26 January 2008

Scotch - Wahey!

I'm feeling somewhat sluggish this morning, following a celebration last night with friends of the 249th birthday of Robert Burns, the most renowned of all Scottish poets who aren't William McGonagall.

As is traditional, the event involved haggis, tatties and neeps, readings of Burns's poetry and copious quantities of whisky. In deference to the fact that we're all middle-class urban English cultural tourists, the haggis was vegetarian, the potatoes and swede roasted rather than bashed, and the poetry read out in a variety of painful imitations of Scottish accents (except for Seamus Heaney's "A Birl for Burns", for which an Irish accent was felt to be more appropriate). It was thoroughly good fun -- the Quorn-based pseudo-haggis, homemade by B., being a particular triumph -- and the whisky at least included a wide range of thoroughly genuine Scottish single malts. Mm, Talisker.

All of which (together with our entirely spurious inclusion among the readings of MacGonagall's immortal The Tay Bridge Disaster), made me speculate about the possibility of a MacGonagall Night supper, involving the foulest whiskies available, dramatised readings, a recreation of MacGonagall's legendary performance as Macbeth, and plates of peas for throwing purposes. But it's probably been done.

As well as being an obvious way of preserving meat through the winter months, haggis is also an excellent stomach-liner, as are the carbohydratey vegetables which accompany it. So I don't feel too rough this morning, despite the many whiskies.

I'm now pondering the extent of Burns's literary reputation, and especially Wikipedia's claim that "He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and after his death became an important source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism." Clearly Burns was and remains pivotal to the development of both Scottish poetry and Scots-language poetry. Having studied most of the major English Romantics, though, I've a strong suspicion that the rest of this is a patriotic exaggeration.

Burns remains best known for his pithier lyrics: the sentimental ones, like "Auld Lang Syne" and "A Red, Red Rose"; the humorous ones, like the Addresses to haggises and mice; and of course the patriotic ones, like "Scots Wha Hae". While it's true that the English pioneers of Romanticism, Wordsworth and Coleridge, started off like Burns, writing pastoral, lyrical poetry with an emphasis on folklore and rural traditions, they were hardly unique in this. What's more, both soon progressed to longer, weightier works like The Prelude and Biographia Literaria, and it's these which herald the emergence of English Romanticism as an intellectual movement -- everything before that was just pootling about in fields.

Although Burns certainly shared many of Wordsworth's and Coleridge's political and social convictions, too much of his time was taken up with practical farm work, learning to dress flax and knocking up all the women he could get his hands on (not a big concern for his English Romantic contemporaries, but one which their successors Byron, Keats and Shelley would throw themselves into with great enthusiasm), to produce any works of parallel significance. Burns's most sustained accomplishment is "Tam O'Shanter" -- a short pseudo-epic about an encounter with witches, which is essentially a prolonged drunken anecdote. Albeit quite a funny one.

Burns was splendid at what he did, of course, but I remain to be convinced that what he did would be considered so highly if it wasn't for Scottish national pride. Not, I have to admit, that I'd relish arguing the point with a well-informed Scot.

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09 January 2008

The Elseworld, the Flesh and the Devil

Yes, sorry, that last entry was a bit dull, wasn't it? I've been rather dim-witted at work this week as well.

I'm still trying to persuade my brain and body that Christmas is over, and that I really am expected to be functioning as normal at the moment, rather than lounging around reading, sleeping and watching TV. Also that there are no mince pies or chocolate decorations left, because I've eaten them all.

Never mind. Surefish have put up my latest column, written back in December, about alternative history and what it might tell us about christianity. Read it and let me know what you think.

A slightly more interesting allotheological question than the one I ask here, "What if Jesus had never been crucified?" would (unless, of course, you're a boringly conservative penal substitutionary atonement fan) be "What if Jesus had never been an adult?".

Infant mortality in first-century Palestine was shockingly high, not to mention that a successful conception is absolutely no guarantee you'll end up being born. Many doctrines of the atonement hold that Christ's incarnation, with an optional side-order of death and suffering, were sufficient for the salvation of humanity -- but what if this happened and no-one knew about it, because the saviour had perished from diphtheria, saving the world in the process, while two weeks old?

Er. That probably won't be of much interest to most of you, but it's the kind of thing I sometimes think about (along with "What if Jesus had been born Persian, say, or indeed Roman?", "What if Jesus had used his powers for evil and become a supervillain?" and "Mm, I could really do with a mince pie".) This doesn't necessarily mean anyone else has to take any notice, at least until I put it in a novel or something.

...and now, inevitably, I'm imagining what that middle one would look like as a comic, with rival Roman and Jewish teams of superheroes (The Centurion and Kid Caesar, Simon Magus and the Wandering Jew) vying for the privilege of taking down Messiahman and his Disciples of Doom. I need to go and clean my brain out now.

Oh look, a badger!

06 January 2008

6 / 366

Happy New Year, belatedly, to whoever's reading this. Hope you have a splendid time in 2008, and that it brings you everything you might conceivably desire. (Unless you're a U.S. Republican, in which case I'm sorry, but no.)

"2008" in a mirror looks very much like "BOOS". We'll be in a better position to assess the numerological significance of this later in the year.

Since I last posted here, I've flitted around the country like a moth in bloody great Doc Martens, visiting various relatives, in-laws and friends for Christmas and New Year, then spent a week or so recovering from same.

I'm very pleased with various presents, and most weightily with the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, a four-way joint birthday-Christmas gift from my and B.'s parents. It's basically the full twelve volumes of the O.E.D. scrunched up small enough to fit into a single book, plus a magnifying glass. It's enormous and splendid, and has already told me that I was lied to long ago about the etymology of "marmalade". Hurrah.

Very happy also to have got Paul Magrs' Something Borrowed and Twin Freaks, Kim Newman's Andy Warhol's Dracula plus various other books and DVDs of Casino Royale, The Fountain (which I've still not seen, though I love Π) and the outstanding Children of Men. I've also obtained, though non-christmatically, a shiny new Sony MP3man which I need to learn to use, and the utterly splendid League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Black Dossier... bringing to three the number of sequels to successful modern multitextual crossovers of nineteenth-century novel characters which I've acquired in the past fortnight.

Last night B. and I went to see The Golden Compass, which I wish had spent a tenth as much effort getting its script right as it evidently did on its (mostly superlative) special effects. The very obvious attempts to emulate successful recent movies (the spoken introduction telling us about the last remaining Ring alethiometer; the rubbish stardust-visionary effect when Lyra uses the same; the casting of Christopher Lee as a sinister old man and the last-minute recasting of Ian-McKellen-by-the-numbers as Iorek Byrnison), together with the deliberate ironing-out of anything contentious Philip Pullman might have had to say about religion, have turned his remarkable visionary parable into a thoroughly generic children's fantasy film.

I particularly enjoyed the visuals accompanying that opening narration, where the contrast between worlds was shown by first presenting the Radcliffe Camera surrounded by modern office-blocks to show our world rooted in reality, and then dissolving into the whimsical fantasy world by replacing these with the buildings which are actually bloody there. I can only imagine the derision with which the Oxford audiences would have reacted to that one.

Thanks to the maniacity of December I've fallen badly behind on writing and on updating this blog. I've rather signally failed to stick to my resolution for 2007 of reading a book a week and blogging about them -- the last time I wrote about what I'd been reading it was early November, and even then I left a couple out. I'll try to rectify this in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I'm back to work tomorrow, for the first time this year. Hurrah for Bank Holidays which fall on my working days and prevent me having to take unmanageable amounts of leave.

Enjoy the year. I'll try to blog again before the end of it.