"Men of few words are the best men." - William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act III, Scene II

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode IV)

The Gulf Of Siam – One Man and his Junk.
(12.0286N, 100.8054E) – December ‘11

Those few individuals who know me well, would, I believe, have little or no difficulty in putting palm to bible (even a lesser King James version!) in a court of law to attest that Mycroft Webb is a man loathe to commence any correspondence with an apology. This is due, in the main, to my belief that most correspondence fails to recover from the ingratiation of a weak opening, and secondly, that a gentleman should apologise as infrequently as possible for his actions. With that said, I still fear I must offer a sincere apology for the delay in my most recent dispatches. 

Against my better judgement, I entrusted my personal correspondences to one Captain Francesco Schettino, an Italian in command of a home-bound vessel known as the Concordia. O what a magnificent specimen she was! As fine an example of the modern shipwright’s artistry as I have beheld. However, her commander, seemed to my eyes, to be little more than a philandering, gusset-sniffing, blow-hard more interested in semen-ship than seamanship, if you'll pardon my candour. 

I trusted the vessel with my dispatches as I had heard that her orders compelled her to touch the coast of Italy on her return voyage but as I learned from the Lloyds List a few weeks after his departure, Schettino did a damned sight more than just touch the coast. The blessed fool ran straight into it! - with the loss of 25 souls and leaving a total constructive loss to be shared among some perfectly innocent maritime syndicates at Lloyd's of London. Even worse though, my dispatches were lost and I have subsequently had to send duplicate copies by alternative means at a very great expense of time.

Sinking of the Concordia - Artist's Impression
I have always avoided any significant financial exposures to Italians in my own Lloyd's portfolio because of a simple matter of a deep distrust of them as a race. I cannot say for sure where this stems from exactly but I believe my old Nana may have had a part to play in the matter.

Yes, I can distinctly recall as a toddler; I would be seated at the large mahogany table in my grandparent’s house, performing an early but instinctive comparison of Victoria Sandwich and traditional sponge-cake when I would hear her advising me in that lilting Cork dialect: “Listen Mykey boy, you’d better be on the watch-out for Guinea bashtards. They're langers to a man, nahting but cowards and shnake-oil salesmen the lot of 'em. You can't rely on a Dego for nahting, except thinking with his prick, the same way you can't rely on the Atlantic Ocean for nahting, except crashing against the Cliffs of Moher from now until the rapture”. She had a colourful way with words did my old Nan, and among her other many talents, she could spit around corners and also produce Christmas puddings so black and so dense; that light seemed to bend in their vicinity.

Now, with the reason for my late dispatches laid bare, and my theory about an apology ingratiating the opening of any correspondence proved beyond much doubt, I will now continue with the matter of my travelogue with as much gusto as I can muster.

Before deciding to depart from the busy port of Shanghai, I spent a number of long peaceful days at the dockside on the Huangpu overseeing the filling of the ever-capacious Fanny with all manner of epicurean delights from the Fuxing Road in Shanghai's French Concession. Cheeses that would have made Napoleon weep, enough cured meat and victuals to bring my gout to an agonising crescendo; and wines, whose quality, Bacchus himself would have approved of.

The Delightful Yuyuan Gardens, Shanghai.
I would be the first man to admit that the Fanny (a Junk in the Chinese style), which I had recently acquired, was no East Indiaman but I would be damned if I would have it said that Mycroft Webb was going to sea on his latest “venture” without laying on a decent spread. Not a fucking chance old Bean! I have a reputation to maintain after all. It was due to such careful provisioning and my strong preference for a chef who didn’t wash his wretched anus with his fingers before preparing my supper that I have managed to preserve myself from the aqueous bowels that this region is so rightly famous for. Naturally, I was keen for this to continue.

You may notice that I used the word venture previously because I have to admit that the weeks spent in the hustle-and-bustle of Shanghai must have awoken something of the mercantile spirit within me, a spirit that has lain dormant for many years now. You see, I have been removed from the grimy coal-face of bourgeois industry and commerce since making an absolute killing from African mineral holdings in the last decade; a stake in a veritable Golkonda in some godforsaken recess of that abysmal continent left me independently wealthy many years ago.

Since then, I have been content to be a disinterested spectator of financial markets; happily collecting periodic dividends and interest coupons while inspecting the yields on sovereign perpetuals from the comfortable remove of an armchair, in the same manner that an obese dog might glance furtively at a passing cat. No longer though would I rest on such laurels, I had formulated a plan while strolling around the Koi ponds of Shanghai's beautiful YuYuan Gardens to combine my QMBC missionary work with a little honest commerce.

Take a load off China! Opium Den, Shanghai.
Like all great business plans, mine was splendidly simple. It involved leaving Shanghai and China with its baffling customs and peculiar toilet etiquette behind for good, and with a crack crew of Fannies make all possible sail through the South-China Sea for the Kingdom of Siam. Whereupon, I will use gentlemanly diplomacy to make discrete enquiries at major cities and ports in order to acquire as many chests of this wonderfully refreshing Opium tack as possible. When the Fanny is full to the brim, we will then set sail North for Hong Kong to offload our cargo into the nearby Chinese market through my agent there at a no-doubt spectacular profit. The obvious commercial benefit of this venture aside, it had become clear to me that keeping the horizons of Chinese industry permanently obnubilated with the juice  of the poppy would be of great benefit to the West. Mark my words Gentlemen: "The Chinese will own us all if they're ever allowed out from under its influence!"

It was dawn on the 27th of November, when we slipped our moorings and the Fanny glided gently out to sea. The winds and tides were favourable and the sea calm which I took as an excellent omen for our undertaking. I had been so busy of late with the provisioning that I had delegated the running of the ship to my footman Finbarr - a loyal native, my very own Gunga Din, if you will.

To my surprise, everything had been completely ship-shape on board, a bit too ship-shape; I had become somewhat suspicious that Finbarr's murky past must have included some time at the helm as his seamanship was beyond reproach. However, I was more than happy to let him handle the day-to-day sailing of the Fanny.

