Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Is no gouda

Life has suddenly taken a rather dramatic turn (for the good, fret not), which means things will be slightly frenetic for a while. I'm kind of having to maintain a façade of calm while inwardly jumping up and down like a demented rabbit, squealing huzzah and pumping the air with my fist, and this is also cramping my style. As a consequence I won't have much patience for blogger-battling over the next few days, particularly on the photo front.

However, just to throw something out there, a while back (too lazy to link) there was a post in the Guardian blog about chatting up people reading books on public transport. At the time, I thought, "Interesting idea, but has ramifications." Then took a look at what I was reading (Christopher Moore's Blood-Sucking Fiends) and thought, "Perhaps not the best totty-luring material." At which point I got distracted by medieval justice and that was the end of that.

But a few days ago I sat next to an elderly man on the metro reading Le Petit Nicolas and smiling in appreciation at certain passages. And so the discussion popped up in my head again. For one thing, it seemed a bit of an unusual reading choice and for another, when I know someone has enjoyed a book I've liked, I feel like there's a potential for some kind of connection.

Of course, having been on the other side of the booker/bookee experience, and being possessed of a fairly healthy dose of reserve (I'd give it a nationality, but apparently I've always been like this) I also know that down that path lies the fear of stalkerdom and all kinds of assorted creepiness. And so the elderly man was safe from my attentions while I began to wonder about how the choice of reading material seems to say so much about a person. But that's a blog for another day.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Wow, wow, wow yowe boat.

This weekend we (yrs truly + companions) went to Česky Krumlov for a spot of rafting down the Vltava and some castle-tower climbing. ČK is a small town of almost unbearable chocolate-box cuteness. It has cobbled streets, highly-manicured baroque gardens, little alleywayettes, olde-worlde houses in sugared almond shades and sgraffiti (posh European graffiti, aka renaissance wall etchings) a-go-go. There's even a pink-and-gold gilded wedding cake confection of a Renaissance redecorated tower.

The town proudly claims to be no.2 on the UNESCO world heritage list after Venice. As far as I can tell UNESCO avoids listing anything in order of importance, but ČK is definitely one of the eight hundred and thirty-odd sites. And no, the contents of this list have not now been added to my personal list of future travel destinations. Honest, guv.

The tourist office, while touting the delights of the "Museum Tortury" and "Club Horor" (sic), prefers to gloss over the time when that sociopathic-painter-and-decorator-with-a-dodgy-moustache-who-shall-not-be-named posed for cheering crowds in the main square. This was just after the annexation of the Sudetenland which spearheaded his European-scale living-room remodelling project. Subsequently, during another period of Czech history of which none doth speak, Germanophones were booted out. Then the whole place was left to moulder under layers of murky grey communist aspic and socialist dust until the Velvet Revolution blew away the cobwebs and opened the medieval gates to tourists (but so far, no major fast-food chains).

And hot damn is it ever cute. It's so cute that while wandering around you expect teams of dancers in adorable but itchy technicolourful regional costumes to spill out from rose-bowered doors, then start dancing in formation through the streets while singing a local song of welcome in quaint but unclassifiable central European accents.

"Fa la la laaaaa vee vel-come youuuuu!" chirrup the ladies waving sheaves of golden wheat trailed with ribbons. "Tra lala laaaaa, and your little dog toooooo!" chorus the men, as they skip lightly around the fountain in the main square in knee-length britches. "Ahh-haa-haa-haaaaa, like a special steeeeyeeewww!" trills the children's choir in cherub outfits from the eaves, while showering the dancers with local produce. "Varming ourr hearts in vin-ter, and cool in der zommer toooooo!" they all harmonise together, and release doves from some unimaginable hiding place behind their be-tasselled gaiters.

Well, it could happen. In the meantime, we were treated to the delights of the annual "Folk, Tramp and Country" festival in the self-same square mentioned above. The performers featured a lot of Czech folksongs which everyone knew but us. However, just to lend things that ever-so-slightly surreal edge, quite a few of the performers also treated us to rousing songs from the western pop canon, translated into Czech and reinterpreted in a Folk-Tramp-Country idiom.

