Monday, August 29, 2005

Face to face

With a bit of spare time on a Sunday before the Prom last night, we slipped into the Natural History Musuem down the road, in order to enjoy the current Face To Face exhibition. I didn't know much about it - I'd only observed from the posters outside the building and gleaned that there were pictures of apes in it, which looked like a good idea to me.
It proved to be a fascinating experience, some thirty large close-up photos of gorillas, chimpanzees, Orang-Utans and bonobos. Movingly, they were united by suffering; most of them had seen their parents killed for the bushmeat and pet trades. As the photographer
James Mollison explains on the website, it was a major part of his intent to draw attention to the mistreatment of apes, but he also wanted to emphasise the individuality of the animals.

For all that you're only standing in a darkened room looking at photographs, it's a remarkably moving experience. The scale and close range of the pictures (Mollison calls them "passport photos" but that certainly isn't a reference to their size) compels us to look at their faces and see all the details; it may be a coincidence that the faces of bonobos look wrinkled and weathered, but it suits the themes extremely well. It's saddening to get such a sense of how people can treat their close biological relatives, but then considering how we treat our closer relatives (ie other humans) maybe we shouldn't be surprised.

The exhibition runs until the 18th of September and entry is free. It's recommended to anyone passing through South Kensington before then.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Peace for goats

Another animal has surprised scientists by turning up where it was thought to be extinct. The Independent reports that the cease-fire in Kashmir has had benefits for wildlife as well as for people:

The ceasefire between India and Pakistan in Kashmir has produced an unexpected beneficiary - the world's largest goat.

The markhor, a mountain goat that stands almost 6ft tall at the shoulder and can weigh 17 stone, was thought to be extinct in Indian-held Kashmir. But a recent joint survey by Indian wildlife organisations and the Indian army found 35 small herds - 155 goats - thriving near the Line of Control.

There's more info about markhors at the marvellously named

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I'm in love with paisley ties again, let me look into those eyes again...

You'll have to forgive the nepotism here, but I was very pleased to discover today that the debut album by The Dentists, catchily entitled Some People Are On The Pitch They Think It's All Over It Is Now, celebrates its twentieth anniversary with a CD reissue on the Rev-Ola label.
Thanks to the fact that one member of the band was my uncle (well, he still is, but he's not in the band any more) I have a copy of the original LP, as given to my mum when it originally came out. I was inspired to play it tonight and - whilst I can hardly claim to be unbiased - I think it stands up very well. And there's none of the big thudding drums you get on other records from 1985 either.

The new remastered edition - now including the single 'Strawberries Are Growing In My Garden (And It's Wintertime)' - is available from
Amazon UK for pre-order.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Wot no Peter Andre?

Our local paper has announced an exciting new poll: you can vote for the greatest ever person to live in Harrow.

There's a 25p per minute phone line, which I shan't encourage, but you can also vote by text on 84080.

If you'd like to vote for Roger Bannister, text "HOVOTE 01"
If you'd like to vote for Ronnie Barker, text "HOVOTE 02"
If you'd like to vote for Mrs Beeton, text "HOVOTE 03"
If you'd like to vote for WS Gilbert, text "HOVOTE 04"
If you'd like to vote for Bob Holness, text "HOVOTE 05"
If you'd like to vote for Matt Lucas, text "HOVOTE 07"
If you'd like to vote for Claire Rayner, text "HOVOTE 08"
If you'd like to vote for Anthony Trollope, text "HOVOTE 09"
If you'd like to vote for Vivienne Westwood, text "HOVOTE 10"
If you'd like to vote for Elton John, you should go and stand in a corner and think about what you've done.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Smokey Cat

In 1985, when I was 10 and my brother was a baby, our neighbours took in a stray cat who promptly gave birth. We took home a grey tabby kitten with orange and cinnamon splotches and named her Smokey.

