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The Company of Wolves

Monday, 11 March, 2019

“You are always in danger in the forest, where no people are. Step between the portals of the great pines where the shaggy branches tangle about you, trapping the unwary traveller in nets as if the vegetation itself were in a plot with the wolves who live there, as though the wicked trees go fishing on behalf of their friends — step between the gateposts of the forest with the greatest trepidation and infinite precautions, for if you stray from the path for one instant, the wolves will eat you. They are grey as famine, they are as unkind as plague.” — Angela Carter

Wolves


#Friday: Fasting & Reading

Friday, 9 November, 2018

“How long does getting thin take?” asked Pooh anxiously.
“About a week, I should think.”
“A week!” said Pooh gloomily. “What about meals?”
“I’m afraid no meals,” said Christopher Robin, “because of getting thin quicker. But we will read to you.” — A.A.Milne

Pooh


Dracula: pre-Halloween reading

Sunday, 28 October, 2018

In May 1897, Dracula, a novel by the Irish author Bram Stoker, was published in London at a price of six shillings. It had a print run of 3,000 copies and the book was bound in plain yellow cloth with the one-word title in simple red lettering. Dracula In time, Dracula would become the supreme example of horror fiction. The critic Maurice Richardson described it as “a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match”. What’s not to like?

It begins thus:

“3 May. Bistritz. Left Munich at 8:35 p.M., on first May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.

We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that, as it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians. I found my smattering of German very useful here; indeed, I don’t know how I should be able to get on without it.”

“The blood is the life!” — Bram Stoker, Dracula


Relaxation reading

Tuesday, 25 September, 2018

Thurn is staring at the computer screen, struck by how calmly the robbers seem to be working. She watches them methodically fill their mailbags with cash. When one sack is full, they swing it up onto their shoulders or drag it across the floor and out of the room. Since they’re coming and going, all dressed alike, it’s difficult to tell how many of them there are. Four, she would guess, but it could just as easily be three or five.

‘Where are they?’ she asks. ‘In the vault?’

‘No, no,’ says Lindahl. ‘No one gets into the vault. That’s where the big money is. No, they’re up on the sixth floor. We call it Cash. Counting. It’s where we send the notes to be counted. Then they’re sent back down to the vault. We never have more than a few hundred million up there.’

‘A few hundred million?’ Thurn repeats, amazed.

‘Right now, we have over a billion in the building,’ Lindahl points out, to put those hundreds of millions in context.

A snippet from The Helicopter Heist by Swedish author Jonas Bonnier, who was President of the Bonnier Group from 2008 until 2013. The story, which centres on the 2009 Västberga helicopter robbery, has been sold to 34 territories, and the film- and TV-rights were acquired by Netflix and Jake Gyllenhaal’s production company Nine Stories.

The Helicopter Heist


JG Ballard and the rage of the Angelas

Saturday, 18 August, 2018

In his latter days and in his final works, the great JG Ballard, who died in April 2009, focussed on how bored (and boring) materialism and media have made people. It’s not surprising, Ballard said, that the educated would do things like take to the streets in favour of dictators, support terror groups, denounce freedom and join crazed movements. And wasn’t he the prophet! Ballard lampooned all this brilliantly in Millennium People. Here, the narrator has infiltrated a middle-class “Antifa” group and attends a protest against a cat show in London with Angela, a revolutionary:

Angela stared across the road with narrowed eyes and all a suburbanite’s capacity for moral outrage. Walking around the exhibition two hours earlier, I was impressed by her unswerving commitment to the welfare of these luxurious pets. The protest rallies I had recently attended against globalisation, nuclear power and the World Bank were violent but well thought out. By contrast, this demonstration seemed endearingly Quixotic in its detachment from reality. I tried to point this out to Angela as we strolled along the line of cages.

“Angela, they look so happy. They’re wonderfully cared for. We’re trying to rescue them from heaven.”

Angela never varied her step. “How do you know?”

“Just watch them.” We stopped in front of a row of Abyssinians so deeply immersed in the luxury of being themselves that they barely noticed the admiring crowds. “They’re not exactly unhappy. They’d be prowling around, trying to get out of the cages.”

