10 May 2011

Home, James

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:59 pm

Clive James in Cambridge Footlights 1969I found myself moved by David Free’s defence of Clive James’s late poetry in this month’s Australian Literary Review. Free has performed a kind of literary biopsy, diagnosing the condition of James’s health as revealed in his recent poems:

Vertical Envelopment, published in December last year, revealed that James had been hospitalised twice during the preceding months, first with a serious bout of emphysema (“The way I smoked, thank Christ it wasn’t cancer”); and later, in New York, after being “felled” by a blood clot. The same poem makes a glancing but ominous reference to the poet’s “CLL / Leukaemia that might hold off for years”. Slow-moving as this form of the disease may be, it still sounds like something one would prefer not to have.

…and argues that these new reflections typify a more serious and personal phase in James’s work. The piece coincides with the official news that James is being treated for leukaemia—presumably the chronic lymphocytic leukaemia initialled in “Vertical Envelopment”, along with the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or “COPD / Which sounds as if it might star Dennis Franz / As Andy Sipowicz, but it turns out / To be the bug they once called emphysema”.

ALR editor Luke Slattery writes that it was Free’s essay that prompted him to contact James to inquire about the state of his health. It probably says something about the attention paid to poetry—maybe in general, maybe his in particular—that James’s leukaemia only became worldwide news in May, although “Vertical Envelopment” was published last November. You can’t assume that a poem is autobiographical or true, of course, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making this up—especially if you’ve been to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge:

Taking the piss out of my catheter,
The near-full plastic bag bulks on my calf
As I push my I.V. tower through Addenbrooke’s
Like an Airborne soldier heading for D-day
Down the longest corridor in England.

I was always a fan of James as a television personality, and was devoted to Clive James on Television and Saturday Night Clive through high school. People used to tell me I sounded like James when I’d hazard a sarcastic observation and it thrilled me, as if a tone or  inflection were as good as an insight. I watched him with my Dad, who he reminded me of, and whose sense of humour I inherited in the usual way—first groaning at, and then stealing, all his jokes.

It was only here in Cambridge that I started to read James’s memoirs and his poetry. A lot of it is tinted with the experience of an Australian in England, and I suppose it suddenly seemed a lot more relevant to me. There are long passages of May Week was in June—one of the most perfect titles ever—that have helped me understand the place and even survive some of it. Like the joyless winters:

Your first academic year in Cambridge is so arranged that you must learn to appreciate your surroundings in winter, when the trees are waterlogged traceries and the buildings are doomy silhouettes between sky and fen. Captain Cousteau diving without lights saw more colour under a continental shelf than you will see in Cambridge between November and March. Also he kept relatively dry. So you either hang yourself from despair inside one of the venerable edifices or else learn to love them for their shape alone.

And it was one of James’s most recent poems, “Fashion Statement”, that warmed me, deep in this last winter, with its memories of the place I’d just left again:

I see it now, the truth of what we were
Back then when we were young and Sydney shone
Like a classic silver milk-shake canister
Trapping the sunlight in a cyclotron
Of dented brilliance.

But then:

This year I almost died.

I wonder whether this is the poem that set David Free on his search. “Vertical Envelopment” appeared in <a href="http://www.standpointonline.co you could check here.uk/node/3594″>Standpoint magazine and on James’s website, but “Fashion Statement” made the Times Literary Supplement and was probably the first really public announcement of his health problems. It certainly arrested me.

We live a few doors away from James’s Cambridge house, as we discovered from one of his letters to the TLS. We have the same “Front windows on a trimly English park”, if I’m reading “Castle in the Air” right. The first time I saw him—perhaps off on “the creaking mile that keeps my legs alive”, or else just to Sainsbury’s—was a private thrill but also something of a shock. He looked a bit reduced, a bit tired, he wasn’t smiling that crinkling, self-delighted smile. I thought it might just have been the twenty years since Saturday Night Clive, or the prospect of Sainsbury’s. Now I guess it probably wasn’t. I haven’t spoken to him. On Hallowe’en, in the early dusk between the neighbourhood trick-or-treaters, I almost told him I liked his Clive James mask. I’m glad I didn’t, now. But I wish I’d told him how much I’ve enjoyed and admired his work, throughout my life but never more than here and now. I hope I’ll get another chance.

Everyone agrees that James is a keen satirist and humorist, but there’s an ongoing argument over whether he’s a serious or significant poet. Guy Rundle argues in Crikey that it’s a kind of cultural cringe that keeps James’s poems in Australian literary pages. But the anti-James brigade must have its own cultural component as well: we save a particular vitriol for those who leave and don’t come back, especially if they dare to claim a continuing connection to, let alone authority over, the place that first formed them.

