good things happening

Three things which I found pleasing today: the UK had the least road deaths last year since records began in 1926; Canada and Spain have legalised gay marriage; Venus Williams beat Maria Sharapova to get into the Wimbledon final.

Isaac D’Israeli on poets

At Curiosities of Literature, Isaac D’Israeli’s thoughts on poets.

I thought this bit he quotes from Charpentier was particularly entertaining:

“Men may ridicule as much as they please those gesticulations and contortions which poets are apt to make in the act of composing; it is certain however that they greatly assist in putting the imagination into motion. These kinds of agitation do not always show a mind which labours with its sterility; they frequently proceed from a mind which excites and animates itself. Quintilian has nobly compared them to those lashings of his tail which a lion gives himself when he is preparing to combat.”

Christopher Logue’s Iliad

War Music is Logue’s long-running version of the Iliad. Which I’ve been reading recently. Bits of it can be found here, here, here, and here.

I guess the most obvious thing to comment about in WM is the relationship to Homer (use of anachronisms, scenes cut, others added). But actually I think the most interesting thing is the possibility that it offers an exciting new model for contemporary narrative poetry. It’s a film in verse, rather than a novel in verse. It reads like a cross between a screenplay and a poem.

Some specific qualitites of WM wouldn’t suit all subject matter or all poets – the terseness, the metre, the layout on the page, the varied line lengths. But the cinematic aesthetic – the way it’s dialogue heavy, the ‘cuts’ between long shot and close up, the use of simple visual details to set the scene – could presumably be adapted. In setting out to write a narrative poem, one could perhaps do worse than to actually storyboard it as though it were a movie. We’re brought up with cinema, so the techniques are deeply familiar to us.

Anyway, that aside, I’d recommend the poem.

iced tea

Iced tea is a habit I picked up in Japan. Not the revolting canned stuff with added sugar and lemon they sell in this country – just chilled tea. It works quite well to put some tea leaves in a jug of water and leave it in the fridge for a few hours. You end up with a very light tea – scented water, really. It’s the perfect soft drink for grown-ups. I’ve been using things like oolong, green tea, and jasmine tea, but I daresay you could use any tea. Or indeed something like rooibos. I wonder if herbal things would work. I might try verveine (lemon verbena).

more middlebrow

Perhaps the difference between the US and the UK is simply that, over here, being an intellectual has never had any social cachet.

middlebrow again

A post at Whimsy Speaks alerted me to some more web chatter on the middle-brow, including a NY Times column on the subject.

What startles me is that so much of the commentary (in, for example, the post and comments at Pandagon), is quite clearly aimed at the idea of a socially aspirational category, not an intellectual one. So Jonathan’s examples of Starbucks and Target, which I just thought were an odd quirk of his, turn out to be quite typical. Martha Stewart is cited. If Starbucks is middle-brow, presumably my home-ground Ethiopian Yirgacheffe is high-brow. A high-brow cup of coffee. Hmmm. What they really mean is presumably that Starbucks is middle class.

And yet Americans still refer to the British as class-obsessed. Martha Stewart seems to me to be a good example. I’ve never seen anyone who is has so openly built a career on stoking people’s social insecurities and then selling them the cure; and I can’t actually think of a comparable British personality. There are hundreds of programmes on TV about improving your home and garden, what to wear, and what to eat, but none of them seem to have that stifled, buttock-clenching aura of gentility. Which isn’t to say that the UK is a snob-free haven, just that the American self-image on matters of class is sometimes a little skewed.

I really shouldn’t be attempting US cultural commentary, of course – I just don’t know the country well enough.

Australia lose again

Even better, this time it was to England. Yes, I know, the one-day game (let alone Twenty20) isn’t the same, and the Aussies probably weren’t properly focussed against Somerset and Bangladesh, and the class of the team has to come out some time. But even without counting any Ashes chickens, it’s been an enjoyable few days.

barbecue stuff

Flatbreads cooked on the barbecue worked OK, though it might be easier to just do them in a frying pan or under the grill. A simple sauce for fish: juice of one lemon and a little olive oil blended with a bunch of tarragon.

Ron Silliman

Ron Silliman doesn’t appear to differentiate between ‘UK’ and ‘England’. Still, he’s an American, so perhaps it would be too much to expect.

Jonathan Mayhew on ‘middlebrow’

Jonathan has been commenting on the middlebrow. But his blog doesn’t allow anonymous comments and I don’t have a blogger account.

I found Starbucks and the designer teapot peculiar examples (not that I know the teapot or teapot shop in question). For me, low/middle/highbrow implies a specifically intellectual judgement. The relationship between your taste in coffee and your taste in literature seems strained to me – it makes it more into a judgement of someone’s social class. Or urbanity. Perhaps the word he’s looking for is ‘sophisticated’ rather than ‘highbrow’.

That’s not the same thing as saying that we are all differently-browed in different areas. I have low-to-middlebrow taste in films, but fairly highbrow taste in literature, and it seems reasonable to make the comparison. My taste in coffee seems a quite different subject.

