Monday, December 24, 2012

Rivers and Christmas presents

One of the nice things about being in Christchurch this time is that I'm getting the chance to walk more in the area I'm staying in - my wife is riding her bike, which suits us both.  Usually when I'm in Christchurch I drive everywhere, or rather I'm driven, since it's not a city I feel comfortable driving in, and this means I don't get to know it well.  It's not easy to find landmarks either, so often it just seems like an endless run of buildings or homes.  

Anyway this time I've begun to know a little more what with walking from the house were staying in to my daughter's place - it's only a twenty minute walk - and back again, or walking to church yesterday morning - the church was only about ten minutes away - or walking this morning to the Barrington Mall.  In the process of all these walks we keep crossing the Heathcote River (river might be a bit of an overstatement; I'd call it more of a stream, really, like the Kaikorai stream in Dunedin).  At one place there's a lovely bridge with ducks swimming and willows weeping; at another there's a path that winds along the side of the stream/river and a number of houses back onto the water.  It's interesting how many people have done something different with the bit of bank that belongs to their property.  In one place the property is entirely open, in another there's been a garden planted with steps down on either side, in another place there's a kind of pagoda (currently lit up for the Christmas season), in another a quite spectacular garden has been planted with plants that relate to the water. 

And besides all this my daughter's place is in a street where the Heathcote runs alongside.  All very special. 

Yesterday I mentioned that I wouldn't be getting a karaoke machine for Christmas, something for which I'm grateful.  I won't be getting a best Baby Taylor guitar either, which is just as well because I can't play a guitar.  It would be wasted on me.   Still, I'm sure there are lot of guitarists out there who'd appreciate a Baby Taylor; you have to be in the right vocation to make the best of one of these.  I wouldn't mind a can opener, for Christmas, one that would always open when I use it, rather than occasionally.  Or a car jack that would do the job by itself; a kind of robotic one.  Not that I've had to use a car jack for quite some time, but I know from experience that it ain't a pleasant experience.  I could do with a Tom Tom app that didn't have a mind of its own, too.  The one we have was giving us two sets of directions simultaneously yesterday, one with an Australian voice and one with the usual cultured English voice.  It seemed to have no qualms about having us go bi-directionally.  (Of course it always works when my wife tells it to; it only misbehaves when I set it up.)

Anyway that's enough options for Santa.  We'll see what he comes up with!

Vera and reading

Several times recently we've caught up with the TV series Vera in which Brenda Blethyn plays a rather dour and snappy detective whose team only just manages to put up with her.  A sympathetic main character she is not.  Anne Lamott, the novelist, wrote somewhere: Nothing is more important than a likeable narrator - he doesn't have to be good, you have to like him. If a friend or a narrator reveals himself or herself to be hopeless too early on, I lose interest.  It depresses me. But funny hopeless is different.  I have a feeling Lamott would say about Blethyn's character, Oh, for goodness sake, get over yourself.  

It's sometimes hard to know if it's Blethyn's playing of the character that's irritating, or the character herself. Probably it's the latter, and Blethyn, being the superb actress she is, is doing the character justice. (She's based on a character in a series of novels by Ann Cleeves.).  However, for me there comes a time in relation to a character when you lose sympathy for them if they're continually whining or driving everyone else up the wall.  It takes exceptional writing to produce an unsympathetic character who won't switch the reader or viewer off.  The Coronation St writers have done it successfully a number of times, as it happens.  I'm not sure if the general bleakness of the Vera series manages it as well, though in all respects this is top-quality television, even if some of the plots are a bit far-fetched.

We're on holiday babysitting someone's home at present, so I've got quite a range of books with me.  I began reading one called Libya, the rise and fall of Qaddafi yesterday, and it's proving very interesting, particularly in relation to Libya's chequered history of being invaded by one major power after another for more than two thousand years.  The most recent revolution is only one of several that have taken place in the last a hundred years or so, too.   Not an easy country to live in.

I've also been reading a book by Richard Beck called, Unclean: meditations on purity, hospitality, and mortality.   It's a little repetitive, which may come from Beck's background in teaching, but it's proving to be well worth the read at the moment.  

Can't seem to find any fiction that I really want to get into at the moment.  I had a book to review called The Sacrificial Man, but when it became evident that one of the themes was cannibalism in an urban setting, I switched off, even though the writing wasn't too bad.   I'm not actually starved for novels; I've got all the Charles Dickens novels on the Kindle, and in spite of my intent thread more than a couple of theses this year I only managed Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities.  I did read the new biography  on Dickens as well, so that kind of counted.  And I read half of Little Dorrit before getting a bit ground down by it.  There are still a few days left in the year.  Maybe I need to polish off one of the others!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

My Christmas wish list doesn't include karaoke equipment.  I know there will be dozens of people out there who'd like to hear me singing along to pre-recorded music, but regrettably, you're all going to be disappointed. Sorry about that.  
It's not that I don't have a beautiful voice.  No, it's definitely not that.  It's not that I'm not a show-off.   It's just that I don't wish to inflict on the world anymore irritating stuff than already exists.  Sorry about that.
I'm irritating enough without karaoke.  Ask those who know me well.  If you don't know anyone who knows me well, then you're stuck.  Sorry about that.
I'd like to make your Christmas full of cheer. My really would.  But if your idea of Christmas cheer is to have me singing along on a microphone to a karaoke, then you're out of luck.  Sorry about that.

An odd pleasure

This is my first attempt to write a post directly on the iPad without having written a draft first somewhere else.  I've been using the iPad for some time, especially when we've been away from home, but it has some limitations that I've not quite got over yet.  However, most limitations prove to be sort-outable, given time, and a knowledgeable wife.  I'm finding, however, that typing directly into Blogger seems quite a sticky process.  For some reason I'll be typing away happily only to discover that a great deal of what I've been typing hasn't appeared on the screen.  And the iPad's spellchecking program, while it is wonderfully at second-guessing you much of the time, can sometimes make very odd choices about what it thinks you meant when you mistyped, and in the process turn prose that's wondrous into prose that's woeful. 
So sticky is the sticking process that I'm beginning to think it would be quicker to type the post out in Evernote, where at least things keep moving, than to keep on typing it in here, where I can read two or three paragraphs of something else while I'm waiting.   However, having started with this, I'll finish it, even though its rather annoying.
I guess there's a certain odd pleasure in typing something that doesn't appear on the screen until thirty seconds later and then discovering that you've actually managed to make no mistakes at all.  But the pleasure is odd, rather than really pleasurable, and at this point I think it's time to try an alternative!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Reading several books at once

There's a wonderful interview - all too short - with Joe Queenan about his reading habits.  It appeared in the New York Times recently; John Williams was the interviewer.

What endeared me to Queenan in this interview was his admission that he usually had a large number of books on the go, a manageable 24 at the moment, but up to 80 at one point.  All it requires is a good memory, he says.

I've read books in this way for years.  Over the last several months I mentioned to the young dental student I've been seeing at the Dental School that I usually have several books on the go at one time (24 might be an exaggeration for me).  He was quietly astonished: he had to finish a book before he could start another one, otherwise he'd forget what he'd been reading.  But books are worlds; you enter each one separately and they don't in any way mix themselves up - unless, of course, they happen to be all on the same subject: I've just finished one on stats and everyday life a couple of days ago and I have three others on the same topic; yes, maybe they'll blend together a bit, but that's okay.  It's a way of remembering more about the subject in hand. But books that are very different in style, tone, and subject matter don't get mixed up at all.