While "In My Tennessee Mountain Home" was easy enough to identify, "Hello (is it me you're looking for?)" was trickier to pin down. I think I'm still taking in the notion of Lionel Ritchie tunes with a banjo accompaniment. Anyhow, I'm not entirely sure what the lushly-moustachioed, bald-headed pipe-smoking rider of this vehicle (nice fringe) thought of events, but he did occasionally smile, as did the two goths present. Several kiddies appeared to be having a whale of a time too. And of course, the music was loud enough to block out the faint whirring noise of not a few grave-spinners from the darker corners of history.

(Blogger refuses to cooperate on the photo-uploading front this evening. Hopefully will work tomorrow)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

One man's fountain is another man's, erm…

This is a moving sculpture outside the new Kafka museum (their hips swivel and other "parts" move in a stunning display of hydraulic engineering - I kid thee not). The two gentlemen are standing on an outline of the Czech Republic. Make of that what you will.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Return of Mrs. Jana

The cockles of my heart chilleth over for Mrs. Jana has returned from her holiday full of vim and vigour, and smelling faintly of pine forests. Just in time to test my knowledge of the locative case and take up the challenge of the conditional.

While Ms. Ivanka favoured the "gentle introduction" which involved wading through the shallow waters of basic rules before slowly striking out for deeper water, Mrs. Jana prefers the "cold plunge" deep into the heart of Czech grammar. The over-riding principal is the survival of the linguistic fittest, and I tremble at the thought of failure.

Thus, her disapproval was manifest when she began her preliminary assessment of my progress over the last few weeks. "Use these words in a conditional sentence," she instructed. But apparently, I used the wrong kind. Ohhh nooooo… woe betide the hapless student that uses the easy conditional, the "I-would-have-done-my-homework-but-my-pencils-all-were-stolen-by-a-vengeful-elf," conditional tense. Instead, they must produce something else. Only I'm not entirely sure what it is, so I'd better start studying again.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bit squished, but still here.

Halfway up the stairs isn't up and isn't down, particularly when there are 289 of the very narrow things twisting their way heavenward from transept to tower. I've never felt that emotion more clearly than last Saturday morning when we ascended St. Vitus' main tower along with all the other herds of tourists thundering through Prague. Oddly, this group seemed to include what felt like the entire population of Spain. Bro, soz-in-law and I somehow ended up behind a rather portly couple who appeared to be about to wheeze their (forty-unfiltered-a-day) last at that point (stair no. 144.5).

And in that moment the knowledge that we were neither in the tower, nor on the ground filled our hearts with dread. The sheer press of humanity on their way up meant that try though they might, descending was extremely low on the list of options, unless one of them had brought a pickaxe and rigging for just such an emergency.

And so they stopped. And we stopped. And the mass of humanity behind us stopped. And they panted. (stair no.144) And I began to mentally revise CPR. And the mass of humanity behind us surged forward another step. And they puffed. (stair no.145) And bro began to mutter darkly about Drake and the Armada. And we wondered if that was a death-rattle. (stair no.144 nononono) And the mass of humanity pressed upward.

And they creakily began to debate their options in husky Spanish. (stair no.145 yesyesyesyes) And I attempted to calculate the clearance between their heads and the ceiling and the weight-bearing capability of their shoulders propped at various angles. And then they began to shuffle around a bit.(stair no.146 ohyespleasegoonmysonsyoucandoit) And the MOH began to get restless.

Until, with a last desperate lunge, (stairs no. 147, 148,149,150151hoooorrraayyyy!!!!) they reached the window aperture half-a-turn up and there was enough extra room for us to squeeze past, with the mass of humanity, Spanish hordes included, in hot pursuit. I have never been so grateful to see a bell-loft in my life.

Despite this near-death experience, there were were no fatalities last weekend, which marks it as a resounding success in my book, particularly as all injuries incurred were fairly evenly distributed and should eventually heal with proper medical treatment and appropriate clothing. They included:
Two nose-bleeds (mine).
Two pairs of feet worn down to bleeding stumps (bro and sos-in-law).
Chafing in an unmentionable (and for me unthinkable) area (bro, as s-i-l wore both comfortable pants and shoes).
One random, distracted tourist bruised in an unmentionable (but for me thinkable) when he walked into a bollard at just the right height.
One German lady accidentally punched in the left boob. (Guilty party: me - I averted an international incident with a quick-thinking apology in my very best Czech and a rapid exit of the cramped washroom).

