Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mark Twain, autobiography, and blogging

Anyone who has known me for any length of time has probably heard me enthuse about one of my all-time-favourite blogs - the Language Log. It's a must for anyone with any interest in the ways language is used. Occasionally its more serious posts on linguistics or statistical methods or the way the brain works are a bit beyond me, but it often makes me laugh out loud and on most days it informs and entertains me. I love its anti-prescriptivist nerdiness.

Today's post by one of Language Log's founders and regular contributors, Mark Liberman, reproduced a quote from the recently published Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1:
Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time in your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Also, make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own. No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting

And so, I have found the right plan. It makes my labor amusement - mere amusement, play, pastime, and wholly effortless.
As I reached the second paragraph I found myself thinking 'what wonderful advice for blogging' - only to read Mark Liberman's comment on the quote, 'This is also the right plan for successful blogging, in my experience'.

I imagine that if Mark Twain were alive today he would be a most entertaining and innovative blogger. But given he was a popular, entertaining, innovative and great writer, he'd hardly have a need to blog.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yet another nagging project

Have you noticed I've had very few posts lately about knitting? It's not that I've been altogether neglecting my knitting. I have been knitting - though not as much or as constantly as I could. I've been on a bit of a reading, and even re-reading, binge lately. And aside from the reading distractions, my knitting's in a mess. Though if I'm honest, it's I who am in a mess about my knitting - the knitting itself is fine.

I have three almost finished projects and one half-done. A shawl needs blocking; another shawl needs i-cord edging; a small person's cardi needs its front bands; and I should finish my gift tea-cosy. But I became a bit panicky when I realised the deadline for my latest pair of 2010 PSC socks is 19 November and so I cast on and hurriedly started knitting. So now I have another quarter-done piece of knitting to add to my nagging queue.

Latvian socks 1

I'm knitting Nancy Bush's classic Latvian Socks from her book Folk Socks and using Wollmeise Twin in the colour Hortensia. I've discovered (Wikipedia is very useful, if unreliable) that Hortensia is not only a type of hydrangea, which is presumably how this deeply blue yarn got its name, but was also a female Roman orator from 42BC who successfully argued to have taxes reduced for wealthy Roman women. I'm not at all sure that I approve of special pleading for tax relief on the grounds of one's sex, but you do have to love a feisty woman. I'm going to name these my Feisty Socks.

I'm just at the beginning of the heel flap of the first sock, so have quite a way to go. I decided to make the socks a little longer than the pattern - partly because I like longer socks, but mostly because I want to take some advantage of the extra length in the skein of Wollmeise yarn. But that's also more knitting.

You can see I am just adding to my list of unfinished knitting. I need someone to organise my knitting life by setting priorities and deadlines. Of course, I could do this for myself, but I don't have great confidence in that strategy. Any ideas?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Just so Sydney...


When visitors to Sydney ask me what they should see and do, the cliff top walk from Bondi Beach to Coogee, along the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, is always one of my recommendations. It's wonderful at any time of the year, but in October and early November when the stretch of the walkway between Bondi and Tamarama becomes the venue for Sculpture by the Sea, it's a great Sydney celebration. Yesterday was the last day for this year's display, and it coincided with the first really hot and sunny day of summer. People came in their thousands...

Bondi walk

I was pleased my friend Christina and I had started early - mostly to avoid the worst of the heat of the sun - and were walking north from Tamarama, in the opposite direction from most of the crowd.

There were over a hundred sculptures exhibited, the majority of them from Australia, but with significant representation from Japan, some from India, and a scattering from other countries. There were also invited participants who are already world-renowned sculptors, such as, this year, Sir Anthony Caro. One of the wonderful thing about this exhibition, apart of course from the superb location, is the scale of most of the works. It's rare you have the opportunity to see so much work on such a grand scale, and yet not be overwhelmed by it. I was particularly delighted by the works that seemed at one with their location, like the giant chook (complete with interior eggs) settling into the sand in the centre of Tamarama beach

Tae-Geun Yang (South Korea) Sitting Hen
[This one's for Bells]

and the archway which seemed to frame the transition from the rocks to the sea

Vlase Nikoleski (Australia) Monument for Small Changes

At the end of the walk and viewing you can vote for your favourite sculpture. The arch above was my friend Christina's choice. I had great difficulty choosing between David Horton's Jarrett in London whose shapes suited the rocky edge of Tamarama


and the delicate silvery Leaf Vessel by invited New Zealand artist Virginia King.

Silver leaf

I eventually voted for this leafy form whose shadow linked it to the land, but whose shape echoed the boats and surfboards on the ocean below.