And the subject in hand at the moment is: what is a torch lighter?  It's a larger form of cigarette lighter, apparently, and burns at a greater heat than your usual little throwaway model of lighter.  Seems to be particularly used for cigars.   How did I get from Joe Queenan to torch lighters?   Well, via the dental student, who one day, while I was lying in the chair thinking about how many hours I'd spent there this year, he was attempting to light some sort of gas burner nearby, so as to melt some item that was going to be used in the interminable process of setting right one particular tooth in my head (it was to take an impression of some sort).  He couldn't get it to start burning, and had to get one of the dental assistants to come along and sort it out.   I think he would have been more successful with a torch lighter, by the sound of it, though it might have dealt rather too drastically to the material he was working with...!

Sexist?

Amongst several complaints about advertisements that were not upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Complaints Authority was one against the Lindauer ad in which men are bawling their eyes out because, as we find out at the end of the ad, their womenfolk are off partying together, drinking Lindauer.

Yes, of course it's ridiculous, and it's so over the top that it goes beyond offensive and into the realms of idiotic. For me it doesn't do the job properly - you remember the ad, certainly, but as for what product it relates to...does anyone know?   Too many ads are fun to watch but fail to promote their product in any way.

The complainant had said: 'I've had enough of sexism against men in the media. This ad isn't even attempting to be humorous. It just shows men in emotional distress, then mocks them. It's sick.' The complainant said also that if the genders had been reversed in the ad, there would have been an outcry. Yup.

I certainly think there are too many ads in which men are shown to be idiots, especially in relation to all-wise women, but for me this one just doesn't even go there. It's stupid and as an ad, ineffective.

Anyway, whether you think the ad's good or not the interesting response from the BSCA was there were precedents to show the level of acceptance of offensiveness could vary depending on gender.  

This is an interesting comment. Viewers are prepared to accept men being treated offensively to a higher level than they'll accept women being treated offensively, in ads. Now, there could be an element of sexism here, although I suspect that most ads in which men are portrayed as idiots are actually made by men. The TV program QI discussed this in an episode that was shown yesterday, in fact. In terms of stand-up comedians, women are much less appreciated than men - by women. Woman will laugh at men when something funny happens to them or when they make a joke. They'll laugh much less when something funny happens to a woman, or when a woman comedian tells a joke. Women comedians have a hard time gaining acceptance with audiences because women are seen to be less funny by women. This is curious, isn't it? Yet, the comedians on the QI last night were sure of their facts in regard to this. Even the one woman amongst the group agreed, and made a very good spontaneous joke about what happens to women comedians...something about them being corralled up and sent off to some place in England that's not regarded very highly.

Of course there are women comedians who've made it big time: French and Saunders are an extremely popular duo, and also very popular separately. Phyllis Diller was a terrific comedian, who could wow any audience, and if you go to Google you can find plenty of results by typing in female comedians. The interesting thing about this group, however, is that many of them don't seem to be terribly well known, or at least they're not well known to me. Maybe I don't move in the right circles, or maybe they don't impact NZ audiences so much.




Nampa and Tampa and Blogdash

I always mix Tampa up with Nampa.  Nampa is a place I actually know - marginally, because I've been there.  Tampa is a place I only know by name.   Tampa is in Florida, and Nampa is in Idaho.  Difficult to mix them up really.  So if I was ordering a Tampa limo I'd need to be careful to say Tampa and not Nampa, since they're some 2000 miles apart, and have a two hours time difference (tricky if you're planning the limo for a party).

I checked out a site called blogdash the other day, and ever since then I've been getting regular emails telling me I haven't verified my account.  So I'm verifying it, and hopefully that will stop them nagging me.  I don't want to be nagged, Blogdash.  If I want to do something with you, I will.  You don't have to bug me every day!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Astonished

It's not an uncommon thing for parents to (wisely or unwisely) name their newborn after a celebrity, or even an event.  This happens, no doubt, all around the world.  In some cultures, the naming of the child is far more significant than in ours, for instance, where trends tend to push names rather than wisdom.   (The sort of trend that meant there were seven Michaels in one of my classes at school, back in the fifties.)

But you have to ask yourself why someone - a woman in France - would name their child, Jihad.  Was there some way in which she didn't realise the significance of this name?  Or was it just an attempt to fly in the face of the current cultural climate?   Perhaps there was intended to be some kind of humour in the naming.  We don't know.

What we do know is that the child's uncle bought him a long-sleeved t-shirt with the words, I am a bomb, on it, and he was sent to his nursery school wearing it.  On the back of the shirt were the words: Jihad, born on September 11. These words were actually true, in that the child was born on Sept 11th, 2009. 

His teacher alerted authorities about the words on the shirt, and the town's Mayor asked prosecutors to investigate.  His mother and uncle were charged with condoning a crime over the alleged reference to the Sept 11th attacks in New York.  The trial has been postponed until next March. 

Apparently, the mother was astonished at the reaction to her child's top, and seems to think the affair has mushroomed out of all proportion. 

Saxophones

To my surprise, out of the 2521 clippings and notes I have on Evernote, only three have the word saxophone in them.  That seems curious, given that I collect items on music, for one thing, and given that the saxophone is not exactly an exotic instrument.

The oldest item is a list of some of the music available to download from Radio New Zealand Concert's Resound.  The piece relating to the saxophone is by John Elmsly, a New Zealand composer born in 1952, and it's called Sonata for alto saxophone and piano.  It dates from 1977.  In spite of Mr Elmsly being listed as a prolific composer, and conductor, I've...never...heard...of...him.  Strange.  I thought I was familiar with the names of most NZ composers at least, even if I didn't know much about their works.  He was even awarded the Mozart Fellowship at Otago University in 1981, which, since I live in Dunedin, where the Otago University is, would make you think I'd have heard something of him.  Nope.  The clue might come in the fact that he seems to write and conduct quite a bit of electronic music.  I'm certainly not much up with electronic music.  Sorry, John.

The second item in my clippings relates to the poem that won the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Prize in 2012.  The judge, James Brown, discussed the poem and why he chose it, and at one point said, think the mournful saxophone in Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street' as the exemplifying emotion.  That's the kind of feeling the poem gave him, I gather.  Dear me, I don't know Gerry Rafferty either, or Baker Street, so I can't dredge up this kind of feeling when I read the poem.   Ah, well, my ignorance is showing up well and truly today.   I've never heard of Dukoff mouthpieces for saxophones either - until today.

The poet who won the Caselberg was Tim Upperton of Palmerston North.   You can read All the things I knew here. 

The final item comes from a hilarious list called Side Effects, by Steve Martin, the actor and stand-up comedian. (At least I've heard of somebody in this group!)  The list picks up every kind of possible side-effect you could imagine, and many you couldn't, and notes towards the end: This product may contain one or more of the following: bungee cord, plankton, rubber, crack cocaine, pork bladders, aromatic oils, gunpowder, corn husk, glue, bee pollen, dung, English muffin, poached eggs, ham, Hollandaise sauce, crushed saxophone reeds.  It's originally part of the album Pure Drivel, apparently, but this is more than pure drivel: it's pure insane imagination.  It's printed as text in a variety of places around the Net: for example this one, as well as being available in audio format.  Here, for instance. 








