July Books 12) The Story of Alice

12) The Story of Alice, by Mavis Batey

Picked this up off the in-laws’ bookshelves thinking it would prove just an attempt to rip off the Alice in Wonderland fans, but in fact it’s rather good, especially given the length (less than 100 pages), illustrating bits of the back-story to Dodgson’s writing and relationship with Alice. Batey has done a lot of (or at least has fluently recounted other people’s) historical research, tying specific events in real-life Oxford of 1859-63 with specific events in the books. Very neat; I just wish there had been proper footnotes so that I knew which bits were her own research and which from other people, and ideas for what else I might read on the subject. I’m sure a lot of it is hers; a quick google reveals that she’s done a lot of historical research on both literary figures and gardens.

Apart from Dodgson and Alice, the other star of the book is the place they both lived, Christ Church, the grandest of the Oxford colleges. I spent a weekend there in 1990 as a steward at a conference for an organisation which I won’t name, but which was sometimes nicknamed “toffs against terrorism” by cruel insiders. The conference set-up was a little informal, verging on the chaotic, and a senior British government figure joked in his closing speech that this was only appropriate in the college of Lewis Carroll.

There were a number of early departures and the conference organiser asked me if I knew anyone in Oxford to invite to fill gaps in the conference dinner. As it happened my great-uncle is a retired doctor who worked most of his life in Oxford and sill lives there. He was brought up a staunch Presbyterian in Belfast (his sister, my grandmother, converted to Catholicism in the 1930s but her family have long since got over it) so I knew he would be interested, and indeed he was. Over dinner he got chatting to a Fine Gael TD and told a story I hadn’t heard before, about why his parents had moved back to Belfast from Dublin where he was born – apparently my great-grandfather was one of the civil servants who was marched out of the Customs House at gunpoint in May 1921, and had told his children many times of being forced to be part of a human barricade while the British troops closed in on the IRA men who were burning the building down.

The Fine Gael TD looked as if she didn’t quite know how to take my great-uncle’s story. I later discovered that her great-uncle was Michael Collins, who of course was responsible for the Customs House attack (though I note that the Neil Jordan film portrays him as thinking it was a stupid idea).

This conversation took place in the Great Hall of Christ Church which itself played a role in a different civil conflict – it was the place where the MPs and peers still loyal to Charles I met as a pro-Royalist parliament from 1642 to 1646, while Oxford was the Cavaliers’ capital. Charles himself ruled from a temporary palace in the Deanery of Christ Church, where just over two centuries years later Alice Liddell’s father would reside as Dean.

It’s all interconnected somehow.

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Further to last weekend’s entry…

Fergal’s bithday party went well, thanks for asking; just two hours of exhausting work for us. I actually spent most of the time looking after his sisters, while he and his three little friends played under the supervision of Anne and the babysitter.

We had a good long chat today with a friend of my mother-in-law (m-i-l herself is actually a retired psychiatrist who specialised in children with learning disabilities, but has never tried to impose her professional credentials on us, thank goodness) who does assessments for the local autism unit (or whatever it is). She reckoned that Fergal is behind with his expressive language, but ahead in all kinds of other ways and anyway nowhere near the autistic spectrum. More or less what we thought too but good to have it confirmed by a professional. If the Belgians can give him extra speech therapy (through Dutch, of course) it he next school year presumably that will help.

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Travels and Tolkien

The journey here yesterday was more hassle than expected. We set off a bit late, and picked up B from her respite care place on the other side of Brussels. At that point I had to decide whether to head for Calais by going north to Ninove and then west via Gent and the coast, or aternatively south to Engien and then west via Enghien, Ath, and Lille. We’d heard a traffic bulletin to the effect that the motorway was closed around Ath shortly after we left home, but then later traffic bulletins didn’t refer to the problem (and did say that the Gent road was pretty congested), so I headed south as it appeared to be the shorter route. We were listening to CDs in the car but the radio is set to interrupt with traffic bulletins as and when it picks them up.

The earlier traffic bulletin was right. Ath was completely closed off as a result of a huge explosion which had killed 15 people, mosty firefighters. The whole surrounding countryside was closed down in a state of emergency; Enghien was full of grim-faced policemen preventing anyone from heading west. It’s odd that the later traffic bulletins made no reference to it; OK we happened to be picking up the Flemish service, but the first one we heard, which did mention the problem, was also in Flemish. Maybe they just asumed everyone was listening to the news – obviously it displaced everything else in Belgian media yesterday (and probably today as well). But we didn’t get the details until listening to the BBC once we were in England.