I also think his description of the middlebrow as ‘addressed to a wider audience that wants to “improve itself”‘ is patronising and misguided. My sense is that the middlebrow audience just enjoys art at a particular level of accessibility and intellectual content. The idea that people watch Pride and Prejudice on the telly because they want to ‘improve themselves’ seems ridiculous to me. Rather, they’ve found the level at which they find art to be enjoyable. Two disclaimers: I don’t think that level is determined by intellectual capacity but by their priorities and tastes. And I don’t think that high-brow art is always better than middle-brow or low-brow art.

[publishers apparently have a category called ‘faux-brow’. Like The Girl in the Pearl Earring, which is romantic fiction, but with a historical, arty theme and a more expensive cover.]

played two, lost two.

No wonder we thrashed Australia in the Twenty20 game if they can’t even beat Somerset. Come on Australia – don’t stop now, lose to Bangladesh as well.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, as Herrick once said to Viv Richards.

the chirping of sparrows

The chirping of sparrows is a key human noise, a key human experience.

the essential noise of humanity (humanness)

most human of noises

the sparrow is the human soul. (id?)

throwing croissant crumbs/bits of chip/whatever to the sparrows. Chirping among the roof-tiles. dust-bathing.

I’ve been very conscious of sparrows since they disappeared from this part of London a few years ago. There were lots at the hotel in Egypt – the noise is so cheerful, and so deep-down familiar. People think of ‘chirping’ as a generic bird-noise, but actually it’s not, it’s very specific to sparrows.

Sparrows are only found in association with people – their original habitat is unknown.

From a US website: “Perhaps the most citified of birds, this import’s incessant chattering, quarrelsome disposition, and abundance about human habitations distinguish it from our native sparrows. Actually, it is not a sparrow at all, but a weaver finch.” Surely it would be more true to say that American sparrows are not sparrows at all.

Catullus. Some haiku? Who killed cock robin.

There’s a poem in there somewhere.

  • Me

‘Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson’ by Paula Byrne

I picked up Perdita at the airport on the way to Egypt. It’s the biography of Mary Robinson, who was an actress, the most beautiful and fashionable woman in London, who became famous as the mistress of the Prince of Wales (and later Charles Fox and Colonel Tarleton, among others). Then, after she developed rheumatic fever and largely lost the use of her legs, she re-invented herself as a poet, novelist, playwright and radical feminist. Coleridge thought she had genius and particularly admired her ear for metre, she was chummy with Godwin and Wollstonecraft. And so on. Entertaining stuff.

chicken and bean stew

A stew with chicken and beans. There’s nothing very original here but it worked well, so I thought I’d write it down:

Soften some finely-sliced onion (I used a banana shallot and a smallish red onion) with a couple of cloves of crushed garlic.

Just before it starts browning, a couple of chopped tomatoes cooked with it. Put the onions and toms into a casserole.

Get two chicken legs, divided into thighs and drumsticks. Season them and brown them in the same pan. Put the chicken into the casserole and deglaze the pan with white wine.

Add a tin of canellini beans, a pot of fresh chicken stock, a generous quantity of fresh thyme (don’t need to chop it), a bay leaf, and some parsley stalks. And some salt and half a teaspoon of West Indian chilli sauce.

Bring to a simmer and cook in the oven at 160C for 2h 30m. You don’t want it to be too wet but obviously make sure it doesn’t dry out and burn.

Serve with some chopped parsely for colour.

Egypt

in Taba Heights.

Not having dived for 10 years, I had to do a full scuba review – a written test, and all those skills like the maskless swim, buddy breathing, etc etc. Which was probably a good idea but a bit tedious. But did four proper dives as well.

Highlights – Crocodile Fish (Carpet Flathead), quite a big squid, some attractive spotty morays, pyjama slug (a kind of nudibranch), partner gobies with their little shrimp friends, a good view of a stonefish, blue-spotted ray, juvenile Emperor Angelfish, some attractive versions of Lyretail Grouper (purple with little blue spots and a yellow trim). Lots of pretty fish generally. Christmas tree worms in lots of colours; attractive ferny-looking black crinoids. Lots of scorpionfish.

I get the sense that the diving at Taba Heights is a bit limited, really – all rather the same – but good enough for a short trip. And the snorkelling outside the hotel was excellent – when the water wasn’t too choppy.

  • Me

Egypt

List from Taba Heights (a dive resort in Egypt): House Sparrow, Blackstart, White-crowned Wheatear, Spectacled Bulbul, Laughing Dove, Collared Dove, Swallow, House Martin, Sand Martin, Rock/Crag Martin (not sure), Swift, Kestrel, Sooty Gull, European Bee-eater, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Little Green Bee-eater, Mangrove Heron.

The Bee-eaters are probably the pick of that list, though I didn’t see any of them very well. The distribution maps in the book were clearly unreliable for the area, and I never managed to decide whether they were Rock Martin or Crag Martin.

One day I spent some time trying to track down a bird I could hear making a loud ‘chk chk’ call – I thought possibly a warbler. Eventually I was looking directly into a bouganvillea, not more than 4-5 feet away, and I couldn’t understand how I couldn’t see the damn bird, and I realised that on the wall directly behind the bouganvillea was… a gecko.

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