Mile after mile of blue-green water passed under our keel, and in truth, I had little to do but work on my logs and inspect the crew on a regular basis. These inspections showed the crew to be a motley lot but they were all right sailors and looked as if they could handle themselves in a tight spot. In no particular order, they were:
  • Crabby Jake: (Able-Seaman) Formerly of H.M. Royal Navy but now succumbed to such excesses of debauchery on land that he scratched his groin with the incessant vigour and thousand-yard stare of a  fast-bowler polishing an old cricket ball. 
  • Whitey Smith: (Able Seaman & Sergeant At Arms) Strapping Nigerian chap measuring nigh on 2 metres tall, who, save for his flashing white grin was actually as black as a Pit-pony.     
  • Blackie Coffey: (Ordinary Seaman) Exiled Irish gypsy who had decided on a life at sea rather than being set upon by his own kind due to his Albinism. His skill as a bare-knuckle brawler was a phenomenon considering his extreme myopia and near permanent sun-stroke.
  • One-Ball Saul: (Ship's Purser & Jew) An unfortunate slip of the Rabbi's knife at his briss saddled Saul with his unfortunate monicker. However, he is ideally suited for purser's duties because like many of his faith, he writes fair and is good with numbers but more importantly is "As cute as a shit-house rat and tighter than a gnat's twat.", as my old Nana would often say.  
It was early afternoon on the sixth day of the journey and I had just fallen asleep, the effects of another large lunch and the oppressive heat combining to overcome me like a delicious ether, when I heard some rushing of feet and shouting on deck. I stirred momentarily before breaking wind and returning contentedly to the business of my nap. But when I then heard the cry of "Pirates, off the starboard beam.", I sprang to my feet in a modest panic and went on to the deck where I saw a much larger junk bearing down fast on our current position, their deck was crowded with Thais, Malays & Lascars and other piratical looking fellows with machetes and axes. It would have been fair comment to say that they were not there to sun-bathe.

Upon seeing this, my bowels outpaced my brain and I started to feel a tad unwell. It might have been the foie gras, I don't know.

I noticed Finbarr was stripped to the waist and he had jumped high into the rigging. Honestly, I had never noticed the vast array of tattoos that the man possessed on his torso before and quite why he seemed to be displaying them and hollering at the pirates was a mystery to me at such an important moment. The pirate junk quickly neared to within shouting distance and appeared to be readying to board us.

Myself and the other Fannies thought our days were numbered but we stood at the rail watching in amazement as the pirates seemed to change direction at the very last minute and as they did so collectively saluted Finbarr who returned the gesture by raising his arm triumphantly. The pirate junk continued to sail in the opposite direction and Finbarr slowly returned to the deck with a large grin on his face.

It was clear that I would have to enquire a little bit more about the exact background of my valet, and I would do just that, as soon as I sorted out a new pair of underpants and trousers for myself. It would appear that running opium in the South China sea can be a messy business.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

QMBC XIII: Galileo's Dream

Reading: Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson
Venue: Bull & Castle in Christchurch, Dublin


McGavin and Jameson were the first to arrive at the venue. Syme followed presently. Food was ordered as the clock moved ever closer to the pre-agreed time for the meeting to commence. Clay arrived with some visible relief in a grey area with various time-pieces present showing a range of times from 6:57 to 7:02. In any case, Clay’s arrival is duly recorded as being 'on time'. Duly noted.

With some brief niceties out of the way, Clay opened his copy of Galileo’s Dream and continued reading. It became immediately apparent that although he was on time for the meeting, he was still some pages from completing the book. No doubt the furrowed brows were racing through the 24 succinct rules of the QMBC. Number 12 was perhaps bending slightly under the pressure, but like any well made rule there is adequate give without it breaking.


Although Clay’s timeliness relative to 7 could be measured with the sweeping second-hand of any Swiss made time-piece, McCarthy’s arrival would more easily be captured using a calendar. Be it Gregorian, Hijri, Lunar or Solar. The point here is that McCarthy arrives late. Although with McCarthy’s eventual arrival, this would complete the quintet of remaining QMBC members still primarily residing in Dublin. In the current severe economic trough, it was inevitable that the QMBC would feel the cold hand of economic trough on our collective shoulder. The first to depart was Paddington who crossed the water to not so distant London. Whether it was for reasons of career advancement, to be closer to his tailor or to simply grow a beard he will acknowledge inquiries with no more than a wry smile. As to the rumour that he was disqualified from driving in Ireland for speeding and that he had to emigrate to a separate jurisdiction in order to be allowed to drive on public roads, this is nothing more than a complete fiction. Although it would be broadly consistent.

Webb was the second to depart, adopting the moniker of 'World Wide Webb'. He felt it was high time he paid a visit to his various interests in the Far East and sub-antipodean continent. "Nothing helps the bottom line like the threat of a well heeled brogue to the posterior. It works in Cork, it will work in those damnable places too! Now what time is the Captain hosting me to his table?" was the last that was heard from Webb as he boarded a clipper to Britain. Quite why he was explaining his thoughts on motivation to the porter was unclear. He's some character.

We (including you, Dear Reader) wish both these QMBC brethren Godspeed on their travels.

The Executive Committee

However, back to the Bull & Castle - with thoughts of the departed to the fore in each of our minds no doubt, the first point of business was suggested by Jameson. He suggested that the four initial attendees that evening (Sans McCarthy - that's French for 'without', although it would perhaps be a more fitting moniker) should become the QMBC Executive Committee. This was seconded by Clay. The motion was passed unanimously. In keeping with QMBC traditions it is unclear what this title means but Clay suggested that there should be a new series of tiered QMBC-online business cards produced with the Executive Committee members having theirs made out of a different quality card. Clay took note to investigate feasibility.

All agreed on the fine location for the meeting. A capital selection of bespoke and world beers were available along with a fine array of “pub grub”. McGavin did have trouble with the burger though to the point where it became minute-worthy. Jameson shared McGavin’s troubles going a step further in identifying that the problem was due to “no cohesion”. Five sachets of condiments were required to cement the remaining crumbs into something manageable. Clay mumbled an expletive at this point in apparent reference to events in the last few pages followed shortly afterwards by an enthusiastic “Done and done”. McGavin noted the time at 7.11.

Too Much Galileo?

With completion of vittles, we moved on to the disputation. Clay began with, "Was the author too into Galileo?” He alluded to the similar problem with Cobra in that both authors had misunderstood that complete immersion into the minutiae of a subject does not necessarily make for a more enjoyable read and more often distracts from the story line. McGavin agreed that this book is certainly one for the Galileophiles. Still reeling from a difficult burger, McGavin went to his usual refuge of being confused. “Who is the narrator?” It was agreed that the style of narration (it only becoming apparent more than half way through that it is narrated by someone present) is unusual. This was perhaps one of the reasons why Clay declared the book a “complete displeasure to read. It’s far too long”. This was generally agreed with. We are lead to believe here that Clay was suggesting it was too long in a grander sense rather than the fact he needed 11 additional minutes. Jameson suggested it was perhaps 200-300 pages too long. This was met with nodding heads. Although to say it was a complete displeasure is doing it an injustice as will be seen below.

Low Expectations

Everyone was in agreement that the historic parts of the book were more enjoyable than the futuristic components. Clay did comment that he liked the story when it was Galileo going around "cavorting, drinking and doing science". There followed a lively discussion of some of the more "orgy-ish" parts, in particular the events around Carnival in Venice and the masquerade balls. McGavin at this point pulled out his QMBC cliché in admitting that he “didn’t get it.” The usual admonishments followed. There were some specific discussions about whether the beings from the future were humans and if so, how much larger they were. The discussion then returned to generally how bad the book was. Jameson said that he didn’t expect much from it, and that his expectations were met. McGavin went a step further saying the book was terrible. Clay felt he had regressed to a secondary-school-level reader as he kept looking at how many pages there were to go considering “How many more reads do I have to do?” McGavin whom everyone is aware prefers fact-based books was unimpressed by the “rubbish” interwoven between the historic parts with trips to Jupiter. We further discussed how enjoyable the scenes in medieval Italy were. Galileo certainly appeared to lead an interesting life.

