Fox cubs

The foxes have cubs at the moment. The foxes are pretty tame in London, since no-one hunts them, and once or twice I’ve seen the cubs playing on the lawn. Mainly you just hear them; squawking, screeching and making a high-pitched twittering like angry plovers.

The foxes and cats seem to co-exist in a state of cautious truce.


9rules Writing Community

9rules strikes me as potentially a great idea. It’s basically a conglomeration of blogs, each of which has been approved as reaching a certain standard of quality.

The 9rules Network is a community of the best weblogs in the world on a variety of topics. We started 9rules to give passionate writers more exposure and to help readers find great blogs on their favorite subjects. It’s difficult to find sites worth returning to, so 9rules brings together the very best of the independent web all under one roof.

They have periodic application periods when they winnow out the sheep from the goats and accept the sheep. The approved blogs are then sorted by subject.

Since blogs are many and multiplying, any way of finding the good stuff has to be a good thing. But I decided to look at the blogs which have been accepted into the 9rules Writing Community. It hasn’t given me great faith in their quality control. One of the various principles they claim for themselves is that

A nicely-designed site might draw readers in, but it’s the content that keeps them coming back.

But given that at least two of the ten in their ‘writing community’ are blogs which are nicely designed but whose content is seriously poor (1, 2), I find myself unpersuaded. The most likely scenario is that the people who selected the blogs just weren’t very literary by inclination; my point really is that they aren’t doing their credibility any good.

In the interests of balance I’ll point out one more 9rules literary blog, PoetryReviews.Ca, where they review Canadian poetry books and seem to do a good job of it.

But generally the 1rule which is most important seems to be ‘style over content’. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps the many good blogs that can be found among my long poetry blogroll just haven’t applied, so 9rules don’t know what they’re missing.

FSotW: Red Brick Wall

Today’s Flickr set of the week is Red Brick Wall. Admirably single-minded, I thought.

originally uploaded by Special.

originally uploaded by Special.


Africa in the news

Or rather, Africa not in the news. I have to admit, I haven’t been in news-junkie mode recently, but how did I miss this?

This week we bring you music from the Democratic Republic of Congo to recognize the incredible moment in history we are witnessing. In the largest UN overseen election in history, 58 million Congolese citizens will choose their elected leaders for the first time in 46 years! With over 33 candidates for president and 9,500 people running for 500 legislative seats the ballots are sure to be long, just finding your candidate will be a challenge.

The reason it’s a big deal is not just that a previously undemocratic country is going to try to become a democracy. It’s that between 1996 and 2003, the DRC was the scene of a brutal and long-running war, triggered by the Rwandan genocide, in which about 4 million people are estimated to have died. Nine nations were directly involved.

I’ve read a few people recently try to make some kind of rhetorical point by comparing the amount of media attention that the Middle East gets with the coverage of Darfur. But the truth is that if anything, before the West got bored with it, Darfur got an unusually large amount of attention for an African conflict. After all, Sudan has been in a state of civil war for most of the time since independence in 1956, but that hasn’t spent much time in the papers.

I’m not claiming any personal virtue here – if you’d asked me, I probably would have said that Congo was still at war, even though the war formally ended in 2003. I only learned differently via the quote above, which is from Calabash. And I had to get all my information about the war from Wikipedia. Anyway. Fingers crossed that Central Africa is on an upward path.

And a plug for Calabash. They describe themselves as ‘The World’s First Fair Trade Music Company’, and they’re a great source for world music. Calabash offers regular free singles for download.

To mark the election we give you ‘Ba Kristo’, from Kekele’s hot new album “Kinavana”. By paying homage to the Cuban composer Guillermo Portabales, the album brings the two countries together across the black atlantic in the most joyous and musical of ways. ‘Ba Kristo’ is based on the music of Portabales’ song “El Carretero”, but instead of telling a wagoner’s tale it denounces the efforts of evangelical churches in Africa to ban all music that is not Christian.

I’ve got some great music from them, and I can definitely recommend the latest free single. I think I’ll buy the album. Songs are 99¢ each, but note that you can save money by buying 20 song credits for $14.99 – i.e. 75¢ each.



You’ll have noticed the daily ‘Links‘ posts.

They’re done through the ‘daily blog posting’ function on, which automatically posts a list of new bookmarks I’ve added in the past 24 hours. I’ve also added a new page where you can see all the tags I’ve used and browse my bookmarks that way. I’m not really using it as a place to store bookmarks where I can find them again, just as a log of anything on the web that tickles my fancy.

There’s a permanent link to the tag list in the sidebar.

Harmison’s dew-pearled

The lark’s on the wing,
The snail’s on the thorn,
Harmison is on fire,
Panesar is taking key wickets,
Pietersen is holding his catches,
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!

As I’m sure Browning meant to say.


God’s cock and hen

I woke up this morning to see something fluttering against the inside of the window-panes. Without my glasses, I couldn’t think what it was – it seemed too big for a moth and too small and whirring for a bird. It turned out to be a wren. They’re such nice things, but they are slightly unbirdy – like little russet mothmice.

Lucky it wasn’t a robin; I recently learnt from Birds Britannica that if a robin flies into your house it’s a omen of death. I assume that only applies to the European Robin and not its American namesake, but maybe the power of superstition is transferable through the power of names.

The robin and the wren are God’s cock and hen;
The spink and the sparrow are the de’il’s bow and arrow.

The ‘spink’ is the chaffinch. I guess it and the sparrow are damned mostly by rhyme and alliteration. You can find more wren rhymes and folklore here (pdf).

simple pleasures

A good-quality chicken breast, sliced nearly through and opened out like a book. Oil it and place it between two sheets of clingfilm, then beat it flat with a rolling pin. It doesn’t have to be carpaccio thin, just flat enough to cook through quickly.

Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and salt and cook on a hot ridged frying pan. Just wait until the thin parts of the meat turn opaque before turning over and leaving for about a minute. Sprinkle the chicken with a little lemon juice and put on a plate to rest for two or three minutes.

Eat it, including the juices that have collected on the plate, with a few green leaves topped with olive oil and freshly grated parmesan. And a glass of nice white wine.

eBooks on iPod?

There’s a rumour doing the rounds that the next iPod will be designed for reading as well as music and video. It remains to be seen whether that happens, and indeed whether the iPod is well-suited for reading (as compared, for example, to the more specialised Sony Reader).

Whether or not their time has come, I do think that electronic reading devices are potentially exciting. It’s not a new idea, of course, and none of the previous attempts have succeeded, not least because the competing technology – the book – is so very good at its job. A book is already small, light, very high-resolution, has a simple intuitive user interface and doesn’t need power. For you to spend a few hundred pounds on an electronic version, it’s going to have be pretty damn good. One advantage of building it into a music player is that it gives people a reason to buy it.

So if books are so good anyway, why do I think it’s a good idea? Firstly there’s the capacity. It’s not just one book, it’s a whole library. Even just for reading on a commute you might want to have a choice of three or four books. If you were going away for a few months, you could take hundreds of titles. You could keep reference books on there. Assuming that the system was able to read generic text files, HTML and PDF, you wouldn’t even need to buy all the books from Apple; just think of the enormous wealth of stuff which is out of copyright.Project Gutenberg has 18,000 books available for download.

But the other point is that it doesn’t have to be books. You could plug it in every night and have your computer automatically update it with all your favourite blogs and news services. You might even be willing to pay a modest subscription to get the newspaper(s) of your choice automatically downloaded onto your iPod to read on the train.


Spam email header of the day

Picasso blog hardly Louvre

with honourable mentions to:

Your future, methylene iodide
Order status, parrot-red
Better Success, wild-goose plum
Your money, mole drainage
Future, worm snake
Hi, Mid-siberian


Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

During the American War of Independence, the British promised freedom and land to any slaves who left their masters and served with the British. Many thousands did so, and after the war they were taken first to Nova Scotia and then settled in a colony in Sierra Leone. This book tells that story.

Among the slaves who decided that their best hope of freedom was with the British were some who had belonged to George Washington. At times I got the feeling that Schama, as a British historian working in the US, got a degree of mischievous pleasure from writing about the War of Independence from an angle that shows the British as the defenders of liberty and equality in the face of American tyranny.

It’s not that simple of course. The original decision to offer freedom was pragmatic rather than a principled, and in practice the implementation of it was consistently undermined by the greed, paternalism and piety of British administrators. The book does include some genuinely heroic British figures, but there are no shortage of complete shits as well.

It’s an interesting story and a moving book.

FSotW: Car Boot Britain

Flickr set of the week is Car Boot Britain by Whipper_snapper.

Boot sale, originally uploaded by Whipper_snapper.

Boot Sale 2, originally uploaded by Whipper_snapper.


Anglo-Saxon literature

I was lying awake last night, unable to sleep because of the heat, and wondering whether translating a bit of Anglo-Saxon poetry would get me out of my lengthening barren spell. I think the majority of people who did my degree resented having to spend such a lot of time on Anglo-Saxon, but I always liked it.

I think what sticks with me about A-S verse is a mood more than anything. I remember hearing a documentary on Radio 4 a few years ago about different conversational styles across Europe. Apparently in Finland they have a culture of only speaking if they’ve got something important to say, with the result that for long periods at Finnish dinner parties, everyone is just sitting eating in silence. And then when they do speak, they speak slowly and deliberately. I suspect that the Anglo-Saxons had something of the same serious-minded taciturnity, laced with a mix of testosterone and pessimism. If that’s right, they probably looked on linguistic virtuosity with some suspicion. But I find that quality of seriousness makes up for any lack of verbal fireworks. It’s like the appeal of plainsong.

They were a gloomy bunch, of course. The most famous image in A-S literature is probably from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. King Edwin of Northumbria is considering whether to convert to Christianity, and one of his advisors says

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, while the storms of rain and snow rage outside; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, while he is inside, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Feasting in the hall was the image of the good things in life for the Anglo-Saxons, but as in that passage, there’s always a sense of it as a refuge from the hostility of the world. That’s why exile is such a key theme, and why Grendel taking people from Heorot is so traumatic; because the hall is, above all, a safe haven.

And Anglo-Saxon pessimism goes beyond believing that the world is hostile; they believed that the world was in decline. They weren’t fools; they knew about the Romans and lived among Roman ruins. Archeologial evidence suggests that the Saxons in London held their folkmoots in the old Roman amphitheatre. They would have known that they were living the remnants of a more powerful, sophisticated, and technologically advanced culture than their own, and they foresaw humanity continuing its downward spiral. That adds to the foreignness. The last thousand years of European history have seen continuous growth in wealth, technology and knowledge, and however much people worry about the environment or nuclear annihilation or a clash of civilisations, deep down we believe that’s the norm.

All that pessimism created a literature in a minor key. The plot of Beowulf – heroism, treasure and dragonslaying – makes it easy to caricature it as a kind of C8th action movie. And in a sense that’s true. There’s no great psychological complexity to the characters. Even Arnie might just about be able to pull off the role of Beowulf, as long as the dialogue was kept to a minimum. What gives the poem substance isn’t so much the plot but the mood and context. Beowulf doesn’t save the world, he just holds back the inevitable for a while, and at the end he dies and his country collapses. If Predator had been directed by Ingmar Bergman it might have been something like Beowulf.