what to do with a slab of German smoked ham?

Found it in the freezer. Too big to snack on or easily use in sandwiches once it’s defrosted, but very strongly-flavoured and salty for cooking. Hmmm.

  • Post category:Other

meme from blogpulse

A list of ‘the top 110 banned books of all time’ – whatever that means. Bold the ones you

  • Post category:Culture

well done Wales

It’s nice to see Wales playing really good rugby. They’re so central to the mythology of the game, but in the time I’ve been watching it – a decade and a bit – they’ve been almost invariably crap. I mean, obviously I don’t want them to keep beating England, but seeing them beat a good French side in Paris was great.

  • Post category:Other


Last night
the frogs were croaking.
Snow is falling.

I wonder whether a fixed ‘content word’ count would be a way of providing a clear formal model for haiku in English. i.e. count the nouns, verbs and adjectives. This would come in at six. So would “old pond – frog jumps – sound of water”, pretty much however you translate it. “little snail – inch by inch, climb – Mount Fuji!”, comes in as five in Japanese (katatsuburi soro-soro nobore fuji no yama), something like “snail slowly-slowly climb mount fuji” maybe. And many have even fewer. Hmm. Maybe not.

  • Post category:Culture

crusty shepherd

I embarked on shepherd’s pie yesterday only to find I had no potatoes. So I topped it with bread.

An onion, two sticks of celery, a left-over bit of fennel, a red pepper and a carrot chopped and cooked together in a frying pan until starting to brown slightly.

A kilo of minced lamb, browned a bit.

Put the veg, the meat, plenty of garlic and rosemary, and some beef stock in a pan and simmer for an hour or so.

Put the sauce in a shallow oven-proof dish, then top with slices of bread (I used multi-grain) spread with French mustard, mustard-side down. Put in the oven, 180C until bubbling and looking brown and crunchy on top. Yummy.

  • Post category:Other

what am I looking for?

It seems a natural question – what kind of thing am I looking for out of literary theory? What would it take to convince me that some body of theory was valuable?

Well, something that I thought was true and non-obvious would be a good start. Even if it didn’t provide any new insights, something that was coherent and provided an explanation for some of the commonplace observations about literature would still be valuable. A knowledge of physics doesn’t really help you to play snooker, or provide any insights into the game as a game, but it’s intellectually satisfying to know that the behaviour of the balls can be explained and predicted.

What you really want, though, is a way of understanding literature that provides new insights. Some aspects of the theoritication of criticism do that, I think. For me, the idea of different ways of reading work – feminist, historical, political – has obvious value. But I never felt it needed any special theoretical justification. It’s just a specialisation, a narrowing of focus to look at one aspect of the work at a time.

I do have an intriguing example from the visual arts. Some years ago I heard a neuroscientist (Semir Zeki) on the radio who was studying the different regions of the brain that processed vision. One particular area was processing something like colour contrasts (I can’t remember now), and the development of Mondrian’s paintings showed a increased tendency over his career to stimule that area precisely. Now that raises the possibility that he was aware of a particular kind of response and was trying to hone his paintings to create that response, even though he didn’t know why his paintings worked.

Where the story gets more interesting is that apparently Vermeer’s work is also very good at stimulating this area of the brain. Art critics have made the Mondrian/Vermeer comparison before, but this provides a precise neurological explanation for where the similarity lies. This little snippet of neuroscience doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about either Mondrian or Vermeer, of course, but it is interesting.

My choice of example no doubt suggests that I think neuroscience is also the way forward in understanding literature, and I certainly think it’s one important way forward. The structures of language as understood by contemporary linguists (i.e. not Saussure), and the way the brain processes language, seem obviously fertile ground for study. I found Pinker’s The Language Instinct fascinating, and I also spent a long time thinking about Dawkins’s idea of memetics at one stage. In the end, though, I wasn’t able to apply them in a way that offered any new insights. Memetics seems sound as a theory, but rarely seems to offer any interesting conclusions that couldn’t be equally well explained without it. And either I don’t know enough about linguistics, or I haven’t been thinking about it in the right way, or both. Or the insights aren’t there to be had.