Going round the mountains

Just occurred to me that when I began this blog I didn't have much idea what I was going to write about (some might say that nothing's changed), so the first bunch of posts I put up on here were quotes, (mostly from books, some from newspaper reports), that I'd collected over the years, and which I thought were worth sharing.   The quotes aspect quickly gave way to writing about a host of different subjects, so much so that whenever I'm asked by some group to tell them what the focus of my blog is, I'm at a loss.  It has an arts aspect, but also deals with religion, politics, social issues, and a variety of quirky things that happened to interest me.  It's rather like a follow-up to the weekly column I used to write for Dunedin's weekly Star newspaper, back in the 90s.  It also had a wide-ranging 'focus.'   I was fortunate that the editor of the paper didn't see any problem with me writing about whatever I felt like.  I always think that columnists who have to focus on the same topic week after week (or even day after day) have a kind of corner they're stuck in.

Anyway, I was going to say that another blog I write, Workreport.net, started out as having a particular focus: seeking work when I was unemployed.  That's what the first bunch of posts covered, and then gradually, when I actually got a job, I moved into writing about that job itself, to some degree.  Then, in early 2009, when I was having prostate problems, that's what the column focused on (to the extent that I was planning at one stage to form these posts into an ebook).  The blog stuttered along for a while after that, and then found itself revitalised as a...blog for quotes!  Full circle.  Sort of.

Dog poems

Rather slowly, over the last several weeks, I've been pottering away at writing some music to poems that have dogs in their text.  Some of them are focused on dogs in particular; in one or two the dogs are only part of the poem.

I'm onto number four at the moment, and may probably do as many as seven in due course.  The holiday in Christchurch we're just about to go on will put the project on hold for the meantime.

There are some great poems about dogs, though one of my favourites, by John Updike, Dog's Death, may prove to be too strong in itself for me to write any music to.  It's a wonderful poem that circles back onto itself, but by the time it reaches that conclusion, there's more heartbreak in the words than the first time we see them.

I won't note here what the other poems are as yet; I may change my mind about whether I use them all or not.  Up until a couple of years ago, before we acquired the dog, I probably wouldn't have bothered especially with dog poems, (anymore than I'd have thought of having dog garden statues) but having a dog changes your view about life - in a way a cat doesn't seem to...or at least none of the cats that we've ever had.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Comments I don't need...

It happened tonight that I went checking back through this blog to find something related to Bill Bryson and design flaws.  To my surprise there was a relatively new comment on the post, even though the post itself dates from September 2005 (it's one of the earliest ones on this blog, in fact).  I was possibly even more surprised to find it was what you might call a 'spam comment' - in other words, if a human had written it, he or she had done so some time ago, and had then sent out the comment to any sites that would accept it.   There must be something about this blog that allows those sorts of comments to be picked up, at times.  

I scrolled through the other posts around that period and sure enough there were scattered comments on different posts advertising sites where you could buy diet drugs, or cheap insurance and other such stuff.  They mostly seemed to be in the 2005-2007 period, so perhaps the bots that send these things are geared towards older posts so that they're less visible to the blog owners.  

Interestingly enough on one of my other blogs, The Daily Writer, I get notifications via email regularly that 'someone' has 'commented' on a post - but these are newer posts.  One in particular has suffered constant comments of this kind.  Normally by the time I check them out they've been removed - presumably by some program that Blogger/Google runs.  I wonder why that doesn't work on this blog, which is run by Blogger as well? 



Monday, December 17, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

I was reading somewhere the other day that Jane Austen's book, Sense and Sensibility presents two contrasting characters, the sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who exemplify the two words in the title of the book: Elinor seems to be all 'sense' - that is, sensible - Marianne is all sensibility - that is, she lets her emotions control her life, and can't see how Elinor can be so calm in the face of heartbreak.   But the sisters also exemplify two modes of philosophical thought: whether it's better to look at life sensibly, calmly, almost dispassionately, or whether one should be utterly aware, full of response to everything that happens.

In the book the sisters each learn to appreciate the other's point of view, in due course, but not before both of them have suffered considerable heartbreak and hurt.   I watched the 1995 film version of the book again last night (somehow it's free on You Tube - I suspect it shouldn't be) and the two actors in the movie, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, portray these two approaches to life admirably.  You feel for Marianne (Winslet) in her overwhelming pain when her lover ups and leaves, but equally you feel for Elinor who must not only harbour an unspoken love for Edward Ferrars, but find herself having to keep secret his longstanding engagement to another woman who takes her into her trust.  Marianne can't understand how Elinor can keep her pain to herself; only towards the end of the film does Elinor bitterly tell her what a quandary she's been put into, and only in the last scene is she finally able to give vent to her feelings when she discovers that her lover hasn't married the other woman after all, and that he's free to marry her.  This moment in the movie, when all the pent-up anguish bursts from Thompson in a moment she can't control, is one of the best acting scenes you'll find in the cinema - you see her wanting to weep for joy, and yet she has to deal with getting rid of all the accumulated anguish first.

I saw Ang Lee's movie of Sense and Sensibility back when it first came out in 1995, and I haven't forgotten how effective it was: the look of the movie is wonderful, with the weather playing an important part in connecting the characters' feelings, and the wonderful sense of the period.  The cast are uniformly good: Emma Thompson had written the script, so she knew the piece inside out and plays her role wonderfully; Winslet is the emotional Marianne and superbly delineates the quickly changing emotions that this character is subject to.  Alan Rickman is Colonel Brandon, a man with a gloomy past but also a man of considerable integrity who finds himself having to play second fiddle to a known libertine (played with great energy by Greg Wise).  Hugh Grant is a revelation in this movie: if you've ever thought he was a lightweight actor, check out his performance here.  It's not a large part - he appears early in the movie and then vanishes for a good deal of the time until he comes into his own at the end, but every scene and every gesture and expression count.

And there are a bunch of character roles: Tom Wilkinson for about a minute at the beginning; the twit of a son from The Vicar of Dibley in a wonderful role as his son, a henpecked husband; his fearsomely dominating wife who thinks she's doing the Family some good; Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton as a couple - he can't bear her constant prattle and makes sarcastic remarks about her at every point, and just when you think he's a hard-hearted man he turns out to be warm and sympathetic to those who are prepared to see through his hardness.  Staunton has a great moment when, after hearing there may be a threat to her baby's health, she turns in a moment from her constant prattling to a scream that pierces the heart as she races to move the baby from the house.  Imogen Stubbs plays Hugh Grant's supposed fiancée, a somewhat devious character who gets an awful comeuppance at one point from her future sister-in-law: one moment there's utter quiet on the screen in a close-up of the two women's heads, next moment the camera cuts to a wide shot and there's an explosion as the sister-in-law throws the work she's been doing in the air and simultaneously thrusts Stubbs to the floor with violent anger.  Then there are Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs as in-laws who apparently live in the same house, (they're presumably widower and widow) have the same interests, have the same all-encompassing generosity, fill the screen with boisterous energy (always accompanied by half a dozen dogs) and 'manage' other people.  Yes, they'd be annoying in real life, but they're a wonderful couple in the movie.

I had a copy of the script of this film and the diary that Thompson kept as she was writing it and then involved in the production.  It's as fascinating as the movie and Thompson plainly had a deep love for the book and wanted it translated to the screen in the best possible manner.  In this, I think, she's been completely successful.  I don't know how much the film deviates from the book - I suspect it's only in dramatic form but certainly not in spirit - and my suspicion is that Jane Austen herself would have been pleased with it.  It's a classic.








