Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summer of the Danes

I've just finished Ellis Peters' The Summer of the Danes, the 18th in the Brother Caedfel series. And the most disappointing.

Peters' stylish writing is there, but the story is dragged out and often repetitious, and there's a tiredness about the whole thing that makes for weary reading. I only finished it because I wanted to; there wasn't much to encourage the reader to do so.

The book begins with a chapter that must rank as the only really tedious one in the series - it's full of names and who done what to whom and what bit of the country they're fighting over, and the characters, when they get a chance to actually speak amongst the seemingly endless narration, sound as though they've had the life washed out of them. I had to keep going back to figure out who was who.

There's a murder, of course, (100 pages in) but strangely Caedfel has almost nothing to do with the solving of it. In fact no one actually solves it - the murderer confesses on almost the last page of his own accord. One of the great pleasures of the Caedfel series has been the neat plotting and the element of suspense. Both of these are sadly lacking in this episode.

There's a good deal of huffing and puffing between the Welsh prince whose land has been invaded by the Dublin Danes (Danes in Dublin? - who but Peters would have told us that) and the leader of the Danes. The latter has been brought to the area near Anglesea by the prince's younger brother after he was ousted from his castle for attacking another noble Welshman. The Danes are seen as generous but feisty characters; the Welsh prince is noble and generous and austere even. They personally never come to blows, but talk to each other like a couple of politicians. A little dreary.

There are some underhanded blokes - one of them the murder victim - but they're more annoying than dangerous. And there's a 'girl with spirit' - a fairly typical actor in the Peters' canon; she gets what she wants, of course.

For years we've been unable to find a copy of this book in order to complete the series. Consequently I was looking forward to reading it. Pooh, I'm very disappointed.


At the moment, life is a bit of a juggling act in relation the musical I'm writing: Grimhilda!

On one hand I'm getting close to finishing the music and that's taking up a lot of brain-space, and on the other, I'm involved with some other people in figuring out how to advertise the piece so that it gets plenty of coverage well in advance, and so that it's not an unknown quantity when it finally gets to performance stage.

Perhaps I should use some promotional items: pens with Grimhilda! on them, for instance, or promotional t-shirts. It's an idea that's been used before with some of the other musicals put on in town. I need to find out how effective people think it's been to do this.

One of our team talked about having an advertisement on the back of a bus - though this can mean that your show is still being advertised several months after it's finished! Still, people do see these ads. As well as some of these well-worn routes (well-worn not meaning they're no longer effective) I'm leaning also towards using clips on You Tube, and MP3 versions of a selection of music from the show, so that people can get an idea of the music before they go. My instinct is that people like to have some idea of the music beforehand, so that they're not faced with a wad of unfamiliar material. And of course I'll continue blogging and facebooking and twittering about it - hopefully not to the point where everyone is sick to death of it!

I only heard about the group, Phantom Billstickers, the other day. They're the people who paste up all those flyers on hoardings and purpose-built round thingees and fences and special boards around the town. Rather than you going out in the middle of the night in your black gear (looking like a burglar without anything to burgle) and sticking up a pile of posters, they'll do the job for you. So they're on the list too. As are many other things....which seem likely to eat up the budget before we're started!

You can see what I mean about juggling.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Modern-day myth

Cornelius Hunter sums up one of his recent posts in the following way:

Evolution is a modern-day myth. No better than Zeus up in the sky, throwing down lightning bolts. But today we should know better. At least Lucretius and the Epicureans can claim scientific Linkignorance. Today’s version of the myth, evolutionary theory, is a religiously-driven mockery of science. The religion is explicit in the evolutionary literature, as is the mockery of science. Religion drives science, and it matters.

In the comments following the post (amongst the usual sneers from pro-evolutionists) is this:

Even the Greeks didn't put a lot of stock in their Zeus myths. Unfortunately evolutionists actually believe their superstition.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Downton Abbey in the revised versions

If you're a fan of Downton Abbey you'll appreciate these two parodies far more.

They were produced for the BBC Red Nose Day in 2011.

Here's the second 'episode' in which the butler explains how far apart the real upstairs and downstairs are, and Joanna Lumley decides that being cast as the housekeeper (below stairs) she's definitely in the wrong part of the building.

Mobile borrowing

Finnish firm Ferratum Group has set up its mobile microloan service in New Zealand offering cash to borrowers at high interest rates. Already there's been a fair amount of concern as to what will happen to people who use this service in a casual way, and how much debt they'll accumulate within a short time.

If you pay the loan back quickly, this system will probably work in your favour, but if you let it ride, the amount you owe is going to increase exponentially. There is a schedule, but it's not something you can read through quickly on your cellphone - especially when you're wanting the money quickly. According to Philip Macalister, in the schedule (see here) interest rates range from 91% for $100 borrowed for seven days through to rates of more than 500%.

