Who'd live anywhere else?

Posted by September Blue Friday, 24 August 2007 1 comments

So here I am, eating a banana and working my way through thirty-six articles on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, when there comes a rapping at the front door like as unto a seven-foot woodpecker with a grudge. Weird. My friends don't turn up without notice, and my housemate has a key. Very insistent Jehovah's Witnesses? The bad cop version of those sweet Mormon boys? An angry mob of students I've failed for plagiarism? I make my way to the door with some caution.

It is two women who live nearby (framed by my neighbour leaning on her doorframe, which is unusual, since she usually watches all activity on our doorstep from behind her curtains (I am not kidding about this)). They have a petition. The petition concerns an unoccupied building up the road, which is currently boarded up and miserable-looking. The council, apparently, are going to "make it for the homeless," and this Will Not Do.

I suggest, very meekly, that I do not consider it a bad thing for homeless people to have homes.

They suggest, in louder, alcohol-fuelled voices, that I know what will happen if the building is made into flats for homeless people.

I respectfully disagree. (The building will no longer be derelict? Some homeless people will have a place to live? Do fill me in.)

"See, I'm not disagreeing with you," the petition-holder says. "I'd never deny someone a home. I'd never. I'm just saying, you don't know who you'll get moving in there. They won't be from our community."

Since my accent already gives me away as not being from our community myself, I don't comment on that part. "If they just made it into flats, we wouldn't know who we were getting either."

"But this'll drive the house prices right down." (Yes, that's the main problem in the British housing market right now.)

"And there'll be dozens of them," my neighbour adds. "In and out, all the time."

Sensing a friendly voice, the women on my doorstep turn as one towards my neighbour. Words of support and encouragement, viz. the dystopian crime-filled future that lies ahead of us should this plan go ahead, are parried back and forth. I wait. My neighbour calls over their heads, "So they were wondering if you'd sign it."

"Some of them might be asylum seekers," the petition-holder says, as if this will cinch it.

"Exactly," says my neighbour.

They stare at me. I shake my head. "Um, really..."

"Well, I'll tell you," says the petition-holder, with the air of someone who's been Telling You all day, "I got a homeless boy to sign this, I was just talking to him up there -"

"Up there?" There aren't many homeless people in my town anyway, and there aren't any I've ever seen in the direction of the new luxury flats she was waving towards.

"Yes! They've got all homeless in there now! And they've got homeless in a building in [a nearby] Street too! So I said 'I bet you won't sign this, then,' and he said 'No, I will, I see where you're coming from and I will.'"

"Because of the community," the other woman adds.

"But you don't have to sign it if you don't want to," the petition-holder says.

"I don't." I smile. "Thanks."

Petition-holder's friend glares at me for a long, long time. We stand frozen, cobra and rabbit. My neighbour's son, who would probably be homeless himself if his mother didn't keep taking him back in after his intermittent stays in - let's just say elsewhere - walked past talking in urgent, hushed tones to someone on the other end of a phone. There's faint music coming from a few houses down, where the police turned up in surprisingly large numbers not long ago to take away someone else. The street is dotted with cars in various states of disrepair, many of them chess pieces in some vast, incomprehensible game of chess which brings the police back every month or so: "We've had a report that the Land Rover is stolen property -" heavy sigh "- again, so if you saw anything this time..." But these are our sort of people, and nobody else deserves a house.

Hey, it's not a bad place to live. It's fairly quiet, it's fairly safe, and we now have Honorary Local status. We're still the outsiders, though. And although our neighbours already think they're entitled to our patio furniture, I draw the line at our vote.

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Celebrities, eh?

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 19 August 2007 0 comments

(Chambers's Journal, Jan. 12, 1895.)

Fifty years ago, Sir Walter Scott still lived in the memory of his personal friends, and fresh anecdotes were constantly being told of him by those who had known him well. Not so well known, however, is one trait of his character: no man was more careful than he of his personal dignity. That he was 'hail, fellow, well met' with the players in the stage adaptations of his works is apocryphal. On one occasion a well-known Scottish actor, of whom Sir Walter had taken friendly notice, asked him for a few letters of introduction on the occasion of his going to London. Sir Walter Scott declined to give them, only softening the refusal by saying, 'I have written to my friends about you.' At a dinner party where the great man was a guest, a young gentleman called out: 'Pleasure of wine with you, Scott!' Sir Walter looked fixedly at him, but took no further notice. Unless Sir Walter condescended to be familiar first, it was not safe to be familiar with him.

Complete this sentence:

Posted by September Blue Friday, 10 August 2007 1 comments

"[Critic] suggests [alternative explanation], but..."

A. "...does not provide much in the way of support for her argument, shall we say. And by that, I mean she's so far out there she's orbiting Pluto, but she's got a job and I don't even have a PhD so who am I to judge her, eh?"
B. "...is wrong, but has given me a great deal of optimism for my academic future, since if she got that published there's hope for all of us."
C. "...was clearly writing on deadline, and possibly also hallucinogens."
D. "...is, I am going to charitably assume, doing so as part of an academic dare. This was printed in April, after all."
E. "...since I have better things to do with my time than negotiate with lunacy, let's get back to the primary text."

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The Philosophy of Breakfast

Posted by September Blue Tuesday, 7 August 2007 1 comments

(Miscellanea, Appleton's Journal, Nov. 27, 1875.)

