30 June 2010

Wilts in the heat

Oh, readers, the lengths I go to for this blog. There are two versions of this story. Choose which one you believe.

I had heard there was a new branch of Waitrose opening in Melksham. I had never heard of Melksham in my life. Despite because of having the kitchen fitter in, I decided it was worth the risk of trusting him it would be better to get out of his way and leaving him to get on with it. Melksham is in Wiltshire, the far end, near Trowbridge. I knew didn't know that. After I had booked into the King's Arms which is where I always stay when I go to Melksham I was when I got tired of driving, and which happened to have a room free at reasonable cost, I read in a copy of a free local newspaper that a new branch of Waitrose had opened, and what's more that there was a £5 coupon, I made sure I knew where the new Waitrose was before I had a meal of Bangladeshi specialities at the Refa Tandoori Balti House (which clearly has a culinary identity crisis) and a modest orange juice and lemonade load of beer in the bar.

Next morning there was a huge number of shopping lists to choose from; my journey was not wasted. The store being so new, there were no shopping lists (although someone had decorated the store opening hours sign with a cock'n'balls) and here's the best of them one I picked up in Beckenham tonight. 

It's plain, but I like it. Very down to earth, but that decorated line across the bottom of the list betrays an artistic yearning, dontcha think? Very much like Melksham itself.

One final uncoloured statement: Melksham has a railway station. Four trains a day (two in each direction) stop there. Southeastern are envious; they can only dream of these levels of service.

26 June 2010

Blackheath Bookfair

I went to the Amnesty International bookfair in Blackheath today, here. Click on streetview if you dare. I know Blackheath's posh, but this is just ridiculous and beautiful. If only I'd been born into immense wealth!

The atmosphere was surprisingly unbookish, more like a jumble sale. I believe elbows were frequently employed. I got there at 9:30 but it was too late. Lucy Mangan had already decimated the shelves, and was walking around with two huge bags of books (it was thanks to a tweet from her that I remembered to go).

But I got some books that I might read some day.

José Saramago The Notebook
La Bruyere Les Caracteres
Roger Pearson Mallarmé
Marina Warner Indigo
Tony Tanner Prefaces to Shakespeare
Suzannah Dunn The Confession of Katherine Howard

All in good condition, and all for £21!

25 June 2010

Not every day's a party

Two fairly dull shopping lists today. On the left, the latest from Andrew in Andover. On the right, the unusual discovery of a list in Beckenham. I think it's fair to say the Beckenham one is the work of a woman, and quite an attractive woman at that, with a filofax. The person on the left appears to be buying "meals". Some people are easily pleased.

24 June 2010

Remember him?

While other ex-Charlton players have been lighting up our screens at the World Cup (Dennis Rommedahl, Jermaine - spit - Defoe) a vaguely familiar name turned up on the Come Dine With Me wags special. Simon Walton, of Crewe Alexandra. Remember him?

If the name was vaguely familiar, the face certainly wasn't. And here's why. In July 2006 Charlton bought him, an 18 year old, for £500,000 from Leeds, and instantly sent him out on loan to get him match experience and develop his talent. A year later he was sold to QPR for £200,000, never having played a competitive game for Charlton. Meanwhile, Charlton had changed manager twice, from Dowie via Les Reed to Alan Pardew. And had dropped out of the Premier League.

It may not have been the worst bit of business Charlton ever did, but it looks like a microcosm of those desperate times. The turnover of players was bewildering, with the only constant factor being a failure to live up to any expectations.

As for Simon Walton, his career's hardly lived up to the promise. He must have a decent agent, because Plymouth Argyle paid a club record £750,000 for him, but again he was sent out on loan to Blackpool, and then Crewe.

And you could see his career as a microcosm of what's wrong with English football. Despite being at best deeply average, he's being paid enough to keep a page 3 stunner (Nicola Tappenden) in the style to which she'd like to become accustomed. It's been suggested that the players in the England team have an inflated sense of their entitlement, and maybe his career shows how that happens.

21 June 2010

Khao niao

Another list from Andover Waitrose, thanks to Andrew. A bit of a Thai aspect to this, I think. (Incidentally, in the recent wags Come Dine with Me, one of the wags talked about "thigh food". Footballers do generally have lovely legs, so maybe she wasn't being stoopid.)

Andrew asks what sticky rice is - suggesting, perhaps, the name's a tautology. Khao niao is a variety of rice that's intended to stick together in cooking, so you can form balls of it and dip them in the coconut milk-based sauce. Often served as khao niao braon cao.

So, to analyse this list: most of it is written by the mail-order bride; her otherwise unmarriageable lump of a husband has insisted on T.bags.

Andrew also points out that I haven't blogged about the world cup. I'll just repeat a tweet I read earlier today:
This might not be seen as patriotic in some quarters, but I enjoy football matches that involve completed passes.