Ouch. Off the top of my head I can't work out what that will add to your loan, but I don't have any doubt that it's a substantial amount.

There are all sorts of loans available out in the big wide world - do we educate our kids as to how dangerous some of these can be? I just came across a common loan system (see title loans Raleigh NC for an example) that will lend money against your car, if you're over 18 and the car has a value of US$2500. A car isn't quite the best asset to be borrowing against, but I suppose it's a step up the lending ladder compared to borrowing via your mobile.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

$6 a day

Gated communities and retirement home complexes (like Table Rock Lake homes) sound like a mixed blessing to me. I visit one of them fairly regularly when I play for some singers who present short concerts there. The idea of living in one doesn't appeal much to me, but then perhaps I'm not at the stage of life yet where it would...if there is such a stage. Equally, perhaps I'm not the sort of person for whom the idea of a close-knit (but elderly) community appeals. I like people of all ages. As no doubt many of the residents of these communities do.

You may have read in the news recently about Richard Giese, the retired flautist who had worked for many years with the NZ Symphony Orchestra. He hadn't paid the extra $6 a day ($42 a week; $180 a month) that it cost to have someone checking on him daily in his retirement village home. He lived a reasonably active life for an 85-year-old - walking to the shops, playing his flute every day, going to the doctor on his own and so on - so I guess he thought he didn't need to pay any money for something that he wasn't concerned about.

Some time between February the 18th and March the 8th, he died of a heart attack. His lights remained on for a week, his mailbox wasn't cleared, and a neighbour realised she hadn't heard his flute for some days. And finally notified the retirement village staff.

His former wife was apparently the last person who spoke to him, and she said she was amazed that no one had checked on him, thinking that would be par for the course for a retirement village. In fact she rang the coroner when she heard that the date of death was undetermined.

The Dominion Post reported that Susan Bowness, North Island regional manager for Ryman Healthcare, which runs Rita Angus and 22 other villages, said residents were able to request daily checks, for a fee of $6 a day. Mr Giese had never asked for such checks, and it appeared his death was sudden.

Ms Bowness said the company was not required to check on its independent residents. "It needs to be understood that they are truly independent – they only get the services they request."

They only get the services they request. When asked by the coroner what could be done to ensure residents' safety, Ms Bowness said, management needed to make sure residents understood that the service was available if they needed it. Um, is that ensuring the residents are safe?

Also available - for an additional fee in each case - are the following:

Residents can ask for meals to be delivered.

Can eat at the dining room.

Can have medication to be brought to them.

Can have someone check on them.

Can have an evening telephone check.

Can have healthcare services provided by the village rather than by their own doctors.

It seems as though being old in some retirement villages can be quite an expensive business, if each of these items cost an additional $6 or more a day.


When I hear the word 'steel' as in steel buildings, I tend to think of something quite solid - as in steel tools. But I think our American cousins basically mean buildings like garages, carports, garden sheds when they're talking about steel buildings that are similar in construction to Skyline's various buildings, for example. Compare the two pictures, the US on the left, the NZ on the right.

Anyway, it's just my lack of knowledge of what steel is (or its degrees of strength) that's the issue, I suspect, rather than a question of semantics. The US garage has a neat design, don't you think?

Just an aside: when looking at the Skyline page I thought they had a misprint, until I realised it was 'misprinted' in the same way everywhere. They kept using the word, 'gottages' - which at first I read as 'cottages', of course. When I tried to get a definition of 'gottage' Google helpfully suggested I meant, 'cottage', so it's just as confused. It turns out 'gottages' are basically like cottages and are almost like another name for a sleep-out, except that a gottage is something rather more fully-constructed, having a kitchen and bathroom as well as a bedroom and living area. In fact, friends of ours put one on their property for the mother of one of the couple, some years ago.

I can't remember them ever calling it a gottage, as I probably would have queried it at the time. Google obviously hasn't caught up on it yet either.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Muskoka Chairs

Adirondack is one of those words you occasionally hear in passing and never have a chance to catch up on and find out exactly what it means. And it helps if you actually read the word as it's spelt: I'd always thought it was adonirack. (Which personally, I quite like!)

The Adirondacks are a range of mountains which run through from New York state across the border into Canada.

They were given their name in 1838 by Ebenezer Emmons, an American geologist. The word carries stress on the third syllable: Adirondacks - which isn't how I would have thought it was pronounced...! (Although I pronounce adonirack with the stress on the same third syllable.)

