Friday, April 28, 2006

Food, glorious food

While not such a gourmet as Gastronomy Domine (I'm seriously considering making her banoffee pie, which sounds gorgeous and easy), I do enjoy food . I treated myself to a chunk of fillet steak yesterday, and now wish I'd photographed the resulting concoction as it was truly delicious (though I say so myself). I made up a vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and whilegrain mustard for a salad of wild rocket leaves and baby tomatoes, then used up the rest of the vinaigrette on the steak, which was frying merrily in olive oil and pepper. The only problem with putting wholegrain mustard in anything that you then fry is that tiny, red hot mustard seeds leap out of the pan coated in hot fat and land on your hand (of course).

Still, I was very pleased with yesterday's dinner - the steak nice and raw inside, sizzling brown on the outside. It's at times like these that I don't miss being a vegetarian.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Coincidence or design

A student, Kaavya Viswanathan, now in her second year at Harvard University, obtained a book deal worth $500,000 while in high school. Her first novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild And Got A Life, was published last month. Apparently it's sold quite well, though the one review on Amazon is not complimentary. The plot seems quite interesting from its blurb. However, as reported in the university's newspaper, The Crimson, it appears that Ms Viswanathan has lifted several passages from two previously published novels by Megan McCafferty, namely Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. The Crimson also reproduces several of the relevant passages, and the similarity is appalling.

I have two problems with this. Firstly, I've read the two books by McCafferty, and liked them. They're teen fiction, but well written, and very enjoyable. It's perhaps unsurprising that Ms Viswanathan would have read them, and been influenced by the style. If the plagiarism is unconscious, it doesn't say much about Ms Viswanathan's originality - which is odd, for someone of whom Little, Brown thought highly enough of that they gave her a publishing contract in high school.

And secondly, if the plagiarism is conscious, then there are possibly two ways to take this. That she was deliberately quoting from an author she admired - in which case a polite letter to Ms McCafferty or her publisher, indicating this, would have been in order. Or, that she was hoping that the similarities would pass unnoticed (though Ms McCafferty was alerted to the plagiarism by an email from a fan) - in which case, this does not say much for Ms Viswanathan's integrity.

It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Update: news from Rediff states that Ms Viswanathan has apologised to Ms McCafferty for the inadvertent plagiarism in her book. Plans are afoot to correct the similar passages for subsequent reprints.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Far from Ulster

Seamus Heaney's new collection of poetry, District and Circle, is published this month (in hardback, alas), and is reviewed here.

I don't feel that I read enough poetry, though I do like Heaney's verse, particularly when he reads it himself. I once attended a reading he did at the Younger Hall in St Andrews when I was an undergraduate there. I'm not sure whether it was just because the town is so small and entertainment so limited that there was a massive audience: the hall was packed. It's when you hear or read the works of great poets (and I'm including Heaney in that list) that you realise what words can convey and how emotions can be raised, and simply how the sounds of words can be moving, even if you have no idea what the poem's about (this is one of the reasons I prefer the Authorized Version of the Bible to any more accurate translations).

Mark Radcliffe used to have poetry readings on his late-night radio show, a particular favourite of the show being John Hegley. This was all very well, and amusing, until one night a Hegley poem was followed by one of Ted Hughes'. The latter showed up the former to an astonishing extent: this, I thought, was real poetry, not just interesting rhymes and wry imagery. I'd never been a fan of Hughes' poetry befre then, having been made to read it at school and disliked its "doom and gloom" feel. Now, however, I'd rank Hughes as one of my favourite poets: the way he uses words is fantastic.

Perhaps I should make an effort to curtail my normal book-buying habits (crime, sci-fi and children's books) and read more poetry.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Driving home for Easter

Noticing how much my fuel economy increased when I was forced to drive at sixty mph the other evening (torrential rain and spray on the M11), I decided not to exceed the national speed limit on the journey to my parents' house at the weekend. Despite the fact that I stuck to my resolution (mostly, except on a couple of overtaking moves on the A605), it didn't take any longer than normal. This journey is always three and a half hours, whether I go across country, or via the M25. And now it seems that I don't need to speed either - result! Which is good, because I must be the only person in the world who is concerned about the fuel economy and drives a sports car (well, it's an MG F). I do in fact get reasonable mileage out of a tank of petrol.

It's a while since I last drove home by that route, and I almost missed my turn-off in Northampton. One is lulled into a false sense of security by the signs proclaiming "A43 Oxford" that suddenly disappear. If I hadn't made the trip to Salisbury the weekend before I would have missed it again, because the turn-off is not signposted at all. Instead one has to make one's way towards Sixfields and keep going straight on for a few miles before the signs to Oxford reappear. It must be a cunning plan by the Northampton planners to siphon all the cars out of the town and send them onto the M1 instead. Ha! That'll teach them to try driving in our town, they cackle, evilly.

