Wednesday, December 25, 2013

On the Purpose of Dictionaries

Do not pay attention, child, to the Academics (of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language). They are theologians of language, restricting, confining, limiting, fearing change, without art or imagination. Read the great writers, listen to the great orators, learn from the great communicators, see as great artists have seen. They are the mystics of language, and they will teach you what the inbred pseudo-knowledge of the instructors cannot.

There is an article in El País about the new edition of the  DRAE, which will be published next year. It starts off rather stupidly but in fact it's quite good. It praises it for being 'less sexist', apparently thinking that a dictionary which reflects what some people think language should be and how it should be used is better than one that reflects how it really is and how it is really used. 'Gozar' is still used to mean 'have sex with a woman' and a dictionary that fails to recognize that is not a good dictionary. The editor, Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, states that the point of the new dictionary is to be better, not less sexist, which is a good start. Then the article goes on to acknowledge that language is not what the RAE decrees it to be, and that no one looks at what the Academy has said before speaking or writing. On the whole, as I say, a good article.

The Dictionary has always tried to teach people how it thinks they should speak, and has been largely ignored other than by writers of style manuals and professors of language, who tend to use it as a reference (perhaps because they have to). It does not have anything like the scope of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a magnificent work of scholarship and, like a swimming pool in Bali with pretty young waitresses serving chilled rum as you float by; once dipped into it's hard to get out of.

There are better dictionaries of the Spanish language. María Moliner's is probably the best, and for etymology the six volumes of Corominas are unequalled. The DRAE, on the other hand, is for people who want their homework to get a good grade, or their article to be accepted by a newspaper. A fine and useful work, but with a specific purpose to define what is good and evil in language.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Aboriginal Nimbys

I read this a few weeks ago (here, in the National Geographic), and I think it is worth a few observations from left field.

It is interesting in its assumptions,  both journalistic and anthropological. It starts off with, in fact it mostly consists of, a series of anecdotic little details, probably largely invented, about the lives of the people Michael Finkel was talking to and about. This is what journalists do, they call it human interest and learn it the first day on the job. The fact that a supposed science article is not tabloid journalism is rather lost on this chap, who probably isn't a scientist anyway. He's just a writer, he doesn't seem to have any other relevant background. He has some curiosity, which is something, but too many preconceptions and not enough ability to observe.

What is described is presented uncritically, as good, virtuous, a model for the rest of us. But if you set aside the casual racism which treats Aborigines, in the category of those who live differently and take their traditions more seriously than we do, as simple but exotic animals, and actually see them as people, they come across, as transmitted to us by Michael Finkel, as selfish and arrogant.

They do not live in harmony with nature. That is a silly idea peddled by hippies and believed by the ignorant. Primitive peoples live at the mercy of nature, and survive, to the extent that they do, by holding it off as long as possible. They live as they do because they can't live better.