The word is an Anglicized version of the Mohawk ratirontaks, meaning "they eat trees", a derogatory name which the Mohawk historically applied to neighboring Algonquian-speaking tribes. By 1634, the word was being used by the Mohawks, when speaking among the Dutch, to refer to French and English. The Dutch transliterated the word Aderondackx at that time.

I didn't mean to get sidetracked onto the geography of a particular area in this post, but rather to mention Muskoka chairs. These chairs are sometimes known as Adirondack chairs (or even Adirondak, if you follow the quirky spelling of the area). The Muskoka comes from the municipality of Muskoka, Ontario a cottage country area north of Toronto.

The Adirondack or Muskoka chair was designed by Thomas Lee while he was on holiday in 1903 - it's the sort of thing you do either because you find that you need something to stimulate your brain while on holiday or because there happens to be nothing comfortable to sit on outside. (When I say 'you' I really mean 'one' - since I've never designed a chair on holiday yet...I always hope that there'll be at least something to sit on when I arrive at wherever I'm going to. A holiday without chairs is closer to a nightmare for me. )

The chair wasn't named either Adirondack or Muskoka for the first couple of decades of its existence (and when I say 'the chair' I really mean the innumerable chairs that a certain Harry Bunnell seems to have made - and sold - from Lee's design...without his permission.) They were called Westport plank chairs during that time, since they were made in Westport. Out of planks.

I guess all chairs have names (apropos of the naming of things, it's intriguing to hear the names of the various manoeuvres ice skaters perform in Dancing on Ice) but most of us aren't aware of them. So I hope this post has been informative - and not confusing. Westport/Adirondack/Muskoka. Take your pick!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

3 unrelated things

1. We now know, because someone researched it, that fathers and their children playing roughhouse is good for them....

Someone has to research these things otherwise what we know instinctively couldn't be classed as 'real,' 'true' or (wait for it) 'scientific.'

2. Dunedin's public toilets - the kind where you walk in, press a red button and have the door slowly close behind you - have musak playing. They have had the same short piano piece playing for the last decade, or possibly longer. This piece, which sounds like something Richard Clayderman might have played (trivial, in other words), has a glitch in it - perhaps it's where they joined the music to make a kind of loop of it, so that the twenty or so bars join to each other endlessly.

Years ago I rang the Council to ask if they could possibly fix it so that the glitch wasn't obvious. The man who responded seemed to think I didn't have enough to do with my time - or that I used public toilets too often. I'd thought this horrible little bit of music/musak had gone the way of the do-do, but nope. When I used the public toilet in Frederick St today (the first time I've used one for some months, incidentally) there it was still playing. I even waited longer than necessary to see if the 'join' was still there. It was.

3. I used to be part of Amazon fact, there was a period when every time I mentioned a book in a blog a large Amazon ad would appear if you happened to pass your mouse over the title. This seems to have vanished from my blog pages, perhaps because I didn't renew my affiliation, or somesuch. Perhaps it was because I never seemed to make any money out of it and I stopped bothering. (I've just checked and it seems my password still works, however.)

Now Google's got in on the act, and soon (at present it's only happening in the States) you'll be able to be an affiliate with Google ebooks.

There's nothing on the Internet that Google doesn't want to get a look in it seems.

Monday, June 20, 2011

English and Irish

I've watched a couple of movies on TV lately: firstly Five Minutes of Heaven, and secondly, Happy-go-lucky. Let's look at that second movie first. It's directed by Mike Leigh, so naturally it's going to have some off-the-wall feel to it, it's going to be superbly cast, and superbly acted, and it's going to leave you thinking about it for some time after.

But it's also supremely annoying. I've just been looking at some of the reviews of this movie, in which Sally Hawkins plays Poppy, a woman in her thirties who jokes and laughs her way through everything, and who seems to have (to me) an instinct for not understanding how she's affecting other people (particularly those who aren't like her in any way). Hawkins is marvellous in the role, but it doesn't take long for you to feel there's something unlikeable about her. Have I been around gloomy people for too long, and can't stomach someone who's supposedly so full of life and so full of get up and go?

I don't think so. The reviewers all praise the film, and particularly Hawkins; few of them seem to think she would be unbearable to live with. (Her flatmate manages to do so, but she has done for ten years, and they have a longstanding friendship.) Poppy teaches at a primary school and does the job well; she's also fairly sensitive in a scene with a mildly deranged man she meets while out walking alone at night in what would appear to be a rather dangerous area. The rest of the time she rubs many people up the wrong way. Should they be so rubbed? Perhaps. The main one is Scott, played by Eddie Marsan. He's an exceptionally uptight driving instructor, with a most peculiar (but apparently successful) approach to teaching people to drive.