I’ve just noticed that Zeki has a book about art and the brain, which I may as well add to my Amazon wishlist for the moment. If I ever buy and read it, I’ll let you know what I think.

  • Post category:Culture

‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’

I went to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou today. Which I enjoyed.

Shall We Dance? is a low-key Japanese film about a married salaryman accountant who sees an attractive woman in a dance studio from his commuter train and decides to take ballroom dancing lessons.

Hollywood has just remade it with Richard Gere playing the part as a successful lawyer and J-Lo as the dance teacher. I find it hard to believe that any of the atmosphere could survive that bit of casting. So why do they remake these movies in a way which is guaranteed to kill exactly what was appealing about the original?

I haven’t actually seen the remake – perhaps it’s better than one would expect. I can certainly recommend the original, though.

  • Post category:Culture

‘Africa Remix’ at the Hayward

I went to see Africa Remix (an exhibition of contemporary African art) at the Hayward Gallery today.

It was the predictable mix of a few good pieces, a sea of mediocrity and some absolute stinkers. I’m sure that’s been true of most broad surveys of contemporary art at any period in history.

I didn’t take any notes (or shell out twenty quid for the catalogue), so I’m afraid I can’t name names, but here are some comments.

The award for most heavy-handed work is shared between two pieces, both video work. One was called something like ‘crossing the line’ and was a video of someone’s feet, filmed from above and projected on the floor so you’re looking down from about where the camera would be. There was a little ditch carved out of the floor, like a gutter. The feet flirted with crossing the line, but didn’t, to the soundtrack of slightly cracked laughter. The information for the piece explained that it was exploring the idea of madness and ‘crossing a line’. In other words, it’s a clich

  • Post category:Culture

more thoughts on ID/evolution

it may be unwise of me to try and do US atmosphere/imagery too much, since I’m not of there. But hey-ho.

Bryan Newbury’s post From Flatlands to Flat Earth is interesting, but perhaps not enough to build a whole poem around.

What do I know about Kansas? I went across it once on a Greyhound from Salt Lake City to Kansas City. My considered opinion – golly it’s flat. It makes Norfolk look like Switzerland. Again, not enough to build a poem around.

It’s suggestive that the only Western country where the teaching of evolution is controversial (as far as I know) is the one with the biggest legacy of racial tension. The Scopes Trial took place in apartheid Tennessee. The US is also unusually religious, of course, but as far as I know, other countries where religion is often a political force, like Italy and Ireland, are fine with evolution. Even Ian Paisley, who is as crazy as a ferret, doesn’t seem very interested in the subject.

Which is odd, really, because you’d think that evolution gave more scope for racist ideas than creationism. Or at least, creationism in the loose sense could allow for separate creations for people of different races, but creationism rooted in biblical literalism is surely restricted by the Adam and Eve story. “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?”, as Wat Tyler put it.

  • Post category:Me

my personal experience of theory

I’m a natural customer for critical theory. But I’m not a fan.

I’m generally reluctant to engage too much with arguments about literary/critical theorising because I haven’t read enough of the key primary texts. But I’m unwilling to bow out of the discussion altogether because there was a time, admittedly only a few months, when I devoted a great deal of time and intellectual energy to engaging with those theories.

In the third year of my undergraduate degree in English Literature, I chose to do a course in critical theory. I went into it with mixed feelings. I was sceptical, because the encounters I’d had with theory during my degree hadn’t impressed me. But I was also quite excited to see what I’d encounter, because I am, by inclination, a theoretical and analytical thinker. I was also already impatient with the woolly thinking implicit in the way that some traditional critics talk about literature.

I remember, for example, a lecture where the lecturer used the idea that the effectiveness of literature derives from its ‘truth’. The point I tried, incoherently, to make at the time, and which I still think is valid, is this: Most literature is not true, in the sense the word is normally used. The events in Bleak House didn’t actually happen. An appeal to ‘artistic truth’ or ‘essential truth’ or, God forbid, ‘poetic truth’ doesn’t help – it’s just verbal gesticulation. No doubt when pressed, the lecturer would have explained that by ‘truth’ he meant something slightly different (plausibility? sincerity?) – but that seems like a very good reason not to use the word ‘truth’ in the first place.

