Saturday, December 25, 2010

Advent Twenty Five: Christmas Every Day

"Sometimes you can't give back. You just have to give on. Did you, ah... sign those credit chits to the clones?"

"Sort of. Actually I signed them 'Father Frost.'" Mark cleared his throat. "That's the purpose of Winterfair, I think. To teach you how to ... give on. Being Father Frost is the end-game, isn't it?"

"I think so."

"I'm getting it figured out," Mark nodded in determination.

Mirror Dance, Lois Mcmaster Bujold, 1994

I've said just about everything I have to say about Christmas. In fact I've probably said too much. Happy Christmas!

Link to all the advent posts.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Advent Twenty Four: December 25

The Pope disagrees with me[1] but the 25 December date for the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, is widely believed to have inspired the date for Christmas. At the time this date was midwinter, or near as damn it, an obvious time for a solar deity to celebrate their birthday. The Christians of the Roman Empire took on the date and the meaning - that of new life, a new dawn, a new day - and sanctified it.

[1] But he hasn't deployed his infallibility on this issue

Advent Twenty Three: Dream Diary Twenty

I dreamed last night that I'd been given a huge bag of Jelly Babies for Christmas. I ate them all, as we didn't seem to be having dinner. When I woke up I could still taste them. In my mind. My mouth was fairly neutral tasting.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Advent Twenty Two: Festivus

Frank Costanza: "Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way."

Cosmo Kramer: "What happened to the doll?"

Frank Costanza: "It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born: a Festivus for the rest of us!"

Kramer: "That must have been some kind of doll."

Frank Costanza: "She was."

The Story of Festivus.

As is traditional Festivus is celebrated on 23 December. We have completed the Airing of Grievances so now we come to the Feats of Strength.

Advent Twenty One: Colours of Christmas

At movie nights we've seen White Christmas, Black Christmas (the remake), and even Pink Christmas[1]. So it's clearly time for Blue Christmas.

Blue Christmas, Martina McBride (2008) and some leather-clad hoodlum (1968).

[1] Link to what we actually watched here.

Advent Twenty: Conversation From Last Christmas

Pupil: Sir, does Santa Claus exist?
Me: What do you mean does he exist? You can go and see him at Westwood Cross this evening.
Pupil: No, do you think he's real?
Me: You can see him television. It doesn't get any more real than that!
Pupil: Oh siiiiirrrrrr.

Advent Nineteen: Christmas Trees

I harped on about pagan origins of the midwinter use of Holly and Ivy. Christmas trees are definitely Christian though.

Definitely. No Doubt.

Advent Eighteen: Holly and Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy

Holly and ivy are traditional Christmas decorations. For that matter holly was sacred to the ancient Celts, and played a part in their Winter Solstice celebrations. Meanwhile the Romans associated holly with Bacchus, the God of Wine and ivy with Saturn who oversaw Saturnalia, their midwinter/new year celebration.

The Carol above gives us the Christian symbolism of holly (less so for ivy, which gets a title role solely to be found wanting compared to the king of woods, holly[1]). But the reason for their use in Midwinter decorations is simply that they are evergreen and have coloured berries. In the dull, grey, brown and white of a pre-modern winter, these cheery colours helped remind people of the rebirth of life - Spring is on it's way!

[1] This is a holdover of earlier songs about the contest between holly and ivy, which symbolised... no I'll leave that for now.

Advent Seventeen: Solstice

The days are getting longer[1]. In previous years I've moaned about the length of the darkness during midwinter. This year I don't seem to be feeling it. There's not the iron weight on my back, the sledgehammer bruise on my head and the grey shadow over everything. Maybe it's because I'm not having to get up before dawn. Maybe it's that I don't have the people-interaction stress[2]. Maybe I'm not drinking as much. I don't know.

But anyway, even though it's a dull, grey, cold day, with showers, I went out to the market and it was brilliant. The wind, the rain, people trying to be festive. I even met one of my former students. So enough of the maudlinity maudliness melancholy of some of these posts. Let's celebrate!

[1] Unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere, or are reading this later in the wrong half of the year. Or both. In which case, sucks to be you.
[2] Especially amongst people where I have to act professional. Or at least mundane.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Advent Sixteen: Potatoes

I was reading some kind of Xmas Q&A with Heston Blumethal last year, or maybe two or three years ago, and someone asked if goosefat was the best fat for roasting potatoes in. He replied sure, if you want your potatoes to taste of goose. He then suggested the following, which I have never got the nerve up to try but may this year.

Potatoes roasted in potato oil.

Potato peelings
Flavour light oil

Take some washed and dried potato peelings and soak them in oil. Most of the flavour of potatoes[1] is in on near the skin, so if you leave this overnight this should give you potato flavoured oil. Then prepare you potatoes for roasting as usual, which in my case involves peeling[2], cutting into fairly small chunks and parboiling. Heat up the oil in a roasting tray, then introduce the parboiled and drained potatoes, toss through the oil, then roast for an hour and a half, scraping them off the bottom of the roasting pan every now and then.

As mentioned I haven't actually done this. However a recipe that uses a similar concept (flavoured oil) that I have and certainly will use over Christmas follows:

Rosemary and Garlic Potatoes

1 or 2 potatoes per person
1 clove of garlic per person, assuming that someone describing the smell as roasted garlic in garlic sauce is good thing
some rosemary
some oil
some salt and pepper

Turn the oven on to maybe 180 C. Scrub the potatoes[3] and slice quite, but not very thinly. You can soak, wash and/or dry the slices if you're organised enough to do so in advance. Crush the garlic and rosemary in a pestle and mortar. Some salt can make this easier. When crushed to your satisfaction, add some pepper, then pour some oil in, stir and leave to sit for a few minutes. Then arrange the potato slices in a roasting tin, pouring oil over them, then roast for about an hour, turning and basting whenever it seems to be needed or the fancy takes you.

[1] Also the goodness, by which I assume my Mum means the vitamins and stuff.
[2] Presumably you could wash, dry and soak these peelings in oil, thus creating an endless supply of potato flavoured oil.
[3] My personal laziness is usually in favour of scrubbing rather than peeling, which I justify by noting that most of the flavour[1] of a potato is in or near the skin.

