Monday, April 30, 2007

Stealing beauty

Sometimes I think that the stupid and boorish things in this world get a great deal more attention than the beautiful and perspicuous. I suppose there are lots of reasons for that, and there's no doubt that it's already canned into a million platitudes like the one about telling ten people about the bad service you got and no-one about the good service.

I think there are a couple of things. Stupid and boorish things often have a healthy element of hilarity in them -- their ignorance and self-righteous blithering is often funny as hell. That makes them good to share, too, because it's good to make someone else laugh, and it's even better to make someone else laugh while making them feel smarter, and nothing like a bit of shared mockery for feeling smarter, as everyone in the known universe surely agrees -- whether or not their moral compass allows them to indulge in it, which is another matter altogether. The other thing is that stupidity is annoying. Or degrees worse than annoying until it reaches crazy pernicious whackaloonitude. It builds a tentacled creature with a face like a squashed tomato around your diaphragm. I tend to want to exorcise the little beast. Usually, because it's funny. Sometimes, because I'm really enraged, but I try to choose my moments for that.

Beautiful, perspicuous things are not like this. Of course, there is the ancient desire to share something beautiful -- the sense of looking around for someone to show it to, for someone else to join you in your pleasure. That is true. But somehow I find myself silenced more often than not. Perhaps it is because I tire of the relentless fucking earnestness of much of the, erm ... (how shall I put this?) ... appreciative responses to the world? Why is it that it is only the doomsayers who are funny or ironic any more? Of course, it may be that I only find doom funny or ironic. But generally, I think not. I think many things are beautiful, and keenly observed, and hilarious, and wonderful, and I find myself sitting quietly and enjoying it and not saying anything. Because what is there to say? That is beautiful. That is beautiful. That is beautiful. Or worst of all ... that is so true.

Cringeworthy. Just so ... earnest. It takes away the lightness. It's appallingly blunt, like nakedness in a room full of people in evening dress.

This is both beautiful and true. And sad. And funny, as well. But by god, I am not going to say so over there. Because that lily ain't gonna be gilded by me. Nope.

Is this where I whistle nonchalantly?

Brilliant gilded lily image from Diane Wilson.

A meme

I've been tagged.

Five Reasons I Blog

1. Onanism.
2. Escapism.
3. Dilettantism.
4. Wannabe punditry.
5. Pretty pictures.

Tag: Fretmarks, who doesn't need any reasons at all on account of her surpassing gifts with the written word and merciful lack of grad-school angst dissection.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Stuffed up

I have a headcold. In the spring. In the sunshine! A curse upon you, bacterium! Or virus! Or whatever nasty little pathogen you happen to be! And a curse upon your vile handmaidens, the mucus!

I shall fight thee on all fronts with decongestants and flaming cannonballs of ascorbic acid! I shall pummel thee into submission on the battlefield under my blankets!

Well, actually, I shall not. Because I must go forth and humble myself in front of my liege lord, Sir Agent Smith. You might think, pathogenic worm, that I would send notice of my inflamed head and beg his leave to kiss his seal-ring some other time. But unfortunately, yesterday I quipped that perhaps I would be too ill to make it to the meeting. Notwithstanding the fact that I am too ill to make it to the meeting, now saying so will make me look like an infant squire whining to get out of practising putting his wooden lance through ye olde straw-stuffed sack topped with helmet. Ye know, the straw man. Ha! Witness, pathogen, that I still brim with lame-duck philosophical puns with you coursing around.

However, I find to my shame that I am a whining infant squire. No! Do not make me! The lance is too heavy! The sun is in my eyes! I'm considering a career power-broking in the clergy!

I'm not sure where this Camelotty thing is coming from. It may be from the classic exchange from molesworth and his history master.
Sometimes you can get out of a hist. lesson by SEMING ILL. Pinch some flour from the kitchen if molesworth 2 hav not eaten it and rub well into face. After ten minits hold the brow and groan. The hist. master stops in the middle of agincourt:
'Thou semest pale, molesworth 1. Is ort the mater? Come, youth, impart what ails thee.'
(Note: Hist. masters always talk like ivanhoe, blak arow etc.)
'No really sir I am quite alright.'
'Zounds it semeth thou hast the plague, good skolar.'
'Nay, sirrah.'
(You talk like that too it is catching).
'But tis most remarkable i trow. Hi ye to matronnes room for a phial of phisick.'
'Nay nay sir no witches brew from yon crone shall ever pass my lips.'
'But thy eye is bright with fever thou shakest with palsy and would seem to have the ague. Tis surely the king's evil.'
In his great wisdom, molesworth notes that this strategy has the following drawback:
... if the hist. master go on long enuff you begin to believe that death is really upon you. You hav something wrong with your heart which hav stoped beating: your jaw is stuck open and you canot close it also you are going blind. On the whole it is beter to put up with the hist. lesson and draw beetles on the blotch quietly ...
Amen, my prep school hero. Pardon me while I procure a phial of phisick and find my beetle pen.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


So today, apparently, Xtin is 75 years old and feelin' crotchety.

