Ragamuffin by Tobias S. Buckell

Ragamuffin is my book from Grenada for the Read The World challenge. It’s a science fiction novel about a universe where humans share space with various other species and can travel from world to world via wormholes. Some of them come from a world which was settled by people from the Caribbean, hence the title and a certain amount of West Indian-inflected dialogue.

It was quite entertaining, I guess; I’m not really much of an SF fan. I read a lot at one stage because my brother used to read them, but since we don’t live in the same house anymore, I’ve largely stopped. I think the most interesting thing about SF is when it’s used to explore ideas: so for example, Iain M Banks’s Culture novels are in a sense a contribution to the Utopian tradition, and among other things, they raise the question of what human society would be like in a situation with limitless material wealth.

Ragamuffin is not really a novel of ideas in that way; it’s inventive enough, but it’s inventive within the standard tropes of science fiction. In a way this kind of space opera is really futuristic fantasy; swords and sorcery, with bionic implants taking the place of magical powers. I always thought it was interesting, incidentally, that two of the most popular works of C20th narrative, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, have such a medieval shape to them. But maybe that’s too much of a detour for this post.

Anyway, sub-genres of SF aside, what really makes the difference between good novels and bad ones is not the genre, it’s always the quality of the writing. Which in this book was perfectly reasonable but nothing remarkable. Even though it’s not the kind of book I usually read, I picked it up thinking it might be a bit of treat to read some escapist fiction. But it never really grabbed me.

» The Aztec figurine of Mictlantecuhtli is from the British Museum. As well as the Caribbean theme in the novel, there’s an Aztec-inspired culture, weirdly enough.

A thought on AV

I’m sure the whole world is on the edge of its seat on the eve of the UK’s referendum to change its voting system. I don’t particularly want to go over the arguments about voting reform again [previous posts for the truly interested], but I’m interested by the psychology of the supporters of first past the post. It is, after all, a truly terrible voting system for any election with more than two candidates.

There are two obvious reasons why people might support the status quo, one more cynical than the other. The cynical one is simple self-interest: FPTP tends to entrench a two-party system and creates a structural advantage for the two major parties. The other obvious reason is small-c conservatism. We’ve always done it this way, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, if it was good enough for Winston Churchill it’s good enough for me, blah blah blah.

But some politicians seem to have a visceral dislike of it, and I wonder if part of that is the psychology of party politics. You don’t generally end up as an MP, and certainly not a government minister, without a deep tribal attachment to a particular party. The kind of people who go into student politics, who get jobs as researchers for MPs, who go door to door with leaflets: these are people who always know who they’re going to vote for, who always have a dog in the race. If their man doesn’t win, that counts as a loss. People who are active in party politics are like sports fans — Chelsea till I die! — and their experience of elections is completely different to that of the mass of the public.

Perhaps that’s why they seem to regard the use of second preferences as somehow cheating. They can’t relate to people who are ambivalent about all the parties, who often feel they are voting for the least bad choice, or who feel unrepresented by the system.

I think AV is a better system than FPTP because it eliminates spoiler candidates and tactical voting. But I think it also appeals to me personally because it is a better reflection of the way I feel about the parties. I don’t go into the voting booth with one clear automatic first choice; I go in weighing up a mix of different priorities. I don’t agree with any of the parties wholeheartedly, and I don’t like them very much, but some are preferable to others.

I might go in to vote feeling that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens would all be acceptable, with Conservative a distant fourth but still clearly preferable to the BNP, UKIP, the Christian Party, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, or Respect; well, AV allows me to express that.

Depressingly it looks very much like the referendum is going to fail, so we are going to continue with a voting system that is designed for people with the absolute political certainty and strong partisan instincts, rather than wishy-washy people like me. Ho hum.

Shadows of your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo

As part of my ongoing quest to read a book from every country, I picked up Shadows of your Black Memory as a book from Equatorial Guinea. It is a childhood/coming of age novel that sets up the conflict between traditional and western cultures: particularly in this case between traditional religion and Catholicism.

Which, at this point in the exercise, is not a description that fills me with excitement; because nearly all the literature of the post-colonial world seems to be about the conflict between tradition and western culture and/or modernity. Certainly the stuff which makes it into English translation. And it’s also pretty common to tell it as the story of a young person growing up caught between two worlds.

So I didn’t pick it up with much enthusiasm, but actually it’s a really good novel. It is simply very well written: vivid, fresh and engaging.

