Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Helen Cresswell dies

Helen Cresswell, the author of the hilarious children's series The Bagthorpe Saga, has died aged 71.

I remember spending many hours with the brilliant but deranged Bagthorpe family. Even though some of the more British references were lost on me, I was captivated by these manic, original and thoroughly unsentimental tales. Through them, Cresswell -- like her saga's hero, Jack -- has achieved Immortality.

More on Beslan cult scam

David McDuff has translated a statement by Mothers of Beslan denouncing the activities of a cult that promises to resurrect their murdered children for cash.

We categorically declare that this visit was a provocation, the purpose of which is to discredit and, as a result, to neutralize our movement. It is just one more plan devised by the authorities and special services in order to liquidate our organization by means of psychological action and pressure on the leadership of the committee headed by Susanna Dudiyeva. However, our public organization has many more members than the 10 people whom it was possible to brainwash [zombirovat’ = “turn into zombies, zombify”].

The overwhelming majority of the victims have remained in possession of their senses. We do not intend to reject our purposes and tasks in the reaching of the truth. We also declare: those who organized this provocation did not attain and will not attain a split in our ranks. Despite the fact that Susannah Dudiyeva took this step, she and all those who participated in the sectarian’s seances will remain with us.

We condemn the openly criminal and cynical repression of women who have survived terrible grief - the death of their children - and are fighting for justice.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Out of the Doldrums

We've got a new priest in our parish. He started this morning's homily by reading an excerpt from The Phantom Tollbooth.

I think I'm going to like him!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Charity shop coup

In a week when we'd already got The Complete Calvin and Hobbes earlier than expected, we've had another very exciting comics-related purchase. Browsing in a charity shop a few suburbs over, I found the very first Perishers book, in excellent condition, for just 30 pence!

If the British took their comics as seriously as the Americans do, the Perishers would have their own deluxe hardcover anthology, and probably a gallery show or two. As it is, all the collections of Britain's greatest ever strip are long out of print. (The comic still runs in greatly diminished form in The Daily Mirror, but it is no longer anthologised and, frankly, does not deserve it.) I've seen the first book going on
eBay for upwards of £30.

For more on the Perishers, see Jean Rogers' excellent
essay at the Shadow Gallery.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Beyond words

More sad and sinister news relating to the Beslan school massacre. From The Moscow Times:

At least 11 mothers of children who perished in last year's Beslan school attack have turned to a cult that promises to resurrect the dead for money.

Some Beslan families fear that the mothers' quest will discredit their efforts to establish the truth about the attack, which killed 331 people, including 186 children.

Police say their hands are tied because no one has filed a complaint.

Susanna Dudiyeva and Anneta Gadiyeva, who complained to President Vladimir Putin at a Sept. 2 meeting about the handling of the hostage-taking crisis, joined nine other mothers at the Kosmos hotel last Saturday for a gathering of 400 followers of Grigory Grabovoi.

"I believe in the miracle of resurrection," Dudiyeva said, her voice trembling, as she stood next to Grabovoi on the podium.

"I used to read fairy tales to my children. I told them to believe in them and to believe in God," she said, in footage shown on NTV television. "We will follow this path until the very end for the sake of our children."

Grabovoi, who covered the mothers' travel expenses, called the meeting the sixth congress of the "DRUGG political party." DRUGG, which sounds like the Russian word for "friend," is the Russian acronym for the Voluntary Dissemination of Grigory Grabovoi Teaching.

Grabovoi promised attendees that Beslan children would be resurrected in October, Izvestia reported.

According to DRUGG literature and previous lectures by Grabovoi, he offers people the chance to learn how to resurrect their loved ones on their own. Grabovoi, however, does not accept responsibility for failure, saying the dead sometimes refuse to be resurrected, or are resurrected in other parts of the world or in the bodies of other people.

But Zalina Guburova, who lost her 9-year-old son in the attack, was ready to accept his terms. "I want my child back, and I will believe in anything to get him," she told NTV.

At Saturday's gathering, a woman stood up and loudly accused Grabovoi of being a charlatan. She was led away by two of his guards.