“They’re drugged.” Angela’s brows knotted. “No living creature should be caged. This isn’t a cat show, it’s a concentration camp.”

“Still, they are rather gorgeous.

“They’re bred for death, not life. The rest of the litter are drowned at birth. It’s a vicious eugenic experiment, the sort of thing Dr. Mengele got up to.”

Satire is our only defence against the Angelas of this world. What a tragedy JG Ballard is not with us now to write about the scourge of “identity politics.”


New Year’s reading: Bowen’s Court

Friday, 5 January, 2018 0 Comments

We’re finishing our week of reading books that were the presents of this Christmas past. On Monday, we had The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from Noel Donnelly, on Tuesday it was Five Escape Brexit Island, placed in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by Ian McMaster, on Wednesday was the turn of Change Agent, given to this blogger by himself, and yesterday was Motherfoclóir, put under the tree in Clontarf by Brian. This series ends today with Bowen’s Court & Seven Winters by Elizabeth Bowen, a Christmas present from our valiant sister, Mary.

Bowen’s Court & Seven Winters is the history of one Anglo-Irish family in north County Cork, from the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1653 until 1959, when Elizabeth Bowen, the last of the family, was forced to sell the house she adored. With the skill that marks all her writing, she describes the lives and loves, the highs and lows of ten generations of Bowens. These were a class apart — the Protestant Irish gentry — and theirs was a story of war, land, powerful women, ruinous lawsuits, horses, hunting, entertaining, sex, drinking, melancholy and loss.

The date is 5 August 1914 and the Bowens have set out from their estate by pony and trap for a party at Mitchelstown Castle, the home of the Earls of Kingston. They stopped at the village of Rockmills to collect Silver Oliver, a playmate of the 15-year-old Elizabeth, and they could not have anticipated that an event in far-off Sarajevo would start a conflagration that would inspire Irish men to burn Mitchelstown Castle to the ground on 12 August 1922. Snippet:

At Rockmills my father — whose manner, I do remember had been growing graver with every minute — stopped the pony and went into the post office. There was a minute to wait, with the pony stamping, before I again saw him framed in the low dark door. He cleared his throat and said: “England has declared war on Germany.” Getting back into the trap, he added: “I suppose it could not be helped.” All I could say was: “Then can’t we go to the garden party?” … We picked up Silver Oliver and drove to Mitchelstown — Henry, with his whole mind, courteously answering a rattle of questions from us girls. If at ten or twelve I had been precocious, at fifteen I was virtually idiotic. The bye-roads had dried in the wind and were glaring white; the War already had given them an unreal look.

That afternoon we walked up the Castle avenue, greeted by the gusty sound of a band. The hosts of the party were the late Lady Kingston’s second husband, Mr. Willie Webber, and his companion, Miss Minnie Fairholme. They were not young, and, owing to the extreme draughtiness everywhere, they received their guests indoors, at the far end of Big George’s gallery. In virtue of this being a garden party, and of the fact that it was not actually raining, pressure was put on the guests to proceed outside — people only covertly made incursions into the chain of brocade saloons. Wind raced round the Castle terraces, naked under the Galtees; grit blew into the ices; the band clung, with some trouble, to its exposed place. The tremendous news certainly made that party, which might have been rather flat. Almost everyone said they wondered if they really ought to have come, but they had come — rightly: this was a time to gather. This was an assemblage of Anglo-Irish people from all over north-east County Cork, from the counties of Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary. For miles around, each isolated big house had disgorged its talker, this first day of the war. The tension of months, of years — outlying tension of Europe, inner tension of Ireland — broke in a spate of words. Braced against the gale of the mountains, licking dust from their lips, these were the unmartialled loyalists of the South. Not a family had not put out, like Bowen’s Court, its generations of military brothers — tablets in Protestant churches recorded deaths in remote battles; swords hung in halls. If the Anglo-Irish live on and for a myth, for that myth they constantly shed their blood. So, on this August 1914 day of grandeur and gravity, the Ascendency rallied, renewed itself.