And the cake was very good.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The eagle is landing

I'd actually intended to use today's post to sum up some thoughts (Kadri's and mine) about the trials I wrote about last week. But elder bro and soz-in-law are descending on Prague tomorrow for the weekend. As long as no one between there and here decides they're a potentially lethal substance, they'll hopefully be bearing vast quantities of extremely stinky olives. Felt obliged to withdraw my request for the disposable bbq though.

Nothing but sweetness and light in casa peril, you might think. Or at least as much sweetness and light as brine, oil and the pungent odours of raw garlic, chili and jet fuel can provide. Nonetheless, I am wracked with anxiety about the organisational side of things. It's a huge unknown quantity.

Visions of disaster flit across my empty mind. My track record isn't the best in this area. Since the time my sleeping bag acted as a sponge for a cow pasturesworth of collected rain during a howling gale, my tour leadership experience has been a veritable compendium of missed connections, closed-for-repairs, food poisoning, speeding tickets, riots and Polish mazurka dancers.

Not revealing any secrets because they don't often pass by here (but you never know…). Anyhow this is the plan so far:

Day 1
Crack of dawn (early-risers. sigh.)
Emergency cake
Admiring of cobblestones
Admiring of brewery
Emergency beer*
Mala Strana
More emergency beer
Maybe some food

Day 2
Crack of mid-morning
Emergency pancakes (shh… that's the secret surprise)
Old Town
Museum of Communism
Lunch potato
Museum of something or other
Emergency light beer
Dinner in the aeroplane restaurant
Emergency dark beer

Day 3
Beer. Light and dark.

I think it could do with more depth.

*This is for them, not me. But if I get my timing right, they might not notice that I'm hiding under the table with a head-torch for 20 minutes of nerve-soothing Wodehouse.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

If man is five...

[No animals were harmed during the creation of the following blog entry. Harmed? Have you seen the state of my lower intestine after that last seven-course meal? All that rich food, heavy on the dairy? No soluble fibre unless it was swimming in cream? And the toilet roll's like sandpaper, dammit. They were coddled and treated like a delegation of visiting royalty. And this is the thanks I get.]

This is not a review. This is a question of justice. For too long we have bourne bjorn put up with the slings and arrows of unkind man's ingratitude. You're mixing your playful metaphors again. For too long intelligent, highly-evolved non-human primates have been undervalued and disgracefully exploited while rascally homo sapiens-types grab all the glory.

Take the treatment meted out on one primate (species unspecified) only identified as "Pal", in this book about detectives from Houston. The cover goes all blurry when you wave it about like that. Slow down, will you? Besides, don't that writer's Texans normally grow up to be cowboys?. In this case, as everyone knows, there are no species of ape native to Texas What about Bigfoot? so the action mainly takes place in Washington. Not the rainy state, the D.C. one.

As the story opens, the very innocent anthropologist heroine with soft brown hair has come under suspicion of stealing a 5000-year-old cuneiform vase. The embittered detective hero with darker, springier hair arrives to clear her name, and is told about three potentially shifty faculty members with boring hair as well as the highly-intelligent and well-groomed primate used for research in social development. The detective immediately finds a mysterious hair at the scene of the crime and takes it the FBI lab for analysis. But it's too coarse to be human... Should have used conditioner

To give the hero and heroine credit, they struggle in truly heroic fashion against the blatant pro-human bias of the plot. They promptly dismiss the hair as unimportant. They attempt to remove focus on the primate's history as an escape artist by discussing melon balls and the decline of civilization. They try to divert attention from the ape's lock-picking skills with big dramatic misunderstandings, thund'rous passion, sweet, savage misunderstandings, nefarious-friend-provoked passion, more violent, hungry mis-. Hang on. I think I'm getting a bit confused here.

But despite their noble efforts, the tail… That's not funny tale rolls inexorably along its predetermined course. And guess who gets caught bare-pawed in a thrilling denoument four chapters from the end and then ignominiously shipped back to the zoo, to be replaced in the research lab by an iguana? AN IGUANA!

