Sunday, 30 August 2009

Finishing Dunant's "Sacred Hearts"

I have really taken my time with Sacred Hearts - often reading just five or ten pages a day, rarely as many as twenty-five. I don't read a lot of fiction, but have enjoyed this work more than probably any other over the past few years. In part this is because the period in which this is set is one which I have been actively studying over the last year. In part it is because of a couple of articles by Dunant that I have read over the last couple of years. One was about living part of the year in rented accommodation in Florence as a base for research. The other was a more recent article about the convent communities and focused on O'Faolain's Women in the Walls. Partly it is due to the level of research involved - an excellent use of sources I thought (about one-fifth of which I know).

But of course it is, in the end, down to the quality of the story and writing. The characterisation of the two main leads - Serafina and Zuana - was magnificent. I particularly felt for Zuana and the gradual realisation that her life of learning was under threat. The decision towards the end to use some of her precious books to provide weight for a coffin was, I thought, deeply moving. Like all great fiction, it was sad to come to the end. I would love to have read a continuation of the story into the period when the Council of Trent reforms began to make themselves felt. There is a suggestion at the end that these met with strong resistance. It would have been good to see this addressed. But I do have other books that cover this

Serafina and Jacopo are in rather a difficult situation by the end. She has been badly affected physically by the fasting regime in the convent, he from the street attack. I was particularly taken by a piece from one sentences towards the end - "That for all that they had been through, they will care for, as well as love, each other . . ." I found this an incredibly sad line and one that has prompted lots of thought about other areas of my life.

I have, of course, started on another Sarah Dunant renaissance novel on finishing this one, The Birth of Venus

The backlog of ordered books begins to break

Iwas surprised to discover that there are about 8 book orders that remain to be filled at the moment. It has definitely been a quiet week for parcels in the mail. But in the last two days there has been a slight break in the log jam and three packages have arrived filled with good things

First up, William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University. This was one of the books I spotted in Blackwells in London last Sunday and is just about the perfect book for me as far as subject matter goes at the moment. I am desperately excited about reading it and despite it not yet been September, I am already re-organising my planned work for next month to accommodate it

Secondly, Larsen's How to Write a Book Proposal, to compliment two existing books on broadly the same themes - Germano's Getting it Published and Lyon's Nonfiction Book Proposals. All good works for me to study now, at the very start of my projects.

Next up, Hannam's God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Perhaps not the most scholarly book, but good enough. Just shows that there is room for books like this on a regular basis, despite the relatively unusual theme. Or perhaps I think that just because I am so familiar with it's contents. I suspect that detailed reading might annoy me, but I have to also note that this book does show what can be published. His biography notes that he has a PhD in History of Science, but says little else. He is not a scholar as such. So perhaps I should consider this wholly positively - as a model for the publication of books not unlike my own project
Nice cover I thought
Finally, Munday's Introducting Translation Studies. I know virtually nothing about this subject and was surprised by the large literature I have quickly uncovered. I have little idea what contribution this will make to my own plans but it is clearly in the areas where my current concerns lie. Am looking forward to starting this one in a few week's time.
A re-discovery of a band in my current music listening - Godspeed you black emperor. I don't think I have heard anything by them for five or six years. But I have thoroughly enjoyed Lift your skinny fists . . and Yanqui U.X.O. again. And I was surprised to discover that I have copies of Slow Riot and Tiny Silver Hammers. Should be a good bit of listening for the next few days

Friday, 28 August 2009

The need to write more, PhD plans & Shellac

Part of my work over the summer break from college has been to critique my study methods. This started in June when I was in Spain and was thinking about the issues raised by re-casting my work approach into the form of biographical writing. Other reading this summer has covered various issues related to PhD work. Most recently I have been reading Rowena Murray's How to Write a Thesis. This is not concerned with the thesis directly in the sense of study methods or content, etc, but instead is focused on the actual process of writing. And it has confirmed one thing I have come to feel which is that I don't write enough

Instead I spend too long reading stuff. Definitely not enough time writing notes and appraisals of what I have been reading. At anytime, my "read by not appraised" pile is simply huge. The main excuse not to write is that I have so much to read. But this just results in me not really using what I have read in the best way. Indeed I even have occasions when I start to read an article and its takes me a while to realise that I have read it already. Or even worse, to start to read something for, what I think is the first time, only to find my annotations all over it.