Monday, December 10, 2012

Attending the birth


Back in the dark ages, when we were having our first child, I had to write to the hospital requesting permission to be at my own child's birth.  I was reminded of this because it was mentioned in one of the old letters I've been ploughing through in the last few days.   With the other four sprogs (as someone called them) there was no permission slip required; it had by that time become expected that the father would be at the birth(s).  (Sorry about the 'expected' pun there - didn't see it till after I'd written it.)

I don't ever remember wearing scrubs at any of these births, but I dare say I did.  Certain less than important details of my past life seem to have vanished beyond recall.  The scrubs element came to mind when reading this paragraph from Charlie Brooker's post in The Guardian earlier this year, when he attended his first child's birth.  

Labour takes ages. In the end, after hours of not-much-happening, there was a moment of drama. The entire cast of Holby City quickly filled the room and I found myself changing into a set of scrubs, in the toilet, in tears. I also held on to a sink for support. By the time I came out the crisis had passed, and my wife was smiling. We then had a further four hours of waiting, during which we both slept, after which the doctors decided to perform a caesarean.


I don't know what kind of scrubs either Charlie or I wore, but I see somewhere else on the Net that I've been recommended to find Cherokee scrubs for men.  I presume Cherokee scrubs are not intended only for Native Americans - in the advertising I see a white bloke wearing them, and an Asian.  Not a Red Indian in sight, now that I think about it.

Spiritual disciplines

A couple of months ago I received a copy of Lynne Baab's new book, Joy Together: spiritual practices for your congregation.  At first sight it seemed to be covering ground that was well-worn by a number of other writers, perhaps most notably, Richard Foster in his Celebration of Discipline.  Baab's approach is different in that she's focused on how such spiritual disciplines might be appropriated by groups or congregations rather than individuals.   Some of her suggestions in this regard have worked with groups she'd interviewed before she wrote the book, and she offers further ideas for congregations to use the disciplines.  However, at the end of the day, the focus comes back to the individual: if an individual is not willing to bring some discipline to his or her spiritual life, then an increase in numbers of people won't make a lot of difference.  Certainly a group can offer support to each member of the group, and this is an advantage, but the process in our individualistic society has to start with each single person.

All that said, the book is a worthwhile read, and I was pleased that she began with a focus on Thankfulness, or Gratitude.  At first sight this doesn't seem like much of a 'discipline' and yet how many of us are thankful for small or great things in our lives?  It becomes very easy to take the gifts we're given on a daily basis for granted, especially when there seems - in Western society, anyway - to be an abundance of everything we're likely to need.  Cultivating a poverty of spirit takes a bit of doing in our kind of world and without a sense of that, we become casual about where everything comes from.   For me, being grateful is something I find it too easy to forget, though there are one or two things in my life for which I'm grateful on an ongoing basis.   But being grateful for what is given to us each day is another matter, and Baab's chapter on this subject is helpful in thinking about being more proactive in this regard.

She covers some of the other more usual disciplines: fasting, contemplative prayer, seeing the need for a real Sabbath mentality in our lives.  On this last subject Baab comes in a line of 20th and 21st century writers who have commended the concept of the Sabbath as something we moderns need to take hold of; we're not good at hearing these people, I think, especially since the society around us has almost completely ditched  the idea of a day - or a way - of rest.  Hospitality is another matter may be less familiar as a spiritual discipline; it's something we're called to do anyway, you'd think, so why be 'disciplined' about it. But called or not, it's worth reflecting on what Baab has to say.

In a stimulating chapter towards the end of the book Baab brings in William Willimon, a well-known American writer who has spoken out against spiritual practices.  His concern is that the practices may take over from our relationship with God.  Willimon may be writing, in part, as a kind of devil's advocate, but Baab takes his points seriously, and then argues her case for the need for spiritual disciplines all the same.  

I don't myself find some of the disciplines discussed in her book to be helpful to me personally: centering and breath prayer and labyrinths don't grab me, and though I've looked at the Lectio Divina more than once I don't seem to get very far with it.  But there's more than enough other material to think about, and the book is of value to the individual reader as well as those thinking of starting groups, or working with their congregations.  For me this book is the best thing Lynne Baab has written in recent years, and I'll be dipping in and out of it again to keep myself in check!


Sunday, December 09, 2012

Misunderstood...

If I spoke the phrase, lifting magnets, to you, what would your first reaction be?  What would the phrase make you think of?

If you work in certain industries, you'd have no trouble identifying the true meaning of the expression, but if, like me, you don't work in such industries, then lifting magnets might easily make you think of going around lifting magnets, literally - say off the fridge, or from a school science lab, or from anywhere else you might find magnets just lying around.  Or it might mean, pinching them from a shop that sold them.

This is one of the joys of language, that what you hear or read isn't always what was meant by the writer.  It can be confusing, but usually the context will help to clarify.  However, when you get a phrase thrown at you out of nowhere, the lack of context allows your imagination to think of something that isn't the true meaning at all.

On the other hand, sometimes even the context doesn't help.  I've never forgotten how, when I was still a child (perhaps at Intermediate level, but a good reader) I came across a particular expression which was unknown to me in the opening chapter of a book. The author told us that the it had been snowing heavily outside, and his hero had decided to go out in the snow for some reason which I've now forgotten, but he wanted to do it secretively.  So he looked in on his parents, who were dead to the world, and then snuck out.  I was appalled.  He saw that his parents were dead, and yet he still went off as though nothing had happened!  I refused to read any more of the book.  If the author was so callous as to let his hero wander around in the snow on some adventure without being concerned that his parents were dead, then I didn't want to read the rest of the story.  I still have something of a recollection of the emotion I felt about this particular phrase that day. I can even visualise where I was in my house.

Most authors strive for clarity; some of them are better at it than others.  But no author can be expected to deal with every way in which his readers will misread his or her story


Old letters

Over on one of my other blogs I've been uploading letters that I sent to my mother in 1968.  I was in the UK, she was in New Zealand, in my home town.   It's been intriguing revisiting my own history, as it were, but one of the strange things is not being able to remember some of the people I mention.  Most of the names mean something to me, though in many cases I've lost touch with them, and some of them who were only my age at the time (I was 23) are already dead.  In fact both the girl I nearly married in 1969, and the girl I was briefly engaged to several months later (I wasn't a Lothario, in spite of what they may sound like) have both died, the first in 1995, and the second only this year.  If I'd married either of them, I'd now be a widower.  Isn't that peculiar? 

In the last couple of days (we've been having quite a clear-out at our place) I sorted through a bunch of letters from people we knew, or still know, letters that we'd kept for one reason or another.  Again, some of the letter writers are now dead, including my best friend, who died at the age of 41 after choking during an asthma attack - at Christmas, as it happens.  

The curious thing about these letters, however, is that there are several from people I can't even remember any more.  In one or two cases it's because the face of the person, and anything I knew about him or her, has faded almost entirely.  But in one particular case, the family who'd written to me (people we had obviously known at some point) mean absolutely nothing: the name doesn't even register.  That's weird.  It's also strange to have a few letters from people with whom I had only the briefest of encounters: one young man and I met up while I was hitch-hiking around England on my own.  I shared his tent one night because that was the only option I had in the circumstances (I guess I was staying at hostels the rest of the time; I can't remember).  It poured with rain during the night, and, not being someone who'd ever had much acquaintance with tents, I was surprised to find in the morning that my feet were soaked because I'd had them comfortably stuck up against the tent wall during the night.  The tent-owner and I parted company not long after that, and we corresponded for a few months, maybe, and then...nothing.  He was in one of the services, as I recall, and I know his first name, but nothing else.  And yet I remember him when I don't remember some people we obviously had a good deal more to do with!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Toitu Otago Settlers Museum

We went to check out the much overhauled Otago Early Settlers Museum today, now called the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum, since the word settlers now covers a wider range of people than it used to.  Both Maori and Chinese get a good look in now, compared to virtually nothing in the past.   There's now a good flow from the new and expansive foyer to the 'stunning, original Edwardian galleries' and the building that used to house the NZ Road Services ticket offices and buses.