Today's pointless rant is about the handling of change. Not the kind of change that means different from the way things are, because of course I and all other little old ladies oppose that utterly. I mean the kind of change that you get when you provide a merchant with more cash than was required for the services and/or products that were rendered, and so he passes you back the difference.

Once upon a time, when I was a child, I remember when change was counted back. For you feckless youths who don't know what this means, the process was as follows. Suppose you hand over £5 for something that cost £1.25. The person handling the cash would utter the price of what you had bought and count back the amount to £5, beginning with the lowest denominated currency, thusly:

One pound twenty-five pence. [Hands the 5p] One pound thirty, [hands the 20p] one pound fifty, [hands the 50p] two pounds, [hands the £1s] three, four, five pounds. Thank you.

Well, naturally in the modern day and age this wonderful and transparent practice is impossible because the persons in control of the currency cannot count. However, I am no Luddite. I believe in the great advancements of science. Look at these handy light bulbs! So I am happy to believe that the computers which are telling then how much change they owe me can count. But this has led to the following travesty of handing back:

Three-twenty-five. Ten pounds. [reads the cash register output] Six pounds seventy-five change. [Collects the 75p from the till and puts in palm. Collects fiver from till. Tears off the receipt and sandwiches it with the fiver between thumb and forefinger.] Thank you.

At this point, the clerk places everything in your hand at once, in reverse order. Receipt on the bottom, then the note, and a precarious pile of coins on top of that. This is just the most idiotic and annoying practice I have ever had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of umpty-ump times a week. Don't even get me started on the uselessness of the slippery, thermal-paper receipts which infest my handbags and pockets. If you are lucky enough to get your hand back into the region of your bag without the coinage careering onto the floor/among the impulse-buy sugary snacks/rolling onto the counter from whence the clerk must catch them, there is no way of handling the pile one-handed short of stuffing it in a ball into your nearest receptacle. And why not? Why not, you ask? It is because the only way that a human being can effectively manage crispy flat paper and a bunch of tiny metallic objects is the way that the clerk did it in the first place: by holding the coinage in his palm and handling the paper money with his fingertips. And the only way I will get to do that too, insensitive pillocks, is for you to hand me the everloving damn change first, and THEN give me the paper money, and if you absolutely must, the godforsaken receipt.

That is all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tuesday haiku

Short wheat, chaffinches
blackthorn litter, blowaway
paper white. Pheasant.

Lovely shot of blackthorn in bloom by David Hawgood.

New moon

And god, how I need some new beginnings. Illumine the world reflectedly, for in the sunlight everything is bright and deceitful. Rose-and-cream spring swells magnificently, a zeppelin canopy billowing away, as distant as the stars.

Make a wish.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


My friend S, who is an expert on Freud and Kant and has undergone more analysis than it is possible for the human body to sustain, often comments that one of the occupational hazards of philosophy is that the conclusions you draw in your thesis have a weird way of bleeding into the ontology of your life. I work on vagueness and indeterminacy, cut with a history of scientific mistakes. I ought not to be shocked that things seem rather fuzzy-edged and error-prone, n'est-ce pas?

The blogosphere teems with confessionals of dissertation writing. If I am tired and discouraged by my thesis, I am infinitely more tired and discouraged by the thought that I might add one, like being thrown to the Sarlacc and being digested for ten thousand years. And worse for the poor sods who might want to read about it.

One of The Books of my childhood was Paul, the Hero of the Fire, penned by and with the fabulous, evocative illustrations of Edward Ardizzone. It has a wonderful 40s book plate in the front awarding it to my uncle from his nursery school. He must have been five or maybe six. Anyway, the book is the story of a boy named Paul who runs away from home to get a job after finding out that his parents are planning to sell his home. He finds out thusly:

... he heard his father say to his mother in the next room, 'Darling, it is no use. The market has gone all to pieces. We have hardly any money left. I'm afraid we must sell the house.'

