Monday, July 25, 2011

The Plot

You would be forgiven for thinking, like I did, upon first glancing at The Plot that this had something to do with the Tudors or Guy Fawkes. However, the subtitle quickly puts those notions to rest: A Biography of an English Acre. As someone who loves nonfiction that crosses categorizations (memoir/history/science survey) it turned out to be quite an interesting book, though in general it was a bit too compartmentalized to be my cup of tea.

The Plot itself is a small area in North Yorkshire that the author’s extraordinary father bought in the 1950s. A sculptor and a devout Catholic, he built a chapel there and was fiercely linked to the plot all his life. Unfortunately, Madeleine Bunting’s relationship with her father was adversely affected by this obsession. She takes the whole book long to come to grips with her father and to understand him, but for me, that never interfered with the rest of the book’s content. It could have been purely a book about Bunting’s attempts to know her father, but impressively it also brings in all the history related to the Plot. However, she can’t conceal her bitterness over the way the Plot worked its way into her life and broke up her parents’ marriage.

There are wonderful glimpses into the past of this area of England about which I knew almost nothing; the Scottish drovers around Scotch Corner in the 16th century had interesting lives which sometimes included them knitting as they walked along minding sheep who they drove down to London or up to Edinburgh to sell. There are moth experts in this book and shepherds who keep their dying way of life vibrant but unsentimental. William the Conqueror ravaged the area to the point that what natives were left turned to cannibalism, and the memory is still strong enough to be passed down in local lore. There are unknown tales of sikta pines and forestry panics of the 1920s and 1950s. Edwardian hunters slaughter thousands of pheasants. Cistercians died at the age of 28 because of their self-imposed harsh conditions.

But the heart of the matter is still Bunting’s father; his obsession with Catholic heroes and monks, with the cult of bravery that boys growing up, groomed for war, had in the 1940s; his lament for mechanization and the loss of the simple way of life long before vacationing in North Yorkshire became fashionable. Some of his qualities invite derision, but Bunting tries really hard to show all the factors that would have caused him to be the man he was. The Plot remains for Bunting a place she feels uncomfortable in and yet strangely drawn to.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stir Crazy

I am a big fan of different types of tea. I am a connoisseur rather than a snob, however, as I have gotten very used to the British cuppa of black bagged tea with lots of milk. But when I'm feeling in a fancier mood it's nice to have something more refined for the palette, and as we know, loose tea is by far the best-tasting type. At the moment, the collection runs as follows:

From the New Mexico Tea Rooms
Rainbow roibos Possibly the nicest non-black tea in the world, this is beautiful to look at, wonderful to smell, and heavenly to taste. Roibos of course is the tea made from the redbush of southern Africa and therefore is not tea in the sense of being camellia--but that also means it has no caffeine. This blend smells like a cake baking, and the amaretto flavoring makes it a wonderful dessert tea--equally good as an afternoon tea on its own.
Black Jasmine Cream This is a blend of jasmine (green) tea and black tea, which is unusual, with vanilla flavoring as well. I have to confess, I am not a big fan of plain green tea though of course I respect its role in Japanese and Chinese tea culture. I like scented green teas and a strong oolong occasionally. This is good with a touch of milk or brewed quite weak on its own.

From the St James Tea Rooms
Lemon souffle This is a recent discovery, and in smell and look this resembles the rainbow roibos above quite strongly. However, the difference is the addition of lemon rather than amaretto, which is a nice variation on the theme and is really nice for spring/summer. It is a great dessert tea and is a startling amber/red in the cup.
Blueberry This was a gift and I am less keen on black teas scented with fruits than with other flavors. Nevertheless, it smells strongly of blueberry and is nice as a weak brew without milk.
Sparkling sugar plum fairy is a gorgeous winter tea which actually shimmers! It is a strong black tea with seasonal notes of cinnamon and clove and benefits from some milk.
Hearthside toddy resembles the above tea with much the same taste although it is rather like a chai (without the latte of course).
Lady Londonderry is an exception to the black tea/fruit rule as it is quite a nice refined traditional black tea that is good with milk and not so heavily satured in flavor/scent as to not serve with scones or tea sandwiches. Along with Buckingham Palace Garden Party and Atlantic City Jubilee 1921 it is among my favorite scented black teas.
Pumpkin Pie is another autumnal scented black tea which is just wonderfully redolent of Thanksgiving because it is like drinking a pumpkin pie. It may sound bizarre but it's quite a comforting and hearty tea.