Here’s one of the Catholic bits:

When I was eight, I knew Father Claret’s catechism by heart, and my favourite book was his Straight and Sure Path to Heaven. The horror of eternal condemnation didn’t allow me to be a child. I didn’t go to the Wele River with Ba any more, I couldn’t learn how to make those bamboo toy cars that I loved so much even though cousin Asumu offered to teach me many times. I didn’t carve arrows to shoot at birds anymore, I didn’t go swimming in the Nganga River with my friend Otunga or my cousins Anton and Mbo. Even today I don’t know how to swim. I didn’t have a hunting dog, and I didn’t know how to make a cage for trapping fish. All this was for other children now, for the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to be touched by the grace of God. What’s the use of all that fun and idleness if in the end your soul is damned forever? Father Claret, the saintly one, asked me this as I read his book, and I had no choice; I had to acknowledge that the most important part of my life was my soul, and to be saved I had to avoid useless amusements, the silly games of my friends, my cousins, the brothers in my tribe. It was shortly before I was nine when I got into the habit of saying Mass from a little altar I made for myself in my room in front of the crucifix Father Ortiz had given me and under the religious things I had on the wall: the Eye-of-God triangle and some prints that were brought to me by my father’s white friends; the Little Prayer Book served as missal. Alone in my room, when no one was looking, when my little brothers succumbed to the midday sun, I got all dressed up in a bed sheet and pretended it was a priest’s chasuble and started to say Mass, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spritus Sancti, and I made the sign of the cross: I, a sinner, confess to Almighty God and the Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, Saint Michael the Archangel, John the Baptist, and to Apostles Peter and Paul and all the saints, and I beat my little breast in contrition, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and I almost forgot the kyrie eleison kyrie eleison Christe eleison Christe eleison, then the intraito, oremus, and I turned my head ceremoniously; then in silent fervor I genuflected, gloria in excelsis Deo, and I recited it all without knowing what I said in a Latin I learned from listening to Father Ortiz so much.

So, yup, I really enjoyed this one. Well worth picking up. I’d be quite interested in reading the sequel if it was available in English. And I often forget to mention translators, but credit is certainly due in this case, so: the translation is by Michael Ugarte.

» The photo is of a Reliquary Guardian Figure (Eyema-o-Byeri) in the Brooklyn Museum. It is actually from Gabon rather than Equatorial Guinea, but it’s the right ethnic group (Fang).

Royal wedding weirdness

Interesting to see that the crown Prince of Bahrain has said he won’t be coming to the Will&Kate wedstravaganza because he doesn’t want the political situation in Bahrain to be a ‘distraction’ from the wedding. Because news stories about the arrest, beating and torture of political dissidents might be an unnecessary turd of realism in the candy-floss.

Perhaps he came to this decision spontaneously; it seems likely that there was some diplomatic pressure being exerted behind the scenes by the British government. Still, the Saudis are coming, so the government clearly doesn’t feel there’s a fundamental conflict between fairytale weddings and brutal human rights abuses; it’s not a question of morality so much as timing.

The guest list actually makes rather interesting reading. A lot of it is very predictable — friends and family, some British political bigwigs, various religious representatives. Where I think it gets interesting is the foreign guests, who basically fall into two categories: royals and the Commonwealth.

Prince William will one day be head of the Commonwealth, so it makes a quirky kind of sense that St Lucia gets an invitation ahead of, for example, the US or France.

But the royals category does make me just slightly queasy. All royals, from whatever country, seem to automatically get an invitation because, what, royals should stick together? Is that really what we think? Do we really think that it’s more important to extend this courtesy to the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia, a man whose family have not been heads of state since 1945, and whose country doesn’t even exist anymore, than to, say, the President of France? or Ireland? or Germany?

As I’ve said before, I’m a sort of pragmatic royalist by inclination. That is, I know that the monarchy is anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic and anachronistic, but I think it’s mostly harmless; and given the political melodrama that would involved in getting rid of it, on balance I’m inclined to let well enough alone. But there’s nothing like a royal wedding to bring out the republicanism simmering under the surface. It’s the symbolism of it, the idea that a title inherited through blood is somehow more special than one which is given via the democratic will of the people.

Dazzled and Deceived by Peter Forbes

This is a book about mimicry and camouflage; principally in nature but also in human use — i.e. the military. I heard about it because it won the Warwick Prize for Writing 2011, and the subject sounded interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s certainly pretty good, but I wasn’t blown away by it. It didn’t help that I was familiar with many of the examples already.