The upside for us was that our new route took us further south via Mons, and we passed by the front of SHAPE (Supremem Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) which was flying the flags of all the NATO members – now of course including several countries that were either behind the Iron Curtain or part of larger countries or both only 15 years ago. It is rather heartwarming to see visual evidence like that of the reunited Europe. We puzzled for a few minutes about why the alphabetical order semed to have been broken with the Czech Republic between Poland and Romania, and Spain between Denmark and Estonia. Then it occurred to us that this was French orthography – la République Tchèque and Espagne. But it wasn’t consistent for the UK or USA. Now that I think about it, perhaps it was the listing of the countries’ names in their own languages? No, now that I check it out, the Czech for “Czech Republic” is Česka Republika. It must remain a mystery.

We made a mistake after reaching Calais by deciding to press on into the Channel Tunnel immediately and then going for a late lunch at Maidstone service station in Kent. Note for future – the terminal at Calais has a MacDonald’s and is basically child-friendly. Maidstone has a (eurrgh) Wimpy and is not. However one of the Eurotunnel staff took a liking to F, who is now old enough to get really excited by the idea of going into a tunnel under the sea. And let’s face it, it is fundamentally thrilling; when I was his age, the idea of a channel tunnel seemed completely absurd. Now it’s an extraordinarily ordinary thing to do – turn up, drive your car onto the train, and 35 minutes later you’re in England. (Or France, depending.) And we made it to the in-laws’ by about 7.30 UK time, so total journey of around ten hours (probably lengthened by an hour and a half by the explosion in Ath).

Having got here I’ve found the book about Tolkien which I glanced at last summer and that I thought was by Tom Shippey. Turns out it’s not; it was Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien by Paul Kocher, first published in 1972. I skimmed through it this morning (not with sufficient attention to make it worth adding to the booklog) and concluded a) that Shippey’s book is still quite an advance from the Tolkienology of 30 years ago but b) that Lin Carter’s book looks even more crap in comparison with what serious academics were already writing about Tolkien.

I’d like to read more about a) Tolkien and Ireland, b) Tolkien and his wife, c) Tolkien and Robert E Howard. Any suggestions?

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On my holidays

OK folks, blogging has been a bit slow this week as I tried (and ultimately succeeded) in getting a Macedonia paper off my desk before heading back to Ireland for three weeks. We’ll all be in Ireland from Sunday night till the 20th of August. Best way to track me down is via the contact meme, unless I see you at and ‘s wedding.

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How bold are you meme

Bold the ones you’ve done, then add five more at the end of the list, three of which you’ve done. (From .) Here goes.

01. …bought everyone in the pub a drink
02. …swum with wild dolphins
03. …climbed a mountain (haven’t climbed a real one, though I’ve reached the top of various little Irish peaks)
04. …taken a Ferrari/Corvette/Porsche for a test drive
05. …seen the Pyramids at night
06. …held a tarantula
07. …taken a candlelit bath with someone
08. …said ‘I love you’ and meant it
09. …hugged a tree
10. …done a striptease
11. …done a bungee or parachute jump
12. …visited Paris
13. …watched a lightning storm at sea
14. …cleaned behind the fridge
15. …stayed up all night long, and watched the sun rise
16. …asked a question you’ve always been too embarrassed to ask
17. …seen the Northern Lights
18. …gone to a huge sports game
19. …created your own masterpiece
20. …grown and eaten your own vegetables
21. …touched an iceberg
22. …had an office relationship
23. …slept under the stars
24. …compromised

25. …changed a baby’s nappy/diaper
26. …taken a ride in a hot air balloon
27. …watched a meteor shower
28. …gotten drunk on champagne
29. …taken a luxury holiday
30. …given more than you can afford to charity
31. …looked up at the night sky through a telescope
32. …had an uncontrollable giggling fit at the worst possible moment
33. …had a food fight
34. …bet on a winning horse/dog
35. …taken a sick day when you’re not ill
36. …gotten a pet
37. …asked a stranger out
38. …had a snowball fight
39. …photocopied your bottom on the office photocopier
40. …screamed as loudly as you possibly can
41. …held a lamb
42. …enacted a favorite fantasy
43. …taken a midnight skinny dip
44. …heard the words ‘I love you’
45. …flown on Concorde
46. …taken an ice cold bath
47. …had a meaningful conversation with a beggar
48. …seen a total eclipse
49. …ridden a roller coaster
50. …hit a home run
51. …fit three weeks miraculously into three days
52. …danced like a fool and not cared who was looking
53. …adopted an accent for an entire day
54. …visited the birthplace of your ancestors
55. …given a grand romance with costumes and everything
56. …made up a screenname to stalk someone
57. …gone shopping for no reason
58. …actually felt happy about your life, even for just a moment
59. …ask to “just be held”
60. …had an adventure where nothing goes as planned
61. …kissed someone you truly wanted to kiss

