Thursday, July 09, 2015

librivox splurge

I moved house. As the drive to the office is now ten minutes not five, and as I've been making a few round trips to Frome and elsewhere, I thought it was worth downloading a bunch of Librivox audiobooks. (The splurge is, of course, free.)

Here's what I've listened to so far:

Marlowe, both parts of Tamburlaine the Great. A bit of a trudge through Marlowe's incessantly mighty line. It's not the fault of the readers - David Goldfarb and a good supporting cast. It's just that the uncut text needs something more than reading aloud to spark it into dramatic life. Listening to this, you are made aware that none of the participants are in the same location, and that each has recorded their speeches separately.  (As often in my own silent readings of Tamburlaine, I found the most lively part is the digressive episode at the beginning of Part 2 when the Christians under Sigismond betray their alliance with Orcanes.)

Benito Perez Galdos, Electra.  (see other post)  Here's proof that Librivox readings of plays can be very involving indeed. This is a proper performance. Brilliant production, recommended.

Balzac, Eugenie Grandet.  Absolutely wonderful. (I'd read it before, but a very long time ago). I am now at the age when everything in Balzac at last makes sense. Well, perhaps not all the financial details: I still don't entirely grasp how Grandet makes such a good thing of his brother's bankruptcy. The story (with its infinitely slow opening chapter) has me wide-eyed and gripped: it all seems real and unexpected, as if described events unfolding within my own family circle. Terrific reading by the great Bruce Pirie.

Dostoyevsky, The Gambler - Good reading (mostly by Bill Boerst) - the book is entertaining and empty-headed. Doesn't really make me want to go back to this author whose books I so devoured as a teenager, though I realize The Gambler is not by any means a fair sample.

Chekhov The Lady with the Dog and other stories. A surprisingly disappointing experience. I'm a massive fan of Chekhov's short stories, but listening to these one after another doesn't show them off to best advantage. The downbeat endings tend to come as shocks or mere stops; unable to see the page, I had little sense of them arriving. And then there was no opportunity to reflect, to look back over the text and to admire the artistry: instead, I was straight off on another jaunt to some usually inconclusive destination. The details blur. The doctor who doesn't marry the pianist. The kiss on the theatre stairs. The pistol-shot. The jealous husband at the army dance.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Here's an author who is really new to me - at least, I've never read any of her books, though I imagined I knew something about them, I supposed I could "place" her. Now, all my thoughts are being revised. Love the scenery of S. France  - the author must have remembered her travels well.  I'm still near the beginning of vol 2 and loving it.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pale Flax (Linum bienne)

Pale Flax (Linum bienne) - photos from June 21st 2015, on a roundabout just outside Frome, 

A plant that epitomizes the many transient beauties of midsummer. Driving through the long twilights of that blessed season, one is constantly accompanied by the starry whites of the roadside: Hogweed, Hemlock, Oxeye Daisy, Rough Chervil, Bramble...  But a rarer plant like this is seen only by chance. Once I'd taken the photographs, I never saw it again. It retires into fruit. 

The plants are so slender and leggy that it's hard to contain them in a photograph. 

I'd never noticed these plants before. In the past the species was mainly coastal but it is now spreading and I imagine it could find its own way along the road network to suitably dry verges inland. Or the plants might have originated as part of a "wild seed mix", a popular choice for urban roundabouts nowadays,  but this one is out in the countryside and I didn't see any other sign of exotic "wild flowers".

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

by the roadside

Nectaroscordum siculum

A large colony of Honey Garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum), in a shady spot beside the M4 westbound, near Chippenham, Wilts.

Identifying plants at 70 mph tends to be a bit approximate.  Every so often, over the past fifteen years of commuting,  I'd get a flash of a strange group of what looked like a cross between bulrush and a giant cocksfoot. I never pinned down exactly where this was, and sometimes I even wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing up. (Evidently, the plants are not noticeable for most of the year.)

When I spied the colony again last week, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I determined to find a way to get closer. That turned out to be easy. Exit at Jct 17 (2 miles up the road), take the road to Sutton Benger, then from there the road to Seagry. Handy lay-by just before you cross the motorway. The plants are just beneath you.

On June 21st 2015, the flower-heads looked extraordinary, as weird as a Cappadocian landscape.

(When I was on the spot I assumed that the upright pinnacles were "buds", i.e. yet to flower, but I've since been told that these were post-flowering. In Nectaroscordum the flowers are upright in bud, drooping when open, then upright again in fruit.)  

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

a double circuit of barbury castle

Visit to Barbury Castle last Monday evening, June 15th 2015. The Iron Age hillfort has two concentric ramparts. The steep banks support what appears to be a fairly unspectacular chalk-land flora (e.g. Common Spotted Orchid was the only orchid that I noticed), but I found a few things interesting enough to photograph. As I sank into the details of this landscape, I knew I'd want to come back soon. 

A patch of Crested Hair-grass (Koeleria macrantha) growing on an old ant-hill. (Try to ignore the intrusive fescue...)

Panicle in full flower. 

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Monday, June 15, 2015

botanist in bath

A couple of interesting plants seen during yesterday's visit to Bath. 

A weird-looking bramble, growing among "normal" brambles, on the edge of the park at Bear Flat. With the help of the internet I've pinned this down to Rubus laciniatus, a species that's been given various English names, including Parsley-leaved Bramble, Fern-leaved Bramble, Evergreen Blackberry, and Cutleaf Evergreen Blackberry. (French: Ronce laciniée. Dutch: Peterseliebraam.)

The stems have thorns; the buds have distinctive elongations; the petals are relatively narrow and 3-lobed (or double-notched, if you prefer).

The black fruit is said to have a delicious flavour, "fruitier" than most R. fructicosus agg.  I pass by this spot fairly often, so I might get the chance to check it out.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Portrait of Robert Browning by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1855)

[Image source: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

This post compiles all the pieces that I've written about Browning. The two most substantial pieces appeared in Intercapillary Space, so I've just given links to them.


Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)

The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.