So I am planning a slightly new approach to work in September. Less focus on reading, more on writing. Hopefully write a couple of essays and maybe do a bit on my dissertation.

PhD plans are slowly developing. I am reviewing Oxford colleges and various other institutions, including King's, UCL, the Warburg Institute, and even LSE. Best to start the process now than leave it two or three months.

Morning listening was mainly the complete works of Shellac, Steve Albini's band. I have always been a great fan of his work, not just the unusual sound he has always used, but the somewhat uncompromising approach he has always held on various subjects. And on the subject of sound, this, according to GuitarGeek is Albini's sound setup!

Thursday, 27 August 2009

More results of my book search & Triumph of the Will

Yesterday's search involved around 15 boxes from the deepest, darkest recesses of the garage and has thrown up some excellent books unseen for many years. Today, to add a fourth day of poor work productivity, I have been looking through some of the gems retrieved.

Perhaps most connected to current work is Michael Oakeshott's On History. I was in my first month at LSE in 1981 when I first came across Oakeshott. A book called My LSE had been published around that time and I had bought a copy soon after arrival. There I learned of Oakeshott's appointment to the government department to succeed firebrand leftie Harold Laski. The highest profile (perhaps only) conservative philosopher at LSE, he may well have been appointed to re-balance LSE's left wing reputation. Soon after, a paperback edition of Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays was published and I was deeply impressed with the manner of writing - beautifully styled essays (which I now see as the result of a "classic" education).

Oakeshott was Emeritus Professor of Politics when I was at LSE. I asked permission to attend the graduate seminar in political theory that he still attended but was refused - no doubt because I was an undergraduate and not even in the politics department. Since his death I have occasionally seen a book or article about him and he has been mentioned as an influence of Cameronian conservativism. I am intending to read his Three Essays on History soon.

Once I looked up all his works in the LSE library and came across a book of his called Guide to the Classics which I assumed was on Greek philosophy and literature - it turned out to be on horse racing.

Michael Oakeshott

Following our family trip to see Inglourious Basterds, I have been reminded that Linda took a course on German Cinema while at University. I have now found some of her books from this course, such as Lotte Eisner's study of Murnau and other works on German Expressionism. I have also downloaded Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will which I watched a bit of today. Powerful stuff no doubt.

I was surprised to discover that Riefenstahl died in 2003 aged 101. I feel I would like to live to be 101 - I have so much left to do and so little time!

More newly-found old gems will be discussed more soon.

Hitler and Leni Riefenstahl. Widely considered the "greatest" woman filmmaker of the twentieth century - but who would the alternatives be?

Stadium scene from Triumph of the Will

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Three days of mixed productivity


My work today is subject to considerable delays related to our new washing machine. The current business practice is to appear to be caring suppliers by allowing you to ring up and obtain your "four hour slot" to help you with your day's planning. We were allocated 7:00 till 11:00, my core study hours. Needless to say, it didn't arrive during this slot. But needed to be ready did mess up my morning's work which, in the end, consisted mainly in copying bits of books from LSE - no major work.

But at least I was able to plumb it in ok - no idea whether it works yet or not


An unscheduled trip to London to have lunch with Emma who has things to discuss. Despite some recent disappointments, she seems in good spirits and is fired up for the challenges that she now faces

At LSE, I pick up Toomer's translation of Ptolemy's Almagest, and a volume of Lynn Thorndike History of Magic and Experimental Science (vol 6). Not easy works to look at, but perhaps some interesting stuff. It is only when you read Ptolemy directly that you get some appreciation of the immense intellectual achievement that his work is. Main reading on the way to and from London was Sisman's "book about a book" - his book about Boswell's Life of Johnson


To Oxford this morning for a few things - food, a couple of magazines, the framing of my Richard Long poster, and to buy some stationery