62. …gone clubbing and thought to yourself, “I could out-dance them if I wanted to”
63. …called your relatives by their relationship
64. …had two hard drives for your computer
65. …cuddled
66. …visited all 50 states
67. …loved your job
68. …taken care of someone who was shit-faced
69. …had enough money to be truly satisfied
70. …had amazing friends

71. …danced with a stranger in a foreign country
72. …swum during a formal
73. …stolen a sign
74. …backpacked in Europe
75. …taken a road-trip
76. …gone rock climbing

77. …had your nose pierced
78. …had a midnight walk on the beach
79. …gone sky diving (note: this is a duplicate)
80. …visited Ireland
81. …seen what you wanted and done all it took to seize it
82. …fallen in love, then fallen harder and faster from heartbreak
83. …in a restaurant, sat at a stranger’s table and had lunch/dinner with them
84. …visited and/or toured Japan
85. …benchpressed your own weight
86. …stolen from your parents
87. …alphabetized your records
88. …done your own taxes
89. …pretended to be a superhero
90. …sung karaoke

91. …made someone cry for no good reason
92. …lounged around in bed all day

93. …posed nude in front of a room full of strangers
94. …dressed sexy for no reason
95. …gotten it on to “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye
96. …kissed in the rain
97. …played in the mud
98. …played in the rain
99. …gone to a drive-in theater
100. …done something you should regret, but don’t regret it…
101. …visited the Great Wall of China
102. …fallen in love with a job that has nothing to do with the degree/career you pursued
103. …discovered that someone who’s not supposed to have known about your blog/website has discovered it
104. …dropped Windows in favor of something better (no, but I would like to)
105. …started a business
106. …fallen in love and not had your heart broken
107. …toured ancient sites around Europe
108. …taken karate
109. …swordfought for the honor of a woman
110. …played D&D for more than 6 hours straight
111. …gotten married
112. …been in a movie
113. …LARPed
114. …loved someone you shouldn’t have
115. …kissed someone so passionately it made them dizzy
116. …gotten divorced
117. …had sex at the office/workplace
118. …surprised yourself with a talent you didn’t know you had
119. …been to Macchu Picchu
120. …gone without food for 5 days
121. …never left the continental United States
122. …made cookies from scratch
123. …won first prize in a costume contest
124. …ridden a gondola in Venice
125. …gotten a tattoo
126. …gotten another tattoo the next day because you didn’t feel balanced
127. …found that the texture of some materials can turn you on
128. …rafted the Snake River
129. …blazed it up at Burning Man
130. …gotten flowers for no reason
131. …masturbated in a public place
132. …gotten so drunk you don’t remember anything
133. …been addicted to some form of illegal drug.
134. …traveled the world (well, some of it)
135. …performed onstage with a famous symphony orchestra/band
136. …been to Las Vegas
137. …met Madonna
138. …recorded music
139. …eaten shark
140. …had a one night stand
141. …gone to Thailand
142. …had the courage to speak your mind
143. …seen Robert Smith and Siouxsie live
144. …bought a house
145. …earned a degree
146. …broken your neck
147. …been in a combat zone
148. …buried your father/mother/child/spouse/friend
149. …earned a *living* through your creativity
150. …visited the remaining continents on your list
151. …had your pubic hair waxed off
152. …been on a cruise ship
153. …spoken more than one language fluently
154. …worn see-through clothes in public
155. …bounced a check
156. …performed in Rocky Horror
157. …moved over 1000 miles by yourself
158. …been to art school
159. …read – and understood – your credit report
160. …raised children
161. …recently bought and played with a favorite childhood toy
162. …followed your favorite band/singer on tour
163. …created and named your own constellation of stars
164. …bucked stigma or trends to follow your heart
165. …taken an exotic bicycle tour in a foreign country (if the Netherlands counts as exotic)
166. …found out something significant that your ancestors did
167. …called or written your Congressman (or other public representative)