Ah, they don't write 'em like that any more. So Paul gets a job at the circus, and ultimately saves a crowd of children from a fire, becoming a boy hero. One might wonder how this helps with the problem of the house, but you will be glad to know that at the end of the book, Ardizzone kindly informs us that the market was better, and so there was no need to sell it. I'm not kidding.

My favourite illustration in the book, the kind that becomes a part of the way the inside of your mind looks, was an inventory of the little suitcase Paul packs before he leaves home.

"... a shirt, two vests, one pair of pyjamas, two pairs of socks, a spare pair of shoes, flannel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste."

This has become an icon of escape for me. Whenever I can't stand it any more, and I am caged by my brain and by the creeping, strangling sense of worthlessness, and the dark, monster-in-the-wardrobe, lurking malevolence of the threat of mediocrity, and the nauseating, prickly, raw fear of being Unmasked and finding oneself in Outer Darkness, I see the contents of Paul's suitcase. A little suitcase, and I will be on my way. To anywhere. In my mind's eye I always see the back of myself, walking away from here, away from this, becoming smaller and smaller.

There's something completely predictable about the fact that my vision of freedom is the back of myself.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Poetical histories

In the early 1980s, Peter Riley found an extraordinary stash of paper and came up with a plan to publish poetry on it. Poetical Histories No. 1 was published in 1985.

I found out about these wonderful pamphlets, touchable like fabric with the irresistible tactility of meticulous letterpress, because Pluvialis' 'Simple Objects' was No. 24 in 1993. I came across a copy during the Great Move to the house we shared in 2004, tucked somewhere unlikely in the tsunami of paper that followed us there: box upon box upon pile, where six-year-old academic journals rubbed noses with photocopies from American archives, elderly bank statements curled at the corners, telephone numbers on JSTOR articles, and reams and reams of irritable drafts of the uncapturable thoughts of a couple of terms ago. Every now and then, over the next couple of years, I'd come across another one of the Histories somewhere among The Paper.

When I moved, I had two copies of Simple Objects -- one on the cream Ingres Mongolfier paper, and another on the grey, which Pluvialis had given me as gifts. But I missed the others, drifting the house. Later, I found Peter's website, and all of a sudden I had a complete set.

I felt oddly guilty about that, as though I ought to have tracked them down, one at a time, drifing through bookshops and poetry this-and-thats and hiding among paper as they had always done. Pluvialis asked me if I was going to get a special box for them -- for she knows about my fetish for boxes. But I couldn't do it -- I already felt like I'd caged them.

I'm rather afraid of poetry much though I love it. Or perhaps I'm afraid of talking about it. There are lots of learned persons out there doing it. But I am going to plunge into my collection by telling you about each member of it -- what it is like to handle, what it looks like, what my favourite fragments are ... whether I like it. Each one is illustrated on the cover with a motif of one sort or another, which I'll use to illustrate my posts.

Most of these pamphlets contain only a single poem, so I cannot transcribe them. Many are only in print in this form. But if you are interested, many are still in print. Drop Peter Riley a line.

Poetical Histories No. 1 (1985)
Disguises of the Soul
Nicholas Moore

My copy is hand-numbered 88 in red ink on the reverse, and signed by the author in fading black fountain-pen ink. It is a warm poem, slightly grumpy but uncomplicated and satisfying to the touch, like putting your hand into grain.

My favourite lines:

I can, of course, make gods for you, too,
But you can make them for yourselves,
And worship them
Deplorably, endowing them

With inhuman powers. Superior beings
Daft as spacemen.

It is a story of the stories that we tell about the people that we love, how we make them into gods and goddesses. What I like best about it is that the poem doesn't do the obvious thing, which is to try to capture the elaborate fabulousness or transcendent perfection of the person we make up in our mind. Its finest flights of descriptive language are reserved for the ways that we try to pull this little trick, pulling mythological people fully formed from our heads, like Zeus.

The close of the poem allows his loved one just three properties: happy. Sad. Real.

My pamphlet is deckled on half its edges, and cut on the other half. It's slightly bumped on the top right corner, and there's the smallest inky smudge to the edge of the cover. And there's this winsome typographical quirk: the poem is divided into four sections, roman numbered. The typesetter has used "1" for "I", so that the sections are marked ".1.", ".11.", ".111." and ".1V."

Happy. Sad. Real.

The Thing

I've just discovered LibraryThing, while snorting my tea through my nose on account of reading too much Miss Snark. Of course, it is irresistible and amazing and I just wasted lo, these many minutes plugging books into it for the joy of cataloguing the collection and for apparently no other reason. The Victorians had nothing on us cyber-freaks with online collecting widgets, dudes. And do not ask me about my massive laboriously produced BibTeX library. No, do not. It does not have pretty pictures. I said don't ask.