Back home I spent several hours on LSE's Moodle system downloading and printing out articles for the Philosophy of Economics course - my likely subject 3 for next year. I was also somewhat surprised to find a PH403 exam paper for 2009 - this is the course I really wanted to do but which I thought wasn't offered. Is this what Ann-Marie was examined in? On the other hand, PH404 (History of science - the one I missed) was a very easy exam I thought

Several hours spent going through boxes in the garage leads to me finding a whole stack of Linda's various Latin course books. I am interested in this as I have tentative plans for a PhD project that would involve some Latin translation and comment. It is possible that this is way too ambitious. However, I have discovered that there are Latin translation computer programmes that might help me. In addition, there is a OUDCE beginners course in Oxford that I could attend. Finally, there are a number of freelance latin translators based in Oxford

I also found all Linda's John Sandford books - apparently she would like to read them all again in the right order

I have a new favourite blog - Tales from the Reading Room. This is written by an ME suffering literature academic and has a lot of interesting stuff about academic writing. I have read the first two months - April and May 2006.

This week also marks the start of my concerted effort to get a bit fitter. So far, I am eating much less (especially snacks such as bisquits and chocolate) and have cut down considerably milk and coke. In three days, I already feel some progress - in particular I have stopped feeling as bloated as I had been. Next step is to actually do some exercise!

Finally, with Linda out teaching in Witney, I watch one of my all-time favourite episodes of Star Trek Voyager - the Kes episode, Warlord. I was always a big fan of Kes and was rather disappointed when she left after series 3. Surprisingly, I think she was actually sacked from the show to make way for 7 of 9. Not a bad swap, but better if they had kept both in my view

Standard Kes picture

Two pics from the episode "Warlord"

Monday, 24 August 2009

Two days in London


Linda and I had originally planned a weekend in London to end the "notional" two weeks we have been considering our summer break. But of course Emma is living in London at the moment and, in the absence of several of her friends and various other factors, was keen to make it a family weekend event.

So we travel down first thing and spend a couple of hours in Covent Garden prior to meeting up with Emma. I have time to pop in LSE and pick up a couple of books, while Linda spends some time in Zara, etc

Emma has just one week to go on her summer internship and is beginning to look ahead to the following week when she is off to Minnesota to stay with her boyfriend. The work experience has taught her a lot about all sorts of things. The work itself has not been all she had hoped and she has a range of new plans for applying for jobs over the next few weeks. Also the various aspects of flat-sharing have been a useful experience

After a brief time in Covent Garden we began to make our way across to the London Eye - today's main tourist visit - stopping on the way for cake at a cafe close to the English National Opera. I have the first slice of Black Forest Gateau that I have had for perhaps 20 years.

The London Eye is a very slick operation and is very impressive all round, though we were stuck briefly at the top and had a brief reversing moment that did make me ponder on what would happen if a fault developed.

Our evening event is to see the new Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds. This is a surprisingly thoughtful film with siginificantly less gore than one might had been led to believe. The performance by the actor who plays the SS officer is exceptional. It reminded me of a European art-house type film rather than a typical Hollywood film. We were all much impressed.
Back to Bloomsbury via perhaps the oldest cab driver in London. Some red lights jumped, only a vague idea where he was going. Very odd. Perhaps a sign of the recession?

For much of the day I suffer from something like the IBS symptoms I have had before. I wonder if this was caused by the two milkshakes I had today - could I be becoming intolerant?

No doubt the sort of view that millions of people have taken from the London Eye

Charing Cross Station

Emma and Linda looking very relaxed
An improvement in the weather with a day of hot sunshine forecast. Emma has her own plans and we are not meeting up for another family event.
We have been staying at a "boutique" hotel in London called The Academy. This is made up of five Bloomsbury townhouses that have been knocked together. There are quite a number of these and we were very pleased with our choice (though it hadn't been our first).
So Linda and I have another walk around the centre of London, taking in Soho, Chinatown, and quite a few bookshops. I am forced to write down the details of two books that I was very excited about when I saw them in Blackwells - William Clark's Academic Charisma (a book on the development of Universities) and a stunning book by Clemens and Graham called An Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Both will be sought out on the internet as soon as we get home
We met up with Emma briefly in Coram Fields, the park near her flat. As promised, it is a hot and sunny day. I take one or two cloud photos - I wonder if the Cloud Appreciation Society is still going?
England regained the Ashes this afternoon, providing me at least with an interesting drive home and two hours of cricket watching when we got home. A newsletter from the Maes-y-Neuadd hotel in Wales that we have been to a few times over many years, has suggested to us a possible trip later in the year. I am very up for this - as usual, Linda is less so.