168. …picked up and moved to another city to just start over
169. …more than once?
170. …run the Golden Gate Bridge
171. …sung loudly in the car, and didn’t stop when you knew someone was looking
172. …had an abortion (or your female partner did)
173. …had plastic surgery
174. …survived an accident that you shouldn’t have survived
175. …written articles for a large publication
176. …lost over 100 pounds
177. …held someone while they were having a flashback
178. …flown an airplane
179. …petted a stingray
180. …broken someone’s heart
181. …helped an animal give birth
182. …been fired or laid off from a job you loved
183. …won money on a T.V. game show
184. …broken a bone
185. …killed a human being
186. …had a threesome
187. …ridden a motorcycle
188. …driven any land vehicle at a speed of greater than 100mph
189. …had a body part of yours below the neck pierced
190. …fired a rifle, shotgun, or pistol
191. …eaten mushrooms that were gathered in the wild
192. …ridden a horse
193. …had major surgery
194. …had sex on a moving train/airplane
195. …had a snake as a pet
196. …hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon
197. …learned to play a musical instrument
198. …eaten racoon meat
199. …lied about your age
200. …traveled with a carnival
201. …been a member/spouse of a member of the US armed forces
202. …been to Africa
203. …fired a gun at a living thing
204. …eaten food from your own garden (this doesn’t exactly duplicate an earlier line though it’s close)
205. …chopped firewood
206. …changed a tire for a stranger
207. …given a birthday kiss to a stranger, just because they asked
208. …gotten more than one speeding ticket on the same day
209. …ingested a drug you found in a public restroom without being certain what it was
210. …experienced weightlessness
211. …made your own wine/beer/other alcoholic beverage
212. …had to put a pet “to sleep”
213. …signed a contract while in a swimming pool
214. …performed in some capacity (anchor, DJ, presenter) on commercial radio
215. …had your music played on a nationally-syndicated radio program
216. …had your own TV show
217. …repaired some piece of hi-tech equipment yourself
218. …performed at Carnegie Hall
219. …eaten a sea urchin
220. …pretended to speak only an invented language in a public situation
221. …stood on the top of the shell of the Hollywood Bowl
222. …driven a car
223. …been to Canada
224. …never been to the United States
225. …rescued a baby wild bird and tried to raise it
226. …operated a circular saw for the purpose of building something out of wood
227. …ate something before you knew what it was
228. …walked around naked in front of strangers
229. …spent more than 24 hours straight in front of a computer
230. …run your own online community
231. …read less than one book a month
232. …assisted in the birth of a child (assuming my own counts)
233. …told your boss off and not gotten fired

234. …stopped a crime in progress
235. …told someone that they are beautiful
236. …traveled alone in a foreign country where you did not speak the language
237. …taught an adult how to skate
238. …skateboarded after the age of 30
239. …taught an adult how to knit
240. …attended an outdoor rock music concert
241. …read more than one book in a day
242. …forgiven a profound but unintentional hurt
243. …attended school in a foreign country
244. …conversed with strangers in a foreign country, in a language foreign to you. Extra points if it was a “second language” for both parties! (See my entry about buying CDs in Kosovo…)
245 …organized a political protest
246 …taken in a stray pet and kept it
247 …drawn a picture of someone and given it to them
248 …been in a physical fight after the age of 18
249 …moved to another city just to be with/follow someone
250 …been a guest on a TV news program
251 …been a guest on a radio news program
252 …met a president or a prime minister of an independent country
253 …been to Australia
254 …read Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (translations permitted)

I’ve done only 93 of these, but there are a fair number of the other 161 that I have little interest in trying…

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Job advert

I don’t know if anyone reading this is interested in random international relations stuff:

As the world’s largest private intelligence company, [firm] is on the lookout for the best, brightest and most iconoclastic to work as analysts on issues ranging from geopolitics to security to global environmental issues and beyond. The hours are long, the responsibilities great and the work stressful. If you are looking for a 40-hour week, this job is definitely not for you. If you want to understand the way the world works, this may well be.

We are looking, first and foremost, for what we call “quality of mind”. It’s hard to define but we know it when we see it. Credentials — from academic to intelligence experience — are “nice to haves” but cannot replace a mind that is obsessed with its subject, the ability to see connections that are far from obvious or the willingness to hold your ground against criticism. Area specialization is good, unless you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Applicants must have a general knowledge of history, geography, politics, economics, security and current events and be competent in at least one additional language. Writing skills are a must.

