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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book Corner

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The Real Jane Austen – A Life In Small Things – Paula Byrne

The job of a biographer is getting harder these days. There are fewer notable lives warranting the full biographical treatment that haven’t been written about before and writers have to be more inventive to get their work to the attention of the reading public. Kildea’s theory that Benjamin Britten died of tertiary syphilis is a case in point, a theory that was shot down in flames within minutes of it seeing the light of day.

The anniversary of a notable personage is usually the catalyst for a rash of biographies and the bicentennial of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is no exception. Byrne has solved the problem of how to engender some originality whilst traveling down a well-worn furrow in her delightful, interesting and informative book. Her latest work, which might be entitled “A History of Jane Austen In Eighteen Objects” takes as its starting point an object which Austen either owned, used or might have experienced as the basis for exploring aspects of her life, her works and the context in which she lived and wrote.

To take a few examples of the approach she adopts: a signed royalty cheque leads into a discussion of Jane’s struggles to get her works published and to strike a deal which compensated her for her time and trouble. A shawl from India leads Byrne on to explore the Georgian phenomenon of the fishing fleet where hopeful women sailed off to India in search of a husband. A pair of topaz crosses given to Jane and her dearest sister, Cassandra, from the bounty earned by one of her sea-faring brothers leads Byrne to consider the nautical careers of Austen’s siblings and the influence of the navy and matters maritime on her works. The Theatrical Scenes – stage scenery – leads to an exploration of the burgeoning of the theatre in Georgian England and Austen’s deep love of the stage. The Vellum Notebooks – three notebooks in which Austen’s early works – now known as her Juvenilia – were laboriously transcribed and amended – leads on to a detailed description of her writing methods. And so on.

A fascinating approach which allows Byrne to eschew the traditional method of biography – birth, formative influences, career, death and legacy – and take a much more thematic approach, enabling her to move back and forth across conventional timelines. What shines out from the book is that despite outwards appearances Austen was a sparky, witty and interesting person with a deep but typically understated Anglican religious faith, although her fear of pregnancy and childbirth (the number of relatives or friends who died after childbirth is astonishing) probably led her to contentment as a spinster and financial insecurity and security of tenure of living accommodation were major concerns which her literary success late on in life only partially helped to assuage.

A really good book written in an engaging style which allows the reader to zip through it and at the end wishing for more. What better endorsement!

 

I’ve Stopped Drinking, But Only When I’m Asleep

sober

 

We’ve been rumbled. I’m sure you have been there. You have gone to the quacks for something or the other and he or she takes the opportunity to complete some life-style questionnaire. The dread question is asked, how many units of alcohol do you consume a week.

Fighting the temptation to make a smart aleck response like “one at a time” and reckoning that the conspicuous consumption of the last five years is a statistical outlier, you settle for a figure which is within the recommended guidelines. The doctor, ignoring your red nose and breath that smells like a brewery, dutifully transcribes the figure with a knowing smile.

Once I was not economical with the truth and was advised that I should go along to Alcoholics Anonymous. It didn’t work – I knew everyone there.

According to research just published by University College London, there is a significant gap between the amount of alcohol that is purchased in the UK and the units of alcohol we admit to consuming. We admit to consuming only 60% of what is purchased. Adjusting the figures for this discrepancy, the average number of units consumed a week is 20.5, rather than the 12.3 we own up to. As many as 75% of all men and 80% of all women occasionally exceed the daily recommended unit intake. It beggars belief when we hear that because of the hikes in tuition fees students are on the brink of penury that they waste their time confirming what can be only described as the bleeding obvious.

There are a number of explanations for this stunning revelation. Either we are laying in cases of Special Brew as a hedge against the introduction of minimum pricing for a unit of alcohol or buying Anhauser-Busch products – they have just been sued for allegedly watering down their hooch – or we are telling porkies. I will leave it to you to decide.

Meanwhile, our budding Einsteins should focus their grey cells on something more worthwhile.

 

In Graham We Trust – Part Thirty Three

Graham-Turner_sthumb

Thirty five down, eleven to go, ten points to find

TMS 1 Doncaster 2

An unchanged TMS succumbed to their third defeat in fifteen games in rather disappointing circumstances, a win that saw Rovers move to the top of the table.