However, I had more sympathy for him than for Poppy. She's plain irritating as soon as she gets in his car, refuses to listen to him, goads him, provokes him and pretends a lack of concentration on the task in hand that drives him absolutely crazy (almost literally, in the end). He's not an especially pleasant character, but to me he doesn't deserve the treatment Poppy dishes out to him.

Nor does the bookshop owner we see briefly at the beginning. He's a morose man who plainly doesn't want to make small talk. Poppy insists on babbling on - it's almost as if she can't stop the endless joking and nonsense, as she demonstrates throughout the movie - and in the end you side with the man in wishing that she'd just leave the shop and leave him alone. Curiously enough, when she goes for a flamenco lesson with the principal of her school, while her eyes keep doing the goofy thing and her body language is still in joking mode, she actually keeps her mouth shut, mostly. The flamenco teacher is as neurotic as the driving instructor, and has a major blow-up in the middle of the lesson. Characters in Mike Leigh movies are never straightforward.

Finally Poppy meets a 'nice' bloke and it all seems to go well. He could still be in the picture after the movie has finished, as it were. But could any guy stand Poppy's nonsense for long? Or would she, having finally found a man who appreciates her, let her tongue have a rest? It's hard to think so.

Five Minutes of Heaven is the story of a Protestant Irishman (Liam Neeson) who, as a teenager, killed a Catholic youth in Belfast - and nearly killed his younger brother in the process. The younger brother is subsequently made to take the blame for the death - his mother insists on saying: You could have stopped it, which is plainly nonsense, but it eats into the boy's soul.

As middle-aged men the two are due to meet again via a TV programme. Neeson's character has done time for the murder, and spends his days warning the world about the perils of ideological thinking in teenage minds. Reconciliation is expected, but the surviving boy, now something of a perpetual nervous wreck (James Nesbitt plays him as though he's going to explode any minute) is just as likely to kill the other man in front of the cameras as forgive him.

The television filming is aborted, and Neeson and Nesbitt eventually find their own way through the mire, with a final violent confrontation. It's a serious, intense piece, with barely a moment of lightness in the intensity, and perhaps it's over the top in its own way (a number of reviewers have felt the ending is too contrived). I found it more satisfying to watch, however, than Poppy's endless gavorting...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roosevelt the speed reader

In the Wikipedia entry on Teddy Roosevelt, the following line appears: Roosevelt was also an avid reader, reading tens of thousands of books, at a rate of several a day in multiple languages.

I'd checked up on his biography because in a tweet that came through an hour ago the writer stated: Teddy Roosevelt wrote 150,000 letters in the White House - and read 1-3 books PER DAY as president.

The 150,000 letters while in the White House seems a common statement about Roosevelt, but 1-3 books a day let alone several a day in multiple languages seems to be pushing the bar just a little far...

There's no doubt the man had extraordinary energy, (it sounds in fact as though he was on some kind of hgh) and it's possible that in his time as President, the job wasn't quite so pressured as it is now, but that many books a day? To what extent was he skimming them? And when did he actually find the time to read that much? A person without a job would be doing well to get through that many books a day.

Does it sound as though I'm a little skeptical? I'd really like to have some more detail about this amazing ability to speed read.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

10,000 year clock

There's a website called the 10,000 year clock. It explains in detail the project to put a clock inside the Sierra Diablo Mountain Range that will last for 10,000 years. In fact, if you want even more detail, check out this site, where there's a very long post about the clock - and others like it.

Reading through the post on Technium, I had to keep asking myself if this was all some sort of hoax. The explanation for trying to create a clock that will last (of its own accord) for ten millenia is related to people who think long term rather than short.

The clock's inventor, Danny Hillis, wrote: I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.

If you're not the sort of person who thinks this way (and I can't say that I truly am) then you may find all this long-term thinking a bit absurd. May be it is...maybe not, but there are some interesting people involved, including Jeff Brazos, the founder of

The photo shows one of the models relating to the clock.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Walmart shoppers

Can these be for real....? So it seems.

A little Shopping at Walmart video...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Google pays up!

My first ever cheque from Google in payment of Adsense credits arrived today. $125.65 in NZ dollars.

It's only taken me four and a half years to get that much - I first started collecting from Adsense way back in late 2006 after I finished up at OC Books. And because the income came in so slowly - and Google doesn't pay out to overseas customers until they've got $100US in the kitty - it's been a long time coming.

However, in recent months there have been considerable amounts coming through Triond; for instance, up to today for June, I've earned US$5.94, which is about ten times what I use to earn in a month, or three months even. So the next Google cheque may not be quite so far away...2012 rather than 2016!