The  village described is a dictatorship in which the tyrant is an old woman. Her right to arbitrarily control what happens and  what people can do is accepted not only by the villagers but also by those outside, who should know better. They appear to do no work, but live from other people's efforts, for which they show no gratitude. They have, they demand, that other people provide electricity for them, but they will not allow mining in their area. No planning process, no quid pro quo. Just the ukase of the matriarch. Classic nimbyism. They demand that others work for them and provide them with things, but it must be other people's land that is spoilt to provide it. And apparently this makes them virtuous. The writer has not thought this through.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Not a story of mine this time, but one by Alfred Russel Wallace, in his great work 'The Malay Archipielago'. The book is mostly a description of his travels around the area of Malaysia and Indonesia, the larger and some of the smaller islands. There is a lot of talk of birds and butterflies and orangutans and other creatures that he hunted, and of the land and the people and the conclusions he drew from it all. I was struck by this anecdote, because it is told in a different style from the rest of the book, as a story. It's not a bad story, and is well told:
The Rajah of Lombock was a very wise man and he showed his wisdom greatly in the way he took the census. For my readers must know that the chief revenues of the Rajah were derived from a head-tax of rice, a small measure being paid annually by every man, woman, and child in the island, There was no doubt that every one paid this tax, for it was a very light one, and the land was fertile and the people well off; but it had to pass through many hands before it reached the Government storehouses. When the harvest was over the villagers brought their rice to the Kapala kampong, or head of the village; and no doubt he sometimes had compassion for the poor or sick and passed over their short measure, and sometimes was obliged to grant a favour to those who had complaints against him; and then he must keep up his own dignity by having his granaries better filled than his neighbours, and so the rice that he took to the "Waidono" that was over his district was generally good deal less than it should have been. And all the "Waidonos" had of course to take care of themselves, for they were all in debt and it was so easy to take a little of the Government rice, and there would still be plenty for the Rajah. And the "Gustis" or princes who received the rice from the Waidonos helped themselves likewise, and so when the harvest was all over and the rice tribute was all brought in, the quantity was found to be less each year than the one before. Sickness in one district, and fevers in another, and failure of the crops in a third, were of course alleged as the cause of this falling off; but when the Rajah went to hunt at the foot of the great mountain, or went to visit a "Gusti" on the other side of the island, he always saw the villages full of people, all looking well-fed and happy. And he noticed that the krisses of his chiefs and officers were getting handsomer and handsomer; and the handles that were of yellow wood were changed for ivory, and those of ivory were changed for gold, and diamonds and emeralds sparkled on many of them; and he knew very well which way the tribute-rice went. But as he could not prove it he kept silence, and resolved in his own heart someday to have a census taken, so that he might know the number of his people, and not be cheated out of more rice than was just and reasonable.
But the difficulty was how to get this census. He could not go himself into every village and every house, and count all the people; and if he ordered it to be done by the regular officers they would quickly understand what it was for, and the census would be sure to agree exactly with the quantity of rice he got last year. It was evident therefore that to answer his purpose no one must suspect why the census was taken; and to make sure of this, no one must know that there was any census taken at all. This was a very hard problem; and the Rajah thought and thought, as hard as a Malay Rajah can be expected to think, but could not solve it; and so he was very unhappy, and did nothing but smoke and chew betel with his favourite wife, and eat scarcely anything; and even when he went to the cock-fight did not seem to care whether his best birds won or lost. For several days he remained in this sad state, and all the court were afraid some evil eye had bewitched the Rajah; and an unfortunate Irish captain who had come in for a cargo of rice and who squinted dreadfully, was very nearly being krissed, but being first brought to the royal presence was graciously ordered to go on board and remain there while his ship stayed in the port.
One morning however, after about a week's continuance of this unaccountable melancholy, a welcome change took place, for the Rajah sent to call together all the chiefs, priests, and princes who were then in Mataram, his capital city; and when they were all assembled in anxious expectation, he thus addressed them:
"For many days my heart has been very sick and I knew not why, but now the trouble is cleared away, for I have had a dream. Last night the spirit of the 'Gunong Agong'—the great fire mountain—appeared to me, and told me that I must go up to the top of the mountain. All of you may come with me to near the top, but then I must go up alone, and the great spirit will again appear to me and will tell me what is of great importance to me and to you and to all the people of the island. Now go all of you and make this known through the island, and let every village furnish men to make clear a road for us to go through the forest and up the great mountain."
So the news was spread over the whole island that the Rajah must go to meet the great spirit on the top of the mountain; and every village sent forth its men, and they cleared away the jungle and made bridges over the mountain streams and smoothed the rough places for the Rajah's passage. And when they came to the steep and craggy rocks of the mountain, they sought out the best paths, sometimes along the bed of a torrent, sometimes along narrow ledges of the black rocks; in one place cutting down a tall tree so as to bridge across a chasm, in another constructing ladders to mount the smooth face of a precipice. The chiefs who superintended the work fixed upon the length of each day's journey beforehand according to the nature of the road, and chose pleasant places by the banks of clear streams and in the neighbourhood of shady trees, where they built sheds and huts of bamboo well thatched with the leaves of palm-trees, in which the Rajah and his attendants might eat and sleep at the close of each day.
And when all was ready, the princes and priests and chief men came again to the Rajah, to tell him what had been done and to ask him when he would go up the mountain. And he fixed a day, and ordered every man of rank and authority to accompany him, to do honour to the great spirit who had bid him undertake the journey, and to show how willingly they obeyed his commands. And then there was much preparation throughout the whole island. The best cattle were killed and the meat salted and sun-dried; and abundance of red peppers and sweet potatoes were gathered; and the tall pinang-trees were climbed for the spicy betel nut, the sirih-leaf was tied up in bundles, and every man filled his tobacco pouch and lime box to the brim, so that he might not want any of the materials for chewing the refreshing betel during the journey. The stores of provisions were sent on a day in advance. And on the day before that appointed for starting, all the chiefs both great and small came to Mataram, the abode of the king, with their horses and their servants, and the bearers of their sirih boxes, and their sleeping-mats, and their provisions. And they encamped under the tall Waringin-trees that border all the roads about Mataram, and with blazing fires frighted away the ghouls and evil spirits that nightly haunt the gloomy avenues.
In the morning a great procession was formed to conduct the Rajah to the mountain. And the royal princes and relations of the Rajah mounted their black horses whose tails swept the ground; they used no saddle or stirrups, but sat upon a cloth of gay colours; the bits were of silver and the bridles of many-coloured cords. The less important people were on small strong horses of various colours, well suited to a mountain journey; and all (even the Rajah) were bare-legged to above the knee, wearing only the gay coloured cotton waist-cloth, a silk or cotton jacket, and a large handkerchief tastefully folded around the head. Everyone was attended by one or two servants bearing his sirih and betel boxes, who were also mounted on ponies; and great numbers more had gone on in advance or waited to bring up the rear. The men in authority were numbered by hundreds and their followers by thousands, and all the island wondered what great thing would come of it.
For the first two days they went along good roads and through many villages which were swept clean, and where bright cloths were hung out at the windows; and all the people, when the Rajah came, squatted down upon the ground in respect, and every man riding got off his horse and squatted down also, and many joined the procession at every village. At the place where they stopped for the night, the people had placed stakes along each side of the roads in front of the houses. These were split crosswise at the top, and in the cleft were fastened little clay lamps, and between them were stuck the green leaves of palm-trees, which, dripping with the evening dew, gleamed prettily with the many twinkling lights. And few went to sleep that night until the morning hours, for every house held a knot of eager talkers, and much betel-nut was consumed, and endless were the conjectures what would come of it.
On the second day they left the last village behind them and entered the wild country that surrounds the great mountain, and rested in the huts that had been prepared for them on the banks of a stream of cold and sparkling water. And the Rajah's hunters, armed with long and heavy guns, went in search of deer and wild bulls in the surrounding woods, and brought home the meat of both in the early morning, and sent it on in advance to prepare the mid-day meal. On the third day they advanced as far as horses could go, and encamped at the foot of high rocks, among which narrow pathways only could be found to reach the mountain-top. And on the fourth morning when the Rajah set out, he was accompanied only by a small party of priests and princes with their immediate attendants; and they toiled wearily up the rugged way, and sometimes were carried by their servants, until they passed up above the great trees, and then among the thorny bushes, and above them again on to the black and burned rock of the highest part of the mountain.
And when they were near the summit, the Rajah ordered them all to halt, while he alone went to meet the great spirit on the very peak of the mountain. So he went on with two boys only who carried his sirih and betel, and soon reached the top of the mountain among great rocks, on the edge of the great gulf whence issue forth continually smoke and vapour. And the Rajah asked for sirih, and told the boys to sit down under a rock and look down the mountain, and not to move until he returned to them. And as they were tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and the rock sheltered them from the cold wind, the boys fell asleep. And the Rajah went a little way on under another rock; and as he was tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and he too fell asleep.
And those who were waiting for the Rajah thought him a long time on the top of the mountain, and thought the great spirit must have much to say, or might perhaps want to keep him on the mountain always, or perhaps he had missed his way in coming down again. And they were debating whether they should go and search for him, when they saw him coming down with the two boys. And when he met them he looked very grave, but said nothing; and then all descended together, and the procession returned as it had come; and the Rajah went to his palace and the chiefs to their villages, and the people to their houses, to tell their wives and children all that had happened, and to wonder yet again what would come of it.
And three days afterwards the Rajah summoned the priests and the princes and the chief men of Mataram, to hear what the great spirit had told him on the top of the mountain. And when they were all assembled, and the betel and sirih had been handed round, he told them what had happened. On the top of the mountain he had fallen into a trance, and the great spirit had appeared to him with a face like burnished gold, and had said—"Oh Rajah! much plague and sickness and fevers are coming upon all the earth, upon men and upon horses and upon cattle; but as you and your people have obeyed me and have come up to my great mountain, I will teach you how you and all the people of Lombock may escape this plague." And all waited anxiously, to hear how they were to be saved from so fearful a calamity. And after a short silence the Rajah spoke again and told them, that the great spirit had commanded that twelve sacred krisses should be made, and that to make them every village and every district must send a bundle of needles—a needle for every head in the village. And when any grievous disease appeared in any village, one of the sacred krisses should be sent there; and if every house in that village had sent the right number of needles, the disease would immediately cease; but if the number of needles sent had not been exact, the kris would have no virtue.
So the princes and chiefs sent to all their villages and communicated the wonderful news; and all made haste to collect the needles with the greatest accuracy, for they feared that if but one were wanting, the whole village would suffer. So one by one the head men of the villages brought in their bundles of needles; those who were near Mataram came first, and those who were far off came last; and the Rajah received them with his own hands and put them away carefully in an inner chamber, in a camphor-wood chest whose hinges and clasps were of silver; and on every bundle was marked the name of the village and the district from whence it came, so that it might be known that all had heard and obeyed the commands of the great spirit.
And when it was quite certain that every village had sent in its bundle, the Rajah divided the needles into twelve equal parts, and ordered the best steelworker in Mataram to bring his forge and his bellows and his hammers to the palace, and to make the twelve krisses under the Rajah's eye, and in the sight of all men who chose to see it. And when they were finished, they were wrapped up in new silk and put away carefully until they might be wanted.
Now the journey to the mountain was in the time of the east wind when no rain falls in Lombock. And soon after the krisses were made it was the time of the rice harvest, and the chiefs of districts and of villages brought their tax to the Rajah according to the number of heads in their villages. And to those that wanted but little of the full amount, the Rajah said nothing; but when those came who brought only half or a fourth part of what was strictly due, he said to them mildly, "The needles which you sent from your village were many more than came from such-a-one's village, yet your tribute is less than his; go back and see who it is that has not paid the tax." And the next year the produce of the tax increased greatly, for they feared that the Rajah might justly kill those who a second time kept back the right tribute. And so the Rajah became very rich, and increased the number of his soldiers, and gave golden jewels to his wives, and bought fine black horses from the white-skinned Hollanders, and made great feasts when his children were born or were married; and none of the Rajahs or Sultans among the Malays were so great or powerful as the Rajah of Lombock.
And the twelve sacred krisses had great virtue. And, when any sickness appeared in a village one of them was sent for; and sometimes the sickness went away, and then the sacred kris was taken back again with great Honour, and the head men of the village came to tell the Rajah of its miraculous power, and to thank him. And sometimes the sickness would not go away; and then everybody was convinced that there had been a mistake in the number of needles sent from that village, and therefore the sacred kris had no effect, and had to be taken back again by the head men with heavy hearts, but still, with all honour—for was not the fault their own?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On 'Stringvestites'

I recently wrote- rambled would be more like it- about nonce words, because of something I heard watching ‘Are You Being Served’. Well, Mrs Hickory and I like a bit of old-fashioned British comedy, so we returned last night to Mr Humphries and co., and there was he was in a sailor costume, explaining how he had had to fight off the attentions of a number of people including a ‘*stringvestite’. My linguistic antennae twitched.

