Sunday, December 31, 2006

Richard Boston

Jeremy Bugler writes a lengthy tribute to Richard Boston in The Independent:

"His first job revealed that Boston's life was not to be conventional - he joined the staff of Peace News and quickly had an MI5 file devoted to him.

He then became books editor of New Society and irritated the management by exposing the different pay rates among the staff. He pinned to the office notice board details of his wages, inviting other staff members to do the same."

Writing of Boston's first book Bugler tells this anecdote:
"The Admirable Urquhart (1975), was of the translator of Rabelais, Sir Thomas Urquhart, to whom he may have been attracted when he became aware that Urquhart died of uncontrollable laughter on hearing of the Restoration of Charles II. Boston used to like to quote Rabelais: 'One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;/Because to laugh is proper to the man.'"

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Searching historical herbal texts for potential new drugs

"The medicinal uses of plants have been described in herbal texts for thousands of years. This documentation is fortunate, as knowledge of traditional medicine is continually lost, and such knowledge is useful for the discovery of new drugs. Here we show that a treatment for dysentery, identified by "mining" a 400 year old Dutch text on herbal medicines, has antibacterial effects that are specific to the part of the plant described in the historical text."

Some 25% of contemporary prescription medicines are plant-based, so this article from the British Medical Journal demonstrates yet again why it is important not to just chuck out old books on the assumption that the knowledge and information they contain is out-dated:

Thursday, December 28, 2006

My Father's Suitcase

Also by Orhan Pamuk...the text of his Nobel lecture, 2006 courtesy of the New Yorker:
"When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem or a literary tradition; it is the person who shut himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man—or this woman—may use a typewriter, or profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I do. As he writes, he may drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time, he may rise from his table to look out the window at the children playing in the street, or if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or even at a black wall. He may write poems, or plays, or novels, as I do. But all these differences arise only after the crucial task is complete—after he has sat down at the table and patiently turned inward. To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy."

Love Death & Storytelling

"The Book of One Thousand and One Nights is a treasure chest of secret logic, in-jokes, richness, strangeness, impudence and vulgarity. More profoundly than any other book, it shows us what life is made of " - Orhan Pamuk recalls the first time he read The Book of One Thouand and One Nights in the New Statesman:

Also in this week's edition Philip Pullman explains how his work has been inspired by William Blake:

Rumpole and the Asbo

John Mortimer, creator of the fictional lawyer Horace Rumpole, is confronting the legal injustice of the asbo in his next book: "I'm going to call the book The Antisocial Behaviour of Horace Rumpole," says Sir John. "What matters to Rumpole and to me is that this government has brought in a law which means that children can be sent to prison for something that isn't a criminal offence and without having a trial. It doesn't matter how much ministers say Asbos are working, the fact is they don't represent justice."
Read the full story in the Independent:

Great Britons

also in the Independent comedian Mark Steel presents his list of the 12 greatest Britons as an alternative to the Conservative Party's recent list:
"Hardly anyone now suggests Britain is created just by the British. Beethoven, Bob Marley, Dante, James Joyce, Jesus and whoever invented the panini all shaped our culture more than most Englishmen. Nonetheless, if the Tories really want to big up an English crew for the times, here are my suggestions for the people they could choose":
(n.b. a slight layout problem on the Independent's website joins the Conservative list onto the end of Mark's)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Photography and Atrocity

This webcast is part of an "ongoing inquiry into photography’s relation to atrocity". Every day newspapers feature photographs of atrocity from around the world. "But what is - or what should be - our response to these images?" Can we overcome our role as passive consumers of other people's suffering?

In December 2005 a conference was held at the City University of New York's Graduate Center in an attempt to identify the issues – and suggest some solutions. Entitled "Picturing Atrocity: Photography in Crisis", the conference was co-organized by the University of Leeds and the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center. The event marked an unprecedented collaboration, between photographers and artists, award-winning writers and international museum curators, news editors, non-governmental organization representatives, and academics. The Webcast provides a record of that intense day’s conversation:

Monday, December 25, 2006

John Murray Archive

Magnus Linklater writes about the importance of the John Murray archive recently acquired by the National Library of Scotland:

"Because the Murray family kept everything - from meticulously recorded accounts to correspondence with its authors - and because those authors included Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, David Livingstone, James Hogg, Washington Irving and many others, the archive is a literary treasure-trove.

Here, for instance, are the invoices showing that Byron was the best-paid author of his time - he received nearly £20,000 from Murray over their nine years of association, a fabulous sum at the time. By contrast, Jane Austen was offered a meagre £450 for Emma, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility - she turned it down, but never earned enough from her writing to support herself.