On another tack, I've been using Evernote for a few months to keep track of odds and ends I come across on the Net, or other bits of info. It's great because it syncs onto a cloud, and I can pick it up on other computers. Occasionally it's a bit when it copies something from a site, and insists on putting a box around it so that you can't insert other stuff easily...but in general it's a great storage space.

And it has a great search function. For instance, I wanted to see if I had anything that related to the phrase laminate flooring. I couldn't find that phrase exactly, but in the process of looking I found all sorts of other interesting things (that I'd forgotten about!)

A note about where the first floor plans for the house are stored, for example. The following "MIDDLE AGE TEXTING CODES:... ATD: At The Doctors. BTW: Bring the Wheelchair. BYOT: Bring Your Own Teeth. FWIW: Forgot Where I Was. GGPBL: Gotta Go, Pacemaker Battery Low. GHA: Got Heartburn Again. IMHO: Is My Hearing-Aid On? LMDO: Laughing My Dentures Out. OMSG: Oh My! Sorry, Gas! ROFLACGU: Rolling On Floor Laughing And Can't Get Up. TTYL: Talk To You Louder".

This odd ending to an interview with N D Wilson (who is currently writing the screenplay for C S Lewis' The Great Divorce : Let's just say, I used to hate coffee, and now I don't. I've also gotten pretty good at deep breathing exercises and lying on the floor. [Don't ask me what that's got to do with the rest of the piece.]

Or this intriguing introduction to The Annual Turing Test: Since 1991, the Turing Test has been administered at the so-called Loebner Prize competition, an event sponsored by a colorful figure: the former baron of plastic roll-up portable disco dance floors, Hugh Loebner. When asked his motives for orchestrating this annual Turing Test, Loebner cites laziness, of all things: his utopian future, apparently, is one in which unemployment rates are nearly 100 percent and virtually all of human endeavor and industry is outsourced to intelligent machines.

Or from a piece on urbanisation: Once, while jogging on a treadmill on the top floor of a Sao Paulo hotel, I tried to count the many helicopters buzzing by. The city has the highest rate of private helicopter use in the world -- a literal sign of what heights people will go to in order to avoid the realities of the world below.

Okay I haven't found anything helpful in relation to 'laminate floors' but I'm having a ball going through these old files...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

No birthday invitation?

Free software guru Richard Stallman has his knickers in a twist about the way in which 'ebooks are "technologies that could have empowered us [but] are used to chain us instead".

He cites Amazon's use of proprietory software and the way in which you have to register your name with them before you can buy an ebook. "...printed book buyers can walk into a bookstore and make a cash purchase anonymously, " he says. I'm not sure that most people have ever thought this was a big deal...the only kind of concern it might have brought is if the book you were buying was one that came in a brown paper wrapper, and I think that idea has long since vanished in the current society.

I find the long comment by someone called Deano (rather curiously, it appears twice) brings the whole down to a sensible level. This comment is well worth reading.

Stallman, by the look of his bio, has some good things to say about the sale of software and what have you, but in this instance I think, like many people who focus on the extreme, he's let his ideas carry him away somewhat.

By the way, all those who didn't get birthday invitations to my most recent birthday, don't worry. There'll be another one next year. And if there isn't, well you won't have to read any more entries on this blog. So there are two consolations for ya.

Monday, June 13, 2011

More administrative

More quakes in Christchurch. Is this what it's like in any quake area after there's been a major shake-up? It must drive people crazy after a while, and I don't envy those living there at all. Each small quiver of the ground must make them wonder whether another big one's on the way.

I've spent the afternoon trying to get to grips with what the musical might cost - I'm nowhere near sorted out on it yet, but I've got some idea, and some figures. Trying also to get an overview of what needs to be done - apart from finishing off the music. Looking at everything from how much set construction is needed to props needing to be made or found to costumes, from overalls to a dinner gown to men's and womens boots to whatever it is that a witch might wear....

Quite a lot to think about, though some of it will be handed over to others in due course, thank goodness...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Marketing Grimhilda...

Making good progress on the musical I've been writing: finished orchestrating the eighth scene today (eighth out of ten). There'll still be tidying up to do, and no doubt some changes, but a lot of those first eight scenes are pretty much as they'll appear in performance.

Just had a look again at the last scene's music - after a few weeks of ignoring it, I can see its faults more clearly. So there'll be some work to do there...! Still, that's the nature of the beast.

Just noticed, apropos of nothing that's gone before, that on the latest Firefox the indications about where your browser is searching for a particular site have shifted from the left side to the right. Why? you might be inclined to ask.

