Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More on the adaptation process

I wrote a few days ago about adapting my musical, Grimhilda! into a book, and how I was feeling quite disenchanted with the process, as it was proving a great deal more difficult than I'd expected.  I don't know if getting that off my chest helped or not, but I've now done more work on the first three chapters and have handed them out to some other people to read and comment. The responses have been pretty positive all round. So perhaps it was just a matter of getting up and running again.

Last year, when I started the adaptation process, the big pull initially was to keep everything that was in the musical's libretto.  Not a good idea.  I got gradually more adventurous and added in detail which clarified the story further, and broadened its parameters and allowed things to breathe.  On stage everything happens within a short period of time (about an hour and half in this case) and it's all in real time even if you're covering a day or a month or several years.  In a book, time is far more flexible, and I began to allow for that as well.  But I still got to the end of the first draft feeling increasingly unsatisfied.  And by the time I'd gone through three or four more drafts (I think the first chapter was on its sixth), I was beginning to get thoroughly fed up with it all. 

But that was back in August last year.  Coming back to the book has been a pleasure.  Things are working, and I can better see which details are needed and which are not - and where other things can do with expanding a little. 

I was further encouraged when my daughter told me the other day about a friend of hers.  This woman had come to see the show (back in April/May last year) with her eight-year-old daughter (I think that's her age) and the daughter was very enthusiastic, wanting to know when the sequel was coming up!  Crikey.  I'd met this little girl briefly at one of the performances and she was star-struck at meeting the author.  This will probably be the only time in my life when someone is star-struck, so I'm making the most of it. 

Nock, Prokofiev, Sacagawea

I've been playing some Mike Nock pieces over the last couple of weeks, as well as a number of short pieces by Prokofiev. The former are playable, the latter in some cases playable, in some cases very difficult.  But the interesting connection they have is that evidently both the composers have quite large hands, with considerable extension between the thumb and the little finger.  I write music in which I assume that other people will have a hand about the same size as mine - so there are tenths that I find comfortable to play, often included a third note in the middle. 

But Prokofiev's tenths (and occasional elevenths) are a different kettle of fish: they include other notes that make the stretch that much wider, and while I can manage them in some cases, in others they're just beyond my playing without arpeggiating the notes.  Nock doesn't do this very often but when he does it's plain he has the same sort of stretch as the Russian.  In some places it's assumed you'll comfortably reach a top note while holding others further down the keyboard.

On a totally different topic, I came across the Sacagawea coin the other day.  I'd never heard of Sacagawea and had to look her up (I didn't know at first whether it was a person or a thing).  She was an Indian guide who accompanied Lewis and Clark on some of their expeditions and was highly respected for her skills and mediation with various natives they met on the way.  Yet another woman who was in no way inhibited by some people's idea that women should keep their place.

Heart and Heaven

Caught up on a couple of old movies recently: Places in the Heart (1984) and Heaven Knows, Mr Allison from 1957.  The first stars Sally Field in one of her best roles, and the second has a relatively gentle Robert Mitchum co-starred with Deborah Kerr.  Kerr plays a nun, so for most of the film only her face is visible.  Other body language is almost minimal, but this doesn't stop her giving a wonderful performance.  

Yes, both the movies are old-style, tear-jerkers, the former focusing on forgiveness and the latter on an impossible relationship that nevertheless transcends its boundaries.  Places in the Heart is a story about forgiveness (there's an echo of the beginning of Les Miserables early in the piece) and how people who ought not to get along can manage to do so if they're willing.  It also has a curious subplot that never quite connects with the main story.  In this Lindsay Crouse plays Field's sister whose husband, played by Ed Harris, is having an affair with a mutual friend.  Obviously Crouse connects with Field because they're sisters - they have a few short scenes together - but for the most part this story plays out by itself almost in parallel with the main one.  At the very end all the characters are gathered together in church for a service.  A wonderful travelling shot begins with Harris being forgiven by Crouse - the touch of her hand on his is enough to tell us.  The camera moves from row to row as each person receives the communion wine, and finally we see Field's deceased husband sitting beside her.  He was accidentally shot early in the film by a young and very drunk negro, who was subsequently lynched. The camera moves a foot or two more and there is the negro boy.  He whispers to the husband, Sorry, and there's a look that might mean all sorts of things on the husband's face, but none of them are antagonistic.  It's a strange ending that comes out of nowhere - there hasn't been a hint of the surreal prior to this.  For all that, it's in keeping with the tone of the movie and its theme.

John Malkovitch plays a blind boarder who's foisted upon Field as a way to forestall her having to sell the house.  Of course they eventually learn to get along, but the performance by Malkovitch is somewhat over-the-top (Malkovitch is always over-the-top, you might think) and for me it jarred. 

Heaven Knows etc is a story about a marine who lands on a deserted island in the Pacific during the Second World War.  It's not quite deserted: a nun has been left behind on the island through some odd circumstances and the two begin a rather edgy relationship.  The Japanese arrive, take over the island, but fail to realise it's not quite as empty as they think.  They also fail to notice that their supplies are getting lower than they should be as Mitchum does a daring night raid on the stores. Eventually the US arrives on the island and conquer the Japanese.  That's pretty much the story, but Mitchum and Kerr invest the script with a great deal of warmth and humour, and humanity.  Kerr's character might seem a bit too much a member of the weaker sex at times, though Kerr brings some feistiness to the part, and Mitchum is given the chance not only to be a gentleman but also to be very protective gentleman.  The actors manage to make both the people credible, and John Huston films the whole thing with minimal fuss, knowing that he can rely on his two main cast members to do all the work. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Intriguing words

I'd never heard of the company, diptyque, (no capital letter) until today, and to be honest at first I was more intrigued by the word than by what they actually sell! It's a French brand name, and the word goes back to the Greek (see below). Although there's a good deal of information about the company and its history on its beautifully designed site, it doesn't seem to say where it got the name from.  