Strafford (1837)


"Bishop Blougram’s Apology" (published in Men and Women, 1855)

Of course you are remarking all this time
How narrowly and grossly I view life,
Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule
The masses, and regard complacently
‘The cabin’, in our old phrase. Well, I do.

The bishop is fascinated (in what is finally a generous way) by his effect on the young man. Whom he doesn’t wholly understand, but he knows that “life” is a revered word. He enjoys the words “narrowly” and “grossly”; intended as criticisms of him, he smacks his lips over them. This is talk not lecturing, so his sentence leaves its moorings - he obviously does not mean, what he logically implies, “how narrowly and grossly I regard complacently...”

“in our old phrase” politely includes Gigadibs (he would feel, “implicates”).

“Care to rule” is an odd phrase, perhaps a false note, but it passes the crozier/crook under our nose.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Benito Pérez Galdós: Electra (1901)

Sara Casanovas as Electra in a 2010 production at the Teatro Español

I listened to Electra in the impressive Librivox presentation - the most professional-quality Librivox play-reading that I've heard, and highly recommended! (The excellent translation was by Charles Alfred Turrell.)

Possibly because I'd found Balzac's plays such a let-down in comparison to his novels, I didn't have very high expectations of a play by Galdós. But I was wrong: Electra is terrific. And it has an importance in Galdós' career that Balzac's plays never did. Its premiere, on January 30, 1901, was scandalous. It was a great success, but its powerfully anti-clerical message led to public demonstrations. 

The traditional comparison of Galdós in Madrid with Balzac in Paris or Dickens in London is misleading in several respects. Both the earlier authors can be reasonably claimed to have had truly national audiences. Balzac was an idiosyncratic kind-of-conservative; but so large a presence rose above political divisions. And the great radical Dickens was read by all of English society. There might be mutterings from some quarters about the "sullen socialism" of The Chimes and Hard Times, but even conservative readers had been unable to resist Pickwick and Little Nell. By the time of Dicken's greatest novels, he was as much of an established institution as Christmas. 

Galdós wrote in a more fiercely polarized society. His audience in his own lifetime was far more restricted. For the conservative and pious majority, his work was considered off limits. And Electra set the seal on that.

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in the business park 2

Two plants that crop up on the extended paved areas that are used for parking. Photos from the beginning of June, 2015.

Above and below, Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) - probably ssp. leptocladus, though I need fruits to confirm.

You need to go to the back of the car-park to find this. It only likes the parking-spaces that nobody ever parks in.

Rat's-tail Fescue (Vulpia myuros). Springs up in paving cracks (often just a single spike). This, however, is a more robust plant from the edge of the car-park. The panicles are long and drooping (e.g compared to Squirreltail Fescue, V. bromoides) and the lower glume is typically 25-40% length of upper glume, whereas in V. bromoides the lower glume is >50% length of upper glume.

Here's more info than you probably want about it: (from the Invasive Species Compendium).

[CABI is a not-for-profit organization for agricultural and environmental research and data. It developed from the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, who originally studied tropical pests. Now a major source of global data on species of interest to agriculture and conservation.]

Rat's-tail Fescue is considered by BRC an archaeophyte (ancient introduction) rather than a native plant, but that's hard to be certain about. Like other Vulpia species, it has become noticeably more widespread in the past fifty years. This is the most common Vulpia species in urban environments.

The two photos below show the panicle, which can look one-sided from certain angles. Sometimes, as here, the spikelets stand proud from the main stem and stick out like the teeth on a comb.

Dewy morning: a pure sward of Vulpia myuros on recently disturbed ground 

Small Toadflax (Chaenorhinum minus) by a kerbside. A pretty plant when seen in close-up, but easily overlooked because it's so small.

In the business park 1


Thursday, June 04, 2015

another fine Yponomeuta mess....

I guess I'm getting my eye in for Yponomeuta outbreaks now. 

This is part of a length of hedge in the Swindon business park where I work.  I noticed it while driving past yesterday and thought: Hmm, I know what that's about. Sure enough, closer inspection revealed that the hedge was being absolutely blitzed by an Yponomeuta explosion. 

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a sense of complicity - scratchpad

This is a theme that crops up a lot in the vicinity of Andrea Brady's poetry. Commentators mention it. The poetry mentions it. ("Winter Quarters", "Friendship 2") - the poetry, everywhere, is alert to it. You might almost say, lives and dies by it.

In our world it's hard to escape.

So thanks, Obama administration.

I am not very happy, right now, with the activities of Royal Dutch Shell, as they crow over their arctic adventure go-ahead.

Yet I drive, eat, heat and earn. (It's been estimated that 20% of pension funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.)

(I think we should now routinely call them fossil fuel companies. "Energy companies" is an attempt to occupy the centre ground that is now totally inappropriate.)

In fact you could say that a general unease and disapproval of fossil fuel industries goes back with me to teenage years. That was 40 years ago, and I don't think I'd heard of global warming, but it seemed vaguely wrong to me (and of course many others) that we were "using up the planet's resources". We were very protective of the planet, this big bouncing baby that was suddenly wriggling in the arms of my generation after all those millennia of being far too big for human beings to conceive let alone affect.

This was how I felt when university pals went off to earn big bucks with Schlumberger.

It was in the late 80s when we began to think that "the greenhouse effect" presented a more immediate danger than exhausting the planet. Svante Arrhenius had floated the concept in 1896, but no-one had thought it was really happening. Then the papers told us that the poles were melting. Cows and termites might have something to do with it, but it was mainly all about fossil fuels. 1998 was the hottest year on record.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Books to go

Another home move, and a clearout. The books are going to Julian House in Bath.

A consequence of relativism is that I could almost as happily keep these books and get rid of others. Most of these books I part with only because I have too many to read; some are favourites that I look forward to finding again one day.


For example, John Lothrop Motley, the first volume of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1855). An Everyman hardback; a format for reading that, in my opinion, has never been bettered. How happy I am that formerly, at least, I had time for these deep dives. Now I can only wonder at the marvellous first chapter. Motley's classical idea of the ancient Netherlands being populated partly by yellow-haired Gauls and partly by red-haired Germans is a structuring myth that the few facts in Caesar and Tacitus can be strung around.