Advent Fifteen: Christmas Future

Hopefully the future of Christmas is not Life Day, Chiron Beta Prime, or for that matter Winterfair. But if I were the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, what would I have to offer you? We are all mortal men doomed to die. What will people say about us when we have no more to say? Scrooge doesn't have the courage of his convictions and wants others to speak well of him. Which begs the question of why he wasted[1] so many years chasing money when he wants to be popular.

So if I were the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come I'd say[2] "Guard your honour. Let your reputation fall where it will."

On the other hand that quotation may not be as apt as I remembered[3] because in full it goes:

"Guard your honour. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards."
Lois Mcmaster Bujold. A Civil Campaign, 1999.

[1] Or not. Because it's the money he made as a miser that allows him to be generous as a do-gooder.
[2] Or not.
[3] Also Bujold, being an American, uses the wacky colonial spelling of "Honor".

Advent Fourteen: Ring out for Christmas

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

J R R Tolkein

Elves of course are wise. So do we have three wise elf kings?

Anyway, we have 1 Ring, 3 for Elves, 7 for Dwarves and 9 for Men, giving us a sequence of 1, 3, 7, 9... and a total of 20.

I'm not a serious mathematician[1] but the usual methods for determining the rules for a sequence don't give us any obvious answers[2]. 1, 2, 3, 4... fine. 1, 3, 5, 7... good. 1, 2, 3, 5... I'm on board with. 1, 1, 2, 3... or 1, 1, 2, 4... and perhaps 1, 3, 9, 27... great. But 1, 3, 7, 9...? And a total of 20? There's no significance there. What is Sauron playing at?

Now Sauron, being evil, might have set up this sequence deliberately to annoy and distract the numerologists of Middle Earth[3]. But that's not the kind of evil he is; he intends to rule Middle Earth, not smash it; Lawful Evil rather than Chaotic Evil; Darth Vader rather than Cthulu. Surely there's a logical sequence. Aren't there any more rings to find?

On the Fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me...
Found them! That makes 25, a square number. It doesn't get any more Lawful Evil than that.

(Link here)

While I'm at it, we must never forget the most important event ever to occur on 25 December; the day the Fellowship left Rivendell to find their destinies.

[1] Although I have impersonated one in a school, and been paid for it.
[2] Page of mathematical scrawlings left out.
[3] Also, not having any more of the Black Speech than is inscribed on The Ring, it's quite possible he chose the numbers to make the poem scan. Never underestimate the influence of rhyme and rhythm on the plot of songs and poems.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Advent Thirteen: Christmas Present

It has been decreed that decorations this year shall be white and not extensive. To the extent that there is a tree with white lights and baubles, a wreath on the door[1], Dad's box of treasure and cards, and so far that's it.

As might be expected this caused an argument spirited discussion about the difference between minimal and minimalist[2].

[1] That wreath looks pretty damn pagan if you ask me. And so is the tree frankly.
[2] The minimum amount of decorations is clearly none. But that's not minimalist; that requires you to ostentatiously put quite a lot of effort into creating an effect with very little stuff left at the end. At least that's my argument and I'm right.

Advent Twelve: Stan Movies

Here's what happens: I take a bunch of movies and insert Stan into the title and we see what falls out. It amused people before so here's some new ones:

Stan gets a new car. It turns into a robot! Other cars turn up and turn into robots. The robots fight! Hugo Weaving co-stars.

Prince of Persia: The Stans of Time
Dean and I missed the first ten minutes of this, but based on the vast amount of rope used, the, ahem, natural produce used by the "Hassansins" and our knowledge of Persian history, we reckon there must have been Cataphracts riding by hemp fields.

The Stantrix
Stan discovers his life is controlled by computers. Complications ensue. Hugo Weaving co-stars.

Stanzilla vs Mechastanzilla
Stan gets a dinosaur suit for Christmas. When he wakes up, he discovers he seems to have destroyed Tokyo. it turns out aliens have created a robot in a dinosaur suit that impersonates him. Complications ensue.

The Wolfstan
Classic Horror remake. Stan isn't a werewolf[1] but this does not help him when he is fitted up for lycanthropy. Complications ensue. Hugo Weaving co-stars.

S for Standetta
Stan wears a mask and takes on a fascist government. Hugo Weaving co-stars.

Clash of the Tistans
Classic fantasy remake. Staneus has to fight a variety of mytholgical CGI monsters.

Stan Pilgrim Vs The World
Stan has to fight his girlfriend's exes (ex's? exe's?). Complications ensue.

[1] For, as we all know, he is an immortal vampire king

Advent Eleven: Christmas Past

Previously on Night of the Hats at Christmas:

- I put together a funky Christmas Playlist on Youtube

- I had my traditional list of films to watch over Christmas in which elements of the title are replaced by my friend Stan. It's an unusual hobby but it fills the list of advent posts seems to amuse people.

- I spotted Christmas and complained about the overuse of Fairytale of New York. It's good to have Christmas traditions.

- In my days of putting together links to amuse people I put together a bunch of Christmas related stuff.

- I talked a lot of nonsense about Christmas and wishes.

- Also we didn't burst into song.

Those seem to be the highlights of Christmas blogging here. There's also a bunch of links, half of them broken and a mincemeat recipe. Mum has made a Cheesecake from some of it this year and it is very good.

Advent Ten: When the Snowman Brings the Snow

I can tell it's Christmas. How can I tell?

1. Mum is wearing her Christmas waistcoat[1].

2. Mum has put a wreath on the door that a. unbalances the door, so it tries to shut on you when you want it open and pushes back when you try to close it and b. blocks half the doorway and dumps snow down my collar when I push past it.

3. I'm already Sick of The Fairytale of New York.

4. I'm very far behind on my Christmas Advent countdown.

[1] Dad sometimes wears his Father Christmas hat, but he does that when he's doing things for the Christmas lights and that can be from November. So that's like the goose getting fat; an indication that you should be thinking about it and getting ready and maybe making a pudding, but not that it's here yet.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Advent Nine: Conversation of the Christmas Decorations

The Scene: JIM and NEIL are putting up Christmas Decorations in JIM'S OFFICE. JIM is up a stepladder. NEIL is significantly taller than JIM.

JIM staring at the top of NEIL's head: Is this what the world looks to you?