"Many people told us that we would be cheated and drawn into something here," Dudiyeva then said, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported. "But we are just mothers whose souls are in pain."

Dudiyeva, who heads the Beslan Mothers' Committee, could not be reached for comment this week.

But Ella Kesayeva, an activist with the committee, suggested that her peers had been drawn to the cult because the authorities hoped to discredit the committee, which is widely respected for its tireless efforts to learn what really happened at the school.

"Most of us do not share those ravings about resurrection, and we believe that this filthy story was invented to cast our committee in a bad light," she said by telephone. "We believe in God. We don't need charlatans. We are past the most painful times, and we don't want to turn into zombies."

Kesayeva accused Grabovoi of taking advantage of the mothers and said he should be punished.

Yana Voitova, a North Ossetia-based journalist, said she knew of at least two Beslan mothers who were collecting the 40,000 ruble fee in hope of seeing their children again.

Mairbek Tuayev, a Beslan resident who lost his daughter, said several Grabovoi representatives came to the town late last year to distribute literature. "They are hitting at the most painful spots," he said. "They told my wife that it would be easier to bring back my daughter because her twin sister was alive."

Tuayev said one father whose daughter died was telling friends that a way had been invented to pass between the worlds of the dead and the living but that the government was hiding it from people.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stripped out

I was looking through our new Complete Calvin and Hobbes when I saw a strip that looked different than I remembered. I dug out our old anthologies and discovered I was right.

The strip in question is from 25 November 1988. I don't remember how it looked when it ran in the paper, but in the version collected in the 1990 anthology Weirdos from Another Planet!, the dialogue goes like this:

CALVIN: Watch out, Mom. I'm in a bad mood.
MOM: Be in a bad mood somewhere else, OK? I'm busy.
CALVIN: Hmph! I'll bet my biological mother would've bought me a comic book and made me feel better instead of shunning me like you.
MOM: Kid, anyone but your biological mother would've left you to the wolves long ago.
CALVIN: Yeah right. Really, how much did you pay for me?

In the Complete C&H, however, the phrase 'my/your biological mother' is changed to 'a good mother,' and Calvin's final bit of dialogue has been altered to: 'Yeah, right. Let's see your training certificate.'

Clearly, someone along the way decided that the original version was offensive to adoptive families. Since Bill Watterson is well known for exercising strict control over the strip, I can only assume that the change was his idea.

I certainly support an artist's right to change his or her work (heaven knows I've never published anything I didn't wish I could rewrite). I can also see why Watterson might have become concerned about the original strip, especially if he or someone close to him has adopted a child in the meantime. But the change will be disappointing to those who think the anthology should be a historical record of what actually appeared in papers at the time. What I find curious is that there's nothing in the book's introduction or promotional material to indicate that any of the strips have been altered.

I vaguely recall that there are a few other strips where Calvin voices suspicion that he was adopted; I'll have to look for these and find out if they've been changed as well.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

It's Christmas!

Never mind what the calendar says. This just arrived in the post.

(No, I don't know why it's listed as 'not yet published.')

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Do not panic buy

I'm going on strike.

For over six months, my contributions to this blog have been fueled by one all-important substance: coffee.

But now the
soaring price of the beverage is threatening my way of life. And I'm going to protest until Gordon Brown does something about it.

Oh, politicians can offer their feeble excuses, invoking the old bogeymen "Supply" and "Demand," or trying to distract us with weather reports and harvest statistics from obscure countries. This is simply more of the waffle we've come to expect from New Labour. We all know the government can make everything better if it only chooses to. And it is the government's responsibility to ensure I never have to pay more than I want to for anything. I'm pretty sure that's in the Magna Carta, or maybe the Schengen agreement.

If I enjoy a latte in my local Costa or Caffe Nero (and you're not suggesting I use an espresso maker at home like a peasant, are you?), a whopping amount of the price consists of
tax. It seems to me that scrapping the VAT would be a sure way to ease the financial burden. After all, what has tax ever got us, except schools, roads and hospitals? Let the government spend its own money on these things for a while instead of ours.