My other slight gripe is that it spends a lot of time using examples of mimicry and camouflage as a way to shed light on deeper ideas about evolution. Which is, obviously, a valuable exercise, and not in itself a Bad Thing. But I’ve read loads of stuff about evolution already, thank you, and so reading yet another explanation of evo-devo is not enormously exciting. I would much rather have been reading about extra examples of strange and curious animal mimicry.

So, you know, a good book; but I am not its perfect audience. Still, if nothing else it introduced me to the jaw-dropping amazon leaf fish pictured above.

The Land Without Shadows by Abdourahman A. Waberi

The Land Without Shadows is my book from Djibouti for the Read The World challenge. There are a few options available in French, but Waberi seems to be the only choice in English. Having read a few underwhelmed reviews of his novel, In The United States of Africa, I thought I’d try this collection of short pieces.

It seems to be broadly true that Francophone literature from Africa is much more overtly ‘literary’ than the English-language stuff; more playful, more given to formal and stylistic flourishes. Which says something about the influence of French culture and French academia.

Some of these are fairly conventional short stories, others are more like essays or parables or long prose poems. They add up to a sort of portrait of Djibouti — the land without shadows — both in the present and historically.

It’s quite inventive and well-written, but the plain truth is that it never really held my attention. Shrug.

» Djibouti is © Stéphane Pouyllau and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Scary research

Genuinely terrifying:

Researchers [in Israel] looked at 1,112 rulings involving requests for parole (or for changes of incarceration terms) presented to eight judges. They heard cases daily, interrupting for a morning snack and lunch.

The odds of an inmate receiving a favorable decision started at 65%, first thing in the morning, then steadily dropped until the snack break. If the judge heard eight cases in the morning, the average success rate for the last one was 25%. If the judge heard 12 cases, the average success rate for the final one was 0%. Favorable rulings popped back up to 65% when the judge returned, then slid again until lunchtime. The same pattern appeared post-lunch.

The authors could find no other factors that might explain the pattern beyond the hearing’s timing, relative to the food breaks. They had no direct measure of the judges’ mood.

From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, via the WSJ, via bookofjoe.

Why I hate the Pre-Raphaelites*

When I was at university I overheard a conversation when someone said:

I just don’t understand how you can say you like both the Pre-Raphaelites and Vermeer.

It has stuck with me ever since. It’s just a perfect one-line bit of art criticism. It always seemed like it ought to make a great parlour game†: ‘I just don’t understand how you can say you like both x and y… fill in the blanks.’ But actually I’ve never been able to find a pair which seems as perfect as Vermeer and the Pre-Raphs.

Vermeer basically painted accurate pictures of his own time and place; carefully composed, tidied up and idealised, perhaps, but realistic, small scale, domestic. The Pre-Raphaelites‡ chose to retire to a silly fantasy world of knights and maidens which avoided the difficult complex reality of the nineteenth century — but avoided the difficult complex reality of the medieval world as well.

And Vermeer is sensual but austere; sensual in his representation of surfaces, textures, light and shadow, but stylistically austere in his classically perfect compositions and controlled, precise brushwork. While the Pre-Raphaelites are the opposite: stylistically they are lush and decorative, but the result is bloodless. Their paintings are full of decorative young men and women posturing and looking glamorous, but it’s all surface. There’s no flesh to it, not a whiff of filth.

In one of Aldous Huxley’s early novels, which are satirical portraits of London bohemia, there’s a character called Casimir Lypiatt who sees himself in the Renaissance tradition of painter-poet-thinkers, full of bombastic rhetoric about Art and Beauty and moral significance. Not everyone is as impressed with him as he is:

‘Number seventeen,’ said Mrs Viveash, ‘is called “Woman on a Cosmic Background.”’  A female figure stood leaning against a pillar on a hilltop, and beyond was a blue night with stars.  ‘Underneath is written: “For one at least, she is more than the starry universe.”’  Mrs Viveash remembered that Lypiatt had once said very much that sort of thing to her.  ‘So many of Casimir’s things remind me,’ she said, ‘of those Italian vermouth advertisements.  You know – Cinzano, Bonomelli and all those.  I wish they didn’t.  This woman in white with her head in the Great Bear….’ She shook her head.  ‘Poor Casimir.’

Presumably Huxley, writing in 1923, was not thinking of the pre-Raphaelites. But that description is brutally spot on.