The philosophy of breakfast seems to be a perplexing one. According to some theories it is best to take a light nip just after waking, and sit down to a substantial meal after a lapse of two or three hours. The Sanitary Board (English) sanctions our American custom of a substantial meal soon after rising:

Let a healthy man really "break" his "fast" with a substantial meal, and not break his breakfast with irritating little nips or slops beforehand. After the stomach has at its leisure emptied itself, during sleep, of its contents, and sent them to repair the worn tissues and exhausted nerve-force, and the blood has been ventilated and purified by washing and dressing with the window open, then is the time when the most perfect of all nutritive articles, farinaceous food, can be consumed in largest quantities with advantage. Butter also, and fat and sugar, troublesome customers to weak digestions, are then easily coped with, and contribute their invaluable aid to performing duties of the day. For example, many persons can drink milk to a fair and useful amount at breakfast, with whom it disagrees at other hours. And the widely-advertised "breakfast bacon" by its name warns the customer against indulgence later on in the day. Cafe au lait and sweet, creamy tea are to many men poisonous in the afternoon, though in the prime of the morning they are a wholesome beverage to the same individuals.

Let the vigor, good-humor, and refreshment, then felt by a healthy man, be utilized without delay in eating a hearty meal immediately after he is dressed, and not frittered away in the frivolities of other occupations. Let not reading, writing, or business – muscular, political, or economical – exhaust the nervous system. The newspaper and letters should not be opened, preferably not delivered, till the appetite is thoroughly appeased.
In that grand tradition, this recent Guardian piece on www.londonreviewofbreakfasts.co.uk:
"It started," says [Malcolm] Eggs, editor of the London Review of Breakfasts, "with a terrible gastropub breakfast. These people just didn't know how to cook my favourite meal. We had to take a stand." [...] What should the ideal breakfast be like? "Among the follies of empire were those long breakfasts where you ate so much you risked killing yourself. They sounded great."

Silly season

Posted by September Blue Friday, 3 August 2007 1 comments

Possibly the best sentence in any newspaper this week: the Guardian, on the 'shark scare' off the coast of Cornwall:

David Sims, who leads the only scientific study of large sharks in the UK, at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, said: "The Sun seems to run this story every summer. Just because parliament has gone into recess does not make this a great white shark."

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Of oil-paints and Bela Lugosi

Posted by September Blue Thursday, 2 August 2007 0 comments

Penguin are running a design-your-own-cover project for seven of their classic titles (Amy, this sounds like your sort of thing), and have asked some folks in the music business to try their hand at it. (Only a few, though, which is a shame. Now I'll never know what McFly would have done with Anna Karenina.) Ryan Adams chose Dracula, and you can see his cover here.

Yes. It's very... oil-painted, isn't it? And quite, um, orange. Maybe Castle Dracula was built on sandstone. (Not, I should point out, that I want to criticise the supremely talented Mr. Adams, who I've loved since back when he was the singer in Whiskeytown. I love McFly, too, but for completely different reasons. They're just so sweet.) But it's interesting that neither Ryan Adams nor anybody else depicted a scene from the novel itself. The best-known Dracula cover is, I'm guessing, this one, illustrating one of the most famous images in the story (and managing to solve the problem of how it's possible to crawl down a castle wall without one's cloak falling over one's head, too: convenient up-draft). Most of the modern editions go for visual representations of characters or scenery.

I had half a theory that the earlier editions concentrated on vampires or Transylvania while the more recent ones emphasised something about Victorian England instead (compare, for example, this 1902 cover ('Joseph of Arimathea meets White Fang') with the more recent Broadview edition), but I don't think that's the case, either. And even Ryan Adams, who told the Guardian that the novel's all about "how suffocating the Victorian times were", picked the Transylvanian castle for his cover. (Actually, in his own words: "Dracula's headquarters, his hang." Ryan, I still love you, but we need to talk.)

Books we associate with a particularly strong visual image seem to come packaged with that image on the front a great deal of the time. I doubt it's a coincidence that the Dracula editions tend to go for Dracula greeting Jonathan (who isn't usually in the picture), Dracula climbing down the wall, or the shape of the castle itself. A lot of that, I'm guessing, has to do with the most striking scenes of the various Dracula films - even if you don't have Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee on your cover, everyone knows that's what Dracula looked like when he met Jonathan for the first time - but there's more to it than that, I think. And while I don't know nearly enough about the history of the publishing industry to take any guesses at why cover illustrations of particular books tend to be more abstract (or at least, less likely to illustrate an image described in the story itself) than they used to be, I do think it's interesting that the front covers which show a grinning Dracula or a many-turreted castle seem less literary than the ones which show blurry figures or swirly oil-painted outlines of buildings.

(That said, there's no guarantee that our most vivid visual impressions of a novel will turn out to be something represented within it. Take the recent Jane Eyre illustrated by 'Dame Darcy'; the cover shows, according to the artist, "the scene where Jane Eyre is freaking out while the giant mansion is burning behind." (See Bronteana for more of that interview.) Er, yeah. It reminds me of that conversation from Blackadder:
"After all, did not Our Lord sent a lowly earthworm to comfort Moses in his torment?"
"Well, it's the sort of thing he might have done.")