Sunday, 26 April 2009


I've just finished reading Astrotruckers - a collection of short stories by Mikael Niemi.

The stories all involve some kind of philosophical or pseudo-scientific exploration against a general, entertainingly inconsistent, background of the future exploration of space. In tone they are wry and detached, and the language is often quite carefully spare and distancing. I enjoyed them a lot. As I was reading them, they reminded me of nothing so much as Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, and Invisible Cities - so as you can see I was beginning to think quite highly of this new book.

And then I started to wonder.

How similar are they really? Astrotruckers is "translated from the original Finnish by Laurie Thompson" and I can only read Calvino in translation also. Isn't it possible that what I read as a rather distanced style - which they do seem to have in common - is just an effect of the translation? Although there are similarities in content and approach, the strongest connection does come from the use of language, and it may not be there in the original.
This is an area I feel singularly unfitted to write about - however this is a blog, and writing about things for which one is singularly unfitted is what blogs are all about, so here we go.
I don't have fantastic language skills. The closest I can get to reading a foreign-language work comfortably in both the original and in contemporary English is medieval English - say as hard as the Gawain-poet. Chaucer is straightforward. So if for the moment we treat Fourteenth-century English as a foreign language (debatable), how do the translations of the works I know well stack up?
Mostly, I have to say, poorly. It is rare to find a translation with the same degree of bite and engagement as the originals. Mostly they seem bland, a little unreadable. You wonder why there was that much fuss about the original. So - from a casual, limited and unsystematic observation - the act of translation can result in the idiosyncrasies of the original becoming a little blurred. For a piece of fiction that I don't know, which is at least in part philosophical in content, might this come across as a sardonic detachment? Possibly.
But perhaps I'm comparing my experience of poetry in translation with translations of narrative - unfair, perhaps if poetry is about an explicit heightening of language. Arguably that has some truth, however Chaucer in particular is a poet with a strong focus on narrative. There was then no real alternative form for original story-telling; novels and short stories are a later invention in English. So I would submit that the comparison may still hold.
So. Inconclusive, perhaps. I should also note that a review at totally Sci-Fi is much less struck than I am with Astrotruckers, seeing it as essentially derivative of Hitchhiker and Space Truckers, amongst others- although a posting at "Oxford College distance learning" is more enthusiastic. Finally, therefore, a last question: because of the perceived and possibly false stylistic similarity to Calvino, am I seeing the collection as more impressive than I might otherwise?
(Astrotruckers, first published in Finnish in 2004, English translation, 2007)

Friday, 24 April 2009

Nighttime on Peckham Rye

Last weekend I went out onto the Rye to take these images. It was ten o'clock or so at night, and it felt a little lonely. You can see across the whole Rye from where I was standing, but I still kept looking around to see if I was being crept up upon.
For me this has a slightly Edward Hopper-ish feel to it, especially as in Nighthawks.
This nex one didn't turn out as intended, but I still like the messy lines of light on the bus going past Kings on the Rye.
This is what I had intended.
I also wanted to try to capture a sense of movement with the long exposures, but I think I only achieved it to any real extent with the next two - and particularly the first. The cars and people passing on the near side of the road have disappeared, and left streaks of light around the bus and cars waiting for the traffic lights.

And one final experiment - which shows why you need to use a tripod!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The trees around Nunhead on Tour 10: Scotland: Lake of Menteith

We here at The trees around Nunhead are very keen on Scotland's only lake, the Lake of Menteith.

Or at least, everyone told us that it was the only lake, and that it wasn't called a loch because it was named for Sir John de Menteith, who betrayed William Wallace in 1305; no Scot would name a loch after such a traitor.

In fact, Wikipedia (currently) tells a different story - that there are a few other lakes in Scotland, including Pressmennan lake and the Lake of Hirsel. It suggests that lake in lake of Menteith is a corruption of the lowland Scots dialect word laich meaning "low place".
Whatever the source of the name, after leaving Edinburgh we had a week from the 10th in a rather nice chalet on the lake. The weather was a little damp, but we got out and about a bit and used it as a base.

To my eyes, the lake is shaped rather like a deformed space invader. The chalet is a few feet from the shore in the bottom right hand corner of the space invader's right toe.