You might think David Free’s analysis of James’s late poetry shows the kind of accommodation you might expect for a man in poor health, but Free has been defending James’s serious writing for some time. I don’t know much about poetry, and a lot of good and terrible poetry seem pretty similar to me. I love “Fashion Statement” and many of the others; they are at the same time nimble and intensely focused. I find a few of them a bit chaotic in their allusions, and less intimate than my favourites. I also feel that Free might be working too hard to explain why the occasional clichés in James’s poetry aren’t really clichés. But I’m convinced by his argument that many of the lines in “The Falcon Growing Old” are all the evidence we need that James is a proper poet, writing here about writing:

Catching the shifting air the way a falcon
Spreads on a secret wave, the outpaced earth
Left looking powerless.

Get well soon, Clive.


12 May 2007

Couldn’t have said it better

by Matt Rubinstein at 5:48 pm

tower1.jpgOne of the last things I did in Cambridge was to climb the tower of the St John’s College Chapel. The tower is one of the most preposterous things in town, and is completely out of proportion to the already-kind-of-overblown chapel it stands athwart. It wasn’t always going to be like that:

Scott’s plans for the Chapel included only a small “fleche”, not the 163-feet-high tower that was eventually built. But after work had already begun a former member of the College named Henry Hoare offered £3,000 down and £1,000 a year for five years to finance the building of the tower. The offer was accepted, but despite the urgings of the Bursar the College failed to insure Mr Hoare’s life – he was, after all, a young and healthy man. Two years later he died as a result of a railway accident, leaving the College with a Chapel Tower and a large debt.

You need to be or know a member of the College to get hold of the key, there’s a very dark, tight, winding staircase and the views from the top are fantastic—a rare chance to properly see the geometry of all the colleges’ courts and the lines of the original town. There’s a sign asking people not to carve things in the roof, but you can see the results. And this pair of tags is priceless, kind of sums up the whole place!

30 April 2007

Yes she did

by Matt Rubinstein at 6:25 pm

folbigg.jpgI was going to post this a couple of years ago when it first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. But you want to be a bit careful about finding the fun in a woman convicted of killing her four children, don’t you? And then I lost the piece of paper I’d torn out. But I found it again today! And probably enough time has passed to wonder whether or not the caption-writer here did this on purpose.

15 March 2007

Law and Laureates

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:24 am

judge.jpgJust like those chumps who win the lottery and keep going to work every day, even after I published my novel in verse about Adelaide I still finished my law degree and then practised for five years. I still do a bit of contracting and consulting, for the sole purpose of keeping it real. And of course I’m interested in the occasional intersections of law and literature.

I was particularly pleased to see that the House of Representatives in Minnesota has tabled a bill appointing a poet laureate. Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a similar bill in 2005 on the basis that the North Star State already had a “state folklorist” and he was worried about the inevitable “requests for a state mime, interpretive dancer or potter”. (The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also burdened with a state mushroom (the morel, Morchella esculenta) and a state muffin (blueberry) as well as a couple more nicknames not already mentioned, including the Bread and Butter State and the Gopher State.) But perhaps the pottery-hating Governor will change his mind when he sees that this bill is written in verse. It’s too awful to extract in full, but at least it admits it:

Subd. 2. Removal.

The poet will be free to write rhyming lines,
With removal only for cause,
But we trust that the bard will promptly resign,
If the verse reads as badly as laws.

Legislation is hardly ever written in verse, but there are quite a few examples in case law. You might remember a couple of years ago when Macomb County (Michigan) Circuit Court Judge Deborah Servitto dismissed a defamation suit against Eminem with a little rap of her own. This one stands up a bit better (citation is DeAngelo Bailey vs Marshall Bruce Mathers, III aka Eminem Slim Shady, Case No. 2001-3606-NO):

Mr Bailey complains that his rep is trash
So he’s seeking compensation in the form of cash
Bailey thinks he’s entitled to some monetary gain
Because Eminem used his name in vain

Eminem says Bailey used to throw him around
Beat him up in the john, shoved his face in the ground
Eminem contends that his rap is protected
By the rights guaranteed by the first amendment

Eminem maintains that the story is true
And that Bailey beat him black and blue
In the alternative he states that the story is phony
And a reasonable person would think it’s baloney

The Court must always balance the rights
Of a defendant and one placed in a false light
If the plaintiff presents no question of fact
To dismiss is the only acceptable act

If the language used is anything but pleasin’
It must be highly objectionable to a person of reason
Even if objectionable and causing offence
Self-help is the first line of defence

Yet when Bailey actually spoke to the press
what do you think he didn’t address?
Those false light charges that so disturbed
Prompted from Bailey not a single word

So highly objectionable, it could not be
—Bailey was happy to hear his name on a CD

Bailey also admitted he was a bully in youth
Which makes what Marshall said substantial truth
This doctrine is a defence well known
And renders Bailey’s case substantially blown

The lyrics are stories no one would take as fact
They’re an exaggeration of a childish act
Any reasonable person could clearly see
That the lyrics could only be hyperbole

It is therefore this Court’s ultimate position
That Eminem is entitled to summary disposition.