Vermeer took the small and mundane and made it something hypnotic; the Pre-Raphaelites took a grand mixture of ideas, ideals, myth and history, and made a lot of pretty posters.

* OK, maybe ‘hate’ is a bit strong. But, you know, linkbait innit.

† Actually, thinking about it, a truly dreadful parlour game. A mildly interesting intellectual exercise, maybe.

‡ Yes, I know, I’m lumping them all together in a rather lazy way. But although the exact details varied from painter to painter, and some were better than others, I think the broad argument applies to all of them.

Kate Middleton confirmed into the Church of England

According to sources close to Miss Middleton she chose to be confirmed because of her own personal journey into faith rather than because of the Royal Family’s role in the Church of England.

Yeah, right.

I suppose it’s not actually impossible that she happened to have a religious flowering just in time to marry the future head of the church, but let’s just say the timing invites scepticism. Still, it’s probably harmless enough as religious hypocrisies go.

This, though, seems a little optimistic from the religious correspondent of the Times:

This is good news for the people of Britain. It is thrilling to think of what might come of Miss Middleton’s public commitment to her faith, and of the ways in which, through good works as well as faith, she will go on to use her position to contribute to the common good.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the royal wedding, but I don’t think Kate Middleton is the celebrity endorsement which is going to fill the pews.

Watercolour at Tate Britain

I actually went to see this exhibition about a week or so ago, but I’ll just jot down some belated impressions. It is, as the title suggests, a historical survey of watercolour painting, from the medieval to the present.

There are only a handful of medieval pieces, bits of illuminated manuscript, which just serve as a reminder that, although they are not what we usually think of as ‘watercolour’, that is technically what they are.

The exhibition makes the interesting point that originally watercolour was mainly seen as an adjunct to drawing: a work would be drawn in pencil or ink and then effectively coloured in, sometimes just with a few hint of colour to liven the drawing and sometimes in a more thorough way. So many of the early pieces are technical works of one kind or another: costume designs for Elizabethan masques, maps, plans of fortifications, as well as a few specific uses like portrait miniatures.

That technical aspect leads on to what is probably my favourite room of the exhibition, a room of scientific illustrations; especially botanical illustrations but also birds and mammals. Many of these were lent by the Natural History Museum or Kew, which is a clear sign that they were not originally created as Art, but they are gorgeous things. It even included some lovely C19th paintings of rock types — each one is a lump of rock on a plain white background, and they look like an elegantly minimalist conceptual art project.

After that we get into watercolour as an artistic medium in its own right. This includes plenty of ‘typical’ watercolours — landscapes, basically — but also a variety of paintings chosen at least partially to challenge that stereotype. So we have a room of war paintings, a room of ‘visionary’ paintings, a room of exhibition watercolours (i.e. large-scale C19th narrative paintings designed to compete with oil paintings for gravitas), and a room of contemporary work using watercolour.

My single biggest problem with the exhibition is that C19th British painting is not something I particularly enjoy. And that was the golden age of watercolour. So the aesthetic of the paintings was more off-putting than anything to do with watercolour as a medium. The exhibition watercolours seemed particularly pointless. I don’t like Victorian narrative painting and find the Pre-Raphaelites exceptionally noxious; seeing them painted in watercolour instead of oils didn’t make them any more likeable. Especially since there was no obvious attempt to make a virtue of the different medium: rather they seemed to be straining to make watercolours look as much like oil as possible.

And some of the paintings had clearly faded, which is the great technical problem of watercolour as a medium. There’s nothing much you can do about that, but it is a pity. There was a painting of some sun-drenched imperial outpost (Egypt? India?) which just didn’t look very hot, and I think it had probably faded a bit. So the shadows weren’t as dark, and the tones weren’t as warm.

As you can tell, I wasn’t blown away. But every room had something of interest and something covetable. And every so often there was a painting which was gorgeous and which could only have been done with watercolour: liquid and light and translucent. So it’s well worth a visit.

» The painting of the Lion-haired macaque, Macaca silenus, is by an unknown Chinese artist working for John Reeves, who employed locals to paint the specimens he was collecting while working in Canton from 1812-1831. That particular work is not in the Tate, though they do have a different monkey from the Reeves collection, lent by the NHM.

Birding again

The glorious summery weather is back, and I had a good day of birding today, just out of London. On the spring migrant front: masses of chiffchaffs and blackcaps, the odd willow warbler, a single swallow. Also treecreeper, nuthatch, buzzard and so on, but the bird of the day was bullfinch. To capture my immediate, pseudo-spontaneous reaction, here’s the tweet I posted at the time:

Wow. Bullfinch. What a genuinely incredible bird. I must try to see it more often.