So we had fantastic views across the water, particularly at sunset, as you can see.
It was very quiet, and even the nearby Nick Nairn Cook School (!) was almost wholly invisible. There was a small games room and grounds to explore - we were surrounded by the Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) which also hang over the lake:
The chalets were also surrounded by innumerable ducks, which congregated wherever there was food.
Occasionally the team took a boat out on the lake, or ignored it and went indoors to watch the Olympics on widescreen TV. As I said, we went out and explored the surrounding area on several days - and Doug Gray also came over with his family for a supper (and Guardian crossword).
But mostly, I just sat.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

On the trail in Peckham Rye

We are finally trendsetters here at The trees around Nunhead.

Last weekend we tried out the new outdoor gym exercise/play equipment in Peckham Rye Park. It was quite busy, but we did get a tiny bit sweaty. Lo and behold, the Guardian has caught up with us, with quite a long article at the start of G2 today all about the outdoor gym, with a picture even.

So there you go. We are officially fashionable.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Nunhead's Argonath

The Argonath are the two colossal statues of Isildur and Anarion that stand either side of the great River Anduin, looking Northwards at travellers coming down the river from the direction of the Sarn Gebir. They guard the entrance to Nen Hithoel.

By comparison, these two trees appear to have been planted to guard the Westerly entrance to Nunhead Lane, at the point where it is crossed by Peckham Rye East.

Somewhat less prepossessing than the Argonath, it may be that their function is the same. However, rather embarrassingly I find I know somewhat less about these rather diminutive guardians of all that is Nunhead than I do about the statues on the Anduin. Sigh.

Paradice's Only Map

Prompted by a small mention in Saturday's Guardian Review, I've just been re-reading, slowly and carefully (and with great joy), Andrew Marvell's long poem Upon Appleton House. And remembering again just how calming, complex and exotic it is. To understand how a poem, even a long one, can be all of those things, you have to read it, I'm afraid. It is self-reflective, witty, conscious and aware, setting out how to live correctly (if you are very rich), and within 'measure'.

In Robert Markley's words "...Nun Appleton can be identified with an ideal realm that, in a postlapsarian world, can take shape only as the imaginary projection from - and onto- a fallen nature." (From an essay called "Gulfes, Deserts, Precipices, Stone’: Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ and the contradictions of ‘nature’" in The Country and the City Revisted). But that really focuses too much perhaps on the last, longer section in the woods of the estate.

The chief conceit of the poem is not original with Marvell - that the house and estate of a person indicate the quality of his mind and morality. Lord Fairfax the parliamentarian general famously retired in 1650 - resigning in opposition to the Council of State's decision to invade Scotland. The poem is a pangyric to Fairfax, and uses the description of the house and gardens to praise him, his ancestors and his daughter (Marvell was her tutor at the time).

Go and read it now. Please.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Black Willow

I have been reliably informed (by someone who was told by someone who seemed to be an expert and was leading a tour) that this tree on Peckham Rye is a lonely black willow, or Salix Nigra. It is a lonely tree (sometimes called an orphan), because there are no other black willows near it, and hence it cannot breed and make little ones. Also, I gather it would need damper ground for any seeds to grow and fruit and stuff than it currently has - the Peck no longer keeps this end of the Rye damp and boggy as it presumably once did.

It is still a marvellous and statuesque, mature tree. I recommend it heartily. (Can you do that with a tree?)

Those who are interested will find it on the path across the Rye from the bottom of Barry Road (by The Clock House pub) that leads up to the cafe.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Yesterday in the garden

So, it being a sunny spring day yesterday and us beginning to start Easter holidays, I wandered into the garden to take some photogaphs. I've presented these as small, but the some of the higher-res images look quite attractive to my aesthetically-challenged sensibilities...

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Kitto Road: Early April

Around 8:50 in the morning on a damp early April day. These show the trees in the grounds of St Catherine's church:

On the other side of the road is Telegraph Hill Park (Lower Park):

And for the record I tried to get Google Street View to embed at this point as they have shot roughly the same spot - but this is all I could make work on Google's Blog software:
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