Thursday, January 23, 2003

Watty suddenly remembered:

I was going to do the Pepys thing, wasn't I? Most people have probably seen this by now - I gather it's quite famous. But just in case, I'll enthuse here.

Someone has had the terrific idea of publishing Pepys' diary as if it were a weblog. So, if you've ever wanted to read it, here it is, added to daily, right from the beginning. So far, so good, but the thing which elevates it above the web gimmick is the commentary. Everyone who reads it is encouraged to ask or answer questions, comment or just generally supply background information. There's only about three weeks of entries in it so far, but already my understanding of 17th century politics has been greatly enhanced - it's quite possible that, if it continues as it has started, it will become one of the great repositories of information about the time anywhere.

Another one of those 'why didn't I think of that?' moments...

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Watty’s been to Soho Square

It’s not really the sort of thing I do. And had it not been for a passing comment in the Kirsty MacColl entry back in October, it would probably never have crossed my mind to do it. But yesterday morning, I found myself walking through Chinatown, humming ‘Free World’ and trying to remember the melody to Soho Square. It took a moment to find it, but it was a pleasurable moment, wandering through the square, wondering at the lack of pigeons. Finally, after a traverse of the southeastern corner, I realised I might have misremembered the map, and headed for the most obvious bench – the one which looked the newest. Feeling slightly self-conscious, I sat – an odd feeling, that; almost as if the purpose of the bench was altered by the addition of a plaque.

Now, I’m as big a sentimental fool as anyone, but there are things I don’t believe; so the pigeon which wandered over to inspect me was just that, a hopeful pigeon waiting to see if that bag on my lap contained food, and not some kind of sign of anything else. Besides there are always pigeons in Soho Square. They weren’t shivering in the naked trees, but the trees were naked.

And I sat and thought. Not about anything in particular, just about how things can carry a meaning far removed from their function, and how our lives can be touched by people we never meet, thanks to music and words.

A rare oasis of calm in what seems to be an increasingly frantic life. Thanks, Kirsty.

”I hope I see those pigeons fly before my birthday”

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Watty thinks he ought to write something:

It has to be said that this here work project is consumng my entire life at the moment - I am, however, defiantly having a breather right now, and no-one's going to stop me. Well, not too many people, anyway.

So, what shall I write about? My seeming inability to get to sleep at night? Hardly interesting. The weather? Well, it sort-of snowed recently, but now we're back to the usual all-year-round weather: grey, damp and colder than it looks. So, that wasn't interesting, either. The missing book reviews *points left*? Well, I'd like to, but see earlier comments about time. I haven't even posted any to the MCiOS Books game, where I'm generally quite prolific. The sheer frustration of listening to Radio 3 on the way home in the evenings? Well, I'll give that a quick blast:

Most people, I imagine - even non-UK readers - will have some kind of idea what to expect from Radio 3. Classical music, with the odd bit of jazz around the edges. And thats actually still not a bad description. In recent years there have been innovations designed to interest a slightly wider audience, and in the last year or so there has been a noticeable shift in programming policy. I have few problems with programme innovations as a concept - the idea of a beakfast time and a 'drive time' magazine-type show is, in principle, a good one. Few people these days would have time to listen to an entire symphony while taking the children to school, for example - there's plenty of time for that sort of thing at other times of day. In truth, I don't really listen to the breakfast time programme - my enthusiasm for other radio shows has been heard here before - but I do listen to 'In Tune' on the way home. It's often interesting and informative, equally often irritating - Sean Rafferty's interview style is - I'll be kind - ingratiating, and whoever does his research has an interesting relationship with the facts - pretty much every day, one or other of his guests has to correct him on something, which might of course be considered part of the charm. But it's the musical policy which sometimes causes me to switch off. I don't mind if every so often, something is played which I don't like - that's part of the deal. I do get annoyed by severely grating juxtapositions - baroque alongside 20th century can be bad enough (although, to be fair, sometimes it works), but folowing Handel with an excerpt from Duke Ellington and then plunging into Villa-Lobos witout a pause seems deliberately perverse - the ear needs time to adjust, and never seems to get it. And then last night, there was some Mahler.

