Archive for January, 2004


Saturday, January 31st, 2004

According to the weather service, the south west wind at Stansted airport is only about 50km/h this evening but it feels a whole lot more on the ridge that runs north from Saffron Walden. The sight of trees being tousled and pushed around by the wind outside my window lured me out at dusk was falling.

It wasn’t in the least bit cold; and with the wind behind me it felt like wading downstream in a tropical river. The pressure was enough to knock me down into the mud a couple of times — it was fast growing dark, and the ground is still saturated from the snowfall. The ditch that runs alongside the track had about a foot and a half of snow in the bottom, glowing like polystyrene. So I flapped and waddled and scooted for about a mile. Coming back, though, was much worse than wading upstream. The first thing I noticed was the noise. I was now trudging straight back into the wind, and I couldn’t hear anything else: not my own breathing; not the sound of my own footsteps, nor any rustling from my clothes. It was strangely like a nightmare, especially because I was moving, very little for all the effort I was exerting. After about five minutes, I was fixed with a certainty that someone — something — was hurrying close behind. I looked, of course. Of course there was nothing. My eyes itched. They’re still itching; presumably the wind stripped all the tears away.

What must it be like to be a dog in a wind like that, or any other animal dependent on a sense of smell?

War and lies

Friday, January 30th, 2004

This is a shorter version of the argument in the Wrap today. I think it matters.

There are three ways in which Britain went to war on a false prospectus. The first, well-covered, is the WMD business. But this was, essentially, a massive failure of intelligence. It does look as if the spooks fooled themselves as much as they fooled their masters. That’s worrying and frightening, but it’s not politically culpable.

The second is the idea that we had given the UN a fair chance, but that the French had wrecked it. We had not. They had not. That’s a political flaw.

The third, and the one that took up much of Tony Blair’s speech in the debate, was that we would exert influence with the USA for the good, and that we had been doing so before. Never mind the lies he told about Saddam: look at the lies he told about George Bush:


Can this be true?

Friday, January 23rd, 2004
“It is now quite firmly established that the voice the schizophrenic ‘hears’ is his own; he is talking to himself silently without realising it. As simple an obstacle as having the patient hold his mouth wide open is sufficient to stop the voices (Rich and Kinsbourne, 1987).”
This is a footnote from Consciousness Explained (page 250 of my paperback). It seems far too important a discovery to be buried there: a simple and effective way to cut off auditory hallucinations.


Friday, January 23rd, 2004

I can’t use the word when I’m writing for the Guardian’s web site, so I decided this week to write about journalistic ethics there instead. But I’m still interested in sex. Earlier this week I read three widely different novels by good writers. All were ‘genre’ fiction. Two of them bracket Philip Pullman territory very effectively. Jolie Blon’s Bounce, a crime novel set in Louisiana, is the most clearly theological novel I have read in years — certainly the most theological thriller since Graham Greene. The most unspeakable villain, the emissary of evil, is called ‘Legion’, and sometimes speaks in the tongues of diabolical possession. He is killed by an angelic, homeless drifter — or perhaps he isn’t: the body is recovered without any bullet wounds but bootless and burnt as if it had been struck by lightning, and surrounded by drowned swine. The drifter (who goes by Sal Angelo) walks into the woods and disappears.

The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford was an impulse purchase in Fopp, the paperback CD shop. I know his work because of two remarkable poems in the Nielsen Hayden Empire, one sparked by this story of mine. I wanted to know more, and I’m glad I did. It’s an astonishingly assured piece of alternative history, with characters one cares about. The mix of high mediaevalism with a little magic is very reminiscent of the good bits of Pullman, though the anti-Christian bias is more general and more pagan: Pullman’s Church is recognisably a protestant atheist fantasy, descended from the Reformation’s horror of priestcraft and the Inquisition; Ford simply has Julian the apostate triumph, and the Christians reduced to a savage and fanatical guerrilla sect in the badlands of the Scottish border.