Meanwhile, back to Grimhilda! a title that has different effects on different people. Some pick up Wagnerian associations, some (well, one) think it old-fashioned, some just like it. (There aren't any Wagnerian associations, by the way, although I suspect the character of Grimhilda would be quite at home in a Wagnerian opera - in terms of personality, if not in terms of vocal range or power.)

Among the many things on my mind relating to the musical is the marketing of it. That's already begun, in a sense, with mentions of it on the blog, which feeds through to Facebook, where it's been discussed occasionally, and where it's known about amongst a smallish group of people.

I've got other plans: spent some of this week putting together a kind of collation of some of the music from the show. It's an 8-9 minute medley, which I'm hoping to play on any occasion that arises. (A friend of mine is planning several concerts for his singers this year, and when I'm accompanying, I should also be able to squeeze in some Grimhilda! music).

I'd like to record the medley and make it available on SoundCloud, or You Tube or one of the other openings on the Net. Because Grimhilda! is a complete unknown to most people, she'll need all the help she can get to put bums on seats...

I might even be able to persuade some of my singing friends to learn a few short sections and record those as well.

My collaborator and I have discussed the possibility of inviting people especially for the first night. Don't know that we'll print invitations but you never know! I'd also thought of having a night when people who couldn't otherwise go because of the ticket price could come. I feel it would be good to give people who can't otherwise afford to go an opportunity. Two of the shows I've been in over the last few years have been put on with a charity in mind - Habitat for Humanity - so that some of the profit goes to them. The concert person I mentioned above used to put on concerts partly to raise money for people with intellectual disabilities.

Keep an eye out for more news in this area...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nearly there

I'm almost finished re-reading A House for Mr Biswas, which in a post a while ago I said I much preferred to Naipaul's later book, A Bend in the River. My memory of Mr Biswas was that it was often funny and gave an insight into a society that I knew nothing about. I'd forgotten how dark it actually is, if, in fact, I actually noticed this the first time round.

Mr Biswas is something of a loser, yet he retains his integrity throughout - although it's a rather suspect integrity, in the sense that it consists of a low-level rebellion against his wife and her family almost from the day he suggests she might marry him. It's only this rebellion that sustains him - and his awful sense of humour (which is appreciated by no one else). He has faults galore: he allows the Tulsi family (his in-laws) to overtake his life almost completely, he's at odds with most of the other male characters in the book and consequently has no real friends, he is careless about his children while they're under the 'care' of the Tulsi tribe, and he has no real practical sense about anything.

On the other hand, he's better read than many of the other characters, he's able to maintain a position as a reporter in a newspaper for many years, he builds two houses before he gets his final home (one is abandoned after a terrific storm, and the other comes close to being burnt down), and perhaps most of all, he's a survivor. The Tulsi family are enough to grind any man down - males in their family are merely there to produce more Tulsis - and beyond that, Mr Biswas (as he's almost always known throughout the book) overcomes innumerable obstacles that could easily wear another man down.

On second reading it turns out not to be a cheerful book: Naipaul seems almost to delight in pushing his characters' faces down into the mud (Mr Biswas isn't the only one who tries all sorts of things and sees them fail). The section entitled Adventure at Shorthills is a prime example of just how awful things become when a group of people with no practical wisdom can undermine all the advantages that are given to them on a platter. It would be depressing if there wasn't an element of comedy amidst it all.

And that's what makes it different to A Bend in the River. That book has almost no comedic element at all; it's Mr Biswas without the trenchant humour - in fact the narrator in River is Mr Biswas all over again, but with slightly more luck.

The artist's work

If the artist works only when he feels like it, he's not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work, and to go where it tells him to go.

Madeleine L'Engle
Walking on Water

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Artitsts and language

For language, like a story or a painting, is alive. Ultimately, it will be the artists who will change the language (as Chaucer did, as Dante did, as Joyce did), not the committees. For an artist is not a consumer, as our commercials urge us to be. An artist is a nourisher and a creator who knows that during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not work alone.

Madeleine L'Engle
Walking on Water

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Blimp is up and away

Ryan Youen's Blimp is now on You Tube being played by the Auckland Symphonia. Runs about three minutes.

Having been doing quite a bit of orchestrating of the music for Grimhilda! in recent weeks I know just how long it takes to orchestrate even a couple of minutes of music - and the number of instruments involved in my pit orchestra won't be as large as this group, by any means. Haven't quite got to the point of having dark circles under my eyes as yet, since I can work in the daytime (and not have to try and fit the music around a forty-hour working week doing something unrelated), but I suspect by the time the show is starting to get into production there may be not only dark circles but bags under the eyes as well.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Pick a hobby

Here's a slightly different kind of hobby:

Scott Weaver's Rolling through the Bay from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.