From Whittard of Chelsea
Christmas Leaf Tea I had a cull of all my old teas recently as they were not being drunk and had to get rid of my old Whittard of Chelsea stock. I couldn't bear to get rid of this one, though, as its scents are so rich and so associated with Christmas. It is similar to the Hearthside Toddy tea above.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone

I just picked this up randomly and while I think the intent was to elucidate and inspire thought, mostly it profoundly depressed me and made me think that not only is the end nigh, we deserve it. It inspires firstly white guilt to a very strong degree, and finally guilt for just being a human being. But, as I say, I don’t think that was the book’s intent, and occasionally there are glimpses of “those who have been overlooked by traditional histories.”

One thing the book purports to do, and does well, is link the very ancient with the modern; instead of “patterns that aren’t there” that so amused the Eighth Doctor, instead Mirrors helps to show the links between prehistoric and twenty-first century in surprising ways.

. . . The Yellow River has been called as such for about two thousand years, since the forests on its banks were felled and could no longer afford protection from avalanches of snow, mud, and garbage. Then the river, formerly jade green, lost its color and gained its name. With the passing of time, things got worse until the river became one huge sewer. In 1980, four hundred river dolphins lived there. In 2004, only one was left. It didn’t last long.

Sometimes, the controversial becomes so clear when Eduardo Galeano describes it. Regarding female circumcision: “To justify mutilation, they cite the Prophet Mohammed, who never spoke of this matter, and the Koran, which does not mention it either.” Galeano is extremely critical of religion in general, and Catholicism in searing particular. (He suggests that the reason Europeans distrusted water, and therefore declined to bathe, was because “it felt good and invited sin.”)

A group particularly well-served by Galeano is women, whose traditional silence during much of history has been lifted to let the singular voices (which must represent many who were never recorded) speak. From Dominica López of Chiapas, Mexico, to Hypatia of Alexandria 1, from Empress Theodora of Constantinople to Mohammed’s youngest wife Ayesha, from Trotula di Ruggiero of Salerno to Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, from Rosa Maria of Ouro Preto to Sophie Germain of Paris, from Ada Lovelace of London to Concepción Arenal of Madrid—

But most remarkable was the place women held among men [in Ancient Egypt]. Whether nobles or plebeians, they married freely without surrendering their names or their possessions. Education, property, work, and inheritance were theirs by right, not only for men, and women were the ones who shopped in the market while men stayed home weaving. According to Herodotus, who was not entirely trustworthy, women peed standing up and men on their knees.
. . .
A century before Hildegard, the celebrated Persian physician Avicenna included in his Canon of Medicine a more detailed description of the female orgasm . . . Since pleasure was man’s business, European translations of Avicenna’s works omitted that page.

Like Walt Whitman’s exhortation about contradictions, since Mirrors contains multitudes, it often contradicts itself. While it lauds Joan of Arc, it detests the company she kept: “Gilles de Retz . . . was accused of torturing, raping, and killing wayward children.” His indictment of Thanksgiving is surprisingly tame, given his previous criticism: “The saved then offered their saviours a Thanksgiving feast. . . . That was the first and last Thanksgiving in colonial times.” Of course, as a Uruguayan by birth, Galeano is fairly interested in the atrocities committed against native Americans, which are thoroughly detailed. However, “Without capital from the slave trade, who would have financed James Watt’s steam engine? What furnaces would have forged George Washington’s cannons?”

This, I suppose, is a central question in this book: do the ends justify the means? The founding fathers are all exposed as flawed sexists and racists 2 and possibly hypocrites, since he quotes Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson in agnostic or atheist moments 3. There are some celebrations of the deeds of white men: the writers of the French Encyclopédie, for one; Mark Twain protesting the Spanish-American war, for another. Some things are just impossible to understand—for example, why Alan Turing, a brilliant man who shortened the Second World War and saved countless lives by his code-breaking, had to commit suicide after being convinced by Manchester police for being homosexual. And it all reminds me of why I can’t read Sherman Alexie without crying; it reminds me of the passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm X in which the protagonist is making a speech at a college campus and is approached afterwards by a white girl in tears. “What can I do?” she asks. He is honest with her: “Nothing.”