It was an afternoon when the simplest person begins to anticipate memory — this Mitchelstown garden party, it was agreed, would remain in everyone’s memory as historic. It was also a more final scene than we knew. Ten years hence, it was all to seem like a dream — and the Castle itself would be a few bleached stumps on the plateau. Today, the terraces are obliterated, and grass grows where the saloons were. Many of those guests, those vehement talkers, would be scattered, houseless, sonless, or themselves dead. That war — or call it now that first phase of war — was to go far before it had done with us.

Elizabeth Bowen


New Year’s reading: CRISPR

Wednesday, 3 January, 2018 0 Comments

We’re devoting time this week to the books that were the presents of Christmas past. On Monday, it was The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from Noel Donnelly, yesterday it was Five Escape Brexit Island, put in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by Ian McMaster, and today it’s Change Agent by Daniel Suarez, a gift to this blogger from himself.

At the end of March last year, The Hollywood Reporter posted an “Exclusive” story titled “Netflix Options Upcoming Sci-Fi Novel ‘Change Agent’.” So, before the publisher had stocked up on ink to print the novel, its author was laughing all the way to bank. Nice one! What’s all the excitement about, then? Well, Change Agent is thriller about genetic engineering that combines CRISPR with non-stop action in Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. At the centre of the story is Kenneth Durand, an Interpol agent who’s given the face and body of a scary villain, thanks to some deft in vivo gene editing that threatens to eliminate the very notion of individual identity. In telling the yarn, Suarez creates a near-future world of cryptocurrencies, drones, surveillance, AR glasses, trade and terror. Snippet:

Early evening and Durand sat in the conditioned air of a private autonomous comcar as it merged into the close coordination of rush hour. His daughter’s wrapped birthday gift sat on the seat beside him. He leaned back and felt the stress of the day leave him.

In the distance he could see the glowing logos of synbio firms on the Singapore skyline. Licensed AR video ads played across the surfaces of several skyscrapers — although they were really only being beamed into Durand’s retinas by his own LFP glasses. The contract for his LFP glasses required exposure to specific layers of public advertising. At least he’d opted out of the low-end ads, but opting out of all AR advertising was prohibitively expensive.

Just the same, Durand frowned at the shoddy data management employed by the advertisers. He was clearly not in the target demographic for an ad gliding across the neighboring buildings, alive with images of Jedis, Starfleet officers, and steampunk characters: “Singapore’s premier Star Wars, Star Trek, and steampunk cosliving communities…”

Cossetted young professionals at the big synbio firms were a more likely demo for their product — single people with a couple million to blow on living in a theme park.

But by then the ad had shifted to CRISPR Critters. Gigantic, adorable neotenic cats cavorted from building to building, pursuing a virtual ball of yarn.

Durand decided to close his eyes.

He clicked off and followed other commuters down a narrow lane between old brick buildings. This MRT crowd skewed young — twenties and early thirties. Lots of expats. Well dressed and all talking to people who weren’t there. Snatches of conversation floated past him in Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, English, Russian, Swahili, German, Korean — and more he didn’t recognize. They’d no doubt come to Singapore to make their killing. To work threads in a blockchain corporation or license their own cellular machinery. XNA programmers. Genetic engineers. Entrepreneurs. And they all had to have impressive CVs to get a work visa in the city.

Change Agent


New Year’s reading: Gill

Monday, 1 January, 2018 0 Comments

It’s time to spend some time with the books that were the presents of Christmas past and we’re starting with The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from the famously generous and well-read Noel Donnelly of Dublin via Leitrim.

A.A. Gill was a journalist who died of cancer in London on the morning of 10 December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29. He followed an Alcoholics Anonymous “12-step plan” to recovery and, in tribute to the fellowship, began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. However, he continued to smoke some 60 cigarettes a day until the age of 48.