In most of my childhood memories, Smokey is there. She playfully pounced on my ankles when I came home from school. When I went for a walk in the woods, she was always behind me, pausing to climb up on each rock and fallen tree and survey the landscape. Once she tried to attack a timber rattlesnake, but I scooped her up and ran away. She kept up an indignant Mrrrroww! all the way up the hill.

She would climb into your lap when you spoke to her, and if you sat nearby while she was washing, she would pause now and then to give your hand a few rough licks. When she heard thunder, she strolled calmly to a certain spot in the back of my closet, as if she were in a fire drill. When we made popcorn, we could get her to go up and down the stairs by leaving a kernel on each step.

When I moved away from home, Smokey stayed with my parents and brother, but she always rushed out to meet me when I came for a visit. When I brought Chris to West Virginia for the first time, I wondered what she would think of him. We found out the next morning, when he awoke to find her purring on his chest.

This year Smokey turned 20, which is about as old as any cat gets. When I visited in July I saw that she had got a lot frailer. So I was sad but not surprised when my mother called today. The vet had found that Smokey had inoperable cancer, and rather than let her suffer, my parents decided to have her put to sleep. (I would have done the same thing.)

This is one of my favourite pictures of her. I took it about ten years ago. She's relaxing in my dad's arms. When she died he was holding her as he had so many times before.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Who's 'we'?

Lately there's been some controversy in Russia about the new youth movement Nashi, which was started by the Kremlin in an attempt to stave off orange revolution. Although the group calls itself 'anti-fascist,' human rights activists fear (justifiably, in my opinion; you can find out more via the links on Volodymyr Campaign) that it's just the opposite.

Part of the debate involves the group's name, which is Russian for 'ours.' Some have interpreted this as a message to minorities, liberals and Nashi's other targets: 'This country is ours and not yours.' The organisation's press secretary, on the other hand, insists that 'ours' is meant to be all-inclusive: 'When we say "us," we mean anyone who lives and works for the good of our country.'

The English system of pronouns, like the Russian, makes no distinction between a 'we' that includes the person being addressed and a 'we' that does not. 'We're invited to a party tonight' can be followed by 'so put your suit on' or by 'Could you clean the oven while we're out?' 'This is our land' can mean 'This land is your land, this land is my land,' or it can mean 'so you wetbacks get out.'

In fact, I've never heard of a language that uses different words for 'us-with-you' and 'us-against-you.' German doesn't; neither does French or Spanish, Hebrew or Greek. (If any readers know of a language that does make a distinction, please let me know via the comments.) I find it hard to imagine that the idea has never occurred to any group. Then again, maybe certain aspects of human nature have always made such a distinction inconvenient. Without the ambiguity of 'we,' groups like Nashi would find it harder to prevaricate about what they stand for.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

It's all about ...

Let's consider the opening words of two middlebrow coffee-table books, both companions to TV nature series. Here are the first 170 or so words of David Attenborough's The Life of Mammals:

We have a special regard for mammals. We are, after all, mammals ourselves. Indeed, we tend to talk as if mammals are the only kind of animals that exist -- until, hard-pressed, we are forced to admit that birds, butterflies and bluebottles are also animals. Mammals, for the most part, have hair and are the only animals that rear their young on milk. Even so, there are a baffling number and variety of them. Over four and a half thousand. And they are more varied in shape and size than any other animal group. The biggest of them is the largest animal that has ever existed -- the blue whale, which is at least one and a half times as big as the biggest dinosaur. The smallest, the pygmy shrew, is so minuscule that it has to battle to subdue a beetle. Some mammals fly, some swim and some tunnel. Their diversity is so great that in order to sort them out in our minds we need to classify them into smaller groups. Faced with a mongoose in a zoo, we want to know what kind of mammal it is. Is it a kind of cat? Or maybe a dog? Or is it a giant rat?