Here too is correspondence about the death of Byron's illegitimate daughter Allegra in Italy in 1822. The poet sent her body to Murray in London, to arrange the funeral. The archive also contains the manuscript of an anonymous and harshly critical review of Walter Scott's Tales Of My Landlord: it was written by Scott himself. And there is a damning appraisal of the Origin Of Species by a clergyman-editor, Whitwell Elwin, who complains that Darwin has lamentably failed to prove his thesis, and should limit himself to publishing a book on pigeons."
To read the complete article in the Scotsman click here:

The National Library of Scotland also has a fascinating online exhibition on the Murray archive:

Alternative Literature and Libraries

Rory Litwin has a useful post about web resources related to alternative literature and libraries on the Library Juice.

Poor Robin's Christmas

With all the pressures of daily life it is easy to take a jaundiced view of Christmas. "Humbug" was Scrooge's dismissive description. Luckily Scrooge's attitude did not prevail and through books like "A Christmas Carol" and "The Pickwick Papers" Charles Dicken's helped to create our modern idea of the "traditional" Christmas.

Yet a few centuries earlier, during the English Civil War in the Seventeenth century, Christmas was banned altogether when legislation was passed by the Presbyterian dominated Parliament in January 1644/1645 as an "Ordinance for taking away the Book of Common Prayer and for establishing and putting in execution of the Directory of the Publique worship of God". Charles I was still on the throne and it was only later that Cromwell enforced similar legislation after he became the Lord Protector, although banning Christmas came to be specifically associated with the killjoy attitude of the Protectorate.

After Cromwell's death and with the restoration of the monarchy Christmas was also restored, and it was William Winstanley of Quendon and Saffron Walden, who was to play a key role in shaping the way it was celebrated.

Winstanly was an ardent royalist, and during the English Civil War played a small part in the royalist rising in Linton (Cambs) in 1648. He was the author of several important 17th century books, including England's Worthies (1660), The Loyall Martyrology (1665) and Lives of the Poets (1687). He also compiled and published his own Almanacs under the pen name of "Poor Robin". The first of these, Poor Robin (1662) was suppressed as scandalous with the result that it sold an estimated 7,000 copies.

Winstanley's humour was bawdy and anarchic, and his Almanacs were lively, popular, and irreverent, treating the popular celestial "science" of astrology with contempt as in the title of the 1664 almanac:

Poor Robin, 1664: an Almanack after a New Fashion, wherein the Reader may see (if he be not blinde) many Remarkable Things worthy of Observation, containing a two-fold Kalender—viz., the Julian or English, and the Rozindheads or Fanatics, with their several Saints' Daies, and Observations upon every Month. Written by Poor Robin, Knight of the Burnt Island, a well-wisher to the Mathematics; calculated for the Meridian of Saffron Walden, where the Pole is elevated 52 degrees and 6 minutes above the Horizon. Printed for the Company of Stationers.

He included one calendar with saints' days marked, and another calendar with days devoted to notorious characters and rogues such as Mother Shipton, Cardinal Richelieu and Doctor Faustus. The almanacs were so popular they soon found imitators, and continued to be published long after his death.

Winstanley's royalist views shaped the contents of his almanacs and he frequently included "Wassail chansons" and short idealised descriptions of Christmas, often in verse:

Now thrice welcome, Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minc'd-pies and plumb-porridge,
Good ale and strong beer;

Poor Robin's verse was noted more for enthusiasm than the quality of his rhymes:

Christmas to hungry stomachs gives relief,
With mutton, pork, pies, pasties, and roast-beef;
And men, at cards, spend many idle hours,
At loadum, whisk, cross-ruff, put, and all-fours.'

Fashionably fond of long titles, he also wrote a pamphlet on Christmas: Poor Robin's Hue and Cry after Good House-Keeping. Or, a Dialogue Betwixt Good House-Keeping, Christmas and Pride (1687), in which he compared the ideal of Christmas against fashion and pride, suggesting that proper hospitality and an open house at Christmas was the essence of good housekeeping and a christian duty.

Winstanley's colourful descriptions of the English Christmas were taken up and idealised in the 19th century by Washington Irving in his account of "Old Christmas" in which he frequently quotes from the "Poor Robin Almanacs". Irving influenced Dickens and they both shaped popular taste creating a popular image of "merry" Christmas, which in one way started in the small market town of Saffron Walden.
Martyn Everett

*** *** **** ***
(Readers interested in learning more about the remarkable William Winstanley should consult Alison Barnes' pamphlet The Ingenious William Winstanley published by the Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.