NEIL turns around to find himself facing JIM's groin: Is this what the world looks like to you?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Eight: Saint Lucia

Saint Lucia's day is celebrated on December 13 and I've broken the fiction that my Advent posts relate to their number rather than the date I've actually got around to writing it to document it. For why? I'll tell you why: Crown of Candles.

The crown of candles seems to be a Swedish thing, but the day is celebrated, often as a festival of lights, throughout Scandinavia, and also in Malta and, unsurprisingly, on the island of Saint Lucia.

Obviously this would have been brilliant for my Hallowe'en saints costume ideas posts. Presumably one extinguishes the candles before doing anything other than stand still and sing, especially at the time of year when people hang decorations off ceilings in an attempt to strangle me.

Advent Seven: Advent Updates

I'm getting really behind on this advent thing, or I would be if I'd actually explained the plan to anyone. Nevertheless there are two updates to previous advent posts:

1. Our Netherlands correspondant has informed us that when Zwarte Piet delivers presents down the chimney, Dutch children leave out their shoes, rather than their stockings. He did not inform us if they used clogs.

2. There's a Russian game like Grow Ornament, called Planet NoName which appears to be about New Year.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Advent Six: Grow Ornament

The Grow series of games involve picking the order in which you introduce elements to the game. What makes this simple concept interesting is that each element has the opportunity to level up and the elements interact. Anyway, there's a Christmas one. It's not the best but it is relevant.

To get the maximum levels, look here.

Advent Five: Zwarte Piet

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) visits children on December 5[1]. In the Anglophone world, Santa Claus has elves as helpers[2] and lives at the North Pole, or maybe Lappland. In the low countries he has Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).

Originally Zwarte Piet was a devil Saint Nicholas had triumphed over. In later stories, he became a servant from the colonies, and Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet began to arrive on a steamboat. Zwarte Piet brings gifts and sweets to children who have been good, but if they've been bad, he stuffs them in a bag and carries them away to Spain[3] where he lives the rest of the year.

The Netherlands doesn't have a taboo against blackface, but the fact that Zwarte Piet's appearance and characterisation can be problematic has not escaped the Dutch.

[1] In Belgium he visits on December 6, giving him two days to get around both countries, which is probably plenty of time.
[2] Santa Claus is sometimes characterised as an elf, which, to those of us with a passing knowledge of folklore, clarifies why he doesn't bring the gifts you want, or need, or even deserve, but instead, whatever the hell he feels like.
[3] If they've been a little bit bad, they get no present, and rather than being carried away they get a birching. With corporal punishment falling out of favour in modern times, he instead presents them with some coal.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Advent Four: The Fourth Wise Man

The original story is here, but my distorted memory of an inaccurate paraphrase goes like this:

We all know about the three wise men, but there was a fourth one as well. On his way to meet the other wise men to pay tribute to the King of Kings he met an ill man by the road. He stopped to help him and paid for his treatment with one of the gems he'd brought.

Having missed the other Wise Men and the nativity, he carried on, searching for the Messiah. However, every time he seemed to be getting somewhere he kept meeting people in trouble and stopped to help them, often using the tributary gems to fund his efforts.

After about thirty odd years he found himself in Jerusalem and who should he meet but Jesus Christ. "Lord," he said, "I'm sorry it took so long to get you, but although I looked for you everywhere, I kept missing you. Also, I brought some gems for you but I used them for people who need help. Sorry about that."

"No biggie," says Jesus. "It turns out that, in a way, you were actually travelling with me all that time, and doing my business as well. You may have been the wisest of all the wise men."

"Great!" says the Fourth Wise Man. "That's good news. I'll be sure to spread it around."

Advent Three: Not My Christmas Cartoon

I'm too lazy to draw a Christmas Cartoon, and even if I did I don't have a scanner so you'd have to traipse over here to see it. Nevertheless, here is the script I might have drawn if I could be bothered.

Christmas Cartoon


Three guys, who we may recognise, are walking down a street, passing a highly decorated window.

GUY ONE: ... it's not the commercialism that offends me - Christmas has always been a FEAST day with all the excess and conspicuous consumption that implies - but the crassness of it.
GUY Two: Mmm.
GUY THREE: Quite. "It's Christmas so let's drink Coca Cola and eat pre-made party food - at reduced price!"


The Guys are walking past a huge and very tackily decorated Christmas tree.

GUY ONE: What kind of feast is it with piles of cardboard convenience food bought from the supermarket, shoved in the microwave five minutes before, everyone arrives to eat them in a haze of alcohol, then clears off when we're done?
GUY THREE: What about family, togetherness and celebration? Is sitting in front of some animated film, in a bloated semi-concious state any way for families to enjoy themselves?


The Guys pass a horrible looking Santa's Grotto.

GUY THREE: ...and what about pride, and craftsmanship? Homemade Pudding, roasted vegetables, gravy made from bones and roasting juices...
GUY ONE: And talking of craftsmanship and pride, how about wrapping your own goddamn presents rather than getting the shop to do it? Or maybe even make your own present? Show some love and forethought rather than just go into a shop and pick things off the shelf?


The Guys have arrived at the Carpark, with Christmas Shopping Parking extended to 9pm.

GUY TWO: Gents, I agree with every word that has dropped from your lips. But I have to leave you. See you Christmas Eve.
GUY ONE: Merry Christmas! Looking forward to the Christmas Eve pub crawl!


GUY TWO arrives home, and, still in hat, coat and scarf, turns on the TV.


Two ladies in hotpants appear on the TV. GUY TWO dances around the room, in a frenzy of Christmas delight.

TV (with notes dancing around the words to indicate a song):
Every body come together
It´s a hot hot christmas night
Make you magic last forever
Have a cheeky christmas time

I am of course referencing this silly Christmas song.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Advent Two: TV Chefs

The Good Food Channel has a series of adverts for the latest Hot Point oven on heavy rotation at the moment. Each week chef-presenter Matt Tebbut uses his ingredient of the week to create a recipe that demonstrates one or more features of the oven.

Last week it was oranges, made to create orangey mince pies. He grates some orange zest into mince meat, then makes pies. I had two thoughts:

1. That's hardly a "recipe" at all. What exactly are Hotpoint paying him for?; and

2. I'm definitely trying that.

Advent One: Family Stories

I'm late starting an advent countdown. So rather than talk about it I'll just get stuck in with a family story.

