Thursday, 19 November 2009

Lasiorhinus krefftii: MICMACS A TIRE-LARIGOT

Before leaving Australia, seven years ago, I met a small group of bloggers in Canberra through one of my friends. Sadly I left the country before getting to know them particularly well, but even now I read their blogs, creeped out as they undoubtedly would be by this fact. Okay - I read two of the blogs, because one of them got dooced around 2005 or something, and the fourth was the partner of the third, who also disappeared. But the two I continue to read have had interesting enough experiences; without spelling things out, one of the blogs has been published in book form in the UK, the US, Australia and has been translated into, of all things, Scandiwegian. The other blogger seems to run her blog at a far more cards-close-to-her-chest level, and was, of late, posting reviews of movies at a horror film festival in Melbourne.

A year ago, I went to the London Film Festival to see one movie ("Not Quite Hollywood"). The ticket itself was £11, which in itself is the most expensive cinema ticket I've ever purchased (trumping an entire semester at the ANU Film Group as it was around 2000) - and then the train was another £17. On the upside, as I left the Leicester Square Odeon after the screening, I walked into Benecio del Toro as he arrived for the premiere of Che.

I mulled over these two slivers of fact and decided: as the Brighton CineCity festival starts today, and the prices (from free to £5.15) are affordable, I thought I'd see every film that took my fancy and write up a review. Because as you can tell, I appear to have lost all semblance of the talent I once had for English composition. How's that for a clunky paragraph or three?

So, Y&I decided to stroll down to the Duke of York's Picturehouse (the best cinema in Brighton, and perhaps coincidentally the longest-running cinema in the world; it has been a cinema since 1910) to join the throngs for the opening night: Jean-Pierre Jeunet's MICMACS A TIRE-LARIGOT ("Micmacs"). The film sounds intriguing from the write up - precisely focussed character studies in a bizarre ensemble - but it could go either way. Fortunately, I enjoy either way - Delicatessen (successful, entertaining) or The Million Dollar Hotel (failure, fascinating). But it was not to be, because every Francophone in East Sussex had decended on the Duc de York's and we had not bought tickets in advance.

We grumbled a bit, and bought advance tickets for Jim Jarmusch's THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, Wojciech Has's SANATORIUM POD KLEPSYDRA ("The Hour-Glass Sanatorium"), and Wojciech Has's REKOPIS ZNALEZIONY W SARAGOSSIE ("The Saragossa Manuscript"). In a striking bid for individuality (or more accurately, a desire to submerge our individuality by running back to the warm embraces of our homelands), Y got a ticket for Miyazake Hayao's 崖の上のポニョ ("Ponyo"), while I went for Warwick Thornton's SAMSON AND DELILAH. Reviews to come of these films, and many more!

Here's the MICMACS trailer (sorry, can't find it in English):

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Agrotis infusa

Due to an impending move, I am culling a few of my heavy books, including one which I had actually never read before, "Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia" by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. So I finally set myself to the task, and the book was fascinating, particularly as I had never really read anything before about Central Asia, apart from a few of the appropriate Lonely Planets when planning to break a Trans-Siberian train trip for a few weeks in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 2004. In the end, just a few weeks before finalising the train tickets, there was some civil unrest in Tashkent and so I stayed on the train for about three straight days from Irkutsk to Moscow.

There's an intriguing explanation of the wonderful term bashi-bazouk, the Captain Haddockian insult and Peter Gabriel B-side:

"Before 1876, nobody had heard of Batak, a mountain village in Bulgaria, a country whose aggreived Orthodox Christians had since 1396 been under Ottoman rule. In the 1870's, Bulgarian discontent swelled into rebellion. Turkish reprisals were swift and ferocious. To augment the regular army, the Turks hired tough mercenaries known as bashi-bazouks, and these irregulars - butchers and brigands in the eyes of Bulgars - fell murderously upon Batak and scores of other villages. Reports of massacres drifted to the chanceries of Europe, a cause of embarrassed concern to Britain's Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. It had been Disraeli's policy to shore up the declining Ottomans as a counterweight to an aggressively expanding Russian Empire. With premature nonchalance, he dismissed the Bulgarian reports as "coffee-house babble.""