Scott Weaver has spent 35 years of his spare time making this model of San Francisco's major sights and points of historic interest. His commentary is worth listening to, because he points out the various quirky bits he's added in.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Whyte, Murray, Words, Poetry

David Whyte is a poet I'm unfamiliar with (it's not hard to be unfamiliar with poets - there are so many of them!), but he was quoted as saying the following in a blog post I read today: “A poet’s work is all about creating a language that is big enough to represent both the world you inhabit and the next, larger world that awaits you."

I'm currently revising the poem, Poetry and Religion, by Les Murray. Revising as in re-committing it to memory, something I have to do every so often in order to remind my brain that I've once learnt something and expect it still to be there somewhere. (I'm using a little digital dictaphone I bought for another purpose recently to re-learn the poems and Scripture I've memorised previously: it's a different kind of challenge to learning from a page of words.)

Murray's poem discusses a similar idea to Whyte's statement, though perhaps from a more theological perspective. Like many of Murray's poems, it takes a bit of unpacking to get to the gist of things, especially as he can make use of ordinary words and give them additional meanings: 'concert', 'attracted', for instance. And the section where he uses the 'mirror' imagery is quite dense until you work over it a number of times....for me, anyway.

Here it is in full.

Religions are poems. They concert
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture

into the only whole thinking: poetry.
Nothing's said till it's dreamed out in words
and nothing's true that figures in words only.

A poem, compared with an arrayed religion,
may be like a soldier's one short marriage night
to die and live by. But that is a small religion.

Full religion is the large poem in loving repetition;
like any poem, it must be inexhaustible and complete
with turns where we ask Now why did the poet do that?

You can't pray a lie, said Huckleberry Finn;
you can't poe one either. It is the same mirror;
mobile, glancing, we call it poetry,

fixed centrally, we call it religion,
and God is the poetry caught in any religion,
caught, not imprisoned. Caught as in a mirror

that he attracted, being in the world as poetry
is in the poem, a law against its closure.
There'll always be religion around while there is poetry

or a lack of it. Both are given, and intermittent,
as the action of those birds - crested pigeon, rosella parrot -
who fly with wings shut, then beating, and again shut.

I love those two lines:
Nothing's said till it's dreamed out in words
and nothing's true that figures in words only.

It seems like a simple couple of statements, yet it has a hidden depth like a pool that you think is shallow - you step into it, lose your footing and suddenly find yourself floundering.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Enjoy Art!

Visiting art galleries, museums and the theatre is good for your health - particularly if you're a man. So says a Press Association report.

I'd love to think that they were inferring that sports aren't good for your health, especially if you're a man, but I doubt that that follows...

Norwegian Researchers asked 50,000 people about their cultural activities and found that being creative in music or art is good for both genders, improving health, life satisfaction and lowering the risk of depression. In fact, being involved in creative activities was even more beneficial than just attending them.

This brings to mind those various tortured souls who were male artists: Van Gogh, Pollock, to name just two; but of course there have been female artists (Freda Stark) who've suffered in art as well. Do these counter the Norwegian findings, or are they exceptions? Or is it possibly that if you are an amateur in art, you'll be happier, but not if it's your life's work?

Nico Muhly

Just listening to some music by Nico Muhly, a young composer whose name was quite unfamiliar to me.

The music is from I Drink the Air Before Me, and is part of an hour-long ballet of the same name. The You Tube video below isn't actually visual; it's purely some of the music. (You can see some of the ballet and the accompanying music here. and here and watch the pianist conducting the orchestra on the other side of the stage, behind the dancers, and the youth choir.)

It has a violinist doing a number of energetic scratchings over a limited number of notes while in the background various instruments and electronics hum and flutter and hover, and every so often, give a bit of a surprise Thump just to keep you on your toes.

It's interesting to compare this to Gillian Whitehead's music. I've been listening again to the CD that comes with her biography, in particular the piece for orchestra entitled The Improbable Ordered Dance. This begins so softly that I had to turn my CD player up in order to work out that something was happening - even then, it was no more than a ppp rustling going on. Eventually - and I mean around a minute and a half into the music - the cor anglais got going and wandered around some notes, and gradually the thing took on the sound space of landscape with the occasional bird tut-tutting, and the wind whistling when it felt like it, and various other sounds that certainly were reminiscent of something like open marshlands, or being amongst the grasses near the sea.

Dancing it wasn't.