The museum has something for everyone (the only thing missing perhaps, are a couple of jacuzzi tubs for those whose feet get weary after trying to cover everything in one go).  There's video everywhere - a huge screen just beyond the foyer thrusts you into a kind of cosmic founding of the area with the word Toitu hammered home - in case you'd missed the point that the Maori were here first.  I was slightly bemused by the screens scattered around the place that show people either talking directly at you and explaining something of their history, or just looking in what seems to me to be a slightly dazed fashion at nothing in particular, but there's plenty of other video to check out.

There's a good deal of touch-screen, interactive material around too, and this is certainly interesting.  However, with the big crowd that was in attendance for today's public opening, it was a bit difficult to get onto some of these, even though we didn't go until later this afternoon.  Nevertheless, there's been a lot of thought gone into these screens, and the information is certainly of value.

The portrait gallery has been done up: no longer a higgledy piggledy jumble of photos from the past, it's now all in order and you can access who these people are in more detail on one of four screens in the room.  And there's a memorial room for the soldiers who died in the First World War, a sobering place where the names of everyone of the Otago soldiers who died is listed, and where there are books showing where they died and when.  My great-uncle, Frank Hannagan, is there.  He died at Passchendaele.  The rather damaged photo on the right is of him and one of his sisters, taken before he went overseas.   His photo isn't in the book at Toitu, for some reason, though the photos of many of the other soldiers are.

The museum has gone beyond its original concept of being a place focused on those who came to Otago in the 19th century (it had already started to do this before the renovation).  There are now a wide range of 20th century artefacts and vehicles, and of course the original 'Elsie', the computer that drew the Bonus Bond winners, as well as the first huge computer that was at one of the Dunedin factories.  And there's the Tiger Tea bus - which I rode on in the past - and the Maryhill cable car, which used to have a terminus outside the house I now live in, and in which I road on a number of occasions as a boy.  And fell off once, when I tried to get off before it had stopped.  That was outside my house too.

Plenty to see.  Make the most of it.  37 million dollars of your money has gone into this refurbishing!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Chesterton, Cheese and Poetry


This morning on Twitter, a friend quoted G K Chesterton: The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.  The original sentence by Chesterton, which appears in an essay appropriately entitled, Cheese, doesn't have 'the' at its beginning, but is otherwise as writ.   Cheese can be found in a collection of Chesterton's essays entitled, Alarms and Discursions,which, it turns out, I have on my shelves - it's one of about twenty-five Chesterton titles I have, many of which I haven't read, for the reason that I collected them faster at one point than I could keep up with reading them.  Chesterton is a superb writer, but can't be skimmed.  Skim him and you miss his point - in fact you're likely to miss several points, as he's prolific in points.  

Anyway, Cheese is a delightful piece of nonsense, and if you want to read it without borrowing my copy it's reproduced in full on the blog NMissCommentor - the blog is written by an American lawyer named Tom Freeland, but isn't entirely about things legal, as the post on Chesterton and cheese shows.

When I read that Tweet this morning I thought unto myself (instantly going into poetic mode) that it would be fun to write a poem on Cheese.  Perhaps not, though Cheese as a word has the advantage of having quite a few rhymes available to it, if you want to rhyme.  Apart from the obvious, there's frieze, knees, wheeze, sleaze, Chinese, trustees, trapeze, Congolese, journalese, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  

Before setting to on my poem I thought I'd see what other people had written on the subject, since I couldn't believe that Chesterton was entirely right on the lack of cheese poetry.  For starters, there was Chesterton's own effort - in this case a piece of nonsense parodying a better-known poem.  It comes from another collection of essays, A Miscellany of Men, and the essay is entitled The Poet and the Cheese.  (If you want to borrow this book from me, you'll have to wait until I find out why it's not in its place on the shelves.)

SONNET TO A STILTON CHEESE
Stilton, thou shouldst be living at this hour And so thou art. Nor losest grace thereby; England has need of thee, and so have I - She is a Fen. Far as the eye can scour, League after grassy league from Lincoln tower To Stilton in the fields, she is a Fen. Yet this high cheese, by choice of fenland men, Like a tall green volcano rose in power.
Plain living and long drinking are no more, And pure religion reading 'Household Words', And sturdy manhood sitting still all day Shrink, like this cheese that crumbles to its core; While my digestion, like the House of Lords, The heaviest burdens on herself doth lay.
You can read the complete essay on The Literature Network, if you're of a mind.  
There's actually a blog called The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. It's only marginally about Chesterton, and much more about cheese.  (Note that the 'The' has crept into their heading again.)  The link I've just given you is to the post on Chesterton and cheese, but there's also a post on poets writing on cheese in which Chesterton's parody is joined by a tiny W H Auden poem, and three other poets unknown to me.  (I think they're local, like the cheese Chesterton preferred.  He was a locavore, according to Freeland.)   
Marcia Vanderlip, in the Columbia Daily Tribune, wrote an article on the very subject I'm discussing, but when she got the poets to write about cheese, they wrote in prose.  
The minor poet, John Armstrong, who lived in the 18th century, wrote a poem on Cheshire cheese which contains a line that has been immortalised on the Net as being one of the worst lines in poetry:
....that which Cestria sends, tenacious paste of solid milk...  Armstrong seemed prone to writing heavy-duty poetry on difficult subjects - check out the brief Wikipedia entry on him.  And I don't know what Cestria means: although there are plenty of places in the UK named after it.  
There was a contemporary of Chesterton's, James McIntyre,a Canadian poet who was willing to write poetry on any subject his neighbours required, and he became known primarily as the Cheese Poet, because he had a kind of predilection for poems on cheese. He had one failing: he couldn't write very well.  He still managed to publish two books of poetry but his work passed out of favour until some of his poems were anthologised in a 1997 publication called Very Bad Poetry.  This included his masterpiece and possibly best-known poem, Ode on the Mammoth Cheese Weighing Over 7,000 Pounds.  A brief sample:
We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze;
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed, soon you'll go
To the provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
But even the best of authors (though not necessarily men who were also the best of poets) have their low points.  For one last example, here's Arthur Conan Doyle using cheese allegorically, and also a little over-earnestly:
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
  And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
  And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
  And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
  Not one of them thought of a cow.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Naming of the Dead

I had a cold last week and it was one of those annoying ones where every time you try to do something your nose starts to drip.  So you clear it, and it drips again.  In the end I decided to spend most of one day in bed, and we found one of the Ian Rankin stories I hadn't read as an audio book on the laptop.  It was The Naming of the Dead, which came out in 2006, and is set in 2005, in the tumultuous week in Edinburgh and the surrounding area when the Gleneagles G8 Conference was taking place.  Add to that, at a later point in the story, the London Underground bombings, and you have a canvas broad enough on which to spread marches with people numbering in the hundreds of thousands, activist attacks, insurrections and a city full of policemen from all over the country keeping order and containing people who want to do damage to somebody. With this as his background, Rankin then proceeds to offer up a man falling from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle - is it a suicide, an accident, or a murder? - as well as three murders that are seemingly related to each other: they may indicate a serial killer is on the loose, someone who appears to be working through a list of known rapists or sexual attackers.  Or they may not!