1 Who, clearly, the Doctor needs to meet (if he hasn’t already)—though he would be distressed not to be able to prevent her stabbing and mutilation.
2 Except for Gouverneur Morris.
3 Though I’m being a bit facetious as I know for a fact that Jefferson believed in a clockwork God who set the world in motion and then sort of sat back and watched it go.

The Androids of Tara

13/07/11 “The Androids of Tara”
[to K9 as he cuts through a wall] Come on, a hamster with a penknife could do it faster!
--The Doctor

It’s hard not to like “The Androids of Tara” (unless, I guess, you want very Saward-esque Doctor Who with lots of grunge, death, and darkness). I have never read nor seen nor did I know anything about The Prisoner of Zenda, so I really had no idea what to expect. I have decided that I am a fan of David Fisher, though, if he can produce two such good scripts in conjunction to each other that stylistically don’t feel slavishly copied from one another. The Doctor seems to ride on the coattails of the action here, which is refreshing and amusing, whereas Romana—though she does a lot of escaping and being recaptured—seems to have much more to do. The whole planet of Tara has the feel of fairy tales where something is slightly wrong—I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of the 10 Kingdoms in The 10th Kingdom.

However, I doubt anything I will have to say on it will be new. To fit with his rather lackadaisical attitude throughout the story, the Doctor spends the first episode in leisurely pursuits. First, he plays chess on the floor of the console room with K9. The Doctor seems to forget that K9 has been “programmed with all the championship games since 1861.” Romana is much more interested than the Doctor in recovering the fourth segment of the Key to Time (the Doctor seems to have gotten bored of the quest at this point). She even makes a point of landing the TARDIS—“was that smooth enough for you?”—but he doesn’t seem to care. When they do exit the TARDIS (K9 stays behind for some reason), the planet is described as “Earth type” and the Doctor doesn’t think it should give Romana “any trouble.” “Me?” The Doctor seems a bit more obsessed than normal with clothes, and by this I don’t mean his own—he’s been surprisingly pragmatic about Romana’s clothes in the last two stories. In any case, he tells her she should go get dressed. There’s a cute his-and-hers wardrobe scene where Romana bypasses “Tahiti” and goes for “Tara” and even the Doctor tries to select the appropriate attire.

Romana is startled by the fishing rod the Doctor retrieves, and all reference to Izaak Walton (author of the great treatise on angling) is lost on her. She has, meanwhile, changed into “it’s what everyone on Tara is wearing this year, right, K9?” I don’t care if it is, we’ve gone from great costumes in the last story to this cross between an Oompa Loompa and Sergeant Pepper. The only thing of which I can approve is the hat. Nevertheless, out into the forest they go, the Doctor with his fishing rod (“it’s an art”) which eventually he will discard after deciding to let the gumblejacks go. “I’m taking a day off,” he announces to a bewildered Romana. Romana is nonetheless confident in her own abilities to find the fourth segment—“I’ll be back here in under an hour”—and leaves the Doctor to his fishing. At first all things seem hunky dory as she manages to pick up the segment in a few minutes, wandering around the woods to the sound of dour and somewhat mysterious cellos and violins. She transforms the segment from part of a statue and is just about to pocket it, when she starts hearing weird noises in the bushes. I admire the audacity to make the story about something other than finding the Key to Time and rather about getting it back once taken!

Romana is then “attacked” by the Taran wood beast, which kind of looks like a nicer version of the trolls in Willow. The knight errant who comes to her rescue is not who he appears to be and despite Romana’s protests (after all, she’s only got a twisted ankle) carries her and then has her riddling side-saddle across the horse’s pommel. It’s all very dashing and romantic, and the costume is wonderful—it’s rather Don Quixote, in that as I said before, it looks the part and yet something isn’t quite right. The knight convinces her that as a stranger she doesn’t know the rules about registering a stone now that she’s in the kingdom (which is complete poppycock of course), and rule-abiding Romana just can’t say no. He introduces himself to Count Grendel, which should have alarmed her from get-go as the monster of Beowulf cannot be expected, in such a romanza, to be trusted. Grendel is a bit distressed that part of the his family statue has disappeared (Romana doesn’t volunteer what has happened to it). There’s a wonderful conversation about the horse, which apparently Romana has never seen before. “What makes it work?” “Good heavens, I don’t know.” While they’re riding, we get an extended harpsichord solo from Dudley Simpson.