That's right, blaaaame the monkey. Blame the friggin' monkey. Sorry, ape. At least the heroine is able to make that distinction. Make him the scAPE-goat so that the story can end with the humans free of false accusations and happy as gumivores in a sweet shop, while the more intelligent biped is sent to rot behind the bars of a cage. Don't ask the obvious questions, like WHY any self-respecting primate would want to steal 5000-year old dried mud…

*bing!lightbulb* …hang on… the primate's name was Pal… That sounds a bit like…Hal, doesn't it? And the species is never properly identified. The writer even throws out terms like "australopithecus insidious" and "missing link" seemingly in jest. She knew! SHE KNEW! It's all so clear… This is horrifying... Wait! What are you doing, D-?

*brooding silence*

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Briefly stunned into insensibility

This is from something like the Czech equivalent of Now, called Jim. From my rough translation of the blurb, it's a photo of the highly-secret wedding between the "rocker" (NOT singer), Josef Vojtek and the lovely dancer, Libuše Hůlková. It took place at Průhonice (the garden and castle we visited last month where we marvelled at the ability of Czech women to hike gravel paths in spike heels).

Perhaps at the time we were actually witnessing some bizarre suitability test, akin to those conducted in days of yore when prospective brides would chop down forests with dried herring, crochet bullet-proof antimacassars from spaghetti, line-dance on the head of a pin and so on.

The caption does note that the outfits were inspired by musicals. The Pirates of Penzance and Moulin Rouge are clearly in the mix, but what about the rest?

Edited to add: Lookee what rpc found! It's uncanny, I tell you.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The wind beneath its wings

This weekend, flatmate J. and I went off to wander along the banks of a 16th-century fish pond and look at a giant neo-gothic mausoleum in South Bohemia. Třeboň (aka Wittengau), to be precise, footnotes from whose history might eventually feature here if I ever manage to sort out something for rpc on witches and alchemy.

The fish pond was very large and wet. The mausoleum was neo-Gothic and had 27 coffins in the crypt. I've evidently watched more "Buffy" episodes than most of the Czech republic including the tour guide, because they didn't seem too impressed by my badly-mimed requests for a bundle of wooden stakes and some holy hand grenades of righteousness.

We also temporarily sought shelter from the permanent downpour by ducking into an exhibition on the surrounding area called, "Třeboňsko - Man and Nature". It featured little video clips and dioramas on the construction of the ponds, unique eco-system of the area (nature films) and the local peat baths/spa (bathers au naturel films).

As seems to be de rigeur anywhere that has an old castle, the "wildlife" section was partly an excuse to dust down and exhibit some of great-great-uncle Bohumil's taxidermy efforts. However, the exhibitors did seem to recognise that some visitors might have qualms about the enormous quantity of dead, stuffed animals they had managed to acquire and were sensitive enough to provide detailed explanations in certain cases. Here's a typical example (slightly paraphrased):

Osprey - Pandion haliaetus

This osprey was brought into the animal welfare centre with a broken leg after it had been unfairly attacked by a wild boar. The boar was sent to anger-management therapy and has grown touchingly fond of its inner piglet.

After ground-breaking keyhole surgery, the osprey appeared to be on the road to recovery until it contracted a terrible fever and rejected its pinfeather transplant. Despite the heroic efforts of staff, and the prayers of the entire Czech nation the osprey unfortunately succumbed and passed away peacefully in a nest made of finest-quality organically-grown, pesticide-free reeds.

A state funeral with full honours followed, attended by the president and famous celebrities from Velký Bratr (Big Brother) 3, one of whom - the loud one with cavernous nostrils - tearfully expressed the determination to change his name by deed poll to AuspReigh to honour the bird's nobility of spirit.

With its dying squawk, the osprey had expressed a wish that its body be given to science for the benefit of generations to come and thus after the ceremony it was stuffed with sage and onion loving care by tender hands and now features as an honoured part of this exhibit, for which we are eternally grateful.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Would would Della do?

Leaping with the speed and grace of a mountain lion over several centuries and a few thousand miles, we arrive back in Scotland during the reign of James VI, aka James, King of England, Scotland, France (yes, I know - that's another long story, lets just say nothing beats a monarchy for stubborness) and Ireland (see comment for France), Defender of the Faith (as long as it was the right one), etc. (this is an official royal etc., rather than me being lazy)

Son of Mary, Queen of Scots, James was actually raised Protestant and married Anne of Denmark to cement his religious position. In fact, he claimed to have been struck by love's dart after seeing her portrait for the first time and wrote her love sonnets, including the immortal lines:

The fever hath infected every part
My bones are dried, their marrow melts away,
My sinnews feebles through my smoking smart,
And all my blood as in a pan doth play.