Some have had the nerve to suggest that I give up my favourite drink, or that I replace it with some treehugger beverage like herbal tea. Do these people even realise what they're saying? If their wild-eyed schemes were ever put into practice, vast swathes of the population would suffer from mild to moderate headaches. We coffee-drinkers are a mammoth force in society. And no one ever told the mammoths they had to 'adapt to changing times,' now did they?

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to stockpile some Celebes Kalosi.

(Non-British readers:
click here.)

Monday, September 12, 2005

Here and there

Just a few notes on interesting sites I've found lately:

  • When Robert Lancaster's mother told him about a 9/11 survivor with a miraculous story who had spoken at her church, he was suspicious and decided to investigate. The result, chronicled at stopkaz.com, is a fascinating true-life detective story spanning three countries. Lancaster's dogged research has undoubtedly saved many people from being taken in by a con artist (though I still wouldn't rule out Kaz's turning up at the Celebrate conference).
  • You don't have to be Asian to enjoy Sepia Mutiny, a witty, well-written blog covering South Asia and the South Asian diaspora.
  • At tintinologist.org, you can find everything from a thoughtful essay on the Belgian comic's popularity in India, to instructions for painting your garage door in a Tintin theme, to a small but fierce crusade to prove that the boy reporter was left-handed (or at least ambidextrous). Copyright restrictions (or rather, the Hergé Foundation's eagerness to enforce them) mean there aren't many pictures; you'll have to visit the official site for those.
  • The folks on the Snopes message board (warning: pop-ups galore) have been giving some thought to Brumas the cat's sudden change in hue. I like the sidewalk-chalk theory, myself.
  • Just under our list of links, you'll find a new feature: a random selection of our books from librarything.com. We learned about this fantastic new site from Language Hat and have been busy entering our collection into it ever since. The site allows anyone to catalogue their books like a professional librarian; just enter an ISBN, author or title, and the site does the rest. You can add subject tags of your own (if, for example, you want to list all the books you have that mention pottos) and share your library with other users. (I thought I might be weird for listing In Cold Blood under 'Americana,' until I saw that others had used the tag for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels.) Give it a try, but be warned: it's addictive!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

In the first place, God made idiots

West Harrow resident G. Martin, who wrote a letter to our local free paper, is right on top of a vital issue of these troubled times:

In the window of Ottakers, Harrow's most central bookshop, there is a 'back to school' display. Prominent in it is a quote from Mark Twain, 'I never let schooling get in the way of education.'

Working in personnel at a large firm that in the 1960s drew most of its staff intake from school leavers, I soon shared the opinion of my colleagues -- that education begins after you leave school.

There is, however, a difference between formal academic education and adult experience, and the former should not be dismissed.

The influence that Twain seemed to want to convey is in any case a false one.

Family circumstances meant that he has [sic] to take jobs in the evening and weekends but he was properly educated and the experience that he used in the few books that he wrote did not begin until later in life. [This is complete rubbish, as
Wikipedia shows.]

His education shows in his competent prose style but unfortunately, he later became addicted to sound bites - e.g. 'All golf ever did was spoil a good walk.'

In recent months there have been welcome moves to end Yob culture and restore respect. Yobbishness and lack of respect are often most evident in school, probably to the detriment of pupils who are neither yobs nor lacking respect.

In the 1980s, we had Pink Floyd's appallingly irresponsible 'Another Brick In the Wall', with mumbled choruses of 'We don't want no education' and shouts of 'Teacher, leave that kid [sic] alone!'

Perhaps its real intention was not to encourage lack of respect or disparage education but there is no doubt as to the meaning that many children at school put to it.

The same applies to Mark Twain's silly remark.

I heard if you read Pudd'n'head Wilson backwards, it tells you to put on a hoodie and hang around the bus station!