There then followed a rather unusual discussion in which Clay stated that he had always thought Galileo had been killed by the Church. Adding further to Clay's confusion was the fact that he thought Galileo was not burnt at the stake but had actually been thrown from the roof of a monastery in Rome. The constant references to burning at the stake were a source of some confusion during Clay’s reading and even at the end of the book, he was surprised that KSR would leave it so counter to what happened in (Clay's perception of) real life with Galileo living out his retirement. Clay only discovered the end of the book was actually true, at the meeting. Even more bizarrely perhaps, was his further admission that he had actually been to the monastery where the previously mentioned throwing-from-roof had occurred. What we are to make of this is unclear. Although given the book's time travelling theme and constant flirtations with historic 'what-ifs', we can't entirely discount the possibility that Clay has had some experience of a parallel history where his version of events has taken place. We simply don't know. Stranger things have happened at sea.

There then followed a discussion about which parts of the book were real. Everyone agreed that it was interesting so many of the records are available from Galileo's various hearings. The general consensus was that a book set solely in Italy would have been a much more enjoyable read. And with that agreement reached, Jameson brought the discussion to the Jupiter visit that involved Galileo swimming behind Hera with her up ahead "pulsing like a mare in heat". This held the attention of the discussion for several minutes. McGavin probed the issue further. "Hera, would ya?" The discussion continued again in earnest although nothing of a substantive literary nature was determined beyond the fact that Hera is an extraordinary character. She varies from initially being a bystander to Ganymede's meddling in human history, to actively intercepting Galileo mid-flight to Jupiter, to flying about in space as the apparent leader of a group of factionists on some rebel moon orbiting Jupiter, to carrying on as the wife of an aristocrat in medieval Italy. And then there's the swimming about pulsing during Carnival. Whatever else we can say about Hera, it's clear to all that she must have some incredible craic.

Wonder Truss

This nether region discussion allowed a nice segue into Galileo and his wonder truss. Syme was visibly distressed recalling the near constant references to it. McGavin, ever the fact-hound wanted to know why they didn't fix the hernia permanently. Jameson check-mated McGavin by saying that he had a truss so it was fixed. The many references to it were agreed by all to have been overdone. Perhaps another nod towards the Galileophiles? Although perhaps if one had a massive recurring extended prolapsed hernia and lived a stressful life, one would be a little put out on occasion too.

Despite the vulgar nature of so many QMBC discussions, Clay admitted he didn't like the phrase "jakes" and the surrounding detailed events. McGavin declared similar annoyance with the character of Cartophilus. McGavin's principal reason was the rather unusual one of Cartophilus alluding to the fact he was the original wandering Jew and that he'd been doing it for 800 or 900 years. There were some nods at this perceptive piece of analysis until McGavin continued by suggesting his main issue was that it would be impossible to live so long on a Medieval diet. Both Jameson and Clay were able to counter by stating that both Noah and Methuselah lived for that long also. Nicely played gentlemen, nicely played.


Clay did like the numerous references to drinking. A high point for him was the realisation that a large bottle of wine was referred to as a fiasco. Clay could recall a number of events that involved fiascoes, where wine was present at some. Had Paddington been there he no doubt would have enjoyed discussing this choice quote:
"At the Villa Costozza they joined their convivial host and did just what they would have done at home, eating and drinking, talking and laughing, while the Count opened bigger and bigger bottles of wine, until they were hoisting fiascoes and balthazars and small casks, and had eaten most of three geese, along with condiments, fruits, cheese, and a great number of pies; and all on a day so hot that even here in the hills they were sweating greasily."
And then the piece of the resistance;
"Finally the Count was overcome, and staggered off to vomit like a Roman."
Although this was a particularly enjoyable section of the book with Galileo recalling this event from earlier in his life, it is with some annoyance that KSR returns to this at the climax of the book.

While on the topic, McGavin stated that "a Roman orgy has nothing to do with sex. It's about eating." Clay in the spirit of the evening and further alluding to Galileo's adventures expressed some surprise that it was solely a gastronomic affair although he didn't use so eloquent a phrase noting instead "It was all guns blazing!" It should be noted that it was only on a second reading of the notes of the evening that the unusualness of McGavin's use of the present tense in describing Roman orgies would strike your minute taker.

With the topic severely gone off, Clay took us back to the book by reading a section that had to do with Galileo learning about multiple dimensions.
"The vector nature of the manifold also accounts for many of the temporal effects we experience, like entropy, action at a distance, temporal waves and their resonance and interference effects, and of course quantum entanglement and bilocation, which you yourself are experiencing because of the technology that was developed to move epileptically. In terms of what we sense, fluctuations in this manifold also account for most of our dreams, as well as less common sensations like involuntary memory, foresight, deja vu, presque vu, jamais vu, nostalgia, precognition, Ruckgriffe, Schwanung, paralipomenon, mystical union with the eternal or the One, and so on."
And so on indeed Mr Robinson! Although perhaps Clay experienced some one of those when he thought that Galileo had been thrown off a roof.

Fiction - A Harsh Mistress

The section that tried to describe Galileo's advanced learning of every bit of knowledge that was discovered from his time onwards was agreed by all to be severely overdone and out of place. Both Syme and Jameson captured the feeling towards that whole section by suggesting they'd have been as happy if they just reversed the polarity on the dylithium crystals. Quick pseudoscience would have been much less painful than the long drawn out scenes this book inflicts on the reader. Syme again questioned if this book would have been better if there were no future sections? Jameson positively responded before Syme finished the 'ture' part of 'future'. Clay said he would have preferred a separate book about time travellers trying to change things. Clay and Jameson were in agreement on this. Syme in particular liked the early scenes developing the telescope. As each member suggested some positives, all eyes turned to McGavin who said he was disappointed that Newton was not in the pretend-future-cyborg-teacher's top 3 mathematicians of all time. "It annoys me." Fiction can be a harsh Mistress, McGavin.

Quite a sizable part of the discussion of the night centered around how the book could have been better. I think if the QMBC had the ability to bring KSR to the future to hear his book being discussed, he would have been sent back to his typewriter (or whatever archaic devices they used to write books on in 2009) with more than a few solid tips. The suggested improvements would have turned this book from a simple book of pages, into a book of real page-turner-pages.