The distinctive oval-shaped stickers appear on all their products as well as the rather curious arrangement of the letters of whatever the product is - in this case, Baies candle by diptyque. Baies is a mixture of blackcurrant and Bulgarian rose, I believe, and early in their history the company produced English perfumers for French customers. 

But back to that word, diptyque. Its origins are similar to our English word, tryptich, meaning a painting that consists of three sections.  I assume there's an English equivalent of diptyque too, presumably spelt: diptych.  Yes, of course there is. 

Talking about interesting words, I came across this one yesterday: OcclupanidApparently this was coined by the delightfully named Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group [HORG] as a generic term for the humble bread tie (occlu, close, pan, bread).  The Wordways column in this morning's paper has a number of other interesting words that we could well start using again (the English language is full of words that have been left behind, sadly).  Usufructry, for instance.  This means the temporary possession of a piece of land that doesn't belong to you, and making use of it: you might graze sheep, if you had any, or pick the apples off the trees on the land.  It was kind of like taking windfalls before they'd actually fallen.  
A four-headed pillory!

Fixfax is the Scottish word for a pillory (it's also spelt/pronounced paxwax in some dialects).  It's typical of that English usage of two identical sounds separated only by the first consonant.  (There's a name for that, but don't ask me at the moment what it is.) 

There's also nuncheon, which belongs to the family from which we get luncheon, and truncheon.  There aren't many words in this family so it's quite good to come across a long-lost relation.  Nuncheon is the virtual equivalent of luncheon, except it relates to drinking.

And finally sockdolager, which is apparently one of those words that arose serendipitously out of the blue one day: it means a knock-out punch.  'I've given him a sockdolager, and that's put him in his place.' 

Actually, not finally, after all.  I forgot to mention that the earlier use of the word treadmill was as a means of punishing people who'd been naughty in some way.  Prisoners were supposed to 'become wearily repentant of their crimes.'  Sounds a bit like the modern treadmill, says my wife.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Tracks and blackberries

My grandson broke his arm a couple of days ago, the first member of our family - children or grandchildren - to do so.  And he did a good job of it too, breaking two different bones. We've had some near misses over the years, but not a single plaster cast between us.  My younger son, who had a great propensity at one point for damaging himself, managed to lose a toenail when another child slammed the door on his foot, and had four trips to A&E within six months to get stitches for various splittings open of his skin that he gave himself.  One was walking into the end of the bed, as I recall, another occurred when he banged his head on the metal edge of the counter at the supermarket (fooling around in the trolley, of course)...and there were two more, the details of which I can no longer remember, but my wife no doubt will.  He didn't electrocute himself, either, when he cut a live cord with a pair of scissors. 

Anyway, I was reminded of this because this morning my wife and I went for a walk along the back of the old houses in Caversham, between the fences and the railway line.  We discovered that instead of being inside the protective fence we were on the wrong side of it, (having gone over a chain barrier that didn't seem to bar anything in particular) and walking through tall grass next to the line itself.  That was okay, since it wasn't dangerous.  We were following a path that other people had already forged through the grasses, while the dog danced his way through what probably seemed like a bit of a forest to him.

However, the wasteland we were walking on became increasingly narrow, and we decided to climb up the bank as soon as we had the opportunity, and go over the fence.  We spotted a section where the fence was broken down in some way, and other people had gone up, making a bit of a path between the thistles and blackberry bushes (yes! blackberry bushes with unpoisoned blackberries on them!).  I began the climb, slipped on something and, with nothing to grab hold of, slid back down the bank a little and fell over onto my elbow.  The bruise isn't impressive enough to photograph, unfortunately, but it obviously hurt, because when I lent on the table just now to do the crossword, I knew pain.  I was still scrambling to get up and out of the clutter of weeds and brambles and you name it when the excursion train came along.  'Silly old codger trying to climb the bank.  Shouldn't be down here beside the tracks in the first place.'  I didn't actually hear anyone say this, but I'm sure they did.

Anyway, I eventually got up on my feet again, with the help of my helpmeet, and then the dog and I scrambled up the path, hopped over the broken fence, and waited for my wife (she had her faithful walking sticks with her, and that gave her some stability).  I hoisted her up and over the last section and we were back on the path we'd intended to be on in the first place. 

The fence obviously doesn't count for much.  On the way back, we noticed that a large playing field that's in behind the houses on South Rd has an opening straight out onto the path beside the tracks. There's nothing to stop a child running up and over onto the railway line.  Odd.

Talking of blackberries - when we were in England in 2007, we were out in the country one day and stopped for a picnic lunch.  Just nearby were a host of blackberry bushes, full of ripe blackberries.  I knew that these bushes are regarded as noxious here in New Zealand, and asked someone else who was there whether these ones were poisoned with spray or not.  He looked at me as though I was daft: why would anyone poison blackberries? 