Be Cool is just old Uncle Elmore whisking a piece of magic out of nowhere, a book whose plot turns round a movie producer’s search for a plot and characters in his own adventures. In lesser hands this would be a recipe for ballsaching pretentiousness and boredom. It’s certainly less rich than Jolie Blon’s Bounce but I hurried quite entranced to the end.

Now, all these are modern novels, so all the sympathetic characters must have sex — not even being dead can stop them, in the case of Ford’s German vampire. You just know, anyway, in any James Lee Burke novel, that at some stage a compassionate woman with large, pale breasts will climb on top of the hero and make him feel much better. This has happened in every book since The Lost Get Back Boogie. Some things do change: the heroes are now sober when they’re mounted, and the heroine’s bazongas less extravagant; but it remains true that in these books a woman in the missionary position is not sincere.

In John M. Ford’s book, the sex is mostly off-stage, and achy. This is better, though rather sad. But it doesn’t add very much to our knowledge of the characters involved. If anything, it turns them more into types. Perhaps that’s what interest him: he has apparently spent a lot of time writing role-playing games, though it’s possible that these are simply more lucrative than the alternatives.

It’s the old master who gets it right. For years and years Elmore Leonard couldn’t do women and wasn’t much good at sex, either. Now, this book is a bit too filmic for my tastes: the hero’s gimmick of imposing his personality on people by saying ‘look at me’ worked better when he was a loan shark than a Hollywood producer. But the sex scenes are a master class in showing character in bed. For the ultimate transgressive intimacy, his heroine pulls from her bedside table an ashtray which the couple share in the middle of the bed while they smoke and talk. No further acts are specified, and none need be. Perhaps you need to be 75 before you can write so clearly about real people having real sex.

I want a universe not parallel to this, please.

Thursday, January 22nd, 2004

Can anyone please explain why an search on John M. Ford, (no link for obvious reasons) turns up a list headed by the 1535 Edition of John Calvin’s Insitututes of the Christian Religion? There will be no marks awarded for the answer “They both write historical fantasy”.