Clay then presented a hope he had early in the book that Hera and Ganymede would turn out to be the original Greek gods that had lived on Earth eons ago. Disappointingly for him, this didn't turn out to be the case. Equally disappointing for all was a brief spell of googling for that vein of internet fetish that had to do with cartooned images of giant amazonian-like women. Filters would prevent the research from reaching any concrete conclusions. Although Jameson was able to find a picture of a sexy bunny.

McGavin's main (read as 'next') problem with the book was the fact that Galileo could be in two places at once. Syme's attempts to explain the entanglement fell on deaf ears. Perhaps in showing some confused brotherhood with McGavin at the reality of future-Jupiter, Clay was surprised why then, if Galileo could take an "advanced learning pill" to figure out their problems, didn't everyone else just do the same? It is not recorded, but presumably McGavin was annoyed by this also. And if not then, then most likely now. Fiction can be a harsh Mistress, McGavin.

McCarthy Arrives

Like some Ruckgriffe from a previous incantation, Sans McCarthy arrived at 7:54 (on the same day it should be noted in fairness). McCarthy wasted no time in getting down to the discussion with an observation that the book is "bloody long although the astronomy bits are interesting." McCarthy was peppered with questions upon arrival. His liking of the truss is noted. No reason given. Better in than out, one supposes. Now that the QMBC's resident Catholic expert was present, some ecclesiastical issues could be dealt with. There was a brief discussion about whether or not Newton was Catholic. The various trials & hearings were again discussed. Jameson liked the inquisition and the book of rules which make it impossible to go against previous rulings. Perhaps if Galileo had the keen legal counsel of McCarthy and Jameson he might have fared better against the Vatican's various ontological arguments. "Contra-Preferentum my good man. Defence rests."

In fairness to KSR, he was credited as being a good narrator. He does create some very effective imagery. There was a brief discussion about Galileo's liking of blue sky. Syme liked the character of his daughter. McGavin nodded "significantly" at this reference. McGavin said that he would like to see a truss. Syme expressed perhaps more understandable enthusiasm at wanting to see the military compass that Galileo invented.

McGavin questioned if the book was well written. Syme was alone in believing so. Clay shared the belief somewhat in that individual scenes were well constructed but that overall it wasn't a very good read. Clay was particularly troubled with there being too many characters with similar names, interests, alliances and this made it too hard to follow. Syme agreed pointing out that the importance of several characters changed over Galileo's life. Clay was nodding but it was clear he didn't know whom Syme was referring to.

Where's Kepler's Dream?

McCarthy liked the verbatim quotes and believed that overall the book was not an implausible concept. There was a "humourous discussion" about Kepler and his theory that time squared was equal to distance cubed. One can only presume that both the humour and scientific nuances of the discussion requires the reader to have been there.

Syme liked that Galileo despaired when Kepler starts a sentence with "Clearly...". It seemed there was more interest in a book about the comedic adventures of Kepler than the interplanetary/temporal adventures of Galileo. This perhaps says more about KSR's book than it does about the nerdish tendencies of the QMBC members.

McGavin agreed saying that he could never understand how anyone would recommend this book, he muttered that he still "didn't understand it". Clay did agree somewhat by saying that two thirds of the way through the book, it was still unclear to him what the story was about. Syme added a bit more weight to the negative discussion with this succinct universal - "If you can't summarise the plot of a story in a single sentence, it's too complicated."
It seems that all were contemplating the depth of this; applying it in turn to various literary tomes, essays, novels and film favourites. Clay was presumably thinking "They're trying to break into a safe in a tall building and a cop tries to stop them. One and done."

McGavin's thoughts were less about this pocket sized piece of wisdom that could be used to appraise any work of fiction than.. "Why was he brought to Jupiter?" McGavin wanted to know also why there were no reference to people living on Earth in the future-Jupiter scenes. He "would have enjoyed it". Everyone disagreed with him on this point. Fiction can be a harsh Mistress, McGavin.

There Are No Folk Like Carnie Folk

The degree to which this book annoyed McGavin was clear when he said he was annoyed by the scenes of Carnival on Jupiter. The comparison of the Carnival he is used to happening every year in his office which contains such hijinx as the cutting of ties and the eating of cake did not seem to compare with the extreme hedonistic events of future-Jupiter with comparable activities of genital docking and general complete debauched nakedness. Although referencing the nakedness, he did try to save some face. "Don't get me wrong, I loved it!"

Perhaps mirroring the back and forth nature of the subject material, the end of the discussion jumped around a number of areas. Jameson questioned why Galileo shipped his daughter out to a convent. This evoked general puzzlement. It is perhaps a failing of KSR and his Galileo knowledge that he couldn't adequately describe why this was necessary.

Rats! Where's Our Protection?

McGavin enjoyed the copulation scene where a rat came across and bit Galileo on the ear. Everyone apparently enjoyed this scene as it was discussed with some gusto.

Move Along KSR

Syme stated that this book will stay with him. It was with apparent glee that Clay referenced an earlier meeting and that in relation to this book he "had read every page but not every word". Syme - yet again having to defend his nomination - said that KSR had written a successful Mars trilogy about a competing USA/USSR race to space. Clay suggested that "KSR can **** off with that".

There was a final pondering of why Hera didn't cure Galileo. This was an unusual part of the book. Given the apparent closeness of Galileo and Hera (having shared a mind meld) it's strange that she wouldn't cure him so that they could live out their days tickling each other's genitals/intellects. There was general dismay also at the climatic scene where old-Galileo (spoiler alert) goes back in time to rescue parallel-dimension-old-Galileo from certain immolation and replaces the young-dead-Galileo with parallel-dimension-bit-burnt-old-Galileo during that day of drinking in the hills when young-Galileo apparently dies. Thus creating some sort of perpetuating loop. Perhaps ironic also that KSR describes only the wine containers as a fiasco.

There was a brief historical discussion about the plague with the general ascersion that had QMBC members been present at the time, that they would have collectively stayed away from rats. Syme discussed further the character of Galileo saying that he was "arrogant intellectually, but saw his place in the world". Syme went further saying that he feels quite an intimate connection with him because he has "taken shits with Galileo". It was unclear to those present why KSR should go into such detail describing Galileo's bowel movements
"'I can't belive it - it could only happen to me - I got the runs so bad I've shitted myself a second asshole.' And he wasn't just repeating the old joke; right in the peritoneum, about halfway between his anus and his balls, the bottom of his guts actually had burst through all the but outermost layer of skin."
The discussion continued with Clay querying why if Galileo was such a masterful experimental scientist he didn't do some experiments on his own diet, if passing anything other than a mustard seed was such a problem for him.

World Wide Webb

It was at this point that Jameson read Webb's verdict which had been received by telegram earlier in the day. Included below:


The QMBC moved their focus to time travel and how it's dealt with in the book. McGavin's main problem was how did Galileo's body stay on earth and what happened the molecules at the location where he appeared on future-Jupiter. There was general agreement that both Terminator and Back To The Future handled time travel much more adequately. Clay was keen to include Time Cop too.