They were the most delicious blackberries I've ever tasted.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


After the production of Grimhilda! was over, I wrote the draft of a book version of the musical.  I thought this would be an easy task, but it turned out to be full of hooks that I kept getting stuck on.  On the stage, a dramatist doesn't have to explain everything: some of what isn't in the script will be filled in by the actor, or by the director - or even by the music.  Things are pared down in a stage script: the scenery is often the bare minimum, just enough to convey an idea of the place.  Time is loose; even though it pays to keep things within a certain specific period (such as a day, or a night, or two weeks), the actual chronological time can be stretched and tightened as the scriptwriter desires.  There's no clock on a stage (and if there is one, it's often a bit of a nuisance).  The background of the characters may be left quite skimpy - in the musical we didn't tell the audience what the parents did for a living, where Toby went to school, why the toys were as big as the 'real' adults, how Mr and Mrs Map could possibly be married when they were separated by a parchment (and why didn't they just rip it up?)  All these sorts of things are irrelevant on stage; the audience lives in the particular moment, and can ask itself questions afterwards, if it so desires. 

With a book, it's necessary to fill in all sorts of details for the reader, otherwise their imaginative landscape can seem very bare.  The reader may not pay attention to all this detail (I'm a terrible one for missing vital points by skim reading) but it needs to be there.  Even in modern novels, there has to be a sense of a real place, of real time, of people having real jobs and having to go to work, or a real neighbourhood in which they live, and much more.

In the musical we could start straight into the action by showing, quite briefly, that the parents didn't give their son much of their time.  In the book, it proved very difficult finding exactly how to start things, how much explaining to do before the action started, as it were, and perhaps most importantly, why these parents were so selfish.  And then having explained a great deal of that, it was a matter of taking unimportant bits of those details back out again.  It was all a bit like the conga: you put your detail in, you take your detail out, you put your detail in and you shuffle it about. 

I was reminded of all this by seeing an ad for a diamond engagement ring, because of course, part of the story of Grimhilda! concerns a diamond mine run by the villain of the piece.  What, on the stage, was a relatively small space in which the 'diamond mine' existed, and in which the dozen or so workers worked, couldn't be as small and as barely inhabited as that in the book.  I had to re-imagine the mine altogether: it had to be a much bigger place, and there needed to be a lot more people there (though I avoided adding in yet more names and personalities - in fact two of the women in the musical became one person in the book).  It had to be placed within towering mountains, and as soon as the mountains appeared (they're only mentioned in the musical), it became a matter of how tall they were, how impregnable, and so on.  Was there grass on the mountain sides?  Were the paths steep and slippery?

The worst business of all was dealing with the death of the other little boy in the story: Jackie Axelquist.  He's mentioned a number of times, and is a vital part of the plot, but how he died isn't discussed.  Unfortunately, you can't just say in a book that Jackie died.  There are no bones on the skeleton, and skeletons aren't very attractive to readers (unless it's a horror story).  You have to consider what details to include as to how Jackie died, and then you realise that this could be quite grim for the younger readers of your book.  Oh, what a task I set myself!  :)

I have a book on my shelves (yes, I still have some left after the big purge) called How to Adapt Anything into a ScreenplayIt's by Richard Krevolin.  It would be a useful book, no doubt, but it's remained one that I haven't really got my teeth into yet.  But more than a book about turning anything into a screenplay, what I need is a book called: How to adapt your own musical into a book.  If you know of such a piece, tell me about it.  I really, really need it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Fall

[Spoiler alert.]

Tarsem Singh's film, The Fall, is a visual extravaganza, with some utterly beautiful shots, many extraordinary locations, a great deal of imagination, and a performance from a young Romanian actress called Catinca Untaru (she was eight or nine at the time the movie was made) which is as natural as you can get on film.  Even some of her mishaps with her lines have been left in and add to the charm.  She plays opposite adult actor, Lee Pace, and the pair are fine together. 

Regrettably, The Fall starts out with a good idea, with humour, with a great deal of fantasy, but increasingly becomes incoherent.  What could easily have been a film to delight children (my grandson was watching it until it suddenly became increasingly violent) turns into a film that loses its plot - literally. 

Both Alexandria (Untaru) and Roy Walker (Pace) are patients in a very casually-run hospital around the time silent movies were becoming increasingly successful.  He's a stuntman, and has had a nasty accident jumping off a bridge, on a horse.  The horse dies, and Walker is left paralysed in his legs.  Alexandria has had some fall in which she's broken her arm (she spends most of the movie with it stuck up in the air at an awkward angle). They meet by accident, and he begins to tell her a long and fantastical story about five men who all have a passion for revenge on the wicked Governor Odious.  Initially the story is simple and like a folk-tale; it also chops and changes at the whim of either the storyteller or the listener.  We also understand that Alexandria sees the events in quite a different way - at times - from what Walker intends. 

Unfortunately, Walker more and more adds in elements of his own life and misery, and instead of the story working towards some grand climax and romantic ending for the main character, the Black Bandit, it becomes a brutal and unpleasant tale in which the other four characters die at the hands of Odious' soldiers, along with the savage who has assisted them, and the monkey belonging to one of the adventurers (called Charles Darwin, but only remotely resembling the historical man).  The Black Bandit even admits to being a coward (he was also prepared to shoot his beloved). The story somehow comes into Walker and Alexandria's own time, and with real people are included.

Walker tries to commit suicide, with the apparent assistance of Alexandria, and though he doesn't achieve this, he takes to the bottle, feeling that his life as a stuntman is over.  In a long and not very successfully worked-out sequence, Alexandria, both in reality and in the story, pleads with him to face life again and move on.  He eventually does, and the last sequence has the hospital patients watching the movie that he was originally making, and we hear that he goes on to work as a stuntman in dozens of other movies.

