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Old Whine, New Bottles

August 1, 2011

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We like to think that modern fiction, particularly American fiction, is free from the artificial stylistic pretensions of the past. Richard Bridgman expressed a common view in his 1966 book The Colloquial Style in America.

Whereas in the 19th century a very real distinction could be made between the vernacular and standard diction as they were used in prose, Bridgman wrote, in the 20th century the vernacular had virtually become standard.

Thanks to such pioneers as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, the story goes, ornate classicism was replaced by a straight-talking vox populi.

Now in the 21st century, with sophisticated text-crunching tools at our disposal, it is possible to put Bridgman’s theory to the test. Has a vernacular style become the standard for the typical fiction writer? Or is literary language still a distinct and peculiar beast?

Scholars in the growing field of digital humanities can tackle this question by analyzing enormous numbers of texts at once. When books and other written documents are gathered into an electronic corpus, one subcorpus can be compared with another: all the digitized fiction, for instance, can be stacked up against other genres of writing, like news reports, academic papers or blog posts.

One such research enterprise is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA, which brings together 425 million words of text from the past two decades, with equally large samples drawn from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, academic texts and transcripts of spoken English. The fiction samples cover short stories and plays in literary magazines, along with the first chapters of hundreds of novels from major publishers. The compiler of COCA, Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, has designed a freely available online interface (HERE) that can respond to queries about how contemporary language is used. Even grammatical questions are fair game, since every word in the corpus has been tagged with a part of speech.

Suppose we’re interested in looking at past-tense verbs. The most common examples in COCA are nondescript: “said,” “came,” “got,” “went,” “made,” “took” and so on. On the surface, the fiction offerings aren’t that different: “said” is still the big winner, while some others move up the list a few spots, like “looked,” “knew” and “thought.” But ask COCA which past-tense verbs show up more frequently in fiction compared with, say, academic prose, and things start to get interesting: the top five are “grimaced,” “scowled,” “grunted,” “wiggled” and “gritted.” Sour facial expressions, gruff noises and emphatic bodily movements (wiggling fingers and gritting teeth) would seem to rule the verbs peculiar to today’s published fiction.

Beyond the use of individual words, researchers can uncover even more striking patterns by looking at how words combine with their neighbors, forming “collocations.” Dictionary makers take a special interest in high-frequency collocations, since they can be the key to understanding how words work in the world. It’s a particular boon for making dictionaries that appeal to learners of English as a second language. When the lexicographer Orin Hargraves was studying collocations for a project at Oxford University Press (where I previously worked as editor for American dictionaries), he struck upon a trove of collocations that “would not be statistically significant were it not for their appearance in fiction.” And these weren’t just artifacts of genre fiction, like “warp speed” in sci-fi or “fiery passion” in bodice-ripping romance novels.

Using the Oxford English Corpus, encompassing about two billion words of 21st-century English, Hargraves found peculiar patterns in simple words like the verb “brush.” Everybody talks about brushing their teeth, but other possible companions, like “hair,” “strand,” “lock” and “lip,” appear up to 150 times more frequently in fiction than in any other genre. “Brush” appears near “lips” when two characters’ lips brush against each other or one’s lips brush against another’s cheek — as happens so often in novels. For the hair-related collocations, Hargraves concludes that “fictional characters cannot stop playing with their hair.”

“Bolting upright” and “drawing one’s breath” are two more fiction-specific turns of phrase revealed by the corpus. Creative writers are clearly drawn to descriptive idioms that allow their characters to register emotional responses through telling bits of physical action — “business,” as they say in theater. The conventions of modern storytelling dictate that fictional characters react to their worlds in certain stock ways and that the storytellers use stock expressions to describe those reactions. Readers might not think of such idioms as literary clichés, unless they are particularly egregious. Individual authors will of course have their own idiosyncratic linguistic tics. Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, is partial to eyebrows. In his techno-thriller Digital Fortress, characters arch or raise their eyebrows no fewer than 14 times.

Brown’s eyebrow obsession may simply signal a lack of imagination, but corpus research can also illuminate a writer’s stylistic creativity. Masahiro Hori, a professor of English linguistics at Kumamoto Gakuen University in Japan, has studied how Charles Dickens breathed new life into literary collocations. In The Pickwick Papers, for instance, Dickens played off the idiom “to look daggers at someone” (meaning to shoot a wrathful glare, itself descended from Shakespeare’s “to speak daggers”) by innovatively replacing “daggers” with “carving-knives”: an old lady “looked carving-knives at the hardheaded delinquent.” To be sure, a careful reader might have discerned the originality of the phrase on his own, but corpus analysis allowed Hori to confirm and extend his insights into Dickens’s ­originality.

For David Bamman, a senior researcher in computational linguistics with Tufts University’s Perseus Project (HERE), analyzing collocations can help unwrap the way a writer “indexes” a literary style by lifting phrases from the past. Often this can consist of conscious allusions — Bamman and his colleagues used computational methods to zero in on the places in Paradise Lost where John Milton is alluding to the Latin of Virgil’s Aeneid. Though traditional literary scholarship has long sought to track these echoes, the work can now be done automatically, transcending any single analyst’s selective attention. The same methods can also ferret out how intertextuality can work on a more unconscious level, silently directing a writer to select particular word combinations to match the expectations of the appropriate genre.

When we see a character in contemporary fiction “bolt upright” or “draw a breath,” we join in this silent game, picking up the subtle cues that telegraph a literary style. The game works best when the writer’s idiomatic English does not scream “This is a novel!” but instead provides a kind of comfortable linguistic furniture to settle into as we read a novel or short story. While Twain, Hemingway and the rest of the vernacularizers may have introduced more “natural” or “authentic” styles of writing, literature did not suddenly become unliterary simply because the prose was no longer so high-flying. Rather, the textual hints of literariness continue to wash over us unannounced, even as a new kind of brainpower, the computational kind, can help identify exactly what those hints are and how they function.