And with time travel concluded, the group moved to the scores.

The Scores

Tiger McGavin:
Action - 2/13
Well Writteness - 3/13
Sexiness - 4/8 "Got me there. Not fully"
Quincey Morrisness - 5/10 (Galileo rescues self from immolation on horseback)
Interestingness - 10/17
Unputdownableness - 1/22
Total: 25/83

Atticus McCarthy:
Interestingness - 10/15
Quincey Morrisness - 5/15
Action - 3/10
Execution - 10/20
Unputdownableness - 5/10
Discussability - 5/13 (Syme: "Despite having missed half the discussion...")
Forgetability - minus 5
Total: 33/83

Mycroft Webb:
Quincey Morrisness - 5/16
Actionness - 10/15
Well Writteness - 11/15
Interestingness - 11/15
Unputdownableness - 12/22
Total: 49/83

Whitby Syme:
Plot - 9/20
Execution - 8/20
Characters - 18/20
Food for thought - 6/10
Extra points - 4/13
Total: 45/83

Carl Jameson:
Concept - 9/10
Unputdownableness - 5/13
Well Writteness - 10/20
Quincey Morrisness - 5/10
Plot - 0/10
Memorableness - 0/10
Total: 29/83

William Clay:
Plot - 0/10
Galileoness - 7/5
Interestingness - 18/68
Total: 25/83

Average for Galileo's Dream: 34.3

One Sentence Summaries

Clay: "Merging sci-fi with time travelling to help people in the past? That's a quantum leap."
(or: "Galileo was a nice guy. Always truss' a man with a hermia.")

McGavin: "I wish KSR had worn a truss to stop this book spewing out his second asshole."

Webb: "Honestly, I found Galileo's Dream really hard to call - Genoa I mean? It took awhile to get going so I was leaning towerds it being a real Pisa shit at the start. However, I got into it and it Turin'ed to be a fairly enjoyable read!"

McCarthy: (With a Kerry accent) "Hera it was too long."

Syme: "I feel like I've been around the solar system with Galileo, with many stops in the jakes along the way."

Jameson: "Portable pocket syncope."


The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet - Reif Larsen

Zone One - Colson Whitehead
Embedded - Dan Abnett

Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(Vetoed by McCarthy. Clay: "We dodged a bullet!")
Djibouti - Elmore Leonard

Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Apocalypse - D. H. Lawrence

Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett

The Voting

Zone One-0200200300700
Red Harvest10010010000300

* unashamed and unabashed tactical voting

Winner: Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

McCarthy suggested a re-rating of previous books might be a worthy endeavour. Clay goes on record as saying Grapes of Wrath was pretty good, but still painfully long.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode III):

Shanghai - A French Concession 
(31.2099N, 121.4629E– November ‘11

I have to admit to being sorely hipped at the manner of my departure from Peking. By any standards; and even what passes for standards here on the Asian sub-continent, it was far from a gentlemanly exit. Indeed, it is always a sad business when a gentleman and his footman have to beat off a dozen or so Chinamen just to get on board their evening train!
Queensbury - A decent lightweight

In lieu of an official Gazette, I would have it stated here that Finbarr handled himself admirably during the fracas; without needing direction or encouragement, he delivered some decidedly savage elbows and well-timed kicks to the zealot horde. In truth, his martial artistry was the boon of the ages, as I was of course, sticking vehemently to the Marquess of Queensbury rules despite their repeated infringement by the Chinese. Can you imagine the gall of those po-faced savages to try and kick me while I was stretching out a hamstring during one of my allotted 1-minute breaks? Poor show China! 

Later that evening, I instructed Finbarr to look after the luggage and to set himself up in steerage, as I reclined in the spacious 1st Class sleeper cabin in a state of high grease after the earlier rumpus, the locomotive beneath me making its slow clackety-clack southwards across the Hebei province; I looked out the window at the unerring darkness outside. As I did so, my brow furrowed and my mind busied itself imagining the countless fields of Chinese stink-cabbage running to the horizon in all directions. My low spirits remained with me until I remembered some Burmese cheroots in my over-coat pocket. It became clear within an instant that a crafty smoke could only improve my humours so I made my way to the rear of the train so as not to sully my own cabin with their stench.

Wafting back to my cabin some fifteen minutes later, buoyed by the strong tobacco; I noticed the door of an adjacent cabin to my own slightly ajar. I saw therein two middle-aged gentlemen and a striking young female playing cards; the briefest glance told me that these folks were of the monied variety– my favourite. Naturally, I made a lengthy introduction; presenting one of my cards with a bow to the lady to finish, and asked if they were in need of a fourth for a game of Whist, the card read:

Mycroft Webb (Dublin & London)
Emeritus Professor of Rhetoric, 
Chief Pudding Officer of the QMBC.

The card itself was a tasteful thickness, possessed the most discrete watermark, and had exquisite Eggshell colouring and finest Romalian type. It had never failed me.

The largest of the group, who I later learned was called Jardine responded:”Why certainly Sir, but it is wise to tell you now that we do not play for sport at this table.” I struggled to contain my delight at these words and responded: “Never in life, Sir.” and I placed a note of credit from my bank for £5,000 and delivered my customary coup de grâce: “My bankers are Hoare’s of London … but aren’t all bankers Hoare's”. Universal mirth reined, for no one was beloved of a banker and I was welcomed to a seat across from the young lady – the depth of her bosom only now becoming apparent to me. 

The other players were Messrs Jardine & Matheson and Matheson’s debutante niece Fanny who had accompanied her uncle on the business trip from which they were now returning, I noted when it was mentioned that that the two gents were partners in Shanghai’s most successful merchant houses Jardine Matheson & Co - it seems that I would not have to hold back from taking these old plums for a few quid. Delightful. 

Out of polite conversation, I enquired as to the exact nature of their business. Matheson proceeded to give a rote list of their interests from Textiles, Rubber, Sugar, Spices, Silks, Alcohol but Jardine (smiling) interrupted him in mid-sentence: "Webb, you can forget Association Football, because out here Opium is the Opium of the masses and that is just as well because nothing turns a quick, clean profit like your Opiates. Your blessed Chinamen can't get enough of the stuff and it exports admirably well in a variety of forms." Matheson rubbed his hands in agreement. 

We partnered up by drawing cards in the usual manner and to my great delight, I was paired with the chesty debutante whose shapely leg was "accidentally" brushed by my own as I made myself more comfortable in my seat.

One of the benefits of an eidetic memory is a certain skill at card games, and I admit to throwing a few hands to make the outcome appear more a matter of luck than the studied act of recall and assessment of probability that it most assuredly was. True to form, a few short hours later I had relieved a sizeable sum of money from Messrs Jardine & Matheson who by now were starting to look a little pale. In lieu of a personal promissory note, I preferred to accept the deeds of ownership and logbooks of a recently refurbished Chinese Junk that was tied up on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. I bid them all good evening and while kissing the hand of Ms. Matheson, I could hardly miss the number of her cabin being advertised in her other hand.

