Saturday. Another Russian Trump story collapses. Paglia talks sense about Playboy founder Hefner's death. Meinong restored! New theory invokes possible-but-not-actual things in aid of quantum neatness. This poem can return:
Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there
He wasn't there again today
I wish, I wish he'd go away.
Friday. The always-unlikely-sounding simulation argument cooked up by Bostrom and swallowed by Musk receives a welcome blow to its credibility: a paper claims to rule it out even in principle. Sounds to me like this argument if correct also kills "uploading consciousness", teleportation of living things, plus strong or general artificial intelligence into the bargain.
Thursday. "Weston Price looked for vegans, but found only cannibals."
Wednesday. A song by the She-Devils: I Wanna Touch You. Oddly sweet & old-fashioned-sounding. Perhaps a cue for a book review of Cordelia Fine's (and the Royal Society's) attempt to plug the dikey dam and hold back the breaking waters of evolutionary psychology, in the shape of her fabulously-titled social-feminist rearguard defence 'Testosterone Rex'.
Tuesday. Have often thought of the short story and the radio monologue as almost dead literary forms but listen to this wonderfully simple slide show. Nothing but a background sound of wind, a couple of slides, and a well-chosen surprisingly against-cliche narrator's voice. Storytelling at its most traditional. Oh, and this 26th day of month 9 was 2017's 269th day?
Monday. In conversation this morning with Dr D.'s gamine receptionist Fanni, and learn of her heartfelt love for London, full English breakfasts, milky tea, and all the wonderful shops there. Later in day, the autumnal darkening and draughty breezes bring back the chilling close to Larkin's 'Toads Revisited':
No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
What else can I answer
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
Sunday. Read the book I got from Zoe, her late brother's account of his own life in journalism and their father's career in espionage 'Light & Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy's Son'. The crucial sentence in the whole book, pointed out to me by Zoe, was when her brother Mark asks their elderly father (when after decades it's finally become clear to the two children his whole career was in SIS) if he ever had any doubts about the morality of what he was doing for his country. His reply "Never. Not once. Not for a single minute." says a lot about what his generation had, something we seem to have lost since (and that certainly includes John Le Carre, 21 in 1952). By necessity, since the father quite rightly told his family almost nothing, the book is about 9/10ths son and 1/10th father. I got the uncomfortable feeling that the son never quite felt he matched up to him (even when he had no idea what his father did for a living). For example, his adventures as a young reporter for a pioneering Sydney-based radio station "aimed at young listeners" called 'double J' sound fun but also poignant by comparison, along with the details of what dismantling a fixed-line phone to attach it to a tape recorder with alligator clips was like, or the horrible knowledge that some Kurd died trying to smuggle cans of news film out of Iran he helped record. Some of what pop music meant to him as a schoolboy at Westminster School in London, the idea of "a generation having a voice", the battle for Top Ten places between records bought by oldies & youngsters in around 1961 - those things sound curiously old-fashioned now. If he wrote this book in the years leading up to publication in 2016, it feels as if it was almost exactly when Dylan and the Beatles and the Stones and Pink Floyd and the Ramones and the Sex Pistols suddenly stopped seeming to matter. Just about the moment when the whole half-century obsession with clothing, music and the young folk of the 1950s, 60s, & 70s began to slide off the radar screen. Colvin deals with his lifelong recurrent and worsening health problems with dignity, and the slightly puzzling features of growing up in a range of countries as Father's postings changed is dealt with well. Overall, the book feels sad, mysterious, dotted with sharply outlined vignettes of innocence and innocence lost.
Saturday. Weather getting proper autumnal now. Crisp shadows, bright sun, but chilly wind. A couple of what people call 'indie' songs. I quite like them, but there is a weediness, a sort of plaintive whimsy about them that sounds defeated & dreamy. Here are performers called White Poppy singing 'Small Town Mind'. Then comes the slightly zippier 'Kaleidescope' by the Departmentstore Santas (30 years old, though), after which we have the earnestly hopeful 'Be brothers' by some perky songsters known as Bamboo. At last the forceful but weary 'Black Chalk' from a duo called Earring. The overall effect is a sect of quite good musicians awaiting Rapture faithfully in the wilderness. Perhaps the saddest example of low-energy Byronic bards trapped in a basement studio somewhere is 'Lunar' by the mournfully named Public Memory. If that isn't a cry for help, I don't know what is.
Friday. Perhaps my favourite sentence of last week: "I am a village girl," a bright student self-deprecatingly shrugs off her respect for religion. Allegations in court are being made that Saudi Embassy staff actually carried out US-aircraft hijack dry runs before 2001 Sept 11th. Oh dear, oh dear. A profile of Noam Chomsky gets his politics right but is trapped in the genius-in-his-field-but-naive-in-his-politics trope. Actually I think his linguistics is also wrong, and shows how simple-minded he is. Nice clear explanation of why other countries can't copy Silicon Valley. A study shows women know better what other women are thinking than men do women or other men.