(cue gross bit - as if that wasn't enough)

Touching stuff, I think you'll agree.* Anne evidently thought so since she bore him 9 children although apparently they later drifted apart. Anyhow all this helps to show that James was not a squeamish man who fainted at big piles of gore, blood and guts. He probably found them inspiring and full of meaning in some ineffably Elizabethan way. Dude, they were a morbid bunch.

The tendancies described above might help to explain why in October 1600 (a few years after he got over his obsession with witch-hunting) he ordered the attendance of John and Alexander Ruthven at Holyrood. They were to answer charges of treason for attempting to kill him, but it was their months-old pickled corpses that arrived at court. This couldn't have been a surprise to the monarch since it was James and/or his attendants that had killed the brothers back in August and ordered their bodies' preservation. (p.177)

Following their conviction for their part in the "Gowrie Conspiracy", the corpses were then dragged through the streets of Edinburgh, publically hanged, quartered and their heads put on display. This wasn't even the end of it, since nine years later, Robert Logan had been dead for three years when witnesses testified against his reassembled skeleton for his part in the same conspiracy. (pp.178-9) Nice.

This practice faded out in Britain (with a brief hiccup for regicides at the start of the Restoration), but across the Channel, even a century or so later the trial and execution of corpses, particularly suicides, wasn't unusual. Take the conviction for suicide of a 74-year-old man in 18th-century Picardy who had hanged himself because he was convinced that his bride (20) was magically making him incapable of the "dance as old as time". (p.171)

Magic. Absolutely. But the interesting feature of this case is that convicted suicides normally forfeited their land and wealth. Since the man's lovely young bride had remarried a bare 2 weeks after his death, it's not a stretch to imagine that he was actually counting on this outcome. However this time the court mitigated the forfeiture and awarded his widow 1500 livres. (ibid) One cunning, Agatha Christie-type revenge plan foiled, methinks.

*Luckily, the most famous work associated with his name (The King James Bible) only does so because he commissioned it. He mercifully left its composition to a committee of 50-odd translators.

Page references still to this book

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is the Pope?...

Once upon a time in Rome, the shiny fisherman's ring of office didn't exactly poof from one pope's finger to the next in a graceful flurry of white doves and smoke. Transitions were a tad bumpier than the stately shenanigans that recently graced St.Peter's Square. It wasn't all about kicking around in the Sistine chapel admiring the pictures and drinking Benedictine while waiting for a super-secret conclave (flock? davinci? gibson?) of cardinals to make a decision. Those who would be pope used to take a bit more of a hands-on approach to things.

More blood, more assassins, and sometimes... zombie popes. Or at least Pope of the Living Dead. Kinda.

And so we turn our minds back to events following April 4, 896 when Pope Formosus (yes I know, would you call your son Formosus? Maybe some would, after all it means "good-looking" in latin, but what's wrong with a nice biblical name like Manger, anyway?) shuffled off this mortal coil due to old age, heartbreak, guilt or chagrin depending on whose version of events you read.

Before his death, Formosus had been caught up in political squabbles over who got to rule the Holy Roman Empire.** While he favoured Arnulf of Carinthia (East Frankish Carlovingian/Carolingian/Karling dynasty), his next successor-but-one Stephen VI (Boniface VI, the pope in between, lasted only two weeks) preferred the rugged and manly charm of Lambert, Duke of Spoleto. Since both these gentlemen had been crowned emperor by Formosus at different times (long story), Stephen VI took drastic action to ensure Lambert's legitimacy and undermine Arnulf's descendents claim. Lambert and his mother Agiltrude, no fan of the Carolingians herself, also wanted vengeance on Formosus for his double-dealing.

(gross bit coming up)

And so in January 897 they disinterred Formosus' decomposing corpse (do the maths - that's grim), dressed him in his papal togs and propped up him up on his throne.Then they convened a special synod and tried him as a usurper. The synod would come to be known as the synod horrenda or cadaver synod. (p.167)

After a bit of angry shouting by Stephen VI, the synod convicted Formosus, chopped off the three fingers he used for papal blessings, stripped him of his vestments and dumped him in a pauper's grave. But there was no rest for Formosus yet, since grave-robbers made off with his body. When they found nothing of value on it, they dumped it in the Tiber. (p.168)

Stephen's macabre trial did little to endear him to the people of Rome, and their discontent found a focus when a monk wandering along the riverbank later that year spotted a body which he quickly identified as Formosus (well, what other corpse could possibly have been bobbing along down Porto way with missing fingers?) and fished him out. Rumours quickly circulated that the waterlogged remains had the power to perform miracles. A public uprising followed and Stephen VI was deposed and put in prison where he was strangled in either July or August of that year.