As the train approached Shanghai the following morning, I exited the young lady's cabin discreetly in order to preserve her honour. While she slept soundly, I left a wilting carnation from my lapelle on her locker - a modest souvenir for the lady but it was a Friday and I never wore carnations on a Friday.

As the train shuddered to a halt and with Finbarr seeing to the dunnage, I had the distinct feeling that the farce in Peking was nothing but an aberration and that things were now looking up for the old "World-Wide-Webb" as I had taken to calling myself. However, when I disembarked with rampant optimism and stepped squarely on to a dog-turd that could only have been crafted by the greatest of Great Danes - and once more on Chinese soil, and much to Finbarr's enjoyment I was outside of my natural element again. 

Given my earlier misunderstanding with the Chinese authorities, I ordered a shay to the French Concession. I though it prudent to base myself in Shanghai's autonomous French district so as to avail of the different jurisdiction there. Let me be clear though, I have no great love for the French, except as the pâtissiers and fromagiers of the world, indeed, it is my experience that they are an inveterate bunch of malodorous adulterers who ought not be left in charge of anything more pressing than a small dog on a leash, a packet of Gitanes and a very small amount of walking-around money.

The Bund in Shanghai
That said, over the following days,  I was loath to admit the tree-lined avenues and the European architectural influence in this district were something of a comfort to me as I saw to the careening of my Junk on the river during the day and dining in the French Concession or other European locales in the evening.

Unusually, my favourite haunt was a German Brauhaus; it often amused me to ponder how the only Irishman to have gained membership to that bastion of English reserve: The Diogenes Pudding Club of London came to be supping in a German Brauhaus in the French concession area of Shanghai, where dainty Chinese ladies wearing ill-fitting dirndl outfits served food and drink while the resident Filipino band attempted Brazilian bossa-nova nightly. Sirs, Globalisation is surely upon us! It almost goes without saying too that I left notes for the pastry chef about the absence of Kirsch in the Blackforest Gateau and the low specific gravity of the Stollen - it was the least I could do.

Each day I would pass by the The Bund; the financial and commercial heart of this bustling city; a true sight for sore eyes. The orderly line of banks, insurance companies and merchant houses seemed a million miles from the hutongs and street vendors of Peking. For me, you can keep your gawdy temples and your pagodas, this was real architecture. Granite and cut-stone abounded and never before was there a thoroughfare whose buildings worshipped symmetry, so keenly and so completely.

I never tired of the view of Shanghai from the prow of my Junk, which after much hard work by a motley crew of piratical lascars and malays goaded on by a demonic Finbarr as bosun got her ready for sea in record time. She was a stiff, dry, weatherly creature with strong knees and new teak futtocks; by my reckoning she would sail beautifully on account of her spotless bottom. In truth, she lacked nothing ... but a name.

It took a couple of days for the outfitters to get a uniform ready for the crew that was acceptable to me but I remember the day of her Christening as if it were yesterday. I arranged a priest to bless her and hired a choir to sing a few psalms as I sacrificed a Jeroboam of Champagne against her hull. I can still hear the collective cries of: "God bless the Fanny, and all who sail in her." 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode II):

In a bid to spread the good word of Quincey Morris to those less fortunate than themselves; the fraternity of the QMBC dispatched one of their most capable officers (Mycroft Webb) on a round-the-world tour to win the hearts and minds of heathen masses towards the advancement of contrarian-elitist literary ideals .... and where possible to increase the standing of the pudding course in lesser cultures. As part of his missionary work, he has agreed to record a travelogue; of which, regular excerpts are reproduced here to serve as a permanent record for those who would follow in his footsteps. 

Peking - The Forbidden City – November ‘11

The suites at the Raffles Hotel were a garish hybrid of Occidental and Oriental architectures, but to their credit, they possessed all of the accoutrements that I was likely to require during my stay. Therefore, I wasted little time in negotiating a long term rate with the hotel manager and agreed to take their best suite on the condition that he saw to it that all the clocks were fixed immediately. The young hotel manager looked somewhat confused at this request but I quickly informed him that all of his timepieces were approximately 8 hours fast; I was even quicker to remind him that “There is only one time sir – and that is the Greenwich Mean Time“.

My Suite at the Raffles. 
While on the subject of time, it has long been my belief that the training of new servants is akin to breaking in a new pair of shoes; painful initially as the new leather slowly takes the form of the master’s foot but ultimately worthwhile as the two slowly begin to move in one graceful step. It is without hyperbole then that I can assure you that my first few days in Peking did not come without a few pinched toes as I moulded the domestics at the hotel into a staff befitting a gentleman of my carriage. Indeed, it was with some pride that I watched these efforts bear fruit as this once modest 5-star hotel was soon able to provide perfectly-delicious creamed rice, semolina or bread and butter puddings at any hour of the day or night. Naturally, I felt it my duty to test this facility on a regular basis to ensure that pudding standards did not revert to the sorry state I found them in when I arrived in Peking.

Despite my early successes on the humanitarian pudding front, I wish I could have had more success with my native valet Finbarr. He is certainly looking the part these days by virtue of the two bespoke day-suits I purchased for him by outfitters Lane & Crawford and he has become a dab hand at starching a shirt and pressing a trousers but it all counts for nought as he still possesses the personal hygiene, table manners and toilet habits of a shaved Orang-utan. O what noble savagery lies behind that thick brow? That said; I remain absolutely committed to making a gentleman’s gentleman out of him yet.
The Great Wall  - Longquanyu Section

With such a heavy workload, one might well believe that I was unable to engage in the sightseeing and cultural exchange that was one of the principal reasons for my travels to the region. Let me assure you though that I have not neglected that front. Far from it in fact, I was quick to make contact with my Embassy and informed the First Secretary therein that I was available for any diplomatic duties that may be required.  While waiting for the inevitable stream of invites to theatre evenings, gallery openings and exhibitions to materialise from the Ambassador, I decided to crack on apace with my own grand tour and arranged an excursion to the Great Wall, trekking a lengthy section of the Longquanyu loop of the wall with Finbarr as my heavily-laden Sherpa.

The tree covered hill-sides and mountains surrounding Peking were a veritable kaleidoscope of autumnal ochre and fiery red at this time of the year and this provided a wonderful backdrop for the Great Wall as it snaked its way inland. I could only marvel at the boundless ambition and winding majesty of this true wonder of the world. However, I did find some sections of the wall to be in a state of considerable disrepair - no doubt as a result of shoddy Chinese masonry. What could one expect from a country without City & Guild qualifications for its “manual” workers? I pondered inwardly.
Great Wall - Bloody Deathtrap

To my surprise, Finbarr appeared to care very little for the Chinese heritage on display at the wall and while my back was turned found himself a comfortable perch to defecate from; hoisting his arse over the edge of a Ming dynasty parapet and regrettably making a considerable toilet onto a large gathering of dour looking men in identical suits with red arm-bands who were posing for a group photograph below. It turns out that the gentlemen in question were attending a Communist Party (I think they called it!?) and their party was entirely ruined by the exertions of my valet. I have to admit that it is probable that my own efforts to improve the situation, at great volume and in impeccable English, with offerings of foreign currency as a sweetener may have only inflamed the situation.  