Well, it starts out all right. But it’s not a patch on the 1983 Michigan Court of Appeals case of William L Fisher v Karen Lowe et al (122 Mich App 418) which reads, somewhat delightfully:

We thought that we would never see
A suit to compensate a tree.

A suit whose claim in tort is prest
Upon a mangled tree’s behest;

A tree whose battered trunk was prest
Against a Chevy’s crumpled crest;

A tree that faces each new day
With bark and limb in disarray;

A tree that may forever bear
A lasting need for tender care.

Flora lovers though we three,
We must uphold the court’s decree.

That is the full judgment (minus a couple of footnotes that contain the actual prosaic decision) but it was later embellished, apparently by headnote writers at Westlaw, with an opening synopsis which is also pretty good. Then there’s the pretty workmanlike version of “The Raven” found in In re Robin E. Love, Bankruptcy No. 85-03011-BKC-AJC. There’s the Dr-Seuss–like Brown v State 134 Ga App 771, and… ah, hell, there’s a big list of them here, although all the links are to the pay-per-view Westlaw.

The Hon. Gerald Lebovitz writes in Ethical Judicial Opinion Writing (big PDF here):

Judges should not construct opinions in the form of poems. Although “[p]oetic justice is always entertaining,” it is “rarely poetic or just.” Poetic opinions undermine the key aspect that is central to judicial opinions—they lack “a clearly articulated holding supported by precedent.” Litigants, especially the losing side, may feel as though the court treated their issues and arguments frivolously.262 And the public will conclude that the court spent more time constructing the verses than contemplating the law. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, “The law is not the place for the artist or poet. The law is the calling of thinkers.” Judges should spend more time contemplating the law than creating verses.

This seems like a bit of a downer, but given how terrible most of the judicial verses are I don’t think anybody’s going to fight too hard for them. Mary Kate Kearney makes a spirited argument based on Porreco v Porreco 811 A.2d 566, which turns out to be quite poetic, though it’s only a dissent:

A groom must expect matrimonial pandemonium
when his spouse finds he’s given her a cubic zirconium
instead of a diamond in her engagement band,
the one he said was worth twenty-one grand.

Our deceiver would claim that when his bride relied
on his claim of value, she was not justified
for she should have appraised it; and surely she could have,
but the question is whether a bride-to-be would have.

The realities of the parties control the equation,
and here they’re not comparable in sophistication;
the reasonableness of her reliance we just cannot gauge
with a yardstick of equal experience and age.

This must be remembered when applying the test
by which the “reasonable fiancée” is assessed.
She was 19, he was nearly 30 years older;
was it unreasonable for her to believe what he told her?

Given their history and Pygmalion relation,
I find her reliance was with justification.
Given his accomplishment and given her youth,
was it unjustifiable for her to think he told the truth?

Or for every prenuptial, is it now a must
that you treat your betrothed with presumptive mistrust?
Do we mean reliance on your beloved’s representation
is not justifiable, absent third party verification?

Love, not suspicion, is the underlying foundation
of parties entering the marital relation;
mistrust is not required, and should not be made a priority.
Accordingly, I must depart from the reasoning of the majority.

Way to go, the Hon. J Michael Eakin!

14 October 2006

Dog bites man

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:10 am

roo.jpgI had to read this headline in today’s Independent a couple of times before I could confirm that it was actually news.

Sorry about the image quality, but this is actually my first foray into the over-hyped world of moblogging: I took the picture with my phone and posted it with the same phone while sitting in a coffee shop in preposterous Cambridge. Most of it, anyway: the shop closed mid-post so I am now outside sitting on a wall that is probably 500 years old and has supported countless arses smarter than mine (or, if you like, me).

15 September 2005

A rare glimpse

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:10 am

note.jpgAccording to Reuters, this is the note George W Bush was writing to Condoleezza Rice during a Security Council meeting at the UN yesterday. Suddenly reports of Condi accidentally referring to the President as her husband last year start making some sense.

In fairness, though, Bush isn’t the president of the whole UN or even of the Security Council, so props to him for waiting for a suitable interval rather than just standing up and declaring that he needed to see a man about a dog. Russia would have just vetoed him anyway.

10 September 2005

It’s official

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:18 am

bush3.jpgThis is kind of cheap but I can’t resist it. And the generally-reliable Urban Legends Reference Pages say that this is a genuine capture of a Sky News Ireland broadcast and not just a clever piece of Photoshoppery like many of the images floating around. I reckon the captioner knew what he or she was doing, too.

7 August 2005

Go camel!

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

camel2.jpgPeople complain a lot about the misuse of apostrophes, but most of the time it’s a cosmetic problem; you can usually tell what the writer was trying to say, and one apostrophe more or less can demonstrate ignorance or carelessness but doesn’t usually result in ambiguity (those who ask “a tomato’s what for $1?” are really just being perverse). I don’t condone it, but there are other problems more often overlooked.