This serves as introduction to our exuberantly Manifest-Destiny-monikered hero, Januarius MacGahan, who reported on the horrors committed by the bashi-bazouks, stirring up general disgust in Britain and Russia at the deaths of Christians, and causing the Russian invasion of Turkey and the beginning of the Crimean War.


In 1904, Francis Younghusband was in Lhasa orchestrating a treaty of sorts between China, Tibet and Great Britain. Two of the nine points of the convention (designed to safeguard British trade interests in Tibet by removing tariffs) were the following:

"(6) Tibet was to pay an indemnity of 7.5 million rupees (£500,000) for the dispatch of armed troops to Lhasa, payable in seventy-five annual installments; (7) as security for the indemnity, the British were to occupy the Chumbi Valley until it had been paid and until trade marts were open"

As the seventy-fifth year would have been 1979, the year of my birth, it is interesting to posit the kind of world I may have been born into; a bizarre 1979 where Tibet was forbidden to parlay with foreign powers without the permission of the British Empire; a Lhasa full of dull Church of England chapels and an Old Etonian Dalai Lama.


"Tournament of Shadows" is admirably even-handed, though its Americanity bleeds through in its similes: Sandhurst is unhelpfully glossed as "the British West Point".


"When the All-Knowing and Unchangeable Dalai Lama triumphantly returned to his capital in 1913, Lhasa for the first time since the eighteenth century was entirely free of Chinese soldiers and officials. De facto, Tibet was a self-governing state, and so remained until its invasion by Chinese Communists in 1950."


pages 558-59:

"Harry Hodson's reticence about Sir Olaf Caroe was understandable. He had no wish to speak ill of a deceased colleague, and his allusion to maps inplied that he knew what we knew. Acting on his own authority, Caroe attempted by legerdemain to turn cartographic water into wine, his aim being to buttress India's North-East Frontier.

"In 1913-14, an earlier Indian Foreign Secretary, Sir Henry McMahon, convened a conference at Simla to resolve the matter of Tibet's disputed frontiers and political status. As related in Chapter 17, China flatly rejected McMahon's territorial proposals, and Tibetans agreed on condition that Britain would secure Peking's assent to the overall Simla bargain, which never happened. McMahon's "strategic frontier" was all but forgotten until 1935, when Olaf Caroe, a middle-level official in New Delhi, "rediscovered" it in old Foreign Department files. Contending that the Tibetan signature gave the McMahon Line arguable legitimacy, Caroe persuaded the governments in New Delhi and London to begin treating it as India's de facto frontier, and to depict it on official maps. He urged doing this discreetly, "with the avoidance of unnecessary publicity!"

"There was a problem. McMahon's frontier modification had not been entered in the 1929 edition of C. U. Aitchison's Collection of Treaties relating to India, the official repository for such agreements. Caroe arranged for a substitute version of the Aitchison volume to replace all original copies. The altered text in the new version - still dated "1929" - represented the Simla Conference as a success and listed the McMahon Line as one of its agreed achievements. However, two or three copies of the authentic Aitchison escaped Caroe's recall. One was discovered at the Harvard University library in 1963 by a British diplomat and visiting fellow, Sir John Addis. By comparing the original and the doctored version, Addis showed that a key piece of evidence that India was using in its border dispute with China was a forgery.

"By then, the Chinese had long since marched into Lhasa, where in 1951 its officials had taken possession of the Tibetan Foreign Bureau. There they found the old Simla documents and consulted with Tibetans involved with border negotiations. Writes the Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya in The Dragon in the Land of Snows (1999), "As far as the McMahon line was concerned, the Chinese learned that their views were identical with the Tibetans." Since Lhasa's conditions - Chinese approval of the overall accord - had not been met, the Simla agreements were moot.

