stop reading now - were in a tiny village in Southern China. We were on our way to Laos and when we came across a village with a little café we stopped for lunch. The food was fine. The café was overwhelmed by the simultaneous arrival of fifteen or so hungry lao wai. The villagers were bemused by our presence among them.
Enquiries revealed that the only toilet was the three-walled, roofless stone structure about a hundred yards away. Exploration revealed that none of us would have been capable of using it. The toilet consisted of a hole about a foot square that was overflowing with a hideous, writhing mass of inch-long, thumb-thick maggots. I managed to get out without being sick. Others failed the trick.
You shouldn’t, however, get the idea that this is true of all Chinese facilities. I recall a very odd incident on a previous visit, in a nice hotel near Guilin where we went for dinner and a musical show. In the interval I went to the toilets which were modern, clean and decorated with lots of glass and marble. I only wanted the urinal and I was standing there going about my business when I realised that something strange was happening at my feet. I looked down to find a little old man in a blue uniform polishing my shoes. I was completely at a loss as to what to do, so I did what any Englishman would do and pretended that he wasn’t there, finished, zipped up my trousers and went to wash my hands. We had been cautioned by all our guides that tipping was illegal so I didn’t but I couldn’t help wondering which petty official he had annoyed so badly that he had been given such a demeaning job.
Mentioning the décor of that toilet has reminded me of another, this time on one of the islands off Thailand. I was on a day tour of the islands and went to a pretty good one for lunch. Lunch was served al fresco on the beach and afterwards I went for a wander along the sand. There was a sizeable tourist village there and it had lots of facilities including a number of toilet blocks. When the need occurred there was one handy. I went in and was startled by the murals painted all over the walls. They depicted scenes that, if better executed, could have come from the brushes of Bosch or Bruegel. Naked women cavorted with hideous demons in frenzied sexual activity. It’s the only occasion in my life when I have been prepared to risk people misunderstanding my intent by taking pictures inside a toilet!

Friday, 9 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 12

After swimming around for a while they find some land where, soaking wet, they all gather. The mouse decides that the best way to dry off is to tell them a very dry tale, a strategy that is naturally not a great success.
Here we see it as illustrated in a Marvel Comics edition by Frank Bolle who has based his interpretation closely on the original Tenniel illustrations.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 11

There are a number of oddities in my collection. One such is the "Giant 3-D Fairy Tale Book :Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". This is an edition aimed squarely at very young children with a hrd cover and four stiff card pages. The text is very stripped down and illustrations that consist of photographs of posed puppets. No individual credit is given though the photography is credited to Rose Art Studios.
The cover is also unusual. It's a type of 3D picture that was common some years ago, the ones where you get a slightly blurred image covered by a piece of plastic that is rough to the touch; peculiar, but quite effective.

In the story Alice picks up the tiny fan and gloves and starts to fan herself. The magical effect of this is to shrink her again, something she doesn't notice until she finds that she can now put on the gloves. Hastily she drops the fan and stops shrinking but is now so small that the tears she cried as a giant have formed a pool big enough for her to fall into. (It's best not to dwell on the mathematics of this!) In the pool she meets lots of other creatures swimming around.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Tenth of several

Today will see the announcement by the BBC of who will replace David Tennant in the role of Doctor Who. This, while not exactly the lead story, has made the national news on all the channels. I'm moderately interested but what caught my attention particularly was this comment on the BBC news.

"David Tennant is the tenth of several actors to play the Doctor."

There seems to be something odd about it to me. I can't quite put my finger on it but the phrase "tenth of several" seems wrong. Ten seems too many to be part of several, especially as the phrasing (tenth rather than last or most recent) seems to imply that there were more after him so that the number he is part of is even bigger.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Alices in Wonderland: Part 10

But finally an author who is contemporary enough to have a web page and a biography, Shelagh McNicholas. The illustration shows what happens next. Tiny Alice finds some tiny cakes and eats them. She then grows to an enormous size, filling the whole hall. She is so upset by this development that she starts to cry. As she is crying, the rabbit comes in and is so startled to find a giant that he drops his fan and his gloves and runs away again. The edition is a retold version for younger readers from Paragon Publishing and comes complete with a small charm necklace. I bought my copy at a bookshop in Chicago but as it's a British edition it's probably readily available here too. The illustrations are all charmingly done in nice pastel colours. The text adaptation is by Rachel Elliot.