And seriously, a male bullfinch in peak spring plumage is as beautiful as any bird I have seen anywhere, including barbets and toucans and hummingbirds… it is a proper cracker.

That’s not my picture, obviously, apart from anything else, it certainly wasn’t snowy today… but what a gorgeous beasty.

So, it was a lovely day out. The sky was blue, there was masses of blackthorn covered in bright white flowers, I saw about seven or eight species of butterfly*. Tasty.

And I was amused to find this on the pavement near my house:

Apparently the local drug dealers are sufficiently well organised these days that they sell their product in cute little cannabis-themed bags. I had no idea. The bag still smells of weed; oh the nostalgia. It almost makes me want to roll up, tune in and drop out.

* Definitely Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Orange-Tip; and I think Speckled Wood, Holly Blue, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell.

» The photo Eurasian Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) male is © Steve Garvie and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Um, what?

Just got this text from O2, the company which provides both my mobile phone service and internet connection:

We’re happy to tell you that your tariff New Allowance will offer browsing as well as text at £15 starts on 09/04/2011.

I rely on this company for much of my ability to communicate with the world. The fact they can’t make their website run properly or compose intelligible automated messages to their customers: this does not inspire confidence.

Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

Of course no non-fiction book these days is published without a subtitle; this one is Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.

It is a book with a particular argument to make, that tax havens are a Bad Thing. And it does a good job of making it engaging and readable, considering that it is, in the end, a book about international tax law and accountancy practices. It traces the historical development of the current system and illustrates it with plenty of colourful anecdotes about individuals along the way to keep it interesting.

Among the notable points it makes:

Tax avoidance is just one part of the problem. Offshore jurisdictions also allow businesses to avoid regulations and other legal obligations. And perhaps most significant, they provide layers of secrecy.

And of course it’s not just multinational businesses and wealthy individuals that benefit: it is also central to the workings of organised crime and government corruption. The secrecy in particular allows huge amounts of money to flow out of the developing world via the bank accounts of corrupt officials — amounts of money which apparently completely dwarf the aid moving in the other direction.

Not all of these jurisdictions are literally ‘offshore’. There is a single building in Delaware which is officially the corporate headquarters of 217,000 businesses, including Ford, GM, Coca-Cola, Google and so on. In the case of Delaware, the appeal is the very corporate-friendly legal environment. The City of London and Manhattan have also worked hard to turn themselves into tax havens in their own right.

The City of London is central to all this — it’s not a coincidence that so many of the key tax havens are parts of the old British empire: Jersey, Guernsey, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. And the Bank of England, which I always thought of as a rather staid, conservative body whose main concern was economic simplicity, turns out to have been the most significant lobbying arm of the the City to the British government.

Interesting stuff, generally. The only reservation is that this is a very one-sided account about a subject I know nothing about, so I can’t easily assess how fair or accurate it is. And there are times it suffers from when-your-only-tool-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail syndrome; suggesting that financial secrecy doesn’t just contribute to but more or less causes ALL the world’s problems.  You get the feeling that if you asked him why your soufflés kept collapsing, he would say it was because of the laxness of trust law in the Cayman Islands.

Nonetheless, he does make a pretty convincing case that lack of financial transparency is an important contributor to many of the world’s problems; it may not cause them, but it certainly enables them.

» As seen on Google street view, that is 1209 North Orange St, Wilmington, Delaware. The legal home of 217,000 companies, including Google itself.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

This is the Werner Herzog documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings in France. It was definitely worth seeing, but mainly, I think, for the incredible paintings themselves, rather than anything Werner Herzog brought to the project.

It is probably the best use of 3D I’ve seen, because although I’ve seen photos of the paintings at Chauvet and Lascaux, the photos tend to flatten out the image; you get very little sense of the highly irregular shape of the cave walls and the way that the paintings are shaped around the contours of the rock. The 3D film really did make all the difference and was very effective.

Which is an unusual view for me, because I basically think that 3D is a rubbish technology. In most circumstances it’s little more than a gimmick, and it seems to be technically rather bad anyway: I find that it looks unnatural and exaggerated, it’s often slightly shimmery or glitchy, it doesn’t work properly if you tilt your head to one side, and it tends to give me a headache. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m wearing prescription glasses under the 3D ones, but that seems to be a lot of downside for very little upside.