"In New Delhi, however, the thinking was very different. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, a lifelong opponent of British rule, India adopted a "forward policy" as robust as any advocated by his imperial predecessors. [...] Regardless of Chinese maps, Nehru informed Parliament in 1950, "Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary," adding "and we will not let anybody come across our boundary." [...] Whatever the misgivings within the government, the press and politicians all but unanimously cheered Nehru for resolutely defending what was now deemed hallowed Indian soil."

The book will be released into the wild this weekend.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Myrmecobius fasciatu

I recently paid a pound for a remaindered book entitled "Japanese Studies" - rather than being a general guide to any particular aspect of the language, examination proves it to be a collection of "papers presented at a colloquium at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 14-16 September 1988". The colloquium was set up by the British Library and the contents cover a fascinating range of issues relating to the collection of Japanese books. Some of these are particular to the time and place; studies on the collecting habits of European libraries following a general 1980s recognition that Europe rather lacked in scholars of Japanese. Some papers deal with the physical aspects of fifteenth century manuscripts, some on the methods of cataloguing texts in non-European languages in a way that computers can understand (CJK cataloguing having only been "tested" in the British Library at this point).

Here's some trivia from the book that I found intriguing:

"J R Black was born in 1827 in Scotland and educated there. In 1854 he arrived in Adelaide Australia on the barque Irene with his wife and a female servant. In 1858 his son Henry was born in Adelaide. After several failed business ventures in Australia James Senior took his family to Japan in the 1860s. The exact date is not known as different sources give the arrival date as 1862, 1863 and 1864. By 1865 James was editor of the Japan Herald. In 1867 his second son James Reddie Black II was born and in 1869 his daughter Elizabeth Pauline followed. In 1870 he published the first number of The Far East one of the oldest English-language newspapers in Japan, issued in 1866. In 1876 his wife took his first son to England to be educated and James went to Shanghai. In 1879 he returned to Yokohama in ill health and died in June 1880 and was buried in the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery. James Black is remembered for his contribution to journalism in Japan, especially in the introduction of the editorial into Japanese journalism in 1866. The file [from the Harold S Williams collection held at the National Library of Australia] contains details of the mariage of J R Black II and the death of his mother, the subsequent history of J R Black II and his presidency of the Kobe Club but perhaps the most interesting part of the file is that devoted to Henry James Black, the son born in Adelaide who became a traditional Japanese storyteller, took a Japanese name, Ishii Buraku, married a Japanese wife, was adopted by her family and died in Tokyo in 1923. The file describes some of Henry's performances one of which depicted the night-time streets cries of the Tofu man, the Soba man, the blind masseur with his flute, the fish vendor, etc."
["Australia and Japan - the Harold S Williams collection". Pauline Haldane, Asian Collections, National Library of Australia]

The collection has also corrected a long-standing misconception of mine. I once knew a person of Brazilian (i.e. Portuguese-speaking) background called Santos, and one day when I walking around Nagasaki I found a street called Santos-dori (サントス通り). Knowing the history of missionary activity in the area, I guessed that this street had been named after a priest called Santos. As Nagasaki is perhaps the most Western of all Japanese cities, this seemed pretty likely to me (most Japanese cities do not even name their streets). It now seems far more likely that the street is named after Sanctos, which I think is Latin for 'sacred'. Between 1590 and 1614, missionary literature (Kirishitan-ban) was produced - the first books ever printed with movable type in Japan. One of these was a translation into romaji by two Japanese Christians, and was called Sanctos no gosagueo no uchi nuqigaqi (サントスの御作Xのうち抜書). (X representing a kanji I must have once known: four strokes above a horizontal, under which is the Yen sign and then 木 - help! The whole is rendered much more inpressively in the original as SANCTOS NOGOSAGVEONO VCHINUQIGAQI.)
["The Japanese collection in the Bodleian Library". Izumi K Tytler, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Ms Tytler goes on to point out that the Bodleian collection has been greatly assisted by grants from a major corporation ("the establishment of the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies") and a shall we say unusual politico-religious group ("a recent major donation is the benefaction made twice by the Soka Gakkai International and amounting to 3,300 volumes, which has enabled the library to strengthen its holdings in various fields, including Buddhism, philosophy, history, and literature"). Love the use of the Oxford comma there!)]