These are generally entry-level positions but we will consider applicants with substantial and demonstrable achievements at higher levels. All applicants, regardless of experience, will be trained in [firm]’s methods of analysis. If you think that you don’t need to be trained because of years of experience in intelligence or are unwilling to undergo rigorous training, this job is not for you.

Applicants must submit a cover letter and current resume, as well as a 500- to 800-word analysis on a current issue. References and background checks will be required later in the process.

Applicants making it to the second stage will be required to take a general knowledge test, demonstrating basic knowledge of history and current events.

The third stage includes interviews with [firm] analysts.

This is a general call for applicants in all subject areas; positions will be based in our Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C., offices. Applications not considered suitable at the current time will be held for consideration as other positions open up. Cover letters, resumes, references and writing samples should be sent to ****@****.com.

Anyone interested should give me a shout and I’ll forward the original advert with blanks filled in.

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What kind of elitist am I?

From (who got the same answer):

You speak eloquently and have seemingly read every
book ever published. You are a fountain of
endless (sometimes useless) knowledge, and
never fail to impress at a party.
What people love: You can answer almost any
question people ask, and have thus been
nicknamed Jeeves.
What people hate: You constantly correct their
grammar and insult their paperbacks.

What Kind of Elitist Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

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July Books 11) The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s

11) The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s, by Robert Thomas.

I found this 400-page hardback remaindered at €10 in the local English language bookshop yesterday, bought it, and managed to devour it while keeping an eye on B during the birthday party this afternoon. It’s basically a narrative of what happened politically in Serbia from just before the first multi-party elections in 1990 to the rigged referendum against foreign interference in Kosovo in April 1998, and thus misses out the juicy bits of the NATO threats of late 1998, the actual bombardment of 1999, and Milošević’s overthrow in 2000. I saw very few errors – Richard Holbrooke’s wife turns up as “Katie Morton” in the index, but is correctly spelt “Kati Marton” in the text, and there were one or two minor misspellings elsewhere – suggesting it’s been carefully proofread at least.

But there were some odd little things. For instance, Zoran Djindjić is quoted in a September 1997 interview as promising that he would attend an election rally for Biljana Plavšić’s party in Bosnia, and the sentence is left hanging, as if it were too difficult to discover whether he actually did attend the rally or not. As it happens, I attended that rally myself in the company of several Western journalists, and saw Djindjić speaking, so it seems a peculiar omission. As usual the role of the Milošević offshoot party, the SPRS, in Bosnian politics is completely truncated. Some day there will be a definitive historical account of Republika Srpska politics, but I suspect I may have to write it myself.

This book doesn’t really seem to have an organising idea or argument. In introduction and conclusion, the author states that even after Milosevic, Serbia will have a bumpy road to stability, but that was hardly a difficult prediction. The emphasis is almost entirely on the musical chairs of Serbian party politics (with reflections on the Bosnian Republika Srpska and Montenegro, and a very short section on Kosovo); the economy gets a look-in only for one chapter.

He is moderately interesting on the personalities. But at the same time the juicy bits from the backgrounds of key personalities are missing; it’s as if history began in 1990. There’s a wonderful story going the rounds at the moment about one of the key players in Thomas’ book, still prominent in Serbia today, who as a young Tanjug correspondent incorrectly reported a war breaking out between the country he was stationed in and one of its neighbours, and the story snowballed to the point where Tito was woken up to give an official statement calling for peace before it was discovered that it wasn’t true. That’s the sort of colour that this book lacks.

It’s nice to discover the positive role played in the past by one or two people who I consider friends, most particularly Vojin Dimitrijević, who radiates affable integrity. But the role of the NGO community is completely missing – even Warren Zimmerman writes about Sonja Licht, for instance. In my own dealings with all the south-eastern European countries, I’ve gained the strong impression that Serbia’s intellectual capital is second only to Bulgaria’s (far ahead of its other neighbours, including Romania). That’s not reflected in this book at all.

Also almost completely absent is the international dimension. Bob Gelbard will no doubt be annoyed to find he is mentioned only in the context of incautious remarks about the KLA in early 1998 (I have no doubt he would argue he was misquoted or taken out of context). Dick Holbrooke will be even more annoyed to find himself mentioned only twice, and on one of those occasions just as Kati Marton’s husband. There’s no fundamental harm in tweaking such people’s egos, but the two of them played a very important role in transmitting US and NATO policy to Belgrade, and leaving it out is a huge gap.