Rebus is the star of the show, as you'd expect, though not in the eyes of several of the other characters, and his accomplice in detective discovery is again Siobhan Clarke, who more than once frets that she'd becoming too much like her mentor, for better or worse.  Like Rebus, she finds it hard to leave well alone, or to work anything like the normal 9-5 hours.  Her parents have a big part to play in the story too, being hippies from way back, people who want to protest at what the G8 are doing.  Big Ger Cafferty returns as well, adding to the mix, stirring up trouble wherever he can, and there is a wide range of other characters, good, bad and devious.  This is a classic Rankin, in which he uses his skill to paint a detailed picture of a city in siege while at the same time giving us a superb detective story.  And better still, the murderer is someone who appears throughout the story but doesn't seem to be in the least likely to be a suspect until late in the book.  This is in marked contrast to the most recent Rebus story, where the murderer seemed to be invisible for most of the time.

I listened to what I thought was almost all of the book, got up the next day intending to listen to the rest - about an hour and half's worth - came to the end of that and found that the book wasn't even half finished.  We had a copy on the shelves that I'd never got round to reading - we also had the rest of the audio book on the laptop as it turned out, but it was in another different folder.  So I was swamped for choice.

Scottish actor, Tom Cotcher
The narrator on the audio book version is Tom Cotcher (as far as I can tell; I haven't got the cover of the CD to hand).  He's narrated a number of the Rebus books and does a superb job with the characterizations of a large cast.  I probably should have allowed myself the time to listen to the rest of the book instead of reading it, but it would have taken me at least another full day to do so, whereas I could fit the reading of it in much more productively around other things.  This is the only problem for me with audio books: I find it hard to just sit and listen to one - I want to be doing something else at the same time.  They're great when you're on a long journey (we listened to a non-Rebus Rankin book - Watchmen - earlier in the year in this way), or when your body just doesn't want to do, or can't manage to do, anything else at all; when you've got a heavy cold, in other words.  And there's always the issue, when you're in bed listening, that you might fall asleep and miss something - this doesn't tend to happen when I'm listening in the car!

Watchmen is one of Rankin's one-off stories.  As far as I know the characters don't appear in any other book.  It's a curious piece about a kind of behind-the-scenes department that's dealing with espionage and such, but the characters in the story seem as much intent on double-crossing their colleagues as attending to their proper business.  It's set in both London and Ireland, and the main character is as unlike Rebus as you can imagine.  A desk-job man, essentially, but forced out into the field, and forced to find courage and initiative he wasn't always aware he had.  He does share with Rebus a certain amount of lack of respect for authority, and a difficulty with his marriage and his student son (though he fares better than Rebus in both these areas), but otherwise he's his own man.





Friday, November 23, 2012

Skyfall

If you haven't seen this movie yet, this is a warning that there may be spoilers scattered throughout this post.

Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, opens with a lengthy sequence in which Bond and a fellow-worker (Naomie Harris) chase one of the more important and less anonymous baddies - Patrice - through one of the innumerable foreign countries that feature in the movie.  This was Turkey, by the look of it, but that was scarcely important.  What was important was the wreckage of everything in sight, (some shots will have VW lovers weeping), the chasing on motorcycles and in cars - one breathtaking sequence has the two motorcyclists sweeping across the roofs of the bazaar, and of course eventually crashing down into it- and finally a struggle between Bond and the baddie on top of a train, which most inconveniently keeps going into tunnels.  This opening is not only Bond-moviemaking at its best, but superb in every sense.  Not a shot is wasted, things coming flying at the audience with choreographed ease, people get in the road (and rapidly out of the road) and all the mechanical things do their best to make a mess of all the other mechanical things.

We get a breather while the credits roll by, surprisingly casually for credits that arrive some ten minutes into the movie.  Behind the credits are animated sequences that incorporate themes and material from the movie still to come, and then we're off again.

Bond, who 'dies' rather inconveniently before the credits, turns up again (how could he not?) and sets off after Patrice in yet another foreign location; this time it's Shanghai, which looks gorgeous by night.  (The cinematography is superb throughout.)  There's a rather daft sequence in which Bond tries to get back something of considerable importance that's been stolen from M16, and he and Patrice play out their cat and mouse game against shimmering glass and enormous neon signs before someone is shot in the building next door and Bond disposes of Patrice.  Now from this point on, the structure of the movie seems to lose its way.  That's not to say that the set pieces are any less bravura (a tube train crashing through the roof is a fairly spectacular sight) but they whys and wherefores of the plotting aren't quite up to the other things that happen in the movie.

With Patrice dead we might be at a loss for a real baddie.  After all, Patrice was pretty anonymous, and spent most of his time running.  There's a kind of gap in which Bond rather off-handedly pursues a beautiful woman (played by Bérénice Marlohe), finds her, and is warned off by him because the real baddie of the film is her guardian, and she's terrified of him.  This scene is odd: Marlohe seems uncomfortable somehow - it's only as the scene progresses that we discover that under her seductive charms she's terribly afraid.  However, what comes across to the audience, I felt, is an actress who isn't confident of what she's trying to portray.  

Finally, Bond meets the big baddie, Javier Bardem, and quite honestly, he's a bit of a let-down.  He just doesn't have the class to be a Bond villain.  Admittedly he always seems to be one step ahead of everyone, and has everything planned to ridiculous perfection, but in the big climax, he drops into ranting and raving like someone who doesn't quite know what to do next.  When we first meet him, he has a long speech as he strolls towards Bond, and towards the camera.  For me, Bardem's timing is off; the speech doesn't work, and he pauses 'significantly' rather too often, losing tension.  He doesn't exude the real menace that a Bond villain should possess, and you get the feeling that as soon as Bond gets his hands untied, he'll deal with this wannabe baddie in a matter of moments.  He doesn't even have the usual Bond-film henchman to cause additional trouble.  Alongside the coterie of British actors (this film not only has the inimitable Judi Dench in it, but also Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort himself), Albert Finney (briefly at the end), Ben Whishaw as the new-look Q, and the aforementioned Naomie Harris, who has a much better romantic scene with Bond than Marlohe does, and steals the latter's thunder.   Alongside these, Bardem is a bit of a patsy.  Even the woman playing the politician, the redoubtable Helen McCroy, is a good deal more menacing than Bardem.

So much for the villain.  The flaws in the movie aren't enough to let it down, and it cracks along at a terrific pace for its full 143 minutes.  It's worth seeing for the opening sequence along, which is much better handled than the one at the beginning of Quantum of Solace, where the editing was so irritating you couldn't figure out what was going on most of the time.  

The Daniel Craig Bond movies have been a bit of a mixed bag, though Craig himself makes an excellent Bond, for my money.  He's certainly a good deal more serious than most of his predecessors (though even if he does lack the humour of Connery and Brosnan, this film takes the mickey out of the Bond series on more than a few occasions), but he exudes a tension that feels like it could explode any minute.  The sex scenes in these three movies are rather under par (although not when you look back at the embarrassing Connery ones), and in this latest one in particular, make little impact.  And there are awkwardnesses about the structure: the lengthy coda in Casino Royale seemed to be tacked on to the main film, and the best parts of this movie are in the first three-quarters, with the climax not quite hitting the mark.