From the context it appeared to mean a working-class homosexual who doesn’t look like one. Those who remember that particular piece of ill-conceived clothing, or were forced to wore one, as was my case, are unlikely ever to forget it, but I don't remember any association with homosexuality. The Urban Dictionary's definition doesn't seem quite right, but of course it's probably a much more recent use of the term.

*Google knows almost nothing else about the word, but I have found some comment on its use in the series. There is probably no subject that someone is not prepared to make an idiot of himself over in the Guardian, and there is certainly no subject in or out of this world that doesn't have dedicated Internet forums. Here Matthew Parris is quoted at length, speaking more intelligently (scroll down to the end). Neither sheds much light on John Inman's use of the word, but their reactions to it are interesting in themselves. I don't call Stuart Jeffries an idiot, by the way, or Mathhew Parris intelligent, because I agree with one or disagree with he other. Matthew Parris gives a personal interpretation of the character of Mr Humphries, and some similar characters and performers, from his memories of being a secret homosexual in the 70's. He doesn't claim that everyone should share his experience or accept his arguments, he just explains how it was for him. The Guardian writer, on the other hand, appears simply to tell his readers what they want to hear. He might be right, and Matthew Parris wrong, but he hasn't helped us to understand anything.

When a footnote becomes longer than the entire post, some editing may be required. Stopping is also a good idea.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Hill of the Apocalypse

Partly inspired by the writings of St John (What he was inspired by is still the subject of debate):

The man had reached the hill by cutting through the bushes with a machete. The last half mile had taken him nearly two hours. As he began to climb his shirt clung to his body and sweat dripped from the brim of his hat and ran down his face into his nose and mouth. The vegetation on the slope was sparser but the track was steep and now there was no shade from the blistering sun. He climbed with a rhythm that never changed, despite the burning in his throat and in his legs. Until reaching the top he would look only at the path in front of him, the next step, the next rock, the next branch which might trip him or cause him to stumble or twist an ankle. He had no need to think of anything at all, as long before he had instructed his will on what it had to do, and it was doing it perfectly.

His reasons for climbing the hill were no longer human reasons. The man had grown with the hill as part of the landscape. He had lived much of his youth, and part of his adult life, not in its shadow, but aware of its presence. He had always wanted to climb to the top, at first because it was there, it appealed as it would appeal to any adventurous child. Then he had created dragons in the thicket and castles on the summit and had wanted to find them and show he was not scared. Then it had challenged him, rising sometimes into the clouds, mocking his dreams with its proud impossibility. Then it had ceased to matter. He had left those thoughts behind and the hill became a landmark so he knew how close he was to home, a view to enjoy when he rested and raised his eyes, something to forget was there.

But all this had changed, because he had changed. The man now knew that the answers to everything he had ever failed to understand, to all the questions he had never thought to ask, the doubts he had not put into words, or had never consciously recognized as existing, were on the mountain. It had slowly been revealed to him that from the summit of the hill he would see such things as would give meaning to his life, to the world and to his place within it. He would no longer care that he was mortal, that he would not be remembered, that he was, in any human sense, a failure.

Once he had climbed the hill he would have knowledge of his rightful place in creation, an understanding that no one else would share, he would see things that nobody had seen or would ever see, and they would make him more important than all of those who were unaware of his existence.

He would know. He would know why he was born, why he existed, why only he was truly conscious, why he, who was obviously the centre of the world, was not recognized as such by the lesser beings, automata almost, with whom he came into contact. He would know this and understand it, and be satisfied.

So he had chosen a day, some time in the future, in early summer, to allow him to prepare everything, he had determined that nothing would stop him from keeping that promise, that appointment with himself. No illness or injury, no circumstance of the weather, no event in his life that others might tell him must be attended to, no act of God or the Devil would keep him from climbing the hill and finding the answer.

He prepared himself physically, walking many miles, always during the heat of the day, seeking out steep rocky paths and losing his way so he had to navigate by the sun and the distant landmarks. He learnt to do whatever he had to do, to observe whatever he had to observe, to think whatever he had to think, no more, no less. To give up, to be tired, to feel weak, was not only impossible, it became inconceivable. It could not happen.

He had eaten the food that soldiers eat when they march, that wrestlers eat when they train, that athletes eat when they run long-distance races. He had made his body sleek and strong, his muscles hard and tough, his skin resistant to the rays of the sun, the biting wind, the chilling rain, the stings of the insects and the rubbing of boots and clothes.

His mind was a diamond, hard and bright and uniform, a single structure, every facet flashing the same thought. It was a pool, clear and blue, rippling and drifting, but every drop the same, and the whole was the same as the drops. Nothing occupied his mind but his task, his dream.

The toughest of machetes had been daily in his hands. He had destroyed a number of them during this period by hours of hacking at the broadest and strongest of branches in the thickets about the village. His arms acquired the power to cut their way through forests at will, without tiring. His legs could carry him for miles up the steepest hills and the roughest rocks. His heart could desire nothing but to climb the hill and observe his life and his fate and his purpose in the context of the entire world.

He knew what he would see from the top of the hill. He could not have described it or explained it until he had climbed the hill, but he knew it. It was unclear in his head, foggy as he tried to make it out, but he knew it. He already knew it. The visions were already in his head, and it was only the meaning of them that was missing. The hill would reveal their meaning.

And so he climbed, cutting his way through and up the thickness of the bushes and trees which had not been penetrated by any creature larger than a rabbit for many years, hundreds of years perhaps. Nobody ever had need to go there, and so no one ever did. The seekers of silence and beauty, the few poets and philosophers the land had produced, the shirkers, the young lovers, all those who climb hills for no reason, had found other places from which to look out over the world, easier places to reach, of comparable beauty, they told themselves. There was no need to fight your way up this impassable hill.

He reached the summit. The world was below him and before him. It was beautiful, it was clear. The purpose of his life was there, clear and certain. The explanation for everything he had been and had experienced, and everything he would be, and would one day be no more, was there. It was perfectly transparent and terribly simple to understand. He welcomed understanding and peace.

He saw what he had been, what he could have been, what he should have been, what Ihenever was and never could have been, and why he did not become those things. You should not need to stand on a mountain to find such things, for they are not beneath you but within you. But the mountain helps you to understand what is too close to see.

He had not opened his eyes; he had not even raised them, and he would not. He had no need to see what he knew was before him. He only had to be on the summit to understand. He knew now that he would never again open his eyes, and that he would not leave the hill. This world had nothing more that he needed.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Rey Muerto, Rey Puesto

Hickory, the hedgehog who is the symbol of this blog and at times its inspiration, even a 'contributor' on occasions, has died. A week ago he suddenly started walking with difficulty, almost dragging his back legs. The next day he had trouble moving at all, and was clearly not a happy creature.  

We took him to the vet, who immediately realized, from the colour of his skin, that he was anaemic, probably because of liver trouble, and the smell of his urine indicated he had serious kidney trouble too.  There seemed to be no point doing analyses, waiting for the results, trying something that would almost certainly achieve nothing more than prolong his suffering. The poor lad was very ill and old and unhappy and was not going to recover. He could only continue to be scared and in pain. You wonder if it might have been worth a try, but it was surely not. So I gave the order to have him put down. They use the gas before the needle, and he will have felt nothing.

If we had been at the farm, or been able to go there, I would have buried him in one of the places where there are alot of those beetles he liked so much, a kind of dung beetle, but here there is nowhere to do it, so he will be 'recycled' organically.

'Hickory' was his bloggging pseudonym, by the way; he was known to us as Crispulito, and that's how he will remain in out memories.