I also agree that appeals to ‘common sense’ are a cop-out. Even if there is some way of approaching literature which is obvious, universal and coherent, people should be willing and able to articulate the ideas behind it, and examine them.

So I went into this course with the hope that it would be my kind of thing. And although, as I said, I haven’t read as much of the key material as I should have to comment properly, I did read quite a lot of the reading material suggested – including three different introductions to theory, S/Z, Saussure, bits of Derrida and so on. Now I appreciate that introductory guides written for undergrads are not the real thing, but I don’t think my blood pressure would have stood it if I’d read too much more. For those few months, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the subject, and the fact that people were teaching this stuff – that it was an influential movement within a subject that I cared about – made me frustrated and angry.

As I hope I’ve made clear, it’s not that I mind theorising. It’s just that so much of the theorising seemed to be badly done. Books would make an argument, demonstrate a weak version of it, and then claim a strong version, or illustrate it with a very narrow, atypical case and claim to have made the general case. Or they’d make elementary errors of logic, like saying ‘history is just a kind of narrative’ and concluding that anything that is true about fiction is also true about history*. The theories were also built upon older theories which are themselves highly dubious. I can respect the importance of Saussure, Freud, and Marx in the history of their subjects, but none of them are exactly cutting edge. Linguists, psychoanalysts and economists have learnt a lot over the past century, but none of it seems to have filtered through to literary theory. And if, like me, you’re not convinced by either Saussure or Freud, Lacan is a non-starter. This narrowness of reference seemed to be a general problem. If for, example, you’re talking about how language and society develop and interact, why wouldn’t you mention the social and communication behaviours of other species?

In the end, I felt that many strands of critical theory have been positively harmful to the study of literature. Take the example of feminist theory. The intersection between gender and literature is obviously fertile ground for study. Any of these things, none of which seem controversial, would be enough to justify a gender-sensitive study of literature: if women and men tend to write differently, or read differently, or if women’s literature tends to be marginalised or approached differently, or if literature can offer insight into gender-roles in different cultures, or just if gender and sexuality is a major part of the human experience. But all those things can be analysed and written about without needing to buy into a radical model of language. The flakier end of feminist literary theory (like the argument that logic should be rejected as a phallogocentric embodiment of the patriarchal nature of society) can only weaken that field of study, both by reducing its credibility and diverting people’s intellectual energy into an unproductive direction.

And not just feminism – there were a lot of valid insights about limitations in traditional practice that were inflated into ludicrous theoretical contructions. You don’t need to make radical theoretical claims to challenge the centrality of the author in traditional criticism, or argue that literary study has not taken enough notice of historical and social conditions, or that critics have been too slow to engage with politics.

Also, theory-driven articles about particular works of literature seemed to me to be generally weakened by the theory, rather than strengthened by it. Often the author seemed more interested in ingenious ways of applying the theory than in coming up with new insights. The conclusions they did reach often seemed no different from those a traditional close reading might achieve – but less coherently expressed. Or radical and exciting sounding – but insupportable.

And I haven’t even mentioned the malign influence on people’s prose style.


*compare – ‘Bill Clinton is just a kind of mammal, and therefore, like mice, his teeth grow continuously and he needs to gnaw hard materials regularly to wear them down’.

  • Post category:Culture

amaretto and ratafia

All these food posts are of course displacement activity to stop me getting on with any actual poetry.

I’ve made a cheesecake (haven’t tried it yet) from Jane Grigson’s English Food. The recipe originally comes from The London Art of Cookery, and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant, by John Farley (1783). It’s flavoured with, amongst other things, crushed macaroons. I used Italian ratafia biscuits. What I was thinking was: it’s curious that almost everyone you ask thinks that Amaretto (the liqueur or the biscuits) is made from almonds, whereas, like my ratafias, it’s actually made from apricot kernels. Now, if Georgette Heyer is to be believed, ratafia (a drink – I’m not sure whether alcoholic or not) was a popular choice for genteel young ladies in the Regency period. So when did the taste of apricot kernels drop from Britain’s collective memory?