It's a great pity that the movie becomes so downbeat about three-quarters of the way through.  It loses any continuity it might have with the earlier parts, and the two sections are quite inconsistent in style.  The whole film shows a lack of being thoroughly worked-out - even within the ever-changing world of the story there has to be an internal consistency, and this is lacking.  (I've seen a couple of other movies over the years that tried to switch part way through from being a comedy to a tragedy; it didn't work there either.)

We only discover late in the proceedings that some of the characters in the story are based on people in the 'real' part of the movie.  It would have been far more effective if we'd understood this earlier on.  And there are a number of oddities: one example is when the five bandits (as they're sometimes styled) capture one of Odious' caravans in the middle of the desert. A princess appears out of the door.  She's preceded by a young boy, her nephew, (so she informs the others), but extraordinarily he's just left behind, and no further mention is made of him.  The old rule applies to all storytelling: if you're going to introduce a character who appears to have a purpose in things, then you'd better make sure he does, or you alienate your audience.

Equally, it takes some time before we realise who the Princess in the story is based on: the only attractive woman in the cast up to that point is one of the children's nurses.  But it isn't her, and she never actually has anything to do with Walker.  The Princess is apparently the movie actress that Walker is in love with; she's gone off in real life to live with the actor who plays the hero in the movie being made at the beginning. He turns out to be the model for Governor Odious.

I know how difficult it is to structure a story well and I understand that especially in fantasy writing it's easy to leave loose ends.  Unfortunately, this so seriously undercuts the values of this movie that it makes the audience irritated and frustrated.  Given that Tarsem spent four years making the film, you'd wonder that he didn't give himself just a bit more time to pull it all together in terms of the story.  (And he had two other writers on the job, anyway.)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Breach and Mr Nobbs

Last night we watched a movie, Breach, which I felt I'd seen before, yet I didn't have any memory of how it panned out, or even of Ryan Phillipe in the main role.  Yet in an early scene, when Phillipe meets up with Chris Cooper (at his snake-eyes best) I was sure I'd seen it some other time, and there were scattered moments throughout that seemed familiar.  Perhaps it had been on TV somewhere, and I'd caught it out of the corner of my eye while I was supposed to be paying attention to something - or someone - else.

Anyway, it's a well-cast piece (the impecable Laura Linney is in it too) and though it might occasionally be felt to be just a little too slow for a thriller, it certainly has some suspenseful moments.  Taken at its own slightly curious pace, and with the cast all in top form, this is worth watching.  It's based on the true story of the uncovering of one of the US's top spies: Robert Hanssen.  While working for the FBI, he was systematically giving away the country's secrets to the Russians.  Cooper plays a man full of religious hypocrisy, mistrustful of everything that might be slightly out of kilter, and bullying in his treatment of his subordinate (Phillipe).  Phillipe is the new boy on the block who helps the old-timers in their task of bringing Hanssen to justice.  While playing the part of a clumsy, unintelligent youngster - for Hanssen's sake - he's actually having to deal with the razor-sharp mind of his superior, keeping him at bay whenever he's suspicious of anything in his very ordered world.

Another slightly slow movie - intentionally so - is Albert Nobbs.  The title role is played by Glenn Close; it's an extraordinary achievement.  The role was obviously close to her heart, since she was also involved in the script and production.  Albert Nobbs is a woman making her living as a male waiter in an Irish hotel run by an arrogant and devious woman (Pauline Collins) who claims to treat her staff well but is in fact mostly unaware of the reality of their daily lives.  She's certainly unaware - as are the rest of the staff - that Nobbs is actually a woman, and Nobbs intends to keep it that way.  As an orphaned teenager she dressed up as a man to take on a temporary job, and then found that it was economically sound to remain a 'man.'

We know from the beginning that Nobbs is a woman, of course, since we know that Close is playing her.  However, there's a wonderful moment quite early in the piece when a broad-shouldered, tall and lanky male housepainter also turns out to be a woman; she's the widow of a man who abused her until he died and she's also found it worthwhile maintaining the pretence.  These two form a friendship - Nobbs can finally talk to someone who understands - but there are other complications which I won't reveal here. 

Close is surrounded by a mostly British cast (some of whom are Irish, but the majority English) and her Cockney accent works well.  Her tight little face, her movements, her submissive approach all combine to create a wonderfully sympathetic character - it's necessary that we're sympathetic in the light of her attempts later in the film to form a relationship with one of the younger maids (Mia Wasikowska) in the hotel. 

It's a small-scale film, but one that was worth making.  

Photos and more...

It intrigues me, when you see police procedural movies or series on TV, how often they use large photographs as part of their investigations, the sort of large photographs that you hardly see anywhere else these days, especially since the advent of digital cameras and the ability to be able to view photos on your computer or mobile or iPad.

Once upon a time it took days to get prints back from your negatives, and then we got to a stage of overnight prints, and then it was down to half an hour, and so on. Now, of course, we can have a photo we've shot on the iPad or computer within seconds.  Okay, it's not hard copy, but for the most part we don't need hard copies of photographs.  Think of all the thousands of printed photos that are stored away in cupboards and on shelves and in attics.  Of interest to archivists maybe, but not very much to those who are moving on with their lives. 