I don't know if there is a Heaven for hedgehogs- on the whole I should think not- but in any case the point is moot as I'm sure the old lad isn't there. He had no time for asceticism and no concept of right and wrong, as far as I could tell.

He was nearly six years old, which is a respectable age, and he was in good form almost until the end., but still you don't expect it to be so sudden. We shall miss him for many reasons. As he prepared to eat a beetle, in the moment between seeing or smelling it, knowing it was under control, opening his mouth and finally crushing it with his jaws, his face expressed pure pleasure, glee in fact, There was a touch of evil in that look If he had had the right kind of larynx, I'm sure he would have cackled.

We shall never again hear his soft footfall, and the first crunch of the evening, as he came into the living room at about 9 o'clock, to run around our feet and begin the task of spending the night searching for food and drink. He never seemed surprised that it was always there, always varied, always the things he liked, always sufficiently spread around the house to make the hunt more fun. I think he just assumed that that was how things should be. He deserved no less. A hedgehog knows his place, and it's above you.

The title of the post means something like, 'The King is Dead, Long Live the King'. Mrs Hickory, unwilling to contemplate a life without hedgehogs, immediately contacted a breeder in Granada, and we have a baby female, who will be known for blogging purposes as Galatea. There will be photos.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pushcon and Other Nonce-Words

I was watching an episode of 'Are You Being Served' the other day. `70's sexual innuendo and double entendre ages surprisingly well (but I do recommend keeping whisky to hand). Mention was made of a material called 'pushcon'. That's how it sounded and that's what the subtitles said.

Ahah! I said, no doubt a cheap artificial fabric that lived a short and unlamented life in the middle of that decade. But no one had heard of it, Even the Internet only had references to the series itself. So it is probably a nonce-word, created by the writers in order to avoid using the commercial name of a real cloth. I'm not sure why they would need to do that, but they certainly seemed to have done it.

This, naturally, led me to idly think about rare words (and split infinitives). There are several ways of defining rareness of words. There is the Googlewhack which, if I have understood it correctly, is an expression contrived in such as a way as to produce exactly one result on Google. They are usually combinations of otherwise unexceptional words, and so could be considered nonce-terms, rather than nonce-words. It's a kind of game, I suppose, for those who are bored with Mornington Crescent.

A nonce-word is a word that is created for the nonce, a word which did not previously exist but whose meaning is made transparent by the context. They can be very effective in the right hands, and they usually need a particular aesthetic to make them work. They must feel right, as well as working semantically. Such words are rarely picked up by anyone to be used again, and so remain as unique examples in the written (or spoken) language.

Then there is the hapax legomenon, which classically educated readers will recognise as meaning spoken once. This refers to a particular text or body of language, so it is possible to say that '...' is a hapax in the King James Bible, or that 'Honorificabilitudinitatibus' is a hapax in Shakespeare. There are also hapaxes in the whole of a corpus of language used for linguistic research, which these days are very large, or in English literature generally.

Here the OED comes in, since it covers just about everything ever written since English was identifiable as such. They use a superscript -1 to indicate a word which has only been found once in the surviving corpus of the language. It doesn't apply to unique variations on other words, of which there are many, but to words which appear to have no brethren of any kind. Sometimes a meaning can be inferred from the context in which they are found, sometimes not.

The OED also has a superscript -0, for a word of which no instance at all is found in the language. This rather esoteric category could, in theory, either be empty, or arbitrarily large, depending on how you interpret it, but in fact it refers to words which have only been found in dictionaries or other kinds of word list, and never actually used in text.

Spanish has a word, jitanjáfora, which means a fanciful neologism of euphonious phonology or prosody, with a meaning that may or may not be transparent. They may be nonce-words, hapaxlegomena or complete phrases, and like other such terms, they may be picked up and more widely popularized.

The Owl and the Pussycat contains a famous neologism, runcible, applied to a spoon, which is more nonsense word than nonce-word, as its meaning is not transparent and is almost certainly not intended to be. Oddly enough, the word became so popular that it was given a meaning a posteriori, because it seemed to need one, though it was surely not what Lear had in mind.

Guy Clark's song Bunkhouse Blues contains the line 'At the Broken Heart Ranch you can always get work as a cowfool'. The word appears to be his, a nonce-word used to suggest someone who looks after cattle as a way of hiding from the world. In the song it works.

Talking of good Southern music, Jenny Lewis, in Acid Tongue, refers to being ' the depths of the godsick blues'. This appears to mean 'sick to god', although I suppose it could mean 'sick of God', in some way. There is also a surname Godsick, which I was surprised to discover, but I don't suppose it's relevant here.

This has been a series of random thoughts on rare words, for no particular reason, which is often the best reason there is.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Last Leper of...

Where? It doesn’t matter. Of anywhere, perhaps. Are there any lepers left anywhere now? I am the last leper… No it doesn’t sound quite the same. I must belong to somewhere, somewhere you’ve never heard of, of course, but somewhere.

So I am the last leper of Uttar Nishaidhapur. It sounds like a place that would have a leper colony, and that wouldn’t care that there was only one remaining. That’s why I have to tell you my story. In Uttar Nishaidhapur they aren’t interested.

I am old. I was once something other than a leper. I remember my father was a merchant. He travelled with goods for months at a time. Sometimes he came back with a great deal of money and we feasted through the rains and we helped the neighbours to eat and to marry. Sometimes he came back walking, barefoot, having lost everything but his robe. Then the neighbours helped us.

I would have been a merchant too. I would have done what my father did. No one would think of doing anything else. But on one of the occasions when he came back with nothing he shut himself up for three days, seeing no one, not even my mother. Then he went out again, and this time he did not come back at all.

As I had no father, then, I could not follow his profession, so I must go into trade. I became a craftsman of a kind. I was taught by an old man how to make some type of object. I no longer remember what it was I learnt to do. It did not last long, I think. Soon afterwards I became a leper, and that is what I have been ever since.

I have been told many things about being a leper by people who are not lepers. They told me what causes people to become lepers. They spoke of bacteria and sputum and vitamins and minerals and the cleansing of food and the washing of hands. They told me that the Great Prophet of the Christians had a great love of lepers, expressed in their Holy Book. It made me happy to know that, as we are not loved here, but I am not a Christian. They told me that I am called by other names in polite society. They told me that the doctors have found a way to make me not be a leper.

I stopped listening to such people when I heard that. They thought they were good people because they gave me food and did not throw stones or set dogs on me, but there are many people here who do not do that. I attended to them from politeness, but after that I began to fear them. I am a leper. I have always been a leper. I am too old to change now.

We do not work. We cannot work. But we must eat like other men. Thus our daily duties are determined, as are those of other men. I rise early, because I am old, and because I am hungry, and because the places I must sleep are hard and cold and uncomfortable. I can have no bed but the earth, no pillow but the stones. I nightly sleep in my mother’s bosom. I have learnt to make it sound poetic, or pitiful, of ascetic, depending on the ear that will hear it.

I cannot buy linen, and no one can afford to give me linen when it must be destroyed once I have touched it. So my bed is the earth. My home is the road.

When I am awake I walk, with a bowl before me. It is a small bowl, the only thing I have. But I know that a small bowl is good. People will put more in a small bowl than a big one. It is one of the many things I have learned over the years. I do not understand it; I do not understand many of these things, but I have learnt that it is so, and that is good enough.

But enough of what I tell the tourists- oh yes, there are tourists of leprosy as of all things- you want to know of my life.

I live as you do. I seek food and shelter and comfort and company and women. I seek status and power and solitude and health and youth. Exactly as you do. I often have food, but never enough to be satisfied. On rare occasions I have shelter. The other things I cannot desire. You need one in order to desire the next, and I can never go beyond shelter. On those occasions when I have shelter I desire comfort. I can desire nothing further, because I never achieve comfort. Never.