Take hyphens, for example. English generously allows compound modifiers, which are adjectival or adverbial phrases of more than one word. You can stick them just about anywhere a single adjective or adverb might go. But because there’s more than one word involved, it’s not always obvious which words are modifying what. For example, “man eating fish” could be either a shark or a bloke at Doyle’s. This is where hyphens come in: if we all agree that compound modifiers are internally hyphenated, then the first meaning is always and only expressed by “man-eating fish” and the second by “man eating fish&#8221, and everyone’s happy. But if we don’t stick to the rules, the whole thing breaks down.

Take this headline from the AAP:

Camel racing children to be repatriated.

Now, call me perverse, but I first read this as suggesting that there was a race between a camel and some children to see who would be repatriated first. The camel’s some kind of queue-jumper. It’s kind of a funny image. But in reality it’s quite a sad story about Bangladeshi children trafficked to the Emirates to be camel racers. Now they’ve been replaced by robot jockeys (which luckily is another amusing image) and are heading home. So the headline should of course have been:

Camel-racing children to be repatriated.

Some argue that insisting on the hyphenation of compound modifiers is old-fashioned, and it’s true that sometimes you can get away without them. For example, “very interesting blog entry” contains a compound modifier, but it would look a bit weird to hyphenate it. There’s no issue of misinterpretation, so why bother. But particularly when it’s a noun-verb modifier, you’re often going to run into ambiguities and the hyphen is an elegant solution, as long as everyone sticks to it.

Not all ambiguous headlines can be solved with hyphens. By way of gratuitous example:

Farmer Bill Dies in House

Prostitutes Appeal to Pope

British Left Waffles On Falkland Islands

Deer Kill 17,000

But if everyone played by the rules, these would all be sorted out:

Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim

Shot Off Woman’s Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66

Hospitals Sued By 7 Foot Doctors

According to John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel, literary Russian is even more fond of compound modifiers than English is. He cites this extract from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Ot fligelej v tylu dvortsa, gde raspolozhilas’ prishedshaja s prokuratorom v Ershalaim pervaja kogorta Dvenedtsatovo Molnienosnovo legiona, zanosilo dymkom v kolonnadu cherez verxnjuju ploshchadku sada.

Which he directly translates as:

From the wing at the rear of the palace, where lodged themselves the having-come-with-the-Procurator-to-Jerusalem first cohort of the Twelfth Lightning legion, drifted smoke towards the colonnade across the upper courtyard to the garden.

Which is obviously great.

3 July 2005

Pointy things

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:15 am

pointy3.jpgSometime Murakami translator Jay Rubin has written a delightful book called Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, which Vintage has released as a kind of companion to their very stylish Murakami reissues. It has a lot of great stuff in it, including a discussion of the issues of translation that we’ll get to later, as well as some extracts from and descriptions of early Murakami stories that have not been published in English. It’s a rare treat for those of us who love Murakami’s dreamy weirdness but haven’t quite got around to learning Japanese.

One story, which Rubin describes as one of the weirdest of Murakami’s anthology A Perfect Day for Kangaroos (Kangaruu-biyori)—he seems to have a thing for kangaroos, which is kind of gratifying—is called “Tongari-yaki no seisui”, which Rubin translates as “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes&#8221. It’s about an imaginary traditional Japanese delicacy manufactured by a mysterious concern whose patriarchs turn out to be a bunch of blind crows who eat nothing but the cakes in question, approving or damning new recipes and pecking at each other. It’s very weird. Anyway, Rubin closes with this interesting anecdote of life imitating art:

The word translated as “Sharpies” is tongari-yaki, meaning, more or less literally, “pointy-baked-things&#8221. Some time after he wrote the story, Haruki and Yoko were walking along a Tokyo street when they were bowled over to see a billboard advertising a new snack: tongari-kon or “pointy-corn&#8221, cornucopia-shaped corn chips. “Pointy-corn” has since become far better known than Murakami’s story. Just remember, though, Murakami’s “pointy-baked-things” came first!

Well, maybe you had to be there—but it certainly would be weird to see something you’d invented for a story appear pretty much unchanged in the real world. Imagine how Jules Verne would have felt if he’d stuck around to see actual space travel, or how David Foster Wallace must have felt when those toothbrushes with tongue-scrapers on the back hit the big time and began to be advertised heavily. You may remember this from Infinite Jest:

Stylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant, and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero’s chance encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and shame became of an easily correctable hygiene deficiency, the NoCoat spots’ chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of the ice cream cone she’s just bought from an avuncular sidewalk vendor. The lingering close-up on an extended tongue that must be seen to be believed, coat-wise. The slow-motion full-frontal shot of the maid’s face going slack with disgust as she recoils, the returned cone falling unfelt from her repulsion-paralyzed fingers. The nightmarish slo-mo with which the mortified pedestrian reels away into street-traffic with his whole arm over his mouth, the avuncular vendor’s kindly face now hateful and writhing as he hurls hygienic invectives.