[This interesting piece by Ben Zimmer appears in the book section of Sunday’s New York Times. However, it’s behind a paywall; so, as a service to PolHom readers , I’ve reproduced it here. Check out the COCA link, it’s great fun.]

105 Comments
  1. hic8ubique permalink
    August 1, 2011 3:57 AM

    I like good eyebrow action…
    reading fiction, sipping sauvi…
    especially upward traction
    of one skeptical anchovy.

    I recall your detail, Mishari, in the beginning of a story when the character was startled by a noise and paused listening with his mouth open. I was impressed, and wondered whether you know why people do that, or were just making a keen observation of startle behaviour.

  2. August 1, 2011 9:34 AM

    Outside of Zane Grey and Phillip K Dick stories I wonder if there’s an academic treatise on earth where people blurt things out?

  3. hic8ubique permalink
    August 1, 2011 3:42 PM

    “We all may not be able to support it, or none us may be able to support it,” Pelosi warned.

    Nancy sounding addled at the end of a bad week.

    After searching ‘you guys’ *snarl* I tried ‘stentorian’ for no particular reason. Though I may have misinterpreted, it seems the third most frequent collocation is ‘breathing’
    *ha ha*
    confused with ‘stertorous’.

  4. August 2, 2011 11:24 PM

    Ned, we had a lovely time and a great laugh in your neck of the woods – Betws-y-Coed to Hay-on-Wye to Abergavenny back to Llandudno via Brecon etc. We passed Nantyffin Cider Mill but we were en route to Stephen Terry’s place, The Hardwick so were saving ourselves. Brecon Cathedral was impressive and my friend (a Gavin and Stacey fan, especially of Nessa’s) was delighted to find a shop called Oh! having “oh”-ed at every available opportunity. We had great weather aside from some mist yesterday… anyway, thanks for recommendations, hope you are relaxing before your departure. R

    Got home earlier today and finalised the menu (aka decided what to have for dinner and did shopping) for special guest’s dinner tomorrow night. I couldn’t find any hammer and sickle-patterned bed linen alas but I did put a pea under the mattress, which I trust he will share with me when he finds it. Hope all well… anybody interested in meeting up on Thursday evening in Dublin, just shout… I will check in to see.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 3, 2011 2:05 AM

      The pea, I trust, rather than the mattress ;)
      I remember Betws-y-Coed! There may have been a waterfall…?
      Welcome home. Missed you.x

    • August 3, 2011 8:22 AM

      The mattress is nearly as small as the pea… it would not accommodate a midnight chat. And, of course, I am a married woman.

      I saw a river Hic with lots of giant boulders towards the water’s edge where children played. There was a deal of high pitched shouting at Nicole to “sty aw-eye from the aidge will ya?”. while her Mama was ‘avin a fag.

      Gotta go, the greeting someone at the airport outfit is a tricky one…

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 3, 2011 4:05 PM

      Boulders, that’s what I remember. Glad to hear they haven’t rolled away during the past 30 yrs…
      May I suggest you reach for your red dress with the Mandarin collar?

  5. August 2, 2011 11:29 PM

    For the unfamiliar…pity me, having had this shouted across the divide at me every night as I tried to sleep. “Oh! Reine, What’s occuring?”

  6. August 3, 2011 11:22 PM

    Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, is partial to eyebrows. In his techno-thriller Digital Fortress, characters arch or raise their eyebrows no fewer than 14 times.

    “I’d hazard a guess J K Rowling might better this,” said Harry, raising an eyebrow. “It’s no wonder I have no inner depth.”

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 4, 2011 3:23 AM

      ~✔
      %
      ~

    • August 4, 2011 10:26 AM

      obooki how long a period does that cover? Raising your eyebrows 14 times over a period of say a week ( I’m guessing Dan Brown doesn’t write thrillers in real-time ) would suggest a serious Botox dependency.

  7. August 4, 2011 12:36 AM

    I am a communist! All it took was several bottles of wine and a limoncello… a cheap date, me.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 4, 2011 3:23 AM

      I’m sure you’re supposed to hold out til the second date.

  8. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    August 4, 2011 12:35 PM

  9. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    August 5, 2011 8:37 AM

    • August 5, 2011 11:45 AM

      Extraordinary … I’m not sure in a good way. (Hey Henry)

  10. August 5, 2011 11:42 AM

    Recorded as we head out the door to the airport to prove he was here… I sound frighteningly like Mr. Ed.

  11. August 5, 2011 11:58 PM

    An unholy PH trinity sat outside this pub last night (thanks again to Des for coming in). You were with us in spirits…

    http://groganspub.ie/

    • HenryLloydMoon permalink
      August 6, 2011 8:27 AM

      Wish I’d been there. I can’t imagine you’d be listlessly fishing for conversation topics with Des at the table. For my part, and with blinding synchronicity, I finally got to meet the great man outside a pub in Lymington last night. Or at least I think I did.

      Me: What’s your name, then, like?
      Him. MM…
      Me: And what’s your favourite pie?
      Him: MM…

      We left it there. He adjusted his position horizontally and I wandered home to steak and kidney.

    • August 6, 2011 12:15 PM

      Des was as talkative as MM was taciturn, then. He is an excellent raconteur. We would have happily scooched up one had you happened by.

  12. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 6, 2011 7:10 PM

    If our blog host is still here – the Game of Thrones CDroms arrived. Thanks very much.

    Have just started reading Infinite Jest which I can already highly recommend. An intimdating imagination at work. I can see why our old blog pal Sean Murray was so taken with it.

  13. mishari permalink*
    August 6, 2011 8:22 PM

    Glad you got that, Ed. Infinite Jest is rather remarkable, isn’t it?

    I sent yours to your office, Reine, but I don’t know if the Dail (is that right?) are on their summer break and you don’t visit your office but…

    I’m delighted you got together with Des (and Simon). I won’t pretend to be surprised that Des is a good raconteur. One of these days, I’m going to arrange to get all of us together in the same place at the same time, even our transatlantic contingent.