And here are the first 170 or so words of Alan Titchmarsh's British Isles: A Natural History:

I am unashamed to boast that I love being British, and I'm happy to confess that I could not live anywhere else. It's a feeling that is not born of xenophobia or small-mindedness, but comes simply from a love of the landscape in which I have grown up, lived and worked for more than half a century. Unlike Nancy Mitford's father, I do not dislike 'abroad,' neither do I distrust foreigners. But, more than anything, I love coming home.

I was born and brought up in the Yorkshire Dales, and holidayed during my childhood in the Lake District and Scotland (not forgetting Blackpool). I now live in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and often spend my holidays in Cornwall. This, coupled with 25 years of working in television and travelling the length and breadth of the country for programmes as varied as Gardeners' World and Songs of Praise, have served only to increase my love of the British Isles and their astonishing countryside.

I trust you can see why I'm having trouble reading the latter book.

(Christmas present, since you ask. And for all I know the show was brilliant - we don't have a television and only see the programmes we buy on DVD.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Locatelli's C major quartet

I recently started reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. I became interested in them when I heard that a potto plays a prominent role in some of the novels. Haven't got to the potto yet, but I'm hooked: I read the first two books in as many weeks, and the next two are waiting on my shelf.

Today I've been pondering an oddity in the opening sentence of the first book, Master and Commander:

The music-room in the governor's house at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet.

After reading the book, I became the latest in a long line of readers to try to track down a recording of this quartet -- only to discover that it doesn't exist. Oh, Pietro Locatelli was real, all right (though not particularly well-known today -- I'd never heard of him before), but so far as anyone knows he never wrote any quartets, in C major or any other key.

Readers have been wondering for a long time why O'Brian attributed a fictional work to a real composer. He certainly wasn't ignorant about music; the web page of one fan, Gibbons Burke, includes a long
list of all musical compositions mentioned in the books, all except this one apparently genuine. So could this really be a simple error?

Some readers have suggested that the piece is another composition of Locatelli's that has been transcribed for a quartet. Others point out that many classical works have been lost over time, and propose that O'Brian intended the quartet to be one of the missing. These scenarios certainly aren't impossible, but I think the most plausible explanation is that it's a joke. A participant in
this discussion recalls:

I remember this M&C passage being read by Richard Kapp, musical director of Philharmonia Virtuosi and producer of the Musical Evenings with the Captain series. ... It seems like I almost recall him saying that he mentioned the fabricated C major quartet to O'Brian and got a small smile in response - but I could be fabricating that myself!

Personally, I think O'Brian is hazing us. We're the greenhorns on his ship, and he's sent us looking for the musical equivalent of the key of the keelson. As one victim recounts:

It took me quite a number of searches, and some very confused music store salespeople before I found it out!

'... And one of them told me he thought the gunner's daughter might have it, but when I asked Mr Rolfe, he said he was sorry, he was not a married man. ...'

For lots more Aubrey-Maturin discussion, see
The Gunroom of HMS Surprise.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Bookshelf

A strip mall in suburban West Virginia isn't where most people would go in search of serenity, but I always find it at Jim Sachse's shop, The Bookshelf, in Morgantown's Suburban Lanes Plaza. I first went there nearly 30 years ago, when I was learning to walk, and knocked over a wire book rack. Despite this beginning, I worked at the shop a couple of decades later, and might be working there still if it had paid anything approaching a living wage. When I'm in West Virginia now, I go out of my way (which is about the only way to get there) to pay a visit.

The shop is under a bowling alley -- the eponymous
Suburban Lanes -- and faint rumbles and crashes go on continually overhead, like a tiny and unusually-paced thunderstorm. Occasionally the alley's bar springs a leak and causes beer to drip into the secondhand section. One of the stranger duties employees had when I worked there was to sniff splashed books and decide whether they smelled too boozy to keep on sale. Fortunately, any effect the leaks might have had on the overall atmosphere is obliterated by another of the shop's neighbours, an Italian bakery and pizzeria.