  • Post category:Other

onion and cabbage with sage, rosemary and cider

A bit of improvisation I was quite pleased with.

I was doing roast pork, and I’m not a big of classic apple sauce, so I thought I’d make a sauce by cooking onions with a bit of sage (cos its traditional) and rather more rosemary, and putting some cider in it for the appliness. And I had a third of a cabbage in the fridge.

Fry 4 smallish red onions with a few leaves of sage and a handful of chopped fresh rosemary.

When the onions are soft and just browning slightly, slosh in some cider (i.e. alcoholic cider, for any Americans reading). I used quite expensive cider, because the cheap stuff is revolting. Simmer.

When the cider has mainly evaporated, mix in a shredded third of a cabbage. Stir until the cabbage is a bright green colour.

I thought this was a bit of a success, although no-one who ate it commented on it.

  • Post category:Other

teaching ID alongside natural selection

I do actually think there’s an argument for teaching about the idea of Intelligent Design alongside natural selection.

Or, to be more exact, in teaching natural selection in the context of ID.

That’s not because I think ID is a valid alternative to NS. It’s clearly not. On the contrary, school biology lessons ought to be teaching a very basic version of what biology is as a professional discipline, and natural selection is the unchallenged theoretical basis of academic biology, the context by which all data is understood.

So why teach about ID, if it’s a bad theory?

I found a lot of science teaching boring at school, even though I was generally interested in science and good at it (I could easily have ended up studying Maths or Chemistry at university instead of English Lit). I am still interested in science and still read a lot of popular science and science history. So why was it so dull at school? What you get from reading a biography of Darwin, which you don’t get from a typical school lesson on biology, is a sense of the interaction and development of ideas. At school you get taught the answers without being told what the questions were. Insights which brilliant men slaved over for decades are presented as though they were obvious and trivial, and all the excitement is drained out of the subject.

A non-biology example. Everyone knows the anecdote about Newton watching an apple fall and having the idea for gravity; but all they take from it is that Newton saw an apple fall and thought “there must be a force that makes apples fall”. But the *important* insight is: the force that makes the apple fall is the same as the force that keeps the Earth circling the sun. Not that long before Newton, people thought that the movement of bodies on the Earth needed to be understood completely differently to ‘superlunary’ bodies. Someone as brilliant as Gallileo tried to explain the movement of the planets in terms of an inherent tendency they had to move in circles, while a falling apple was being moved by a completely separate force. What Newton did was come up with four simple laws – the laws of motion and the inverse square law of gravitation – which taken together are enough to explain not just the orbits of the planets and the falling of an apple, but the movement of all objects. The entire universe becomes one system. As Pope put it,

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

That kind of historical understanding of gravity is no use to an engineer, but for most people, who will leave school and never use physics again, it’s a lot more important than being able to calculate the speed of a falling body or the period of oscillation of a pendulum. I also think the historical context helps you learn the science, because knowing how the ideas developed helps you remember them.

In the case of biology, Intelligent Design was the reigning theory before Darwin. An intelligent designer is a good way to explain the complexity of living things. The reason that Darwinism is important is that it provides a materialist alternative to ID. That’s one reason why Richard Dawkins keeps harking back to creationism in his books – he recognises that it is the only competing theory for the complexity of life. A book like ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ is one long engagement with the idea of an intelligent designer because ID is the context which makes Darwinism important.

So, if I was trying to teach evolution, I’d be tempted to start with ID as the context before moving on to natural selection and pointing out all the things that NS (and evolution) can explain that ID doesn’t – like the fact we have an appendix, the way that animals tend to live in the same geographical areas as their relatives, that all mammals have the same bodyplan and so on.

Teaching ID as a viable alternative to natural selection, on the other hand, is completely insane.

  • Post category:Nature


I made kedgeree today. I’m intrigued by Anglo-Indian food like kedgeree and mulligatawny soup. Even more so, those things like Worcester sauce and brown sauce which are so deeply imbedded into the British consciousness that no-one even thinks of them as Indian any more.

  • Post category:Other