Our hotel - The Academy in Bloomsbury. Very nice indeed

I am always happy to lie on my back and look at clouds

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Scotland Trip - Day Four, The Retreat

As far as I could tell, it had rained all night. Moreover, it has passed the point of mere heavy rain and has moved into flood conditions. I had tentatively planned to go on another boat trip this morning from Portree to see some local sea eagles. But the wind is high and visibility is not good, so that is called off. As there is no chance of going into the hills, a retreat is in order. I would set off back home, with a possible stop off in the Lake District if the weather is better there.

From Portree to the Kyle of Lochalsh is quite amazing. The rain is unremitting. Sides of the road are flooded, the hills are covered in small streams pouring from the tops, spots I had passed on the way up, such as Sligachan, are virtually unrecognizable. It is actually an incredibly intense experience seeing the landscape like this. I haven't seen rain like this since we were in Thailand during the monsoon back in 1994. Breakfast at a cafe in Broadford is really good - "full Scottish" including haggis. And soon after, I have left Skye

Progress is slow in the poor conditions and, remarkably, I don't leave Scotland until 4:45. The weather forecast is poor for the Lake District and I abandon plans to stop off there. Indeed it doesn't stop raining until I am close to Birmingham. Highlight of the evening'd driving is Manchaster United losing to Burnley at football.

Home by just after 10:00p.m, 15 1/2 hours after setting off (with perhaps two hours of breaks). 675 miles at 50 m.p.h - not bad when I only averaged 30 m.p.h for the first 200 miles.

Water pouring into a lay-by off the hills

The campsite at Sligachan - close to flooding. The white line on the hillside to the left is water pouring off the hill!

The river at in full flood

How the same scene looked on Monday

Riverlets streaming off a hillside

The waterfall at the end of Loch Ainort

How it looked on Monday!

The cafe at Broadford where I experienced the full Scottish breakfast - first haggis for six or seven years. Highly recommended

Elaine Dornan castle - clearly a major tourist site

Glen Garry - the cloud finally lifting

Clouds lifting as I drive south

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Scotland Trip - Day three

A slightly better night's sleep. I am obviously getting used to sleeping in the Land Rover. Again it has rained most of the night but is a bit brighter first thing. I had spent the night near Uig, hoping again for a place to eat that opens early. But even though the ferry was due to depart around 9:00 and there were lots of people about, no food places open. And no morning papers yet either. But I do discover the name of a company that rents out motorhomes in Scotland -

Driving up the coast again, I get a few nice pictures before the rain begins again. It is only drizzle at first and I am happy to set off in the Quinnaig. But an hour later it is raining much harder and there is dense cloud around the summit area. I am a little concerned about getting lost in this odd landscape and so retreat to the car, spending 15 minutes sorting out the wet clothing so as not to end up with the entire inside of the car soaked. If it is going to continue raining, I need to keep the car as dry as possible.

So I make my way down to Portree and have some lunch in a cafe in the market square. Portree is quite busy, presumably because the rain is keeping people from doing other things. At the harbour I discover that there are boat trips to feed some sea eagles on a nearby island. This had apparently featured on Springwatch a year or two back. I might well do this tomorrow if the weather hasn't picked up and I can't go wild camping.

Most of the afternoon is spent crashed out again in a picturesque layby with some decent views across the water. Finished Ferguson's Tycho and Kepler. At some point soon I will start on Casper's Kepler and will prepare a detailed chronology against which I am planning my History of Science study for the next year at LSE.

The rain continues all afternoon and in to the evening. Supper in Portree and then a short drive to find somewhere to sleep for the night. My spirits are lowering by the hour. Tonight I watched the movie Iris on the laptop in the back seat of the Land Rover. Actually not a bad movie, but the circumstances of watching it are pretty odd.

