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Monday, 30 April 2012




MY morning walk takes me past a moderately-sized rookery, although there is a larger one at the far side of the dale, just beyond my sight.
The resident birds in each community are fairly predictable in their behaviour because at dawn they rise in thousands to head noisily towards their feeding grounds.
At sunset they return, still chattering among themselves as if discussing the day’s adventures and their route takes them directly over our house.
We can hear and see them leaving and returning almost like commuters going to work and coming home afterwards, and all seem to head to and from the same area for their daytime activities.
However, their routine has changed in recent weeks. This might have been linked to the fact that their feeding grounds, which are often freshly-ploughed fields, were covered with snow or it could be due to the birds being far too busy with this season’s nests.
As early as the preceding autumn, rooks will begin to construct new nests or repair their old ones and certainly on the morning I am compiling these notes, they are all at home, chattering in the trees and tending their bulky and untidy nests of twigs.
With the trees being leafless at this time of year, it is easy to see rooks tending their nests among the bare branches.
Unlike crows that prefer the solitary life, rooks are among the most sociable of our birds, gathering in massive flocks which, in winter, can be enlarged by visitors from overseas or through neighbouring rooks joining them to form super flocks.
Other species might also join a flock of rooks, jackdaws in particular.
On many occasions, I have heard the calls of jackdaws among our rooks as they head for their feeding grounds. Jackdaws are members of the crow family and so the species does have lots in common.
There is quite a lot of lore surrounding rooks and one is that they will never build their nests in trees that are likely to fall down.
Many country folk will tell tales of rooks steadfastly avoiding a particular tree while constructing their nests even though the tree appears to be healthy. Sooner or later, that tree will crash to earth, perhaps in a storm or maybe from disease.
Whether this is true, and whether the birds possess some kind of extra sense about such things is always open to debate.
Another persistent tale about rooks is that they make use of a system of group discipline through what has become known as the rooks’ parliament.
Because they have a very well developed communal way of life, the theory is that they require some form of control over the behaviour of those who do not conform to the rules.
According to lore, the flock will assemble to discuss the behaviour of a rebel in their midst – perhaps the rogue has stolen sticks brought by others for nest-building, taken their food or committed some other offence.
After due deliberation, the offending bird is chased away from the flock, never to return.
That is one interpretation of their behaviour, but although they are very sociable birds who live happily together in a large community, they do have a strong sense of individual territory.
The male and female will defend the area around their own nest, chasing off and even attacking those who venture too close. It is that kind of activity, invariably accompanied by lots of noise, that might have persuaded observers that the birds have a court system of their very own.
The record books give examples of massive rookeries. One in Scotland is said to have consisted of more than 6,000 nests with another reaching more than 9,000. At the other end of the scale, some smaller colonies might muster only a few dozen pairs of birds.
Landowners do experience problems when such huge flocks descend to feed upon their land.
Rooks are known for their appetite in keeping down pests, such as leather-jackets and wireworms, but they will also eat earthworms, beetles, eggs, fruit and seeds. In seeking their food, they can cause immense damage to young crops and so they are not always welcome.
It is perhaps apt to mention here that rooks and carrion crows are quite different birds. They are very similar in appearance but an adult rook has a bare white patch around its beak and baggy trousers on its legs.
Rooks assemble in flocks, whereas the carrion crow is a solitary bird, usually seen alone or with a partner.
If you see only one, therefore, it’s probably a crow, but a crowd usually means they are rooks.

Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art

Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Holden Caulfield is Beastly Dead?