The game turned on the ref’s decision in the 36th minute to dismiss McAllister for what he deemed to be a reckless two-footed challenge. Wasn’t there but by all accounts it was a harsh decision. From then on it was always going to be a struggle but it wasn’t until the 73rd minute that Doncaster found the net through Husband, although they had hit the woodwork twice before.

TMS hauled themselves back into the game in the 89th minute thanks to a long-range strike from Eaves. Thoughts of an unlikely point were soon dispelled as Rovers capitalised on Gayle’s indecision and Bennett, who had only come on three minutes earlier, settled the game with a shot that took a deflection before nestling in the top corner.

A disappointing defeat and with all the relegation rivals winning one that undid much of the good work of the last few weeks.

Next up, Walsall away on Saturday.

He Taught Me Housekeeping; When I Divorce I Keep The House

THE NEW GRAND PIER WESTON SUPER MARE. PICTURE MURRAY SANDERS

 

Weston Super Mare is a seaside town just south of Bristol and like many a British seaside town has seen better days. One of its unusual features is its name – Weston is Anglo-Saxon for the west settlement and Super Mare is Latin for upon sea, this tag added to distinguish it from the many other Westons. Prior to 1348 it was known as Weston Juxta Mare (Weston beside the sea) but the then Bishop of Wells and Bath, Roger of Shrewsbury, gave it its current moniker.

Whilst there is evidence of settlement there since the Iron Age, Weston only really developed into a significant town in the 19th century when its connection to the nascent railway network saw it emerge as a seaside resort. Two piers were built although only one, the Grand Pier, now survives.

A feature of the coastline at Weston is that the low tide-mark of Weston is about a mile from the seafront, due to the large tidal range of the Bristol Channel. This means that, whilst the beach is sandy, when the tide is out a vast expanse of thick mud is revealed, earning the town the sobriquet of Weston-super-Mud. The mudflats are, not unsurprisingly, dangerous to walk on and are dissected by the River Axe.

Fascinating as this all is, the reason I bring this seaside resort to your attention is that, according to figures recently released by the Ministry of Justice, Weston-Super-Mare has the highest divorce rate per head of population in the country. Although the courts in Birmingham dealt with 2,799 divorce cases compared with 2,437 at Weston, Birmingham has 12 times the number of residents as the seaside town. Weston’s cause is not helped by being the court of choice of former Monty Python star, John Cleese, who has had his matrimonial arrangements annulled three times. For the record, the next divorce hotspots are Leicester (1,831), Romford (1,783), Coventry (1,775) and Norwich (1,776).

Actually, the number of divorces in England and Wales is reducing – the figure of 117,558 divorces in 2011 being 1.7% down from 2010. 10.8 people per thousand of population divorced in 2011 compared with 12.9 in 2001.

A significant change from ten years ago is that the divorce rate for men and women aged 45 or over has increased whilst the rate for all other age groups has declined. Women in their late twenties have the highest divorce rate of all female age groups – 23.9 per thousand – with males in the same age range having a divorce rate of 21.9 per thousand. However, the mean age for divorce amongst males is 44.5 years and for women 44.2, a slight increase, perpetuating the theory that people hang on until the kids have grown up.

Although they say there is no such thing as bad publicity I am sure that Weston will be eager to lose this unwelcome “honour”. Perhaps there is something in the sea air, after all!

 

What Is The Origin Of (9)…?

faxmachine

The Fax Machine

For those of my vintage who work in an office environment we have witnessed a massive transformation of the technology deployed which, on the whole, have improved the efficiency of the operations immeasurably.

I well remember one of my bosses whose MO was supreme brinkmanship. When we were responding to bids and tenders, he would always leave matters to the last minute, necessitating I or another office junior to hare over to a major London rail terminus to put a packet of papers on to a train to be received at the other end by a frantic local manager. The introduction of a fax machine in the early 80s eradicated the need for this almost daily ritual. What it did mean, though, was that my boss delayed releasing the terms for a further three hours – result, local manager still on the verge of a nervous breakdown waiting for his instructions.