Back in 1914, when my Nan was five, her mother (my Great-Grandmother) made mincepies for all the men of the village who were serving in France at Christmas. My Nan had to help grease the patty pans, and, being five, moaned about it a lot. It seems they did this every Christmas of WWI. Some years later, about the time my Nan got married, she met a man from the village who had received some of the mincepies, and thanked her for them and the reminder of home. As she'd helped, her mother had mentioned her in the notes that had gone with them, and she hadn't known.

It may, or may not, have been this family recipe for mincemeat.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

I Pick Nits: Emperor The Death of Kings

I've been reading Conn Iggulden's historical series about Julius Caesar, Emperor. It's all good fun. There's a number of things in it about ancient Rome that don't quite add up, but the first moment where I had to stop and blink was in volume 2, The Death of Kings.
"Have you thought of a name for her?" she asked Cornelia.
"If it was a boy, I was going to name him after his father, Julius."

Oh dear. Let's tackle the error Iggulden ought not to have made. During this period, male Romans were known by three names. As an example, Caesar's name was Gaius Julius Caesar. The first name, Gaius, was used by family and friends. The second name, Julius was the name of the family or clan, the Julii. The final name, Caesar, was used to differentiate between between all the Gaius Julii, as the limited number of first names meant that in large families there could be many men with the same name.

So if he were a boy, as the first born his name would be (Something) Julius Caesar; as Caesar's father and grandfather were called Gaius, there's good odds that he might be given that first name.

But she is a girl. So what will she be called? Well, officially, she doesn't get a name of her own; instead she gets her father's name and, possibly, an indication of birth order[1]. In other words her name is Julia, and if she has any sisters, they'll be known as Julia as well[2]. She may well gain a family nickname, but Cornelia (daughter of Cornelius) doesn't get to name her.

I have one final nit to pick; that volume is called The Death of Kings, but, as far as I can see, only one king actually dies in it.

[1] Until she's married when she make add or take her husband's name. I will note that during the period there were many exceptions and notable females were often given second names, the equivalent of male third names, to indicate which female they were.
[2] This has caused some confusion amongst historians between notable sisters.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint George

Saint George was a soldier in the Roman army. Diocletian[1] ordered that all Christian soldiers be arrested if they would not sacrifice to the pagan gods. George was the most senior Christian to refuse. Diocletian offered him land, money and slaves, to sacrifice, but George refused. As those of you who have followed this series might expect, next came torture (which involved a wheel of swords) and finally beheading.

But before all that, he killed a dragon!

St George
15th Century Icon

Although tempted by the wheel of swords, for this costume, I suggest tradition. Have a friend dress up as Godzilla[2] and hassle the young ladies. Then arrive in armour, with a white surcoat with red cross, and "slay" the dragon with a collapsible lance.

As today is Hallowe'en, this brings an end to this series of brief descriptions of saints and my thoughts on how to costume as them.

[1] Him again!
[2] Or Mechagodzilla

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Andrew

Saint Andrew was the brother of Saint Peter. Like Peter he was a fisherman. Like peter he was a disciple of Jesus. Like Peter he was the first bishop of a church, in this case in Byzantium (later Constantinople, later Istanbul). Like Peter he was martyred by crucifixion, and like Peter he said he wasn't worthy of being crucified in the same way as Christ. In Andrew's case, rather than inverting him, they turned the cross through 45 degrees to form the Saltire.

Saint Andrew

For a costume, I suggest carrying a large diagonal cross.

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Olaf

Olaf[1] was a Norwegian lord. After joining Cnut[2] in his conquest of England, Olaf returned home and declared himself king. Sadly not everyone agreed, and most of his reign was disrupted by rebellions and civil war. Nevertheless he continued to spread Christianity throughout Norway. Eventually he was killed in battle against his former ally, and fellow Christian, Cnut. In death, his followers emphasised the evangelical work, and deemphasised the whole viking-theft-of-entire-kingdoms part of his career, to the extent that as patron saint he was able to do what he was unable to do in life - unify Norway.

Fall of Olaf II, Battle of Stiklestad
Nidaros Cathedral

Olaf was a Norse warlord. As such there's two likely costumes; firstly we can go as strictly historical as we can. Or of course, there's horned helmet, fur trimmed leather jerkin open to the waist, beard, braids and a dragonship. Also a halo.

[1] Olaf has previously appeared on Night of the Hats in this post.
[2] Canute in English. Canute continues to be ignored in popular history. A pretty good Time Team special about Vikings was on recently, but the timeline went something like Danish Great Army (860s), Alfred the Great and the Danelaw (870-890s), Danish York (900s)... Harald Hardrada (1066)! "Are you going to completely ignore Canute, Tony?" I asked the TV. He just grinned and told us that Viking meant Pirate. I may need to post on Canute sometime.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas performed so many miracles that he is sometimes called Nicholas the wonderworker. As an example, during famine, a villainous butcher lured 3 small boys to his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, intending to pass them off as ham. Nicholas, in the area to try and relieve the situation with the aid of the grace of god, saw through this, brought the butcher to justice and then resurrected the boys.

His most famous intervention was for a poor man and his three virtuous daughters. Having no money for dowries, the daughters would remain unmarried, and, with no means of support, probably have to turn to prostitution. Nicholas, rather than shaming the family with charity slipped a purse of gold down the chimney, where the daughters were drying their stockings.

Saint Nicholas should not be confused with Old Nick.

Saint Nicholas
Greenwich Workshop Fine Art

Saint Nicholas, like Saint Elmo, has a theme song.

Clearly white beard, red clothes, and a big sack full of food is the costume indicated here. And for God's sake don't eat the ham!

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Valentine

Here's what we know about Saint Valentine:

He was a Christian in Rome in the 3rd Century AD, was martyred and his name was revered by the survivors.

For a costume I suggest an arrow through a heart. Ox heart for preference but a pig's heart would be fine.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Liberatus

Saint Liberatus was a Catholic monk in the Vandal kingdom of Africa[1]. Huneric, the Vandal king, invited seven monks to Carthage and offered them gifts if they would endorse Arianism. They refused. He had them chained up and thrown into a dungeon. This attracted the attention of Catholics in Africa and the monks received many visitors. Huneric was unamused by thus and ordered them to be put in an old ship and burnt. The monks cheerfully walked down to the shore, where the boat refused to catch fire. Annoyed, frustrated, and not taking the hint, Huneric ordered the monks' heads bashed in with oars. Then their bodies were thrown in the sea, but the sea refused to keep them, and washed them ashore, where their followers found them and buried them.