Even in this film, I think it would have been better to save the 3D for the places where it really mattered — i.e. looking at the cave paintings. An interview with a paleontologist sitting in an office does NOT need to be in 3D, thank you very much.

And even in the scenes inside the cave, it became clear that some of the film had not been filmed in 3D, but faked up as 3D in post-production. This was particularly egregious in a scene where two scientists were standing in front of a cave painting and talking about it, and something looked very weird; I suddenly realised that when they had faked the 3D, they had cut out the two figures rather carelessly and cut out a big chuck of the surrounding wall as well; so there was a big blob of cave wall which was in completely the wrong visual plane, floating in front of the wall around it.

Such technical gripes aside, the paintings were beautiful and fascinating. And there were all sorts of snippets of fascinating information, like the great scratches on the walls which had been left by cave bears sharpening their claws. Or the two stags painted on top of each other which carbon dating revealed were painted 5000 years apart. I mean, really, 5000 years! What does it mean that there was such staggering cultural continuity?

I was also interested that there was no sign of human habitation in the cave; presumably they used it as a ritual site, or something. It’s all guesswork, of course. There also no humans among the paintings, apart from one image apparently of a woman’s pubic triangle and legs, similar to the famous ‘Venus’ figurines. And no pictures of birds, incidentally; it’s all big game: cave bears, cave lions, horses, antelope, woolly rhino, mammoth, hyena, aurochs.

Of course we have so little of their lives to draw on, so what does survive gains enormous, inflated importance. The paintings are the most vivid connection we have to those people 35,000 years ago, and so we can’t help having them as central to our idea of their lives; but we don’t know whether they were similarly important to the people who painted them. The film did show a few objects found at other sites of the same period that provide a few hints at a broader life; Venus figurines, animal carvings, and most extraordinarily a flute which had been meticulously reconstructed from over 30 tiny fragments of ivory. But mainly we are left with a lot of stone tools and the cave paintings. Anything made of wood, or gut, or hide is long gone, let alone the stories they told, the music they played, the food they cooked.

Hot trends in spam

It is fascinating to see the evolving ways in which spambots try to fool us into thinking they are real people. It’s like a very narrow version of the Turing Test.

In response to a birdy post which mentioned, among other things, ring-necked duck, someone submitted this almost-relevant piece of commentary:

Like the scaups she has a white crescent at the base of her bill although it is less distinctive than that of either the Greater or Lesser Scaup. The Female Ring-necked Duck can be distinguished from the scaups by the thin white eye-ring that trails back to her ear and the peaked shape of her head as well as by differing habitat. A generalized diet may allow the Ring-necked Duck to colonize new areas and habitats that other species might not be able to use and this may be why it seems to be faring well.

It doesn’t actually make sense as a real human response to the post, but at a glance I thought it might do. Although the fact it was posted by a website offering offshore banking services would probably have been enough to tip me off.

Culturally agnostic

It is census time in the UK, which includes a question about your religion. So I ticked the box for ‘no religion’; but my father ticked the one for ‘Christian’, despite the fact that he is certainly not a member of any church, doesn’t go to church except for weddings, funerals and the occasional carol service, and is not, as far as I can tell, a believer.

But, you know, he went to a Christian school, and he was even confirmed into the Church of England (by the archbishop of Canterbury, as it happens). Which suggests there was a period in his life when he regarded himself as Christian. So I guess it makes sense if he regards himself as culturally Christian — whatever that means.

And I do see the value of religions as cultural identities — I can see why Jewish atheists might still want to affirm their Jewishness and maintain the rituals. Or as I’m told people used to ask in Northern Ireland, ‘but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?’

But as for me… I’m culturally more Christian than I am, say, Hindu — what religious education I had was mainly Christian in its focus, and I certainly know more about the culture and theology of Christianity than other religions. And at Christmas we have a tree, and presents, and a roast turkey. But those are just part of the ambient culture of Britain. Doctor Who plays a bigger part in my Christmas than Jesus. I’ve never thought of myself as Christian, so I don’t think of myself as a lapsed Christian, or a Christian atheist — if anything I’m a lapsed agnostic, since agnosticism seemed to be the fallback position amongst my peer group as a child.

The census can’t deal with such nuances, of course. Which is a pity, because that’s the kind of thing that seems interesting. We know that, because of people like my father, the census always significantly overstates the religiosity of the population:

When asked the census question ‘What is your religion?’, 61% of people in England and Wales ticked a religious box (53.48% Christian and 7.22% other) while 39% ticked ‘No religion’.