Occasionally we'll have a big sort-out of photos, and in one recent purge, we gave photos away to our adult children.  In most cases there was some sort of sentimental value attached to the photo.  But many photos taken in the past have little sentimental value: they're just a shot of something or other (sometimes not even identifiable) or someone (often someone whose name we've forgotten). 

Endemic's Roxburgh studio
Going beyond the family photos and coming back to the big photos, my wife and I went to see an exhibition yesterday put on by a couple who call themselves collectively Endemic, and who singly are a painter, Rebecca Gilmore, and a photographer, Greg Slui.  They live in Roxburgh, and had brought down a wide range of their prints (and some originals) to a display at the Hotel St Clair.   It was well worth paying a visit, even though the prices were out of our current (pensioner) range.  There were certainly some photos and paintings we would have liked a copy of if we'd had some cash: some of Slui's photos are wonderfully evocative, occasionally simple to the point of abstract, but in general very pleasing.  There was a marvellous shot of a bunch of boulders at Moeraki that particularly appealed to me. 

Gilmore paints in great detail, often with birds as a focus.  Some of these paintings were a delight, but the one that caught our eye consisted of nothing but beach or river stones in all their amazing variety.  Beautifully done.

The Chart Room at the Hotel St Clair is a good spot for an artist: plenty of foot traffic, the sea rolling in just across the road, the far horizon, an overcast sky (yesterday, when we went, but it had been bright earlier on), and an evocative atmosphere. 

Book sale

You have to be hard-hearted when you're getting rid of books.  In our book sale today we've sold all the Dr Who titles we had - over a hundred of them.  They weren't a problem sentimental-wise, because they belonged originally to my son and we had no attachment to them.  But seeing some other books go out at 50c which were books that you once loved, is a little different....!  On the other hand we've also sold a lot of books that we've never loved particularly: they've just managed to find their way onto our shelves and take up space.  There's something about books; no matter how hard you try to get rid of them, new ones call out for a place in your house.

The sale was listed to start at 8 am, though we expected we might get a few early birds.  However, the really early bird arrived at 6.20, and my daughter, from her upstairs window, told them to come back no earlier than 7.30.  I think the Dr Who were the drawcard.   At 6.20 we weren't even up.  Having something like this going on at your house means you don't sleep well anyway (it's like having to get up early to catch a plane) and both of us had had a disturbed night.  Plus the dog decided to do a funny coughing thing about 4 am, and wouldn't settle.  Most unusual.  Maybe he was concerned as to how many people he was going to have to bark at during the morning.

Anyway we had someone else (a dealer) come just around seven and thought we might as well get on with it. Another couple of guys - also dealers - arrived with a great whiz and a bang ten minutes later, barging into the house as though we'd better not stop them or else!  Strange way to come into someone's home. 

Subsequent customers have been much more polite, and we've had some interesting conversations, and have caught up with some people we haven't seen for a while.  We've cleared around 180 books this morning, but there are still some twenty boxes sitting there, though they're not so tightly packed as they were.  Well, we'll see what the rest of the day brings.  At the moment there's a bit of a lull...

Friday, March 08, 2013

Two rants and a statement

I love Joe Quinnan's rant on change: Books, I think, are dead. You cannot fight the zeitgeist and you cannot fight corporations. The genius of corporations is that they force you to make decisions about how you will live your life and then beguile you into thinking that it was all your choice. Compact discs are not superior to vinyl. E-readers are not superior to books. Lite beer is not the great leap forward. A society that replaces seven-tier wedding cakes with lo-fat cupcakes is a society that deserves to be put to the sword. But you can’t fight City Hall. I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone. 

Some of it is hyperbole, but there's an element of truth in it all.  Corporations - but even more so, governments - have a great tendency to change things for the sake of change, and certainly without consultation.  And how much battling can you do in life, especially when the things being changed aren't really hugely important in eternal terms? 

And here's another delightful rant: Charlie Brooker writing an article in which he claims he's going to strangle everyone on the planet...
And for the sake of transparency, in case the powers-that-be are reading: this is categorically not a joke. I am 100% serious. Even though I don't know who you are or where you live, I am going to strangle you, your family, your pets, your friends, your imaginary friends, and any lifelike human dummies with haunted stares and wipe-clean vinyl orifices you've got knocking around, perhaps in a secret compartment under the stairs. The only people who might escape my wrath are the staff and passengers at Sheffield's Robin Hood airport, because they've been granted immunity by the state.

I love that phrase: lifelike human dummies with haunted stares and wipe-clean vinyl orifices.  It's a beautiful piece of writing, even if it's nonsense. 

Which brings me to cheap vinyl banners, which are described by their makers as built to stand up to the elements, though they do wear with time.  Isn't there something slightly awry about that statement?  Obviously we want them to stand up to the elements, but in spite of being cheap, we also want them to last forever.  That's the way consumers think about material goods: cheap, and permanent.  Unfortunately, manufacturers tend to think cheap, and replaceable after a very short period, like two years at the outside.  Otherwise we might be out of business.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Clearing and rediscovering books

As a result of our big book clearance - we're selling off or giving away hundreds of books (it's the bravest thing we've done on the book front for decades) - I've decided to read more of the books I've still got on the shelves, rather than keep on getting new ones from the library, or elsewhere.  Even with the big clear-out we're still loaded with books (and that's not including the ones that we're keeping hold of for the shop I used to work for, which has since closed down).   I remember reading about a woman - Susan Hill - who decided to read nothing but the books she had on her shelves for a year.  (Ironically, she turned her year of reading her own books into yet another book.)  She placed an embargo on buying new books or borrowing them, and spent the year rediscovering her own library.  I can't say I've placed an embargo on buying or borrowing anything else, but at least the clear-out has given me the chance to take up some of my unread, or long-since read, books. 