Secondhand books take up about two-thirds of the shop. Old paperbacks are laid flat and stacked to fill every inch of long wooden bookcases (wire racks are long gone, possibly thanks to me) whose shelves curve noticeably downwards, straining the seams of their powder-blue paint. One of Jim's innovations is to use thin paperbacks he didn't think he could sell (ancient dimestore romances, a children's biography of Prince Charles) as makeshift shelf dividers.

The idea is that customers can bring in their old books in exchange for a discount, but the precise system is so arcane that Jim doesn't allow his employees to explain it. He claims only he can describe his policy so it makes sense; I think it's more likely that only his extraordinarily self-assured tone can persuade people to hand over their books in silent bewilderment. A certain proportion of his business comes from little old ladies who come once a month to trade paperback romances they've read for ones that they haven't, but he keeps these books against one wall and leaves the main part of the store for more interesting stuff. Because Morgantown is a university town, it attracts a more varied mixture of people than most of the state, and it seems that every eccentric, exile, polyglot, artist or mystic to have passed through the city has left part of his or her library in Jim's store. I've found books there that I'd hunted for in vain on Charing Cross Road, and I can't think of anyplace I'd rather go when trying to satisfy a vague literary hunger. The shelves are just high enough, the aisles just long enough and the books just jumbled enough that I can browse in complete bliss, hidden from the outside world, searching for an unknown treasure.

The rest of the shop is marginally smarter and contains new books. There are large sections of literary fiction and poetry, popular science, and particularly religion. Jim's a Buddhist and carries a lot of books about Eastern religions (classics and scholarly works, not dumbed-down New Age crap), but also works on Christian, Jewish and Islamic mysticism.

The sales counter straddles both sections, and is usually covered with stacks of newly-arrived books and flyers for local yoga classes and poetry readings. Frequently Jim lights up when he sees the title of one of your selections. He seems to know something about every book he sells, and will discuss the relative merits of various translations of the
Tao Te Ching, compare Florence King's work to his experiences growing up with a Southern mother, or chuckle as he recounts Herbert McCabe's first essay after his reinstatement: 'As I was saying before I was so oddly interrupted ...'

Until recently, another feature of the store was the microfiche machine that Jim used to check his supplier's catalogue, with a towel draped over the top for him to stick his head under on sunny days. Jim stubbornly kept this long after most other shops had got computers. Things are changing, though; when I last visited in July, I learned that The Bookshelf has done as complete a turnaround as
Dover Publications did a few years ago, and will shortly be going online at Now I'll be able to visit while I'm in England, though I will have to see how well a website can duplicate the experience of being there. Still, no need to dodge dripping beer.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Buried treasure

Kyrgyzstan Development Gateway tells an intriguing tale:

The Issyk-Kul Regional Archaeological Expedition of the Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University led by Academician, Vladimir Ploskih has been searching for an Armenian Brothers’ Monastery shown on the Katalan map of the world made in the 14th century for several years. Several days ago they found an underground temple.

There was a legend at the beginning

Local residents have long talked about a mysterious cave near Kurmentyu village in Issyk-Kul region.

25 years ago, Alexander Korabliev who was born here, said that when he was a child he had explored the cave and saw rooms dug there. According to him, there were almost 30 rooms on two levels.

The passage to the lower floor was almost completely blocked by rocks so only a small child could squeeze through.

According to legend, during the rebellion in 1916 a monk from a nearby orthodox monastery hid in the cave and since then the villagers have called it Monk’s Hole, thinking he was the one who dug it.

There is another version that says that Russian hermits who settled here in the second half of the 19th century built these rooms.

There is no written scientific record of this underground temple. All the nearby caves would have had to be explored and it was said that the entrance had been destroyed and it was too dangerous to go there. ...

The historians started their descent. We recognised at once that it was an architectural construction. One could see the professionally built arches and well thought-out design. Rooms cross at right angles and there are several passages that end in small cells. The main room just before the entrance sloped downwards and turned left and then there was an obstruction although its vault could be seen for several metres further.