But when asked ‘Are you religious?’ only 29% of the same people said ‘Yes’ while 65% said ‘No’, meaning over half of those whom the census would count as having a religion said they were not religious.

Even more revealingly, less than half (48%) of those who ticked ‘Christian’ said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life and was the son of God.

The devoutly religious and the firmly atheist are straightforward enough; I’m curious about the shades of grey, the people who say their religion is Christian but that they are not religious. Are they mainly people who were brought up religious but don’t go to church any more? Are they defining themselves as Christian as a way of emphasising that they’re not Jewish or Muslim or whatever? Is it a generational thing? Do their children identify themselves as Christian? Perhaps ‘non-religious Christian’ can be a self-sustaining identity in its own right, comparable to secular Jewishness.

And the other side of that question is the people who tick ‘no religion’: are they mainly people who believe there is no god, or think there is no god, or can’t decide? Or are they just as likely to be people who have some kind of belief system of their own — something which they don’t think of as a religion but is not really non-belief either?

Anyway. I seem to have wandered off whatever point it was I was originally planning to make. Never mind.

» Ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire, by John Sell Cotman.

Jan Gossaert at the National Gallery

I went along to this with little knowledge and few preconceptions and on the whole was pleasantly surprised. I’ve said before I particularly like the Northern Renaissance for its more medieval aesthetic compared to the Italians. That’s actually less true of Gossaert; a lot of his figures have that contorted quality that I associate with, say, Michelangelo; of being posed in rather uncomfortable-looking positions with pronounced foreshortening. They also have a kind of fleshiness which relates to the Italians but also seems to make him a precursor of painters like Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.

The portraits stood out for me; which, come to think of it, is often the case in these exhibitions. I guess that’s partially because of their human interest — they are the most gossipy kind of painting — and partially because the relatively constrained format strips away many of the things modern audience find off-putting about older paintings. I think there are various reasons why religious paintings and history paintings are not to modern taste, some of it to do with the subject matter, but also the style. Whereas a straightforward head-and-shoulders portrait, the subject looking out of the canvas, is probably the single genre of painting which carries through most directly from the Renaissance to now.

So there was certainly stuff to enjoy — not least some fantastic Dürer engravings and woodcuts which were in there for context — but I can see why Gossaert’s not as well known as some of his contemporaries. He was clearly a wonderful painter, but he just lacks the extra something to make him stand out. And the ways in which he is different from his contemporaries probably make him less to modern taste rather than more. Certainly less to my taste.

Sumer is icumen in

Well, not actual summer, obviously. But it has been a week of glorious spring sunshine here, and I’ve been out and about enjoying it and doing some birding.

On Monday I  failed yet again to see Lesser-spotted Woodpecker in Richmond Park *shakes fist in general direction of south-west London*, but that was more than made up for by two birds. One was a woodcock — a sign that winter hasn’t quite left us yet, because they certainly don’t breed in Richmond. It was the classic brief view of it appearing from the leaf litter, flying a short distance and disappearing again, but it was a lifer for me so yay.

The other was the duck I used to illustrate my last post. I took the picture because it was an obviously odd-looking Tufted Duck, presumably a hybrid but I wasn’t sure quite what; turns out to be Tufted Duck × Ring-necked Duck. Which is cool, because Ring-necked Duck is an American species and a bit of a rarity in Europe, while Tufted is a European species and occasional visitor to North America… but like an anatine Romeo and Juliet, one pair obviously overcame the obstacles. If, that is, the parents were wild birds. I saw a black swan yesterday, and I’m quite certain that it didn’t fly here all the way from Australia. Not to mention the Mandarin Ducks, Egyptian Geese and Ring-necked Parakeets that breed in Richmond Park.

Still, it was an interesting bird. And the first time in a while, incidentally, that I regretted not having a paper field guide with me as well as the iPhone one, but fortunately the photos I took were good enough to let me work it out later.

And yesterday I had a good day up in the Lee Valley. I kind of hoped I might see a migrating Osprey, which didn’t work out. But I saw about eight species of duck, including Goldeneye, had a good view of a Water Rail, and the Chiffchaffs and Cetti’s Warblers were singing. And I saw my first Sand Martin of the year (that’s Bank Swallow if you’re American), and the best bird was a Pink-footed Goose in among the greylags.

And lastly, on Wednesday I went for a walk with a friend on the South Downs, and the skylarks and meadow pipits were singing, which was nice, but the most surprising thing was to suddenly hear a distinctive groonk groonk — raven!