The truculent German, Ger-mann, Heer-mann, War-man, considered carnage the only useful occupation, and despised agriculture as enervating and ignoble. It was base, in his opinion, to gain by sweat what was more easily acquired by blood. ...

The contrast between priest-ridden Gauls and austerely monotheistic Germans is Motley preparing the ground for his later account of the Catholic-leaning Belgians and the Protestant Dutch. (As also, his claim that the ancient German government was fundamentally democratic, the Celts aristocratic.)


There's just time to mention, before night falls on it, one of the more obscure volumes in this big box.

Through the Land of Babylonia: A Fascinating Tour in Bible Lands by Leonard T. Pearson (1939, revised 1951). The Rev. L.T. Pearson travelled initially in a Nairn bus across the Syrian desert (with a party of 9, including three ladies); once in Iraq the party travelled by sleeper-train and Rolls Royce motor-car.

Pearson proves from the Bible that 1938 is the year when the time of the Gentiles comes to an end and the Holy Land becomes once more the gathering of the Hebrew people; as foretold, exactly 2520 years after Nebuchadnezzar. He takes his Bible very literally. The vitrified brick of Birs Nimrud is, in his view, the remnant of God's high-heat desolation of the Tower of Babel.  The silt found at Kish and Ur is a remnant of the Great Flood (3200 BC in Pearson's reckoning).

The long day spent in the ruins of Ur inspecting the walls and buildings of various ages, examining the pottery and piecing together the stories of the past, cause one to return to the Hotel on wheels, filled with wonder. On turning in for the night and with one's thoughts still back in the very early ages, the writer was brought abruptly into the present by a tap on the window and the stationmaster said:-- "Mr. Pearson, I thought you would like to know that Cambridge has won the boat race -- I've got it over the wire!"
Pearson's style veers between this pleasant homeliness and exalted preaching. Thus, passing the natural Oil Wells between Kirkuk and Mosul, and seeing patches of fire ("It is Hydrogen, which, when coming in contact with the air, bursts into flame"), he thinks this may be the Burning Fiery Furnace in the book of Daniel, and he homilizes:

The Law of the Sabbath is broken, even in church circles, the Word of God is popularised by taking out the very portions that would "hurt" the reader to his heart's good. The world today is worshipping "flesh" as in no previous generation under the guise of health, and exalted to the rank of deity until modesty, prudence and purity are ordered to the flames of extinction. It is in the suffering that the Christ is made manifest, it was so in Nebuchadnezzar's day, in Smithfield's bonfires, and it will be until Christ is revealed in the fullness of His Glory.

Meanwhile we arrive at Nineveh where the author takes the opportunity to demonstrate the literal truth of the story of Jonah, and to explain that Christ's three days and three nights in the tomb (paralleling the whale) actually ran from Wednesday sunset to Saturday sunset.

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a walk in the park

Cherry Tree, Bath 5th April 2015

This tree is beside the pond in Royal Victoria Park, Bath.

A single-flowered pink cherry ought to be Sargent Cherry (P. sargentti), but this tree looks very different to the ones I'm used to seeing in Shaw (Swindon), pictured here. (On the trees in Swindon the leaves emerge beetroot-red along with the flowers.)  I suppose the other possibility is that this is a Yoshino Cherry (P. x yedoensis), but their blossom is nearly white, usually. The date could support either - the Sargent Cherries in Shaw bloomed the following day.

Possibly the tempering effect of water accounts for the profusion of blossom on the lower branches.

Conveniently growing next to it, the double flowers of Prunus 'Accolade' , which is a hybrid between P. sargentii and the Winter Cherry P. subhirtella. 'Accolade' comes into flower a few days earlier than Sargent Cherry.

Prunus 'Accolade'

Prunus 'Accolade'


Monday, May 11, 2015

the snowy scratch-card

OK, I admit it, I'm only posting this to see how my new email subscription service Feedburner (sign up over there on the right!) will handle multiple posts in a single day. (Not something that's likely to happen very often, but hey.)



"The Rushes", I think, is Andrea Brady's name for her occasional poems: speedy here-and-now one-off poems which don't belong to a larger project such as the extended verse-essay Wildfire (Krupskaya 2010).

What's cut from the rushes here, then, are two swathes: Embrace (previously published separately in 2005), and Presenting, which consists of more recent poems. The implication, maybe, is that there's a whole marshland of other uncollected poems out there. Which is quite an impressive thought, because Cut from the Rushes is an exhausting reading experience. Not for the number of poems , but for the demands made by each one.

The title might mean a bit more. At any rate, "cut" is a word that turns up very frequently in Brady's texts (as it does, also, in Prynne's). In one word it concentrates the grand themes of physical violence and cultural manipulation; public opinion is manufactured;  - as Brady noted in her Quid essay about post 9/11 grief.

You might entertain the hope that the occasions of the poems would be obvious, and in some cases this is true. E.g the much-discussed "Saw Fit" (Lynndie England, Abu Ghraib) or "The Gloucester, The Illustrious" (Operation Highbrow, evacuation of British citizens from Beirut in 2006) or  "Vision in Neutrals" (sub-titled A Coalition Pastoral). Reading the reviews, which naturally favour what the reviewer can talk about, you sometimes get the impression that the poems are all like this. But they're not. Most of the poems are highly oblique about their occasions. Most often the poem-titles are riddling puns ("Sight Unseen") or just riddles ("In Album Men") or personal notes ("To Castellina").

A poem like "In Album Men" has an occasion, all right, but not really a public occasion: more about holidaying in Turkey. The locations include Uçhisar in Cappadocia, Olympos in Lycia, and maybe the Lydian aqueducts.

 Mevsimlik sailors cut the Eurovision frigate in to hove 

See, I told you the word "cut" was a regular. "Mevsimlik" is Turkish for Etesian - the summer northerly of the Aegean, considered "a good steady sailing wind preferred by many leisure sailors" (Wikipedia). There's a sneer lurking here, about the leisure sailors. In the poem the sneer (and the leisure) becomes applied to the cultural tourists who file through Turkey like Xenophon's mercenaries. I.e Brady herself.