For instance, I've read two of the Dorothy L Sayers' murder mysteries, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.  I've had most of the titles in this series for years, but curiously enough had never read the first two: Whose Body? and Clouds of Witness. These intricately plotted books are a joy - even if you think that Sayers cheats just a little in how she plans the thing out.  They're a joy because the characters are such fun, the wit in the writing is a delight, and the inclusion of innumerable quotations - either clearly remembered by Sayers, or half-remembered and mangled by some of her characters - adds to the enjoyment.  (Check out the Dowager Duchess getting herself thoroughly tangled, or Lord Peter in full flight, Parker, the detective, talking about biblical commentaries.)

From there I've moved to another book I've never read, even though I've had it forever.  It's Henry James' The Bostonians.  I read Portrait of a Lady a number of years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it (and was later disgusted at the mess and muddle New Zealand's Jane Campion made of the film version.) The detailed writing seemed to dig deeper and deeper into the characters' lives, and the dialogue was splendidly written, with each speech twisting and turning the story. 

The Bostonians is different, though not in the style of writing, of course.  There seems to be less dialogue  - at least so far (I'm up to about 70 pages) - but each character is brilliantly dissected, and alongside that is the wit that James allows himself at times - I'd forgotten about that.  It's subtle, but it's certainly there.  It's extraordinary how he manages to keep us interested while unravelling yard after yard of the characters' inner lives, or how one line of dialogue can lead to a page or two of dissection.  No doubt it's not everyone's taste, but I'm enjoying it.  You can't read speedily, as you can with the Sayers' books.  Miss a phrase, or even a word, and you have to go back because you find you've missed how that word connects into what comes next.  I'll report more on it when I've finished it.

Costa this and Costa that

I'd thought the name Costa del Mar referred to place.  I think I was confusing it was with Costa del Sol, which I presume means the Sun Coast.   Costa del Mar means Sea Coast, which, when you think about it, is a bit of a tautology: surely a coast is usually only on the sea?  The first dictionary definition I found on the Net certainly defines it that way: Land next to the sea; the seashore.  Although it does mention that once upon a time the word was used for a border or frontier.  I doubt that anyone in English uses it that way anymore. 

Costa del Mar, which has its own Wikipedia page (and a comment from Wikipedia saying that the entry looks suspiciously like advertising...!) is actually a brand name.  I guess it's well known in the States - its headquarters are in Daytona Beach - but I've never heard of it.  Of course, I don't buy brand name sunglasses either, so that could be another reason.   Oh, the perils of not being brand-name-focused! There's so much you miss out on...

While checking out Costa del Sol, I came across this strange headline: Costa del Sol fire victims still left out in the cold after half a year of waiting.  Doesn't this have an air of the paronomasiac about it? (A pun, in other words).  Perhaps it was intentional; perhaps, on the other hand, the sub-editor had one of the flashes of language in which words just come together in a slightly surreal way, and he or she never noticed.  

And to hive of the subject we started with, talking of interesting words, yesterday I came across one and then was introduced to another this morning.  Yesterday's was Tchotchkes, which refers to those gifts you give people which aren't of any real value but you have to give them something.  There's a whole industry out there producing this kind of stuff.  When I worked in the book shop, my boss used to call these sorts of things, 'tinky-tonk' which is another delightful name.  Curiously, I'd thought this was original to her, but I should have known better.  Check out tinky-tonk on Google and you'll find it everywhere.  

The other word, which a friend introduced me to this morning, is febrifugal, which means mitigating or curing a fever. Or to put it another way, a way that doesn't explain anything: febrifugal is something that acts as a febrifuge.  Oh, the words just get more delightful as we go!

It's quite difficult to find febrifugal used in a sentence, but here's one: The common camomile, A. nobilis, is used as a popular remedy. Its flowers have a strong and fragrant and a bitter, aromatic taste. They are tonic, febrifugal, and in large doses emetic, and the volatile oil is carminative. Hmm.  A sentence that also expects you know 'emetic' and 'carminative'.  

Well, we've strayed a bit from Costa del anything...never mind, the fun of writing blog posts is that there are no restrictions on how far you can stray.  

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The great 119th

Over the years I've made several attempts to memorise that Psalm of Psalms, Number 119.  All have seemed doomed to failure, for various reasons. Firstly, it's the longest, but that shouldn't necessarily be an issue - I've been able to memorise poems and scripture that in sum are much longer, and in some cases more complex.  It's repetitive and uses the same words and ideas over and over in various ways.  It doesn't easily stick because the links between the statements (each verse being an independent statement) are few, and on only some occasions are there connections that help the memory process.

At present I'm working my way through the notes that Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, provided in his book, The Treasury of David.  He also included, alongside his own notes, the commentaries of other divines, preachers and teachers - and the occasional explorer.  These notes are often illuminating, and it's surprising how much variance these writers can get out of what appears to be a psalm that winds around the same points like a labyrinth. 

Anyway I decided, while working slowly through these notes (often only a verse's worth a day) that I'd have another go at memorising the psalm.  My attempts in the past have involved number system approaches and other tricks of keeping stuff in the head, but this time I'm just working one step at a time, one verse (roughly) a day, using various mnemonics and other memory tricks, and I'm hoping that I'll have the intestinal fortitude to complete the task. 