'This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise' is a short story by J. D. Salinger published in October 1945, and republished in the 1958 anthology The Armchair Esquire, edited by Arnold Gingrich and L. Rust Hills.
The story describes Vincent Caulfield's visit back home after the war. He's upset because his brother Holden (as described in "The Last Day of the Last Furlough") is missing in action, and is unable to accept the possibility Holden may be dead. The story ends:

Drenched to the bone, the bone of loneliness, the bone of
silence, we plod back to the truck.
Where are you Holden? Never mind the Missing stuff. Stop playingaround. Show up. Show up somewhere. Hear me? It's simply because Iremember everything. I can't forget anything that's good, that's why.So listen. Just go up to somebody, some officer or some G.I., and tell them you're Here--not Missing, not dead, not anything but Here. Stop kidding around. Stop letting people think you're Missing. Stop wearing my robe to the beach. Stop taking the shots on my side of the court. Stop whistling. Sit up to the table!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Train Dreams - Denis Johnson

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was not awarded this year although three books were nominated in the far from clear or foolproof conditions in which the prize is generally made. 
It was the Pulitzer Board that decided not to present the fiction award, and not the jury, which selected the three nominated works for consideration by the board. In fact, all three jurors have expressed dissatisfaction over the outcome as well as the Pulitzer selection process itself.
No fiction published in 2011 was felt worthy by the Pulitzer Board although one of the nominees was Karen Russell's Swamplandia  and another was David Foster Wallace's The Pale King.  
It may be that Russell's novel might not have lived up to the promise of her short story collection debut, and Wallace's novel is unfinished, and I don't recall anyone saying it is his greatest work - perhaps, it might have been on its way there: a steep mountain to climb, that one. 
Annual prize-givings are a crude way to adjudicate the state of fiction - they help market literary novels and give a guide to readers/buyers as to what is thought to be current, and that is about as far as they can ever really go. 
It may be that 2011 was a dud year in fiction - there must be some dud years, after all - but it is based on the assumption that we read novels in the same way we read newspapers - to find out what is happening now. We don't. Of the eight books I have read this month, only one was published this year - the rest span from 2011 to 1852 - thank you, Mr. Dickens. Readers have a longer run at fiction than these shindigs and shenanigans attest.
The third nominee is proof of this. This was  Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, which was published as a long short story in the  Paris Review in 2002, and last year was  packaged in the US as a novella, and, it seems, elsewhere before this in 2006. Not yet published in the UK, it is, however, available as an audiobook read by Will Patton alongside the stories from Jesus' Son. I read it in 2005.
Whether the novella is greatly different from the story, I can't say - it may be its once 50 odd pages of short story can be spread across 100+ pages of creamy white wide-margined paper and sold as such without much more being added.  I would want nothing to be taken away from it, and any additional sentences from Denis Johnson are to be savoured.
What I can say is that  'Train Dreams' or Train Dreams, at whatever length, is a remarkable product in any year or decade: a tale of wolves and trains and revenants that calls to mind  Hemingway and Faulkner and Alice Munro and Henry James and Cormac McCarthy while also being very distinctly its own wayward and brilliantly conceived self.
I read it again and it improves - although (and I think this may be a common effect of reading it) it has grown in the mind but in that miraculous way that  still matches the memory of reading it. There is the epic grasp - it is about America - and, while it seems always to be wavering, the seeming contrary of its intense focus on one character, a character not wholly yielding to such a gaze; and there is the wife, a ghost returning and granting him a vision of how she might have died,  a midnight garden full of wolves, a wolf-girl, her broken leg, her escape, pulling at the splint he has made for her, and the comedy of two marriage proposals, one gracelessly made, another gracefully refused. And how so much about this life would have gone unnoticed but for its author: it obeys Robert Bresson's injunction to 'Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.'

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir

The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir
Serena Bramble (2009)
A video love letter that distills film noir movies into their atmospheric essence.
For more