While Mutability was very specifically domestic in its concerns, this was nothing new. Brady has always uncaringly done things that are supposed to typify mainstream poets: for example, writing about herself, family, relationships, the domestic and quotidian, and holidays. Of course the way she does it is distinctive. But the point is, she doesn't need to demonstrate where she stands in the poetry world.

This is surely a strength. After all, there are reasons why these subjects are so popular among the poets and audiences of today. They are itches we need to scratch. They are politically sensitive and much-cut-up battlegrounds. They are the place where we play out a dialogue of feeling and forgetting our complicity. They are where the money gets spent. They are the site of desire and of such values, visions and ideals as still remain to us.

In some other respects, too, Brady stands out from the mass of post-avant writing.



Much post-avant writing disdains the similes and metaphors that mainstream authors cherish. Brady is willing and able to deploy brilliant similes.

                                       Flock of friendly parables catch
the air like whiffle balls. Hard to loft, they are harder to gather.   

("Paradise Gardens 1 and 2")

(This reminds me that Brady is an American poet as well as a London poet and a Cambridge poet. "Precinct" comes easier when the word is interpreted in a US way. "Child Stars on Trial" is totally Brady, but the passing hint of Arielle Greenberg isn't simply a coincidence)

will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park?

(Mutability, p. 109)

smoke unbundled like measuring tape

("Hymn On The Nativity")

grenades, built to appeal to the hand
like an American football

("Thrown Fire", in Wildfire)

Most post-avant poems avoid a resonant ending: not open-field enough: they cultivate a muted fade. But many of Brady's poems end with a knockout.

                   so gorgeous
a hush falls down
the fault of language.
("To Be Continued")

Or this, a clincher that is also a brilliant simile.

Because you are righteous you open your
head every day, joy cut-in like a kite mark. 

("Commercial In Confidence")



Nevertheless, the poems in Cut from the Rushes are difficult. They never resolve into simple or single meanings. And yet the urgency of the poem challenges us to find meaning, and not just any meaning either.

For me this unassuming book, described only as "her fifth book of poems", is the stark centre of her work as it stands right now.

The poems are difficult. That's less true of Mutability, a book that many will be able to read with simple happiness. In a different way it's also less true of Wildfire, because at least you know what the poem is about.



Work from home encased in plastic.

This is how "Ergon" begins. The poem is about work. The words carry two meanings straight away. One is a general comment on that cliché of the workplace, "working from home". The poem is naturally concerned with the modern idea (presented as paradisal) of taking your work anywhere, of work infiltrating the homeplace, of jumping on planes between pressing Ctrl-S to save your document. Behind that, again, looms another phrase with rather different social connotations: the "home workers", that quintessentially modern addition to the army of the exploited, lured by delusive promises of £££ in adverts on lamp-posts and Gumtree.

The second meaning is more specific and autobiographical: the author looking at a plastic binder of the work she brought from home: student marking, maybe, or photocopies of funerary elegies. It's concise: we know we are talking about papers though papers are not mentioned. (Compare the passage in "Table Talk" where a sheep must have "plunged onto the strand from the pasture": we are aware of the unmentioned sea-cliff.)

Here's the whole of the first paragraph.

Work from home encased in plastic. Is it
born or learned gentleness, can
ungreased applications be worked in
no sweating   Work for
cardiac health, go past dinner for broke
go throat backed up with morals
not to do anything different but keep
go   And backed against the lists
scare easily. 

A kind of meditation begins, still on the two potentially conflicting topics of work in general and of Brady's unusual line of work in particular. For example, the nature-or-nurture question of the second line:
"learned gentleness" uneasily combines the instilled tractability of the workforce, and the "learnèd" exercise of a gentle profession.

The poem asks another question: "can ungreased applications be worked in no sweating". At one level the question is about the viability of the concept of  a kind of work that rises above money ("ungreased" - unbribed). Work that, even when you've stripped it of its self-delusions, doesn't merely instantiate the sweatshop.

The poem is open inasmuch as it already comprehends a wide spectrum of work: from literally unpaid poetry to rewarding, self-realising, professionalism to any type of work that is conceived or presented as not merely labour; work that aspires to be something that can be enjoyed or be good for the worker or with a quasi-moral value in itself.

Somewhat unexpectedly, though not for Brady fans, the poem refuses easy contrasts between academic noodling and factory floors. Instead it recognizes a community of work, though it may be a community of illusion. It is certainly, as the last sentence indicates, a community of shared insecurities and fears.

"Backed against the lists scare easily": Brady's poems stretch so widely for multi-valency, and withal so freely combine the personal with the general, that I half-suspect a glance at those academic "lists" (closed internet forums) that are the regular pabulum of innovative poets and renaissance scholars alike. But the principal image comes from jousting. The workers are not the knights but their horses (work-horses, obviously), backed against the lists (barriers) and, like any cornered animal, prone to panic.

("Ergon" and "Table Talk" are in Cut from the Rushes)



London covered in, debilitated by, joying in snow: seven inches or more, Siberian airs, North Sea waters. You're oblivious, stuck inside with a running cold and laughing all through your dinner: it's surprise which evokes you, you delight at the simple plosives that come from a resting face, eyes thrown upward to indicate 'wait for it'. Or you cough, I say 'exCUSE me' in highest camp, and you give your bawdy laugh: this is conversation. But also nothing surprises you, so will you recognize the innumerable frosted branches, the field used like a scratch-card, as your park? 

 from Mutability: Scripts for Infancy - "You" is Brady's daughter Ayla, eight months old in Feb 2009 when this was written.

"innumerable" gently ushers in Tennyson's "Come Down, O Maid":

the children call, and I
Thy shepherd pipe, and sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying thro' the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

In this final post of Mutability the poet celebrates the quiescent and fertile before turning to head back up to the "dusky doors" of greed, exploitation, complicity and violence. (Brady's more usual topics)

The child learns to be surprised. There must be a playing-field of the unsurprising before surprise can occur. In learning what to be surprised by, one becomes who one is: "surprise evokes you". Or, we are most vividly ourselves when sprung alert by surprise.