Here is the whole text of one of Winstanley's poems, first published in Poor Robin's Almanac in 1695:

Now thrice welcome, Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minc'd-pies and plumb-porridge,
Good ale and strong beer;

With pig, goose, and capon,
The best that may be,
So well doth the weather
And our stomachs agree.

Observe how the chimneys
Do smoak all about,

The cooks are providing
For dinner, no doubt;
But those on whose tables
No victuals appear,
O may they keep Lent
All the rest of the year!

With holly and ivy
So green and so gay;

We deck up our houses
As fresh as the day,
With bays and rosemary,
And laurel compleat,
And every one now
Is a king in conceit.

from: Poor Robin's Almanack (1695)

Statute Law Database

Not terribly exciting but nevertheless useful if you need to access the full text of UK statutes. "The UK Statute Law Database (SLD) is the official revised edition of the primary legislation of the United Kingdom made available online." There are simple and advanced search options, and a system of icons enables the user to track changes in legislation over time. The advanced search option stores recent searches even after the user logs-off so it is possible to view the results next time you log-in. The real downside is that it doesn't appear possible to search the content of the statutes you still have to wade through them all to find what you need.

Read Yourself RAW

A great site focusing on comics, cartoons and illustration - it includes some short but detailed profiles of artists and illustrators, and previews of forthcoming books. Alan Moore fans will be pleased to find that the current issue includes an article by Alan as well as a transcript of the BBC Radio 4 Chain Reaction interview when Alan interviewed Brian Eno. Read Yourself Raw is a well-designed site and easy to navigate with some excellent and relevant links.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Richard Boston

For some strange reason the Guardian has not put the obituary of journalist Richard Boston (which appeared in the print edition on Friday) online yet - surprisingly because some of Richard's best writing was featured in the Guardian's own pages. In addition to some fine journalism, Richard published and edited the Vole, a country magazine that anticipated environmentalism. He was also author of several excellent books including An Anatomy of Laughter (1974), Baldness Be My Friend (1977), and Starkness At Noon (1997), a collection of his short pieces, including the one describing his participation in elections for the European parliament using the slogan: "It's a big trough and I want to get my nose in it." Among the articles he wrote for the Guardian was this a short introduction to Clifford Harper's Country Diary Drawings.,11711,939412,00.html

Strangely the Guardian obituary is, however, available online at

ok the Guardian has it online now:,,1978167,00.html

Peer Review

The scientific journal Nature has announced that it is dropping the exciting open-editing experiment it has pursued for several months because of the lack of participation - the vast majority of authors being unwilling to post their papers, and few scientists were willing to criticize the work of their colleagues by posting their comments on Nature's website.

My attention was drawn to this by a post on Richard Charkin's blog which discusses the issue, and reprints an interesting article from the Wall Street Journal, suggesting that it is the competitive nature of scientific research and discourse that is at the root of the problem .

Incline Press

In the age of on-demand printing and the mass-produced book it is a joy to come across the small craft-printers who work to a different rythmn making books by hand, and ensuring the survival of skills and techniques that would otherwise be lost. The small print runs, careful design and unusual subject matter combine to produce books that are delightful to read over and over again. One such, which I stumbled across, while searching for something else, is Oldham's Incline Press run by Graham Moss and Kathy Whalen.

Started in a backyard shed Incline Press found its first publishing project in 1993 "when a chance meeting with the artist Pete Carter coincided with the purchase of a first edition of Oliver Goldsmith's The Deserted Village. Carter's modern-day interpretation of Goldsmith's poem provided the title-page illustration, and a generous gift provided the funds for large fount of Baskerville type with the "long s" from John Eickhoff's Acorntype Foundry--enough to set by hand a type facsimile of the poem including all the errors and differences that Goldsmith later changed for the fourth printing. While we were still printing this, the designer Enid Marx asked if we would like to produce a new edition of her 1938 set of wood engravings for Nursery Rhymes, which had recently been returned to her from the original publishers, Chatto & Windus. Thus the first book from Incline Press became its second, and we learned about some of the detours and distractions which are both the curse and the reward of the private press printer." Since then Graham and Kathy have published more than fifty books.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


The Dec/Jan 2007 issue is now out. Free online content includes "Fathers and Son: W.G. Sebald" by Mark M Anderson, and "Jesus' Sun" Ben Ratliff's review of The Wisdon of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets compiled and introduced by John Corbett. There is also a long review of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's book Why Arendt Matters, by Sarah Kerr :
"In her later work, Arendt continued to surprise. Jonathan Schell relates in a new introduction to On Revolution how much Arendt was inspired to hope again by the example of the quashed 1956 Hungarian uprising. Here, once more, she went against the grain, finding possibility in what had seemed, politically speaking, an obvious cause for despair. But the democratic turn in the late 1980s of societies from the Philippines to South Africa, Poland, Chile, and Czechoslovakia seemed to bear out her prescience about the kind of affirmative, spontaneously arising power of self-organizing citizens that might be tyranny's Achilles' heel."