Gill was notorious for his brilliant, sometimes bitter, invariably witty and always humane observations on food, television and life in general. Here’s a snippet from a column titled “Sex and the City”, which was published in The Sunday Times in January 2009. The scene is a Sex and the City bus tour around New York City:

“We crawl into the Meatpacking District. Our conspiratorial and cosily gossipy stand-up tour guide tells us that this is where the girls did a lot of their shopping, and that it’s a sort of secret place only really savvy New Yorkers know about. She reels off a list of shops and what each character bought in them. We’re chucked off for 20-mintute retail reruns. I hide in Diane von Furstenberg’s changing room. And just in case you’re from Alaska, the Meatpacking District is New York’s secret like the Vatican is Rome’s.

We’re taken to the Magnolia Bakery, where queues of weirdly excited and messianic women wait impatiently to eat the teeth-meltingly sweet, infantile cupcakes like a votive Communion promising a blessed afterwork life of copious, cool sex, witty friendships, miraculously available taxis, Manolos, Cosmos, and happy-ending aphorisms. We don’t have to line up. Our cakes come with the ticket. Massive trays of cupcakes appear and are offered to us in a tramp’s pissoir alley on slimy benches beside a children’s recreational park. Feeding cake to yearningly single women beside a playground with happy West Village moms and their gilded tots was an act of sadistic patronage. We guiltily stuff our faces, begging the refined calories to transport us into closer connection with the fabled story arc.”

A.A. Gill had the gift, no doubt, and the best of his writing is an ideal gift.

A. A. Gill


The Swimmer swims

Saturday, 13 August, 2016 0 Comments

It’s early to be contemplating life after Rio, but there’s just a week to go and our thoughts will soon turn to Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, and the only Asian city to host the games twice. The first time was 1964 and highlights of the Games of the XVIII Olympiad included Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser winning the 100 metres freestyle for the third time in a row, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila winning his second Olympic marathon, New Zealand’s Peter Snell winning gold in the 800 metres and 1500 metres, and the US men’s swimming team winning all but three gold medals in the pool.

“The Swimmer” is a famous short story by John Cheever, which was published in The New Yorker in the summer of 1964. It begins with Neddy Merrill sitting by a friend’s pool on a sunny day. Suddenly, he decides to go home by swimming across all the pools in the neighbourhood, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honour of his wife. He starts off energetically, but his journey takes on a dark and surreal tone. Snippet:

“He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb — he never used the ladder — and started across the lawn.

When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home. The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.”

You can download a PDF (89.3KB) of “The Swimmer” here.

The pool


The memory hole in Europe and China

Wednesday, 16 March, 2016 0 Comments

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the “memory hole” is a slot into which government officials deposit politically incorrect documents to be incinerated. Thoughts of Orwell’s warning were awakened by two recent occurrences, one minor, one major. Let’s start with the minor. A Google search of this blog for references to Steve Jobs produces a results page that ends with the notification: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.” This is a consequence of the EU’s “Right To Be Forgotten” ruling, which is Orwellian in its implications.

Now, the major matter. A week ago, the Hong Kong Free Press reported that “All traces of Hong Kong English language newspaper the South China Morning Post have been wiped from social media platforms in China.” The writer, Karen Cheung, added the Orwellian aspect with this ominous sentence: “The paper’s disappearance from Chinese social media came weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to tighten control over the news in China, saying that ‘state media must be surnamed Party.'”

As an ex-English teacher, Alibaba’s Jack Ma must be familiar with the works of Orwell. If his bid for the South China Morning Post goes through, he may be tempted to complete its descent into the memory hole. Why would Ma want to buy the paper? “Maybe he’s been told to,” speculates Big Lychee. Orwellian.

Censor


BeeLine Gray for Rainy Day

Wednesday, 2 March, 2016 0 Comments

“BeeLine Reader makes reading faster and easier by using a color gradient that guides your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next. With BeeLine Reader, you can finish your work faster — and with less eyestrain.” So claim entrepreneurs Nick Lum and Andrew Cantino, whose research in perception led them to create this browser plugin that they believe helps readers to read faster. Here’s a portion of yesterday’s post here rendered in BeeLine Gray.

BeeLine

This is an interesting idea and it may help people with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, but the only way to become a good reader is to do lots of reading. Every day.