Exterminate the brutes

Wednesday, January 21st, 2004
I was trying to sell a radio programme on the way that scientists are just vanishing from the world the other day, and ran up against an unexpected problem: my prospect thought that this was no bad thing, and they deserved it. Here‘s some evidence that she may be right: a list of species named after Tolkein characters:
Aletodon mellon (Van Valen, 1978) (Paleocene mammal) “mellon,” Elvish for “friend,” was the password into Moria.
Ancalagon Conway Morris, 1977 (Cambrian priapulid) From a dragon from Tolkien.
Ankalagon Van Valen, 1980 (Paleocene mesonychid mammal) Renamed from Ancalagon because it was preoccupied.
Anisonchus eowynae Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal, synonym of A. athelas Van Valen 1978) for Éowyn, Princess of Rohan. “Athelas” was a Middle Earth healing plant.
Bomburia Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) for Bombur.
Bubogonia bombadili and Protoselene bombadili Van Valen, 1978) (Paleocene mammals) after Tom Bombadil.
Claenodon mumak (Van Valen, 1978) (Paleocene mammal) after Mûmak, the Middle Earth elephant
Deltatherium durini Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) Several notable Dwarves were named Durin.
Earendil Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal, synonym of Mimatuta Van Valen, 1978) for Eärendil, father of Elrond.
Elachista amrodella, E. aredhella, E. caranthirella, E. curufinella, E. daeronella, E. diorella, E. finarfinella, E. gildorella, E. indisella, E. maglorella, E. miriella, E. turgonella (Kaila 1999) (moths) Named after elves from Tolkien, respectively: Amrod (Amras’ twin), Aredhel (The White Lady of Gondolin), Caranthir, Curufin, Daeron (Chief loremaster of Doriath), Dior (King of Doriath), Finarfin (Noldor King in Aman), Gildor Inglorion (High-Elf of Eriador & Imladris), Indis, Maglor, Miriel, Turgon (Lord of Nevrast, then Gondolin). Kaila mentions that Elves “one after other sailed over the water to the West, and were later difficult to see with human eyes,” alluding to the studied moths, which are very inconspicuous and have spread to Nearctic areas. [Acta Zool. Fennica 211]
Fimbrethil ambaronae Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal, synonym of Oxyacodon agapetillus (Cope 1884)) Fimbrethil was an Ent-maiden; Ambaróna was a name for the Ents’ forest.
Gollum (shark)
Gwaihiria Nauman (diapriid wasp) Named for Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles.
Litaletes ondolinde Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) for Ondolind&emul;, an Elven city.
Macrostyphlus frodo Morrone, 1994 (Andean weevil)
Macrostyphlus gandalf Morrone, 1994 (Andean weevil) [This and M. frodo are from American Museum Novitates 3104: 1-63.]
Mimotricentes mirielae Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal, synonym of Loxolophus hyattianus (Cope, 1885)) after Míriel, an Elf.
Mimatuta morgoth Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) for the “dark enemy of the world.”
Mimatuta minuial Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) “minuial” is Elvish for dawn’s twilight.
Mithrandir Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) one of the names of the wizard Gandalf.
Niphredil radagasti Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal, now in genus Paleotomus) Niphredil is a small Middle Earth flower. Radagast the Brown was a wizard.
Oxyprimus galadrielae Van Valen, 1978 (arctocyonid Paleocene mammal) for elf Lady Galadriel.
Pericompsus bilbo Erwin (carabid) for the title character of The Hobbit. So called because “it was short, fat, and had hairy feet.”
Platymastus palantir Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) The palantír was a magical viewing stone.
Protungulatum gorgun Van Valen, 1978 (Paleocene mammal) “gorgûn” is a term for Orcs.
Smeagol Climo, 1980 (gastropod, family Smeagolidae) Another name for Gollum.
Smeagolia Hedqvist, 1973 (pteromalid wasp)
Syconycteris hobbit (moss-forest blossom bat)
Thangorodrim thalion Van Valen (Paleocene mammal, synonym of Oxyclaenus Cope 1884) Thangorodrim are the three tallest towers of Endor; Thalion is a character from Tolkien’s Silmarillion.
Tinuviel Van Valen (Paleocene mammal) for a most beautiful elf. The name is Elvish for nightingale.

An argument for pacifism

Wednesday, January 21st, 2004

In all of England, there are only 27 “thankful villages” – places to which all the soldiers returned who had gone to fight in the First World War. They are all listed in the Guardian’s Notes and Queries page today. the largest number of men unscathed from a single village was 44. But otherwise, a village so small that it could only send two or nine men off to war was extraordinarily lucky if both came back. This figure can’t be unusual for European countries in European wars this century.

Not to stereotype the Finns

Tuesday, January 20th, 2004

or anything, because I am sure that at this time of year their workplaces are full of lively gossip from long before sunrise till deep into the night, but the Telegraph reports (via AFP, via Ilta Sanomat) that a 60-year-old tax inspector remained quite silent at his desk for two whole days before his colleagues in Helsinki noticed he was dead.

Tact in obituaries

Tuesday, January 20th, 2004

Stewart Steven, who died of a heart attack yesterday, rose to the summit of British journalism despite, or perhaps because of, two monumentally false and expensive stories. He was the man who found Martin Bormann in 1972; and who, in 1978, was fooled by a letter suggesting that British Leyland kept a slush find for bribing foreign businessmen. But he was widely liked and a very successsful editor of the Mail on Sunday. Only the Telegraph‘s obituary mentioned his earlier heart attack, in Brighton, in the Eighties, “Which, but for the prompt action of a colleague, might have been fatal”.

As I remember the story, the colleague in question was situated immediately underneath him, and her promptest action was to get some clothes on before the ambulance arrived. A lightly fictionalised verison of the scene opens a Julie Burchill novel.

Very belated technology award

Monday, January 19th, 2004

If there is one piece of technology that has most improved my life in the last year, it is these speakers: actually, I have a slightly less grand set, with only two satellites and not four, but that seems to have been sold out.