    I’m back in The Smoke ’til Sunday night (the family are uprooted to Paris) and we’re all on our way to Spain on Monday. The way things are going, we might just stay in the Sierras while ‘civilisation’ collapses. You can all come there for refuge…I’ll set you to work picking olives and walnuts.

    • August 6, 2011 8:53 PM

      Hi Mish. The Dáil is in recess so I am taking annual leave for a few weeks; thanks though – I look forward to that. And the best of luck with the move and the hols … I’d pick your walnuts any day with a song in my heart. Off to a party now to top up my already high levels of alcohol imbibition this week. Next week… Reine goes teetotal and joins the convent.

  14. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 6, 2011 9:11 PM

    The way things are going civilisation ( if that’s what it is ) may have already collapsed before you get to Spain.

    However have a refreshing and relaxing holiday ( I was going say break ).

  15. hic8ubique permalink
    August 7, 2011 3:57 AM

    Benevolent dictatorship in a rustic tableau? I’d be content as an apiarist, I suppose.

    I may need to hitch-hike, but this ‘contingent’ would cross hell and high water for such a fête. Sometimes, I’ve fancied a road-trip all together to surprise our long-lost freep. I think of him especially when pie is mentioned.
    Oddly enough… yesterday, we were invited to Paris next Spring, which I haven’t mentioned to D quite yet, and then this morning he proposed going this evening to see Midnight in Paris. That could be portentous. Any leaning to eastward gives me ideas of Göteborg; and Dublin will be calling on my next pond-hop.

    There’s always a twinge of regret when you go off-the-air, Mishari, though much as I’ll miss your posts, it’s something of a triumph we’re witnessing this summer that you’re able to keep up the tradition and trek off the grid with your family. It makes me a bit misty to think of it.

    I wonder how it would be to substitute walnuts for the almonds in frangipane.

  16. mishari permalink*
    August 8, 2011 8:29 PM

    Not completely off-air, yet, hic. Greetings from Ciudad Rodrigo (just north of the Sierra de Gata). It’s funny that you should mention bee-keeping, as I have a few books on the subject with me, including instructions for building these much simpler and more-conducive-to-bee-happiness hives called ‘top-bar hives’.

    I intend to take advantage of an offer from one of my neighbours to supply me with a colony or two (he has dozens of hives dotted around his property; next to the almond trees, next to the citrus trees, next to the lavender field etc etc). So, by next year, I’ll be free of the tentacles of the Global Corporate Honey Conspiracy…¡bastardos!

    I’ve just had a dish of the local chocolate and orange-blossom ice-cream over a torta made with local almond-paste, walnuts and honey and a glass of Licor de Nuez (the local walnut liqueur; the nuts for this are collected between the nights of June 24 & 25 because the dew on those nights–el rocio de San Juan–has magical properties) on the side…very nice.

    We’ll spend tomorrow here shopping for essentials and then it’s off to the Cat Range.

  17. hic8ubique permalink
    August 8, 2011 9:26 PM

    And greetings to you in your paradise, my friend.
    St John’s… shells? ‘Rocaille’ is the closest I can guess. It’s not ‘tears’, unless a dialect?
    I’ll fox it out. So, a delectable welcome to the South and what an excellent time to be gone from London.
    We’ve talked about the prospect of beekeeping in your Cat Mts. I think it must have been last August I had a dream of your meadow with beehives slowly walking around it on carved wooden womens’ legs, and the whole atmosphere humming with bees. It probably looks nothing like what I imagine, but I always get that bee vibe when I think of you all there.
    I’m not clear on how colonies are shared. I thought the bees just took it upon themselves to swarm when they felt like it?

    We have our own journey to the interior at the end of the week, though for a shorter time. We’ll attend a wedding on the rocky shore of Blue Hill (just to the south of Bar Harbour) and then head inland to the lake. Preparations are under way.
    New among the provisions are German stemless white wine goblets somehow tempered to resist breakage (I’ve tested some inadvertently and it really is impressive) and a Swedish fire steel~ good for 3000 strikes, also some cool lightweight LED headlamps. Beeswax candles, of course. Our friends are bringing in a new row&sail boat to add to the little fleet. I’m ready to hear loons.

  18. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 8, 2011 9:45 PM

    Mishari is your hideaway near Salamanca? A glorious city that keeps inviting us to perform at the theatre festival and then runs out of money so we never get there. The situation being what it is at the moment I guess we never will go either.

    I have a friend in Manchester who keeps bees. Apparently cities are a safer place to keep them than the countryside these days but depending on where you are they won’t have access to such a wide variety of flowers.

    My dad used to keep bees but they’d go to any old flower with the result that the honey tasted like a strange caramel. Not unpleasant but extremely weird.

  19. mishari permalink*
    August 8, 2011 10:19 PM

    Ed, Salamanca is about 35-40 miles NE of Ciudad Rodrigo and about 65-75 miles NE of our homestead. As you say, a glorious city with perhaps the finest plaza (the Plaza Mayor) in Europe.

    Happily, my neighbour’s bees have thrived over the years, almost certainly because he refuses to use pesticides on his land…or rather, he refuses to use manufactured pesticides; he makes his own from tobacco leaves, lemon leaves and various other sources and very effective they are, too.

    The phenomenon of ‘colony collapse’ is (it’s now widely accepted) the result of the widespread use of imidacloprid and other neonicotinoid pesticides (from those charmers at Monsanto who brought you napalm and Agent Orange). Their use has now been banned or severely restricted in most European countries.

    Basically, hic, one moves a hive whole and then, once the bees have settled down, you move the queen and her attendants to the new hive; the rest of the gang soon follow.

    rocio = dew, in the local dialect ‘tears’, so good guess…St. John’s Tears.

  20. hic8ubique permalink
    August 8, 2011 11:08 PM

    Mmm, it had to be tears. There really aren’t any other dewy bodily fluids whose magic would be invoked as saintly.
    I use a completely herbal insect repellent on my skin and it works impeccably.
    Pesticides and herbicides, M******o … don’t get me started.

  21. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 9, 2011 9:36 AM

    We pass Salamanca regularly on our many working trips to Portugal and often stop the night in Covilha just inside the Portuguese border. So possibly not that far from Casa Al-Adwani.

    I’ll look out for your castle turrets next time and listen for the loud-speakers blasting Wallace Stevens poems out to the locals.

    Turret – what a strange word. As soon as I typed it I thought I’d mispelt it. It doesn’t look right as a word.

  22. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    August 9, 2011 9:57 AM

    I was researching turret’s yesterday in Waterstone’s. The assistant CUNT CUNT CUNT CUNT CRAP CRAP SHIT had to send me out of the shop.

    • Reine permalink
      August 9, 2011 10:21 AM

      That’s fucking arse twat moron tits desperate. Sue the bitch.

    • Reine permalink
      August 9, 2011 10:37 AM

      My mother has just looked in interestedly to see what I’m doing “Reine, really, is there any need for that language?” So I sucked my banana suggestively and said “you’re not the boss of me any more” and she laughed. Poor Mother, her annual utterance of “fuck” is a ticketed event…and she doesn’t like bananas.

      Love to all from the (less exotic than olive and walnut grove country but glorious all the same) west of Ireland.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 9, 2011 12:43 PM

      Oh. I am a certifiabubble moron. That took me far too long. I was about to explain helpfully that a ‘turret’ begins part way up, whereas if it starts on the ground the correct term is ‘tower’. I had that wrong for a long time too.

  23. August 11, 2011 12:56 PM

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 11, 2011 1:37 PM

      Groovy, Saint.
      What have you been up to? and is there really a Global Corporate Honey Conspiracy?

  24. August 11, 2011 1:54 PM

    Hic, there is a GCHC and I fear my daughter is complicit, somehow (areas of the kitchen are quite sticky)

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 11, 2011 2:36 PM

      The Honey Bastards are tough customers…

  25. August 11, 2011 3:45 PM

    Hic, between March and June of this year I was inundated with emailed links to videos of honey badgers in action; I suspect a National Committee For the Advancement of Honey Badgers conspiracy but as yet have little substantiating evidence…

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 11, 2011 5:41 PM

      I’m not quite half a year behind then? My conspiratorial chops must be shaping up.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 11, 2011 8:23 PM

      The Missing Farmers Conspiracy Theory:
      Animal rights inter-species cross-breeding venture leads to hybrid AfroWelsh badgers eviscerating farmers and eating the remains, hence a dearth of evidence.

  26. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 11, 2011 7:26 PM

    Honey badgers are so 2009. In these austere times the Patagonian Tuco-Tuco is where it’s at. This clip is an avant-garde masterpiece. I particularly like the comment below

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 11, 2011 8:28 PM

      That Tuco² must be vintage avant garde, EdT. Do keep up.

      This is so avant garde, it’s back at the beginning…

  27. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 11, 2011 8:34 PM

    a bit too “narrative” for me hic

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 11, 2011 8:51 PM

      Ah, now there you have truly captured the pellucid essence of Minimalism. Bravo.

      {‘narrative’ = LOL}

  28. August 11, 2011 11:35 PM

    Hic, enjoy the Maine event! It has poured rain here all day today so we rowed, paddled and visited friends. I’ll leave the ambiguity over the first. More bastard than honey, that’s all I’ll say but I may have to fess up to some badgering. No Tuco-Tuco but the night is young…

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 12, 2011 3:29 AM

      Thank you, Dear. You are cryptic tonight.
      I got a lovely road-rash this evening, so… might want to rethink my hem length for this wedding bash. *sigh*
      Will be with you all again anon~~~

  29. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 14, 2011 6:18 PM

    Great unintentionally funny comment from an angry right-winger on CiF in response to the riots. “The trouble is that the police have to listen to PC bullshit”.

    With a name like that no wonder he had trouble progressing through the ranks.

    • August 14, 2011 6:48 PM

      That’s a very Amisian name-gag, ET; wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up in his next. Me, I “liked” the parents who turned in their poor, lemming-like kids over stolen half-eaten crisps-bags: wait until the same parental-Quislings drive through zebra-crossings without stopping: shop ’em, kids! Zero tolerance.

  30. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 14, 2011 9:04 PM

    The government have brought in an American Police “expert” to help solve the gang problem SA.

    Finally! after years of UK TV cop shows being inferior to the US product we can now start to compete.

    Tough on half-eaten crisp bags tough on those who pick up half-eaten crisp bags from outside the store ( I’ll need more time to work this one up ).

    Can’t remember the Judge Dredd motto but we’ll probably hear it often off in the upcoming months.

  31. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 14, 2011 9:28 PM

    often off? Now that sounds a grandfather in a Nabokov story. Often enough.

  32. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 14, 2011 10:10 PM

    Are Facebook users allowed to have the vote?

  33. August 15, 2011 9:40 AM

    retires older and not necessarily wiser

  34. August 15, 2011 1:43 PM

    Suits you Sir…

    • HenryLloydMoon permalink
      August 15, 2011 2:53 PM

      Irrefutable proof that MM dresses to the left…

  35. August 15, 2011 2:59 PM

    I didn’t like to say. As one politician friend said to a colleague in the Dáil bar of an evening “You’re filling those trousers well Ned”. Ned didn’t know whether to be pleased or offended.
    I do hope the Bavarian contingent enjoyed the beer.

  36. August 15, 2011 3:02 PM

    “politician friend” … that was a typo; he was no friend of mine.

    (p.s. Suede is very unforgiving which can work to the wearer’s benefit on the advertising front.)

  37. August 18, 2011 12:17 PM

    Finally! Rats aren’t to blame for the spread of bubonic plague apparently. It’s the humans that are to blame.

    For centuries rats were held up for blame
    But their disease-spreading abilities were tame
    Compared to the two-legged blight called man
    And woman ( of course ) whose disease-spreading elan
    Caused the death of millions in country and town
    But cleverly managed PR means that we eternally frown
    On the innocent rat, the accusations are a lie
    Time for us to now eat humble pie.

    After having cooked it properly and made sure the dishes and cutlery have been washed too.

  38. August 19, 2011 10:44 AM

    At least you know where you stand with a rat, Ed, humans are much trickier. Still, it’s the latter I am drawn to. Hope your summer’s going well. (I think The Hour is improving, have you persisted with it?)

    • August 19, 2011 1:00 PM

      re; the Hour I’ve not had the time apart from anything else. I guess it had to do something other than be atmospheric.

      Spare time has been spent reading Infinite Jest – a long and dense book, not an easy read but incredibly funny in places.

      I’ve some real hair-raising rat-infestation stories which I’ll save for a rainy day ( so expect to read them in the not too distant future.) Vile things but innocent of spreading bubonic plague according to several academics.

  39. August 19, 2011 11:05 AM

    Summer 2011

    Two days in Dublin: Guinness, fish and gin.
    (Delightful company I found therein).
    Less than a week on rocky Croat coast
    where my ex-wife was not the greatest host;
    her face and voice were sour, her thighs were fat
    and very soon I’d had enough of that.
    Then back to Reading, bread and water diet,
    to lose the weight I’d gained in Qatar’s heat.
    And soon to China, the Mongolian skies
    where an industrialist’s sweet daughter sighs:
    ‘Don’t work a year’, she says to me, ‘instead
    write poems, satisfy me well in bed.’
    An offer I’d be foolish to refuse –
    so to the East I go: fulfilling Muse!

  40. August 24, 2011 9:43 AM

    Directferries.co.uk appear to be putting forward a solution to the disaffected youth rioting.

    I keep getting emails from them with this heading

    (Disarmed) Kids go free to France this Autumn

  41. hic8ubique permalink
    August 26, 2011 3:09 AM

    I really do think that prose poem may be a natural form for you, Re.
    Perhaps because of your story-telling knack? Vivid and concise and coherent…Having admittedly no preconceptions or experience, they strike me as just right. I find many of the other posts impenetrable, or at least an iffy effort to grasp.
    Your Nun one was quite beautiful. I must go back and read them again to pick a favourite.
    Honestly, the whole prose poem concept seemed a bit pointless to me til I read yours.

    It’s good to find my way back here, although, missing Mishari, I looked to the Pol Hom music channel and found it had folded up! That’s a great shame as it was a rich trove of work and a resource I’m sure for many enthusiasts more serious than me. No doubt some choice expletives have been aired somewhere across the blue water…

    We have a LAMDA friend visiting, EdT. He’s sleeping over now and again to avoid the long commute home during a run just down the hill from us, a very dear old friend I believe you’d enjoy.
    He’s altering his lines to correct the Mancunian idiom and weird remarks (written by a Jewish-American playwright) such as: “I don’t like my piss taken!”

  42. August 26, 2011 2:33 PM

    Hello Hicster,

    I am “scarleh” as they say in these parts, many thanks. I wasn’t quite sure about the prose poem – it seemed a bit emperor’s new clothes to me. I liked (among others) Ed’s wheelbarrow one and MM’s crematorium and Jack’s last one gave me goosebumps.

    The nun one was a recollection of childhood visits to a convent to see my ancient, tiny grand-aunt, Sr. Malachy. We had afternoon tea in a gleaming dining room with mother frowning disapprobation as we inelegantly scoffed cake. Sr. M didn’t seem to mind; for one of such tiny proportions, she gave the most incredible bear hugs. One was apt to have the imprint of the cross somewhere about one’s person all the way home.

    For all that I consider myself very secular these days and am horrified by the abuses some of their number perpetrated, I cannot deny that the nuns I met in the course of my education and otherwise had a great effect on me.

    Hello to anyone peeking around the curtain. R

    • hic8ubique permalink
      August 26, 2011 8:57 PM

      Yes, sorry if I was rather rude concerning others’ efforts. What I meant was that I just didn’t get it as a viable poetic conceit til I read yours, and JBC’s following is compelling too. In fact, I suspect all of his prose may fit the criteria.

      ‘imprint of the cross somewhere about one’s person ‘
      LOL!

  43. mishari permalink*
    August 26, 2011 9:33 PM

    Hurrah! I finally got to my own blog. For some reason over the last week, all I’ve been getting is ‘page not available’. I think it must be the local Spanish servers. I’ve been in Cáceres (our provincial capital) every day (and some nights) for the last week and so had interwubz access…to everything except here.

    Primarily been in town to lend support and assistance to my old friend and neighbour Ramon, who is involved in an epic, 3-way (4-way?) battle with various authorities over…well, it’s actually an interesting tale and I’ll save it for a proper blog post when I’m back in the saddle next weekend.

    Suffice it to say that it involves buried treasure, the Romans, Gods, tauromachy, state stupidity and greed and heroic amateurism. Stay tuned.

    So howaya, girls? Everything alright?

  44. August 26, 2011 9:43 PM

    Hey your gorgeousness… fancy seeing you in your own saloon,

    My summer is nearing its end … back to work Monday, boo. Look forward to reading Romaunt de Ramon. Have to lie down now to get over this shock appearance.

  45. August 26, 2011 9:44 PM

    (HIC…HE’S BACK, HURRY UP AND TAKE THOSE CURLERS OUT. HE CAN’T SEE YOU.)

  46. mishari permalink*
    August 26, 2011 10:08 PM

    Well, if nothing else, you’ll find a little package from me awaiting you at work (Game of Thrones, I think; memory failing me). Back to work Monday? But isn’t Monday a Bank Holiday? Or is that just in the UK?

    We’re staying with friends in Cáceres and I’m sitting out in their courtyard, while the children bring me plates of charcoal-grilled flesh in relays: I must have eaten about a kilo of lamb-chops; I feel so…cheap. Never mind; back to the healthy mountains in the morning.

  47. August 26, 2011 11:23 PM

    Just in the UK and the Six Counties presumably. We republicans will be grinding away.

    Get you being fed by Cácerian cherubs.

    I look forward to GoT (did you put in a pair of your underpants like last time?)

  48. mishari permalink*
    August 26, 2011 11:48 PM

    Reine! I thought that was going to be our little secret…now everyone’ll want a pair.

  49. hic8ubique permalink
    August 27, 2011 5:14 AM

    Curlers are one thing I don’t need in this humidity… but much refreshed by your appearance, M. Sorry to have missed you.
    I’ve been more than usually eventful and am ready to get back into a good routine.
    Work will pick up after the Monday holiday which falls next weekend here.
    Tomorrow we’ll take half a dozen 14-15 yr-olds on a birthday adventure, then bring them back here for a night on air mattresses en masse. Hurricane permitting.

    Tauromachy is a new term for me, thought it sounded vaguely Minoan/ Homeric, but no, the real Spanish tradition. Can’t wait to hear the whole sordid tale.
    All my bullfighting lore comes from Ferdinand. Sorry!

  50. HenryLloydMoon permalink
    August 27, 2011 7:25 AM

    “So howaya, girls? Everything alright?”

    Hi Boss (Reine, Hic) from another curtain-peeker. Still here on the south coast, coming slowly to terms with the fact that summer hasn’t thrown up much in the work stakes. I keep looking in, hoping to stumble across a pirate copy of Novel Writing By Numbers (now rivalling Winning The Lottery as my provision for the family’s future) but hoping more to find evidence of MM’s whereabouts. I worry daily about his health; daily I make the pilgrimage to the sea wall with the dogg to contemplate the Isle of Wight, expecting to see a cheery wave. Perhaps I should take my glasses.

    Glad to see the various tapestries of your lives are as rich and deeply-hued as ever. Mine is flashing Bayeux before me, as I gaze in wide-eyed wonder (at the new and varied ways Mrs HLM is finding to spend money), expecting the fatal arrow to fall at any moment. I am now a Volvo Owner. And I’m just so not a stereotype, y’know?!

    • hic8ubique permalink
      September 5, 2011 9:11 PM

      Dear Moon~ I swore I’d never again laugh at your velocipede of choice (though the rolling icebox still glows in memory) but now you’ve begrudged Mrs Moon the urge to feather her new nest (or so it seems) I’m afraid your Volvo will prove to be the dosh-hemorrhaging arrow to which you are willingly baring your breast, or… er, orbit.
      May the commissions flood in to raise your fortunes.

      I’ve been trying to avoid buying another bookcase by groping in the dust and clearing out old videotapes and potboilers from an existing one. This lead to a vigourous clear-out, but I’ve just about had it for today.

  51. August 27, 2011 9:09 AM

    So Blogger, Facebook and Twitter are not available here in the People’s Republic but WordPress is! Can’t see the logic of that, but who am I… As this is one of the few sites I can still get to I may have to bore you all on a more regular basis than before. Not now though, time for a sleep after a long and sweaty morning crossing borders and charming Chinese visa officials.

  52. Edward Taylor permalink
    August 27, 2011 9:18 AM

    Reine I hoped you washed those underpants and sent them back.

    My Game of Thrones discs came with 2 weeks worth of Al-Adwani laundry – I had to get help in to sort out the socks.

    Currently drawing a flick–book to get things started on a potential new project – results poor to middling so far.

    We’re 30 years old next year – there will be an on-line archive of sorts at some point ( just getting going on that as well – some horrifying photos ).

    You will all probably be reminded remorselessly about it. Or not. I have an exhibition of drawings currently running in a bar in Kendal and just realised in the busyness of summer touring that I’ve forgotten to tell anyone about it.

  53. August 27, 2011 11:06 AM

    Lol Edward – the ones he sent me were claret silk Armani Privé, “worn only once” the note said. I commissioned a tasteful tabernacle to house them. On special occasions, I wear them over my Agent Provocateur smalls. Do you think our packages got mixed up?

    Congrats on the exhibition etc.- certainly a more industrious summer than I have had which largely fell into the categories of eating, drinking, laughing, weeping and (take note HLM for we are fools who think it may really happen) repeatedly not winning the lotto to clear my debts.

    A Volvo Henry … or as my crocodile-shoed acquaintance of yore would say “I saw him driving down the town in a lovely new Vulva.” Steer carefully. If you find MM, tell him I said hello.

    Hi Simon – glad you made it there intact.

  54. August 27, 2011 11:32 PM

    Thanks, R. I am in humid Shenzhen, which 30 years ago was just a collection of fishing villages but is now the richest city in China. Last night out for dinner with Guoxian: roast goose, spinach fried with garlic, prawns in soy sauce and fish head with chilli. 16 quid! But it was quite a classy restaurant…
    I recommend fish head. It can be a bit disconcerting at first picking out eyeballs and brains, let alone keeping them between the chopsticks long enough to get into the mouth, but the taste is exquisite. God, I’ve missed Chinese food these last two years. Beijing on Tuesday.

  55. August 31, 2011 10:58 AM

    We are watching BBC4’s rerunning of back to back episodes of The Killing, which I missed first time around in spite of MM’s tv guide services; haven’t been this gripped by anything in a long time. It’s like having a new lover; I can’t wait until I see it again.

  56. hic8ubique permalink
    September 6, 2011 1:31 AM

    Well… having popped a cheap but pleasing bottle of cava to soothe my forlorn musings on the prolonged though fully understandable absence of our most highly esteemed host… I hope we shall all be reunited soon through the powers of his inimitable rhetorical thaumaturgy.

    Effervescently~~

    *sigh*

    hic
    x

  57. Flaky permalink
    September 6, 2011 4:36 AM

  58. September 6, 2011 9:47 AM

    I wish “they” would come down to earth and sort out some of the bastards who have been running this place. They are hardly revelations but the confirmation of the complicity between MI6, the CIA and Gaddaffi in rendition/torture confirms how morally bankrupt the west is. We’ve barely a leg to stand on.

    Watched Chris Morris’s film “Four Lions” on Sunday. I thought it was terrific and showed how the authorities response to terror helps sustain idiots in their beliefs. They both need each other. Very funny as well as tragic – the end reminded me of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”.

  59. ExitB permalink
    September 6, 2011 12:31 PM

    I thought Four Lions was fantastic. Very sad, as you say. I need to see it again.

    Can’t hold a candle to Guy Ritchie’s kabbalistic brain-melter Revolver, however, which I finally saw on Sunday. The collected company agreed it was the worst film they’d ever seen. And these are people who’ve seen Battlefield Earth, Revenge of the Sith and the Wicker Man remake in a single day.

    Got back from 35 degree weather in Croatia last week to this miserable, drizzly autumn. There was a small, rocky cove we walked to every day near the campsite. We’d swim and read and hide in the shade when it got too hot. Once or twice a day a grizzled man would climb over a fence made of branches and wicker and stretch out on an old sun-lounger for a couple of hours. Don’t know what he was doing the rest of the day but I envy the bastard right now.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      September 6, 2011 4:26 PM

      September is one of the loveliest months here. (don’t all visit at once) The humidity mercifully vanishes one day and the light becomes softer and subtler. This may not be a September painting, but gives an idea…

      I often walk to that spot.

    • Edward Taylor permalink
      September 9, 2011 11:13 AM

      10 years ago we were due to do some work in Lower Manhattan a few blocks away from the World Trade Centre.

      At 2.00 UK time ( 9.00 NY time ) I rang the organiser who lived fairly close to the buildings. As I was ringing there was a newsflash on Radio4 ” There’s been some trouble at the World Trade Centre. Now back to the Archers”.

      He wasn’t in and as the event wasn’t deemed important enough the dislodge events in Ambridge I left a message ” Just heard there’s some trouble at the WTC, hope it’s not too serious. I’ll speak to you later”. Ah the British at their most British.

      I’m not sure what it would take to stop the Archers but 9/11 wasn’t it.

      Fall on the East Coast is meant to be spectacular hic.

    • hic8ubique permalink
      September 9, 2011 10:53 PM

      Yes, we aren’t quite there yet. I think of this as late summer until Michaelmas or the Equinox. The famous Fall colour will have arrived at our latitude by then, though one good storm can finish it prematurely.
      When we were in Maine, (5 hrs drive to the northeast) the first splash of red was just showing itself on our last day; one brilliant tree swathed about by acres of green forest. That same area 7 weeks later will be blazing with orange red and yellow interspersed with conifers. It really is quite spectacular, and there’s plenty of tourism industry geared toward it, especially in Vermont. They call those who travel according to peak colour ‘Leaf Peepers’ or simply ‘Leafers’.
      Here on the little cape, the light is the most extraordinary thing about autumn and has traditionally been a magnet for all sorts of artists, but most famously the luminist painter Fitz Henry Lane.

  60. Edward Taylor permalink
    September 6, 2011 2:11 PM

    I was pretty depressed ( in a bad way ) by “How to Lose Friends and Alienate people”. It’s about Toby Young which is a massive minus made doubly so by the fact that you are meant to identify with him. I ended up siding with the shallow New York gliteratti which made me even more annoyed. No matter how shallow they are ( very ) they still had far more integrity than Young who in this film tries to portray himself as some kind of outsider saying the unsayable.

    It was directed by a Curb Your Enthusiasm/Seinfeld director too which made it even worse.

  61. hic8ubique permalink
    September 6, 2011 3:04 PM

    We saw Four Lions in the spring. I remember feeling a guilty schadenfreud as I was laughing. I notice the billing never says: ‘It’s the Feel Bad movie of the season!’
    Maybe farce doesn’t agree with me (or I’m just an old stick).

    Saw ‘The Trip’ last week and that was a much more satisfying experience.
    The pacing and variation made the funny parts that much wilder. Loved the northern scenery, and just as I was getting sick of seeing them eat and talk at once, it was time for them to go home. I’m still bothered that I couldn’t recognise one of the voices, but I’ll place it eventually.

  62. Flaky permalink
    September 6, 2011 5:07 PM

    The last film I saw was The Guard starring Brendan Gleeson, which did well at the box office and was entertaining enough, but nothing special.

    I am finding the Wikileaks V Guardian ding dong great fun. Basically David Leigh, who iis Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger’s brother-in-law, wrote the book about Wikileaks in three weeks during the fall out period when the Guardian and Wikileaks fell out, and in it published a password Assange had given him that decrypted the cablegate file containing all 250,000 cables. Leigh’s book not only published the password, but made it the heading of a chapter where Leigh’s breathless, sub-thriller prose, goes into schoolboysih rapture describing the cloak and dagger atmosphere of him virtually begging Assange to turn over the trove to the Guardian and after 2 hours Asssange eventually relenting and writing down the very long password, and leaving out a portion of it he then speoke to Leigh, telling him where it goes in the sequence. Clearly security conscious, but Leigh being a techno-luddite now claims that Assange told him the password was only temporary and woulld last for a few hours, not grapsing the fundamental nature of encrypted files, that the password is like a key and is part of the whole encryption process. Onece made for that file it cannot be changed.

    Assange put the file in a hidden folder on a temporary server, and then just left it there, after all it was hidden and you needed the password to decrypt it, and surely Leigh wouldn’t be as dumb as to tell the world about it.

    Leigh rushed the book out, in part, because Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Wikileaks German spokesman, had fallen out with Assange and was also writing a book. Domscheit-Berg left Wikileaks, to set up a rival leaks site, Open Leaks (that thus far has been a total failure, publishing nothing).

    Domscheit-Berg then partnered with other German newspapers and wrote an article claiming Wikileaks had lax security, mentioning the hidden file being now available online, because it had worked it’s way onto various sites, also mentioning that the password was in the public domain, basically shit stirring, pretending he was making this known to highlight his rivals lax secuirty, but, my guess, just wanting to get his profile up.

    Assange, when he started with the Guardian, got Rusbridger to sign a three sentence pledge, in plain English, agreeing not to share any stuff without Assange’s consent, which he repeatedly broke, and reading all the various protaganists cut-throat claims and counter claims now the shit has hit the fan, it is obvious what went on. The Guardian would much have preferred to cut Assange out of the picture and take all the credit, as would the other global media ‘partners’ or (what one poster called) ‘back stabbing prima donnas’, all wetting themselves and making a huge song and dance about publishing the leaks.

    Anyway, a few days ago, as internet curiosity was reaching fever pitch, a Twitter user put one and one together and connected the password to the file and bingo! the whole unredacted file is in the public domain. Wikileaks kept quite throughout the growing blunders by others, and now have published the whole stash, drawing condemnation from the Guardian in a self-serving Editorial that tries to claim publishing the password was irrelevant to what’s happened because Assange told them it was only a temporary one.

    Readiing the various protagansist tweets online since, it is clear the Guardian have cocked up bigtime, because they have been changing their story once the penny dropped that the password is an integral part of the whole file encryption process, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, coz you can tell by the increasingly shrill and desperate tenor and pace of the various protaganists copy, that they know it is them who have fucked up, and it’s pleain to see that what went one is all these highly competitive newsmen and wannabe journalists, driven by jealously of Assange’s publishing operation, all made monumental indivisdual mistakes that, added together, resulted in what happened.

    You can tell by the comments under the Editorial, public opinion is not falling for their lame reasoning, and so watch what they say next because this has, in one fell swoop, exposed the whole Guardian moral project, the trusted Ediotorial voice, the journalistic ethos, as no different than the NoTW hacks.

  63. ExitB permalink
    September 7, 2011 8:33 PM

    September can be delightful – but this year, like the summer, it’s all cloud, wind and somehow cold and sweatily humid at the same time.

    How to Lose Friends… is very duff. I’ve been watching a lot of terrible films the last few months, usually late on Friday or Saturday evenings. Any ITV channel is usually pretty good for a forgotten romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz or some bizarre, tin-eared thriller. Once one is attuned to the general clunkiness of, say, Shallow Hal, it’s possible to pick out sudden notes of accidental authenticity in an otherwise gurning performance, or flashes of inspiration in a scriptwriter’s didn’t-quite-pay-off attempt to do something different within a restrictive genre.

    Now, back to my new five-disc set of Elvis’s 70s recordings.

  64. September 7, 2011 9:45 PM

    Hey peeps

    It’s far from delightful here either ExitB – I am huddled on the couch in my new Sarah Lund-esque jumper (on the lookout for crime bigger than my wearing of a Sarah Lund jumper). Ideal weather for homemade cake and pots of tea though. I raise my pinky to you all. R

  65. hic8ubique permalink
    September 7, 2011 11:35 PM

    I’m afraid Mishari is preoccupied with expressions of Parisienne gratitude from the divine Inez.
    Who could begrudge him?
    But, alas, we’re left to our own devices for the time being.

    Both cold and sweatily humid at the same time… how to imagine this state of being?
    Post-exertion clamminess? Like a Dalmatian in the after-glow?
    ExitB, I recommend a lightly spun merino to alleviate your suffering.
    (NB: not potable)

    Hej, Re~ tea and cake so soon? I’m still clinging to the comfort of late-blooming g&ts.
    This one is Tanq10, but for my money, not a distinct enough improvement over general admission.

  66. September 8, 2011 10:12 AM

    Hic, I had an enormous g&t the night before last, courtesy of my heavy handed son. Had to replace every sip with tonic as space allowed, a good half way down the glass. Cork Dry, rather more pedestrian than Tanq10. Juniper makes me melancholy though so I had to leave it at one (or more likely three considering the measure). Funny, a solitary tear did roll down my face as I blew out the candles and headed for bed. What could I have been thinking of?

    (Not sure the “juniper makes me melancholy (your honour)” defence would stand up in court.)

  67. hic8ubique permalink
    September 9, 2011 2:11 AM

    Oh, that’s my favourite of your pictures :)

    …or grapefruit juice and more ice might be a good alternative to more tonic. I do love grapefruit juice; must try that sometime…
    I was quite disgusted to read on a recent GU thread that the Schweppes tonic water in the UK contains aspartame.
    *gag*
    I think Cork Dry was mentioned as being very good, not sure whether we get that here… I’ve not yet found anything to beat Hendricks.

    What a wild time it is. Just today, people have been telling me about marital separation, an imminent triple-bypass, revocation of arts education funding, &c… but in the same world:

    one 5-yr-old twin climbing a play-structure and calling down to her sister:
    ‘It’s okay to come up; it’s complicated, but it’s stable.’

    So that’s one thing stable.

  68. September 9, 2011 11:40 PM

    From the mouths of babes Hic, The other photo was a bit Buffalo Bill it struck me … long after the event.

    What a wild time indeed. I have had a trying day – going to bed now and hoping the new dawn brings greater equanimity. I blame the gin!

    • hic8ubique permalink
      September 9, 2011 11:58 PM

      Pleasant dreams ,Re… and hoping the new dawn brings greater al-Adwani ;)

    • September 10, 2011 11:49 AM

      So you are prophetic, a Goddess of divination… but I can confirm I never laid eyes or a finger on him.

  69. September 10, 2011 12:19 AM

    Jesus, I hope I won’t find him in my bed. I’m in enough trouble. ;)

    • September 10, 2011 12:21 AM

      Mind you…

    • hic8ubique permalink
      September 10, 2011 1:53 AM

      wicked cat, you
      x

  70. Edward Taylor permalink
    September 10, 2011 9:50 AM

    It’s time again for this year’s World Black Pudding throwing competition in Ramsbottom ( my nearest town ).

    The competition involves throwing a black pudding at a tower of Yorkshire puddings balanced high on scaffolding in the hope of knocking it over.

    The date of the competition is 9/11

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