But given those issues, these three films exhibit top quality film making of the blockbuster kind.  Every inch has been fine-tuned: the photography, the editing, the music, the sound effects, the visual effects, the stunts.  None of these areas let the films down.  In general the actors are strong and well-cast, and the directors take the whole schemozzle and pull all its elements into place.   For $11.50 (pensioners' price) you certainly get your money's worth!



Thursday, November 22, 2012

My Cousin Rachel

On our return trip from Christchurch a couple of days ago, we listened to Mel Gibson reading My Cousin Rachel, the novel by Daphne du Maurier.  I think we've begun listening to this before, but perhaps hadn't completed it, as only the early parts of the story seemed familiar.

In some ways it's less complex than Rebecca, but it shares that same ambivalence, that sense that we're never quite sure who's fooling who, and whether the people who seem to be wrongdoers actually are.  In Rebecca, we eventually learn that she really was a nasty piece of work, and that Maxim de Winter isn't as difficult a man as the narrator first thinks.  In My Cousin Rachel, we again have a first person narrator, Philip Ashley, a young man who's naive, impetuous, and unable to listen to the advice of his betters.  The consequences are disastrous, but was he entirely wrong in his assumptions, or did he just misread the behaviour of Rachel, and misread the letters that his older cousin and father-figure, Ambrose, had sent him when he was ill.

One minute we think, Yes, he's got it all wrong.  The next we think, No, we've got it all wrong.  Du Maurier leaves the story wide open.  I'm sure there are readers who are convinced they know what the truth of the matter was, and perhaps it's possible to go back and work it out sentence by sentence, but this is such a shifting sands of a tale that on the first reading (or hearing, in our case), it's almost impossible to gauge whether you've got the picture right or not.

There's a 1952 movie version of the story, with Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland, directed by Nunnally Johnson.  Apparently there's a slight but significant change at the end of the story.  I haven't seen the movie, but by all accounts it's otherwise faithful to the book.

The audio book version (which may or may not have been abridged; it certainly doesn't say it is) has music by Don Heckman.  He's not a composer I know, and while he's listed on Google as a writer about music there's not much about his compositions.   The music on the audio book is perfect for the story, very simple, often using only a couple of instruments at a time, and being brief variations on a very simple theme.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hanmer hip hop

When we stayed in Hanmer Springs the other day (Hanmer, not Hamner, as I've always thought in the past) we came across a French family who are now living in NZ.  The older of their two children, a boy of around eight or nine, is training to do hip hop.  He's not what you might expect a hip hop dancer to be, somehow, but anyway, his ambition is to do well at it and make lots of money.  Of course.

One of the highlights of the TV show New Zealand's Got Talent is/was the Limit Break Dance Crew.  I've just watched their audition (I hadn't seen it the first time around) and it's a delight.  Their humour is one of their strong points, something that a few other hip hop dancers could pick up on.  Hip hop isn't just about muscle strength; it has to be something.  

It's annoying in the audition clip that the camera constantly cuts away from the dancers to the three judges.  Why do we constantly need to see these three smiling, or clapping, or laughing?  Fair enough in moderation, but the cuts continually break up the flow of the dancing and some of the best moments are missed.   You can see some of their dances in full on You Tube...and their progression.  They're vastly better and tighter in the Talent Show than they were earlier, but they've always had plenty of energy, obviously. There are a lot of videos on the Net relating to them, some better than others, and some could definitely do with some DJ lighting.  Nevertheless, this is a group to watch.

Back to Hanmer for a moment: how did it get such a peculiar spelling?  Well, it seems that the spelling isn't all that peculiar.  The site was named after Thomas Hanmer; there were several such gentlemen, Baronets ranging through the 16th to 18th century, so it's obviously a much better-known name that I thought.

Exit Music

While we were touring around over the last couple of weeks, I dropped into a few secondhand bookshops (and one or two new book shops, as well).  In Picton, if I remember correctly, I found a very good secondhand bookshop and a proprietor happy to talk at length if I'd so desired.  He had a copy of Ian Rankin's Exit Music, originally intended to the the last in the Rebus series.  We had this on CD, but I'd never listened to it, so I got the trade paperback he had in stock.

Having just read the most recent Rebus book, Standing in Another Man's Grave, in which Rebus, although officially retired, is in no way devoid of his usual energy and insight, it was a bit odd to go back a step and see him preparing for imminent retirement.  Like the latest book, hinges on a huge red herring, though in saying that, the red herring here is actually a vital part of how the book works itself out, rather more so than in the most recent story.

In the first chapter the body of a Russian poet is found on the street in Edinburgh, and everyone who appears in the story - and I mean everyone - is in some way involved with this man, from politicians to small time crooks, from drug addicts to pushers, from academics to bankers.  Not a soul is outside the ever-widening circle of people who are affected.  It's so well written it would easily have made a fitting climax to the Rebus series, and Rebus himself is in fine form - ageing  but not old; sarcastic but witty, anti-authoritarian yet endeavouring to train the younger police officers to respect the right channels.  He knows from his own career how difficult it is to go against the flow.

There's a lot of warmth in this book; more than in some of the Rebus stories.  There's minimal violence - apart from the murder(s) obviously - though the arch villain Big Ger Cafferty comes a bit of a cropper, much to Rebus' annoyance (!)  It's the sort of cropper that could see Cafferty die before he pays his dues.  Rebus would much prefer that he's put behind bars legitimately.

Perhaps, having read the two most recent Rebus titles back to front, I should continue in the same vein, and read through the series again, in reverse!

South Island holiday

We've been on holiday for the last fortnight, travelling around the South Island, from Dunedin to Christchurch (with a couple of overnight stops between) up the Kaikoura Coast, to Blenheim, Nelson and back down through the middle of the upper part of the island, a trip we've done before but had pretty much forgotten - in terms of what kind of scenery it was, and so forth.  In fact the last time we did that trip we had my 13 or 14-year-old son with me and we spent much of the time trying to remember all the names of the various bridges, rivers, culverts and so on, linking them together in a great long sequence.

It obviously wasn't very effective, as I didn't recognise a single name as we drove by this time!

I'm finding it tricky coming back to my usual PC keyboard; I've been typing on an iPad, and the difference is considerable.  The iPad keyboard is smaller, and it's very easy to hit the wrong key (though at least it does a good deal of correcting for you as you go along, some of it rather random).  Plus, a number of items are in different places, and at present I'm still reaching for where things are on the iPad rather than the keyboard.  That's the least of any problems.

Just before we went away we tried to scan something onto the computer.  My older printer, which is the one with the scanner, refused to do it.  Another older computer, attached to the laptop, refused to do it.  Obviously both of them felt they were in retirement mode, and didn't need to keep working the way they used to. (My current printer is a Speed King, printing out reams of pages at a great pace.  But that's all it's capable of doing.)

Perhaps I need to investigate some print shop websites to see if I can dispense with printers altogether!