Saturday, 21 April 2012


Knocknarea mountain is supposed to be the final resting place of the Warrior Queen Medb
Medb is the Irish warrior queen who plays a pivotal role in the body of tales that make up the Ulster Cycle, a mythic history of Early Ireland. Cú Chulainn is its chief protagonist, but Medb, the first wife and chief rival to his uncle, Conchobar, King of Ulster, plays a major part in the tales, most particularly the longest and most significant, the Táin Bó Cuailnge or ‘Cattle Raid at Clooney’ in which, unable to gain a highly prized bull with offers of land, money or sexual favours, Medb raises an army to steal the bull, a feat she manages at the cost of many lives. Such ruthlessness is as much part of Medb’s character as is the refusal to be abashed by her circumstances. Married off by her father, she leaves Conchobar, King of Ulster, who then marries her sister. Medb kills this pregnant sister, and a child is delivered posthumously, a caesarean by sword.
The son, Furbaide, will later prove Medb’s nemesis, but before then Medb is made Queen of Connacht, a throne she then shares with her lover, Tinni. Conchobar rapes her. Tinni dies avenging her rape in the ensuing war. Rape is, then as now, a military tactic, but Medb also uses sex as a weapon, as a means to an end, a way of ennobling or humiliating the men she encounters.
Medb marries again, insisting her husband remain free of jealousy in the face of her many lovers, one of whom will kill this compliant husband. She has seven sons, but even they are weapons in her armoury. She has been told that Conchobar will be killed by a man called Maine, and so all her sons bear this name.
There is, also, one luckless daughter, Finnabair, who will die of shame, a condition that her mother may know well, but to which she never submits. Medb lives to old age, as often a victor as she is a victim, and is killed by Furbaide, the son of the sister she murdered. While Medb bathes in a lake, he kills her with a sling he has loaded with cheese.
Medb is said to be buried in a cairn on top of Cnoc na Ré in Sligo, upright and facing her enemies in Ulster. Even in death, she is ready to fight. The tale of her death is a late written addition to the cycle, stories that are set in pre-Christian Ireland. These oral myths, their mongrel and no longer extricable mix of fact, fiction, myth and propaganda were transcribed by monks between the fifth and twelfth centuries, the characters and events the subject of debate and further rewritings and retellings ever since.
Just as the spelling of her name—Medb, Meadb, Meadhbh, the modern Irish Méabh, and the Anglicised Maeve—has been subject to shifts in time and circumstance so have interpretations of her character, role and importance. She has been variously read as a pre-Christian Goddess, a historical being, a consort not untypical of her time and place, a figure wholly mythic, the creation of Christian propaganda, a victim of patriarchy, a feminist heroine in need of defending, and an angry and troublesome sexual warrior. There are mythologists who make out the very shape of her mythic body in the contours of Sligo’s generous landscape.
John Berger wrote that when “a story is being retold every word becomes a code word describing a Here and Now.” Dr. Diana Dominguez’s task in this exhaustively detailed but always readable book is to make us aware that the “Here and Now” is always a moveable date, that there are several “Here and Nows,” and each one creates a Medb it cuts to its own fashion. Medb and the tales she inhabits have always been as much about the “Here and Now” in which they were first conceived, the “Here and Now” in which they were compiled and transcribed and each subsequent age that studies them and re-interprets them.
With painstaking care and formidable precision, Dominguez provides a fresh and refreshing reading of Medb: “not one subsumed by a mythological perspective that makes her, ultimately, a passive object as she is appropriated for patriarchal political purposes, or a character so associated with misogyny that she becomes nothing more than an icon of oppression and ridicule.” Dominguez does not discard either of these readings, but merely sets them side by side, along with other readings and approaches so that a much more richly faceted presentation of Medb is possible. This is Dominguez’s achievement. Medb is granted all her dangerous energies, her troublesome characteristics, her courage and high status. She is a villain, a victim, a queen as ruthless as her rivals, a woman not entirely unique in her time, but one indefatigable in the face of others.
The desire to transport Medb to our “Here and Now,” to make Medb modern, to make her our contemporary, to rescue her from the misunderstanding past is not Dominguez’s intention. Her intention is to present Medb as faithfully as she can, and this is what is achieved in this invigorating study. The actual Medb, the Medb of Myth, the Medb of scholarly dispute, the Medb as medium onto which notions of Irish womanhood have been projected are all here, and these pages present a Medb that Dominguez’s rigorous mind has made coherent and persuasive by presenting and accepting Medb in all her diversity.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Edith Wharton - 'a sword wrapped in satin.'

