Books of the Year 2008

As ever, these are books I read in 2008, not necessarily or usually books published in 2008. The selection process wasn’t terribly rigorous; I just quickly picked out titles I particularly remember enjoying. I blogged about most of the books I read this year, so rather than go over them again, I’ve provided links to those posts. In the order I read them, these are my picks for the year:

Looking at that list, I’ve had a particularly good year for fiction this year, partially because of the Read The World challenge; the Aitmatov stands out as an example of a book I thought was really good and which it’s very unlikely I would have read if I hadn’t been looking for a title from Kyrgyzstan.

The Mitford letters might be the pick of the non-fiction; I knew they’d probably be worth reading, because they were an extraordinary bunch and several of them wrote well, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy them as much as I did. Like a sparkling, witty and very posh version of Heat magazine, only with Hitler and Evelyn Waugh instead of Amy Winehouse.

Bird of the Year 2008

Nearly all Welsh this year, I think. I’ve seen bugger-all in the garden, and haven’t done that much birding, so it’s mainly down to my spring trip to Pembrokeshire.

Before I get onto that, though, my other notable birdy trip this year was to the WWT reserve at Welney, where they feed the overwintering swans. They weren’t there in the kinds of numbers that they have been sometimes in the past – apparently the whooper swans migrate down through northern Europe and they think because the weather had been mild they were still in Germany or the Netherlands. But they were there, and they are lovely birds which I don’t often see, so that was nice. All the swans in this picture are the wrong species, so you’ll have to take my word for it that there were whooper swans there as well.

So, Pembrokeshire. Lots of the relatively common stuff: sedge warblers, whitethroats, linnets, stonechats, marsh harrier, spotted flycatcher, peregrine. The best bird other than my main target species was garganey, a very attractive little duck and a British tick for me. Oh, and grasshopper warbler deserves a mention, too, especially since I spent so long trying to find the damn thing: it has very distinctive call, a kind of mechanical buzzing, but it lurks.

But the birds I went there for were those of the cliff-tops and offshore islands. The most boring of them were the rock pipits, which are a genuine cliffy speciality but let’s be honest, they have the charisma (and indeed general appearance and personality) of mice. Much more exciting were the choughs [‘chuffs’]. To slip into Shakespeare for a moment:

When they him spy,
As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye,
Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun’s report,
Sever themselves and madly sweep the sky,
So, at his sight, away his fellows fly

Choughs aren’t actually russet-pated, as such, they have red beaks and legs. Very attractive birds, and they make this great metallic chee-ow noise as they fly around. Here’s my photo, not the best ever, but it gives you the idea:

Chough might be a real contender for bird of the year except that I’ve seen them before, years ago in Morocco.

After that, it’s all sea birds, starting with gulls and the fulmar, a bird which looks superficially like a gull but is actually a tubenose; sort of like a tiny fat albatross. Then there’s the cormorant and its more glamorous cousin the shag (a really gorgeous bird, with an oilgreen tint to its black feathers, a yellow gape and a little Tintin crest). And I took an evening boat trip to see another tubenose: the Manx shearwaters coming in to land. They feed their young at night to avoid predators, so although on the island of Skomer I saw lots of dead ones in various states of disintegration, I didn’t see a single live one. Apparently they make an unholy racket during the night, though.

Confusingly, Manx shearwater has the Latin name Puffinus puffinus, which leads me onto my last set of birds, the auks. Three species, the guillemot, the razorbill, and the puffin.

They are all beautiful species, and it was great to take a boat trip to see the huge colonies on the cliffs with thousands of guillemots and razorbills — and to see a raven stealing guillemot eggs — but the reason I went to Wales and my Bird of the Year 2008 is puffin. Atlantic Puffin, Fratercula arctica, to be exact.

If you feel cold at this time of the year, spare a thought for the puffins, which overwinter out in the middle of the north Atlantic. Brrr.


  • 'the stream addresses of BBC National Radio stations, so that you can listen to the BBC on the move using an iPhone or iPod Touch.' Not sure this works for people outside the UK, but I'm really excited to find it. Now I can listen to the cricket on my phone… genius!
    ( tags: iPhone radio BBC )


4th annual Heraclitean Fire Christmas stuffing post

Because arbitrary traditions are important at Christmas.