Speaking of perversity, I especially like this little feature at LibraryThing: the UnSuggester. The UnSuggester considers all the books registered with LibraryThing, and given a particular title it names the books least likely to be in a library with that book.

This is utterly twisted and perverse and therefore fabulous. I tried it out three times. First, a seminal scholarly item forming the basis for all of my research. Ahem. Second, a very popular piece of fiction which I enjoyed very much. Third, a more outré piece of fiction. (None of your beeswax).

Witness my eyebrows raising. In each case, I owned at least one, and in one case four of the top ten unsuggestions for these books. That means, statistics lovers, that once the UnSuggestor had considered the 185,831 members of LibraryThing and their 12,712,806 books, it found out, basically, that I own things which no other person has on the same shelf.

Behold, dear readers, the conclusive evidence. I am a freak of nature.


Dude. I freaking knew it. Pass the KoolAid, and gimme a pseudonym. Oh, wait ...

Friday, April 13, 2007

Here's looking at you, cupcake

I have a thing about cupcakes. Well, more specifically, cakes that can be baked in my 12-dimple, half-cup capacity cupcake tray. Because all that is in a frilly paper cupcake case is not a cupcake. No, really. Oh, fine.

I have a disturbingly varied repetoire of cakes which come out of this pan. Not just several variations on the trusty buttercake foundation upon which your pardigmatic cupcake is built, but also miniature pucks of flourless chocolate, almondy raspberry friands crispy around the edges with an unexpected lemonyness, tiny carrot extravaganzas balancing a walnut, concoctions involving whole jars of cherry jam ... I am Queen of the Babycakes.

But, my god. How terrifyingly kitsch is that? Itty bitty wee cookery in little paper party dresses. Baked frippery. Buttery post-ironic footnotes to the Leave it to Beaver kitchen. Dress-ups with a cake rack and a spatula, like I just found myself inside the TV. I make a delicious almond, fig and chocolate cake which is glamorous and respectable in its full-sizedness, and already I have plans to miniaturise it, with tiny almond butterfly wings perched on its brand-new cutification.

There is no hope for me. I am terminally naff. This morning I made a batch of a brand new breed for the Xtin Kitchen -- with crème fraîche, which my dear friend Acre taught me when she was visiting last week. The tea's hot. Cupcake?

Acre's Sour Cream Cupcakes

2 eggs
2 cups plain flour
1 cup sour cream (see note 1)
1 cup sugar
1 cup soft light brown sugar (see note 2)
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/3 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350F (180C).

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In your mixer (or by hand if you're feeling all urban frontierswoman), cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time. Beat in the vanilla and sour cream.

Stir in dry ingredients until just combined.

Spoon batter into lined cupcake pans. Generously sprinkle brown sugar on top of each muffin. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the center muffin comes out clean.

Xtin's notes

1. I used reduced fat crème fraîche because when Acre was visiting, that was all she could find at M&S. Her batch was so delicious that I didn't dare to mess with the potion, in spite of the fact that usually my relationship to anything marked "reduced fat" is limited to a fervent desire to fling it. Preferably in the direction of the Healthy Eating poster that is sure to be somewhere in the vicinity.

2. I used the barest hint of the 1 cup of brown sugar garnish required -- maybe a tablespoon in total. I thought the crusty sugar top was a little overwhelming for the delicate tang of the cake underneath. I'm thinking I might add some orange zest to the next batch.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Extended mind

Pluvialis' father died on March 20.

Blogs come loaded with the sort of oddness and distance that comes with many things made of words and not eye contact and tone of voice. Someone online might be anyone, and a blogger is a creation of someone -- probably someone like everyone, who'd like to burnish what is best and throttle what is worst in them. Their writings are a kind of homunculus version of themselves, with more of what they like and less of what they don't. I've no doubt I am one of these walking textual homunculi, one eye always cocked to my pettiness, my indolence, my tendency to the boring and pretentious.

It might be the case that I am blinded by my great and enduring friendship with her, but Pluvialis is not such a creation. Her writings are her, they stack up and walk and look you in the eye with an expression that belongs only on the face of my friend. What she writes laughs and cocks an eyebrow and dances with irony and good humour and scholarship worn lightly as air, and is almost accidentally a piece of her, as though if you could reach inside her you would end up with a twisty silly-string handful of words, wriggling and nipping like puppies.