This is an extract from Roxana Robinson's thoughtful essay on Edith Wharton:

Edith Wharton’s work has been part of my own world for many years. My first connection, as a reader and writer, came in my senior year at boarding school, when I first read The Age of Innocence. It was then that Wharton’s work took up residence in my mind. I was mesmerized by the elegance of her style and the acuity of her intellect, by her courage and her compassion.
One of the brave things that Wharton does is to recognize the coexistence of the world of passion and the world of strictures. I don’t know another writer of her era who felt so seriously bound by the rules of society, and who took so seriously the great forces of emotion that were aligned against those rules. Since one of these rules was silence, it took great courage merely to declare the conflict, merely to write it down and speak it out.
I was also struck by Wharton’s courage in declaring a woman’s story to be a tragedy. I don’t mean the story of a beautiful woman betrayed by her lover, for many writers have made that into a tragedy. I mean the story of a woman on her own, forging her own way, and making her own terrible mistakes. Lily Bart is beautiful, but her story is hers alone, and depends on no one else for its outcome. She is the tragic hero of her own narrative, the sole agent of her own downfall, just as King Lear was, or Oedipus, and this is remarkable.
But most important to Wharton’s work is her own sense of compassion, something essential to all great fiction. It is Wharton’s empathy for her characters that makes our own possible. Wharton allows us to know them, to admire them, to understand their flaws and to forgive them — in short, to love them — as she does. For a writer, there is no greater skill.
The way a young writer learns what is possible is by reading what other people have done. Wharton showed me that it was possible to write about the collision between passion and responsibility, about the complexities of class. That it was possible to write about a society in a way that was both ruthlessly observant and fundamentally forgiving. That it was possible to write beautifully and cleanly and intelligently. I aspired to all those things, and the awareness of what she accomplished has entered into my own sense of possibility.

The essay in full can be read here.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Villette (Dramatised) By Yrs Truly

Available  to hear an extract from and to buy here and here and here (where it is given a 5 Star rating) - Catherine McCormack, Joseph Fiennes, and Harriet Walter star in this BBC Radio 4 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's last and most remarkable novel. Passion and perception run through this fascinating study of loneliness, love, and ultimate triumph over adversity.

Bronte Sisters Power Dolls - pudding not included

 By Phil Lord and Chris Miller - a fake commercial made in 1998 for a series of educational shorts about action figures based on historical figures. Its educational value was somewhat suspect. It was never aired.

The Alphabet as Poem

The  Javanese alphabet itself forms a poem, and a perfect pangram, of which the line-by-line translation is as follows[2]:

Hana caraka There (were) two messengers
data sawala (They) had animosity (among each other)
padha jayanya (They were) equally powerful (in fight)
maga bathanga Here are the corpses.

in detail:
hana / ana = there were/was
caraka = messenger (actually, 'one who is loyal to and trusted by someone')
data = have/has
sawala = difference (regarding a matter)
padha = same, equal
jayanya = 'their power', 'jaya' could mean 'glory' as well
maga = 'here'
bathanga = corpses

This story was told in the myth of Aji Saka, a Javanese mythology that tell the story about the came of civilization to Java, brought by legendary first king named Java Aji Saka, and the mythical story of Javanese script origin.[4]

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Hart Crane - The Broken Tower - James Franco Trailer

Marching Through a Novel: John Updike


                Each morning my characters
                   greet me with misty faces
                willing, though chilled, to muster
                   for another day's progress
                through the dazzling quicksand,
                   the marsh of blank paper.
                With instant obedience
                   they change clothes and mannerisms,
                drop a speech impediment,
                   develop a motive backwards
                to suit the deed that's done.  
                   They extend skeletal arms
                for the handcuffs of contrivance,
                    slog through docilely
                maneuvers of coincidence,
                    look toward me hopefully,
                 their general and quartermaster,
                    for a clearer face, a bigger heart.
                I do what I can for them,
                    but it is not enough.
                FORWARD is my order,
                    though their bandages unravel
                and some have no backbones
                    and some turn traitor
                like heads with two faces
                    and some fall forgotten
                in the trenchwork of loose threads,
                    poor puffs of cartoon flak.
                FORWARD. Believe me, I love them
                    though I march them to finish them off.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The Man with the Miniature Orchestra' by Dave Algonquin.