On my way back to Peterborough, I stopped off at a convenient point on my route home, Cherwell Valley services, just off the M40. I hate service stations and never stop on a journey if I can help it. Of course there are never signs by the road indicating how much the petrol costs, and it's nearly always ludicrously expensive. And you've wasted ten minutes getting off the main road and trailing round the services to the fuel pumps and only then do you see that the unleaded costs 97.9p per litre! I have never seen so many people at a service station before - it was packed! The lovely Marks and Spencer Simply Food outlet was a nice surprise, though it failed to completely redeem the awfulness of the services. Why can't they all be like Tebay services on the M6, which is completely unlike the normal motorway service station?

It does seem odd to me that for such a small island it takes such ages to get anywhere.

The times they are a changin'

Sorry about the site change - I was bored of the old template (though as you'll probably notice it's just another Blogger template). Hope this works okay.

Coining it in

The rising prices of metals such as copper and zinc could mean that our lowest denomination coins are worth more as metal than they are as coins. In the US the potential problems are more acute, because the one-cent coin is made predominantly from zinc - in the UK, our newest "coppers" are steel plated with copper. It also seems ironic that our "silver" coins contain 75% copper in an alloy with nickel.

I daresay the Mint will just re-strike all the coins affected and make them from some even cheaper metal. Alternatively, we could just round up prices in shops to the nearest 5 pence and thus eliminate all the 1p and 2p coins. The nation's wallets would certainly be lighter!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Things you never knew about iron

Apparently, although spinach contains a lot of iron, this is not in a form that can be assimilated by the human body. Lettuce has more. The supposed iron-rich qualities of spinach which enabled Popeye to overcome Bluto's dastardly plans and save the day, are due to a printing error in a US Government publication about the nutrient value of foods. A woman needs 4 mg of iron more per day than a man (11 mg compared to 7). Iron-rich foods are liver, corned beef, iron-fortified breakfast cereals, red wine, baked beans, peanut butter, raisins, bread, eggs, curry powder and molasses. Normal brain function requires iron, and iron is bound in the body in a protein molecule called transferrin. Iron is also an essential nutrient in the oceans: where it is rich, plankton grow and thrive, and can thus support more complicated life-forms, such as fish.

There's more, but I won't transcribe in more detail, as all this fascinating information is from a fantastic book I picked up yesterday called "Nature's Building Blocks - An A - Z guide to the elements" by John Emsley. Everything you ever wanted to know about silicon, iodine, lithium and the rest, in terms of their environmental, cosmic, medical and other uses and history is here, and hosts of other facts that even chemists might not have previously been aware of. The book is decidedly written for a non-technical readership, and is very easy to use. Highly recommended.

Update: I wrote this post from home on my Mac, and couldn't get any font changes or links, for some reason. So here they are now for you to look at.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Twenty songs

I haven't been tagged for this meme, but I've seen Patroclus' and Pashmina'sversions, so decided to have a go myself. Mine won't be as hip as Patroclus' and it includes much more classical music than any normal person would. So here goes...

1) A track from your early childhood

I was going to say Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard, by Paul Simon, which I remember from those dim and distant days when my mum listened to Radio 2, but I think more accurately it has to be Easter Parade or Hello, Dolly, which I remember my aunt singing to me when I was very young.

2) A track that you associate with your first love

Moondance by Van Morrison.

3) A track that reminds you of a holiday trip

A camping trip to Cornwall, travelling from Dorset in a Vauxhall Chevette, made memorable by a Beach Boys “Best Of” compilation. So, probably, Little Douce Coupe.

4) A track you like but wouldn't want to be associated with in public

Europe’s The Final Countdown. I remember my sister and I dancing round the kitchen to this. We weren't that young, either.

5) A track that accompanied you when you were lovesick

Probably Brumel’s Lamentations sung by the Tallis Scholars.

6) The track you have listened to most often

Since I downloaded many of my CDs onto my computer, it’s For Lo, I Raise Up, by Stanford (according to iTunes, anyway). But over a lifetime? Tricky. Probably Mars or Saturn from Holst’s The Planets, which was one of the first LPs I remember listening to (that and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture)

7) A track that is your favourite instrumental

Orchestral – Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s a tough choice to make in the world of purely instrumental music, but I love this and could listen to it all day.
Rock – Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive. It’s completely bonkers.