Meanwhile, the Doctor utters the immortal line about not stepping on his chest when his hat’s on fire, though that has no effect on stern warrior Farrah, whose electric rapier seems to take delight in burning up the Doctor’s accessories. Farrah and his master Zadek warn the Doctor he has stumbled onto Prince Reynart’s lands. I don’t quite know what era they’re trying to reproduce, if any, but Farrah and Zadek’s costumes are wonderful (even if the actors weren’t keen on them). The semi-Lawrence of Arabia feel produced by the head gear is at wonderful odds with the gold lamé boots and the Hessian-type medals at the collar. It all looks wildly incongruous with the setting, which is a lot of fun. The Doctor is spared when he is asked, “Can you mend an android?”

Back at Count Grendel’s castle of Grock, which is the splendid Leeds Castle in Kent, Pigbin Tarquin comes limping up to meet his master. Grendel introduces Romana to his “doctor,” Madame Lamia. Again, of course, Romana should have twigged with the names—Lamia was a Greek monster with serpentine attributes (perhaps that explains Madame Lamia’s interesting hairstyle?), and for Gothic horror buffs will be remembered more as a type of succubus/vampire-like creature, to be linked with the demon Lilith. However evil Madame Lamia may be, she isn’t a monster in the sense vampiric, only driven to foul deeds by a misguided affection for her master, Grendel. Her laboratory with data banks is something between a torture chamber and a Gothic hideout. However, despite all this, Lamia is the most interesting character in the story and reminds me of Tazambeker and her twisted obsession with Mr Jobel in “Revelation of the Daleks.” She obeys Grendel despite seeing through all this plans, “I’m a peasant, I leave politics to my betters.” The fact that peasants on Tara are the only ones who can repair androids makes me think this society is on the verge of a revolution—surely if the peasants are skilled enough to do that kind of work, they’re not going to stay subjugated for much longer? Unless they benefit in unseen ways from this society’s hierarchy? Grendel, for reasons that will become clear later, thinks Romana is an android and though impressed by the skill of constructing her, wants Lamia to “disassemble her.” Lamia is cleverer than Grendel, though, and notices that Romana’s ankle is swollen, proving she’s human.

At Reynhart’s hunting lodge (I guess?), Reynart, a Beau Geste-type hero, thinks the Doctor clearly must be a gentleman, yet may still be able to help them with their android problem. Indeed, the Doctor is able to, and he repairs the Reynhart lookalike android (George). There’s some surprisingly good split screen work as the two Reynharts are in the scene together. “It’s quite eerie, seeing one’s self.” The thing is, Reynhart fears assassination as he goes to claim the throne, but if he doesn’t show up then the throne gets forfeited. So he has gone one better than a human double—all of this interesting in light of “gangers” in series 6, but we’ll get to that. However, Grendel who of course wants the throne himself (why he is power-obsessed is not clear) beats him to the chase, causing a cliffhanger.

This must have been taken from a Victorian story as Grendel doesn’t kill all his helpless prisoners, he just kidnaps the Prince, leaving the Doctor, Zadek and Farrah to figure out how to proceed. The Doctor can just about make the android, which was not kidnapped, capable to getting to the coronation and acting appropriately. The Doctor’s attitude in this is odd; he is amused by the whole thing but rather subdued in action if not in his playful performance. Zadek and Farrah decide to follow the Doctor’s plan to establish the android on the throne until they can rescue Reynart.

In Grendel’s castle, Romana sees the Princess Strella, weaving in captivity like a good medieval woman should, who of course is Romana’s double (which is never explained). However, this gives wonderful clarity as to why she should want to regenerate in “Destiny of the Daleks” into Princess Astra—both names refer to stars, and of course having seen her own in double in this story, it seems her vanity was piqued. At least I’d like to believe that as otherwise it makes no sense. In any case, Strella, who isn’t given much of a personality until later, is oblivious to all the plotting and only refuses to be married off. We find out that Grendel “once showed [Lamia] a certain courtesy,” which suggests sexual favors, and sadly Lamia’s regard is quite one-sided.

Meanwhile the Doctor et al are proceeding through the “plague tunnels” (touch of Boccaccio and/or “Masque of the Red Death”) under the court so as to get there in time for the coronation. The interiors in the coronation scenes are absolutely stunning. The costumes are a great hodge-podge and are none the worse for their charivari quality. The Archimandrite, who eventually will pass his dress sense on to the Portreeve of Castrovalva (while, I think, imitating the Venetian doges), is a rather Gormenghast-ian character who apparently doesn’t see or doesn’t care about Grendel’s treachery. With the help of the Doctor and friends, the android is crowned though not without arousing suspicion. The episode ends as the Doctor beats the crap out of Princess Strella (though we know it can’t be her).

Strella’s head then falls off as she is obviously revealed to be an android. The Doctor apparently “heard it spark.” All the pomp and circumstance is postpone for the next day; Lamia is intrigued by the Key to Time which she eventually asks Romana about. “I’ve blunted two diamond drills on it.” Poor Romana can’t tell a lie and is not allowed to have her stone back. Lamia has somehow managed to construct a Romana android that is very accurate, if a bit lifeless—“the Doctor will spot it immediately.” The original FemmBot, it conceals a not-very-subtle assassination device. One wonders what exactly they mean by, “The android is programmed to kill in other ways.” However, Romana takes advantage of a moment’s distraction to take what I assumed was a syringe to stab Lamia with, but is actually a lock-pick which she conveniently uses to set herself free from the dungeon. She wants to help Reynart escape as well, but he is too weak to try. She bolts off to escape and can’t get the horse started. :-D “Go, charger, start!”

The Doctor has taken the opportunity to repair back to the hunting lodge to improve the android’s circuitry—“a trifle more intelligent than the real one.” Pigbin Tarquin comes with a message for the Doctor to meet Lamia so they can make an exchange—Romana for safe passage for Grendel (or something like that; it’s so obviously a trap it makes no difference). They meet in a wonderful pavilion building, 12 hours early as it happens, and then Grendel surrounds the place, bombards it (why it doesn’t ignite when it’s apparently wood I don’t know), accidentally kills Lamia (for which he feels a sliver of remorse), and eventually the Doctor and K9 get away.

Grendel brings the white flag of truce to the hunting lodge and honorable Zardek agrees to let him in. He discusses “kingmaking” with the Doctor—“you would make an excellent king,” though that’s interesting in comparison to what the Ninth Doctor says later, “I make a very bad god.” Foiled, Grendel runs off, somehow having grabbed Romana (WTF?) and having thrown a spear into the android, effectively harpooning it. I’m not the only one to think of Grendel’s ambition like that of Richard III, and frankly I would have enjoyed if his character was more Richard III-like. With the fake Reynard destroyed and Princess Strella refusing to take any part in Grendel’s plans, he blackmails Reynard and Romana into doing what he wants so that Strella’s life is saved. Romana, not knowing Strella, could have called Grendel’s bluff, I think, but Reynart of course knows her personally. So they consent to dress up and have a fake marriage (much like Richard III talked Anne into marrying him, and Grendel’s plan is to discard Romana as soon as he gotten to the throne, as Richard let Anne waste away). Strella’s costume appears to have been recycled from “Monster of Peladon.”

The Doctor and K9 are doing the rescuing, enjoying a fun boat ride across the Grock castle moat in the darkness to later unlock the front door. The Doctor relishes breaking up the wedding and even more so, in a boldly and hilariously Pertwee-like move, the duel between himself and Grendel. This is highly unusual in Doctor Who, brings to mind both Hamlet and the later duel between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya. In the meantime, Romana follows Grendel’s majordomo and prevents him from killing the unsuspecting Strella; they have an amusing and cute conversation between the two of them. Grendel leaves to fight another day, the Doctor has to rescue K9 from the boat, and no one dies except poor unhappy Lamia. The Doctor cruelly teases Romana about the whereabouts of the Key to Time, which he has thoughtfully saved from Lamia’s workshop.

Like the sunny but uncomplicated “Black Orchid,” it’s difficult to bear a grudge against “Androids of Tara.”