Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Parallel world dept.

Every once in a while, something gets pushed at me that I cannot imagine having imagined. The usual portal is BBC Radio Four. On this occasion, that means its In Touch programme, and the issue is the eternal war between guide dogs and escalators.

Guide dogs, you see, are meant to be able to take you everywhere, and escalators are not meant to be walked with paws. In America and, by the looks of it, Australia, they train you to walk the dog up, in the belief that you'll do it anyway. In Britain they tell you to carry the dog, and concentrate on teaching you how to balance while holding something heavy and alive.

It's a Tube thing, apparently. New escalators will be dog-friendly, but given that old ones could hang around for decades -- see this wonderful piece for more on the subject -- that may not be much of a comfort.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The international style

"Cornflower blue are women's eyes by the mighty wine. Boy are they ever. Recently he beat her black and blue, see? And then her brother said, Now that guy is in for a big blue surprise, and gave him a good beating. Once again he got off lightly, with a black-and-blue eye. That's fine. But now let's hope Annemarie will stop pulling blue wool over her eyes about him. Even she can't be that blue-eyed." -- Christa Wolf, Associations in Blue, trans Jan van Heurck.

That reads as if it was impossible to translate (ever had a black-and-blue eye?). Fair enough, it also reads as if it was very good in German. But Christa Wolf has donated it to Telling Tales, a charity story anthology with acknowledgments to publishers not only in Britain, the US and Germany, but in Italy, France, China, Russia, Taiwan, Brazil, Greece and Hungary -- and also a shout-out to "all other publishing houses who are in the process of following suit." Perhaps she's trying to teach mere English readers (or mere Magyar readers) a lesson.

[Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer (Bloomsbury, 2004). Collection of stories raising money for AIDS treatment in southern Africa. Could be considered a sort of literary Live Aid -- there's a sentence in the introduction beginning "Musisicians have given their talents..." -- if only the performances weren't old and good and the setlist wasn't so unbelievably impressive. Don't let sour me put you off.]

Unintended consequences

"Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's as we know it, is not mentioned in Not on the Label or Shopped, in spite of his interest in the mass production of standardised french fries. But without the car there would be no McDonald's - and there would be no supermarkets. It isn't a coincidence that the publication of the Beeching Report on The Reshaping of British Railways in 1963 came between the opening of Tesco's first big store, in Leicester in 1961 (16,500 square feet), and Asda's first, in Nottingham in 1965 (70,000 square feet). Beeching accepted that cars and lorries had finished off the stopping train and the slow goods train (except for those carrying coal) as economic entities." -- Hugh Pennington, half-defending supermarkets, London Review of Books November 18. If you've done the sensible thing and subscribed, the actual piece is here.

This is an strong enough passage in itself. But my attention stopped dead three-quarters of the way through and started shouting: "You live in the birthplace of the British supermarket!" It took me a while to get back on track after that.

Oh, and there is one other interesting thing about supermarkets, in the context of this issue of the LRB. Unlike US policy in Guatemala, Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments, the shortening of URLs or the lives of Anne Boleyn and Lord Cromer, they don't appear to have anything to do with the Iraq war. (Last two links subscriber again. Sorry.)

Saturday, November 20, 2004

If this magazine is true...

Possibly first in a series. Possibly just a cheap gag.

Magazine: New York, November 15.

Proposition: According to page 78, there is at least one woman living somewhere near New York capable of starting a sentence: "Some of my A-list friends say..." If her tone is correctly represented, she is not being sarcastic.

Consequence: Standards of plausibility in fictional dialogue will have to be reassessed. Crap potboilers will prove to be documents of scary accuracy, in the manner of supermarket tabloids in the Men in Black movies.

Likelihood of truth: Depressingly high.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

All work, no play

"That is the real curse of Adam; not the work in itself but the worry and doubt of ever getting it done; perhaps the doubt, also, whether, after all, it ought to be done, or done at the price. All your working year you chase some phantom moment at which you might fairly say 'Now I am there.' Then Easter comes; you sail your own boat through a night of dirty weather from the Mersey to the Isle of Man; and, as you lower sail in Douglas harbour, you are there; no phantom this time; the curse of Adam is taken clean off you, at any rate for that morning. Or those seeds that you sowed in the back garden on that thrilling Saturday evening amaze and exalt you by coming up, and you learn in your proper person what the joys of discovery and creaion are; you have, so far, succeeded in life and done what it piqued you to do in this world. All play, of course, and the victory tiny. Still, on its own scale and for its miniature lifetime, the little model is perfect; the humble muddler has come nearer than anything else is likely to bring him to feeling what the big triumphs of human power must taste like." -- The Right Place, by CE Montague

It's possible that, stripped of its stylistic brass band, this might be quite a commonplace commonplace. But isn't the brass band lovely?

[The Right Place, by CE Montague (Chatto and Windus, 1924). I have gone on about this gentleman before. Not much to add, except this is his book on what would now be called tourism (although he thinks you can do it at home, too) and seems prettier in patches but weaker overall than Disenchantment. Astonishing passage about the historical beauties of First World War battlefields, and the joy of being sent to them: the biographical details that make it piquant are still here.]

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Best Library of Congress boilerplate ever

"1. Soccer fans -- Great Britain. 2. Hoodlums -- Great Britain. 3. Soccer -- Social Aspects -- Great Britain. I. Title." -- Bill Buford, Among the Thugs.

In aggravation (if that's the legal opposite of mitigation -- is it? Is there one?), my US copy also includes both a glossary explaining the terms "ground" and "Underground" and repeated uses of "stadium" and "subway".

[Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford (W.W. Norton, 1991). A distguished literary editor (here, here) descends into football hooliganism with the gusto of a writer who believes he is describing a new emotion. That feeling is the ecstasy of crowd violence, and descent and description are both frightening.]

Judge character the Jackie Chan way

"[Maggie] Cheung has been a fixture of Asian superstardom for 21 years and has won more acting awards in China than any other woman. She started out as Jackie Chan's long-suffering, slapsticky girlfriend, May, in the goofy action-oriented Police Story movies. (Chan said that when he first saw Cheung on Hong Kong TV, she struck him as someone who 'wouldn't mind me kicking her down a flight of stairs'.)" -- New York Times Magazine, November 14. Style slightly anglicised. Link, which in any case requires registration, will start to cost money soonish.

[The lack of posts for the last ten days or so is because I was on holiday. It is not to be confused with the long gaps in posting before then, which were because I am lazy.]

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Sors Virgiliana, Nov 3

"Sometimes you meet, coming down the leafy path along which you are walking, a man dressed as Napoleon; as he talks to you you look at him with distrust, pity and amusement -- carefully do not look, rather. But as the two of you walk along, and people come up with wallpaper designs full of Imperial bees, rashly offer their condolences on the death of the duc d'Enghien, ask for a son's appointment as Assistant Quartermaster-General of the army being sent to the Peninsula, you realize that it is not he but his whole society that has 'lost touch with reality'" -- Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

[Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell (Faber, 1954). Exhaustingly witty academic and literary satire. You are never more than four sentences away from an epigram. Lots of interesting stuff on the difficulty of seeing other people as fully human; which points up, possibly deliberately, the not-quite-humanness of everybody here described.]