"This is conversation".  While fondly pretending to self-mock the inanities of baby-time and to contrast them with the fiercely intellectual colloquies of the day-job, yet it's also a recognition that much that we call conversation, once you strip off the apparent topic under discussion. consists of just such childish rocking and play and fidgets.



The simple happiness of the writing of Mutability is, if a compulsion, yet grasped with a full will and consciousness. It is not over-thought; the thought is intrinsic to it; but of course it is meditated.

But what if the note -- record of zeal overflowing -- sponges off your initiate life? ... the troubled line between domesticity and action, home and writing.... The chronic absenteeism of a political critique must have its letter. ... But not to dwell in you, on it, would be an act of penance, of asceticism. ... Is love ever progressive, if all happiness is just a fragment of the entire happiness people are denied? ... I miss a humane account of the household, of friendship, paracosms that prevent our utter ruination. 

(sentences from Mutability, pp. 11-13)

The absent critique is moving forward in those very questions. And the nursery is a foundry of society.

                    We cook you up,
knowing the chemistry is irreversible
and the past evaporates under any sky:
harming you into being, survivably indifferent. 

(Mutability, p. 11)



Now bring forth the beast that ruled the world with's beck,And tear his flesh  and set your feet on's neck;And make his filthy den so desolate,To th' 'stonishment of all that knew his state.

(quoted in "Cultural Affairs in Boston")

"Cultural Affairs in Boston" is itself a quoted title (from John Wieners) and the poem appears at first glance a mass of Bostonian references. This quotation is marked out from the rest by the italics. It's from Anne Bradstreet's poem "A Dialogue Between Old England and New". The poem is usually mentioned in celebratory terms as evincing a woman and an American having the temerity to criticize and bewail the corrupt state of Old England, then embroiled in civil war (this was in 1642).

But Brady's quotation comes from a part of the poem that is quietly dropped from the Norton Anthology. Old England laments the civil war, but New England is, on the contrary, highly enthusiastic about it. She urges the Parliamentarians to drive Papism out of Old England with all the bloodiness necessary to righteousness, and to make full use of the machinery of justice.

Let Gaols be fill'd with th' remnant of that pack
And sturdy Tyburn loaded till it crack. 

But why stop at the English Channel? Why not destroy Rome for good and all? (That's what Brady's quotation is talking about specifically.) Indeed, why not lay waste to Turkey, too? (Bradstreet, who learnt from John Foxe, associated Turkey's expansionism in Europe and Palestine with the Antichrist and hence with Ezekiel's Gog.)

As an image of long-range bellicosity Bradstreet's narrowly Puritan poem, burning with indignation over the slaughter of Protestants in Ireland and La Rochelle, could hardly be bettered. But in Bradstreet's time New England was not a seat of power, its opinions on international affairs didn't count for much; they do now.

The presence of Bradstreet's poem in "Cultural Affairs in Boston" (in this quotation, and in more covert references elsewhere) completely transforms the social comedy of its account of the Cambridge poets' visit to this cultural capitol on April 13th, 2007.

the regular army training in sculls
points us up the Charles towards Winthrop
and guacamole from Grendel's kitchen,
Robin tears his Reuben limb from limb. 
The comic violence of Robin Purves' struggle with his sandwich underlies a structure that is admittedly based on cultural stereotypes of the US and its momentary Brit invaders ("are you some kind of invading army?"). But underlying that, is the fact of the nations partnering in foreign wars against their perceived Gogs.  

The violence is queasily combined with a certain cartoonish unreality: American religiosity of "cartoon cloudlands" and "disney wings", and British animations in the "YouTube ornithocheirus" (presumably they're watching episode 4 of the Beeb's Walking With Dinosaurs) - the pterosaur Ornithocheirus, another translatlantic migrant fosillized in the Cambridge greensand. In different ways the monster-battles of Beowulf and the unrealistic incitements of Bradstreet's poem partake of that cartoonish unreality. Yet, somewhere far off from Harvard, the violence is being made real.

"She Cannot Take Any Credit For This One", says the poem's subtitle. The poem is characterized by a certain doubling: Robin with Reuben, Harvard with Cambridge... And the subtitle perhaps just glances at those chiming names, Andrea Brady and Anne Bradstreet, women poets who emigrated to different Englands. As always in Brady's work, the poem cancels the author's "ethical priority" (the phrase comes from the afterword to Wildfire) in favour of a shared complicity. (Commentators who have felt the need to acclaim Brady's supposedly exceptional lack of self-regard are pulling in the opposite direction to her own poems.)



Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)

Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), Middleleaze 7th April 2015

Named after Johannes Thal (1542–83), German physician and botanist. His Sylva Hercynia (written 1577, published 1588) is the first flora to attempt coverage of all the plants in a region, not just the ones with known medicinal properties. (It was, for example, the first to describe this charming and ubiquitous plant.)

Hercynia, in this case, meant the Harz mountains of N. Germany. *

Thal was severely injured in a horse and cart accident while on his way to visit a patient, and died a month or two later, aged only 41.

* It's possible that the MHG word "Harz" (mountain-forest) is somehow derived from the word Hercynia. Classically, the Hercynian forest (as described by Caesar, Tacitus, etc) covered a much wider area: a vast band extending eastward from the Rhine and running right across Germany, Bohemia, Romania... The Harz, like the Black Forest, is a relict.

Not to be confused with Hyrcania, classical name for a region of Iran immediately south of the Caspian (formerly Hyrcanian) Sea. In later writers (such as Shakespeare), the name usually crops up as a haunt of tigers. Probably Virgil was the key reason for this widely-dispersed meme, when he has Dido accuse Aeneas , "Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres" (Hyrcanian tigers nursed you). Tigers became extinct in this region in the 1970s.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book post as literature


A necessary part of the mainstream author's life, especially of non-fiction, is that they have to promote themselves by writing articles about how they wrote the book that is just being published.

(Obviously it helps if they already write regularly for the papers.)

Johann Hari promoting his new book about drug addiction.

Robert Macfarlane promoting his new book about landscape words.