Nice, early morning light - 7:00a.m. on the north shore of Skye

The Quiraing just before the rain hits

After the rain begins
Portree harbour - presumably a very common photo view

Monday, 17 August 2009

Scotland Trip - Day two

A somewhat uncomfortable night. Perhaps 8 hours sleep, but interrupted on several occasions. Heavy rain throughout the night. Worse still, the small opening in the window to let in some fresh air let in a huge number of midges, as well as allowing the soaking of the front seat. So I have a number of bites. Too early to say how many - presumably these will develop over the next couple of days.

Driving to Mallaig, the weather clears a little - enough to take a few photos. I am in plenty of time for the ferry to Armadale on Skye. It would have been nice to have Linda with me for this trip. Even more so in Armadale where there is a 3 hour boat trip around the nearby islands with the aim of whale watching. I could have really done with a nice breakfast but nowhere is open before the boat leaves at 10:00. A disabled guy is part of our group and is willingly lowered down a very step flight of steps to the boat. I'm not sure I would have done this. He had a huge amount of very expensive photo equipment with him - perhaps he often does this sort of thing.

We travelled down to a nearby island where a number of seals where basking. Oddly enough, they seems quite intrigued by the boat and watched us throughout our time there. Then the boat speeded up quite considerably and sped along the coast over the tops of the waves. Perhaps 30 knots max speed? Very exciting I thought. Next stop is the view a large collection of shags (small cormorants) on various rocks. Once more I am left thinking that Linda would have really enjoyed this. Next birds on our itinerary are kittywakes, also settled on their own rocks. The sea is fairly rough here and the boat rises and falls perhaps 6 feet in the swell - perhaps Linda wouldn't have liked this so much. It also made photography quite hard.

Out into open water to attempt to see some whales. The boat trips actually only see whales about one in three times. We were unlucky but we did see a couple of basking sharks. Gavin Maxwell, of Ring of Bright Water fame, had come to the area around Skye to set up a basking shark fishery I seem to remember. I have a book somewhere by his partner, Ted Geddes. I'm pretty sure that basking sharks are one of those species about which little is known. They vanish at various times of the year and it is not clear where they go.

So we bob about at various locations without seeing any whales. But there are a large number of gannets diving in the sea and I spend at least an hour on the boat trying, without success, to get a picture of one diving.

After the trip finishes around 1:00, I drive up to the first town on Skye, Broadford, for some lunch at a tiny cafe. Then on to Portree. Great scenery throughout - several stops for picture taking including the hotel area at Sligachan from which I plan to walk into the Cuillen in a couple of days time for my one night of planned wild camping (somewhere around Loch Curilisk is my plan). On to Uig in the north-west of Skye, a randomly chosen destination mainly known for the ferry to Tarbet on Harris. When planning the two week Scotland trip earlier in the year, I had intended that we would use this crossing, but this week I don't have enough time. Spent a couple of hours crashed out in a lay-by reading Kitty Ferguson's Tycho and Kepler. Even have a brief time online, and chat to Linda on MSN.

Early evening I drove across towards the Quinaing taking lots of photos, particularly of the sunset viewed from Duntulm Castle. A quick chat to Emma in London and an early night pondering on tomorrow's plans

Early meaning in a bay 10 miles short of Mallaig

Mallaig Harbour

How nice to be near the front of the ferry - not that it is a huge ferry
Looking back towards Mallaig from Armadale

Today's boat ride Company

Seals close to Armadale

Odd that they all seem to watch us as we pass by

Shags on their rock - not cormorants as I would have guessed

Most are looking west - but for a couple of mavericks facing east

Kittywakes on their cliff

More shags on another rock

Not the finest view of a basking shark ever committed to film

Back at Armadale

The ferry on its way back to Mallaig

Water flowing into one of the small sea lochs on the east coast of Skye

Clearly a popular photo spot on the way to Portree

The thriving metropolis of Uig - mainly a harbour for ferries to Tarbat on Harris

The evening ferry arriving

South of the Quiraing in the late evening light

The Quiraing hidden in cloud

A nice spot from which to call Emma

Duntulm Castle on the left

Fishing boat returning to Uig

Last photo of the day