Funny thing is, while the comment 'I have never let my schooling interfere with my education' is often attributed to Twain, there's no evidence that he actually said it. Same goes for 'Golf is a good walk spoiled,' and for many of the other 'soundbites' that are put in his mouth. (The indispensable
twainquotes.com will tell you whether a particular quip is genuine or not.) This sort of false attribution often happens with well-known wits, since many people think a clever remark is funnier if it has a famous name behind it. As Oscar Wilde observed: 'Most epigrams were invented by the ancients, elaborated by the French and attributed to Disraeli.'

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Gilligan RIP

Along with Don Knotts, Bob Denver was one of West Virginia's two resident celebrities, so I'm disappointed that The Charleston Gazette's only coverage of his death so far has been a wire story with an added paragraph about the West Virginia connection. Let's hope the Gazette's staff will produce a suitable tribute in the next few days.

By the way, I don't know whether Denver's wife Dreama is a West Virginian, but she has a classic Southern West Virginia name. Back when I was editing copy at the Gazette, I used to see the name in a lot of obituaries; it usually belonged to a middle-aged daughter of the deceased. It was equally common for their mothers to be called Icie. I haven't often seen either name anywhere else.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Fuschia Feline

Many cat owners wonder where their pet goes when it wanders off, but not as much as this couple:

A couple are mystified by how their white cat turned pink during a morning stroll.

Philip and Joan Worth have been told by vets that Brumas, named after the first polar bear born at London Zoo, is not toxic. But no explanation can be found for the Barbie-pink rinse he acquired after walking near his home in Bratton Clovelly, Devon.

Mr Worth said paint was not believed to be the cause as Brumas' fur was not matted. "It occurred to me that it could have been wet dye from a washing line or even sheep dye, but there is no way he could have got the same colour so evenly all over."

The couple, who adopted Brumas after he was found on Dartmoor and taken in by the Cats Protection League, have five other cats but none of them has been affected in the same way.

Mrs Worth, a retired shop assistant, added: "We're quite happy to live with him as a pink cat. We love him whatever his colour is."

Stood up

Sadly, we may never know what Mike Tyson and Vladimir Zhirinovsky had to talk about. RIA Novosti reports:

Former heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson failed to turn up to a meeting Tuesday with leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

According to Zhirinovsky, who has a reputation as an extravagant politician and something of an ultra-nationalist, Tyson was not feeling well. The meeting was supposed to have taken place in a downtown Moscow restaurant.

Zhirinovsky playfully suggested that Tyson might have been scared of his bodyguard and LDPR member Oleg Malyshkin, who was also a good boxer in his prime.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Together at last!

A maddeningly brief item on Interfax reveals:

Former world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson has asked for a meeting with Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) Duma fraction's press service said.

Tyson's producer phoned the press service and informed it about the boxer's desire to meet Zhirinovsky, an LDPR official told Interfax. "The LDPR leader agreed to meet Tyson, and a meeting will take place on Tuesday at 5.00 p.m. in the State Duma," the source said.

The press service did not say what in particular the two plan to discuss.

The Moscow Times provides a sliver more detail:

Later, however, the LDPR press service announced that Tuesday's meeting would take place at 3:30 p.m. at the Czech-themed restaurant "U Shveika," located near the Barrikadnaya metro station, in the center of the city.

Zhirinovsky expressed his condolences to Tyson about the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and suggested Tyson come to live in Russia. He went on to suggest that boxing matches could be held in Moscow and the two could socialize. He also promised to offer Tyson some of "his own green tea."

New Orleans tidbits

One bright spot in the awful news from Hurricane Katrina is that the Audubon Zoo has survived with relatively little damage:

The famous Audubon Zoo has the good fortune of being located on some of the city's highest ground, but it also had a disaster plan for the animals that worked better than the city's plan for humans.

The only fatalities so far were two otters and a raccoon, zoo curator Dan Maloney said on Sunday.

He said the zoo had planned for years for the catastrophic storm that has long been predicted for New Orleans, which is mostly below sea level and almost surrounded by water.

Fourteen staffers stayed at the zoo to care for the animals throughout the storm and the aftermath that has left New Orleans in ruins.

"We stayed here because the animals can't leave," he said. "We were almost done with our ark and were training the animals to march in two-by-two, but we just didn't make it."