Anyway, House Foods Corporation‘s Tongari (&#8220Pointy&#8221) Corn is now indeed a popular treat in Japan, where it is reportedly described as “a corn snack of crunchy type!&#8221 and comes in standard flavours plain salt, roasted corn, fresh cheese and tuna mayonnaise.

I also wonder how Murakami reacted to Steve Martin’s enduring 1983 film The Man With Two Brains, in which Dr Hfuhruhurr recites the poetry of John Lillison, England’s greatest one-armed poet and the first person ever to be killed in a car crash. The Collected Poems of John Lillison only features two attested poems, until Steve Martin invents some more. The first is “In Dillman’s Grove&#8221:

In Dillman’s Grove, our love did die,
and now in ground shall ever lie.
None could e’er replace her visage,
until your face brought thoughts of kissage.

But the most famous one, which was also referenced somewhat indulgently in LA Story, is “Pointy Birds&#8221:

Pointy birds,
O pointy pointy,
Anoint my head,

I have often wondered what these pointy birds, or “tongari-tori&#8221, were. Perhaps Murakami has finally given us a clue. More later.

13 May 2005

Everything’s A-OK

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:14 am

sesame.jpgI’ve just come back from Japan, where I saw many strange and wondrous things. One was this subway poster, in which Sesame Street characters exhort commuters not to take up too much room with their newspapers. It’s a bilingual message, but the dominant English may indicate that it’s directed at the ill-mannered gaijin papering the carriages with their lifestyle sections. Also, the considerate Muppets’ broadsheets are all in English, though the only headline I can make out is A Big Fire Broke Out!!—whose excess of punctuation and dearth of detail suggests that the SESAME Times is probably a Murdoch paper.

The Times also omits any mention of the Sesame Street Muppets’ involvement in the Big Fire, which most historians agree was lit by furry war criminals (from left) Mojabo, Ernie, Teena, Elmo, Bert, Grover and Big Bird as part of an ongoing pattern of aggression against neighbouring streets such as Zhima Jie and Ulitsa Sezam. Violent demonstrations have broken out in those streets. Beneath the harmonious catchcries “Yiiip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip” and “Uh-huh, uh-huh” lies a deeper conflict.

No, wait—the demonstrations were mostly in China and Korea, and they were getting all worked up about the Japanese Ministry of Education’s approval of a new history textbook, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform’s The New History Textbook. Critics (including Japan’s own Centre of Research and Documentation on Japan’s War Responsibility) have argued that the new textbook inadequately characterises Japan’s role in the lead-up to, and behaviour during, the Second World War. For example, the textbook is said to absolve Japan of responsibility for invading Manchuria, to gloss over the Nanjing Massacre (also called the Rape of Nanking or the Nanjing Incident, at opposite ends of the continuum), and to downplay Japanese war crimes including the exploitation of comfort women.

The textbook controversy has been smouldering for about as long as there have been textbooks: Saburo Ienaga spent about 40 years and many court cases trying to get his own textbook published as he’d written it—massacres and all—and not as the Textbook Authorisation System wanted it. He had some important victories but died in 2002; and now the New History Textbook is said to raise (or lower) the bar in minimising or excusing Japan’s role as aggressor in the war—indeed, its publishers are explicitly reacting against the “masochist” (some of us might say “black armband”) view of history and attempting to restore national pride in Japan’s military record.

This site compares the old and new textbooks and includes some interesting timelines. The 2005 edition does seem to apply another coat of whitewash to the 2001 version, which itself could hardly have been described as “masochist&#8221. Of course, the people in Japan’s neighbourhood aren’t shining examples of penitence, or of an encouraging attitude towards unflattering publications, either—and there’s a lot of appeal to the idea that China in particular wants to head off any talk of Japan joining it as a permanent member of the Security Council. The BBC News reports that the Chinese Press has explicitly linked the issues; for example, Shanghai’s Wenhui Bao argues:

How can a country which not only cannot correctly handle history, but falsifies history again and again, have the qualifications to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible member of the international community?

Even though the makeup of the Security Council is patently ridiculous and the Chinese defence of it self-serving, it’s hard not to be a little surprised by the official accounts of Japan’s role in the war. I visited the museum attached to the Yasakuni Shrine—which houses the spirits of the Japanese war dead, including executed war criminals like Hideki Tojo and Iwane Matsui, said to be responsible for Nanjing; and which Junichiro Koizumi keeps raising international eyebrows by visiting—and found it gave a very different account of the war and its causes than I’d pieced together (admittedly, mostly from movies). Like: WWII was everyone’s fault but Japan’s; the US was itching to join in and forced Japan to make the first move at Pearl Harbor; and the Allies unnecessarily prolonged the war by insisting on Japan’s full surrender. Lots of Chinese soldiers died at Nanjing because they were ordered to defend it to the death; Japanese commanding officers issued explicit warnings that civilians were not to be mistreated.