It is hard to credit it but there was an air of genuine excitement when the first fax machines were installed into the offices. Now of course, they are consigned to a dusty corner as they have been overtaken by the current method of instantaneous communication – the e-mail. One of the drawbacks of the fax was that over time the output faded so you were left with a file of blank papers – very handy if you had made a mistake!

There is a tendency to think of the fax machine as a relatively modern invention and, certainly, its adoption as a form of business communication didn’t really take off until the mid 80’s but, actually, it owes its origins to the experimentation of Alexander Bain. Bain, a Scotsman, was apprenticed as a clockmaker and invented the first electric clock. In 1843 – yes, 1843, he received a British patent for improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs. In other words, he had invented the fax machine, which used a stylus to scan a flat metal surface mounted on a pendulum, thus picking up the images on the surface. Bains’ machine combined clock mechanisms with telegraph technology.

At the Great Exhibition in 1851 Frederick Bakewell gave the first successful demonstration of a facsimile transmission using cylinders to transmit and receive images.

Giovanni Caselli conducted research into the telegraphic transmission of images and solved the problem of how to synchronise the transmission and receipt of images with his pantelegraph which, in 1860, sent the first fax between Paris and Lyon.

Ernest Hummel – another watchmaker – took the technology forward by, in 1895, developing the Telediagraph or copying telegraph which used synchronised rotating drums with a platinum stylus as an electrode in the transmitter. His machine was adopted by the newspaper industry and was used to transmit photographs – the first being “an accurate picture of the first gun fired at Manila” which took around thirty minutes to transmit. A German inventor, Arthur Korn, used selenium which is a light-sensitive element to convert the different tones of a scanned image into a variable electric current. The first commercial use of Korn’s system was adopted in 1907 and by 1910 Paris, London and Berlin were linked by facsimile transmission over the telephone.

Edouard Belin made the first telephoto transmission from Paris to Lyon to Bordeaux and then back to Paris in 1907 and his lab was the destination of the first trans-Atlantic transmission in 1921. In 1929 in a further refinement of the technology Rudolf Hell developed machines to control the engraving of printing plates electronically. The natural progression from this breakthrough was the photo-lettering system called digiset – the digital reproduction of text and pictures.

Faxes were being used to transmit photographs and then in the mid-1950s it was adopted by the US Weather Bureau to transmit analysis and prognostic weather charts.

With all this development you might be asking why it was not until the early 1980s that fax technology was adopted by the business sector. Well, what kick started it was the adoption of a standard protocol for sending faxes at rates of 9,600 bits per second in 1983 and the rest is history.

When you go into that cupboard at work and see a lonesome fax machine rotting in the corner, remember that it has a history of over 160 years. It is just that its wide-scale commercial utilisation lasted little over 15 years.

In Graham We Trust – Part Thirty Two

Graham Turner Post Leeds United

Thirty four down, twelve to go, ten points to find

TMS 2 Stevenage 1

This was TMS’ first home victory since December 15th and although they made hard work of it, it was thoroughly deserved.

New loan signing Eaves replaced Morgan and, for the first time for ages, started with two strikers over six feet tall. Although Porter had a quiet game and Eaves stumbled at the crucial moment when put through, at least the ball was held up momentarily at the top of the pitch rather than coming straight back at the hard-pressed defence.

Stevenage started brightly and scored in the 20th minute through a stunning Dunne volley. This setback seemed to waken TMS up and within ten had drawn level through a rejuvenated Parry.

With about four minutes of normal time left Turner’s two substitutions, Taylor and Morgan combined and Morgan’s shot put TMS ahead. There was still time for Weale to make a fantastic save to deny Stevenage what would have been an undeserved equaliser.

This was the first time this season that TMS had won two games on the trot and pulls them further away from the drop zone. They are not safe yet but February has seen them go a long way to achieving this objective.

Gayle had a fine game and his decoy runs at set pieces posed a threat. Edwards alongside Jones put up a formidable defensive barrier and McAllister and McGinn dug in well in the middle of the park.