Because I live and breathe the topic and know a lot of the people involved, I found this a very quick read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone below a graduate student level of interest in Serbia though. Start with Tim Judah, and if your appetite is whetted move on to Dick Holbrooke, Warren Zimmerman and my own employers’ publications. I believe Thomas has another book out about subsequent developments in Serbia but will buy it for work, if I buy it at all.

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Happy birthday

Fergal turns five today, and we’ve put all his presents in a mini-tent in the front room, waiting for him to wake up. In the afternoon he’s having a couple of little friends around for a party. In seven years of parenthood this is the first time we’ve been able to organise something like this for one of our children, and it’s great.

Over the last few weeks or so we’ve been translating for ourselves the Belgian medics’ diagnosis that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and we are steadily less and less convinced that there is a real problem. His social interaction at school and in Dutch is getting better (both the kids coming round this afternoon are Ducth speakers) and while he has his little enthusiasms they are not obsessions in the way that one might expect of a child with a serious problem.

So we are increasingly feeling that the Aspergers question is an overdiagnosis by elements of the system whose natural instinct is to help us get more state aid for our children (and of course Bridget really does need it). But that’s the kind of generosity we can do without.

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Classic Pepys

I have on my friends list, and usually it’s not fantastically exciting (“went to work, talked to Very Important People, came home late, argued with my wife” kind of thing) but yesterday’s entry is particularly revealing. His uncle has just died and Pepys has been making disappointed noises about not being likely to inherit as much as he had hoped. Yesterday (Wednesday 24 July 1661) he decided to simply lie about it to his colleagues (who are presumably wondering if he can justify the time he’s taken off work lately to deal with his uncle’s affairs): “I give it out among them that the estate left me is £200 a year in land, besides moneys, because I would put an esteem upon myself.”

His day had started badly anyway when he discovered that a valuable silver tankard had been stolen from his house; he blamed the servants for leaving the door open. But he finishes the diary entry with a small gloat at someone else’s misfortune: “This afternoon I hear that my man Will hath lost his clock with my tankard, at which I am very glad.”

Of course, Pepys had no idea that people would be reading this and laughing about it in the 21st century. It was not until over 150 years after he wrote those words that anyone else read them. Will any blogs of today survive as long, I wonder?

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Celebrity Mastermind

I hope everyone else was as outraged as I was by John Humphries choosing to question one of the contestants about some bloke she slept with twenty years ago. None of the others were asked about their personal lives. It was very gratifying that the person in question won, and that Richard Whiteley off Countdown came last!

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I see Peter Mandelson has got the UK Commission spot, and Charlie McCreevy the Irish one. I imagine they’ll both get economic-related portfolios, so not of much concern to me.

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Thunderballs and lightning

Terrific storm last night, vast downpour of rain, crashes of lightning from right overhead, unable to hear Radio 4 clearly because of the incessant EMP-type interruptions. And this morning the sun is shining, the centimetre or so of rain that fell has dried or evaporated, and you would hardly know (apart from the puddle near the window in our bedroom) that anything had happened.

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Useless careers tip

I signed up ages back for the service that alerts you when interesting Euro-jobs are coming up. Unfortunately the service in question seems to have looked only at my primary degree (in astrophysics), and ignored the fact that I gave up science in 1989 and have made my living out of politics since 1996. So I get a job notification today where the requirements are as follows:


The successful applicant will be responsible, among others, for:

· Provision of 2nd level technical support for all users;
· The installation and upgrading of ICT systems;
· Assisting with the development of [agency]’s functional applications and information systems;
· Maintaining computer network systems and databases including security and back up operations;
· Developing web projects;
· Assistance in the definition of procedures for technical support of IT services and applications;
· Programming of applications for [agency]’s internal use such as financial and operational management systems;
· Maintenance of internal applications;
· Organisation of the IT services (scanning, printing etc);
· Performing any other tasks requested by the ICT Systems Administrator or the Head of Information Management.

Formal requirements

Candidates will be considered for the selection phase on the basis of the following criteria to be fulfilled by the deadline for applications:

· National of an EU Member State;
· Thorough knowledge of one of the official languages of the European Union and a satisfactory knowledge of another of the EU official languages;
· A level of post – secondary education attested by a diploma or;
· A level of secondary education attested by a diploma which gives access to post secondary education and appropriate professional experience of at least 3 years;
· In addition to the above, 3 years of professional experience.