I am reading Macfarlane's earlier book The Wild Places at the moment. It's often a really good book however undisguisedly a book written to the non-fiction formula of today.One of the best things about it is the studied deployment of the enhanced vocabulary that his new book centres on. But I haven't got time to think about the winter night on Ben Hope now, nor the holloways of Dorset.

The promotional-article-about-the-book, as evinced by the above, is also a genre with its own formula. For example, all those sentences that say "I did this interesting thing, I did that other interesting thing, while in still another interesting place I was emotionally stirred by hugely interesting things that I go on about in the book."

At the same time, in this internet world where all digitized products tend to become free, there's an awareness that the article will get more readers than the book itself, and accordingly it had better contain the heart of what the author would like us to know.

Because there are too many books, and we can't read any but a tiny fraction with the attention that they deserve and that all book-lovers would love to give but can't, it's a sensible faute-de-mieux to rely largely on these digests to gain a literate and informed view of what's going on in the world. Many of my clever colleagues in IT read no books at all; they have already forgotten Robert MacFarlane's name, but they remember something about the remarkable words for specific states of rain and ice; not the words themselves, but the fact that they existed.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

At last a new Catherine Daly book!... (took me a year to notice, tho)


So instead here's a link, to the online PDF of Catherine Daly's Controller / Seedbed , which came out in June 2014 (I think, her first book for about seven years).

Publisher's site:

Limit Cycle Press (Jukka-Pekka Kervinen):


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

William Shakespeare: Hamlet (1600)

Peter O'Toole as Hamlet

[Image source:]

Somewhere between the monumental savageries of Saxo's story of Amleth and John Marston's Antonio's Revenge comes a play called Hamlet.


We're just ordinary people....  (John Legend, 2004)

Revenge plays, prior to Hamlet (and after, too) had tended to be violent, rhetorical gorefests. But when we think about Hamlet it always comes as something of a surprise to look back on the final scene and find it studded with corpses. Everyone seemed so normal!

For the ordinary soldiers in the opening scene, taking note of the ghost's alarming appearance, Horatio speaks their thoughts: "This bodes some strange eruption to our state". No-one at that point sees fit to connect the eruption with the recent change of ruler or with the questionable marriage of Claudius to his dead brother's wife that is taking place concurrently. Their interest as commoners is more taken up with the clear preparations for war, including the heightened state of watchfulness in which they participate.

One of the problems that Hamlet faces, we imagine, is that the injunction to revenge feels out of sync with the apparent ordinariness of the court going about its business. After Hamlet has spoken to the Ghost, he returns to a court that outwardly looks innocent. As a matter of fact, it is innocent, all but one man. Nobody abetted Claudius in his crime. No-one suspects it. And Claudius is no Piero (the equivalent figure in Antonio's Revenge), i.e. an out-and-out villain exulting in the powers of hell. (Shakespeare would return to that motif in Iago and Edmund; but Claudius shows no sign of loving evil for its own sake.)

The super-abundant richness of Shakespeare's realization of the Danish court is a matter of people behaving ordinarily. The family scene with Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius is a good example.

Guildenstern, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and Gertrude make unexceptionable conversation about the players and the play they perform. Their remarks are not out of character, but also not narrowly related to the roles these speakers play in the drama (Gertrude's apart, perhaps). A year or two after Hamlet had already been successfully performed, Shakespeare seems to have inserted a highly topical discussion of the children's companies (Harold Jenkins gives the details). In this passage Rosencrantz provides the lively satire, and Hamlet is the casually interested questioner; the tensions between these two characters seem to be put on hold; they can lay them aside and just be ordinary people again. And there's nothing jarring about this - in the world of Hamlet such non-sequitur is characteristic and convincingly naturalistic. It's difficult to imagine any other play, even of Shakespeare's, being so capacious as to allow this. But here everyone, good or bad or mixture of both, can behave in an ordinary way.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

J.L. Runeberg: Tales of Ensign Stål (1848, 1860)

Illustration by Albert Edelfelt

[Image source:]

The original title is Fänrik Ståls Sägner – Ensign Stål is the supposed originator rather than the hero. His voice is not often heard, but his shade hangs over the ballad-poems – a figure of undaunted resolve in age.  

Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born in 1804 and died in 1877. He was only a small child in 1808 when the Czar suddenly declared for Napoleon and, since Sweden was now his enemy, invaded Finland without warning. (Finland had for six hundred years been loosely united to Sweden). The Finns defended heroically but they  had been taken by surprise; the Swedish king was not helpful and the war ended in subjection to Russia. This war of 1808-1809 is the subject of Ensign Stål.

Both volumes were eagerly awaited, many of the poems having been published in advance. The subject of Finnish heroism against the oppressor spoke to a young audience who were ardently patriotic. They reacted as Runeberg claimed to have reacted to a neglected history-book:

Oh what a land, what men were these,
How resolute, how glorious!
An army that could starve and freeze
And yet remain victorious!
Onward and ever on I sped;
I could have kissed each page I read.

The hour of danger spurred this band
To bolder resolution.
What love didst thou inspire, O land,
Despite thy destitution, -
A love so strong, a love so sweet
From those thou gav’st but bark to eat!

Runeberg’s work nurtured a new, Scandinavian style of patriotism. “Our land is poor”, he says with pride, but

            We love the thunder of our streams,
            Our torrent’s headlong bound,
            Our gloomy forests’ mournful themes,
            Our starry nights, our summer’s beams...

Patriotism in most countries involves some recognition of the beauty of one’s land (“England’s green and pleasant land”), but in Sweden and Finland the beauty is more intensely experienced. It is omnipresent and has a certain uniformity: the largely poor, acidic soils, and the long winters see to that. There is no rank overgrowth, and birch by a wooden shack by a lake is an extremely sparse symbol that evokes everything.

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Thursday, April 02, 2015

in eastern Jämtland


This is the seal of Fors parish, the easternmost parish in Jämtland.  The name "Fors" referred, no doubt, to the mighty waterfall Storforsen on the Indal river. 