Next up, high-riding Doncaster at home on Tuesday.

What A Way To Go – Part Four

angel

 

Continuing our popular series of unusual or amusing deaths.

For those of an artistic disposition we should take note of the unfortunate demise of Chinese poet, Li Bai, who in 762CE decided that he would try and kiss the reflection of the moon. Out he went in a boat but in trying to accomplish his romantic act of devotion (or was it literally lunacy?) he upset the vessel, falling overboard and drowning in the process. The uncharitable report that Li had a penchant for hooch and that this contributed to his untimely end.

Talking of booze reminds me of the death of the founder of the Tennessee whiskey distillery, Jack Daniels. In 1911, six years after kicking his safe in frustration at being unable to remember the combination number, he succumbed to blood poisoning from the ensuing toe injury.

Taking your work too seriously can also be problematic. Take the case of Garry Hoy who in an attempt to demonstrate that the glass in the Toronto-Dominion Centre was unbreakable, threw himself at the glass. Unfortunately, the window popped out of its frame and to the consternation of his guests he hurtled out of the 24th floor to his death. No doubt he would have been gratified to know that the glass didn’t break.

To prove that you never know when your time is up, consider daredevil Bobby Leach. He was only the second man ever to go over the Niagara Falls in a barrel and successfully survived many other stunts. He met his maker in 1911 when he slipped on some orange peel, broke his leg so badly that it had to be amputated and died from the ensuing surgical complications.

It would be nice, however, to choose your own end. The American revolutionary, James Otis Junior, who came up with the slogan “Taxation without Representation is tyranny”, always told his friends he wanted to be struck down by lightning. Sure enough, in 1783 he was killed whilst standing at the doorway of a friend’s house when lightning struck the chimney.

I’m sure the demise in 1978 of Kurt Godel, the Austrian American logician, mathematician and philosopher, will warm the cockles of the hearts of many an ardent feminist. He was a fussy eater and when his wife was hospitalised he died of starvation. Apparently, he suffered from extreme paranoia and wouldn’t eat anything other than what his wife had prepared for him.

Those of us who sport a beard and have aspirations to emulate ZZ Top, bear in mind the fate that befell the 16th century Austrian, Hans Steininger, who was famed for a magnificent four and a half foot beard. Unfortunately, in his haste to escape a blazing building he forgot to roll up his whiskers, trod on them, tripped, broke his neck and died as a consequence.

Finally, at least for the moment, an incredible story. Alex Mitchell laughed for 25 minutes non-stop after watching an episode of seventies comedy, The Goodies. He died of heart failure brought on by lack of oxygen from his laughing fit. What I find incredible is that he found something amusing in The Goodies but that may just be me!

Till the next time.

 

The Meaning Of Life – Part Eleven Of Forty Two

snail

 

Are snails born with shells and why do they leave slimy trails?

For many horticulturists the snail is the bane of their lives, attacking the fresh shoots of their carefully tended plants. I tend towards a more charitable disposition – hey, we all have our role in life. I always had a soft spot for Brian in the Magic Roundabout. Perhaps the snail appeals to my latent Romany tendencies – have shell, will travel.

My musings about these much-maligned molluscs led me to consider whether the humble snail is born with a shell.

Well, the answer is that most snails are born with a shell called the protoconch. However, the shell at birth is transparent and soft and they need to ingest a lot of calcium to harden it up. They often start their pursuit of calcium by eating the the casing of the eggs from which they hatched and some are known to eat the shells of their unhatched siblings.

Over the next few months the shell will begin to thicken up and take on its distinctive spiral shape. When growing into a juvenile snail it will eventually acquire its full adult colouration and an opening will be added to the shell. The part of the shell that the baby snail was born in typically ends up in the middle of the snail. For certain species of snail, this characteristic allows those who are sufficiently interested to calculate the age of the mollusc. However, other species of snail, when they have grown too big for their current shell, abandon it and take up residence in another shell, usually one relinquished by its previous owner, thereby buggering up many a poor PhD student’s research!.