But I am still like you. Although I cannot seek company, or women, or prestige, or power, or health, or youth, I know that I would seek them if I could, and value them if I had them. I know this because although I cannot have them, I envy them in the people who do. I live as you do. I seek what I desire.

This life is not what it was. We were many once, and people gave alms as unthinkingly as they did all the most natural things in life. They gave little, it’s true. The smallest coin they had, to each such as I whose path they crossed. And they despised and feared and pitied you even as they gave. They did not look you in the face, they could not. They were afraid of becoming like you some day. But they gave. Now there is no fear, only contempt, disgust.

The young do not understand. Most have never seen a man like me. They think I am a crazy old man because I shout as I walk and do not come near them, and my clothes are old and torn and dirty from the many roads I travel daily. I was once like them. I can remember how it feels to be a boy, surprised, frightened, amused, fascinated, by everything that he sees and feels. I was a boy once, with a father to teach him. I wish I had a boy of my own now, to teach and to love, but when I was old enough to be a father I could not marry. It is one of the things lepers do not do.

My life is the road. I have no other because I can be nowhere. I belong nowhere. I am of Uttar Nishaidhapur, and this cannot change, but those who share my birthplace wish I were of some other place. And so I walk the roads from one village to another, and another and yet another, and so I keep on along innumerable, interminable roads, until those of the first village are ready to see me again. It is the life of the peddler, of the knife-grinder, of the reddleman. It is the life of the leper.

I see much on the road, but I cannot tell it. I can talk to no one. What I see I turn into stories and I tell them to myself as I walk. Then I tell them again at night as I try to sleep. The stories are better by day. They are more real, as the world is more real. They are a life that I create for myself and it is true while I tell it. While I am seeing what I see and there is light and there are people and the world is before me the stories are true and I am part of the world I walk through. By day I am real, and not only real; by day, I am great. At night these stories are only dreams, and they sadden me with their unreality. At night I know they are false, and they taunt me with their falsehood. At night I am no one, not even the last leper.

I provide a service, like all artisans, craftsmen, tradesmen, professional men. A doctor heals the sick, some of the time, and is respected and rewarded for it. A lawyer achieves justice against neighbours and governments, and is respected and rewarded for it. A potter, a carpenter, a farmer, provides objects necessary to the householder, essential to life, or to comfort, and is little respected for it, but he is rewarded. I allow the poor to attain merit. I can only deal with the poor, since there are ascetics who serve the wealthy, peripatetic men of superior religious practice with whom I cannot compete, but nor do they compete with me. The poor are my clients, because they fear me, and they fear becoming like me. Thus, they obtain merit at the same time as they allay their fear, and the service is more valuable to them.

I survive, as all men must survive. A man with a trade will always survive. He may have nothing, as I have nothing, he may know hunger, and thirst, and cold, and solitude, and the absolute despair of those whom the world has abandoned, but he will live.

Yes, my trade is dying. I am the last leper of Uttar Nishaidhapur, and I am old. It will die with me.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Stupid Question I'd like to know the answer to

A question has occured to me, probably an egregious, that is to say, a stupid question, but it is a question to which I am not certain of the answer. Why do governments tax at all? Do they need to tax? In the modern world, where money is what governments define it to be, not just the money supply but the existence of money, where they pay in credit notes and not in gold or hard cash of any kind, in a system and a society where there is sufficient confidence to do this, is it actually necessary to impose taxes at all? Could they not simply define the money to exist in an account of their own, and then pass it to the accounts of the people they wish to pay? In theory I don't see why not. In practice it would cause inflation, I expect, but governments are good enough at that anyway. Would it actually destabilize the economy in such a way as to be impractible? Is it not, to some extent, what they do anyway? It would mean the destruction of a vast number of bureacratic systems and the resources they consume uselessly, it would  solve a lot of problems artificially imposed upon the normal working man and would make businesses much more productive, to the advantage of absolutely everyone.

I know I have the odd economically literate reader, so if there is an answer worth giving I'd like to hear it. Otherwise, feel free to cough politely, avoid eye contact, and talk amongst yourselves.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

El Cerro de Los Almendros

High above the lakes there are a number of places which offer spectacular views of the water. I have been to most of them many times, and written about them, too. There is one I had heard about but never been to, because I hadn't found the path until now. A few weeks ago I finally discovered it and I have the photos to prove it.

The path goes up from beside a lake, one of a series of paths which diverge from a spot I have passed dozens of times. It looks as though it just gets lost among the trees on the hill and then drops down to another path bordering another arm of the same lake on the other side of the hill, whichg is why I had never bothered with it. In fact it does not do this at all.

It climbs steeply through the trees for a few hundred yards, a rocky, pebbly path very hard to ride on. There is an area beside it that was once used for baking rocks to make quicklime, which was then mixed with water and used for coating houses mainly. There is an old oven still visible, and some other structures that look like more recent attempts to imitate the procedure.

Nearby there is a cave, but it's set into a rock face that is hard to climb down to (especially in the presence of Mrs Hickory who has third-party vertigo), so I know where it is but I haven't seen it yet.

Then it rises out of the trees and follows the ridge several miles with views of haof a dozen lakes and also the valleys on the other side, some of which are rather wild. The best views are at the beginning and that's where the photos are from. It rejoins the waterside again much further up at one of the higher lakes, passing out through some farm buildings hidden among the trees.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Things I Can't Think About While I Cycle

There are a number of things that, for different reasons, I cannot think about while riding a bike. Many people say they are able to think more clearly, reason more deeply, find better solutions, have better ideas, when they’re walking, running or riding. I find it difficult, because I don’t use the bike as an aid to specific thought. One of the pleasures of walking or cycling is to allow the mind to react as it wishes to what it experiences, without forcing it into any particular path. For this and other reasons, I cannot think about the following:


In summer I spend most of the morning walking or cycling around the lakes, the hills, the villages, and it would be great if I could plan the writing I was working on during these walks, and then in the afternoon I could just write down what I had already created in my head. It would be a very efficient way of writing, but my mind will not do it. I could force it, perhaps, but then I would enjoy neither the riding nor the writing, and they are both, for me, pleasure, not duty.

At times my mind will produce stories as I ride, spontaneously creating characters and finding worlds for them to live in and events for them to experience and satisfying coherent climaxes for those events to reach. And I nod to myself as I recognise the merit of what my mind has produced and then after lunch I try to write the story down and it’s like the stories you sometimes write in dreams, where you can’t wait to get up and jot down the outline of the epic that has been formed within your sleeping brain. And there is nothing there. You realize it was just colourful, dramatic, incoherent nonsense, party streamers floating on the wind, entangling everything they touch, including you, but meaning nothing. Dalí might possibly have painted it, but not even Coleridge could have written it.

So I do not compose stories as I ride.


The seat of a bicycle is an oddly sexless place. I am still young enough and male enough that the first thing I notice about an attractive woman is the fact that she is attractive. But when riding a bike I am more likely to notice whether her handbag matches her shoes. Perhaps all the testosterone is being used to keep the wheels turning.

People who are wrong-

In this context I simply mean people who don’t agree with me about something, or who don’t understand things I think they should understand, and is a purely subjective category into which most people of whose existence I have ever become aware could be placed at one time or another. It includes most politicians, journalists, quite a few of my friends and family, random people on the internet, in bars, government offices and shops. You get the idea. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. You read or hear something you know or believe to be wrong and most of the time you shrug your shoulders. Possibly you indulge in a moment of exasperation, or you mentally form the bones of a rebuttal, but then you dismiss it from your mind. (Either that or you write a blog post about it). After all, every time I open my mouth, someone is sure to mentally place me in their own version of that category. The freedom to be wrong is one of the great privileges.

But once I get on the bike, if a memory of someone who is wrong gets into my head I have to squash it immediately. I can’t just dismiss it, I have to actively replace with something about kittens or winning the Ashes or the colours of the landscape. Otherwise it can cause my shoulders to tighten uncomfortably and my grip to the handlebars to lock so hard that I can no longer control the bike properly. Perhaps that testosterone again.