This section of Muhly's ballet score can't be easy to (A) play, or (B) dance to, but at least it has energy. The energy might seem to be like an odd conversation that the violin is having pretty much with itself, a kind of person with mental health issues muttering and occasional barking out at passers-by, and perhaps stamping his feet loudly on something metal, but there's a definite energy to it all. Whitehead's music seems to lack that impulse - or perhaps the impulse is so minimal (it's intriguing that Muhly has worked with Philip Glass, one of the prime minimalists) that you have to stop breathing in order to hear it. I've just got another CD out of the library with her music on it, including the early Missa Brevis. You must admit I'm trying to get to like the lady's music!

There's another interesting thing between the two composers: in the biography Whitehead says at one point that the words of poems aren't what she's trying to communicate when she sets them in a song; she's interested in their sounds, and in stretching them out and playing around with them. The original idea of the words as something we understand seems to go out the window. Which might explain why I find her settings of poems not very sympathetic.

Muhly, in the interview in The Guardian where I first discovered him (twenty minutes ago) says something interesting about words: "I think in language and then it turns into music. The relationship between them is like a reversible coat. The language is the structure on which the music hangs. I don't know what the hell is going on with that. I find it much easier to start thinking about something bizarre in language, like the kind of 'r' sounds they make in Beijing. I think about that for six days, then a piece of music comes out. Maybe I was just put together incorrectly and I should go to the shop and get fixed."

"The language is the structure on which the music hands." He's just about to have his first opera, Two Boys, presented, so it'll be interesting to see how he uses language. It's about two teenage boys who got to know each other via the Internet. One created wild and vast worlds that he shared with the other - and it almost ended in tragedy.

The music isn't readily available yet so it's hard to know what it'll sound like, but I'll be keeping tabs on it and will write about it as soon as I get a chance.


Many New Zealand (serious) novels are so gloomy I no longer bother to read them as they arrive in the bookshops. Mr Pip was a (relatively) recent exception; although it was serious in tone, it somehow managed to have both a positive attitude to life and bring humour to the story. I think the book that finally 'done me in' regarding NZ novels, was The Hard Light, by Stuart Hoar, better known as a playwright. I was supposed to review it, so read it from cover to cover - it was an endurance test.

Anyway, all that by way of introduction to the fact that I've finally got round to reading Plumb, by Maurice Gee, a book which had stayed in the back burner of possible books to read because of what I felt about NZ novels. Plumb turns out to be immensely readable, even though the narrator (Plumb himself) is a character whose opinions are often at odds with the facts (as far as the reader can glean them) and whose short-sightedness in regard to the lives of other people is destructive for some, and a joke to others. Plumb is based on a real person - Gee's grandfather - and you can only hope that the real man was more perceptive and insightful than the fictional character.

Plumb becomes a Presbyterian minister early in the story (early in the chronology - the story runs in two separate time-frames as well as wandering off into other periods in Plumb's history) and is surprised to find that the Church doesn't find his radical views fit well with their institutional approach to Christianity. The problem is that Plumb is always at odds with some group or other: so convinced of his own rightness, he never has time for anyone else's point of view, and makes strong enemies. But his views change from period to period: one year Christian, the next liberal, the next freethinker, the next....well, Plumb goes through pretty much every possible viewpoint that existed in the early 20th century, and still manages to scoff at his long-time neighbours who go through every (what we'd now call New Age) philosophy that arises.

He and his long-suffering wife produce twelve children, yet he spends little time with any of them. One of the saddest moments is after the death by drowning of one of his younger children; he has to admit that he barely knew her. He continually claims to love his wife, but at the end of the story, it seems he loved his own thinking far more. Thinking is what Plumb does; the irony is that he so often thinks wrongly. He sees himself as a kind of prophet, yet if that's truly the case, his prophetic work is not just out of kilter with his society (nothing unusual in that, as regards prophetic voices) but, more importantly, is actually out of kilter with reality. Towards the end of the story he mentions that his last 'book' (little more than a pamphlet) barely sold at all, and some hundreds of copies sit in his basement. The problem seems to be that he is almost entirely intellect, and very little heart. He warms to only a few of his children, rejects one entirely, and is at odds with his grandchildren - except one. Even this child he beats at checkers, so that the child doesn't get above himself.

This all makes him sound like an entirely objectionable character, and in a sense, he is. Yet somehow Gee makes him extraordinarily interesting and readable. Plumb makes a vivid narrator, and we see the world and the people he meets through his eyes in considerable detail. The book is a great achievement, and deserves the praises it's received. There are two sequels, Meg, and Sole Survivor. I'm not sure yet if I'll read them, but time will tell...

Gender humour look too closely at the gender politics of The Hangover Part II is to risk getting butterfly fragments in one's eye as it splits on the wheel. But they do highlight a common trope in American comedies: the adult relationships are not so much husband and wife as Mean Mommy and Infantilised Man Child.

from Funny women do exist in the movies, by Hadley Freeman, in The Guardian.