Can't find an image of Liberatus, but apparently this is a picture of Huneric.

I guess this costume is all about the head injury. I should probably have tried to find a saint with better costuming possibilities, but I'm still two behind and didn't want to waste the research.

[1] The Vandals, a Germanic people[2], had invaded and conquered the Roman Province of Africa in 429 and had their Capital at Carthage. The Vandals were Christians, but not Catholics; they subscribed to the heresy of Arius[3].
[2] I remember reading somewhere, although I now can't find it, that the Vandals liked to paint things black; the Goths, a related people, preferred blues and greens.
[3] It's to do with the nature of the Trinity.

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Agatha

Amongst other things, Saint Agatha is patron saints of martyrs[1] so if you don't like gruesome things look away now.

Agatha lived in Sicily in the 3rd century AD. She was a Christian who had dedicated her virginity to God. Unfortunately the Roman Prefect Quintianus pursued her; when she rejected him, he persecuted her for her Christianity expecting her to give in when threatened. When she didn't, he imprisoned her in a brothel for a month. After this had no effect he then had her tortured. Amongst the tortures her breasts were cut off[2]. St Peter healed her, but eventually she died.

St Agatha
Francisco de Zurbaran

Amongst other things, Saint Agatha is patron saint of wet nurses, which as I've said before is not a perfect fit. For a Saint Agatha costume I can only suggest recreating the common but disturbing image of her carrying her breasts on a tray. That's definitely scary enough for Hallowe'en.

[1] If I weren't 3 and a half days behind I'd note that both traditionally and officially, the manner of death is one of the details taken into account when someone is canonized, which is why martyrs feature prominently, but I should probably spend the time looking up another saint.
[2] This method of seduction is not endorsed by Night of the Hats.

Mean Lasagne

Traditionally in Italian cooking, Pasta is cheap and meat is expensive. This is why the pasta course comes before the meat course, so that you are filled up on stodge and a smaller portion of meat will still be satisfactory. For economical cooking we want to maximise the pasta:sauce ratio; obviously for good cooking, at some point we reach the point of diminishing returns.

Anyway last night I made a four layer lasagna, or in other words there was twice as much pasta as I used to use, but no more meat sauce (there was more cheese sauce, but I always used to run out until I started to take lasagna seriously).

I have previously discussed lasagna here which has a recipe that is a sibling to the one I used yesterday, and my thinking on lasagna two and a half years ago.

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Francis

Here are some things that Saint Francis of Assisi did.

As a young man he was a soldier, and was taken prisoner. Later he fell ill, and, at the end of these he had a strange vision. he began to avoid feasting and hunting, and, when asked if he would marry answered "Yes - to My Lady Poverty[1]".

He went on pilgrimage, renounced his father's money and restored several churches.

He took Matthew 10:9-10 literally.

He was never ordained as a priest, so he and his followers formed the Friars Minor, known as the Franciscans for obvious reasons. Clare of Assisi was inspired by him and together formed the Order of Poor ladies, known as the Poor Clares (obvious reasons).

Saint Francis went to Egypt where he debated with Muslim scholars before the Sultan[2]. Impressed by him, the Sultan allowed him to preach. Later, after the fall of the Crusader States, it was the Franciscans who the Muslim rulers allowed to remain as custodians of Christian sites, thanks to St Francis.

Francis handed over control of the order to Pietro, but Pietro died soon afterwards. Then miracles started occurring at Pietro's tomb, causing great disturbance to the order. Francis prayed that Pietro would obey in death as in life and the miracles stopped.

He wrote poetry, as well as the rules of his order, in the Umbrian dialect of Italian rather than Latin, believing that common people should be able to understand; as such he is considered the first Italian Poet.

The first thing most people remember about Saint Francis:

He preached to some birds.

The costume: tonsure, halo, brown robe and lots of birds.

[1] I paraphrase. "To a fairer bride than you have ever seen" reminiscent to me of Saint Catherine.
[2] In fact he challenged them to ordeal by fire.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints:Saint Gallus

It's probably time to take a break from martyrdom and mutilation. So my suggestion for today (or yesterday as I'm a day behind) is Saint Gallus. A 6th-7th century Irish missionary, he settled in what is now South West Germany. Saint Gallus is the patron saint of poultry, as he cast out a demon, and it ran around like a black chicken.

Saint Gallus is better known for another story. He and his companions were camping in the woods when a bear turned up. Unafraid, Saint Gallus prayed, or possibly just commanded the bear, and it went and collected firewood for them.

Saint Gallus, as depicted on the arms of the Swiss town of Kriens

The best costumes would probably not be animal welfare friendly. So I suggest robe, walking staff, halo, a stuffed black chicken on a string, and a companion dressed as a bear. In the event of war with France they can use the disguise to escape over the Spanish border[1].

[1] See The Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Catherine

Saint Catherine was the daughter of the pagan governor of Alexandria. She declared that she would only marry someone who surpassed her in beauty, intelligence, wealth and status[1]. It turned out that someone was Christ.

She went to the Roman Emperor[2] to ask him to stop persecuting Christians. Although she failed, she did convert many of the philosophers she debated with, and also the Empress. Unamused, the Emperor had her condemned to be broken on the wheel[3]. However, when she touched it, the wheel itself broke, so she was actually beheaded. An angel turned up, but rather than healing her for more torture as they seemed to have a habit of doing, it took her body to Mount Sinai.

Saint Catherine

Saint Catherine has a sword in the picture as she was one of the voices in Joan of Arc's head, and directed Joan to a shrine of Saint Catherine where she dug up the sword of Charles Martel. She gets a broken wheel for obvious reasons. An alternative would be to dress up "headless". Halo optional.

[1] This kind of thing never ends well.
[2] Probably our friend Diocletian or his co-emperor Maximian
[3] Hence Catherine Wheel.