So I cannot mentally correct the perceived errors of my fellow man from the saddle. Which is no great loss to either of us, I am happy to say.

The space elevator-

This is a thing so mind-boggling that it quite literally makes me giddy to think about it. There are many more complex creations of the human mind- in fact the space elevator is a remarkably simple idea- but I think it is true that nothing that approaches its breathtaking scale has ever been seriously imagined. Imagine a cord so strong that it can resist the tension over tens of thousands of miles. Imagine a vast block of concrete flouting in the ocean somewhere with this cord attached to it. Just imagine what it would look like for a moment. Imagine climbing up that cord, hand over hand for tens of miles, out of the Earth's atmosphere, then for thousands more miles into orbit, and then some part of the way to the Moon. At the end of that cord is a giant counterweight, circling the Earth exactly once a day, a man-made moon fixed in the sky, 60,000 miles above the equator. Imagine feeling your weight pulling away from the Earth and towards that great block of metal. I defy anyone not to feel vertigo at contemplating this. My head spins, and I have to hold onto something. When what you are holding onto is a bicycle, this is a problem, so I only think about it when I'm sitting safely in a comfortable armchair.


I never use the bike to actually go anywhere. I don’t take it to work, I don’t pay visits on it, I don’t run errands on it. It is very strictly for pleasure. And it is so much associated in my mind with enjoyment and relaxation that it is impossible to care about anything other than the beauty of the countryside and not getting hit by a lorry. I cannot think about work, or worry about any problem that might have arisen, because real life ceases to exist once I start pedalling. Which is one of the reasons I enjoy it and do so much of it.

Oddly enough, one of the things I can think about while cycling is the things I can’t think about while cycling, so the other morning as I laboured along the paths through the hills I mentally composed this post.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Under Western Eyes

My summer reading continues. I have just crossed Joseph conrad's 'Under Western Eyes' off my list.

A curious work- very unusual in its narrative structure, but it is handled with mastery- which tells the story of a student in Czarist Russia who is caught up against his will in a violent conspiracy, tries and fails to extricate himself, becomes an exile, and is forced to assume, and finally reject, his role in the movement. It is told through the memoirs of Razumov, the young man, but indirectly, through a series of multi-layered narrators, and it is always, ultimately, Western eyes that try to see and understand circumstances, motivations and actions which, we are repeatedly told, only a Russian can understand.

It inevitably reminds you of Dostoievski, as the story of a man caught up in events beyond his control, partially digested by a system which had no interest in him, but had picked him up like a grain of sand in a clam and had to find the right way of spitting him out. Or perhaps he was more like a fly which you have accidentally let into your bedroom. It makes no difference to you if it flies out of the window before you can swat it, as long as it ceases to annoy you. Or again, like a leaf caught in the gears of a printing press, some way must be found of working  it through, by pulling, scraping, pushing, charring, releasing, different levers and parts, until it can no longer damage the working of the machine or the quality of the product. Or … insert metaphor of choice here…

But, though he has some luck, and makes mistakes at the beginning, he does try to take control of his new situation from the very start. And he is quite successful, shrewdly manipulating everyone to his advantage, which at first is merely to avoid association with the event, then to stay alive, but later to exploit those who have come to believe in him. It would perhaps be wrong to describe him as cynical. He is a man of limited and weakly-held morality, interested mainly in his studies and some personal idea of his own well-being. He is forced to become something he has no wish to be and he finds that to do that he must in fact become something else again, until in the end he effectively chooses to give in to the fate that he has come to believe he cannot escape.

Having said roughly the same thing in three different ways, I think it’s time to stop. I enjoyed it. You probably will, too.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Greyhounds in the Field

Greyhound racing is taken very seriously in the village. They buy and sell them, know a great deal about them, what to look for and how to train them, they race them whenever they are arranged, and organize races themselves. Like anyone with a passionate for anything, they get together as much as possible to talk about dogs. They eat, sleep and breathe greyhounds. Their conversation can probably get rather dull. Fortunately I don't know any personally. I do know a lot of hunters, though, which is the other great passion in this region, and they can be very boring indeed. I imagine Mrs Hickory feels the same way when my father and I start to reminisce about that great Essex team of the '80's under Keith Fletcher…

Anyhow, despite their love of greyhounds, there are no dog tracks. The great stadiums of Romford and White City are not to be found in this region, or anywhere else in Spain (or even in Romford any more, I believe), rather the races are run in fields, from end to end, over some length that probably depends more on the space available than on any characteristics of the dogs, but those I have seen are over about 800 yards. Every summer, by tradition, we allow a morning’s racing on one of the fields nearer the village, at Festival time (now), in exchange for which we get tickets for the bullfight. (There used to be a ploughing competition as well, but since a dispute with a previous mayor it’s now held somewhere else.) So I sometimes go and see what the atmosphere is like and how it all works.

There is nothing complicated in the mechanics of greyhound racing- you point them in the same direction and let them go at the same time, much as though they were horses or Ethiopians- except that the motivation is provided by a hare, which they chase. The way in which they get the hare to operate is quite interesting. A long, thick stake with a kind of capstan on top is driven into the ground beyond the finish line. Through this threaded a steel cable which is then attached to the hare. A motorbike takes the hare down to the bottom of the field where the starting line is. The other end of the cable is wound round a spool attached to some kind of engine. In the photograph the engine is a car engine and the spool is adapted from the wheel of the car. This year the spool was mounted on the back of a van and had its own engine, which makes it easier to move around and gives you finer control over the hare. He was also somewhere about the middle of the course, so the cable must have been well over half a mile long. Once the race is underway, the hare driver keeps his wits about him and his eyes on the dogs, and keeps the hare at whatever the appropriate distance is considered to be. It looks to be about ten yards, though I assume he uses his judgement.

When the dogs reach the top of the field, such members of the organizing council as are still sober will have been deputed to judge the finish, and then everyone involved, and probably idle spectators as well, will argue at length about the result. In the end agreement will be reached and they begin to prepare the next race. It looks fun, and in fact, despite the picture I may have given, it is not chaotic or disorganized at all. As I said, they take it very seriously. Whenever I have seen it everything has gone off as intended, and the crowd has had a good time. Then everyone hides under the trees to eat sausages and drink a lot of wine until about one o’clock when it starts getting too hot and they drift home, doubtless nursing grievances about decisions gone against them, voicing suspicions of nobbling, and planning the next meeting.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Memories of Marrakech

This was many years ago, but I was recently digging around in forgotten corners of my brain in an attempt to reconstruct a journey I made in the summer of 1987, and the memories of Marrakech were especially clear, and they seem worth writing here even now.

The train from Tangier as far as Casablanca was very modern and comfortable. Someone said that the French railways had given Morocco a number of disused or never-used trains and they ran on the long distance lines. (The others we took were much older and much worse.) The station I remember as open and sunny, with a number of platforms and lines. It was early afternoon and very bright. The journey was extremely enjoyable, and I remember it especially well because the railway line is very close to the coast most of the way. For much of the time you could actually see the beaches and the sea. I watched the shorego by, the beach, the sand, the sea, the people walking, playing, swimming, and the sun shining brilliantly down on it all. It is just over 300kms, the journey took maybe 6 hours, and I recall that for much of it we were looking at dunes and people and water. I’m sure I remember only the best bits but there were certainly a lot of good bits.

The next morning we went to Marrakesh on an older, more cattle-like train. It stopped at all the villages and people kept getting on with baskets full of fruit and vegetables and chickens. It got very full.