In November that year, Pope Theodore II found time during his 20-day reign to annul the synod's verdict, and the body was kitted out in a new outfit and returned to its tomb in St.Peter's Basilica. His successor, Pope John IX declared any future trial of a dead person unlawful and burned the synod records.

Even this wasn't the end of the story. A later pope, Sergius III, (904-911) would overturn these rulings and write a lovely epitaph for Stephen VI's tomb. There are also reports that he exhumed Formusus' much-abused corpse, tried and convicted it a second time and then beheaded it. Although never over-turned, Sergius III's decisions were disregarded afterwards due to his Spoletan bias. Accusations of murder, corruption and the nefarious influence of his concubine, Marozia, probably didn't help.

Now of course, it could be argued that this was the sort of thing that those addled medieval-types got up to when they'd sampled a bit too much of their home-brewed mead. But this was by no means the last time a corpse was tried… (what a cliff-hanger - insert doom-laden music here, preferably with bagpipes).

**Charlemagne, son of Pepin (not a hobbit) was the most famous Carolingian King of the Franks, a Germanic confederation which covered the Low Countries, western Germany and most of France apart from Brittany. The treaty of Verdun of 843 saw three of his grandsons split his kingdom into three parts: Lothair got Middle Francia, Louis the German got East Francia and Charles the Bald (hee!) got West Francia.

East Francia slowly and stickily became the Holy Roman Empire of the West (aka of the German nation aka the Reich), the process finishing under Otto I the Great in 962. A bit before Otto, Charles the Fat (son of Louis the German) helped things along, since he managed to inherit large chunks of his uncles' territory owing to their unfortunate habit of dying without heirs. But nothing was straightforward and the situation often became as messy as their Merovingian predecessors' hair in a force 10 gale.

Jean-Paul Laurens, Le Pape Formose et Etienne VII, 1870, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, via Wikipedia

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


More from the book. All good stuff, really. Comments forthcoming.

James VI of Scotland, aka the later James I of England, was astonishingly intellectual for a monarch which quality earned him the sobriquet, "the wisest fool in Christendom." Well, what else do you call someone who translated texts from Latin to French to English as a child for fun? (p.124) Low on fluffy-lambkin character traits, high on paranoia (p.126), he feared a coven of witches were plotting against him and kicked off the first mass witch-hunt in Scotland.

So things weren't very much in the way of sweetness and light in late 17th century Scotland, what with Jamie-boy forming a commission to safeguard the country from sorcery, authorising the use of torture and worse still, publishing an enormously thick treatise on witchcraft, the smash (well, it was heavy enough to kill a cockroach acting as a minion of the dark side) hit Daemonologie, which recycled most of the usual superstitions and anecdotes. However, by 1597 he'd chilled out a bit and reined in the activities of witch-hunters, as well as starting to question some of the prosecutions. (p.128)

But James' influence on the rise in witch-hunting shouldn't be over-stated. It was actually a period which marked a rise in witch-hunts throughout Europe. Also, about twelve times the number of witches were burned in Scotland as in England at this time, a phenomenon Kadri attributes to institutional differences between the two countries. Scotland had moved to a more continental-style of trials led by judges, often in private, whereas England usually had jury trials. (p.128)

However, Jamie-boy would soon have other irons in the fire. Even DEAD ones...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Trials and Tribulations

At the moment I'm reading a really interesting book on the history of trials. There's a chapter dedicated to the trials of non-humans (animals, objects and corpses), which is a practice that didn't really fade out until the Enlightenment. Lots of theory about the evolution about the modern judicial system, but even more good stories.