Competences and skills

Candidates selected on the basis of the above formal requirements will then be evaluated according to the following criteria:

· Experience and knowledge in the areas mentioned above under “responsibilities”;
· Knowledge of Microsoft office tools from a user’s point of view;
· Experience in planning, installing and maintaining of Windows 2003 Server and Windows XP Professional;
· Experience in MS SQL Server and Oracle databases;
· Experience in Web design.


The following characteristics will be considered as additional assets:
· Good knowledge of English and Dutch; knowledge of additional languages is desirable.
· Experience in a multicultural environment;
· Excellent communication skills.

I mean, why bother wasting my time with this? I satisfy the formal requirements, apart from the rather crucial last one, and I certainly qualify for the three nice asset bullet points at the end, but I don’t have any (well, hardly any) of the actual specific competences and skills required for the job.

Still, maybe someone reading this does have those competences and skills, and actually wants a B3 grade job (ie around €50k) based in the Hague. If so please let me know and I’ll pass it on to you.

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Another hack point

The South-East European Research Centre in Thessaloniki has just appointed me to their Advisory Board. This is on the basis of two evenings’ brainstorming over pints of Guinness in Sean O’Casey’s round the corner from my office with one of their senior staff. Provided they don’t expect me to do anything much, that seems reasonable.

Meanwhile the European Commission thing trundles along – I see Charlie McCreevy from Ireland likely to get an economic portfolio, similarly Peter Mandelson (who I have always assumed will be the next British Commissioner) so neither likely to bother me much. I hope Potočnik gets the Balkans/wider Europe portfolio. But it’s all in the hands of Mr Barroso, and the 24 other governments besides Portugal…

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Nice maps

I’ve never met Conal Kelly, but he sends me lots of nice graphics for my elections website. I’ve just finished putting up the nice new maps of the 26 local councils that he sent me last week:

Antrim | Ards | Armagh | Ballymena | Ballymoney | Banbridge | Belfast | Carrickfergus | Castlereagh | Coleraine | Cookstown | Craigavon | Derry | Down | Dungannon | Fermanagh | Larne | Limavady | Lisburn | Magherafelt | Moyle | Newry and Mourne | Newtownabbey | North Down | Omagh | Strabane

Very nice.

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Shared interests

My Best Friend is
Our 12 common interests are: books, fantasy, ian mcdonald, internet, james white, neil gaiman, reading, sci-fi, science fiction, sf, tolkien, writing
Who is your best friend?


Created by

and share 12 interests.
and share 9 interests.
and share 9 interests.
and share 8 interests.
and share 7 interests.
and share 7 interests.
and share 7 interests.
and share 7 interests.
and share 6 interests.
and share 6 interests.

There used to be a tool on lj that let you find whose interests were closest to yours. I guess it absorbed too much bandwidth. I might do a bit more adjusting to my own list based on the above…

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Grim Night

B was up from 4 am, and U too off and on; and we found it impossible to sleep, so I’m taking the morning off work. Anne’s gone back to bed to try and get a bit more sleep, my turn soon; poor F, whose sleeping patterns were completely normal, is trying to work out why the rest of us are being so crap. Anyway, I’m going to make a herbal tea and go catch up on sleep.

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July Books 10) J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

10) J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey.

I ordered this from Amazon because I thought I’d picked it up and read the first half last summer at my in-laws’. In fact this must have been Shippey’s other book on Tolkien, The Road to Middle-Earth. Fortuately I’ll be at the in-laws’ again in two weeks so I can make sure.

Even if I bought it by mistake, this is a very good book, well worth the investment. Shippey argues strongly that Tolkien wanted to achieve the same for the relationship of England with the history of English that Lönnrot did with the Kalevala for Finnish, or that the Grimm brothers (philologists as well as compilers of fairy-tales) did for German. He argues even more strongly, backed by empirical evidence of opinion polls and popular votes (and this was before the BBC Big Read) that Tolkien succeeded as well as any author of the 20th century could do.

Middle Earth, according to Shippey, is an attempt to re-create the mythic background of the English language. Where other writers are content to note that Tolkien nicked the names of the dwarves in The Hobbit from the Elder Edda, Shippey believes that Tolkien is trying to get at the nature of dwarves, elves, etc and to bring back a better understanding of their lost history, which the compilers of the Elder Edda may have known but its readers have certainly forgotten. And he succeeded.