I have some predecessors in the job.   Spurgeon notes:  Our best improvement of this sacred composition will come through getting our minds into intense sympathy with its subject. In order to this, we might do well to commit it to memory. Philip Henry's daughter wrote in her diary, "I have of late taken some pains to learn by heart Psalms 119:1-176, and have made some progress therein." She was a sensible, godly woman. Having done this, we should consider the fulness, certainty, clearness, and sweetness of the word of God, since by such reflections we are likely to be stirred up to a warm affection for it.

William Alexander, in "The Witness of the Psalms", written in 1877 notes that 'In the midst of a London season; in the stir and turmoil of a political crisis, 1819, William Wilberforce writes in his Diary— "Walked from Hyde Park Corner repeating the 119th Psalm in great comfort"'. 
Ruskin, who was a man often at odds with the religious views of his day, wrote: It is strange that of all the pieces of the Bible which my mother taught me, that which cost me most to learn, and which was to my child's mind most repulsive— the 119th Psalm— has now become of all the most precious to me in its overflowing and glorious passion of love for the law of God. 
I've now got the first eight verses under my belt, and have to keep tightening my belt to keep them there.  They have a great habit of straying.  Nevertheless, I persevere.  Some 168 days (or more) down the track I may have the whole thing by heart...


Back in 1974, we held our wedding 'breakfast' in our upstairs flat in Tooting Bec, London.  We didn't have enough cash to have a 'do' at any place more formal.  It was a great party and all those who went - and who we're still in touch with - remember it fondly.

I only found out recently that the day after the wedding, by which time, of course, my wife and I had left for our honeymoon (in Rome - we got a wonderful cheap holiday package) - a number of the guests had gone to my best man's house for another get-together.  Mike, the best man, had made six or seven pavlovas for the wedding breakfast, and they had been transported - very slowly - across London.  So slowly in fact, that he was late for the wedding ceremony!

But when you make several pavlovas you're left with a great number of egg yolks.  Mike turned these into a particular dish whose name now escapes me - it sounds like Zambezi, but isn't.  Ah, yes, I remember now, it's Zabaglione.  Zabaglione is, as you'd guess, an Italian dessert made with egg yolks, sugar and wine.  It's often served with strawberries, or one of the other sweet berry families (the one in the picture is au natural).  Of course, Mike could have turned the yolks into Advocaat or Eggnog, Rompope, or the wonderfully-named Kogel mogel.  I had to use up several egg yolks a while ago and made these lovely flat (and probably fat-making) biscuits that lasted me two or three weeks.  They were crunchy, almost like hokey-pokey.  Unfortunately I'm not sure if I remember what the name of the recipe is now.  I'll have to check.  My wife made a pavlova for my daughter-in-law's birthday last weekend.  It just occurs to me that I haven't asked her what happened to the yolks.

Anyway, I wasn't going to talk about all that but about something else that happened at the wedding breakfast.  We went to open the corkscrew.  Nothing.   (Not even any Sinf custom bottle openers.)  Someone popped out - it may have been the inimitable Mike - and bought a marvellous device that you poke right into the cork - it's has a thick needle at one end.  Once it's in, you pump the rest of the device up and down and suddenly the cork pops out.  Air is pumped through the needle apparently. 

What's even better is that we still have this bottle opener, getting on for forty years later.  We don't use it often, since we don't drink a lot of wine, but it's still serving its purpose after all this time.

Archives online

Over on one of my other blogs, I've been posting letters that I sent home from the UK in 1968/9, when I went to the London Opera Centre to study for a year in the repetiteurs' class.  The letters cover all manner of things: my relationship with my flatmate, friends and relatives I knew and visited and went out with, shows I went to see (particularly operas: we used to get in free) and movies, and just how life was in that particular time.  I thought the letters might interest one or two people, but in fact I've heard from several people who've been reading them - though not, so far, my old flatmate! 

I've added notes where appropriate, in some case to clarify who or what I'm talking about, and in some cases I've added links to the places or people I've mentioned. 

It's kind of like having archives online.

Saturday, March 02, 2013


William Gouge once wrote about verse 13 of Psalm 106: As it is with a sieve or boulter, the good corn and fine flour goes through, but the light chaff and coarse bran remains behind; or as a strainer, that the sweet liquor is strained out, but the dregs are left behind: or as a grate, that lets the pure water run away, but if there be any straws, sticks, mud, or filth, that it holds. Thus it is with most men's memories; by nature they are but, as it were, pertusa dolia, mere river tubs, especially in good things very treacherous, so that the vain conceits of men are apt to be held in, when divine instructions and gracious promises run through; trifles and toys, and worldly things, they are apt to remember, tenacious enough; but for spiritual things they leak out; like Israel, they soon forget them. 

Apart from the Latin phrase, pertusa dolia, which Gouge translates as 'mere river tubs', what other word is unusual in this extract?  It's the word, 'boulter' which I can't say I've ever come across before. Plainly it's a word meaning some form of sieve, and the phrase, boulter-cloth, appears in a some places in an old recipe book, The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened.  It seems to mean a cloth that you squeeze juices through, as we strain blackcurrant juice through a muslin cloth, sometimes. 

While I might not have met with a 'boulter' before (at least not by that name) I thought I knew what a sieve was.  But when I went to check out one site I discovered that there are sieves used for scientific work that are nothing like the affordable sieves I use at home with cooking or baking.  These ones are expensive models that use metal mesh on several different levels (like a kind of tower) through which various materials are gradually sifted.  They're often called 'test sieve shakers' because they're shaken electrically (presumably at high speeds) and do the work in a short time that would take a scientist days.  As you can see from the picture, they're rather more intricate than the average household model...