When was it built? We found the answer in one of the arches where several deeply hammered in and totally corroded metal rods were found there, which could only have got in that state over a long period of time. The next day, Academician Vladimir Ploskih investigated the find and walked around all the rooms. In the evening he reported to all scientific and historical centres that the Armenian Brothers’ Monastery had finally been found and it was a sensation.

A lot of work remains to be done and first of all, it is necessary to clear away the obstructions in the cave and investigate the entire monastery.

It might be that this is the monastery where, according to the 14th Century map, the Apostle Mathew’s relics are kept.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little else in English on the Web about this, although I did find an English-language biography of Dr Ploskih.

The debate over whether St Matthew is buried in Kyrgyzstan has apparently been going on for some time -- an old entry from has a very good list of links on the subject. But regardless of whether the relics are there (I'm afraid I tend -- perhaps too often -- to fall into Disputations' Category B on these matters), the monastery is surely worth investigating on its own merits. I hope this won't be the last we hear of this discovery.

Shanghai Soup

While looking for something else yesterday I came across Shanghai Soup, a wonderfully rich site about the history and culture of the Chinese city. Among the highlights are mp3s of charming recordings by the famous Shanghai singer Zhou Xuan, and the complete menu of the Sun Ya restaurant from about 1935. The latter made we want to go back in time and spend an evening there -- 28 pages of tantalizingly described Chinese dishes (I may try reconstructing the Melon Cup myself), and an American soda fountain.

One thing that caught my eye was the tagline on some pages of the menu: 'Our Kitchen is open to inspection at any time on request.' I've seen variations of this boast on several old restaurant adverts -- James Lileks has
another example, this one from 1950s Las Vegas -- but it seems to have fallen out of fashion, probably because government health standards are now taken for granted. However, this steak house in Thailand, where regulations are less strict, still uses the line, and so do some catering firms.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Brought to you by the letter ...

This looks like a great specimen for Nathan Hamm's MosNews Appreciation Society:

Monument to the Russian alphabet letter, an e with an umlaut, pronounced as “yo” is planned to be erected in the Central Russian city of Ulyanovsk.

This letter called “yo”, the only Russian character with an umlaut, was introduced in 1797 by the famous Russian historian and writer Nikolai Karamzin who was born not far from Ulyanovsk, then called Simbirsk.

The monument will be made of red granite.

Linguists to this day dispute the utility of the letter. It is replaced by the simple e in official documents.

Controversy that has for years delayed permission to proceed with the monument centered mainly on the fact that to the Russian ear the “yo” sound is closely associated with a range of colorful profanities or other exclamations considered in poor taste by opponents, AFP noted.

In case you suspect MosNews of making this up, here's a story about the proposed monument that appeared in the St Petersburg Times in 2001, and here's a transcript of an NTV interview from around the same time.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

New lemurs discovered

Madagascar's wealth of prosimian life has yielded two more lemur species, a mouse lemur and a giant mouse lemur. Go here for the technical stuff, or here for a cute picture of one of the species.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Babies at London Zoo

A meerkat family relaxing at London Zoo on Sunday:

A serval kitten with its mother:

An African bird (I forget the name) spreads its wings to shield its chicks from the sun.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Codex Sinaiticus

I was excited to learn that the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest known manuscripts of the Greek bible, is being digitised and will eventually be available free on the British Library's web site. Mark your diaries for summer 2009!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ivory-bill update

After some skepticism, ornithologists have confirmed that a bird found in Arkansas this past spring is indeed the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought for 50 years to be extinct.

From 'Eclogue V: Summer'

Life is the sum of trifling motions. The silver
twilight of sedge's sheathed blades, the quiver
of many a shepherd's purse, the ever-
shifting tableau of horse sorrel, gentle
alfalfa's ditherings -- these engender
our grasp of the rules of a stage whose centre

cannot be found. At noonday both wheat and shabby
darnel cast northward their common shadow
because they are sown and shuffled
by the same windy sower about whose humours
the place is still rife with all sorts of rumours.

By Joseph Brodsky, translated by George L. Kline and the author