You would imagine it would be difficult to impose a lifetime ban on two individuals from a historical monument that measures nearly 4,000 imperial miles in length … apparently not. My keen emotional intelligence led me to conclude that things were getting a trifle fraught; so I thought discretion the better part of valour and beat a hasty retreat back to the Raffles but not before delivering a swift kick to the fruits of the bewildered Finbarr as a rebuke for what had just happened.

The following day I was adequately restored after a good night’s sleep and a sizeable breakfast; I made arrangements to visit the Imperial Palace in the afternoon. My lodgings were just a short stroll from the palace and the romantically titled Forbidden City, so I went on foot with Finbarr following sheepishly about five strides behind. The calendar indicated November but as the weather seemed temperate enough I wore the beige Safari shorts that had won me so many compliments. It took around 200 yards before I realised the spectacle that my attire was creating.

The Entrance to the Imperial Palace
Every Chinaman I passed interrupted his routine of coughing phlegm in all directions and hawking tat to gawp at my milk-white legs, many of the ingrates were even sniggering and some had started to follow me to get a better look. I quickened my walking pace considerably so that my greater limb length could come into play and leave them behind but this only seemed to create more of a scene, pretty soon I was at a gentle jog with forty natives in merry pursuit. I was shouting “What would you little bastards know about gent’s fashion anyway?" Knowing full well that your average Chinamen knows as much about Saville Row tailoring as he does about making a haggis. Upon reaching the outer walls of the palace, I darted inside losing them with an unexpected burst of pace. I instructed Finbarr to wait outside to avoid a recurrence of the previous day’s incident.

Inside the palace walls, I scarcely had time to regain my breath when it was being taken away from me again by the imposing stature and scale of the regal edifices on display. This Emperor chap must have a fair bit of clout with the planners to get this approved I thought – the size of the place! I made discrete representations to a palace official about meeting the man himself but things got lost in translation very quickly and all I managed to understand was that his Imperialness was not at the Palace currently.

Disheartened but not discouraged, I continued on with my tour of the Forbidden City and its great halls and charming gardens until I reached the Imperial throne room. I was absolutely bunched from all the sightseeing so I rested for a few moments until I had the brainwave of leaving a note for the Emperor inviting him to Brunch when he returned to town. I deftly nipped behind a cordoned off area and tore a very modest section of paper from one of the many dusty scrolls hanging from the wall. I left a friendly but brief message outlining the invitation with just three paragraphs addressing the excellent reputation of my dining table in my finest Copperplate hand and signed it off with the following flourish before leaving it on the Emperor’s throne:

Yours Dutifully,
Mycroft Webb
c/o The Raffles Hotel, Peking.

Happy with my days sight-seeing and my diplomatic efforts, I collected Finbarr at the gate and we made our way to a restaurant and tea house near Wangfujing Road that was believed by an acquaintance of mine to have the finest steamed dumplings in the whole of China. Three and a half hours later and I was four score of delicious dumplings to the good and I could find no grounds to disagree with my friend’s assessment of the restaurant.

It was approaching quarter-past-seven and in darkness when I returned to the Raffles, there appeared to be a large crowd of Chinese in a state of great agitation gathered outside the front of the hotel so I entered by the side door to avoid the din. As I crossed the foyer, I saw a nervous looking youth waiting there; he sprinted in my direction when I entered. “Mr Webb, Sir, Mr Webb, I have a letter of the utmost importance from the Embassy”. I strode over to the young man and said “Excellent, it is about time those blasted civil servants got back to me. I was on the verge of going native here.”

This piece of correspondence looked very promising; it was from the desk of Ambassador Finknottle himself but unfortunately it did not contain the host of invitations to society events as expected. Indeed, much to my dismay, the letter outlined charges made against me in the Chinese state media of “serial iconoclasm”, “wilful desecration of cultural relics and monuments” and “the attempted bribery of the Chinese Communist Party”. I was starting to feel a little woozy as the Ambassador’s letter went on to confirm in no uncertain terms that he could no longer guarantee my safety in Peking and that he recommended my immediate departure. The letter was accompanied by a ticket for a deluxe cabin on the overnight train to Shanghai which left at 8 p.m. from the other side of the city. A city in which the Communist zealots were now on high alert looking for a large western infidel wearing shorts who was going around desecrating their cultural relics.

I had been in town less than a week but the Forbidden City definitely seemed to be living up to its name. As I made my way to the train station under a heavy tarpaulin on the back of a rickshaw piloted by Finbarr; my biggest regret was that my Brunch with the Emperor would have to wait, I hoped he wouldn’t mind.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode I) :

In a bid to spread the good word of Quincey Morris to those less fortunate than themselves; the fraternity of the QMBC dispatched one of their most capable officers (Mycroft Webb) on a round-the-world tour to win the hearts and minds of heathen masses towards the advancement of contrarian-elitist literary ideals .... and where possible to increase the standing of the pudding course in lesser cultures. As part of his missionary work, he has agreed to record a travelogue; of which, regular excerpts are reproduced here to serve as a permanent record for those who would follow in his footsteps. 

Arrival in Peking (39.909341 N, 116.4095 E) – November ‘11

Adequately rested after my international travels and with the freshly talcum-powdered nethers of a newborn, I stepped on to the platform at the Central train station in Peking as if I was about to buy the blasted place, tear it down, and turn it into my own private billiard hall. In that regard, I knew something was amiss almost instantly; there were no waiting footmen or representatives from the city’s international hostelries to usher me through the unknown and potentially feral streets to the sanctity of a comfortable hotel lounge with a decent drinks cabinet and a host of freshly-pressed (albeit dated) periodicals.

Unhappy with such shabby treatment at the hands of a foreign power, I decided to immediately register an informal complaint to the city’s aldermen and officials by breaking wind with as much gusto as I could present at that hour. Such an early show of strength to the natives was the advice of a military man at my club named Farnsworth who swore that similar tactics got him through some pretty hairy scrapes in the Crimean. The Crimean, no less! 