Thursday. At 3am (so Friday morning really) outside in light drizzle I pass a cheerful Hungarian couple in their 20s wheeling a clingfilm-wrapped washing machine along on an old-fashioned trolley of the kind the porters let you borrow at college. Giggling on their nest-building high, they chose a good moment to move the white goods - streets completely empty. Things seem to be getting boisterous in Spain. Madrid has stepped in to stop the Catalan provincial government from holding an independence referendum. This early August broadcast of the Russian girl-DJ radio show rather better than usual: #441. Perhaps something to do with her male colleague pogo-ing around in the foreground. Cheery bouncy Slavs!
Wednesday. Finish a book kindly lent me by Lorinc's father Mihaly. 'A Murder of Quality' from 1961 is interesting because apparently it was John Le Carre's one departure into the standard detective-story genre from writing spy novels. Seeing George Smiley solve a murder at a public school somewhere like Dorset I was struck by how much in all the books he's simply another Poirot, Marple, Sherlock, Father Brown, just shifted sideways into espionage. All the descriptions of him as ordinary yet shrewd, self-effacing yet sharp, good listener quietly judging others and so on suddenly fall into the classic Amateur Detective mould. I had read about 20 pages during previous days' tram journeys when suddenly all lights go out in the whole building. The staircase and balconies show two people wandering around by the light of their smartphones. Going outside into the rain I find that even the shopping centre is on emergency lighting, with the giant underground supermarket and much of the street in complete darkness. Back in my flat I light three half-burned candles still lodged in the hollows of an egg box from the last time I used them, and settle down to finish the Le Carre book by candlelight. Rain outside grows heavier, and I'm carried back to that odd caravan holiday in Anglesey when I was 8, rain drummed on the roof all day every day for two weeks, and Mother & I read lots of detective novels, her explaining which were well written and which were badly written during our (or at least her) coffee-making breaks. Although the caravan brings back the smell of bottled gas and a match lighting the hob each morning, power cuts and candles back in Manchester during the oil crisis overlap in my memory from the same time. I feel secure, cut off from the internet, in a dark room with three candle flames gently swaying on a chair nearby and the shushing sound of a heavy downpour outside. Le Carre's puzzle grows more enjoyable once Smiley is at the centre of the narrative - although there aren't really any characters as such. He and Brim are the nearest the author gets to proper characters, but they are at least recognisable presences.
What's striking about this end-of-the-1950s book is how obsessed it is with snobbery. Part of this is definitely true to the time, but there is more. Le Carre thinks he's against snobs, but actually he reveals himself through the gentle unprepossessing Smiley as an utter snob. His bland, courteous hero is filled with disguised loathing of other people's social positions and pretensions, whether high or low. The two ex-military men can't even wear a wristwatch to his satisfaction, poor men. The retired-Major dog breeder, Smiley notes with superior amusement, has that mysterious military habit of wearing his watch inside his wrist (actually not mysterious at all) while the Chief Constable almost physically disgusts Smiley with his exaggerated army-style gesture of snapping out his elbow when checking his watch on the outside of his wrist. The whole novel, like many of the time, is fixated on class to a suspicious degree. It's almost as if most of those detective stories were secretly about Britain trying to murder some unbearably embarrassing old relative from its family past.
Despite the way the characters somehow strike a false note, Le Carre's ear for dialogue is quite good: Smiley's quizzing by the sly, sinister Shane woman is nicely done. It goes without saying that the public school is High Anglican, with reintroduced fake Latinisms, and the town is Chapel, with a sternly simple Baptist congregation. The police officer Smiley liaises with is Chapel and so, of course, a good & clever man. The author is good enough at storytelling of course to set us up for surprises with these assumptions to activate plenty of well-handled bait-and-switch plot-twisting towards the end. A curiously bitter Afterword helps locate Le Carre (and many other authors of the time) as a disappointed young moderniser. He was 14 in 1945 but still identifying with utopian breeziness of his parents' generation in the 1920s and 30s. Much is made of the dreadfulness of the war and the dark secrets Smiley must live with, but I started to suspect that this is really something else. For example a kind of mourning for the utilitarian, spick-and-span, dismissive spirit from the 20s, 30s, 40s. A conflicted wish the war had proved the awful shabbiness of tradition and history, where in fact, annoyingly, it proved the opposite, the murderous ruthlessness of the modernisers. This contradiction, this secret desire to still see utopian 1930s ideas as refreshing rather than repressive, perhaps explains why characters like Smiley in books like Le Carre's pivot from politely masked war-weariness into a very well hidden hatred of Britain. His country's crime is not just to still be there, but to have actually been proved right in the war of ideas during their youth. Hence the way tradition and the love of the old seems to faintly nauseate Le Carre heroes. 'Victorian' is several times used as a term of abuse, 'mediaeval' in a positive way (but as long as it refers to something suitably modest and authentic). Smiley and Brim are moved by and gently protective of the silly traditions of the lower-class Nonconformists and their bizarre rituals but are revolted by the silly traditions of the upper-class school Anglicans and their bizarre rituals.
