29 February, 2012

Farce is fun

Tom Sharpe
Chen gave me three Sharpe books for my birthday; i think i had previously lent her one to read, so evidently she enjoyed it enough to think more would be worth it. And, of course, they are. I have read this one previously, though i don’t remember when it was, as there have been three or four times in my life i have read several of his books, as i’ve been able to find them, in fairly quick succession (Loretto, where i first came across him, Rome, borrowing from the FAO library [i remember reading one or two at Nugola Vecchia], perhaps in Corning, found at the Big Flats library, and in Aberystwyth); i’m glad, however, to have had the opportunity to read it again. Not to mention that i’ve got at least two more on my shelves to get to sometime. The man is funny. His touch fades occasionally, i recall, but not this time. I laughed out loud at several points through the book, at the sheer absurdity of what was happening, and at the delightful prospect of what must be going to happen. None of it is possible (you hope), yet all of it appears to be within the bounds, so it can be imagined as a possibility. This is surely fine farce.

24 February, 2012


There is a clock tower outside my bedroom window, about twenty or thirty yards away, i would guess. It’s quite well known, one of the features of the small town i live in; it was erected some hundred and thirty years ago, as a memorial by the townsfolk of the twentyfirst birthday of the son of the local nobs (a man who delighted in a triple-barrelled surname, Vane-Tempest-Stewart). Recently it has been refurbished, spending something over a year shrouded behind scaffolding and green fabric, paid for by a seemingly interminable community drive and some money from the National Lottery. And it looks quite impressive now, clean, visible carvings, a pleasing sandstone structure at the centre of town.
What i’m interested in today, however, is not the appearance of the tower but the sound of the bells it contains. As i mentioned, i live close to it, close enough to hear it every time it chimes, which is four times an hour, as is common (as a completely irrelevant thought, why do we mark the quarters of an hour, not the thirds? Couldn’t we have clocks that chime on the hour and at twenty past and twenty to?). When i first moved here the clock was undergoing its refurbishment and the chimes did not work properly. As a matter of fact, i think that there was a period when they did not sound at all. At some point, possibly even from the beginning, they worked, and that working is my subject.
It is a set of two bells, as far as i can tell from listening. One chimes on the hour, ringing the appropriate number of times to tell which hour it is; on the quarter hours both toll, one then the other, once, twice, or three times each, depending on which quarter of the hour has just passed. The odd thing, when i first started hearing the chimes, was that they did not tell the time in any intuitive way, so i thought they must have been broken; remember, the whole clock was being repaired at this time. The logical thought would be that they would give one double chime at a quarter past, two at half past, and three double chimes, six bells in all, at a quarter to the hour. What they actually did was three doubles at quarter past, one at half past, and two at a quarter till. As i said, non-intuitive, but i learned to understand it and, with a little thought, know what time it was if i woke up and heard the bells. Then it changed.
In fact, shortly after the scaffolding and fabric came down i noticed that the clock was now chiming in what i describe above as the intuitive way. Naturally, i made the assumption that the chime mechanism had also been repaired. I think that that was a correct assumption, as it stayed that way for a month, or maybe two. Then another change to the ringing. Well, a change back, to be honest, to the strange ringing they had been doing previously. Then they changed again! Again telling out the time in the intuitive way i expected. That lasted no more than a month, maybe less. Since then (October, it being February as i write this) they have been fairly steadily telling the time with three, then one, then two chimes. Until about a week ago.
Another change, this time evidently more serious, as they were already chiming oddly. In fact, the timing of the bells seems to be migrating, such that they are no longer always ringing in pairs on the quarter hours. The most common pattern is three or five rings at a quarter to the hour. Bizarrely the missing chime seems to have taken up residence on the hour, as now there are frequently six chimes at, say, five o’clock ~ which one of them being the “wrong” bell, the one which is only supposed to be part of the pair. I thought i was dreaming the first time i heard this, it was early in the morning and i could well have been but, no, i have heard it several times since. So the question now before me is, Do i try and find out whom to speak to in order to correct this behaviour, or do i wait, fascinated, to see just what new permutations of wrongness the town clock might come up with?

21 February, 2012

Ahh, History

Joseph H. Lynch

I kept on wanting to own this book as i was reading it; i would think that has to be a good sign! I don’t remember coming across Lynch previously, and i think i would remember, as he has a marvellously readable style which passes the facts along but doesn’t get in the way at all.

Though i am no expert, as far as i can tell the actual content is also of the same quality; i found only one factual error, though that is a curious mistake, which really need not have happened, had a copy editor have been doing his job. Lynch writes, “...of the eight men who ruled England between 1284 and 1485...” in a very odd sentence: First of all, it would have helped, rather than harmed his argument to pick 1307, the end of Edward I’s reign, as his start point; second, between Lynch’s dates ten men reigned (and arguably, even more “ruled”, but we needn’t go there) not eight. Still, one error, however bizarre, in over three hundred and fifty pages (including end matter) of print is not a bad score; it wasn’t even a part of his main argument or subject, so that would assign it even less value. All in all, this is a readable book, very readable, on an endlessly fascinating subject, and an admirable addition ~ except that it came from the library, so an "addition" it's not!