 We went to the bazaar or souk (I don’t know if there’s a difference), a collection of covered alleys full of stalls, open alcoves, really, where they sold carpets and clothes and ornaments and household things and accessories and doubtless a lot of other things too. They drank a lot of tea, calling it down from the tea-shops that were part of the life of the place. I imagine the sellers must be there six days a week and their life is very much bound up with it, so their friends and their rest is there as well. I bought something, I don’t know what, for which I paid with money and a half-smoked packet of black cigarettes. The deal was done. So, I expect, was I. There was lots of colour and life and smell and facial hair.

The thing I remember most was the market square, not the only one, but the main square of Marrakesh. It was large and open, with a road around three edges and building only beyond that road. It was clearly an important centre of commerce. During the day there were stalls, where those who were there every day had their produce and their lives organized. It was mostly fresh fruits and vegetables on the stalls. I don’t remember much meat, and in fact I don’t think they ate much of it, and there was no fish, of course, that I remember.

There were other sellers who mostly seemed to be Berbers come down from the mountains for a few days to sell what they had. Craftwork, non-perishable produce, maybe some longer-lasting stuff but I seem to remember objects rather than food. They had it all laid out on a carpet, and in the evening when they had sold all they were going to sell that day they told stories with what they had left, and left out a bowl for donations. The children were not expected to pay, and they were sitting on the ground all arou
nd the rug. Adults came and went. I understood nothing, but I got the impression there was magic and spirits involved.

Around the edge were a number of stalls, vans I think they were, selling fruit drinks, cool but not very cold, and very sweet. One was from a green fruit that I didn’t know and can’t remember the name they gave it.

Around and about, I remember them as being at the opposite side of the square, near a colonnade, there were remolques which consisted of a large board with bowls of different kinds of food, a light, a flame for cooking, a space for the owner/waiter/cook, and benches on the sides that folded down to sit on. They were towed in in the morning by car, and towed away again at night. An efficient and popular way of providing food to the people, the sellers and the customers. You sat down, ordered what you wanted, or in our case pointed to it, it was put together on a plate, heated as required, and you ate it. There was couscous and some kind of meat (rabbit) and vegetables and a lot of stuff that you couldn’t identify. I just pointed at a few things and ate what I got. It was ok. I assume there was drink as well though I don’t remember it.

Also in the square were snake-charmers, photographers, guides, and others who live, honestly or less so, from the tourists. I took a picture of a snake, or with a snake, possibly. For some reason those photos were never developed. I bought a camel-skin handbag for my mother which she used for years, and bracelet in the form of a snake for someone or other. I bought it from a man who seemed prepared to throw in his sister to clinch the deal. I may not have understood the fine print.

On the train back to Tangiers we met a couple of lads in camel-skin hats, like the Arabs wear. They were sheepish about it but in the end they told us how they had been persuaded to buy Arab cloaks so they wouldn’t look foreign and people would leave them alone. Needless to say, it didn’t work. They were blond Scots, but even had they been darker they would obviously have stood out. It is easy to spot a foreigner by the body language and the guides and beggars are very used to it. When they saw it didn’t work they persuaded the seller to swap the robes for hats, which were at least interesting and could be worn back in England. We joined indulgently in their laughter at themselves, and kept our mouths firmly shut. We, of course, had not done anything remotely as silly...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Answers to comments, and a minor Apocalypse

The barman at our local here in the country is a bright chap, the sort of barman who only exists in James Taylor songs and stories by Raymond Chandler. I have been reviewing the Apocalypse of St John in Greek, and I asked this barman to serve me what the Saint had beem drinking when he wrote that extraordinary work. He nodded thoughtfully, sought clarification of a couple of details, contemplated the ceiling lights in a distrait, barmanly fashion, and suggested absinthe. I imagine he was wrong, in that the Evangalist was probably not inspired directly by that particular substance, but it his professional instinct had reached an answer that sounded right. Unfortunately he had no absinthe, and we were not able to try our hand at a recreating Revelations. This disappointment has led me to seek Revelation without pharmaceutical help. The result will be published here. Vincent I can't get the comments form to work on the phone, so I must answer your comment hete. I enjoyed my time in Sweden, because it has natiral beauty of exactly the kind I love, and enough new things to keep me amused. It is, however, as you divinef from thevpsots, a vountry that has nothing extraordinary to offer. I have no sense of having entered and experiencef another world, as I often have after visiting other countries, but it is pleasant enough, and at this time of year eveyone is determinedly happy and optimistic abecause the other ten months are misetable. Yes, it is ordinary. I will do my best in the next few days to try to explain why someone would want to visit Seeden ad a tourist. From what you have said though, you probably shouldn't. Of the places you say you have been to in the last few years, all have much more novelty to offer the curious visitor than Sweden, I think.

The Land of the Blessed Virgin

While I was reading 'Of Human Bondage', I also had a look at Somerset Maugham's 'The Land of the Blessed Virgin'

I wondered how the discerning observer and fine stylist would have seen the southern Spain of a hundred years ago. I was a little disappointed, as it is very much the opinions of a man who stayed outside everything around him.

It is very well observed in places, but there are too many statements glorifying, exaggerating the exotic which he thinks he has seen or should have seen. Generalized descriptions that cannot possibly be true.  I suspect he has not seen much of what he claims to have seen, and much of what he has he has not understood. A lot of the time he seems to be quoting guidebooks, adding literary embellishment of his own, sometimes good, often not. He has clearly had almost no contact with real people, he has not got to know anyone, except one woman, Rosarito, who I strongly suspect was not real anyway. Everyone else is described in the ignorant terms of the armchair anthropologist,.

He generalizes from a lazy interpretation of a single instance.  He has little curiosity about people, he is more concerned with finding a pretty phrase or a making an extreme pronouncement. Even the individuals he is forced into direct contact with, a doctor, a bullfighter, a watchman, etc, are described in terms of how he expects them to be, rather than how he has found them to be. On the other hand, some things he does describe well and in considerable detail, as though he had paid real attention. The Cathedral, the bullfight, the rain on the fields. It's not a book that will tell you anything much about the Spain of 100 years ago. At least, it won't tell you what you thought it was going to tell you. It will tell you how one man experienced a journey through Spain at that time. As such, it is a story well told, just not at all the one I was expecting.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

San Pedra

I walked today along the route of one of the many dry or almost dry streams in the area. The map is full of blue lines, some full, some broken, with the words ‘non-permanent water-course’ next to the symbol in the legend. Many of them have not had water for many years. Some, in fact, are barely visible on the ground, but are perfectly clear from satellite photographs, and you wonder where the water has gone that once created these great channels.

The stream I took today does have water this year, and when it doesn’t you can still see where it flows. I particularly like this path because it takes you between bright red hills covered with bright green vegetation. The water may be barely visible, but the plants know it’s there. There is a freshness to it which is very rare here.

But there is a lot more to the path than a feeling. There are little stone bridges where it winds back and forth across the water. There are little cottages used by the men who have gardens there, as sheds are in England, but some are bigger and become a place of refuge, especially during the summer. Some are proper houses, two floors and whitewashed walls, and once families would have lived there all year round, with the chickens and the dogs and the pig in the corral. Now they are just summer dwellings, quiet, solitary places which appeal to the owners who still grow crops on the old riverbed.

There is a ruined Moorish castle, little more than a square turret, rising through the trees on a small hill near where you pick up the main road again. I saw it once after very heavy rain had turned the hill into an island, and you see the castle as it was intended to be, unreachable by stealth, a safe place from which to keep an eye on the surrounding country. There are a lot of them here.

From that point you pass a forlorn and empty campsite, unable for some reason to attract more than a handful of campers, even when at the other campsites downstream they are queuing to get in the doors.

And from there you are beside the lakes. You pass an attractive hotel, tumbling down the rocks to the waterfront, dressed always in freshly laundered white, accessorized tastefully in well-kept wood, and adorned with dabs of red and green and gold in just the right places. You are back among people, and can then choose to swim, row, take the sun or contemplate the world at any point along the banks where you can find room.