As usual, I made a base of sausagemeat, celery, onion and breadcrumbs, and also as usual half of it is chestnut stuffing. But this year’s second, ad-libbed recipe has toasted almonds and dried apricots and peaches soaked in amaretto.

Now I ought to get on with roasting the ham that has been simmering away the whole time. Happy midwinter festival, everyone.

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Gee, Officer Krupke

Since the world’s financial system went into meltdown, there has been a certain amount of tooth-gnashing and mouth-frothing about the dreadful greed and recklessness of bankers — a lot of it from politicians who frankly aren’t in a position to lecture anyone about short-termism. I find it difficult to work up much righteous anger.

Firstly because complaining that bankers get too excited about money seems like complaining that gannets get too excited about fish. But also because we’re not talking about one or two individuals doing a Nick Leeson job on the world’s banks: as far as I can gather, most of the world’s bankers were making the same bad decisions at the same time. So I tend to think: there but for the grace of God go I. Of course it’s possible that I would have been one of the few bright sparks who spotted what was going on and tried to avoid it, but the odds are against it.

I suspect, ironically, that some of the very people who are most full of outrage at the excesses of global capitalism would be the first to excuse bad behaviour and reckless short-termism in the case of, say, the urban poor. It’s not that merchant bankers are bad people; they’ve been failed by the system.

» the video is of course from West Side Story; the actual song starts at about 1:50.

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  • fun with sparks!
    ( tags: none)
  • Good article in the LRB explaining some of the reasons why the world's financial system has gone into spasm. Every time I read another article about this stuff I feel I'm a little bit closer to understanding, but also that there's a whole world of complication out there the surface of which I have barely scratched.
    ( tags: none)

Probably not one for purists

After my recent rant about what epic poetry isn’t, I feel I ought to share the fact that Dante’s Inferno is being made into… a computer game.

Can you hear that distant buzzing sound? That’s Dante spinning in his grave.

I admit to being intrigued, though; since the poem is distinctly short of sword-wielding action, being more of a walking tour of hell than anything else, I am curious to know how they’ve turned it into a game. And it does look sort of cool.

The Butterfly’s Burden by Mahmoud Darwish

The Butterfly’s Burden is a translation of three books by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died earlier this year: The Stranger’s Bed (1998), A State of Siege (2002) and Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done (2003). It’s a parallel text edition, which always makes me feel terribly learned, but in practice is just a waste of trees since I can’t even read Arabic script.

I am writing this post without having read the whole thing, which may be an admission of defeat. I’ve been having some difficulty connecting to it. I’m not inclined to blame Darwish for that: I imagine it’s partially the basic awkwardness of reading poetry in translation which is, as they say, like eating a Mars bar with the wrapper on; partially a lack of contextual knowledge on my part; and perhaps partially down to the translation by Fady Joudah, although I’m not in a position to judge it as a translation. And of course, very likely because of my own biases as a reader.

I initially picked it up and dipped in at random, which wasn’t a success, so I sat down and read A State of Siege straight through from beginning to end, and actually I did quite get into it and enjoy it. So, heartened by that, I tried the same thing with The Stranger’s Bed, but despite a few moments where I thought I was getting somewhere, I found it a bit of a chore. There were images or passages or moments that I thought were striking or effective, but I felt that on some basic level I just wasn’t getting it; the whole wasn’t cohering into more than the sum of the parts, and I found it all a bit frustrating.

I will make an attempt on Don’t Apologise for What You’ve Done as well, but whether or not I finish it I’m still going to claim Darwish as my writer from Palestine for the Read The World challenge, because I read two of the three books, and I think that’s good enough.

For an extract I’m going to pick something from A State of Siege, since that was the book I enjoyed most; in a sense, though, it’s a more difficult piece to pick extracts from because it isn’t divided into separate poems. Instead, it’s a thirty-page poem built up of short lyrical fragments, separated on the page by a little typographical squiggle. They work together cumulatively, and the poem has a kind of reflective tone; they could be the journal entries of a slightly gnomic diarist, or the contents of a notebook. The poem was written during the Second Intifada, and the conflict is the central subject, but the poem circles around it, sometimes explicitly talking about politics and violence, sometimes about poetry or love.