8) A track that represents one of your favourite bands

In A Glasshouse by Radiohead. Just to be different, and because it has Humphrey Lyttleton and his band playing on it.

9) A track which best represents yourself

As I see me? Riff-raff by Giles Swayne, played by Kevin Bowyer. It’s not your traditional organ music.

10) A track which reminds you of a special person

Shine On You Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd.

11) A track to which you can relax

Fishing Junks At Sunset, by Jean-Michel Jarre. I like all the Chinese instruments in it as well as Jarre’s great synths.

12) A track that stands for a really good time in your life

That time is now, so anything by Rufus Wainwright.

13) A track that is currently your favourite

Beautiful Child, by Rufus Wainwright. I love the lyrics (“when I am older than these small goddamned hills”) and the music is so uplifting, it makes me feel immediately happy.

14) A track that you'd dedicate to your best friend

For A it has to be anything Renaissance, so something by Tallis or Monteverdi. I’d go for something that I know, and pick Spem in alium, Tallis’ fabulous 40-part motet.

15) A track that you like especially for its lyrics

The Art Teacher by Rufus Wainwright. The story it tells, the wryness of it. You want to know more about the narrator of the story.

16) A track that no one likes but you

I can’t really think of anything I like that none of my friends don’t. Maw’s Violin Concerto, perhaps. Though that’s more because no-one I know has actually listened to it.

17) A track that you like that's neither English nor German

I don’t know many German songs, apart from lieder. Of other languages, I’d have to pick Latin, and go for the Sanctus from Durufle’s Requiem. It’s the stand-out movement from a beautiful setting of the Requiem mass, and not as well-known as it should be.

18) The track that best lets you release tension

This one is easy. Loud organ music, particularly loud French organ music. So Jesus accepte la soufrance from Messiaen’s La Nativite du Seigneur, preferably played by Jennifer Bate. It has enormous crashing chords and pedal notes that thunder through you. Fantastic!

19) A track you want to be played at your funeral

I’d like Howells’ Collegium Regale (King’s College) setting of the Nunc dimittis sung at my funeral. Because it’s appropriate for death, and the setting is beautiful. A good tenor to do the solo, though, is a must. If a choir isn’t available, then John Cale’s version of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen.

20) A track that you'd nominate for "Best Track of All Time".

It’s simply impossible. I don’t know whether to go for Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro as the single track, or a whole symphony. Okay, a bit leftfield, but I always find it moving, Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis.

I daresay that if I tried this at some other point in my life, there might have been a lot more Radiohead on this list.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

One is not amused

Listening to BBC 6 Music this morning I caught the music news bulletin at 7.30am - one of the news items was that Prince Harry, being a fan of The Streets, has asked that he perform at the Queen's 80th birthday party.

There are several things wrong here.

I'd imagine that this ringing endorsement from a famous (and conspicuously rich and privileged) fan will do Mike Skinner's street cred no end of good, especially if he accepts the invitation. And can you imagine your own grandma, celebrating her eightieth birthday with family and friends, wanting to listen to a peculiarly English rap? Give her a break! It's not as if the Queen is reknowned as a fan of music anyway. I felt for her at the Golden Jubilee having to listen to a bunch of ageing rock stars at the concert.

They should all go to Newmarket, or Kempton Park, or Ascot for her birthday, and she might have a more enjoyable time.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Sweet singing in the quire

On Friday I went to Salisbury Cathedral to sing evensong with a group organised by a friend. I've sung at Salisbury before, with Lyra Davidica, but I had forgotten what a beautiful acoustic the place has. Most of the settings Brian had chosen were unfamiliar to me, apart from the canticles*, which were Gibbons' Second Service, and included the "liturgical premiere" of Brian Moles' Drop, drop, slow tears (to be published by Boosey and Hawkes later this year). It is a lovely, unaccompanied piece, more accessible than some modern choral music.

We were a small and select bunch of singers - three sopranos, three altos, three tenors and two basses (though one of the basses is really a countertenor) - and although mistakes were made, partly due to sheer incompetence on our part and the limited rehearsal time, we made rather a nice sound.

Groups like ours often sing at cathedrals when their regular choirs are on holiday. I gather that the standard of visiting choirs is mixed, to put it kindly. Generally, most cathedral
precentors (it's usually the precentor or the organist who organises visiting choirs) ask for a tape or CD of the visiting choir "in action" - I've heard about the visiting choirs who were nothing more than a holidaying family who thought it would be nice to sing services at a cathedral, and evidently having no idea of the cathedral choir tradition of the Anglican church. Admittedly, even cathedral choirs vary amazingly in quality - a lot depends on the director of music - Peterborough, for example, aren't brilliant.