I don’t know what happened. But it seems to me that any responsible history should as far as possible give all sides of the story, with proportionately more space to the more widely- or respectably-held views. Almost nobody adheres to this ideal, but the Japanese government seems to insist on a lower standard than many. On the other hand, at the end of April Koizumi had this to say:

In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility. And with feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, to never turn into a military power but an economic power, and its principle of resolving all matters by peaceful means without recourse to use of force.

This is pretty much in line with other apologies issued in the past by Koizumi and other Japanese leaders. It’s not very specific, but it seems genuine enough. Perhaps that’s the Japanese way. I think specifics are important, but perhaps they’re not everything; perhaps actual conduct is more critical.

Brought to you by the letters E and F and the number 3.

18 April 2005

Words of wisdom

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:13 am

zappa.jpgI’ve been criticised lately for not posting anything for a while, and also for being too serious. But I’ve been a bit busy with a rewrite and other things, and seem to have less time for frivolous posts, even though I love them so. But to make partial amends I’ve decided to tell you one of my favourite jokes.

Well, it’s not really a joke. It’s from the pseudonymous Kehlog Albran’s The Profit, a delightful spoof of the real Khalil Gibran‘s fantastically popular and much-translated 1923 collection of essays The Prophet, which nowadays seems somewhat overblown and, if not bordering on self-satire, then crying out for satirical treatment:

And the weaver said, “Speak to us of Clothes.”

And he answered:

Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.

And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.

Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,

For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.

See? Anyway, so here is the joke version:

A priest asked,
What is Fate, Master?

And he answered:
It is that which gives a beast of burden its reason for existence.
It is that which men in former times had to bear upon their backs.
It is that which has caused nations to build by-ways from City to City upon which carts and coaches pass, and alongside which inns have come to be built to stave off Hunger, Thirst and Weariness.
It is that which has caused great fleets of ships to ply the Seven Seas wherever the wind blows.

And that is Fate? said the priest.

Fate… I thought you said Freight, responded the Master.

That’s all right, said the priest. I wanted to know what Freight was too.

I think it’s great. The Profit was apparently published in 1973 by Price Stern Sloan of Los Angeles, which was formed in the 1960s to publish the allegedly hilarious Mad Libs series by Tonight Show writers Roger Price and Leonard Stern. Roger Price also invented (or at least coined a name for) the Droodles, those simple pictures that turn out to have inventive meanings (remember the Mexican riding a bicycle?). He drew the cover for Frank Zappa’s album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch, pictured above. There’s a good chance that Kehlog Albran is really Price and/or Stern, but who knows.

PSS also published Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men and Little Miss series, and were bought by Penguin in 1993. They don’t seem to be about to reprint The Profit, which is a shame. But now I really have to get back to work.

13 March 2005

Forking Paths

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:11 am

stamp3.jpgThis entry was prompted by a Boing Boing post complaining about the way famous photographs had been amended in recent years to remove any sign of cigarettes. For example, the French National Library has just swiped Sartre’s Gauloise; a poster version of the Abbey Road cover elided Paul McCartney’s cancer stick; and this US stamp commemorating blues pioneer Robert Johnson is based on on a photograph of him smoking a cigarette, but clearly shows him not smoking a cigarette.

The last example is included as evidence in a rant by determined tilter Dave Hitt, who compares anti-smokers with Hitler—who it turns out was also fiercely anti-tobacco and imposed restrictions on cigarette advertising and sales that are similar in many respects to our modern-day regulation.

Hitt acknowledges Godwin’s law—which states that all online discussions will eventually produce a comparison to Hitler and the Nazis, and has developed into a convention that whenever that comparison arises the discussion is over and the comparer has lost the argument—but protests, like everyone, that this time the comparison really is apt. Certainly it’s apparent that Hitler felt the same way about smoking as today’s anti-smokers do. But calling them “nicotine Nazis” relies on an extremely dubious association between the Nazis’ policies against tobacco and their policies against humanity and reason, and immediately descends into the opportunism and trivialisation that was presumably Mike Godwin’s whole point.

I do think it’s ridiculous—and bad faith—to airbrush cigarettes out of old photos, but perhaps it’s not so bad in the Robert Johnson picture. For starters, this is clearly just a painting based on the famous photo, so it’s more a case of the artist choosing not to paint a cigarette than of removing something that was already there. Johnson didn’t always have a cigarette in his mouth, as the only other surviving picture of him clearly demonstrates. The chord he’s playing in the stamp is also different from the chord in the photo, so perhaps he’s just dropped his fag between bars, or something.

I wanted to post the original photo here, but I had a fair bit of trouble finding it—which, in the case of old and iconic images like this one, usually means there’s a particularly meticulous copyright-holder stalking the Internet. Sure enough, the only images I could find were either hosted in Russia or slavishly attributed to the Delta Haze Corporation and copyrighted to them in the 1980s, which seemed strange for photos taken in the 1930s. However, their story checks out. The individual behind Delta Haze is blues aficionado Stephen LaVere, who in 1974 tracked down Robert Johnson’s last known surviving heir, his half-sister Carrie Thompson, and persuaded her to assign him all of Johnson’s intellectual property in return for 50% of the ongoing profits. It was a good deal for Thompson, who probably didn’t know she had the rights and certainly hadn’t been exploiting them. But arguably it was a better deal for LaVere, who has now made a lot of money out of Johnson and isn’t even related to him. And a lot of people argue that it hasn’t been the best thing for the blues or for Johnson’s legacy.