"We are also the proud owners of a set of Meiji zenki sangyou hattatsu-shi shiryou in some 950 volumes. Everything after volume ten is a supplement and the whole still lacks an index so it is hardly, if ever, used. It is hoped to persuade someone in Japan to undertake the compilation of one so that this wealth of material does not remain the yellow-bound white elephant it is at present."
["A note on the Japanese collection of SOAS". Brian Hickman, School of Oriental and African Studies. Apart from guessing that zenki is an archaic rendering of denki, I have no idea what this 950-volume is about.]

"The library collection is, as one might expect, strong in social sciences material and books published since the 1950s. [...] Major series held include Meiji zenki sangyou hattatsu-shi shiryou and Nihon gaikou monjo."
[Resources for Japanese Studies in the Centre for Japanese Studies Library, the University of Sheffield". Valerie R Hamilton, Centre for Japanese Studies, University of Sheffield]

"In the early 1890s Western art, particularly oil painting, was enjoying a resurgence of popular interest. The first wave of enthusiasm had been in the 1870s, culminating in the establishment of the Technical Art School in 1876 where the Italian painter Antonio Fontanesi taught the basics of Barbizon painting. There followed a sharp reaction against Western style art in the 1880s, with the beginnings of the Nihonga 日本画 movement and the widespread renaissance of Nanga 南画 painting. [...] By 1896, however, the times had changed [...] For at least two decades the Western style artists of Japan were loosely divided into groups: those associated with Asai Chuu and Koyama Shoutarou who had studied Barbizon style painting in the 1870s at the Technical Art School and those associated with Kuroda [Seiki] and Kume [Keiichirou] who had studied in Europe in the Impressionist-influenced plein-air style.
"The colour purple became a focus of controversy which had an indirect influence on the books which are to feature in these notes. Raphael Collin had taught Kuroda and Kume to use purple pigments for shadow effects, a striking contrast to the somber browns Fontanesi had taught. 'Purple' and 'brown' became buzz words in the Japanese art world, denoting 'new' and 'old' approaches to oil painting."
["Shasei ryokou (写生旅行) and the 'sketch tour' books of the early twentieth century". Scott Johnson, Kansai University, Osaka]

And this blast from 1988:

"The use of electronic media is, however, hampered by the fact that Japanese texts contain many thousands of different characters, which, with their complicated pattern, require a huge pattern memory, a high resolution screen and consequently a high resolution dot printer for output. In recent years due to the progress in VLSI design, cheap Japanese word processors have appeared. Even so, the input of kanji texts into the computer will always be more expensive than that of alphabetic scripts."
["Computerised information sources in Japan for academic studies". Ulrich Wattenberg, German Society for Information and Documentation, Tokyo]

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Taeniopygia guttata

I am currently on page 1061 of Infinite Jest, which is not very far in at all (I'm buried in an eight-page, 8pt back-of-the-book footnote (Note 304), which has followed on from a one-line subsection (Note 39b) referent of Note 39 proper, spinning off page 89, which is I suppose where I properly am.

And while I find this incredibly fun (in a way, it's like a neverending cascading of concepts inside concepts (speaking of which, I'm not sure whether this was seen as revolutionary when Infinite Jest was first published (1996) or if, as I feel, it was seen as a formal literary version of the sort of games children's books would play (I would always run out of fingers marking the different paths I'd taken in Choose Your Own Adventure books))) there is something about it that doesn't lend itself to reading in the doctor's waiting room.

I went there straight after work, thinking I could get some study done in the hour or so before my appointment. Unfortunately a small girl with a beautiful smile was busy running back and forth across the waiting room and shouting with the glee of childhood. This was nice, but I was trying to infer the verb conjugation-form of the なあ ending ("to state one's feeling emphatically") when the example given was only the たいなあ form ("to state one's wish emotively", viz.:

一度南極へ行きたいなあ。"I wish I could go to Antarctica just once."