A less appealing characteristic of the snail, which they share with slugs and other gastropods, is the slimy trail they leave. Imagine the scene. You have just spent time cleaning the patio. You get up the next day to find your gleaming slabs coated in slime after it appears to have hosted a military tattoo overnight. Why the slime?

A snail uses a long muscular organ that spreads out under its body, known as a foot, to move. As it travels it makes a rippling motion with its foot and releases a slippery slime of mucus which coats the ground allowing it to move more easily. A snail uses mucus for other purposes – to help prevent its body from drying out and as a glue to stop it falling off when it is crawling up vertical surfaces. The snail also uses mucus as a defensive ploy to prevent predators getting too close.

So now we know!

 

Growing Old (Dis)gracefully

cave

 

Push The Sky Away – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

..and they keep on coming, candidates for the best album of 2013.

Sonically, Cave’s fifteenth album in a thirty year career is as far away from the aural assaults that characterised the last Bad Seeds opus, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! and the two Grinderman outings as you can get. Push The Sky Away sees him in introspective mood and the music sparser, more subtle and like a film score with strings, synth, organ and rumbling bass to the fore whilst guitar licks are remarkable because there are so few. What hasn’t diminished is Cave’s turn of phrase, sharp and mordant observations on life and his ability to surprise the listener with a sudden change of direction.

After three play-throughs of this relatively short album – nine songs weighing in at around 43 minutes – the stand-out tracks are Higgs Bosun Blues which features a man’s dream, the menacing We Real Cool and Jubilee Street, a lullaby about a prostitute and a man who visits her with a few nods to Dylan’s Desolation Row. Cave is still a dark menacing presence but he is more on the outside looking in than a participant and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis is much more to the fore than in previous Bad Seeds’ albums.

For those of you bemoan the passing of album artwork in this CD/MP3 world the cover features Mrs Cave unrobed.

Not easy listening and I’m sure there are many more hidden depths that will emerge after a few more hearings but even now I think it will be hard for a better album to emerge this year. Highly recommended.

 

Rural Rides

lacock

TOWT and I decided to elope to the Wiltshire countryside last weekend and very enjoyable it was too.

One of the highlights was our visit to the lovely village of Lacock just outside Chippenham which, to my shame, I had never visited before. For those of you who have nothing better to do on a Sunday night than watch the saccharine-filled serials that the Beeb delight in filling the schedules with at that time, the scenery and architecture of this National Trust village will be instantly recognisable. It has been used as the backdrop to such series as Cranford and Larkrise to Candleford as well as the film Lost in Austen. It is supposedly unchanged from the time it was a thriving wool centre although the one thing I did find surprising was that its streets were littered with cars – presumably the residents only buy in to being a heritage site to a degree.

As well as the church of St Cyriac, who was a popular saint amongst the Normans, the most prominent pile is the Abbey. The Countess Dowager of Salisbury, Ela, inherited the lands upon the death of her father in 1196 and following the death of her hubby, William Longespee, the illegitimate son of Henry II and the first person to be buried in the newly built Salisbury Abbey, she decided to found the Abbey in 1229 as a nunnery of the Augustinian order. The first stone was laid in April 1232 and Ela retired to the nunnery in 1238. Ela also founded a religious order for men at Hinton (which is about 16 miles away from Lacock) and laid the first stone on the same day in April 1232.

The abbey prospered because of the rich agricultural lands and the wool trade but in 1539 it came to the attention of Henry VIII and was dissolved. Henry sold the property to Sir William Sharington who demolished the abbey church but left many of the monastic buildings including the cloisters (which I am told featured in a Harry Potter film) untouched other than for the removal of the idolatrous images.

During the civil war the house was garrisoned by Royalists but surrendered to Parliamentarian forces under the command of Colonel Devereux in 1645.

The house underwent major renovations in the 1750 when it was owned by John Ivory Talbot, including the addition of a splendidly bizarre gothic Hall. In the 19th century its most famous inhabitant was William Henry Fox Talbot who, amongst other accomplishments, discovered the negative/positive process enabling him to record photographic images by chemical means. The first negative produced was of an oriel window at the Abbey.

An afternoon well spent and the sense of peace and tranquillity was truly restorative.