Anyway, our trip around the South Island was full of highlights.  I've kept a diary of the day to day activities and people we met (and animals - there were several that made some brief impact) and I'll post some of those on the other blog at some point in the next week.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Standing in Another Man's Grave

Ian Rankin's latest book features Rebus again, that incorrigible policeman who works as much by hunch and instinct as by the rule book; perhaps more so.  Certainly he "solves" the crime in this story purely by hunch in a way that's a little less than satisfactory for the reader: the murderer comes out of nowhere almost, so that much of the book is about red herrings rather than about pinning down a particular character as the villain.  In fact, many of Rankin's books are more about the characters than about the mystery, although the mysteries can be very intricate.  They aren't really whodunnits in the sense that the reader can work out who murdered someone, but more about peeling back layer upon layer and revealing the corruption at the heart of a particular set of circumstances.  There's quite a bit of that here too, with some of the obvious villains being exposed, a young man revealing himself as more villainous than he first appears, and the presence of Cafferty, that perennial thorn in Rebus's side, who is still pulling strings - though less successfully here than elsewhere because he too, like Rebus, is feeling the effects of old age.

Old age pervades the book, and what Rebus is going to do with his retirement is a major question.  He knows little else besides police work and it obviously energises him.  At the opening he's back working after having officially retired, this time for the underfunded cold case office which is due to be disbanded  at the drop of a hat.  He's also considering reapplying for the force but he's hounded by Malcolm Fox, the main character from the two Complaints books (who appears here rather differently, since we're not in sympathy with him particularly and Rebus certainly isn't).  Fox is out to get Rebus, the man who's broken so many rules in the past, but Rebus is always too wily, too old-school for him.  

The story mostly concerns a missing girl, who may have been murdered.  It's a case Rebus should never have taken on; indeed, he only comes across it by accident, and it's almost by accident that he stumbles across the possibility of a serial killer at work, and the consequences of what that brings.  Rebus has a knack for going outside the boundaries, for insulting people with wit and insouciance, for mentoring Siobhan Clarke, his young police companion from many previous books, even though she's never quite sure if his style of mentoring is satisfactory. (Fox definitely doesn't think it is.)   He can undercut authority without blinking and keeps the pompous in their place.  He's a rich character and it's not surprising Rankin has given him yet another outing after implying he wouldn't write any more books about him. 

There's an enormous amount of chasing around the countryside in this one - Rebus, in particular, spends a lot of time on the road following up hunches - and Rankin delights in describing the nature of the different areas, in describing the traffic snarl-ups and the queues and the road works and the huge trucks getting in everyone's way.  He plainly has a love-hate relationship with Scotland and its traffic.   You almost need a map beside you to keep tabs on all the shifting scenes. In fact it might help to make more sense of how much driving Rebus actually does, sometimes alone and sometimes with others and where he's going.  Maybe I'll do that next time I read the book!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Scathing remarks

A friend of mine, Lynne Baab, has recently brought out a new book entitled, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation.  The focus is on ways to use the well-known spiritual disciplines or practices of the Christian church in groups, or even with full congregations.

This is an interesting take on the disciplines, which have certainly been used communally at many times in their history, and it's good that Lynne has brought them back into focus in this way again.  I haven't finished the book yet, though I'm getting close, but I just wanted to make a comment on the section I was reading this morning, which is about Hospitality.  Some might not regard hospitality as a Christian discipline, any more than they might consider the first item on Lynne's list, Gratitude, to be one.   Be that as it may, both are in the book, and both need discussing in terms of our Christian lives.  (This is not to say that people of other religions, or those who don't believe in any god at all, are never grateful or hospitable.  The focus of the book is on these things from a Christian point of view.)

One thing struck me this morning in the section on hospitality.  It came out of this passage on pages 124-5.

Holding a coffee hour before or after a worship service provides perhaps the most basic opportunity for hospitality.  Recently my students engaged in a spirited online discussion about the role of coffee hour in a missional focus for a congregation.  They had scathing remarks for the poor-quality coffee and cookies that are so often offered at coffee hour.  Several of them said that we talk in Christian circles about Jesus' abundant welcome, and then we provide mediocre food and drink at coffee hour, a cognitive dissonance that does not exactly welcome the stranger. 

I stopped reading at this point.  Now, Jesus certainly talks about abundance, but while he was on earth I don't think there was any point in the many meals he shared with other people when he stopped and said, Look, I can't drink this coffee, or eat these cookies (biscuits, depending on the translation).  It's substandard.  I'm the King of Kings, for goodness' sake.  Are you seriously giving me coffee that tastes like dishwater and cookies that look as though one of the kids threw them together while they were playing on their iPhone?

My sense is that Jesus wouldn't have fussed about it.  Like Paul, he would have said, I don't speak from want, because I've learned to be content in all sorts of circumstances.  I know how to drink mediocre coffee and crummy biscuits, and I also know how to drink my skim cappuccino freddo and eat my caramel crunch slice; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.

I think it was the mention of 'scathing remarks' that really struck me in the students discussion.  There's an element of arrogance here, a middle-class tone that says that proper coffee is more important than hospitality.  For me the cognitive dissonance comes between the students' attitude and the apparent lack of humility.  Surely the coffee and biscuits are merely a means to an end, and that is to relate to the people who might come to the coffee hour.  Perhaps you can agree together that the coffee isn't anything to write home about, and then get onto the more important topic of who that person is that's decided to grace your coffee hour by drinking your mediocre coffee and tired biscuits.  


Friday, November 02, 2012

Argo

If you haven't been to see Argo, go and see it.  Ben Affleck's new movie is an accomplished piece, full of suspense, excellent acting (including Affleck himself), a well-told story and a film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat in more than one place.

The opening sequence, in which a mob of Iranians storm the American embassy in Teheran is quite terrifying, and the last half hour or more of the movie is nail-biting as the six 'Canadians' attempt to make it out of the airport.  

Okay, have I said enough to convince you this is worth watching?   When the story isn't in suspense mode, we have some wonderful performances (and great lines) from John Goodman and Alan Arkin as two old-timer Hollywood movie-makers who can turn a turkey in to an eagle but who, in this case want the turkey to remain a turkey.

The movie tells the true story of six American embassy workers who escaped out the back door of the embassy when it was stormed by Iranians angry at the US for harbouring the Shah, a man who was apparently much hated by his people for his opulent behaviour and more.  (At that stage they didn't know they were exchanging one devil for another, in the form of the Ayatollah Khomeini.)   The six men and women managed to find shelter at the Canadian embassy (at this point the Canadians were still okay as far as the Iranians were concerned).  They hid there for nearly three months, while the Yanks back home figured out a way to get them to safety.

Finally a plan to turn them into a Canadian move-making team scouting for locations in Iran was hit upon; ridiculous as it seemed, it was even less ridiculous than some of the other ideas the US Government came up with.  Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez who was given the job of getting the job of going to Iran and getting the Americans out.  He was the right man: he had contacts in Hollywood who set up a fake production company, and he had the nous and courage to walk into Iran, and persuade the American that this was somehow a good plan.  (Not all of them agreed!)

Affleck shows utter assurance throughout not only in his acting, but even more in his directing, which manages to give background to the story in a few short minutes (much as the first film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy did), enables us to clearly understand what's going on at all times, and presents the story via a huge cast, many of them familiar faces in small roles.  He even manages to give enough personality to the many characters for us not to feel in any way disengaged from them.  This film marks Affleck as a major director: he never eschews story-telling for action sequences (though there are several) and we never think...uh, oh, lots of people running round and lots of guns.  There are lots of guns - a scary number, in fact, many of them in the hands of women - and there are plenty of big crowd scenes, but these are so expertly handled that they never revert to filler.

This is movie-making at its best.  Go see it!