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Peter

Saint Peter was the first bishop of Rome[1]. As such he's considered the founder of the papacy, and, as one of the 12 apostles, the major link in the apostlic succession for the Catholic church[2]. He's all over the gospels and Acts, and there are many other traditions about him. I, of course, am only going to talk about his martyrdom.

After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero blamed the Christians and celebrated his regnal anniversary with a great crucifiction of them, so Peter's death is dated to 13 October 64 AD. Apparently Peter said he wasn't worthy of being crucified in the same way as Christ, so the Romans crucified him upside down.

The Crucifiction of Saint Peter

So anyway, one symbol of Saint Peter, sometimes worn by people who wish to show their allegiance but don't believe that they're worthy of wearing a symbol of Christ, is an inverted cross. So for this costume, I reckon a nice, large, prominent inverted cross. It doesn't get any more Christian than that.

[1] Ignoring, as is traditional, Simon Magus.
[2] The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches also recognise apostlic succession, but also have more apostles to choose from amongst their founding bishops.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Guinefort

Saint Guinefort was a greyhound.

I'll pause there for a moment.

Okay, Guinefort was a greyhound. Left one day to babysit a child, the parents returned to see the room in chaos and blood on Guinefort. Thinking he had killed and eaten the child they slew Guinefort. Then they heard a sound, and under the cot was the child, unharmed, and a dead viper. Guinefort had saved the kid! Regretting what they'd done, they gave Guinefort an honourable burial. Then miracles started to happen!

I'm thinking a dog costume with a halo, and, as a prop, a snake.

Unsurprisingly the cult of Saint Guinefort has been officially suppressed by the Catholic church.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Wilgefortis

Saint Wilgefortis, also known as Saint Uncumber in England, was betrothed to a pagan king. However, being very pious, she had taken a vow of chastity, or maybe celibacy[1] so prayed to be made too hideous to marry. Her prayers were answered and she grew a beard. Rather than calling for his barber or maybe investing in a really thick veil, her father was so unamused by this turn of events that he had her crucified.

St Wilgefortis
St Etienne, Beauvais, Oise, France
16th Century

This costume basically creates itself - white dress, beard, optional crucifix. Her traditional depiction involves one missing shoe and a small fiddler at her feet.

I should probably note that the cult of St Wilgefortis has been officially suppressed by the Catholic church as it most likely came from trouser wearing Northern Europeans seeing an androgynous but bearded figure of Christ in a long robe and coming up with a story about a crucified bearded woman.

[1] The one being abstinence from sexual activity, the other being the state of being unmarried. One can be celibate, but not chaste, and even chaste, but not celibate.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hallowe'en Saints: Saint Elmo

St Elmo, whose real name was Erasmus of Formiae, was a bishop in Italy. When Diocletian's persecutions began[1] he was called before a judge and beaten, then thrown into a pit of snakes and worms. Then boiling oil and sulphur were poured in. Erasmus, however, was as comfortable as if he was in his bath[2]. Then lightning struck and killed everyone around, but left Erasmus untouched.

Unfortunately for Erasmus, then came Diocletian's co-Emperor Maximian who, in an effort to stop Erasmus preaching, poured boiling pitch and molten lead in his mouth and fitted him with a read hot metal coat. Made to sacrifice to the Roman gods, the idols collapsed when he did so. Maximian, not willing to take a hint, put Erasmus in a barrel fitted with protruding spikes and rolled him down a hill. An angel healed him. More tortures followed. Later versions suggest that Erasmus finally died when his intestines were wound on a windlass, but it seems likely that this came after he had been given the symbol of a windlass as the patron saint of sailors.

The Martyrdom of St Erasmus
Nicholas Poussin

So, costume ideas. A "just struck by lightning" costume of sticking up hair, rags and soot would work. I like the idea of the barrel as well. Finally, of course, one could lug a windlass about, with intestines stuck to it.

This saint of course has a theme song.

[1] Diocletian is likely to appear several times in these descriptions. He wasn't keen on Christians, and, in turn, later Christians went out of their way to blacken his name in their accounts of martyrdoms.
[2] Although not as comfortable as if he were in the Baths of Diocletian, the largest and most luxurious baths in Rome.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

All Hallows Eve: Saint Sebastian

The Bishop of Arundel and Brighton has criticised hallowe'en for being meaningless and a waste of money. He suggests children should dress up as saints.

I approve this idea and intend to detail one saint a day between now and All Saints Day to educate, entertain and possibly inspire costume ideas. Let's stop all the dressing up as the risen dead and bloodthirsty figures and get back to some good old-fashioned saintly religion[1].

Saint Sebastian

Saint Sebastian was a christian and a soldier[2] for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. When several Christians were arrested for refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods[3] he encouraged them in prison and, indeed, converted several other officials and returned speech to a mute woman. Diocletian considered this a betrayal and had Sebastian tied to a stake and shot full of arrows ("as full as a hedgehog"). Sebastian of course didn't die. Later he harangued Diocletian who had Sebastian beaten to death and dumped in a privy.

Saint Sebastian
Master of Saint Lucy Legend
about 1475-1500
Oil on panel, 70 x 26.7 cm
Aalst, Gallery Robert Pintelon

I like this idea - lot's of arrows, blood etc. Great stuff!

[1] Did someone mention Samhain?
[2] He's held up by early theologians as an example of how to be a good Christian and a good soldier
[3] Assuming any of this is true this was probably something to do with the Imperial cult - in other words refusing to acknowledge the Emperor as the supreme power.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Physics Class - You're Doing It Wrong

Sean and Nathaniel of popular beat combo 3oh!3 met during a physics class at university. Me, I drew stupid cartoons during physics classes at university*. Clearly they were doing it wrong. Or I was.

(Link as embedding disabled)

On balance it depends on whether being licked by Katy Perry was on your list of things to do. If you're on the fence, you could always squint and pretend she's actually Zooey Deschanel.

What? If I ran into one of them in the freezer aisle of the co-op I'd probably get it wrong. Like physics class all over again.

*Don't worry - I have my magic axe!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Booty Call

Dear The Midnight Beast,

Before I gave up on our amateur sitcom Parker, I came up with an idea called Girly Night, in which several relatively manly characters would have a classic girly sleepover[1]. Until now I still felt that, had I stretched the material to 15 minutes, it would have been my finest work.