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away

We went to see the movie Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away recently, in 3D.  I haven't had much experienceof the new style 3D, so far, apart from seeing Alice in Wonderland in the format more than a year ago.  That particular movie didn't grab me enough to make me want to feel that I needed to see things in 3D for the sake of it, but we couldn't see Cirque du Soleil conveniently in 2D, so we opted for the only other choice. 

It turned out to be the right decision.  I suspect that some films are made in 3D for the sake of it, and some are planned that way.  Worlds Away gives the impression of being planned for the 3D format, and is all the better for it.  There's a depth to the visuals that allows things to be going on in a number of places at once and still be visible (although this being typically Cirque du Soleil, there are always random happenings going on that you only just catch).  Two or three times a person is caught right at the front of the shot, almost in silhouette, and that didn't seem to work (you wondered if an audience member had just stood up) but otherwise everything has a marvellous clarity. 

The film is a compilation, basically, that tries to be a unity by having a very basic story running through.  However the story is so thin, that it hardly holds the thing together.  A small town girl goes to a circus, sees (only for a moment) a man working at putting up the tent, falls in love with him (apparently), discovers that he's the Airealist in the circus, and distracts him while he's performing. He plunges to the floor, except the floor proves to be sand and gives way beneath him and he vanishes.  She jumps in after him and finds herself.  Well, who knows where she finds herself - perhaps inside the Cirque du SoleilOnly there are seven separate circuses in this movie (all of them running in Las Vegas at the time the movie was made), and some of their best acts are shown (there are also some rather brief random acts, which don't seem to fit with anything).  The Airealist is captured by some bodies (who knows who) and the girl keeps on searching, until finally they're reunited.  (Who knows how?)

So irrelevant is all this to what you see on the screen that it barely matters.  What matters is the Circus, and the artists, and the design, and the fantastic stage props and machinery, and the costumes, and the utter artistry of these performers.  Yes, I know Cirque du Soleil has become the household name for all that's top class in circuses, so you expect the best, but even so, they are always full of surprises.  The acts performed in and around the huge pool are wonderful; the marvellous superheroes piece on an assortment of trampolines set up like a huge skateboard park are high energy to the max; the 'fight' on the tilted floor between two groups of acrobats on wires is superbly timed, and perhaps only outdone by the other battle on the same floor (this time vertical) in which the acrobats race up and around and down and through a series of poles sticking out of the floor, with nothing to hold them onto to what amounts to a wall; several of them 'die' with horrendous screams by falling off it- who knows what happens to them, any more than the artists who drop into the water from trapezes and other hanging devices early in the piece. 

There's also the exhausting 'boat' that's slung way up in the air and has at least a dozen trapeze artists and strongmen on it: it's constantly on the move, like a giant swing, and the airealists are flung about from either end like rag dolls that suddenly turn out to have muscles and strength once they're back on board again. 

I love circuses - poor little circuses with barely any money to rub together (Circus Aotearoa, for instance) or the noisy Zirka Circus - but I love Cirque du Soleil most of all, even though I've only seen it once live - and that was in very confined quarters as far as the circus was concerned, on the stage of the Regent Theatre.  I've seen a number of presentations of Cirque du Soleil on TV, including documentaries and such.  I just marvel at the attention to detail, the atmosphere, the innovativeness and much more. 

This movie may not do much more than capture some of the best acts on film, but it does it exceptionally well, and that's all I need to say.

Friday, March 01, 2013


Rehabilitation after drug abuse isn't something I've had much experience with, so I probably won't need to make use of drug rehab California-style.  With that in mind, I've decided to take another trip through my clippings and see what other people have to say about rehab.  Here's just a small sample. 

Firstly, in an article in which David Orr puzzles over the idea of Spring Fashion Modelled by Rising Young Poets, he also considers: the actual experience of reading a poem. Not why poems are good at rehabilitating people. Not where poems come from. Not what they can help us do, or forget, or remember. Not what the people who write them are wearing. Just what reading one of them is like to one person. 

In an article entitled Salon's guide to writing memoirs, Avi Steinberg notes that you should first "give therapy a shot" and that Stories based on facts are more interesting and truthful and beautiful when placed within a prism of facts. Be a student of your subject. If you’re writing about an experience in a sober house, learn the history of rehab, the history of the specific sober house in which you lived, the chemical composition of benzodiazepine, etc. Everything has a history. Your personal story always intersects with larger subjects...

Václav Havel writes in a piece called Words on Words how even words need to be rehabilitated: 

For forty years now I have read [the word, peace] on the front of every building and in every shop window in my country. For forty years, an allergy to that beautiful word has been engendered in me as in every one of my fellow citizens because I know what the word has meant here for the past forty years: ever mightier armies ostensibly to defend peace.
In spite of that lengthy process of systematically divesting the word “peace” of all meaning—worse than that, investing it instead with quite the opposite meaning to that given in the dictionary—a number of Don Quixotes in Charter 77 and several of their younger colleagues in the Independent Peace Association have managed to rehabilitate the word and restore its original meaning. Naturally, though, they had to pay a price for their “semantic perestroika”—i.e., standing the word “peace” back on its feet again: almost all the youngsters who fronted the Independent Peace Association were obliged to spend a few months inside for their pains. It was worth it, though.