This combination of sculpture and beach and rocks and sea, free to anyone of any age who wishes to visit, casually dressed, slathered in sunscreen, chatting, picnicking, eating ice-cream, seems to be just so Sydney.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Yesterday I had lunch with four women who were once part of my daily life, but whom I'd not seen for more than forty years. My first proper, serious job was as a high school teacher in a small country town and these women were friends and work colleagues. After two years together we all left the town and began living the rest of our lives in different ways. In the first year away we met up several times, but after that we drifted apart.

Yesterday we met at noon and talked till after 7.00pm. I'm horrified at how much others had remembered, but I'd forgotten. Names seemed familiar, and some people were remembered, but so much had that awful feeling of being just beyond the edge of my memory. I think the early twenties are a time of your life when you're very self-absorbed, and other people are remembered only as they featured in your development. We had a few - mainly black and white - photos, but cameras were not then as common as they now are, and I sorely felt the need of more visual prompts.

What was wonderful was just how easy it was being back together, despite so much happening in all our lives since we'd last spent time as a group. Everyone was still so obviously themselves - rather scary, really.

I feel as if I've rediscovered a piece of my life. We've already made arrangements to meet again in a year's time.

Friday, November 5, 2010


I'm off to Brisbane for the weekend to visit my grand-daughter... and, of course, her parents. Mostly when I visit I take a book for her as a small gift and this time I'm taking 'Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories'.

MMM cover

I remember Milly-Molly-Mandy with great fondness from my 1940s and 50s childhood. My daughter enjoyed them in the 1970s and I'm interested to see how my three-and-a-half year old grand-daughter - who loves books but is very much a child of the electronic age - responds to them now.

A bit of back-story for those unacquainted with Milly-Molly-Mandy. There are four books, each of them a collection of around a dozen short stories, that describe the daily life of Milly-Molly-Mandy (full name Millicent Margaret Amanda), her family, her friends, and her neighbours. The first of the books was written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley in 1928, and they've never been out of print since - the kind of publishing phenomenon most publishers would love to be associated with.

It's hard to know where the appeal lies. The stories are simple, highly moral, and contained within a stable and knowable world. The illustrations are open, inviting and archetypal representations of a rather old-fashioned, safe community. The stories have a wealth of detail - of what people eat (I'd totally forgotten about bread soaked in milk, which Milly-Molly-Mandy often has for supper), what they do in domestic situations, what they wear, and how much things cost. There's lots of repetition (Milly-Molly-Mandy's house is always referred to as 'the nice white cottage with the thatched roof'; her best friend is always 'little-friend-Susan') which delights young readers and listeners and drives grown-ups mad.

For me a very important element of the appeal was the map of Milly-Molly-Mandy's unnamed English village that appears at the beginning of each collection of stories. I think most young children love maps and graphic representations of how things fit together.

MMM map

I can remember tracing the movements of the characters in each of the stories across the streets and fields of the maps and deriving satisfaction from my precise knowledge of how things fitted together spatially.

The village of the stories is old-fashioned even for its time. There's no electricity and no cars. People work as grocers and shopkeepers and bakers and postmen and blacksmiths and teachers, and they grow vegetables and flowers. It's a world where small children run errands unsupervised, everyone walks everywhere, strangers are kind, all treats other than 'sweeties' are home-baked, and recycling and reuse are unthinkingly the order of the day. Gender roles are rigidly divided - we learn in the very first story that within Milly-Molly-Mandy's multi-generational family household Mother cooks the dinners and does the washing; Grandma knits socks and mittens and nice warm woollies for them all; and Aunty sews frocks and shirts and does the sweeping and dusting. But I don't think I am being unduly kind to the books, or too biased by my fondness in saying that the female characters are valued no less than the men. They often play a leading role in events, and their activities are seen to be important.

Implicitly, and often explicitly, all the stories have a moral or are 'improving'. Almost always, the morality or the learning is obvious - sharing with friends, whether it's work or sweeties, brings pleasure; delaying gratification often brings longer-term rewards; judging people by their appearance is unfair; winning first prize is less important than acquiring a skill. It's hard to question any of these gentle values, even today.

Finally in this morass of reminiscence, an incident for the knitters among us. Milly-Molly-Mandy wants to make her money go as far as possible and asks Grandma to teach her to knit. After several attempts she knits 'quite a nice kettle-holder' and asks her mother if she thinks it is worth a penny. The story then continues
Why, Milly-Molly-Mandy,' said Mother, 'that is exactly what I am wanting, for my old one is all worn out! But the penny only pays for the wool, so you are making me a present of all your trouble.'And Mother gave Milly-Molly-Mandy a penny and a kiss, and Milly-Molly-Mandy felt well-paid.

So Milly-Molly-Mandy had done a nice thing, had spent her penny, and learnt to knit, and she still had her penny!

There's a moral there, somewhere!