The mother said:
I did not see him walking in his blood
I did not see the purple flower on his foot
he was leaning against the wall
and in his hand
a cup of hot chamomile
he was thinking of his tomorrow …

The mother said: In the beginning of the matter I didn’t
comprehend the matter. they said: He just got married
a little while ago. So I let out my zaghareed, then danced and sang
until the last fraction of the night, when
the sleepless were gone and only baskets of purple flowers
remained around me. Then I asked: Where are the newlyweds?
Someone said: There, above the sky, two angels
are consummating their marriage … So I let out my zaghareed,
then danced and sang until I was struck
with a stroke.
When then, my beloved, will this honeymoon end?

This siege will extend until
the besieger feels, like the besieged,
that boredom
is a human trait

O you sleepless! have you not tired
from watching the light in our salt?
And from the incandescence of roses in our wounds
have you not tired, O sleepless?

We stand here. Sit here. Remain here. Immortal here.
And we have only one goal:
to be. Then we’ll disagree over everything:
over the design of the national flag
(you would do well my living people
if you choose the symbol of the simpleton donkey)
and we’ll disagree over the new anthem
(you would do well if you choose a song about the marriage of doves)
and we’ll disagree over women’s duties
(you would do well if you choose a woman to preside over security)
we’ll disagree over the percentage, the private and the public,
we’ll disagree over everything. And we’ll have one goal:
to be …
After that one finds room to choose other goals

» The photograph is of Mahmoud Darwish’s funeral in Ramallah and is ©


Darwin and wildlife photography at the NHM

I went along to the Natural History Museum to visit a couple of exhibitions: Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Darwin.

The WPotY exhibition is an annual treat; some years are  better than others, but it’s never less than enjoyable. My long-term gripe is that the overall winner is almost always a portrait of a large charismatic mammal (usually one of the African big games species) rather than ever being a picture of a shrimp or a toadstool or something. This year I’m willing to give them a partial credit on that front; they’ve picked a picture of a big cat, but it’s the fabulous, rare and extremely elusive snow leopard, and the picture, a night-time shot with falling snow, is pretty great.

You can see all the pictures online, but they also put the show on in other venues around the UK and around the world, so if South Kensington isn’t convenient you still might be able to see it somewhere near you. The shot above is of a polar bear at sunrise. Cool, innit. And how about this one, of leafcutter ants carrying petals:

The Darwin exhibition, part of the build-up to his 200th birthday next year, takes us through his life and work, and is full of artefacts (notebooks, letters) and specimens he collected. It does a good job of telling us about his life, I think, although as I’ve read two biographies of Darwin, and the Voyage of the Beagle, and The Origin of Species, and a biography of his grandfather, and one of Huxley, most of the material was familiar to me. I did enjoy it — it’s good to see all his scribbly handwriting and there are some great items on show — but none of it was really news to me, so I may not be the key audience.

btw, if you’re going to the museums at South Ken, you could do worse than have lunch at Casa Brindisa. Brindisa are a Spanish food importer with a shop in Borough Market who now have three tapas bars, and the lunch I had in there was just excellent. The website has the menu on it, so I can tell you exactly what I had: the pan fried sea bream with morcilla de Burgos and Bierzo peppers, a herb salad with moscatel vinaigrette and a serving of patatas bravas. It was all really delicious; the fish was crisp and perfectly cooked and went beautifully with earthiness of the morcilla and the slightly spicy peppers; the salad was fresh and herby with just enough slightly sweet dressing, and the potatoes were golden and crunchy without being oily and not drowned in the sauce. They even make an excellent cup of coffee, which is almost harder to find than a good plate of food.


  • "In Mexico, papel picado (perforated paper), refers to the traditional art of decorative cut paper banners…. Many papel picado are made especially for the Mexican festival of the Days of the Dead and include skeletal figures engaged in the everyday activities of the living."
    ( tags: Mexico paper skeletons )

The Unknown Matisse by Hilary Spurling

The Unknown Matisse is the first of two volumes, taking our hero from 1869-1908. I actually bought it some time ago on Jee Leong‘s recommendation, but it has taken me some time to finish, mainly I think because the simple physical size of it makes it slightly awkward to read in bed. It’s not that huge, but it’s quite a fat volume and printed on large format paper to make space for some colour reproductions of the work. Which are, of course, lovely and very welcome.