So much of this is her father's legacy. I met him only a few times, and to me he seemed a quiet man, with a quick smile and hint of conspiratorial mischief lurking in the crinkled corners of his eyes. Most of what I knew of him came from Pluvialis, and from his photographs. She always spoke of him, and I would often be privy to the plans and schemes collecting around his latest idea for a shot -- often something in the night sky, a moon or an eclipse or a comet -- a love they shared. Earlier this year, Pluvialis missed the McNaught comet which was visible over Cambridge, and wept with loss and disappointment. I was impatient and dismissive. Just a damn comet, I said. Or I didn't say it, but she knew that's what I thought. Writing this now, I can't believe my thoughtlessness. Comets. Her father. An old, old, extraordinary sense of the wonder of things that come, and are gone, but are seen.

When first we met, he spent an hour showing me photographs he'd taken recently. He talked to me with them, with a few words and an indicating finger to touch the things he especially wanted me to see. Being with him reminded me of an old optometrist's advertisement I saw years ago of two people walking through a wood, leaving an enormous trail of fluttering photographs behind them, a metaphor for all the things we see in our lives. His photographs weren't just the evidence of a wit and intelligence more formidable than most I saw prancing in Cambridge -- they were themselves that wit and intelligence. An emulsion mind.

My favourite photograph taken by Pluvialis' dad is of a street sweeper leaning to the gutter to feed a sparrow. Something seen.

Pluvialis is quiet, too. She too has an astounding facility with images, and can spend hours with pictures, eyes like flint, seeing what they say. But really, her mind is words like her father's was photographs. They are not something she makes, but something she is made of. And my god, her father was so, so proud. I don't suppose he would have thought of it this way, but she got it from him.

RIP Mac.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sparrow grass

Spring! The sunshine and birdsong and hint of cherry blossom on the breeze drags me from the veritable volley of things I need dragging from. Well, and the irresistibly forlorn tones of our favourite Scrivener.

This picture is of my lunch. Really. I took it just before I ate the spears with my fingers, licking the butter off and sharing a bit with the bird. I had forgotten what real asparagus tasted like. I could wax lyrical, but the tastiness of the local, seasonal vegetable has become a boring truism of the modern slow-food, organically minded, vege-box grow-your-own my-gawd-but-aren't-we-natural world. Sad, wilted, flavourless, airfreighted out-of-season beans/strawberries/lettuce/what-the-hell-ever? Horrors! The weekend supplements in the newspapers drip with beautifully styled oh-so-barely out of focus shots of trugs brimming over with home-germinated superfoods, and so, my dears, should you. The brimming trugs, I mean, not the photographs.

Lots of this is so smug I want to throw a perfectly-bedewed rare-breed tomato at someone. More than once I've squirmed at the proliferation of media sporting adorably grubby children in chunky, wheaten-hued hand-knitted jumpers and expensive wellingtons setting up a worm farm in one corner while the jolly, down-to-earth, slightly sunburned owner of acres and acres of spectacular garden, two glasshouses, a conservatory and a gorgeously restored farmhouse plants beans in her expensive wellies, telling us in let's-have-a-cup-of-tea tones dinky little growing tips like lining your bean trench with cardboard boxes. She's so genuine, curse her. And look! Some months have past, and her stakes are triffid-like with vines heavy with luscious-looking vegetables of all description! Watch her pluck the booty and put it into a fabulous cracked plate from Assisi with roosters painted on it! Now watch her steam it in her achingly superb ever-so-slightly ramshackle kitchen with the Aga and the antique oak refectory table, and then sit out (on a vintage woven garden chair) in the twilight upon her terrace overlooking the leafy, fruity, berried, butterflied wonderland that is her world!

Back-to-nature porn of the worst kind. I am a total sucker for it, which just makes me even squirmier. Is there dirt? Are there children oohing at bugs or green shoots or the smell of a crushed herb or two? Men with beards and hail-fellow-well-met voices and pink, work-roughened hands who know how to irrigate a potato bed? Is there maybe a chicken house, or perhaps a goat? Are there many shots of gleaming vegetables and fruits, particularly nestled in soil-encrusted hands or in a battered enamel colander from the fifties? Are there lots of wellingtons? Yes? You have me. My eyes are glassy with desire. I am in the red zone of your target audience. I disgust myself.

That, dear readers, was the disclaimer. Because honest to god, I am getting up a petition to stop them calling those twiggy, insipid, bright green imports from Spain by a name that doesn't belong to them. Come over to my house and have some fat, juicy, grassy, earthy deliciousness from the garden of the guy at the farmer's market on Sundays who really grows apples but just once a year has asparagus. The real thing.