He also argues for a central moral message in the Lord of the Rings, that it is worth trying to do good even if you don’t know if you will succeed. Very interesting reflections on the question of whether evil is something that people do (a la Boethius) or has an external objective reality (Manichaeism), which he thinks LOTR debates but leaves unanswered.

There’s a lot of other good stuff here, but the most effective for me was a moving look at Tolkien’s (non-Middle Earth) short story Leaf by Niggle as autobiography. Niggle is “the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees”, who is obsessed by the idea of painting one big Tree, so much so that other smaller works get tacked onto the edges of the bigger picture, and he neglects to do the necessary routine work on his own house and garden. It’s straightforward enough to read Niggle as Everyman, but Shippey shows quite convincingly that he is also Tolkien.

Strongly recommended.

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Transylvanian coincidence

Inspired by recent entry:

Many years ago, I was listening one morning to my Rocky Horror Show tape in the kitchen of the student house I lived in at the time. One of my housemates came into the romm. I said to him, “Richard, I answered that phone call from your father last night and noticed he had quite a strong accent. Where’s he from?” Richard said, “He’s from Transylvania, actually.” Guess what song was playing on the tape at that moment?

As I was taking this in, the phone rang and I went to answer it. It was Dervla Murphy, the travel writer, who I was doing some business with at the time. She was apologising that she couldn’t make it to the next of our scheduled meetings because she was travelling to do research for her next book, Transylvania and Beyond.

I’ve never been to Transylvania myself though I’ve been to both Hungary and Romania a few times.

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Genealogical oddity

This inspired by and a vague memory of something seen on usenet a few months back):

Giulio Pignatelli, Prince of Noia, lived from 1587 to 1658.

He married his first wife, Zenobia, in 1601, and their son Fabrizio, duke of Monteleone and Prince of Noia, lived from 1604 to 1664.

Fabrizio Pignatelli in due course married his distant cousin Girolama in 1615 when he would have been 11 and she 14. They had a son, Ettore, also in due course duke of Monteleone and Prince of Noia, five years later in 1620. He lived to 1674.

In 1639, when he was 19, Ettore Pignatelli married his second cousin Giovanna, also known as Juana, heiress of vast conquistador estates in Mexico. They had one son, Andrea Fabrizio, in due course duke of Monteleone, duke of Terranova and Prince of Noia, born in 1640, and three daughters.

Andrea Fabrizio Pignatelli got married to another distant cousin in 1665, aged 25. They had just one child, a daughter, Giovanna, born in 1666.

Going back to Giulio Pignatelli, her great-great-grandfather: what happened to his first wife Zenobia is not recorded, but Giulio married his second wife Beatrice in 1638, when he was 61 and she was 28. Their son Nicola was born in 1648, when his father was 71, his mother 38, his half-brother Fabrizio 44, his nephew Ettore 28, and his great-nephew Andrea Fabrizio 8 years old, with his great-great-niece Giovanna’s birth 18 years in the future.

Andrea Fabrizio Pignatelli died in 1677, aged only 37, with just Giovanna as his heir to the vast estates on both sides of the Atlantic he had inherited. The interesting genealogical oddity is that Giovanna married her great-great-uncle Nicola Pignatelli in 1679, when she was 13 and he 31. They had three children over the next ten years (starting in 1682); she died aged 56 in 1723, and he died age 71 in 1730. Their descendants include the hereditary princes of Liechtenstein, also Sophie von Hohenlohe (assassinated with her husband, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo in 1914), and large chunks of the German and Italian nobility.

On first sight it looks as if Nicola was Giovanna’s guardian as the nearest surviving male relative, and he married her as soon as it was legally possible to do so (possible a little sooner). But the truth may be more complicated. I should like to know more.

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July Books 9) River of Gods

9) River of Gods, by Ian McDonald. Another one of my review books from infinity plus. Actually the best one so far. That leaves only Beyond Infinity and the zine to read. I’ll have to start writing the reviews soon.

One point I may or may not put in the review: I was amused that Diljit Rana, the name of a well known Belfast businessman who is now now a member of the House of Lords, appeared in this book as the founder of an Indian political dynasty. Of course, the real Diljit Rana is from the Punjab not from Varanasi, but it was a nice touch anyway; I’m sure that McDonald is at least as grateful as I am for the massive contribution Rana has made to Belfast’s restaurant and hotel scene.

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