Alices in Wonderland: Part 9

You know, I used to think my Googling skills were pretty good but, when it comes to finding information about the various foreign illustrators of Alice, it seems I'm not as good as I thought. This for example is an illustration of Alice, sitting forlornly under the glass table, by Dagmar Berkova. Apart from the fact that she is an illustrator (obviously, she illustrated one of the French copies of Alice that I have) and the supposition, based on the name, that she is Scandinavean, I know nothing. As ever any further information would be deeply appreciated (though previous appeals have met only silence.)

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Would have...

The Motivated Grammar blog pointed me at a couple of Boston Globe columns about "made up" rules of prescriptivist "grammar". You can go and check them out for yourself if you wish. They reminded me of a "rule" enforced by one of my teachers many years ago. He wasn't an English teacher, he was a History teacher* and the vigour with which he corrected one particular usage was startling.
It was the use of "would have", specifically in sentences such as "Prehistoric people would have built their homes near to water."
Now there are any number of reasons you might object to that sentence (factual accuracy, for example) but his reason bordered on the bizarre. And from the wrong side at that.
"Would have done" he insisted can ONLY be used for things that didn't happen. There mut be, he insisted, a "but" or an "if" to accompany it and negate it.
"I would have gone out, if it hadn't rained."
"I would have won the race but I tripped up."

I had chosen the "would have" form over the simple past deliberately because even aged twelve I was aware of nuances of meaning. By "would have" I was indicating that this was a very likely supposition but not something that I was personally certain enough of to use the simple past "Prehistoric people built...".

Even at the time I was sure that he was wrong, but he was a fierce and unpleasant man - one of old school don't-contradict-me-boy teachers - and so I never questioned his dictate. Maybe I could have checked it with an English teacher but even now I have the suspicion that as teachers they would have just stuck together. Nevertheless, it doesn't do to unquestioningly accept everything your teachers tell you.

(* Well I say history teacher because he was teaching me history. His main area though was as a P.E. teacher and, he knew as much about history as he did about English.)

Happy New Year

Well, that’s 2008 done and dusted, then.
Everywhere I look on the internet there are Happy New Year messages and people reviewing the year. Some are casting their eyes back on the politics of the year, some on the music, some on the movies. Just about every aspect of the old year is being held up to scrutiny by someone, somewhere. I don’t think I have very much to add to any of that.
My personal year has been a bit, to use a word that made it into the dictionaries this year, meh. It’s been a nothing kind of year really. I’ve done nothing very interesting, been nowhere very exciting and generally just got on with whatever it is I’ve had to get on with. Next year promises to have a bit more to it, as I’m off to visit North Korea at Easter, for no better reason than that I can. When I get back you will, of course, be among the first to hear of it.
So all I can think of to review is this year’s blogging, which is in fact nine months as I didn’t start until 25th March. The March entries, of which there are precisely two, were just setting up the blog, explaining what it’s all about and hoping that I could keep it going longer than my previous effort. Well that worked out. Not only did I keep it going but I also set up another blog to reveal my previously unpublished masterpiece to the world.
April saw me getting a bit more into the swing of it with eleven entries on assorted topics ranging from Doctor Johnson’s dictionary to my travels in Iceland, Malawi and Thailand to The House on the Rock to my friend Pete’s sneezecount project to ESOL teaching. An eclectic kind of month, all in all.
There was a drop off in May to only eight entries, most of which were recycled from previous work, including further travel anecdotes, lots of personal nostalgia and some recycled book reviews.
May saw a further drop off to only six entries – more travel, more ESOL and a piece about bookseller’s age-banding idea. It looked as if the blog was going the way of its predecessor.
But then things picked up thirteen in July, seventeen in August, another fourteen in September. July, in addition to all the usual topics included various anecdotes from this year’s stint at Harrow, as did August which also had some film critic criticism (as distinct from mere film criticism) and an item about the Psycho Buildings exhibition at the Hayward. September, in addition saw me start to put up a few of my really early poems, a project that I have now all but abandoned as I’ve come to realise just how rotten a poet I was thirty years ago. October with eleven entries and November with sixteen. By and large hey were the same sort of thing as before, though perhaps with more shorter entries in an attempt (mostly failed) to widen my readership. I did start a new ongoing project of retelling Alice in Wonderland illustrated with single shots (for the purposes of review, naturally) from the many editions that I own.
That project continued through December and will continue for as long as I stay interested in it.

It only remains now for me to add my New Year wishes to everyone. I would like to find something deep and important sounding to say here but I don’t think I can do better than to quote the New Year greeting from Neil Gaiman’s excellent blog.
...I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.
(You may notice an absence of links in the above. This is a deliberate ploy to encourage you to go back and read all those other wonderful entries that I referred to in the text. Happy New Year. Bob)