18 February, 2012

Short (Story) King

Nightmares and Dreamscapes
Stephen King
I’m pretty sure that i have written previously about my preference for Stephen King’s short stories over his full-length (and “length” is the operative term) novels; just in case, let me now reiterate that as a short story writer he is almost without parallel in the current crop of active and popular writers. He holds his reader carefully, builds the plot and characters skilfully, and lets the story develop to create the effect he wants which, being King, is always some form of horror or fear. I find him much more readable in the small doses (even in this very large [900+ page] collection), than in the novels he manages to produce with such enviable regularity. The only story in the collection, in fact, which i did not enjoy as much as i would have liked is, funnily enough, the one he identifies as his favourite, a parody of Raymond Chandler given the special King twist, which for me simply doesn’t work ~ perhaps because there are too many Chandler parodies already ~ and i found it dragging and wishing it would end. On the other hand, one of my favourite pieces is a story told as a teleplay, apparently written and planned that way from the beginning; it works, perhaps even better than it would as a simple prose story, and had me chilled and sad at the same time. Lastly, there is a lovely piece of non-fiction writing, sports-writing, covering a Little League team’s journey through the end of season playoffs, which King wrote apparently because his son was on the team; it scarcely fits the title of the book (unless because their journey was a dream come true for them), but i am delighted that it is included. In fact, i’m lead to wonder, has he done more non-fiction?

14 February, 2012

Well Fit

A few years ago the at-the-time new Home Secretary made headlines by declaring that his ministry, the Home Office, was “Unfit for purpose”, which everyone, judging by the press response, considered just about the most appalling thing which could have been said.
I differ. If something is not fit for its purpose, you know where you stand with it. You probably know what to do ~ or at least where to start ~ to correct the problems, even if the solution is as radical as scrapping everything and starting afresh. Worse in my opinion, at least for now, is that which is only just fit for purpose; that which works, but very nearly doesn’t, or only some of the time. This is worse because, in view of the fact that it is workable, there isn’t enough of a demand to change it, to improve it, yet every time it fails the frustration level mounts. I am, of course, driven to this view by a particular, so i’ll move to that from this general.
Every day at work i, obviously, deal with quite a bit of change, counting it, storing it, and delivering to my cashiers. The issue arises with the way that, in this country, that change is stored, which is barely fit for purpose. There are two, closely linked, methods of storing change; the first is that provided by the Mint when it issues coins, they come in small, sealed plastic bags with a fixed value for each different coin; the second is similar in that banks provide small bags, more like tiny sandwich bags than anything else, in which they will accept coin for deposit or sell it as change. Both these methods are poorly conceived.
The first, what one might call the official bags, are so poorly made that frequently they break, spilling coins, potentially losing them, certainly causing frustration. Curiously, the bags which break the most often, in mine experience, are those containing 2p pieces. I have no idea if 2ps tend to have slightly rougher edges, or if a pound’s worth (the value of a bag of coppers) is slightly heavier than the bags should be asked to hold, or if there is some other reason altogether. The point is, i have spent, wasted, more time than i care to think about picking up spilt coins, recounting to make sure i have them all, hunting for those which have rolled away, more than i ought to have to.
Sandwich bags are great for sandwiches: They fit each other: The sandwich stays fresh for a few hours, it doesn’t get shaken around within the bag and so lose its filling, and the top folds over to hold the sandwich inside. Think of a bag two inches by two inches, of exactly the same design, and consider if that would be your first choice for storing heavy coins in. Yet that is precisely what the second, the unofficial or do-it-yourself bags are. And, as you might well expect, they are completely useless, unfit for the purpose. And i find myself getting angry, not just frustrated, but positively angry with whoever was stupid enough to imagine that a bag with an open top is well designed for this task.
The reason i get more than frustrated, but really almost-to-the-point-of-strong-language angry is that there is a perfectly good design for this job. And i have used it, for years, with no complaints, no frustration, no anger. In North America, both in Canada, where i first came across them, and in the USA, where i worked with them for nearly two decades, coins come from the mint in paper-wrapped rolls; these are machine wrapped, very tight, so with no play to them, and no possibility of losing any coins until the roll is broken, which generally only happens as the middle of the roll is hit on an edge, of a table, for example. At that point, the coins are released, generally a few into your hand, the rest still in the roll but easily accessible for whatever container you are putting them into.
The second situation, filled in this country by open-top plastic bags, are also rolls; it is possible to get from the bank, or to buy from a stationers or department store, empty coin rolls. I remember struggling as a little fellow, having saved hundreds if not thousands of pennies, on the landing of our house trying to roll them into these self-forming paper tubes. Difficult, but doable, and i was rewarded with real cash when i was done, so it was worth it. Today, the ones you can get are even easier, preformed tubes, so all you have to do it drop the correct number of coins into them and seal them.
I used these on a daily basis, counting them, storing them, making and opening them, bringing them from the bank to the shop, for over a decade and a half; is it any wonder that i am thoroughly annoyed and frustrated with the attitude in this country that, “This is good enough, it just about works”; i have experienced better, and these sandwich bags are just barely fit for purpose.