So I pulled Infinite Jest out of my bag (no small feat in itself) and thus bring you to the point of the post. Mea maxima culpa, for my last post's suggestion that an Australian man of a certain age wouldn't have used the term "minor-leaguers". Less than 24 hours later, I was walking along the seafront and remembered the following lines from TISM's "The Back upon which Jezza Jumped":

The minor-leaguers, the average markers, the consistent second raters;
The stay at homers, the timid loners, the habitual masturbators;
The ugly girls, the amputees, the screaming mongoloid;
The senile old, the deformed young, the bladders that unwillingly void...

I was wrong.

But the connection between one of the stories in How We are Hungry and the very start of Infinite Jest lies here:

Jerry has an accent that sounds British but possesses the round vowels of an Australian. (Eggers, 150)
The coach, in a slight accent neither British nor Australian, is telling C.T. that the whole application-interface process, while usually just a pleasant formality, is probably best accentuated by letting the applicant speak up for himself. (Wallace, 6)

As an Australian whose accent has never matched the stereotype, I think I know what Eggers and Wallace are saying here. That there would be gradations of accents in Australia, whether geographic or cultural, based on class or local demography of immigrants, is not so much denied or unknown or unworthy of even being speculated upon; it is in fact that the non-Australian reader, on being introduced to an Australian character, needs to be told that this one isn't the guy you're thinking of.

I have no doubt that the Wallace's tennis coach character is Australian, even though the text doesn't state it directly. And I know it from a brilliant line of wipe-your-glosses genius that follows thereafter. Hal interlocks his fingers "into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X."

His own fingers look like they mate as my own four-X series dissolves and I hold tight to the sides of my chair. (Wallace, 6)

It takes another eight pages before Coach White refers to someone as "mate".

Anyway I didn't get very far through Note 304 (which is a fantastic, horrific description of an incredibly violent pastime reminiscent of the sport-based society of Georges Perec's W) before the doctor was able to see me, and I went upstairs to see her, and the long and short of it is that despite being accidentally hit quite hard in the groin three weeks ago by a tennis ball, the cremasteric muscle is undamaged and the bruising is only painful (as opposed to painful and worrying).

Friday, 26 June 2009

Bettongia penicillata

Sorry, I overslept.

Yesterday I got nine books from the library, florid with the hope of finishing them all within the alloted three weeks, and with the effort of carrying them home.

I read two of the smaller books first: "Eddie Krumble is The Clapper" by Dito Montiel, and "How We are Hungry" by Dave Eggers. You will note, either now or after your Google search, that these are both modern American literature of the recently-fashionable and even-more-recently unfashionable Probably Has A Name But I Don't Know It school. I like reading American literature because it underscores how very wrong I've got the United States.

Until I was about 20, I thought I knew the USA well. I had a diet of largely American television as a child, which allowed me learn my state capitals, and American math primers ("math" "primers" indeed) which taught me to subtract a liter from a quart gallon in over-large san-serif fonts. But then I visited the US, and realised not all accents made it onto TV, and people also tended not to live upstairs from friendly Muppets.

"Eddie Krumble is The Clapper" is an awful, terrible novel requiring of the reader
- about 75 to 90 minutes

It also begins with a "my life was nothing special until six months ago" moment before plunging back to the story proper. When the story ends with the "well, that sure wrapped up nicely" moment (six months later, remember?) he is somehow married to the girl and they have several children.

"How We are Hungry" was an improvement, but featured many, many stories in which Americans travel to non-Western countries and sweat wealth-guilt before having a moment of self-realisation in the final sentence which ends in some vocalised heart-in-mouth emotional expression like running through a goddamn stream in the wind! I quite liked this, actually. Especially the section where a dog translates a squirrel (critiquing the dogs' acrobatic endeavours) for the benefit of his human readers:

"the squirrels say other things, their eyes full of glee. "It makes me laugh that she did not make it across the gap." "I am very happy that he fell and seems to be in pain."

Unfortunately Eggers also wants us to believe a middle-aged Australian character would disparage a group with the term "minor-leaguers". I'll let this slide as the Australian was talking to an American, and because it ties into my next post.

I'm presently eighteen pages into the third book, "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace, which is probably going to take the full three weeks.