So for your delectation, a couple of anecdotes from this chapter. The first concerns a certain Jacques Ferron and an unnamed female donkey both of whom were convicted for improper relations back in Vanvres, 1750. Man and donkey were sentenced to death, but prior to the execution Jacques' neighbours and parish priest came rushing hot-foot with a petition for mercy. Mercy for the communally-owned donkey, that is. They stated that they had known the poor maligned creature for four years and that she was "in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature." Donkey was back in the grazing ground by tea-time, nibbling while Jacques burned (alive). (p.156)

Back in 1535 Nottinghamshire a jury was convened to establish culpability in the death of one farmer Anthony Whylde, who had been suffocated when a large haystack fell on him. In a Perry Masonesque feat of deduction, the jurors managed to identify with astonishing precision the exact small bale responsible for Anthony's death. The ultimate fate of the bale is not noted. Insert bad pun of your choice here. (p.179)

Tomorrow - corpses in the dock. Wa-hay!

Monday, August 07, 2006

Still standing... le vikend

Rather dissipated, I think. Inexplicably, although I don't drink the fruit of the vine, the hop, the barley, the malt, the potato, the sugarcane, the date, the rotting palm-fruit, the wormwood, the old tyre, and so on, I still feel vaguely hungover/lethargic two days later. And I think I broke my air guitar.

Personally, I blame the idiot frenchmen who were doing their level best to single-handedly reverse the national stereotype of centuries by avoiding even the slightest hint of sophistication and savoir-faire in their behaviour in favour of acting like marauding idiots. Toes trampled in drunken efforts at "dancing": 793. Limbs ashed by flying cigarettes: 7 (one twice).

If they really were French… They seemed to have difficulty understanding or even speaking that language too. Favorite gem of conversation, "You are your friend's nose." I'm still bemused by that one. Because there must be meaning in it. Somewhere. Then there was the 'Meurican who claimed not to have known the name of this country before he arrived. All well and good, but I'm not sure this is the sort of thing in which I'd take pride. Or advertise to passing strangers.

He also produced this little snippet of conversation with Californian flatmate:
"Hey, your friend doesn't speak English, right? Where's she from?"
"Hey, they speak English good here, don't they?"

Sadly I missed the opportunity to chat with this fine speciman of manhood owing to the complete impenetrability of my dialect. Luckily I normally wander around with a portable subtitle machine or heaven knows how flatmates and I ever managed to negotiate a cleaning rota.

But a most entertaining evening in all. Hopefully, 'twas the chocolate ornament on flatmate J's birthday French lemon tart covered in seasonal fruit. And besides, if we hadn't gone to this particular 80s/90s night, I would have lived without ever seeing a hen party from Essex dance around a crutch to the Bangles (though I could have happily lived without ever seeing the middle-aged male belly-dancer from Pinner, music optional.)

Friday, August 04, 2006


Ahhhhh…. Friday. Light-hearted pudding of delight and rosé-fingered dawn of the weekend. Or something like that. Mel is free now, but after my manifold and great struggles with blogger over the photos for the last post I'm not sure I am able to face another attempt.

Besides, I'm busy ordering a birthday cake. (We have an oven but no pans so baking isn't really an option.) French-style lemon tart with seasonal fruit, or orange-poppyseed with mascarpone cream? Or perhaps New York or marble cheesecake with crushed amaretti biscuit base? And can I just say that there are some damn fine bakeries and cake-shops in this city?

Which leaves me only to close with the immortal words of Marvell in To His Coy Mistress, a manly man's poet with nutritional interests that were far ahead of his time, "My vegetable love should grow/vaster than empires, and more slow." Perhaps after the cake.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A cat can look at a king

In the Kingdom of Argondia, the man with the bushy beard and velvet robe is king. Well, it's not as if he's gonna be Keeper of the Garderobe or a Fuller or something, is it? So all hail King Reon and his mystic wine, fruit juice from concentrate and interior decoration skills. Lesser mortals (ie. not his famous customer, Jimmy Page) who have not visited the Kingdom of Argondia will find it about half-way up Petřin hill.

(ETA: For full Argondian effect, please play Clannad/Enya through the left earphone and Deep Forest through the right one. At a fairly deafening volume - there, that should do the trick)

It's an astonishing experience. What can I say? You know how sometimes in Changing Rooms a designer will go for a "theme". And the surprise of the unsuspecting owners when their previously white-on-pine Scandanavian master bedroom now looks as if TGI Friday's have set up shop in Tutankhamun's aging mistress' bordello? Entering the Kingdom of Argondia creates that level of disconcertment. You can get culture shock walking through the door.