Friday, August 9, 2013

La Familia de Pascual Duarte

Camilo José Cela won a Nobel Prize back in the 80's, and was awarded a Marquesate some time later by the King. He is known in Spain for these things and for swearing a lot. It's some years since he pronounced his last swearword, having gone to sit at the great writing desk in the sky, doubtless in front of a window through which can be seen far more interesting things than the ones he's now trying to write about (Perhaps that's just me, and might explain why his success was rather greater than mine. I wrote about 'La Colmena' a couple of years ago, I think, but the holotype, as it were, of his work, is generally considered to be 'La Familia de Pascual Duarte', which I had never quite got round to reading.

It was written in the early 1940's, and set during the preceding decades, as it describes most of the life of the title character. It sets the scene at such length, and is at first so pleased with the conceit of its own narrative framework, that you begin to wonder if there is any story to be told at all. But there is, it develops rhythm and power, and it gains a sense of its own surroundings, almost accidentally in the end, having tried so hard to do it deliberately, which makes it matter. It is not clear why Duarte does, or does not do, the central acts of the story. It is never explained why he didn't kill his sister's lover, why his brother died as he did, how his wife died, why he left his home and his wife, why his sister became a tart, why he killed his mother… His story is a series of  disconnected and unexplained actions.

The story is told, effectively, in his own words, supposedly in a manuscript found by the prison governor. he explains little, he only states, describes, sometimes justifies, often omits. He seems to care for nothing; fair enough. The family is not the story, the house is not the story, although that might have been the original idea. It is a combination of all these things, a mood created by them collectively, that is the story, and what makes the book worth reading.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Otis tarda

It could be the name of death metal band (perhaps it is), but I'm referring here to the great bustard, a large bird which has traditionally nested in the south of Spain, and over the last few years is back in increasing numbers. As I cover a lot of ground on my travels, I have seen a few of them this year. They seem to like some of the farmland near the lakes. They nest on the ground, and they congregate near the centres of large fields (fields are large here because the land is poor and you need a lot of it to grow a worthwhile crop). They avoid the paths where people and vehicles might go. I don’t imagine they can conceive the purpose of paths, of course, but by constantly moving away from any people they do see, they will end up with a preference for a spot in the centre, where they will only be bothered at ploughing, sowing and harvest time (or by the occasional lost wanderer who, having given up hope of finding a path that actually goes somewhere near his goal, and wondering vaguely whether he will be missed at lunchtime, or they’ll have kept his beer on ice, decides to walk straight across on the off-chance that on the other side of the field there is something that is of use to him). There are rather beautiful birds. Light earth brown on the wings, bordered and finished below in white, they look at first sight a little like emus. They vary greatly in size. Some are like turkeys, but I came across a small group the other day that were around four feet tall. They were only 50 yards when they too flight, and for a moment when I saw them I genuinely couldn’t work out what they were, so impressive was there size. They fly little, but with an elegant, efficient grace which is a pleasure to watch. They are, it is said, the biggest flying things on Earth, and yet they have none of the clumsiness of many ground-nesting birds (watching a partridge fly you wonder if the chap in the workshop in Switzerland who put it together had lunched rather too well). Whole families stay together until the chicks are hard to tell apart from the adults, so you might suddenly see a dozen of them rise from the corn in front of you are argue briefly about the best direction to take before splitting up and reuniting somewhere beyond the next copse. It is a remarkable sight to see them fly, and they give a different scale to the skies. They make the eagle owls look small and clumsy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Of Human Bondage

Attentive readers will have noticed that Mrs Hickory and I have been in Sweden, enjoying it with all the open-mouthed wonder of a farmboy taking his cabbages to the local market town for the first time. Which is how I think most things in life should be lived, even though I am prone to forget this and give in to world-weary cynicism at the first opportunity. Anyhow, we are now on the farm, and have been for a while, so now it is summer things: books I am reading, places I am walking through, curious things that happen, stray thoughts that strike me as I wander through this now familiar land

 I have just read Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage'. Many sources seem to consider it his masterpiece I really can't agree. It is in not a masterpiece, and Maugham himself has written better books. 'The Moon and Sixpence' is much better, in the literary sense, and a better read, and some of his short stories are innovative and compelling, which this isn't. It seems a bit unpolished to me. There are good and interesting characters, some well-painted scenes, some sections are genuinely captivating, but the whole doesn't work. The beginning, the childhood and school, is dull and might well have been left out. It would have some purpose if it created the character of Philip from the details that he experiences, but it doesn't do that. When we need to learn something about his character the narrator simply tells us what he is like. The end is predictable in part; it is obvious he is being set up for settling down with a specific girl, and obvious he is going to get on with the crusty old doctor. I wonder if it for moral reasons that the narrator doesn't let Philip travel as he wished once he is qualified. It seems strange in Maugham to care about that, but I don't see any other reason, unless he was just tired of the whole thing and wanted to finish it.

I wish we had been able to follow Paul's travels in Spain and the East before he was sacrificed to the demands of normality and maturity. But it is Maugham's book, not mine, and he conceived it that way. The central relationship is very powerfully created and the tension is maintained throughout. I repeatedly experienced an empty feeling in my stomach when I feared he was going to fall for Mildred once again. That is a sign of good storytelling, when it has you shouting at the character not to be a bloody fool.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Public Art in Sweden

Public art appears to be less subject to any constraints of quality or taste or return on taxpayers money than even in England. The place, the country, is dotted with abysmal creations that I am sure no one has paid for willingly. There are big display cases with pointless, as in having neither purpose nor anything to say, stuff in them, there is a poorly made figure of a pink giant urinating into the river. There was, in a nearby square, a great structure of wires strung with bathroom furniture and other objects in a meaningless parade of tat. Someone is laughing as they take the money. In front of the castle in the river there are three figures of businessmen standing in shopping trolleys. There is at least a touch of humour in this, probably Marxist humour of course.

It turns out that these piles ofuninspiring junk  are part of a festival called OpenArt. The woman in the tourist office encouraged us to do a tour of all the pieces. We shan't be doing that. What we have seen of it captures everything that is wrong with taxpayer-funded artists. It is lazy and dull. There is never more than a single idea, usually trite and poorly executed. There is no attempt at doing real work or conceiving a more complex idea, something worth expressing, and working on the best way to express it. For 'public' artists it is always and only about money. Other people's money. The art itself doesn't matter, as they are not communicating with anyone, not even themselves.

It was a pity to have to navigate all this stuff in order to see the simple beauty of the town.

Friday, August 2, 2013

At Orëbro

Mrs Hickory came across this area by chance when she was looking for somewhere we could go walking well away from Stockholm. There is a large and beautiful system of lakes nearby, a lot of people have wooden cabins there for holidays, and so we went for a couple of days to walk around. Cue photographs of water and birds.

The river runs through the centre of what is only a small town, really, and it divided and rejoins itself again to form a small island called Large Island. It’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. The island and the neighbouring banks are a park, a very green and pleasant one full of unnecessary bridges and playgrounds and peculiar objects that were part of an art exhibition. There is a castle on another little island next to it and this was the view we had from our hotel room, which was across the river. It’s a conference centre now and inside it looks like one, but it has an impressive presence from without. A marauding band of brigands or disgruntled thane of lands to the North would think twice about trying to take Orëbro.

And bicycles. There are a bicycles everywhere. Huge numbers of bicycles. Just as in the other cities we saw, but in such a small place the quantities are exaggeratedly large. Everywhere there are people riding bikes, but also there are banks and hoards and rows and columns of bikes parked by the dozen or the hundred on almost every corner and every widening of every street, in racks intended for the purpose. The bikes are old-fashioned and in most cases just old, with high wide handlebars, the people are not dressed for cycling, they often look as though they are doing it for transport, not pleasure, and despite the numbers on the streets, many of the parked bikes have clearly not been moved for months or years.