Now my fondness for Mahler needs no introduction, but delighted as I was to hear some, I can't stress how fustrating it is to hear the fifth movement (of six) from the third symphony broadcast in isolation purely because it is short . And then, in an entirely different mood, we had the slow movement from the sixth. Fabulous, moving and powerful, it pulled me in and in spite of being out of context, I really began to enjoy the performance. And then it stopped. And we went on to some modern Australian piano and sax which I would probably have enjoyed had it not been for the way I was beating my head against the window in frustration. And I'm reasonably easy-going when it comes to music - some of the people on the Radio 3 messageboard seem ready to take up arms. And they do have a serious point - the 'core classical' part of Radio 3's remit is being swamped, it sometimes feels, by 'World Music' and numerous things which would appear already to have natural homes elsewhere on the BBC. One wonders what Radio 3 is actually for...

Er, oops. Didn't mean to rant. And I was going to talk about Samuel Pepys as well... Next time.

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Watty likes bookshops

Which is probably not going to come as any sort of surprise. Let me introduce you to one of the finest anywhere in the world. (Yes, this is a second-hand bookshop. Are there any other kinds?)

Picture the archetypal English village - duckpond, village green, quaint cottages, rustic-looking pub; you get the idea. Now add to this a curiously historic-sounding name - Penn (I don't think it's anything to do with William Penn, who came from Chorleywood, but you never know. I'll do the multimap thing here, shall I? The extraordinarily pleasant village of Penn. Now, to complete this picture, tucked away in a quiet lane, opposite the kind of print and antiquarian book shop which weighs your wallet before you're allowed in, is the Cottage Bookshop. You like the sound of it already, don't you?

Let us go in. Ignoring the books for a moment, let's just consider the environment: low ceilings; creaking floorboards; rooms leading off rooms with sudden, unexpected staircases in them; a whole other floor upstairs with even more labyrinthine corridors and creaking floors. Still with me? Now imagine this filled with bookshelves. Not just along every wall - although there are, indeed, no visible walls - but also freestanding units in every room, carefully placed so that there is room for exactly one person at a time to stand and browse on each side. Every corridor is lined with bookshelves, the passage through to the back rooms has a ceiling-height bookshelf right along the middle of it; there's a kind of plastic-roofed outbuilding at the back with more shelves, and somewhere in there there are even smaller passages which bring you out, alarmingly, behind the counter; and they, too, are full of bookshelves. Upstairs, even more shelves - in places so tightly packed that you have to reverse back out of dead ends.

Now, fill the shop with books. No, not just the shelves - although they are, inevitably, full to groaning with all manner of paperbacks and hardbacks; magazines and periodicals, childrens books and first editions - but pile all the books you can't fit on the shelves in neat stacks on the floor - narrowing still further the already perilously constricted passageways. And then pour a couple of dozen people in there, all shuffling past each other, muttering "excuse me"'s under their breaths, and you have my idea of the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

But that's not all. There are two further considerations; the elements which make a good bookshop great. Firstly, it's the kind of bookshop in which you will, whatever your interest or obsession, find something you've always wanted. In my case, on Saturday, I staggered upstairs under the weight of too many books which I couldn't really resist (and that doesn't count the ones I put back, sighing regretfully); I wanted to check the humour section, in which I resisted pretty much the complete works of Spike Milligan - I actually own most of them somewhere - and I failed to resist the first miracle: the only missing volume from the Hoffnung collection *points down* - the same edition, still in it's original dust jacket. Buoyant, I almost decide that it can't get any better, but I've checked the hardback biography section of every bookshop I've been in since 1988, so I might as well...

And there it is. 14 years since I took it out of Perth library, read it too quickly, and handed it back. In all that time, I have not seen hide nor dust jacket of Burton Bernstein's biography of James Thurber. But here it is, staring modestly back at me, imploring me to pick it up. Somehow, I fail to resist. The pile is now unmanageable, so I have to stop; I wonder what else I might have found. Now we come to the clinching argument in the 'best bookshop' stakes. We're in the affluent south east of England; second hand prices are not always much below new prices, particularly in London. Penn is the exception; the glorious exception - we came away on Saturday with 15 books, including my big hardback Thurber; I got change out of £20.

If you're not right now packing up and planning a trip to Penn, I shall want to know the reason why....