Perpetual Ocean

This visualization shows ocean surface currents around the world during the period from June 2005 through December 2007. The visualization does not include a narration or annotations; the goal was to use ocean flow data to create a simple, visceral experience.

This visualization was produced using NASA/JPL's computational model called Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, Phase II or ECCO2.. ECCO2 is high resolution model of the global ocean and sea-ice. ECCO2 attempts to model the oceans and sea ice to increasingly accurate resolutions that begin to resolve ocean eddies and other narrow-current systems which transport heat and carbon in the oceans.The ECCO2 model simulates ocean flows at all depths, but only surface flows are used in this visualization. The dark patterns under the ocean represent the undersea bathymetry. Topographic land exaggeration is 20x and bathymetric exaggeration is 40x.

credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

Friday, 13 April 2012

No mention of Bery Bainbridge's wayward and original perspective on the subject but Mendelsohn's particularly good on the cinema's treatment of the incident



Why we can’t let go of the Titanic.

by Daniel Mendelsohn April 16, 2012 

In the early nineteen-seventies, my Uncle Walter, who wasn’t a “real” uncle but had a better intuition about my hobbies and interests than some of my blood relatives did, gave me a thrilling gift: membership in the Titanic Enthusiasts of America. I was only twelve, but already hooked. The magnificence, the pathos, the enthralling chivalry—Benjamin Guggenheim putting on white tie and tails so he could drown “like a gentleman”—and the shaming cowardice, the awful mistakes, the tantalizing “what if”s: for me, there was no better story. I had read whatever books the local public library offered, and had spent some of my allowance on a copy of Walter Lord’s indispensable “A Night to Remember.” To this incipient collection Uncle Walter added the precious gift of a biography of the man who designed the ship. It has always been among the first books I pack when I move. A little later, when I was in my midteens, I toiled for a while on a novel about two fourteen-year-old boys, one a Long Islander like myself, the other a British aristocrat, who meet during the doomed maiden voyage. Needless to say, their budding friendship was sundered by the disaster.

I wasn’t the only one who was obsessed—or writing. It may not be true that “the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic,” as one historian has put it, but it’s not much of an exaggeration. Since the early morning of April 15, 1912, when the great liner went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking with it five grand pianos, eight thousand dinner forks, an automobile, a fifty-line telephone switchboard, twenty-nine boilers, a jewelled copy of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam,” and more than fifteen hundred lives, the writing hasn’t stopped. First, there were the headlines, which even today can produce an awful thrill. “ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION,” the New York Evening Sun crowed less than twenty-four hours after the sinking. A day later, brute fact had replaced wishful conjecture: “TITANIC SINKS, 1500 DIE.” Then there were the early survivor narratives—a genre that has by now grown to include a book by the descendants of a Lebanese passenger whose trek to America had begun on a camel caravan. There were the poems. For a while, there was such a glut that the Times was moved to print a warning: “To write about the Titanic a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one.” Since then, there have been histories, academic studies, polemics by enthusiasts, and novels, numbering in the hundreds. There’s even a “Titanic for Dummies.” This centennial month alone will see the publication of nearly three dozen titles.
The books are, so to speak, just the tip of the iceberg... (Read more)

Steve Hayes - Ball of Fire

Is there a better enthusiast than Steve Hayes? This is his most recent recommendation - Ball Of Fire - and every bit as good as he tells you it is

He's nearing 100 - recommendations of great and classic movies, that is - on his youtube page: he makes you want to watch them all.