The motto "Fisket förlorat" (the lost fishery) was coined at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the immediate aftermath of Vild-Hussens inadvertent destruction of Storforsen

The salmon fishing at Fors was famous and had been economically important. After the reformation, the crown took over control of the fishing rights from the church, and there were quite a number of lawsuits with local bondsmen. 

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

specimens of the literature of Sweden - Påskmust

Stay away from anything that ends in "must", advised my Mum.

 I thought it tasted all right, though. That's supposing you can cope with very sweet soft drinks at all. It looks like Coke (as usual, I din't think of photographing it until I'd drunk it.) Tastes a bit like it and a bit like Dandelion & Burdock.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

Prosper Mérimée iPhone Case

Mérimée is one of my compensations for not being able to read French well enough to manage Balzac or Proust. His most productive period came early and did not last very long; in 1834 he was appointed Inspector of Historic Monuments and thereafter his brilliant career as a hard-working public servant meant that the literary output became fitful. But when the stories did emerge, like Carmen (1845), they were as casual and wily as ever.

Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829)

One of the first works to show how fertile Scott's influence would prove in Europe: the effect, as usual, very different from Scott and playing on a wholly different register of ironic subtleties. A wonderfully readable book.

Mateo Falcone (1829)

The "ravins" of the topographical opening paragraph return with changed effect at the end; Mateo tells his wife that Fortunato's body lies in the ravine. The comedy of "Si vous avez tué un homme" is also changed, into the harshness concealing tenderness of "Elle est bien longue, n'importe". In the key central scene, the soldier turns the child's inherited pride this way and that until he finds a way to get what he wants. This is a perfect short story - the challenge for later writers was to achieve that perfection without resorting to such soon-exhausted extremes as filicide.

La Partie de trictrac (1830)

One of the great gambling stories. Roger's moment of dishonesty proves to have appalling consequences that he is unable to avert or undo, though he tries to give half the money back. In fact it's the Dutchman's principles, as well as his own lack of them, that destroys them both.

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Xenophon: Anabasis

Old Khndzoresk, Armenia (Photo by Mher Ishkhanyan). Xenophon mentions seeing troglodytic villages like this.

[Image source:]

Xenophon wrote the Anabasis some time around 370 BCE. The narrative covers spring 401 - spring 399.

The book I read was a Penguin Classic (The Persian Expedition) containing Rex Warner's translation of 1949 along with George Cawkwell's 1972 introduction.

Some readers have found George Cawkwell's introduction to The Persian Expedition too captious, because it's primarily concerned with weighing the accuracy of Xenophon's account; but after all that's the proper thing for a historian to do, rather than spend time eulogising the lucid prose. We do like, I know, a eulogistic introduction; it reassures us we are reading something great, and are spending our time wisely. (Just as, so I've heard, the main audience for car adverts on the TV is people who have just bought the model being advertised.)

Not everything Cawkwell says has the weight of consensus behind it, for instance his account of the battle of Cunaxa. He asks the right question, though: how on earth did Cyrus expect to win it? Once asked, Xenophon's account is plainly unsatisfying. And Cawkwell's scepticism about the young Xenophon keeping a travel-journal is persuasive.

I don't think it's a firm conclusion, either, that the Anabasis has a Panhellenic agenda. Still, few works of canonical literature are as straightforwardly militaristic. The book's former prominence in the education of our male elite is something to ponder.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac, daguerréotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1842 (Maison de Balzac)

In the 1970s if you went to the shelves of a professional but not too literary British person you found novels in the Penguin Classics series. For instance Balzac, Zola, Turgenev and Tolstoy. (You also found Solzhenitsyn and probably Isaac Bashevis Singer.) There might be some Hardy and some Jane Austen, too, but the foreign-language novels, being translated into 1970s English, seemed more contemporary.

A few years later, these same persons “raved about” the French film Manon des Sources.

I mention this odd footnote of history (it’s in rather a Balzacian spirit, I think) because although the Penguin Classics list still exists, indeed is more numerous than ever, it has largely – and Balzac almost entirely – disappeared from the shelves of High Street bookshops. I suspect the main reason was the dramatically improved marketing of moderately substantial contemporary novels, which began in the 1980s and is indissolubly associated with the rise of Waterstones. Old Goriot and Lost Illusions didn’t have quite the same razzmatazz, and besides everyone was growing younger, especially middle-aged professionals. Channel 4 had something to do with it, and probably Thatcherism too, in a back-handed kind of way.

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Anon. The History of Poland (1831)

Bohdan Khmelytsky with Tuhai Bey at Lviv, painting by Jan Matejko (1885)

[Image source: Wikimedia]

This is a volume of “The Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Conducted by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner, LL.D etc, assisted by Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.”

I enjoy reading nineteenth-century historians. I have read most of Motley (The Dutch Republic and the United Netherlands) and thousands of pages of Lecky and Milman. This is not so good as those, but the author’s voice is one we are disposed to trust. In those days the historian made no secret of his beliefs, and judged accordingly. This historian is Protestant and enlightened, and so writes in a spirit of mordant condemnation about much of Poland’s history, especially the centuries of decline that made its demise as an independent nation seem (with hindsight, for now it was gone) inevitable. The other, apparently less partisan, value that has appealed to all historians since Thucydides is political savvy, the successful maintenance of power. Where religious difference is allowed for, the criterion of a supposedly common standard of morality is exercised. Thus, of the Catholic establishment yielding on an issue of clerical marriage: “This was a cowardly, we may add, a highly criminal subterfuge. Whether celibacy was right or wrong, they had sworn to enforce it.”  

But the reason for this note is the last six pages of the book: “to omit all mention of the Jews, a people more numerous here than in any other country of the same extent under heaven, and bearing so great a proportion to the whole population, would be unpardonable.”

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Jane Austen: Emma (1816)

Jane Austen, pencil-and-watercolour sketch by Cassandra Austen, currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery

[Image source: . This is the only fully authenticated portrait of Jane Austen that shows her face; there is a painting by Cassandra that shows Jane, but from the back.]

Emma is an epic of class distinction, or what might be better named class definition. The class being defined is the upper-middle class gentry, not quite titled. The same class that Scott in Ivanhoe five years later would call the Franklins of Merry England.