Also, a transcript of Andrei Codrescu's radio commentary, which I mentioned in an earlier post, is now available on the web site of his literary magazine, Exquisite Corpse.

Praline cake

Since New Orleans is famous for its food, I thought it would be a good idea to make some New Orleans-style goodies and bring them in to work to raise money for the hurricane victims. After rejecting beignets (which don't keep well) and king cake (out of season), I decided on New Orleans pralines, using the recipe in Joy of Cooking.

Sadly, I found out that the dire opening paragraphs of Joy's 'Candy' chapter ('Most candy recipes require a considerable degree of patience, time, attention and practice to get right ... Fudge can overcook in just the time it takes to retrieve the right spatula') weren't hyperbole. The candy refused to set and remained sugary goo. In desperation, I tried freezing it, but that only produced cold goo. By now it was Sunday afternoon, and I'd promised to bring the treats in on Monday morning. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I decided to make some coffeecakes (Joy's yogurt cake recipe) and put the failed praline mixture on top instead of streusel.

The results, to my surprise, were delicious. Most of the 'topping' seeped down to the bottom, so the cake would ideally have been served turned out of the pan like a pineapple upside-down cake. It wasn't practical to do this at work, but the cake still had a wonderfully rich flavour and texture. It attracted lots of praise and requests for the recipe. The latter was difficult, since I couldn't very well begin by saying: 'Make some pralines, but get it wrong.' (If it's any help to you, I think my mistake may have been not to get the sugar hot enough. Also, when I baked the cakes, I found I had to do so for much longer than the recipe directed - about 50 minutes, instead of 25-30. That may have been because the topping was still cold from the freezer, though).

Oh: And we raised £35 for the British Red Cross's new
Katrina appeal. Which is more important than all of the foregoing, of course.

In other bake-sale news, the women's softball team at
Geneva College in Pennsylvania have donated the proceeds of their pepperoni-roll sale to the hurricane victims, instead of spending it on their spring trip as planned. This is interesting not only because of the students' generous act, but also because before I read it I didn't know they ate pepperoni rolls in Pennsylvania.

Friday, September 02, 2005


I know newspaper supplements, like The Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item's Lifestyles magazine, have to be prepared well in advance of publication. But what possible excuse can their web editor have?

Spider by Czeslaw Milosz

The thread with which he landed stuck to the bottom of the bathtub
And he desperately tries to walk on the glossy white
But not one of his thrashing legs gets a hold
On that surface so unlike anything in Nature.
I do not like spiders. Between me and them there is enmity.
I have read a lot about their habits
Which are loathsome to me. In a web
I have seen the quick run, a lethal stabbing
With poison that, in some species,
Is dangerous also for us. Now I take a look
And leave him there. Instead of running water
To end this unpleasantness. For, after all, what can we,
People, do except not to harm?
Not to pour toxic powder on the road of marching ants,
Save stupid moths rushing to the light
By putting a windowpane between them and the kerosene lamp
By which I used to write. Name this at last,
I tell myself: Reluctance to think to the end
Is lifesaving for the living. Could lucid consciousness
Bear everything that in every minute,
Simultaneously, occurs on the earth?
Not to harm. Stop eating fish and meat.
Let oneself be castrated, like Tiny, a cat innocent
Of the drownings of kittens every day in our city.

The Cathari were right: Avoid the sin of conception
(For either you kill your seed and will be tormented by conscience
Or you will be responsible for a life of pain).

My house has two bathrooms. I leave the spider
In an unused tub and go back to my work
Which consists in building diminutive boats
More wieldy and speedy than those in our childhood,
Good for sailing beyond the borderline of time.

Next day I see my spider:
Dead, rolled into a black dot on the glittering white.

I think with envy of the dignity that befell Adam
Before whom creatures of field and forest paraded
To receive names from him. How much he was elevated
Above everything that runs and flies and crawls.

Translated by the author and Robert Hass

Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans

In a commentary for NPR, Andrei Codrescu combines a heartbreaking tribute to New Orleans with a perceptive analysis of political and environmental factors that aggravated the disaster.

Donate to the Red Cross relief fund