It’s fascinating to read about the outrage that greeted paintings which now seem, if not tame exactly, at least uncontroversial. Indeed the first time he shocked the Parisian public, it was with a painting (The Dinner Table) that now looks positively conventional.* Over the past hundred years, outraging the public has become an explicit part of the job description for artists; but how much more satisfying to shock people not by placing a sculpture of Christ in a glass of urine, or exhibiting a work consisting of a room with the lights going on and off, but with a painting of a woman in a hat.

Not that Matisse seems to have been temperamentally inclined to shock people for its own sake. Some of the other modern artists obviously rather enjoyed the opportunity to wind up the public: André Derain came back from a visit to London with a classically tailored English suit made fauvist by the choice of a green fabric, with a red waistcoat and yellow shoes. Matisse, though, was more inclined to respectability: partially because unlike most of his contemporaries he had a young family, which meant he needed at least enough saleable work to keep them in food. But also because (through no fault of his own) he was caught up in the most magnificently baroque financial and political scandal I’ve ever heard of — really, it would merit a book by itself — which gave him enough experience of public notoriety to last a lifetime.

It’s a fine book, readable, evocative, well-researched.  Or at least it gives the impression of being well-researched, which is as much as I have the expertise to judge.

* Although actually, in one of their periodic fits of cynical outrage about the Turner Prize, the Daily Mail held a ‘Not the Turner Prize’ competition, open to the public, and the work in that suggested that there are still plenty of people in Britain who feel that the highest aspiration of the painter should be photographic accuracy. Preferably of tigers. Or steam trains.

Pulp Beowulf

A link from C. Dale Young sent me to this article which is rather unflattering about a scheme to promote poetry in Seattle. What got me going, though, was this, from someone defending the scheme in the comments:

On comprehending poetry: you say “Poetry, by its very definition, is a difficult thing to write and to comprehend.” Certainly you can’t mean this, or perhaps you are simply uninformed. Since Mallarmé and especially since TS Eliot, perhaps, poetry’s hallmark is to be difficult, but again this is recent history given the history of bards: the Odyssey was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick, ditto Beowulf and the Eddas. The Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses. Shakespeare was not looking to mystify the objects of his love sonnets, nor is the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Ntozake Shange, Sharon Olds, Saul Williams, Li-Young Lee or in fact most poets worth their salt supposed to be incomprehensible or even that difficult.

Now I agree with the basic point that difficulty is not an essential quality of poetry. But as someone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry, I notice references in the media, so I have encountered this idea before, that Beowulf ‘was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick’.

It is a fucking ridiculous comparison.

One version of it is based, as far as I can tell, simply on the kind of story it is: Beowulf is about a buff warrior-hero type who goes out and fights monsters, so it must be the Dark Ages version of Die Hard or Independence Day.  Now I happen to believe this is a profound misreading of the poem, at least until someone makes a version of Die Hard which concerns itself deeply with the fragility, briefness and futility of human existence, or a version of Independence Day where the aliens win at the end.

But to properly try to refute that argument would be a difficult exercise, hedged around with qualifiers and uncertainty, because anyone who claims to know why Beowulf was written, who it was written for, how it was received or what kind of place it had in the culture is talking out of their arse.

Do you know how many surviving copies there are of long narrative Anglo-Saxon poems on non-Christian mythological themes? One. Beowulf. We assume that it is the only survivor from a rich oral culture of similar poems that were either never written down or have been lost — but we don’t know. And we certainly don’t know if Beowulf is a typical example, or how much it was changed when it was written down… or anything much at all, really.

And as for the statement that ‘the Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses’: Jesus wept.

I mean Chaucer, maybe sorta kinda; Dante I don’t know much about, although even in C14th Florence there must have been more populist options available than the theological epic; but Milton? Seriously? He’s your example of poetry not having to be difficult? There aren’t many poems in English more self-consciously literary, less populist and more stubbornly unwilling to make life easy for the reader than Paradise Lost.