Knightley, the novel's most skilful operator, is relaxed in his nuances. He behaves well to the lower orders, he does not imagine what is not the case. When he discusses class distinction he is talking about classes or sub-classes that are lower than his own: we don't hear Knightley on the nobility. He uses the terms "line" and "set", apparently interchangeably, to talk about the place that Harriet Smith inhabits: Mrs Goddard's. But his definitions are also nuanced by "situation" - Miss Bates is in a situation which is economically straitened. Though her "line" is comparatively high, she ought not to be made the butt of Emma's thoughtless wit. Knightley praises Robert Martin, though he does not pretend that the friendship is an equal one. The exact wording is: "He knows I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, considers me as one of his best friends." It is not this: "I have a thorough regard for him, and he is one of my best friends." The phrase "and all his family" qualifies the thorough regard: what he registers is not quite a personal affection, it is a regard for retainers. And the second half of the sentence is like an ethologist talking about a chimp. Emma is an imaginer, that is the source of her errors, but Knightley speaks up for sense. Yet he is not (his term for Harriet) artless, except that comically both he and Emma turn out to have their humanly artless sides too, when it comes to making love. 


Harriet is a little embarrassing: I mean, for Jane Austen. In a book that so relishes its expansive accounts of discussions, there's a significance to its suppressions, to the things that are not given to us. They include (in I, XVII) the painful interview between Emma and Harriet at Mrs Goddard's, in which the error over Mr Elton is revealed; this is reported to us, not word by word, but summarized into Harriet's tears and good behaviour. 

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Monday, March 23, 2015

amazon reviewers

This is a stub list of interesting Amazon reviewers I've happened across. - reviewers that make you want to press the button that says "Read all my reviews". I'll update it as and when.


Steampunk "JS" Northern Ireland. 44 pages of reviews. 

His interests include razors and luxury eau de colognes and shaving creams, computer gaming, Christianity, painting and art history, Hebrew and classical Greek. He also does decent Vine reviews (these are solicited reviews where the reviewer gets the product for free).

There's pretty well no end to his talents: he paints, plays classical guitar, and runs Linux on his PC. He is 60ish and retired and in effect is his blog - he's written lots and lots of reviews. He appears to be an Evangelical (believes John's Revelation to be a true account) but this leaves little trace on his reviews in general. He's theologically learned, yet enthusiastic about Transcendental Meditation and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

jacr100 (UK). 13 pages of reviews.

Reviews global modern novels, - Latin American, Polish, Armenian and anywhere else. Also books about private investing. Visits Africa. The approach is unacademic, impatient of any avant-gardism or obscurity. Opinions are unpredictable and mostly acute, though sometimes bizarre. (I came across jacr100 while writing about L'Etranger).

Seems now to have stopped publishing reviews. A pity.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

holiday reading

To start with:  two books that I didn't take.

In the checklist of things I had to do before leaving, one of the only unticked entries is "Buy Flora of Western Australia". This was my facetious term for a beginner's guide that would help me identify a few of the plants I might see as we walked about in this distant continent. It was a good idea, but I never got any further with it, or I might be able to tell you the names of the plants in these photos.

The second book that I didn't take was John Wilkinson's  book of essays The Lyric Touch. (I bought it primarily to read the piece about Andrea Brady; the one about Prynne is downloadable in the preview that you can find on Salt's website.) It was delivered a few hours before we left, and after skim-reading a few pages of Wilkinson's profoundly-considered but disputable prose I felt tempted to bring it along with me (plus I remembered reading his Lake Shore Drive while in Spain about ten years ago).  But I also knew that Wilkinson's text would try to make my brain work in a different way from the way it works on holiday. I need an emptier head than that.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Oliver Strange: The Marshal of Lawless (1933)

This is the third novel in Oliver Strange's great series of westerns about James Green, also known as Sudden. I'm talking about the reading sequence, which is different from the dates of composition and publication *NOTE 1. 

The Marshal of Lawless finds Sudden in the south of Arizona, near to the border with Mexico. Race plays quite an important role in the plot; in romances of this era, it is an irresistible ingredient, colourful in every sense; behind the racist story-lines, both author and readers are secretly attracted to what repels them. One of the villains is a Mexican (Moraga, the self-styled El Diablo), and the other - the principal one - is half-Commanche (Seth Raven, popularly known as The Vulture). On the other hand, the “injun” Black Feather, whom Sudden recues from being tortured by El Diablo, is devoted and honourable. El Diablo is naturally humiliated when Sudden invites Black Feather to give the Mexican a whipping in return. That overturns the natural order of things, from El Diablo's point of view. From Sudden's point of view Mexicans are far worse than Red Indians, inasmuch as they have pretensions to be white men. Worst of all, however, is miscegenation. Meeting Raven for the first time, Sudden runs an expert eye over his features:

"Injun an' Mex or bad white, like Durley said, reg'lar devil's brew," was Green's unvoiced criticism.

The book, naturally, supports the hero's view. We instantly scent villainous qualities in "the hooked nose, small, close-set eyes, thin lips, and lank, black hair". Yet though Sudden's race analysis is skilled, he is too honorable a man to condemn on racist grounds alone. Several chapters later, Seth Raven still puzzles him;

Apparently a public-spirited citizen..... With an innate feeling that the man was crooked, he had to admit that so far he was not justified in that belief.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place, jacket of first edition

[Image source:]

* Spoilers for this noir masterpiece will shortly come thick and fast. In contrast to what I wrote recently about Fielding's Tom Jones, there is no double narrative in this novel; it's supremely a book that delivers all of its payload in a single intense reading experience. But the upshot is the same: your first reading is important and you don't want to be knowing too much in advance.


Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in the film In a Lonely Place (1950)
[Image source:]

Nicholas Ray's 1950 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is a noir masterpiece too. It uses the names and some of the situations from Hughes' novel, but the screenwriters built a radically different story on this foundation. (You could put it this way: the film focuses on one idea within the novel and then explores a kind of variation on it.)

OK, enough messing about, here we go.

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