I'm writing this during half-time of the Portugal/North Korea game. I think it's time we stopped using the phrase "axis of evil". It's wholly inadequate to describe how loathsome Cristiano Ronaldo is.

And to make sure no-one goes home unoffended, here's a guide for the ladies to the offside rule.

18 June 2010

Situation vacant

José Saramago has died at the age of 87. In an earlier post I said he was possibly my favourite living novelist. Now he's dead I can't think of anyone to replace him, so I suppose he definitely was. I won't go into the reasons why I love his books all over again, but I am reminded of a comment I heard this morning. When atheists die, they don't get the chance to say "I told you so". But imagine there is a God. Saramago arrives in heaven and within twenty minutes he'll have convinced God of the impossibility of His existence, with catastrophic consequences for creation. Since that hasn't happened (and it's been a few hours now) I think the old commie has had the last laugh. Thanks, José, for the wisdom and humanity.

16 June 2010

Miles and miles and miles of skin

As part of my "get out of the house more" programme, I'm trying to visit one museum or gallery a week, and so this morning I've been to the Wellcome Collection to see the temporary display on Skin. It's really interesting to see the crossover between medical science and art. For me this was best illustrated by this piece:
It's "Examination" by Heather Barnett, and, sadly, seeing it onscreen doesn't do justice to the warmth and tenderness of the images. But, what's perhaps disturbing is that these photographs were staged reconstructions of illustrations from medical textbooks. It's possibly fatuous to say that context determines meaning, but this demonstrates it so clearly by removing context. All that's left is the detail of the physical contact, opening up a range of interpretations. There are better versions of these on the artist's website:

There's also a couple of pinturas de castas. I'd never heard of these before. Literally meaning paintings of castes, they were produced under the Spanish empire to classify and name the children that might result from a mixed race relationship.
Here's one (not from the display) that shows that the child of a Spanish man and a mulatta woman would be a morisco. That urge to label seems to combine outright colonialism with a (pseudo-)scientific thirst for knowledge. There's more about this on wikipedia. I'd say it seems typical of imperial Spain's obsession with limpieza de sangre, but that would be tempting fate.

Anyway, the exhibition is well worth a visit, and it's free.

15 June 2010

Fiesta in Andover

Andrew has kindly sent me this list from Waitrose in Andover.

I think these people must have a lot of bomba rice in their cupboard, and so, to celebrate the birthday of their twins (Jake and Jenny, 15), they're planning a huge paella.

With ciabatta. How unauthentic.

Incidentally, Andrew has a suggestion for a tv spin-off from these posts. TV chefs get a random list and have to devise a dish based on the ingredients.

It's close to Ready Steady Cook, but if my niece's sister-in-law is reading, Channel 5 is desperate these days.

10 June 2010

My mother's superstitions

A chance remark from my brother in law has reminded me of the bizarre range of superstitions my mum had. Right until the end of her life she could surprise us, by quoting an appropriate reaction to a given situation. Here are some that I remember:

"If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive" - to this day, I can't kill a spider, and will go to enormous lengths to rescue them from the bath.

If you pour out a pot of tea that someone else has made, you'll have ginger twins. (Thinking about it, this must only apply in domestic situations.)

If you give someone a present of a purse or wallet, you should put some money it. This will mean it will never be empty.

Be careful when you're stirring food on the cooker: stir with a knife, stir up strife; stir with a handle, stir up scandal.

Never cross knives.

If the palm of your right hand is itchy, you're going to come into some money; the left hand, you're going to have to pay some out.

If you get a kind of crema on your tea, you may be coming into some money: the amount depends not on the size of the foam, but on how long it lasts.

If your ear's burning, someone's talking about you.

It's unlucky to put new shoes on a table. But I think everyone knows that.

I'm sure I've forgotten loads. Dear readers, few as you are, what superstitions did your parents have? And what's wrong with ginger twins?

07 June 2010

There's life out there! Oh, hang on a minute ...

Astonishing news in the Telegraph this morning. On Titan, a moon of Saturn, experts "have discovered that life forms have been breathing in the planet’s atmosphere and also feeding on its surface’s fuel".

That's amazing! They've really discovered life forms outside Earth! This is the biggest event in history ever! So who better to report this than Andrew Hough, who, according to the Telegraph, is "a general news reporter, who covers everything from courts and investigations to 'quirky' internet stories."

Well, at least the Telegraph links to the NASA coverage of this story, which amounts to "nah, not really".

06 June 2010

Women Beware Women

Theatre is my summer substitute for football. It gives me that same feeling of sharing experience and emotions, and the same uncertainty of outcome.

Last night was my first play of the summer: Women Beware Women at the Olivier. It's a Jacobean revenge tragedy, which means that, as the song goes, everyone ends in mincemeat. (A bit like any Millwall game.) But before that, it was quite funny. Which makes me think that it owes a lot to Blackadder. (I'm grateful to @lifeformnamedsi for planting this idea in my mind.)

Hang on a minute, you say, but surely it's the other way round. How can this play, from the 17th century, be influenced by a television comedy from the 20th century. Maybe you should phone the helpline the BBC kindly offered for people affected by the issues in this week's Doctor Who. ("Hello? Yes, I hope you can. You see, I seem to have my sense of before and after, causality and consequences, confused. And I can't sell any of my paintings. Say that again? Depression? Mental illness? No. How dare you!" Click.)

But without Blackadder I don't think the production could have been the way it was. Blackadder gave us a framework for understanding historical figures, which this production exploits. To take an example. An idiot boy, called "The Ward", is offered a young woman in marriage. As part of his examination of her suitability, he wants to know if her "underparts" are wild and hairy. Cue lots of business involving him and his servant trying to engineer a situation where they can see up her skirt. Another time he dances with his bride to be and performs a grotesque parody of sexiness.

So the first half of the play was very much in this mould. The text was spoken so that full weight was given to the obscene puns, and there was genuine laughter in the packed, sweaty theatre. In the second half, though, you have to understand the intrigue, the plots that determine who is going to kill whom and why, and that doesn't benefit from the Blackaddering. In the final scene, the director seems to have given up trying to make events clear. The Olivier revolving stage became a carousel of mayhem (and maybe we can see here influences from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. I know I can, but I can see them everywhere.) For five or ten wordless minutes there was a whirligig of stabbing, raping and poisoning. And at the end, a stage littered with bodies, and a sense of not knowing what just happened.

Not knowing what just happened isn't necessarily a bad thing of course. And you could make a case for it being of a piece with the play: events spiral out of hand in a society ungoverned by any morality. But actually that's a pretty poor resolution. It's as unsatisfactory as the superficial resolution of the play itself. The Duke's brother, a Cardinal, appears and gives the moral that without religious authority and fear of God, this is what becomes of society.

We can't take the Cardinal as the voice of truth, for historical and dramatic reasons. Historically, the role and value of a Cardinal in 1620s England would be at best ambiguous. Dramatically, he's a lightweight, and his simplistic characterisation (portrayed in his simplistic reasoning, in which human passions just don't figure) disqualifies him.

Women beware women ... A very striking feature of the play is the prominence of female characters. Three of them have an extraordinary amount of lines, and they are actively instrumental in moving on the action of the play. They either begin corrupt or become so very quickly. On the face of it, the title suggests this is a cautionary tale, but again that seems an inadequate summary.

The production's had good reviews, as far as I can see, largely because of the humour, which I shouldn't disparage. But I don't think it holds together. I think this isn't the production that will make sense of the play to a current audience, despite the help of Blackadder, David Brent and Hitchcock.

03 June 2010

Whatever you love

If Nicola Barker is my favourite living novelist writing in English, then Louise Doughty may be my favourite person who writes novels in English. You understand the difference? I enjoy Nicola Barker's books much more, but don't know if she's a nice person. Sometimes it's better not to find out. When I first read James Joyce's scatalogical letters to Nora, I was shocked. (Which says more about what kind of naive idiot I was than it does about him.) But I know Louise is a kind and generous person, with a real passion for the cause of the underdog.

Reading Louise's new book, Whatever You Love, feels a bit like reading the diary of someone disturbed and damaged. That's because she's written it to be that way, not because she is either of those things. What she has is an extraordinary ability to imagine and describe the worst kind of pain. In this case, it's the death of a child. There's a relentless examination of the effects of that death on the child's mother. Louise drags you down into this hell, and you have to trust her to pull you back out of it. Does she? Well, kind of. The ending isn't redemptive; things don't suddenly get better, but that's realistic, I suppose.

There isn't much in the way of plot. A few mysteries are posed and resolved, but that isn't the point of the book. The narrative is above all concerned with answering the question of what it takes to get over such a loss.

Why do I prefer Nicola Barker's books? The key thing is the brilliance and daring of the writing. While Burley Cross Postbox Theft was a series of letters, she didn't hesitate to give those letters an unlikely verbosity and sparkle. Louise is much closer to a realistic tradition. This book is a first person narrative, and Laura, the narrator, occasionally speaks in flat sentences, sometimes using awkward clichés. I think Louise would agree that she doesn't do fireworks; neither do I, which may be why I like it so much in writers like Angela Carter or, in a different way, P G Wodehouse.

So, am I recommending this book? Yes, obviously, because it's by someone I admire so much. But it's a tough read, and while it may increase you understanding, it won't cheer you up.