Although a lapsed Catholic and agnostic, I really like singing Anglican church services, particularly the choir-heavy Evensong and Mattins services (Eucharist is too much like a Catholic mass for my taste!). There's also something about cathedrals and the sound of voices and organ inside their vast spaces that invokes a spiritual feeling that isn't necessarily related to God. And as such, I can enjoy the service without needing to believe that it's worship.

* Canticles, for anyone unfamiliar with Church of England services, are the words of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, which are set to music and sung at the evening service of Choral Evensong.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Show me anything but this

This week there is news of the world's mountain glaciers receding. This article concentrates on the Alpine glaciers: according to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, the glaciated area in the Alps has been decreasing by over 8% per decade since the 1970s - compared with less than 3% in the years before this. Climatologists and geologists have known for some time that we were emerging from the so-called "Little Ice Age", which brought harsh winters and cold temperatures to much of northern Europe, Britain included. But this evidence seems to suggest that the rate of warming has increased over the last thirty years.

Also this month, in Geoscientist (magazine of the Geological Society, of which I am a member), there is an article about the recession of the
Kilimanjaro ice fields. The Furtwangler glacier, on the mountain's peak, has shrunk back as much as five metres since 2000. In Tanzania there are even greater implications: on water supply to the population living around the mountain, which could add to the already heavy drought burden faced by local people.

What, of course, isn't clear is what is causing the acceleration of ice wasting in glaciers and ice-fields. One can argue that global warming is caused by man's influence - the burning of too much fossil fuel, the releasing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through slash-and-burn agriculture, indutrial processes and our own activities. However, one also has to take into account the vast quantities of "greenhouse" gases and aerosols expelled into the atmosphere from only one volcanic eruption. It may be that the world's climate is a very delicate balancing act: natural sinks in the earth can cope with naturally derived carbon dioxide, but when our activities remove a large proportion of the carbon sinks (such as forests), without reducing and in fact increasing the amount of carbon dioxide being released, then that balance is upset, and global warming is the result.

Well, we've been living on Earth for such a short time, compared to the age of the planet, and compared to the time that life has been around, that whether we go or stay seems irrelevant. At least on a cosmic perspective. In some ways it's a shame that people don't live longer: if we could expect to live as long as Methuselah (over 900 years), perhaps we'd be more motivated to make changes which we would see, rather than our children, grandchildren or remoter descendants.*

Habitable planets are so rare we appear to be occupying the only one for light-years around. So it would be a shame if our activities caused the planet to be uninhabitable - either through creating another ice age, or a greenhouse effect similar to that of Venus. What can we do? Well, it would help to use less fuel - in any case, petrol and gas reserves are not likely to last for much longer, and will become more and more expensive as stocks get lower. But everyone has to recognise that there may be a problem before means of slowing down the rate of warming become impractical or impossible.

* This thought isn't original (sorry) - see Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Take a glance at the fancy rats

Today it's World Rat Day, apparently. According to these people, rats are better pets than, say, rabbits, because they are intelligent, like human company and are clean. This last may come as something of a shock to those who consider rats vermin, but then pet rats are very different to wild rats. The comments from rat owners are very positive about the creatures. For a positive view of rats as pets (in fiction), one can't do better than Joe's Ratty in The Big Six - though I daresay any animal welfare expert would deplore the conditions in which he's kept - Joe's pocket, for example!.

I've never owned a pet, and am not sure I'd want a rat - but the same goes for any rodent, really. I have a prejudice against albino animals (it's the pink eyes, I think), but I could judge a rat beauty pageant, I'm sure (no, I'm not joking -
Cavyrescue have organised the Ratless Rat Show!) .

Monday, April 03, 2006

I'm no mug

I went shopping in London on Saturday. On Oxford Street. More fool I, you'll say. I did end up spending more money than I had anticipated, but got some nice things as a result. I'll pass over the garments - well, because clothes are clothes, really, and I'm not going to post about boots or jackets here. What I will post about are Swallows and Amazons mugs.

I bought mine in Borders (according to S, no other bookstore chain in London sells them - which she should know, because she's a publisher's rep, and visits many, many bookshops in our fine capital city). Okay, so it was pricey, for a mug, at £8.95. But just look at it! The design comes from the original Jonathan Cape published editions, and includes pictures from the book itself (which is probably my favourite by Ransome). Art Meets Matter only do four designs, including the one I have - Pigeon Post (in yellow), Swallows and Amazons (in green) and We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea (in blue). Perhaps it's a good thing they don't do all twelve titles, or I'd be tempted to collect them all, and I really have enough mugs.