Saturday, March 27, 2004

Progress. "The year 1685 was not accounted sickly; yet in the year 1685 more than one in twenty-three of the inhabitants of the capital died. At present only one inhabitant of the capital in forty dies annually. The difference in salubrity between the London of the nineteenth century and the London of the seventeenth century is very far greater than the difference between London in an ordinary year and London in a year of cholera." - Thomas Babington Macaulay (writing in the 1840s), in the first volume of his History of England.
The gap between us and Macaulay helps make the gap between now and 1685 seem bigger, no? It's the cheery "year of cholera" coda does it.
Having said that, London's now at about one death per hundred, which isn't as much better as I might have hoped.
[The History of England from the Accession of James II, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1849-1861. I'm only three-quarters of the way through Vol. I (there are five), so comment is reserved. It's very quotable, though; expect more.]

Thursday, March 18, 2004

City life. "Tokyo turns you into a bank account with a carcass in tow. The size of this single number dictates where the carcass may live, what it drives, how it dresses, who it sucks up to, who it may date and marry, whether it cleans itself in a gutter or a jacuzzi." - David Mitchell, number9dream.
Only Toyko?
[number9dream, by David Mitchell, Sceptre, 2001. The dreams and observations of a twenty-year-old boy coming to the city to find his father. Except the real life tips back and forth into action-movie dreamland, which doesn't always work. The prose, on the other hand, stays consistently fresh-eyed, precise, and lucid.]

Analysis. "The journalist was frankly dumbfounded when he realized that there was no aspect of this particular problem which he could blame directly on the Government. He merely snapped, 'Why do you tolerate such things? As a nation, we are what we are today because of our lack of positive grip over our affairs. We don't know where we are going or why. It is part of the policy of drift, which is our curse.'" - R.K. Narayan, The Man-eater of Malgudi.
[The Man-eater of Malgudi, by R.K. Narayan, Heinemann, 1961. The man-eater is a rogue taxidermist and former professional strongman, who makes hot the life of a mild small-time printer. Makes me want to read more Narayan soon.]

The limits of gourmandism. "'But I swear to you that nothing I have eaten before or since that day has ever tasted so good as those little morsels of arak-flamed Arab boy, stewed to tender perfection, 10,000 feet above sea level in a rocky cleft beneath a volcanic peak in the mountainous region of Sudan known as Jebel Mara.'
"He paused and grinned wickedly. Then he looked into his empty bowl and said, 'At least not until today.'" - James Delingpole, Fish Show.
[Fish Show, by James Delingpole, Penguin, 1997. A restaurant reviewer on a magazine somewhat like the Spectator discovers and abuses magical powers. It's as whimsical as it sounds. Very witty; but without enough style to cover the lack of anything much else.]

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The auld enemy. "But what had distinguished Stephen Lime, what had afforded him the opportunities to soar above heights his father had never imagined, was that he had been the one with the vision to realise that there was an exception to the rule - that there was something you could invest in that guaranteed vast returns for negligable risk.
"It was called the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain." - Christopher Brookmyre, Quite Ugly One Morning.
He goes on, of course, to be murderously corrupt. This quotation is given to register my unexpected feeling of nostalgia at remembering what it was like to have a government you despised and an opposition you were sure would fix things. Not that I want to feel that rage again live.
[Quite Ugly One Morning, by Christopher Brookmyre, Little, Brown and Company, 1996. Crime-and-satire thing, hilarious but with curlicues all over the place.]

Getting done. "'I said, "I want to advise you of your rights."
"'He said, "I know my rights, don't bother."
"'I said, "I want to advise you. Everybody has to be advised of their rights."
"'He said, "What can I tell ya? If you got witnesses, I'm fucked."
"'I said, "We got witnesses."
"'He said, "Well, then I'm fucked."'" - the taking of Frank Koehler, in A Cold Case, by Philip Gourevitch.
[A Cold Case, by Philip Gourevitch, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. A spare, humane police procedural, written without the curlicues you'd feel obliged to invent if you were making it up, or the ones a less good journalist would have tacked on.]

A testimonial. "BURNS, ROBERT. Robert Burns' humane and lyrical rationalism had no impact upon the formation of this book, a fact more sinister than any exposed by mere attribution of sources. See also Emerson." - from the Index of Plagiarisms in Lanark by Alasdair Gray.
[Lanark, by Alasdair Gray, Canongate, 1981. A centaur, half bildungsroman and half dystopia, and with an air of having grown slowly in the back of someone's mind for a very, very long time.]