Then I saw the video to your song "Booty Call". This is funnier, more interesting and much more scarily transgressive than mine would have ever been, in part thanks to keeping it to three and a half minutes. The world is clearly a better place for me having abandoned Parker. Gentlemen, I salute you

Yours Sincerely,

Neil W.

The Midnight Beast, Booty Call

In case you don't know, a booty call is a phone call to arrange a sexual liaison, usually late at night on an ad hoc, clandestine basis. A phone in the shape of a hamburger is not absolutely required.

Crossposted over at Parker.

[1] Strangely I never published the work I did on the blog, so here it is:

From Episode 2 (Working Title:Girly Night)

PARKER: ...But the worst thing about men is the way
they act like twats ALL THE TIME.

CHRIS T: Not ALL the time.

PARKER: ...ALL THE TIME! You walk down the street -
they come up to you with the most ridiculous and
obvious chat-up lines. Hang around in a bar - they
try to buy you a drink. Go to work - they ask you
questions about accountancy!

CHRIS T: To be fair, you are an accountant.

STAN: What I hate about men is that they smell. And
loom over you. And always have to be in control.

JIM: Poor things. They don't realise they're getting
more obsolete as every minute goes by. Pass the
Taboo, please Stan.

CHRIS T: Ladies, it's been a pleasure, but I've got a
baby to deliver. [Picks up baby basket and EXITS]

PARKER: ...Hang around on a street corner - they
offer you money for sexual acts...

[Enter CLAIRE and LARA]

PARKER: Back already?

CLAIRE: Yeah... how's your girly-night going?

JIM: Stan's done my hair!

I Read Stories: Magic for Beginners

I've been reading Kelly Link stories. Magic for Beginners is a story from a fictional television show called The Library. Jeremy, our protagonist,
has always wondered about what kind of television shows the characters in television shows watch. Television characters almost always have better haircuts, funnier friends, simpler attitudes toward sex. They marry magicians, win lotteries, have affairs with women who carry guns in their purses. Curious things happen to them on an hourly basis. Jeremy and I can forgive them their haircuts. We just want to ask them about their television shows.

On an hourly basis indeed.

In The Library, the characters watch a television show called The Library[1] set in the The Free People's World-Tree Library. In this show
The pirate-magicians used finger magic to turn Prince Wing into a porcelain teapot, and poured in boiling water, toasted the Eternally Postponed and Overdue Reign of the Forbidden Books, drained their tea in one gulp, belched, hurled their souvenir pirate mugs to the ground, and then shattered the teapot which had been Prince Wing into hundreds of pieces. Then the wicked pirate-magicians swept the pieces of both Prince Wing and the collectible mugs carelessly into a wooden cigar box, buried the box in the Angela Carter Memorial Park on the seventeenth floor of The World-Tree Library, and erected a statue of George Washington above it.

If I were some kind of TV boss I would hire Kelly Link and we would come up with some extraordinary scripts and then we would water it down and compromise to try and make it more mainstream, appealing and commercial and it would be a big mess (and still it might be some brilliant stuff on screen). So it's just as well I'm not. But I don't say that about making TV for the passage above. It's after the teapot is reassembled and turned back into Prince Wing looking "about a hundred years old, and as if there were still a few pieces missing," and kills Fox who has turned him back. And then "He sneezed (Prince Wing is allergic to swordplay)..."

Allergic to swordplay - I'm watching next week and every week after that[2].

Update: I've just noticed is that Magic for Beginners is available for free from Kelly Link, as part of the collection Magic for Beginners.

[1] This confusion is deliberate.

[2] The Library, as might be expected, has nothing so usual as a regular schedule, channel, or indeed actors.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Harald III of Norway, aka Harald Sigurdsson, aka Harald Hardrada died at Stamford Bridge near York on 25 September 1066, or 944 years ago last Saturday[1]. He failed in his bid to become the 3rd King of England that year. He's sadly neglected by most popular histories[2] in favour of William I of England[3], Harold Godwinson, and Edward the Confessor, who were all kings of England[4]. So today's questions are: Who was he? and What was he doing in Yorkshire?

Who was he?

Harald was the half-brother of Olaf II of Norway[5]. Olaf was king of Norway until 1030, when he was defeated and killed by a man named Canute[6]. Canute, already king of England and Denmark, was now king of Norway as well, with an empire stretching from the North Cape to the Isles of Scilly[7]. Olaf's most hardcore supporters went into exile in Kievan Rus, where Harald emerged as their leader.

Harald seems to have wanted to marry the daughter of the Yaroslav the Wise, but Yaroslav was reluctant to let a penniless exile do so. As the leader of 500 or so warriors, Harald had the traditional viking options available to him to improve his situation; stealing loot, stealing and ransoming (or enslaving) people, and stealing entire countries. He went for another tradition neglected by history: mercenary.

Harald became a general in command of the Varangian Guard, the foreign bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperors in Constantinople. The theory was that foreigners were unable to become emperor, so the Emperors were safer with foreign bodyguards. In the seven years Harald was Bodyguard in Chief three emperors died[8] and each time he either looted the treasury or was paid off by the new Emperor, or maybe a bit of both. He became fabulously wealthy and returned to Kiev where he married Yarolslav's daughter Elisabeth.

Meanwhile Canute had died. Norway was ruled by Magnus II (known as the Good), the illegitimate son of Saint Olaf[9]. Harald thought his claim was better. War was avoided as they negotiated. Then after two years of compacts, treaties and agreements being made and broken Magnus suddenly died and Harald sole king.

Why was he in Yorkshire?

Harald's first order of business was Magnus' inheritance. After the death of Canute, Magnus had made a deal with Canute's son Harthacanute[10], who was facing a challenge from his half brother Harold Harefoot. According to the treaty, if either died without an heir, the other would inherit his kingdom. As Magnus' heir, Harald claimed the crown of Denmark and (possibly as an afterthought) England. He then spent most of the next 20 years, and all his incredible wealth, trying to keep Denmark conquered.

Eventually he gave up. At this moment Tostig Godwinson, brother of Harold of England, arrived at his court. Tostig had been removed as Earl of Northumbria, as his policies the previous year had nearly plunged the country into civil war. Furious with his brother for removing him, and then taking the throne of England, Tostig encouraged Harald to take up his claim, offering his supporters and declaring that the English of Danish and Norse ancestry would prefer the heir of Canute over that of Harald. Out of money, Harald gathered 300 longships and an army of 15 000 and invaded. Defeating the local forces, Harald then fatally split his army.

Rather than surrender, Harold headed north in a forced march. According to legend he offered Tostig back his Earldom if he would turn on his ally. When asked what they'd offer Harald, he replied six feet of English soil - or as much more as was needed as he was taller than most men. As I gave away at the start, Harald was killed in the battle. Of the 300 ships, only 24 made it home. Traditionally this is considered the end of the viking age.


Hardrada is usually translated as Hard Rule or Hard Ruler. Stern Counsel is another translation, which perhaps gives us a little more insight into Harald's mind.

How hard was he?

He fought across the Mediterranean, Russia and Poland as well as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and England. Only two men seem to have got the better of him - Harold Godwinson, Warlord of England for 10 years for Edward the Confessor and Canute, known as the Great.

[1] Ignoring, as I traditionally do, the transition between Julian and Gregorian calenders.
[2] Although that's changing
[3] Aka William the Conqueror, and formerly known as William the Bastard. You know if everyone called me Guillaume le Bâtard I might invade a country to try and get them to stop.
[4] Today I, like history, will ignore Edgar the Ætheling
[5] Aka Olaf the Big, later known as Saint Olaf.
[6] Or, as we're in Norway at this point, Knut.
[7] This is the traditional description of Canute's realm.
[8] I count about 70 Emperors in the 809 years between 395 and 1204, giving an average of 11 years per Emperor. How's that foreign bodyguard working out for you guys?
[9] Sainting was a lot more fun in those days
[10] "Hardy Canute" - In Denmark his official name seems to have been Knut III Hardaknut. The whole nicknaming thing in Medieval Scandinavia probably needs it's own post.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lone Wolf: Chasm of Doom

A long way to the South in Sommerland is the mining province of Ruanon. Every month a convoy of metal wealth comes north like clockwork. Until now. When it failed to turn up, a troop of cavalry under Captain D'Val went to investigate, but they have failed to report. This is clearly the fault of Vonotar the Traitor[1] and we will not rest until... what's that? He was caught and thrown into the plane of Daziarn from which there is no escape (honest!) in the last book? Hmm. Anyway this needs investigating so the King sends his best agent Banedon the wiz... what? He's off on some quest to do with Elder Magi, Dwarves and a flying ship? Sounds very unlikely. In that case you - Lone Wolf, now a Warmarn or Journeyman Kai[2] - will have to take a look, along with 50 elite Border Rangers.

Lone Wolf rides south, encounters travelling entertainers, an ominous prophecy and clues. Bandits steal most of the horses, leading to the unusual decision to send most of the rangers north[3]. Attacked again, Lone Wolf is forced into the mines, where he discovers that the miners have been enslaved by Vassagonian bandits. Sneaking through the mines Lone Wolf gets to Ruanon, to find it in ruins, but with D'Val's company barricaded and under siege. They chase Lone Wolf with dogs, which backfires when an archer shooting at me gets attacked by one. Heh heh. A serious battle ensues.

Ruanon is on the near the Maakengorge, on which are the ruins of Maaken[4] where the legendary King Ulnar slew the Darklord Vashna. But is seems Vashna is only Mostly Dead and the ambiguous prophecy suggests that if the Baron's daughter is sacrificed with Vashna's dagger at the next significant phase of the moon - three days time - Vashna will rise again. A Vassagonian Warlord named Barraka now has daughter, dagger and intends to raise the most powerful of the Darklords.

This would be a non-optimal end to the mission.

Battle over, Lone Wolf heads off alone[5] to try and sneak through the bandit force. To cut a long story short, he does so, kills Barraka, then makes a desperate last stand against his vengeful forces. At the moment when the only option seems to be to throw the Dagger of Vashna into the Chasm (followed, one presumes, by the daughter and Lone Wolf's self) the cavalry arrive.

Anyway it's well paced - three acts, the first one heading south figuring out what the hell[6] is going on and clashing with bandits, the second one the battle followed by the big reveal, then the third act a tense race against time to stop Vashna's resurrection. What's most important of course is that we've shown the Vassagonians we can't be messed around with. That'll be the last we hear from them I'll wager.

[1] If Sommerland weren't such a noble land I'd be tempted to suggest that the government and in particular the intelligence community were trying to distract attention from their manifest failures during the war with the Darklords by blaming everything on a scapegoat - Vonotar the Traitor. But they are noble and just (it probably says so somewhere) so I won't.
[2] I think this is a gender differentiation. In the fiction Lone Wolf is canonically male, but as far as I can tell his/her gender is not unambiguously spelt out in the gamebooks (so far). Partly this is due to my introduction via the front cover of Flight of a hooded, thin, lank-haired androgynous figure (see here).
[3] I was being thorough and obvious, which makes sense if you're a cavalry troop. The other strategy would be to try and be inconspicuous, in which case half a dozen rangers would make more sense. Also, where were the Rangers when the Darklords attacked the Kai monastery? There needs to be an investigation into their failures... oh it turns out it was all the fault of Vonatar the traitor.
[4] In the Maaken range, which holds the Maaken mines and borders the Maakenmire swamp.
[5] It's in the name!
[6] I assume that if Lone Wolf swears it will be things like "By the Sun!" and "Into the Dark with it!" - language that to us is comically non-sweary, but to Sommerlanders a bit fruity, but without edging over into being salty.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lone Wolf: The Caverns of Kalte

Who betrayed us to the Darklords? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who told them the Kai Lords would all be celebrating at their monastery (as they have on that day for hundreds of years)? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who told the Darklords that their unprecedented airmobile attack would take Sommerland by surprise? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who told the Darklords of the ancient and famous alliance between Sommerland and Durenor and that an envoy would be sent to summon the Durenese? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who tried, but failed, to stop the Durenese fleet? Vonotar the Traitor!

Who annoyed Banedon the Wizard who is apparently making a name for himself amongst the Brotherhood of the Crystal Star, but has only had cameo appearances so far? Vonotar the Traitor!

Vonotar has overthrown Brumalmarc, the leader of the Ice Barbarians. Obviously this cannot be allowed to stan, so you - