Monday, February 28, 2022

Richard II

Today our play-reading group moved on from Shakespeare's King John and Goldman's The Lion in Winter to Shakespeare's next English history play, Richard II. And here's the historic background notes I wrote for my fellow participants:

It's 1398, six generations and almost 200 years after King John. This is the first of a sequence of eight plays that will take us through the next 85 years of English royal history.

The backstory comes from Edward III, who (like Henry II) was a masterful king who had too many sons. The struggles for power among his five adult sons, and their sons, are the root of all the royal troubles of the 15th century, and the fat hits the fire right here.

By this time, primogeniture had been firmly established. Edward's eldest son, a mighty warrior later known (from the supposed color of his armor) as the Black Prince, died before his father. So Edward was succeeded, not by one of his other adult sons, but by his grandson: the Black Prince's ten-year-old son, Richard. He became Richard II (Richard I had been Henry's son from The Lion in Winter).

There was no formal regency, but Richard's uncles were powers in the realm, and the struggle to establish himself was not good for Richard's personality. Now he is 31 years old, firmly in command, artistic and courtly rather than military, but indecisive, willful, and arrogant.

Up until recently, Richard had three remaining uncles:
1. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, an uncle whom Shakespeare treats kindly. He has a son of Richard's age, Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, usually in this play called just Bolingbroke.
2. Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, a conciliatory but weak uncle. His son is the Duke of Aumerle.
3. Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, a hostile and overbearing uncle.

Thomas Duke of Gloucester had recently died under mysterious circumstances. As this play begins, Bolingbroke accuses another nobleman, Thomas Mowbray, of murdering him, which he probably did, but Bolingbroke and the king may also be complicit, so Richard has a motive for hushing this up. At the last moment he arbitrarily cancels a duel between Bolingbroke and Mowbray and sends them both into exile. This pisses off Bolingbroke in particular, and the play's main conflict is underway.

Note 1: What's with all this "of", and why "Gaunt"? It was customary at the time for princes to be known as "of (their place of birth)." These princes' mother was from Flanders, and John was born there, in Ghent, which the English called Gaunt. Richard was Richard of Bordeaux because his father the Black Prince was ruling Aquitaine at the time.
Note 2: You may remember that the Wars of the Roses, a couple generations later on, were between the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The titles here are where that comes from.

two loads of freight

Poking my (mask-covered) face out in to the world a bit, I got to the Freight & Salvage for two folk or folk-like concerts this week, I think my first musical visit there in three and a half years.

First was Richard Thompson, with just his guitar and his songs and (for part of the time) a backing vocalist and a mouth organist. This was good, but less fun than his all-request program of a few years back. Most of the songs were new ones that I didn't know and found a bit hard to assimilate, as shown by even the ones I did know ("Gethsemane," "She Moves Through the Fair," and of course "1952 Vincent Black Lightning") being given heavy-handed. RT's guitar style has developed a lot of heavy bass thumps that I could do without.

The other was a Scottish folk band called Talisk. The description on the Freight's calendar was intriguing, so I listened to some of their videos and was dazzled: Celtic fast folk dances delivered by a trio of concertina, fiddle, and guitar with blistering high energy and a charming infectiousness. They've just recently changed fiddlers, and this has had some good effects: more solos, and some interesting harmonic and rhythmic passages, for fiddle, instead of just doubling the concertina, and more variety of tempo in the songs. But though the energy remained high in concert, the infectiousness had leaked out of the new material. The volume level was a wee bit too loud for me, and I could really have done without the electronic bass thumps controlled by the guitarist's foot.

What is it with all these thumps? Has our music been infected by the malign spirit of Donald Thump?

Saturday, February 26, 2022

concert review: Peninsula Symphony

Oh, really? What with all that's been going on in the world over the last week, now you program an all-Russian concert?

Well, to be fair, it was chosen a long time ago. And before the last piece, conductor Mitchell Sardou Klein spoke to the audience. He said that Shostakovich had spent his entire adult life under the heel of an authoritarian regime, and he poured all his resentment, anger, fear, and more into this work, his Fifth Symphony. Thus it's more, rather than less, appropriate to play it now, as a symbol of defiance.

A little oversimplified, but the right thing to say. And it was mostly a slow, sober performance without emotional overload at the clinaxes. Except for the celebratory, or mock-celebratory, finale, which was taken at a hasty clip, as if the conductor didn't quite believe the music. Many don't, but they're rarely this explicit about it.

Also on the program, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Local hero Jon Nakamatsu played the solo part with skill and panache, seeming less like a flashy virtuoso than a guy who was just up there playing the piano. That could have been because he and the instrument were crammed into a narrow space at the front of a small stage in an undistinguished auditorium (Heritage Theatre in Campbell), but it was further emphasized by a thoroughly unpretentious encore, Joplin's The Entertainer. But my word, what a garrulous concerto.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture is a difficult piece to get running in gear, but assistant conductor Hoh Chen did pretty well with it. Playing was pretty good, though some exposed long lyric lines for viola in the Shostakovich could have used a little work.

Friday, February 25, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

What if I told you that there's a work for full orchestra, by Beethoven - the most renowned of all classical composers - that was 70 minutes long - as long as his Ninth Symphony; twice as long as most of the others - that hardly anybody has ever heard, and only real Beethoven fans are likely to know even that it exists?

Well, it does, and last night I heard it played live in its entirety for the first time - both them playing it and me hearing it - from the SFS, with EPS conducting.

It's a ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus. It dates from around the time of the First Symphony, so it's fairly early Beethoven. One reason it's rarely played is because nothing of the dance content has survived beyond a few notes towards a scenario, so we don't even know what's happening on stage most of the time.

Never mind, we now have Gerard McBurney, who - having performed reconstruction acts on a lot of Shostakovich - is ready to undertake this also. He's taken the existing hints and put together a coherent scenario that fits the music. This was read aloud as between-pieces narration by Keith David, in much the same tone of voice that James Earl Jones used to describe the flamingos in Fantasia 2000.

This was accompanied by cartoons by Hillary Leben, projected on screens - animated during the narration, still while the music was playing, so it wasn't distracting. These were charmingly goofy and often quite silly.

The title The Creatures of Prometheus suggests a retelling of the story by Ovid - a very popular author in Vienna at the time - about the demigod Prometheus fashioning the first human beings out of clay, and asking the gods to help show them how to live and be human.

The net result is that most of the scenario consists of various dances in which the gods show off their dancing on top of Mount Parnassus. Beethoven's music has a stable dancing base, a lot like his sets of contradances, except there's less pure repetition, more variety and development. It was interesting to hear, especially the finale, which featured a contradance tune that Beethoven made more use of, as the theme to variation sets for solo piano and for orchestra, the latter as the finale of his Eroica Symphony, which is where you may have heard it.

If you want the whole thing, when the Philharmonia of London played the work - also with EPS conducting and Leben's cartoons, some of Leben's cartoons anyway - McBurney's narration was read by Stephen Fry, and you can watch and listen here.

Monday, February 21, 2022

coupon follies

I had a coupon for KFC. (Yeah, I know, but I pick up an order there occasionally when I'm in a hurry.) It was for "Kentucky Fried Wings," which are winglet pieces with their own breading style different from the regular chicken varieties. Underneath the header it read "Increments of 6 pieces" and then, in big type, "50¢."

I took it to the drive-through window and read the coupon. I said, "Does that mean I could get 30 wings for $2.50?" No, they said, it's 50¢ a winglet. If the word "wing" or "winglet" had appeared in small type below the "50¢" that would have been justified, but the only thing it said was 50¢ was "increments of 6 pieces." The coupon is really misleading.

However, I accepted this correction because the price by increment was ridiculously low, while the price by individual piece was about half what they normally charge, which is more reasonable. However, they weren't quite prepared to sell it by increments of 6 pieces. When I ordered 18, they were at first stumped because they don't have an 18-piece. Then they figured they could sell me a 12-piece and a 6-piece (see, elementary arithmetic is your friend). Ironically, it all came in one container.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

seen online

One pleasant side effect of pandemic rules is the frequent ability to stay home and watch a theatrical live on the computer, instead of having to venture to a distant venue plus all of the time and expense of getting there. The problem is, though, that they don't have the same visceral impact on the viewer this way, and I find I have little to say about them.

The SF Conservatory of Music put on Bock & Harnick's 1966 musical The Apple Tree. It's three one-act shows based on stories by different authors. In the Broadway versions the cast appears in all 3; in this one they were different. Act 2, which is "The Lady or the Tiger?", is the best-written; Act 3, which is by Feiffer at his most Feifferesque, was the best-performed.

The Lamplighters did a celebratory program of numbers from all 14 Gilbert & Sullivan operas, not always the selections I'd have chosen but all well-performed in Victorian costuming.

Great Performances had a documentary on the reopening of Broadway (this was before omicron, though it does record how Aladdin opened for one night and then had to shut down again). Interviews and live footage convey how devastating the shutdown was for theater people whose life this is, how hard it was to get back into gear after a long shutdown, and how joyous the reopenings were. This was all musicals, by the way: no spoken drama. What struck me, having seen only 2 or 3 new musicals in the last 2 or 3 decades, is how many of them are built on pre-existing songs, and how many of those songs are really upbeat and energetic musically but have really depressed lyrics.

Movies are a better choice online because they're made for the recorded medium. I saw The Mauritanian, a legal drama with Jodie Foster and Benedict Cumberbatch tussling over the body (literally: habeas corpus) of a Gitmo detainee. If you've ever wanted to hear Benedict Cumberbatch essay a Southern American accent, this is your movie.

One other live event I participated online was the "laying-in ceremony" for my friend Jane who died last month. What her body is being laid into is a compost container, which is a thing you can do in Washington State but apparently not much of elsewhere, and highly appropriate for one who was both an engineer and a gardener. There's now a web page with Jane's wise sayings online, and it includes this essay on people's varying ideas of what doing someone a favor means - and this is exactly the sort of thing I mean when I say that people are different.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

a crusty new book

Treacle Walker by Alan Garner (4th Estate, 2021)

A few connoisseurs of esoterica gathered online to discuss Alan Garner's latest novel - if it is long enough to be a novel; it's 152 small pages of big type.

Garner has long been noted for writing stories so deeply embedded in cryptic references to English and Welsh folklore - especially that of his native Cheshire - that they're difficult for any but the well-versed to understand, and which have been getting more challenging over the course of his over 60-year career.

We predicted that we'd be among the very few Americans to read this book. I refrained from pointing out that it'd be even fewer for a book that needs to be ordered from England and takes over a month to arrive. We'd already put off this discussion for a month because nobody'd gotten their copies yet who hadn't already read it.

One of our number argued forcefully that this time Garner has crossed the line. This book is so difficult to understand that it's not worth putting the effort into it. (I thought of my friend DGK, who maintains that nothing is so difficult to understand that it's not worth putting the effort into it.) I said that I was hardly in a position to judge, as Garner hit that threshold for me with Red Shift, which was his fifth book half a century ago. (I loved the first four.)

On one level, Treacle Walker is pretty simple. It's about a boy named Joseph Coppock who lives alone in a small house by a railway track, spending his time reading comic books. (It was suggested at the discussion that he might be dead, which would certainly explain a lot.) He meets a rag-and-bone dealer named Treacle Walker, trades with and sort of befriends him, and learns about magic from him. Joe can evidently see magical glamour with one eye but not the other. Treacle teaches Joe to whitewash his front steps with donkey stone, which keeps magical beings out of the house - or in, if they're already there. These supernatural practices, I am told, are all from Cheshire folk tradition.

You may wonder what donkey stone is. I wondered that myself, from the first words of the book which are Treacle's street-seller's cry: "Ragbone! Ragbone! Any rags! Pots for rags! Donkey stone!" So I looked it up, not knowing it'd become important later. Donkey stone isn't around much any more, but it was common in northern England for much of the 20C. It's an extremely rough soap made of hardened cement slurry, cut into blocks and used for cleaning grimy exteriors. An early manufacturer used a donkey as a trademark, thus the name.

But what this all adds up to, and whether there's an actual plot to this book, remained cryptic to us readers. Treacle Walker is written in an extremely deep countryside English dialect, full of nobbled telegraphic sentences, in which utterances like summat and nowt are words.

Yet on the surface level it's easy enough to read. The relationship between Joe and Treacle is querulous and difficult and even leads to humor:
'You're set on flummoxing me!'
'And if I am not?'
'You are! You! You! You big soft Nelly!'
'That is an appellation new to me,' said Treacle Walker. 'How may it be construed?'
'Sod off!'
Treacle Walker stood and ducked under the mantel beam.
'Where are you going?' said Joe.
'To observe the imperative,' said Treacle Walker. 'If I may.'

Friday, February 18, 2022

concert review: San Francisco Symphony

I did it; I went up to the City for a concert. My first since December 2, including the 3 I had tickets for in the last month but skipped due to omicron. Restrictions have been relaxed, but not inside Davies Hall: they're still requiring booster verification and a 95-level mask. I ate takeout in my car rather than going to a restaurant for dinner (there's some great independent takeout places in the City), and though I was strongly attracted by the night's program, few others were. The hall was fairly empty, with not another person in my box. So I felt rather safe.

This was the Michael Morgan memorial concert, which is why I was so eager to attend. The Oakland Symphony music director had programmed and was scheduled to conduct this concert, but he died unexpectedly last August. The varied and eclectic selection of works was put on as Morgan originally programmed it - a rather rare thing when a planned conductor becomes unavailable - but it took three conductors to do it: one African-American like Morgan himself, and two of Asian birth and North American residence.

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser led the vocal part of the program, which included arrangements of some spirituals associated with Black churches, plus Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, an aria associated with the great Marian Anderson. Mezzo Melody Wilson has a voice of dark precision, but unfortunately not powerful enough, at least in the vast precincts of Davies, to carry above Jack Perla's overenthusiastic orchestration for the spirituals. The Brahms worked better.

Earl Lee led a pair of dramatic tone poems. Amen! by Carlos Simon attempts to convey the spirit of a Pentecostal church service in only 13 minutes of orchestral music, with a lot of wailing for trombones in the fast sections and many blues-like passages for solo winds in the slow ones. Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman) by Cesar Franck is one of those grittingly specific French tone poems on alarming supernatural topics of which Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre are better-known examples. Truth to tell, they're deservedly better-known. This interpretation of a gory 18C ballad of a nobleman who goes hunting on a Sunday until the flames of Hell get him for his impiety fluffs irregularly around and does not sound in the least like anything else by Franck I've ever heard.

Akiko Fujimoto led the big piece on the program, Florence Price's Third Symphony, a marvelous work which I've heard Morgan conduct in Oakland, and from others on a couple of other occasions. This was a slow and darkly blended interpretation which kept Price's distinct sound-world intact and did well by the formal beauties of the slow movement, but which slightly dampened the energy and jauntiness of the rest of the work. Except insofar as the percussion really stood out in the scherzo and finale, it carried the slightly stuffy air of the Second New England School, i.e. as if Amy Beach had written it. An odd way to go, but that slow movement was a beauty.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

one thing about Tybalt

One thing about Tybalt having had his teeth cleaned (for the first time in his life): he's even more desperate for affection, especially in the wee hours, than ever before. I've spent most of the last 3 hours cradling him in my arm while he purrs and makes happy grunting sounds, with my other hand cupping the top of his head. (Try that with your cat who likes to be scritched there, and see if it works.)

This despite the fact that we're still prying his mouth open and spritzing strange fluids into it twice a day. Which, together with his liking to butt his head in my face, another feline sign of affection, leads to the other thing about Tybalt: the teeth-cleaning has made a heck of an improvement on his breath.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

King John

Our play-reading group has decided to work its way through Shakespeare's history plays, alternating with plays by others, mostly comedies. It's my job to assign the parts, which since there are only 4 of us consists mostly of ensuring there aren't too many places where we have to exchange lines with ourselves, while insuring continuity of parts and balance as much as possible.

Since the history plays require backgrounds, I attached to the e-mail assigning parts for King John, the first one, a short preface of my own. My colleagues appreciated this, so I intend to continue this. Here's the one I wrote for King John:


This play is largely about royal inheritance. A large part of Act 1 concerns an illegitimate son and how he therefore cannot inherit, even though his father turns out to be someone different than he was expecting.

John is King of England, but he also has inherited title to various territories in France. He is Duke of Normandy through his ancestor William the Conqueror, Duke of Anjou through his grandfather Geoffrey Plantagenet, and Duke of Aquitaine through his mother Eleanor. On these accounts he is subordinate to the King of France as overlord, but king of France was a weak title at the time, and as also an independent monarch John is under less control. None of which the King of France, Philip II, can be expected to like, so John (and his father Henry II before him) spend a lot of time in France on military campaigns to defend their holdings, at which John doesn't do very well.

But there's a further wrinkle. John was his father's youngest son, and by strict primogeniture succession the crown should have gone to the line of the next oldest brother, Geoffrey, who's dead but who left behind him a young son, Arthur, who was 12 when John became king. (Arthur's mother, Constance, is still around: like her mother-in-law Queen Eleanor, she had inherited lordship of part of France, in her case Brittany.) In those days strict primogeniture was only beginning to arise, and the king was usually elected by the nobles among the most promising relatives of the late king. John was an adult and Arthur only a boy, so he took over from his even elder brother Richard the Lionheart without controversy. But it suits King Philip to weaken John by arguing on Arthur's behalf, and that's how the play begins.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

day of trauma

This was a traumatic day, if you were a cat.

Or specifically if you were Tybalt, for whom this was the day he went back in to the vet to have his teeth cleaned. Having been to the vet for a checkup just a couple months ago, he hadn't forgotten what the carrier meant, and he howled loudly and pitifully all the way there and back again.

Besides the cleaning came the extraction. From what I gathered from the six minutes of feline dental natter the vet gave me about it, cats have teeth that sometimes get absorbed back into the jaw, or something, but sometimes they don't absorb properly and cause pain, so they have to come out.

This meant putting Tybalt on mushy food for a while - easy enough, just soak his kibble in some water - and give him some medication, a pain reliever that's supposed to go into the gums. This comes in a set of pre-loaded syringes, but I was surprised to find when I took the cap off one that there's no needle; I guess it just spreads over the surface and is absorbed. While B. wrapped the cat in a towel and held on, I managed to get the syringe against the roof of his mouth just behind the teeth. I hope that will be good enough. Five more doses over three days ...

Monday, February 14, 2022

one and a half semi-romantic movies

It's Valentine's Day, and time to watch some romantic movies, right? I tried two new ones, small-scale films featuring mostly actors previously unknown to me. They're both on Amazon Prime, no extra charge.

I Want You Back is the one I didn't finish watching. Woman who's been dumped by her boyfriend meets man who's been dumped by his girlfriend, agree that they desperately want their old partners back, and share their misery. That they might be better off with each other does not occur to them, at least at this point. Each had been dumped essentially for perceived immaturity, and they proceed to prove the validity of this charge by hatching a plan for each to interfere in the other's ex's love life. So she volunteers to help with a middle-school musical (his ex and her new beau are the teachers running it), which is so not her; and he joins the gym where her ex works, which is so not him (he's basically a remake of young Billy Crystal). And it just started getting exquisitely embarrassing, and promising to get worse, which a glance at the Wikipedia plot summary confirmed it does, so I stopped there. Thumbs down.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, on the other hand, is a tiny near-perfect movie, though it's not a cuddly romantic one. It's a time-loop story, which if that makes it SF, classes this film with other near-perfect low-key time-travel movies like See You Yesterday and Safety Not Guaranteed. In this one, the teenage boy who's experiencing the same day over and over is startled out of the cool-dude tenor of his way when he meets a girl of his age who's also living the day over - which he can tell when she does different things on successive runs. That makes this a little less like Groundhog Day, a movie referenced several times here - it also helps if you know Time Bandits - and a little more in the direction of Palm Springs or Before I Fall, which aren't referenced.
After initial hesitation, the two bond like castaways, and start a project to map the "tiny perfect things" that happen in their town that day, like the little girl who nails a skateboard jump that foils the skate rats, or the cops stopping traffic to let a turtle cross the road. But are they going to start a romance? At first he's not sure, and she's against it because - he can tell - there's something going on in her life that she's not telling him. The way it all works out in the end struck me as quite original storytelling for a time-loop story, and was charming and satisfying. Thumbs definitely up.

concert review: Thomas Mesa and Ilya Yakushev

I didn't actually get to this concert at Kohl Mansion on January 16, but I was privileged to see the videorecording (not on general release), which occupied me for part of the time that the rest of the world was at the Super Bowl. Excellent close-up footage from across the (not large) hall, and vivid acoustics including enough ambient sounds to underscore that you were getting the full range of what the musicians played.

The highlight of this cello-and-piano recital was Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, one of his only two full-sized adult works for chamber ensemble. Full-sized it is, too, an epic work both in length and the amount of effort required by the players. It has its share of lyric episodes, some of which even sound like Rachmaninoff, but the emphasis here was on the dramatic parts. Mesa's cello growled and sputtered and wailed affectingly while Yakushev rang out notes on the piano.

The rest of the program was distinctly more lyrical. Brahms's Sonata No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 38, was slow and grave and carefully restrained, and a similar ambience affected a tiny prelude by Lera Auerbach (one of her more agreeable works), a nocturne by Chopin that Yakushev played by himself, and the encore, the inevitable "Swan" by Saint-Saëns. Mesa's cello throughout all of this was deep-toned even in the higher notes, and high-lying passages evinced the slightest strain which underpinned that the depths were where Mesa was most in comfort.

A couple brief excerpts from a "Spanish Suite" by Joaquin Nin ran more lively, but the truly notable short work on the program was an unaccompanied cello piece that Mesa commissioned early in the pandemic from a NYC composer named Andrea Casarrubios. Titled "Seven" for the daily 7 PM tribute to essential workers that New Yorkers were paying, this is a fairly introverted, rather than celebratory, 9-minute piece with some strikingly beautiful sonorities. It begins (and ends) with soft harmonics interrupted with frequent deep- and dark-toned pizzicato throbs, which reappear in other contexts as well. A lyrical passage accompanied by a lower-pitched drone in the same rhythm was another highlight of this haunting composition.

I tend to gravitate towards larger chamber ensembles, but this was a two-person show well worth hearing.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

candidate for my favorite sentence in Jane Austen

"Marianne, who had the knack of finding her way in every house to the library, however it might be avoided by the family in general, soon procured herself a book."

- Sense and Sensibility, chapter 42

Friday, February 11, 2022

"it's real, and it's coming" - on you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help

That's the header I put on a post a decade ago about the impending Hobbit movies, responding to an enthusiast (the part in quotes) by alluding to Strider's warnings about the Nazgûl.

And that's how I feel again now that two people have forwarded to me this extensive article about that previously blank slate, the impending Amazon series based on Tolkien's Second Age.

I cannot recall if I saw anything as detailed prior to either of the sets of Jackson movies, or if I felt quite as sick at heart as I do on reading this. It's like thinking of your beloved peaceful village, knowing that a vast tsunami is on the way and will overflood it. It will not be possible to deal with other people regarding Tolkien's work in the future without this getting in the way or at least having to be kicked out of the way, the same way as that's now true of the Lord of the Rings movies.

Which should be a sufficient reply to the usual morons who will say, "If it bothers you that much, then don't watch it." But what makes you think I'll be able to avoid this by not watching it? Just as a warning shot, I've already been sent this article twice, and once was by a Tolkien scholar on a Tolkien scholarly list. It's going to be talked about extensively where I am, and I'll be shut out of the conversation if I know nothing about it, unable to offer an opinion of it, and unable to analyze where the movie has affected people's thoughts about the book, which is so common now with regard to the Jackson movies that it's ceased to be remarkable. No, Aragorn wasn't reluctant to become king. No, Sauron wasn't a helpless giant eyeball.

So I almost have to watch it, if only in self-defense. At least I already have Amazon Prime, so I don't have to do anything or pay anything extra in order to see this. I think I wouldn't be able to stand the prospect if I did.

So what of the article itself? They've interviewed two genuine esteemed Tolkienists, Michael Drout and Dimitra Fimi. It's Dimitra who astutely warns that "My worry would be if it becomes a Game of Thrones in the Second Age. That wouldn’t be what one would associate with Tolkien's vision." The article goes on to assure the reader that the Amazon series won't reproduce the surface features of Game of Thrones, the violence and sex. It quotes the showrunner as saying that he understands what Tolkien is about: "It's about friendship and it's about brotherhood and underdogs overcoming great darkness."

Well, there is that element, yes. But Tolkien's is not a warm bro story. If you treat it that way, it'll have no foundation, and your creation will crumble away into a trivial mess. I know this, because it's happened to various Tolkien homages in book form, which have had this or other superficial understandings of his art. In Tolkien, the fellowship is laid on top of a deep moral sense; the references to older literature are based on a profound knowledge of that literature; and the details of the subcreation are not an accumulation of trivia but built into a crystalline structure that gives wonder and joy in the beholding. To reproduce that without Tolkien's own background is a monumental challenge.

I see a couple of warning signs here. One is that they're creating new characters and new stories. This doesn't have to be bad. But it was a characteristic of the new material in Jackson's films that its conception and writing were puerile. I'm not just talking here of the material that undercuts Tolkien, but of things that could easily actually have happened offstage in Tolkien's story: Merry and Pippin playing tricks at Bilbo's party; Boromir and Faramir quaffing ale together after a military victory. These scenes could have happened to Tolkien's characters, but the way they're depicted just sucks. The ale-quaffing one (in the extended edition only) has all the potent lack of sincerity of a beer commercial. And why? Because it's intended to illustrate bro fellowship culture: the same thing Patrick McKay says he's trying to convey in his story. Not all fan fiction is bad; but we're looking here at the prospect of bad fan fiction. If it would be read once and forgotten that would be OK, but this is going to stick around.

There's also the point brought up in the next-to-last paragraph. In order to keep the storyline from being stretched out over thousands of years, making a reasonable-sized retelling like watching Sturgeon's speeded-up Neoterics, they're condensing it into "one story that unites all these things." This is understandable from a storytelling perspective. But it changes the nature of the story you're telling, fundamentally so. I call this Advise and Consent syndrome. That was the - quite gripping, I thought - 1950s Washington political novel by veteran journalist Allen Drury. All of the dramatic events in that novel are inspired directly by things that actually happened and that Drury witnessed during his reporting career. But the difference is, in real life they were spread out over 15 years. In the novel they happen in quick succession, right on top of each other. The result is to strain credibility even though it's all true. Will this condensation have a similar effect on Tolkien?

The article is quite accurate in its description of Tolkien writing the story. But it has a couple of glitches regarding the story's internal events. It says that the Second Age is "(seemingly) a time of peace for Middle-earth." No, it only begins that way. The Second Age is a time of huge struggle as the power of Sauron rises, and the Elves and the Men of Númenor oppose him. Tolkien's most powerful story of this period, "Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife" (I wonder if they'll incorporate this into the plotline: it isn't referred to in The Lord of the Rings) brings up the strain on Númenor of becoming involved in the wars of distant Middle-earth.

The other point is whether there will be hobbits in this story. The article says "yes and no," but the answer it gives is "yes." It says that there are "hobbit-adjacent" creatures in this story: "The hobbit ancestors in this era are called harfoots." Harfoots (capital H, please) is Tolkien's name for one of the breeds of hobbit. They're not hobbit-adjacent ancestors: they're hobbits.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

let's see how it's been done

You could go down the rabbit hole with this one, because there are lots of links to other articles of past predictions of what the now-present future would be like, but I'm going to focus on this one, because it was the one brought to my attention, because of the date (1922 predicting 2022), and because of the impressive thoughtfulness of many of the predictions. The article is a summary of what the original said, and there's also a link to a (highly imperfect, unfortunately) automated transcript of the original article.

I am convinced that in 2022 the advancement of science will be amazing, but it will be nothing like so amazing as is the present day in relation to a hundred years ago.
I was particularly impressed by this observation because it matches with something I've thought myself. Referring not to pure scientific knowledge but to its application to civilization and to technological advances therein, the changes of the last century have marked vast improvements on fundamentally new ideas of the previous century. It was the 1822-1922 period that brought us mechanical transport (initially in the form of steamships and railroads), mechanical lighting, mechanical weapons (alas!), effectively instantaneous long-distance communication (initially in the form of the telegraph), reliable medicine (by 1900 a physician was more likely to cure you than kill you; 50 years earlier that wasn't the case), and the automated recording of both light and sound. What we've seen in the last century is improvements on all of these on a scale that could hardly have been imagined, but I fancy that we have seen fewer fundamentally new kinds of things than in the previous century. Wireless broadcasting and electric home appliances, which were just being developed around 1922, were among the biggest.
For an example of the improvements, take sound recording. Still experimental in 1900, it had become commonplace by 1922, and was about to undergo the two biggest technological improvements of its history: the introduction of the electric microphone in 1925, and something that greatly interests the author of this article:

The movies will be more attractive, as long before 2022 they will have been replaced by the kinephone, which now exists only in the laboratory. That is the figures on the screen will not only move, but they will have their natural colors and speak with ordinary voices.
Totally right in outcome - the improvement in both technology and artistry of motion pictures over the last century has been utterly breathtaking - but wrong in method. The kinephone was a toy for automating flip-book photos by playing them on your phonograph turntable, but phonograph records were a dead end for attaching sound to film. The actual solution was well under development in 1922 and would reach commercial use just a few years later.

A sight of the world today would surprise President Jefferson much more, I suspect, than the world of 2022 would surprise the little girl who sells candies at Grand Central Station.
So what would amaze a person from 1922 who walked through a major transport terminal today? I suspect mostly two things: the mobile phones, and the clothing that people are wearing. The informality of the clothing of the last 50 years compared with that of any previous modern civilization would shock the heck out of any time-traveler from then to now, a point I've rarely seen addressed in time-travel fiction, either because we are now so used to it that we don't notice, or because the time-traveler's alarm would stop the story dead.
Give us another few years, and another thing that would surprise the person from a century ago: the electric and driverless vehicles.

I suspect that commercial flying will have become entirely commonplace. The passenger steamer will survive on the coasts. but it will have disappeared on the main routes, and will have been replaced by flying convoys, which should cover the distance between London and New York in about twelve hours.
The first sentence here is entirely correct. The survival of the passenger steamer, though, is entirely delusional except where unbridgeable waterspans like most of Puget Sound are involved - actually, I thought they'd been displaced by railroads before 1900. He's off on the flight time between London and New York, which is 7-9 hours, but add airport security, baggage claim, and other fussing around at either end and it might as well be 12. And convoys? Oh no, he's thinking of wartime shipping. Still, later on he does estimate an 8-hour flight.

The same cause will affect the railroads, which at that time will probably have ceased to carry passengers except for suburban traffic.
Oh ho, that's a good one, and closer to reality than rail fans would like. The anomalous survival of commuter rail lines is an especially good touch. He goes on to predict that freight, too, will be carried more by road than by rail.

Wireless telegraphy and wireless telephones will have crushed the cable system long before the century is done.
We're getting there, far more than 20 years ago, but not quite yet. In any case the overhead phone cables started disappearing long ago because we began burying them.

Coal will not be exhausted, but our reserves will be seriously depleted, and so will those of oil.
Very astute; even if oil is far from exhausted, we are having to start to squeeze the pips. But the speculation on new power sources is still a little advanced: solar, atomic (sigh), and ... tidal? Uh, no, to get power from the kinetics of water we built dams.

The predictions are a lot less reliable when they turn domestic. I'll leave the discussion of household servants aside, except to note that, contrary to some impressions, we still have them - nannies, cleaning services - and give a point to the author's observation that less coal = less soot = easier cleaning, while taking a point away for not noting the labor-saving qualities of electric home appliances like washing machines and refrigerators, which were already in development in 1922 though not yet widely commercially available: they would be soon.

This is then followed by predictions of meals by pills - you can get nutrition that way, but not a meal, and a prediction of pre-prepared meals, which others predicted, would have been more on the mark. The author predicts the massive use of large apartment buildings, but imagines group communal living among them. Some sort of Aldous Huxley-like vision of child-rearing then follows, interrupted only by a prediction that "birth control ... will be legal all over the world." But then he has this:

Most fit women will then be following an individual career. Many positions will he open to them and a great many women will have risen high, the year 2022 will probably see a large number of women in Congress, a great many on the judicial bench, many in civil service posts and perhaps some in the President's Cabinet.
Oh yes, exactly so. To have a woman Speaker of the House, a Vice President and 5 cabinet members, and 3 out of 9 Supreme Court justices is utopian by 1922 standards. But the author goes on:

But it is unlikely that women will have an achieved equality with men. Cautious feminists such as myself realize that things go slowly and that a brief hundred years will not wipe out the effects on women of 30,000 years of slavery.
And that's true also. But the reference to women as slaves is a glaring reminder that the article says nothing about race relations whatever.

The section on politics is too obsessed with kingdoms vs. republics. Even in 1922 it didn't really make any difference in an advanced parliamentary system. It claims that politics will be unchanged; I think not. But it does predict nationalization, which if it hasn't taken place regulation has. It also predicts that war, even unimaginable war, will continue, a sadly wise prophecy, especially before 1939.

As regards the United States in particular, it is likely that the country will have come to a complete settlement, with a population of about 240,000,000.
Underestimate. We passed that in 1990. US population in 2020 was about 330 million. But the idea that we'll be completely settled and can stop working so hard is one of those utopian perennials that never came to pass and likely never will. There's still plenty of room for entrepreneurship, remembering that 3 of the biggest 10 companies in the US right now are Amazon, Apple, and Google, all in businesses that didn't exist a century ago, and that 5 of the rest are in services, not a top field then either.

seen on the road

License plate frame. This made me smile.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Oscar the grouch

Academy Award nominations have come out. I've seen five of the listed films, all of them nominated either for Best Picture or Best Animated Feature: Dune and West Side Story, both of which I saw in the theater in virtually-deserted matinee showings; and three which I saw online: Being the Ricardos, Encanto, and Raya and the Last Dragon.

I wrote about all five of these here when I saw them. I didn't strongly dislike any, but I guess I'd say I found Dune and West Side Story more impressive than sheerly enjoyable. That an epic sweeper like Dune succeeded at all was a huge plus, however. Being the Ricardos scratched my liking to see movies based on recent historical events, even though I'm not a big I Love Lucy fan (but I'm not intending to see Spencer, because it's made by the director who made Jackie, the most deadly historical film of my recent viewing). Raya and the Last Dragon was just another Disney feature, with all the mixed blessings of that breed, but Encanto was more than a bit different, and the ways that made it charming vastly outweighed the holes in the plot.

Most of the other films on the list are not on my want list, mostly for looking too grim. The only ones that really attract me, based on trailers I saw in the theater, are The Tragedy of Macbeth - all right, that's really grim, but at least I already know the story - and Cyrano, which was only nominated for costume design, but which looks really good, and I already know and like that story too.


Our play-reading group has just finished The Lion in Winter, James Goldman's famous dramatization of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. It's a powerful work and I felt drained after some of the scenes. But that comes from playing Henry with the shadows of Peter O'Toole, Patrick Stewart (in the movie remake), and Robert Preston (the original stage Henry) all looking over your shoulder at once.

One scene of bitter conflict with the princes ends with Henry describing what his biography will say of him: Eleanor "bore him many children - but no sons. King Henry had no sons. He had three whiskered things but he disowned them." He curses them and then he breaks down: "My boys are gone. I've lost my boys." Reading that with the power it deserves is quite the challenge.

Later Henry comes up with another explanation for his problems: "I want no women in my life." At this point I succumbed to the temptation to ad-lib: "My name is Henry, my last name is Higgins, and I want no women in my life."

Monday, February 7, 2022

of beards and men

Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair by Christopher Oldstone-Moore (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

At last, a book that directly addresses what I've always considered one of the most mysterious questions in social history: what was responsible for the Wave of Beards that settled on the faces of many European and American men in the middle of the 19th century, and then disappeared around the end of it? The only problem is, I'm not sure I entirely believe the explanation.

Previous books I've seen on the topic of facial hair consisted of little more than cumulative anecdotes about individual beard-wearers. O-M is much more ambitious than that. He tells the entire history of facial hair-wearing from the Sumerian kings on down, and puts his discussion of individuals into social context. Thus he explains Hitler's toothbrush mustache as a style that had been popular in Hitler's younger days among German men who abjured the large military mustache but didn't want to adopt a thinner mustache, which was considered decadent, or go clean-shaven, which they thought was weak. Hitler, who wore a military mustache when he was actually in the army, only adopted the toothbrush later as it was going out of style. O-M further notes that the incongruous resemblance to Chaplin's Little Tramp really did cause people to underestimate Hitler's malignancy.

Further context is provided by O-M's assiduous search through the history of polemic literature on facial hair. The advent of the Wave of Beards was accompanied by much rhetoric advocating beards as manly and attractive, and its disappearance was accompanied by a further wave of rhetoric advocating a clean-shaven face as manly and attractive. (Actual surveys of what both men and women think of facial hair tend to be ambiguous.) That these viewpoints alternate in favor over time is one of O-M's major theses.

Thus his explanation of the Wave of Beards. After getting on to two centuries of socially enforced beardlessness - the last mustaches, final vestige of the previous, Renaissance-era Wave of Beards, had disappeared around 1680 - there was a pent-up need for men to express themselves in a new wave of beards. But with the significant exception of the military mustache - so much expected among officers in the early 19C that there were moves to ban civilians from wearing them - beards of the time were considered the mark of dangerous political radicals and were shunned by respectable men for that reason. (O-M strangely doesn't point out the parallel with the view of beards in the 1950s and 60s.)

But here's where I get a little skeptical. O-M says that the failure of the European revolutions of 1848 threw the radicals into political impotence, liberating beards from their association with politics and freeing respectable men to wear them. But while that may have been true in Germany, in France the revolution succeeded, Britain had radicals but no attempted revolution, and the US had no equivalent to this at all, yet the Wave of Beards settled in all those places too.

O-M says that Louis Napoleon was the main trendsetter for beard-wearing, but outside of France few followed his style of beard. Walt Whitman is also cited as an influential beard-wearer, though I've always understood that Whitman was considered a dangerous eccentric in his own day. I'm more convinced by the statement of the continued association of the mustache with the military, which explains why Lincoln, emphatically not a military man, when he grew a beard in 1860 continued to shave his upper lip, resulting in a style of beard much associated with clergymen.

As for the disappearance of the beards, O-M points out that shaving has existed since antiquity, so improvements in shaving technique have little effect on beard-wearing. King Gillette's safety razor didn't cause men to shave; Gillette merely caught a rising tide.

O-M is of the school that believes that all bodily decoration, or the purported lack of it, is intended to send a social message. He equally denies that shaving or beard-wearing are done as a convenience. In the case of ornamental beards, whose wearers carefully shave around the edges of the beard, I believe this. But not in my case. All that the increased social acceptability of beards in the 1970s and 80s did for me was free me to wear a beard without being considered terminally eccentric. I grew a beard for the sole reason that I saw no point in wasting time scraping it off every morning. For the same reason I don't trim it, and equally so I keep it short, because a short beard is less nuisance than a long one.

So I'm still not sure I have an answer to my question, but I have read an awfully interesting and illuminating book.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

have a seat

The comfy green chair in our living room expired one evening last week. The spring in the seat went sprung while B. was sitting in it. We'd only had it for two and a half years - I know because I wrote a post here when we bought it. It came from Pier One, which no longer has any retail stores. After this, we wanted something sturdier than they had to offer, so we started looking online.

The problems with online shopping begin with a frequent lack of sufficient description of the items. We want a chair with a firm seat, not something you sink into and swallows you up, and it's hard to tell from looking what that thick cushion will be like. Some chairs don't have thick cushions, but they tend to have other features we don't want.

What's more, even when the features are listed, the search capacity on these websites is not really well organized. There's no search on some features, and others don't cause everything that has it to come up. So the only solution is the tiring process of browsing through pages and pages of similar items, clicking on likely possibilities, and stopping when you get to one that has everything you want.

We wound up on a website called, which apparently you're likely to have heard of if you watch ads on cable tv, which I don't. Their listings, though varied in nature, looked curated which Amazon's do not. I don't trust Amazon for anything I'm not willing to eat the cost of if it turns out to be wrong, as it frequently does. But I decided to trust Wayfair.

It met our trust. Delivery was promised for two days later, and a driver left a huge box on our front porch that noon. We wrested it inside, slit open two sides, and lo, the chair as pictured on the web. We slid the legless chair into position, attached the legs - which was easy, just screwing them into place, no messing with an Allen wrench and misleading instructions as with the old chair - and pronounced it good. It's wider than the old chair but not too wide for the space, is firm in the seat, and has a polyester fabric-style surface that's not too susceptible to little feline claws. The design is hard to describe, but resembles a kind of geometric paisley.

Now to dispose of the old chair, and the giant box which I laboriously folded up.

Saturday, February 5, 2022

not a conference

The Mythopoeic Society decided that, as long as we're still holding conferences by Zoom, to hold an extra one-day conference in February. The theme of horror did not initially attract me, but I decided to sign up as an attendee once I saw the topic would be horror elements in the Inklings. I'm not interested in horror as a genre or the works that comprise it, but horror elements in fantasy is more intriguing; much as I have no desire to eat spices, but spices in actual food are more appetizing.

That was today. Unfortunately I'm finding that either my interest in, or capacity for, listening to scholarly papers on Zoom has atrophied, so I only attended intermittently. Several of the papers were on Tolkien, often focusing on the sense of menace exuded by some of his forests: the Old Forest and Mirkwood in particular (but not Fangorn, curiously enough). A friend with an interest in both authors is convinced that Charles Williams's P'o-L'u has enough in common with Lovecraft's Cthulhu that Williams must have read the Cthulhu stories somehow, but I don't see how he could have known them. Williams read widely in popular literature, but we know only that he reviewed lots of a) books b) of UK publication. The relevant Cthulhu stories were then only in Weird Tales, which didn't have a British edition until 1942, long after Lovecraft's death. Could Williams have gotten hold of the US edition?

Tybalt did make an appearance, standing on my shoulders to lick my hair. "Interesting parrot you have there," remarked someone in chat.

Friday, February 4, 2022

conversation with my alternative self who actually follows popular culture

"So I see Jeff Zucker resigned. I'd seen his name occasionally as president of CNN. I'm sorry he's gone down in a semi-scandal, as I'd always thought well of him."


"Well, Airplane! was such a good movie."


"Yeah. Leslie Nielsen, 'Don't call me Shirley.' You remember that movie."

"I do, but what's it got to do with Jeff Zucker?"

"He made it!"

"No he didn't."

"Yes he did. It was Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, and he was one of the Zuckers."

"No he wasn't. Jeff Zucker was like 15 years old when that movie came out."

"He wasn't? Then who was?"

"It was Jerry and David Zucker. Jerry. Not Jeff."

"Oh. Oh. Oops."

"Is this like the time you wondered why Election wasn't listed among Renée Zellweger's films and only then realized that she and Reese Witherspoon were different people?"


"Or like the time James Taylor played at Obama's inaugural and you were surprised because you thought he'd died in a plane crash decades earlier? And only much later figured out that you were thinking of Jim Croce?"

"Yes. I'm still croggled by the discovery that 'Fire and Rain' and 'Time in a Bottle' are by different guys."

bitter symphonies

I felt particularly woeful missing last night's San Francisco Symphony concert because I didn't want to be out during omicron season. I doubt I've missed any of music director emeritus Herbert Blomstedt's return concerts in the 27 years since his retirement, in which he concentrates on his specialty, major symphonies from the Germanic and Scandinavian repertoire. Until now.

True, the items offered on this program - Nielsen's Fourth and Beethoven's Fifth - though individually great, make an indigestible combination. But I fancy I would have enjoyed it.

Nielsen's Fourth was the first work of his I ever heard, in a student orchestra concert when I was still in school. It was not a good piece to open the acquaintance with, written as it is in an alarming mixture of the idioms of the Third that was and the Fifth yet to come, and the unpolished performance didn't help. I put Nielsen on my "to avoid" list, until I gave him another chance with recordings and learned to appreciate this remarkable composer.

Beethoven's Fifth was the first symphony by anybody I ever heard, and as my introduction to the whole concept of symphonic writing just fairly dazzled my mind and won my instant allegiance to the heavy classics. It's been a central work to my existence. I've been hearing a lot of it from the inside recently, for B. has signed up with a local orchestra which had scheduled it for a March concert, and she's been practicing the second violin part diligently. But then last week they canceled the next rehearsal and put the Fifth off to the May concert, because it has winds. Now they're planning March to be a strings-only concert so that all the players may be masked, and have substituted Tchaikovsky's Serenade, which is a much easier piece to play, judging from the sounds coming out of the living room.

Weather outside is cool but sunny (where'd the December rains go to?), but it's dark and bitter in here.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022


Some wiseacre newspaper columnist says this is Trumpet Day. Because it's two two two-two.

In that case, what happens when it's two two-two two-two? That, he says, is two much.

Groan. In any case, I thought trumpets were depicted as going toot.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Letterman interviews

So Dave Letterman has just put up on the web a whole raft of clips from his show, mostly back from when he was good. There's a number of intriguing things in there, but the one that really attracted my interest was from November 2004, when he interviewed a newly-elected senator.