There are moments when characters like Fielding are made to speak lines (about the futility of teaching, the dreadfulness of boarding schools) straight from the narrator. Then notice on the final page of the 2010 Afterword how Le Carre describes what he thinks is wicked about the major public schools yet casually mentions sending his own sons there. "Did I send my own sons to public school? Yes of course I did, so I'm a traitor too, to my principles if not to my class." How charmingly he brushes aside this gaping inconsistency in his world view with fake frankness. Completely without any grasp of how hugely the state-commandeered school system of the 1940s has failed the country and the students whose lives it stunted, he wishes all non-state schools had been taken over by the state in one cleansing sweep of collectivism. He writes he would have tossed his hat in the air with joy at that victory against history and heirarchy. Just a page earlier the despairing anti-Labour speech of his headmaster in 1945 (now proved horribly right) is quoted sarcastically, evoking barbarians at the gates. It still makes him angry. Le Carre seems to have no sense that, using good intelligence fieldcraft Smiley would have been proud of, the barbarians have long been well inside the gates, and he is one of them.
Tuesday. Women's brains full of male lovers' DNA. Study claims drop in testosterone sparked beginnings of civilisation. Book review harks back to Darwin's work on evolution of sexiness. Meanwhile China bans BitCoin exchange and coin-mining executives from leaving the country - is Peking scared?
Monday. Man beheads woman, but then refuses to stop eating her flesh, so police shoot him. South Africa keeping it real.
Sunday. New security hack: Israeli researchers use infrared signals to take control of CCTV cameras.
Saturday. More about strange sonic weapons being used in Cuba.
Friday. Library scan yields fresh ancient languages.
Thursday. Female scholar on Viking warrior women.
Wednesday. Chinese village grows QR-code garden.
Tuesday. There's hope! Study says cute women prefer ugly men.
Monday. Perhaps a reason not to ink.
Sunday. I remember two days ago standing in the sun outside my apartment building in my Friday jacket and tie holding up a shoelace. I must have looked like some tedious Beckett character. I was silently pondering if I could spare a moment to go to the shoelace shop (yes there's a "shoe accessory" store three streets away). One of the older, more dignified, ladies in the building (I say hello to her sometimes in the lift) chanced by. She asked me where I was headed, and I told her, deciding against the shop as we talk. Ten minutes later back inside she suddenly rings the doorbell of my flat and gives me a handful of neatly tied shoelaces, muttering something about her husband not needing them any more. Meanwhile, after another interesting morning lesson with Boardgame Orsolya where we touch on help from God, in the late afternoon have a coffee & fruit juice with The Yellow Dress Girl. She tells me I must learn how to wish.
Saturday. A couple of days ago I was in the bakery-cafe where the Croatian pirates sometimes take their children. A pigeon flew in and began strutting around under some tables confusedly looking for the way out again. I unsuccessfully try to shoo it out, and one of the waitresses (Flora) casually says "Oh, look it's Feri." She carefully corners Feri (Frank), firmly but gently gathers him into both her hands and helps him out of the doorway. For a second I'm puzzled at her having given him a name, but then I look outside at the square again. In place of several dark-grey pigeon-shaped blobs scanning under tables for pastry crumbs a second before, I suddenly see a range of shades from almost white birds with grey bars and markings to almost-black birds with different tones of mid and dark grey feathers standing out on back and wings.
Friday. I finish a book sent to me by kind Amanda, 'The Middle Sea' by John Julius Norwich. He warns us from the outset that his heart sank when he got the commission, but the simple ambition of relating all the most important things that happened in the Mediterranean over the centuries, gives the book a pleasantly modest feel. Interesting breakdown on the unification of Italy, and some fascinating might-have-beens from late mediaeval Sicily. Then in the evening a sudden crushing sense of defeat and exhaustion. Aware that the biggest solar flare in a decade, shot out by an X9-class storm on the 6th, hit Earth's atmosphere today, I wonder if this can affect mood (and if so, why not everybody?)
Thursday. Two more classes have students who get sent to different rooms. But the ones who reach me are very jolly & likeable.
Wednesday. Early teaching start. Would be interesting to study this. Meanwhile Britain's yeomanry keep up standards: urinating man's loyal girlfriend punches other man for criticising him.
Tuesday. First night class at the Technical University. I'm in the designated room on the 8th floor at 6.30pm, no-one else is. Turns out my students got sent to a room on the 6th floor. Once a kind colleague brings us together, introductory lesson quite a success.
Monday. Why are women more religious? Every answer here but one.
Sunday. Years after we gave warning, more pessimism about China.
Saturday. Cubans using covert sound weapons?
Friday. Japanese newly-weds vacuum-sealed. 'Breathtaking', hur hur.
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