Outside, birds twitter among the trees. Inside, vaguely Celtic-type music (pan pipes, muted female-angel-choir-on-heavy-echo voices that swoop to recreate the sound of leaves on water or some such thing) drowns out footsteps. Outside, timber-framed serenity. Inside, hallucinogenic paintings. Outside sweete lyttle Czech house. Inside, astonishing magic grotto effect, achieved by use of aluminium foil, fairy lights, and not a small amount of plaster. (How'd the elves get it all up that hill?).

Edited to add 2: Outside, leafy nature. Inside, steroid-enhanced demonic Argondian chia pets.

As for the subject-matter of his art, if Reon would be king, it seems his potential pick of queens are all nubile topless beauties with big eyes and the odd fish-tail. As befits the monarch of a magical realm, his courtship is likely to be fraught with peril (heheh), what with those scorpions and antlers growing out of their heads. But no doubt it will be luminous.

ETA: Photos finally added after much agonised perseverence, blogger has been relentlessly uncooperative. King Reon may have greater powers than I suspected. Apologies for their quality and flash issues, but I don't have much photographic ability and it's very dark in the Kingdom of Argondia.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The lost ones...

As mentioned in yesterday's post, as soon as I tell myself that I ought to write about something, I immediately find it next to impossible to do so. Here's a list of the most recent topics:

Mushroom picking and berries in baskets
Kingdom of Argondia
Mr. Cimrman, Czech inventor and misunderstood genius
Mongolian death-worm
Lost book
Saint-under-a-rock church
Baby tower
Marie Whatsherface, Cordonnier, in her own words
The Trial
X marks the spot
Eiffel Tower
Thai food
Bread rolls
Opera and radicalism

Since most of these relate to what I've been doing lately, clearly, I'm no travel writer. Ah well.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A day late and a dollar…

For various reasons, including time zones, I've never been able to coordinate myself enough to contribute to Beth's SB Day - a weekly celebration of all things reading. But yesterday she asked, "What don't you read?" which is a really interesting question.

For one thing, I can't find it in me to come up with a list. I read all the time, and can barely remember a time when I didn't. If desperate, or wondering about the right sort of thing, I could read almost anything. It doesn't mean I have to like it or even think I'll enjoy it or that it's good, but in the right frame of mind almost anything could be interesting, even if only for five minutes. So it's really hard to come up with something about a book that would put me off if I had absolutely nothing else to read, although in some cases it might have to be the last book in the world. Although the last book in the world? I might put off reading it forever. Just to have something to anticipate.

Oddly, the one thing that does put me off reading something I'd otherwise enjoy or find interesting is obligation. The minute I "have" to read something it becomes a chore, and one that I'll put off for as long as possible. I have struggled through official reading lists of core texts, while devouring the "further reading". I used to dread being set well-loved or interesting-looking books to read for a class, because being forced to read them could suck all the joy out what should have been a pleasure.

Incidentally, this is even true when it's me telling myself that I ought to read a book. In a way it's a lot like the way things are turning out at this blog. I had plans for what I intended to write about for the next couple of days, but find myself completely incapable of doing this now that I've made the fatal error and thought, "I should write about xyz." On the other hand, the right question or a fleeting thought will catch my interest and mushroom into something completely unexpected, like this post.

Just to round things off, here's a list of reasons why I decided not to buy various books recently. The trick here is to realise that they haven't put me off for good, but just for now. Because in the now, when I have lots of choice, I can be really picky.

Massive hype (fear of disappointment).
Hero sounds like a jerk.
Heroine sounds shallow.
Trying too hard to be "wacky".
Second in series and I haven't read the first one.
First one doesn't look as good as the second one.
Really liked another book by this writer, and worried this won't be as good.
Read a lot of this sort of thing lately and doesn't sound different enough.

Also when very young, I refused to ever re-read The Tale of Samuel Whiskers because the scene where the rats rolled Tom Kitten into roly-poly pudding gave me nightmares. I also refused to read Where the Wild Things Are because the picture on the cover scared me. Instead, I used to hide it where I would hopefully never come across it, like the bathroom cupboard behind mysterious, ancient and unused hair-taming equipment. Mind you, I think I'm over this by now.