I think what annoys me so much isn’t the inaccuracy of these comparisons: it’s the fact that anyone wants to make them at all. I understand the wish to resist the ghettoisation of poetry as an recondite and überliterary artform. And it’s true that there is a long and valuable tradition of popular, accessible poetry, much of it ephemeral but some of real merit. But to compare Homer and Beowulf to action movies, or call the Divine Comedy a blockbuster, and think you’re doing them a favour… I just don’t get it.

The Wooden Village by Peter Pišťanek

Or as the cover has it: The Wooden Village (Rivers of Babylon 2). That’s because it’s the sequel to Rivers of Babylon, which I read recently, and book two of a trilogy.

Rivers of Babylon, you may remember, follows a character called Rácz as he fights his way up from stoking the boilers of a big hotel in Bratislava to become a powerful businessman/crime lord. The Wooden Village focuses on one of the minor characters from that novel: Freddy Piggybank, who works in the hotel car park.

I didn’t think it was quite so successful; it suffers not so much from the absence of Rácz as a character but the lack of an equally compelling narrative framework. Rivers of Babylon had a whole cast of minor characters and subplots, but it was held together by the remorseless rise of Rácz; I don’t think the second book has such a strong core. The tone has shifted a bit, too; it’s still scathing and vulgar and energetic, but it seems to have lost the ferocious anger that powered the first book. It feels like a shift away from satire towards farce.

Anyway, here’s an extract. Freddy has just been told that the council is closing the car park and that he will therefore be losing his job:

Freddy sits there lifelessly. Only now does he feel the whole impact of his cruel fate. This is the end of Freddy. Life will not be worth living now. Where will he go? What will happen to him? Back to the brickyard? They’re laying off workers there. And his parents? What will his parents say? The vein in his head begins to pound dangerously. Freddy should be taking his medication, but he just sits there. I might as well croak, he thinks, full of self-pity. He imagines big headlines in the daily papers: BANKRUPT CAR PARK ATTENDANT DIES ON HIS LOT!.. HE ONLY WANTED TO LOOK AFTER CARS!.. ANOTHER VELVET REVOLUTION VICTIM? Yes, he’ll probably die here. The bitch from town council will read the paper and her conscience will bother her until she dies. Freddy wallows in his misery and rather pleasant self-pity. His chest heaves mightily a few times and he sighs with sadness. No, Piggybank realises, his death will not be headline news. Maybe some paper will have a little piece about it in the miscellaneous section: MENTALLY DISTURBED MISER DIES OF STROKE IN CAR PARK. Or something like that.

Freddy makes a decision. He will survive. He won’t allow his tragic death, a number one event for him, to become a source of entertainment fro some fool having his morning coffee. No! Freddy will fight. He will have revenge on this fucking government for this humiliation. He will live off crime. He will sink deep into the muck. He will steal and so on, until they catch up with him and lock him up in jail. And he’ll die in jail. As a sort of silent protest. As an example of what this government did to an honest businessman, Alfred Mešťánek, who only wanted to guard cars until his death and make an honest living. From now on, no wickedness will be wicked enough for Freddy!

I’d certainly recommend you read Rivers of Babylon, and if you enjoy that, you’ll probably enjoy this one too; it’s just not as good, I think.

» The photo of a sex shop in Bratislava is © Mark Pozzobon and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. I don’t seem to have mentioned it in this post, but The Wooden Village has a lot of stuff about the sex trade, which is why the photo seemed relevant.


  • “I spent the first 17 years of my life dirt-poor,” said Cassano, who was raised by a single mother in one of the most crime-ridden neighbourhoods in Italy and said he is certain that had it not been for football, he would have become a hoodlum. “Then I spent nine years living the life of a millionaire. That means I need another eight years living the way I do now and then I’ll be even.”
    ( tags: football Italy )
  • 'On Boxing Day 1789, Franklin wrote to Webster in Hartford, returning the compliment: 'It is an excellent work, and will be greatly useful in turning the thoughts of our countrymen to correct writing.' He shared and appreciated his friend's prescriptivist distaste for vulgar idiom, and wanted to contribute further follies to a future edition of the work.'