I still think of ravens as birds of the really wild places; Welsh mountain tops, Scottish moors. Which they were, when I started birding twenty years ago. But actually they’re one of the most adaptable species in the world, living everywhere from deserts to the high Arctic. The fact that, when I was a child, you didn’t see them circling high over rolling farmland in southern England: that was a historical accident. It was the result of them being wiped out by gamekeepers and farmers. And now they are protected, they are coming back; like the buzzards, the peregrines, the sparrowhawks. And they are a joy to see.

Binocular vision

I got some very nice new binoculars at Christmas, so various people have asked to try them; and it appears that if you give a pair of binoculars to someone who doesn’t use them much, the first thing they do is point them at the furthest object they can find. Or they ask ‘How far can you see with those things?’

Which is actually rather a bad way of testing them. Because if the visibility isn’t perfect — if there is any dust, or heat haze, or mist, or if it’s just a bit gloomy — you rapidly run up against the limitations of physics. It doesn’t matter how brilliant the lenses are, they aren’t going to magically make fog disappear.

The best way to get a sense of how good they are is to look at something close. You can appreciate the sharpness and brightness of the image much better if you look at a bird from thirty feet and can see every feather than if try to look at something half a mile away.

If I was more spiritually inclined, I’d be tempted to make a metaphor out of that — it’s not about seeing further than the other guy, it’s about seeing the things which are close to you more clearly — but I’m not, so I won’t.

» The photo was taken with my phone camera and the new binoculars. It doesn’t have much relevance other than that. I just like to have a picture to break up the rather austere design of the blog.

Ancient wisdom

Looking through one of those advertising-funded local newsletter things, I saw there was an ad for classes in the martial art of ‘sebek-kha’. Which I’d never heard of.

So I checked google and learned that it is an ancient Egyptian martial art, said to be founded by founded by Heru-Ur (Heracles), passed down over thousands of years by a secretive lineage of Egyptian priests, and now known only to a select few. Known only to one chap running classes in a church hall in Herne Hill, to be exact.

The whole thing has cheered me up immensely.

The Hooligan Nights by Clarence Rook

Interesting one, this. Lee Jackson of victorianlondon.org decided to use some of his archive of digitised Victoriana to raise a bit of money to help support the site and put this for sale as a Kindle book for the minimum price of 86p. So I thought I’d give it a try.

Rook was apparently a Victorian journalist and this book claims to be a true account of his conversations with a young Lambeth criminal called Alf — a ‘hooligan’ when that word was new. It is what you might expect from a journalist writing about a colourful lowlife for a popular audience; that sensationalism makes it a genuine page-turner, but it comes with the usual scepticism about writers who seem more interested in a good story than accuracy. It seems pretty safe to say that it’s not actually ‘true’; it’s harder to judge whether it’s a realistic portrayal of that way of life.

However, read as a novel, it’s entertaining stuff. Alf is a classic anti-hero, charismatic and largely amoral, displayed for the prurient pleasure of the reader. It must have been fairly racy stuff in 1899; sex is only really hinted at with references to the number of Alf’s romantic entanglements, but there’s a plentiful supply of violence, crime, colourful slang and a general lively seediness.

It’s also fun for me personally that it’s all south London: the action all takes place in Clapham, Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle, Peckham Rye. The centre of this particular universe is Lambeth Walk, which was then a street market and is presented as a place where all human life is present — his descriptions of it read like a tourist visiting a middle eastern souk. The road called Lambeth Walk is still there, but the market is gone, and judging by Google street view, what is left is a very quiet and undistinguished local street. You can still see the Victorian buildings along one side, but thanks to some combination of the Luftwaffe and Lambeth planning department, the other side of the road is all large housing developments and so the feel of the street is quite gone.

It’s odd to think about how some of these places have changed. I was surprised to learn once that earlier in the C19th the roughest, most dangerous ghetto in London, where the police would only go in groups, was… Seven Dials. Which is now part of the overflow of Covent Garden, mainly consisting of quirky little fashion outlets, cafes and the like.

Anyway, at this point I’m just rambling. So I will stop.

» The image, from the British Library, is only loosely relevant, but I chose it in honour of a greengrocer I used to see from the 37 bus somewhere between Brixton and Clapham. It had a nice, swirly hand-painted sign saying ‘Mr Cheap Potatoe’. It used to cheer me up every time I saw it; sadly it doesn’t exist any more.

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