Johnson’s compositions had long been considered more-or-less in the public domain since he’d died so long ago and nobody was around to enforce his copyright. The most successful rockers in the world had been recording his songs for ages: for example, the Rolling Stones covered (or interpreted, or whatever) his Love in Vain in 1969 and his Stop Breakin’ Down Blues in 1971, both published by Allen Klein’s ABKCO Music. LaVere sued ABKCO for copyright violation in the 1990s. In 2000 the Ninth Circuit found that releasing a record didn’t constitute a publication of the underlying musical work—that is, it didn’t bring the music into the public domain and start the clock ticking on copyright. Which seems a shame, but is just another example of the US and its corporations (and now trading partners) reneging on the intellectual-property bargain—that is, that creators get a limited monopoly on their inventions on the basis that they eventually fall into public use for the good of all. But that’s another story. The Ninth Circuit remanded the ABKCO decision back to the District Court, where so far nothing seems to have happened; maybe it’s settled.

The pictures were discovered in Carrie Thompson’s place and first published by LaVere in Rolling Stone and 78 Quarterly in the late 1980s. That started the clock at last, and they’ll be in the public domain by the 2030s, barring inevitable legislative amendment. I’ll post them then; they’re worth seeing. Or you can get watermarked versions on the Delta Haze website. But it’s the same thing: whoever took the pictures is almost certainly as dead as Johnson; good on LaVere for helping to dig them up, but is that worth a 50-year monopoly?

Meanwhile, ABKCO took a page out of LaVere’s book and sued The Verve for 100% of the royalties from Bittersweet Symphony, which uses an instrumental riff from the Stones’ The Last Time. ABKCO has also slugged George Michael and Janet Jackson for borrowing lyrics popularised by Mick and Keith, so we shouldn’t go feeling sorry for them. Really it’s all a bit ridiculous, since almost all the lyrics and riffs and chord changes have roots almost a hundred years old—it seems kind of obscene that already-rich people should be fighting so hard over them now. But that’s as far as I’m going to follow these tangents for tonight.

14 December 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 2:52 pm

bloodbeach.jpgOnce again, it looks like the comic books were right after all. Scientists have finally worked out how to make dry quicksand, and even concede that it could happen in naturally in deserts and such. Formerly, the only kind of quicksand with any kind of empirical support was the “wet” variety, which is frankly a bit of a disappointment. It’s never very deep, and it’s actually denser than you, so you can easily float in it if you keep your head. Compare this to dry quicksand:

To see how the dry quicksand behaved, the researchers suspended a ping-pong ball partly filled with bronze grains above the pit. They then burnt through the thin rope holding the ball. To their surprise, it disappeared beneath the sand instantaneously. Though the expected splash did not happen, a more dramatic effect was seen. “A straight jet of sand shot violently into the air after about 100 milliseconds,” the team writes in the journal Nature today.

Not only does dry quicksand swallow you whole in a moment, it shoots up a straight geyser of itself, like an evil mineral belch! Now that is some serious sand. I’m definitely going to use this, somehow. You mark my words.

The team behind Blood Beach—which always fascinated me in the video shop but which I never saw—may have been thinking of conventional “wet” quicksand, though it displays many of the properties of dry quicksand (for example, it looks dry). Maybe they were visionaries and seers.

17 November 2004

Now in colour

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:58 am

books.jpgThis week, the Adobe Bookshop in San Francisco has rearranged all of its books in order of colour. So everything’s impossible to find, but it looks fantastic. More pictures here and here.

I really don’t think this is such a bad organisational strategy—maybe not for bookshops, but at least for your own books, CDs etc. How many times have you gone up and down your own bookshelves/racks looking for an item by colour because it’s quicker than reading the titles (and of course because you’ve just shelved everything randomly). If you arranged things by colour like these guys have done, it’d all be much easier, and would also provide an interesting talking point at dinner parties.

16 November 2004

More nerd words

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:20 am

engrish.jpgWe’re all familiar with the endearing cultural phenomenon known as Engrish or (perhaps less controversially) Japlish, where more-or-less random English words and phrases are plastered over advertising, packaging, T-shirts, stationery, and so on. This isn’t the dodgy translation of instruction manuals and hotel signs we used to see (I had a model truck whose instructions were just astounding, I wish I still had them); it’s aimed at Japanese-speakers and based on the fact that English is in some sense cool.

The same happens in reverse, of course: you see a lot of people going around with T-shirts or even tattoos of Chinese characters and have to wonder whether they mean what their wearers think they mean, if they’ve even given it that much thought. Maybe we’re all going around with the equivalent of “Crocodile Profusion” and “Cats Know Various Things” on our backs, or our skin. And here are some more examples, stolen from various websites, just because they’re so good:

Standard oneself whom be actual is certainly found.

Freshly cooked pasta is paired with chunky saunce for quick cooking in a skillet. It will expand a world of fancy pasta menu.

Happy Days of Young Sheep
I’m a sheep, young handsome sheep. They say every sheep looks like me very much. But look at them carefully. Their faces are a little bit difference. So I’m lonesome sheep. Would you date me?

Drifting story of a awkward bear and pretty penguins.
Hey, here, here we are!!

As I come closee to a dream, my heart throbs.

Natural bears
Let’s go out in a dreamy mood.

This Sunday morning, time looks to flow especially more slowly than usual.

“Hello, is my voice hearable?”
“Yes, it is well hearable.”
“Let’s go to the movie on Sunday.”
“All right. Let’s do lunch together, after that. It is aware of wonderful restaurant.”

Now it’s everyday man’s job to
What can a believe in?

Sorry, but you can see how addictive this stuff is. Anyway, John McWhorter (again) shows how the Germans have got in on the act (though in a somewhat more tongue-in-cheek way) with their advertisement for McDonald’s “McMorning All-American Breakfast&#8221:

Egg McMuffin: About this Früstücksei lachen ja the chickens.

This is the Preis. Guck at it and think: Oh, very günstig!
The first Weizenbrötchen. So knusprig like the second Weizenbrötchen, which is unten.
The würzige Stück Speck. Gives you a lecker Geschmack and makes funny Geräusche zwischen the Zähne.
And this is from the Hühner: A crazy good Ei.
This ist the Chester-Schmelzkäsezubereitung. Käse is very lecker in the morning.
The second Weizenbrötchen. So knusprig like the the first Weizenbrötchen, which is oben. Please do not verwechseln oben and unten!

Some linguists point out that, although there are hundreds of thousands of words in English, 50% of actual usage is made up of the most common 100 words, and 80% uses only 3000 words. Slightly more advanced linguists counter that although this may be true, it’s the less common words that do the heavy lifting and provide most of the meaning: the rest is largely filler. That seems pretty clear from this example: although there are loads of English words in there, every time something important happens it’s in German.

It’s still pretty funny anyway, but I will tell you that the headline means “The chickens are laughing about this breakfast egg”; knusprig is “crunchy”; Geräusche zwischen the Zähne are “noises between the teeth” and Chester-Schmelzkäsezubereitung is “melted Cheddar cheese food&#8221. Apparently the official name is Angleutsch, but I’m sure you could substitute your own combination.

25 October 2004

Any other name

by Matt Rubinstein at 3:25 pm

The long search for the most beautiful German word is finally over, and the clear winner is habseligkeiten, which means, broadly, “stuff&#8221. Then there’s daylight (tageslicht) before geborgenheit, which apparently means “a feeling of security&#8221, and finally good old lieben. Honourable mentions include augenblick, which means “moment”; and my favourite, rhabarbermarmelade, which is “rhubarb jam&#8221, and which I choose to pronounce with seven syllables, all of which assonate.

Some might say that looking for the most beautiful word in German is like trying to find the most progressive member of the Liberal party, but I don’t think that’s fair (to German). Certainly je t’aime and te amo—or even mi amas vin—will sound more appealing to most ears than ich hab dich lieb, depending on who’s saying it. But German has its own chewy appeal, and can in fact sound very beautiful, as I hope I have suggested in my superficial treatment of Rilke.

So the Herald has asked everybody what their favourite English word is, and there are some good answers, as well as predictable smartarse ones. My favourite suggestion was maelstrom. Someone has trundled out “cellar door&#8221, which was referred to in Donnie Darko and in fact was first nailed by Tolkien:

Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is “beautiful&#8221, especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful.

Of course Tolkien was famously into linguistics and is said to have got into the whole Middle-Earth thing primarily as an excuse to use all of the languages he had compulsively invented since childhood. I think the staggering popularity of the books has had little to do with their plots (which are kind of plodding and repetitive) and much to do with the languages the worlds are described in, all the Lothlorien and Mithrandir and so on. Tolkien used roots from Celtic and Norse languages, which gave his coinings these remarkable resonances and connotations—and made them sound like real words. It’s great stuff.

I personally can’t see how cellar door loses anything through its association with cellar doors. As usual, the signifier and -fied are comparably beautiful. Words like mellifluous and tranquil and gossamer always get a run in these surveys, while ones like crepuscular and gargoyle tend to come in last—suggesting that it really is strikingly difficult to separate the meaning from the sound.

James Joyce does it, reportedly nominating “cuspidor&#8221 as his most beautiful word. But most of the time I think the Simpsons were right when they pole-axed Juliet’s famous assertion so effectively:

Lisa: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench-blossoms.
Homer: Or crap-weeds.