Brigadier Clifford Farnsworth. 
Before my departure for the Orient, old Brigadier Farnsworth, the sot, hollered these words at me across the steps of the Savoy before he was bundled into a waiting hackney cab: “Webb, when it comes to dealing with the Bud-Buds, you have to let them smell you boy!  Let the buggers know what you’re made of by Jove”. At that moment, I imagine the attending Orientals must have been of the opinion that I was composed chiefly of hard-boiled eggs and piccalilli. I rested a sturdy brogue upon my trunk momentarily to allow the gentlemanly miasma dissipate further through the crowd. It was but a matter of seconds before a gap-toothed Chinaman dressed in the native fashion presented himself for duty with a bow. He was a swarthy looking brute, nearly as broad as he was tall and his face was home to a grievous looking scar that gave him a most unwholesome air. That said, I could tell that this was no time for due diligence into the man’s background, I flashed some currency from my billfold and saw his eyes light up. I tapped my hardwood cane on the trunk and pointed to the street, striding toward to the exit with unusual conviction - my dangerous new factotum in tow.

The Raffles Hotel - an oasis amidst the savagery!
There and then, I had a fancy to christen the fellow Passepartout after the character from Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty days” but deemed the implicit comparison of myself to Phileas Fogg a bit too vainglorious and instead opted to name him “Finbarr” after an Irish setter that I owned as a boy, finding it to be an altogether more suitable monicker. Upon reaching the street outside, I engaged a sizeable rickshaw and petitioned the driver to take us to the Raffles Hotel with all due haste. On the journey through the streets of Peking, I caught a whiff of the pungent aroma of cabbages and piss water that seems to permeate the air. I thought it was no wonder so many of the city’s inhabitants walked around with masks on their faces.

Squatting like Chinamen, literally. 
At every street corner, I could see men squatting on their haunches, smoking and chatting contentedly. It seems that the Chinese have yet to master the stool or the chair and I immediately made note of my first import/export opportunity in my notebook; making a fortune here would be like taking butter-candy from a toddler. Those individuals not reduced to squatting on their haunches walked the streets clearing their throats and hurling wads of phlegm in all directions; seeming to be in competition with each other to do so at the greatest volume. The facemasks were making more sense with each passing minute.

Impervious to my disgust, Finbarr, who now hung from the rear of the rickshaw with some abandon, gave birth to the most prodigious piece of expectorate I have ever observed. He lobbed it with great aplomb onto a brazier where six chicken skewers now hissed wildly. He grinned at me from ear-to-ear and I smiled back somewhat anxiously making a note to eat nothing outside of the hotel dining room and to invent some form of hand-sanitisation system immediately. I knew then that the coming weeks were going to be different, possibly fatal but definitely different.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mycroft's Poetry Corner ... Philip Larkin (#2)

Yes. It would be comforting for me to pretend that the choice of which poet to feature in this instalment of Mycroft's Poetry Corner was a simple one, however, I assure you that it was not. 

How the pressure of this selection moved me, with incessant weighing of the existential pros versus the subjective cons of one poet over another; I declare now it was exacting an unspecified toll on my balding pate. Indeed, it is my hypothesis that the inner turmoil was increasingly manifesting itself through my interrupted sleep, my reduced appetite(s) and most worrisome of all - uncharacteristically meagre bowel-movements. This simply would not do.

Therefore, when these perturbations were combined, with the acquisition by my housekeeper, of a persistent dry cough which meant that even my last refuge of an afternoon snooze was repeatedly interrupted by her hacking, I took action.  I packed a moderately-sized valise and powered up my vintage Mercedes and decided to spend a number of days travelling around the South-west of Ireland. And what honest Joy! I say now that I feel I have a greater understanding of why the Germans invaded Poland & Czechoslovakia; if it was not to feel the satisfaction of putting precision-engineered machinery to its intended use, then I Sir, am a Dutchman.

My love of motoring aside, the primary purpose of this brief holiday was to look at my fair country through the other end of the telescope, hopefully gaining a welcome change of perspective and to clear the maelstrom within my head.

How the small coastal villages and snaking roads of West Cork and Kerry slipped by, as if in some sort of beautiful slideshow; each colourful hamlet, each grassy roadway, each sprawling Atlantic vista wound wistfully by to an aged cassette recording of Boccherini's La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid. It is almost a cliché but the beautiful scenery of that area really hit its mark and the fresh Atlantic air did this traveller the power of good.

Ironically though, despite all the cathartic scenery, it was a labyrinthine boarding house in the back-streets of Dingle that would provide the required inspiration. I had taken a small but clean room in the attic; and this unlikely "Old Maid in the Garret" was compelled to keep his wits about him at all times to avoid cracking a head on low door frames and even lower light fittings.

It was after dawn on the first morning and lying in the strange gloom I was set to thinking about all the previous occupants of that room and what their lives had been like. Whose black knickers were those under the pouffe? Why was there sand at the bottom of the bin? Whose cigarette butts were clogging the lead flashing outside the window? And burying my head into the thin pillow to try for another forty winks, I could not help but laugh at the recollection of a poem where similar questions were asked and in that instant I knew I had my man - Philip Larkin.

Philip Larkin was born in Coventry in 1922 to middle class parents and enjoyed a comfortable early life at the heart of little England, attending Grammar School in Coventry and later he studied English at St John's College, Oxford.  He spent the majority of his working life as a University librarian, chiefly at the University of Hull. A job which afforded him ample time to write and also uniquely positioned him to watch the world and youth pass him by with a jaundiced leer.

Reputed to be deeply anti-social, Larkin was still affectionately known as the "Hermit of Hull" and often imagined by his early readers as a modern-day Eeyore. In the later part of this life, he enjoyed a combination of critical success and wide public readership that other poets could only envy. However, in my opinion, the question of how a poet with such a gloomy outlook could become one of the best loved English poets of the second half of the twentieth century is still largely unanswered.

A few year's after his death in 1985, the publication of his "Selected Letters" dealt a considerable blow to the reputation of the poet  (and the man) when many right-wing, sexist ideals were found in much of his personal correspondence. In the eyes of the QMBC, this storm in a tea-cup does nothing to damage the man's reputation and truthfully even adds to the emotional honesty and candour of his poetry in places.

I have included 3 of his poems below to give some small impression of the man's work but I invite the reader to discover more themselves.

With Respect,

Mycroft Webb (QMBC)

PS -  A hearty congratulations to Mr & Mrs McGavin on the birth of their wee bairn - the sentiments of the final poem here almost certainly do not apply in this instance.

Mr Bleaney

This was Mr Bleaney's room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him. Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,

Whose window shows a strip of building land?
Tussocky, littered. 'Mr Bleaney took
My bit of garden properly in hand'
Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook

Behind the door, no room for books or bags -
'I'll take  it.  So it happens that I lie
Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
On the same saucer-souvenir, and try

Stuffing my ears with cotton-wool, to drown
The jabbering set he egged her on to buy.
I know his habits - what time he came down,
His preference for sauce to gravy, why

He kept on plugging at the four aways -
Likewise their yearly frame: the Frinton folk
Who put him up for summer holidays,
And Christmas at his sister's house in Stoke.

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don't know.

High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.