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Knight's Tale

Simon Armitage writes about his new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
"To cast eyes on the manuscript, or even to shuffle the unbound pages of the Early English Text Society's facsimile edition, is to be intrigued by the handwriting; stern, stylish letters, like crusading chess-pieces, fall into orderly ranks along faintly ruled lines. But the man whose calligraphy we ponder - a jobbing scribe, probably - was not the author. The person who has become known as the Gawain poet remains as shadowy as the pages themselves.",,1972874,00.html

Monday, December 11, 2006

Complete works of Charles Darwin Online

A fantastic resource that makes available some of the key texts of Victorian science, and some extremely fine writing. (See for example: The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits.)

Radio 4 is serialising extracts from The Beagle Diary this week. If you have missed the first episode you can always listen again:

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Live Search

Microsoft have just added the beta version of their book search option to Live Search. At present there isn't a link from the home page, so you won't be able to run a book search until after you have tried a preliminary websearch. It is then possible to use the "more" drop down menu to access the book search feature - although I found that this doesn't work properly in all browsers. Still a useful alternative to Google Book Search and Amazon's A9 that enables the reader to download the entire text and not just read the context on a single page. Interestingly it appears to include the complete text of some works which must still be in copyright. A further weakness which will become apparent as more publications are added is that it isn't possible to refine the search by author or title.

The Lost John Lennon Interview

has just published a lengthy interview with John Lennon by Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn, in which Lennon talks about religion, music, the political function of culture and his working class background:

"at the time it was thought that the workers had broken through, but I realise in retrospect that it's the same phoney deal they gave the blacks, it was just like they allowed blacks to be runners or boxers or entertainers. That's the choice they allow you--now the outlet is being a pop star, which is really what I'm saying on the album in 'Working class hero'. As I told Rolling Stone, it's the same people who have the power, the class system didn't change one little bit.

Of course, there are a lot of people walking around with long hair now and some trendy middle class kids in pretty clothes. But nothing changed except that we all dressed up a bit, leaving the same bastards running everything."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Shooting the Messenger
The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) is the national body reponsible for overseeing the public library service, and directing policy - it has also funded the Library & Information Statistics Unit (LISU)at Loughborough University. LISU does an excellent job compiling a regular annual report on Public Library Statistics, and it makes these available free 0f charge online so that ordinary people can read them. Similar statistics are also published by CIPFA - the Chartered Insitute for Public Accountants which take considerably longer to compile. CIPFA only make a fraction of their report available free of charge online.
Both the LISU figures and the CIPFA figures measure and report on the massive and long-term decline in book-borrowing in the UK - but in the past CIPFA has put a gloss on the presentation of the statistics they compile, while LISU openly presents statistics. Now, however, the MLA has decided to withdraw funding from LISU so that the statistical report just published will be the last.

If you feel strongly about this you can email MLA Chair Mark Wood, at:

Please mark your email for his personal attention and request a personal reply.

More on Libraries
Following hot on the heels of a decision to stop providing magazines in Essex Libraries comes the news that Essex County Council intends to make the weekly mobile library service fortnightly. The rationale for these cuts in public service is to save £100 million pounds on the County Council's budget over the next three years. If Essex County Council is really so short of cash they should realise that dishing out free champagne at Library events while cutting the service is sending out the wrong signals. (Champagne reception held at Chelmsford Library on 16 November).

Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library
Also from Library Juice is Ed D'Angelo's new book Barbarians at the Gates of the Public Library, which provides: "a sobering, convincing, and frightening view of the ongoing corruption of the ideal upon which libraries were founded, and the parallel corruption of our democratic society by the same forces." (John N Berry III). Chapters 1 & 2 are available free to read online. Interestingly the first example cited in this book is from East London - not from the USA.

Media and Monopoly
Nancy Kranich’s preface to the 6th edition of Alternative Publishers of Books in North America is now online courtesy of Library Juice. Nancy is a past president of the American Library Association who has been heading up a subcommittee of the Intellectual Freedom Committee that is examining the impact of media consolidation on local control of media. Nancy's Preface explores the importance of alternative literature in libraries and although it is focused on the USA the issues raised have far wider relevance: "Today, public participation and freedom of expression are at stake in the battle to control the flow of information and ideas."

Lack of Posts
Sorry for the lack of posts recently - sometimes real life gets in the way of blogging!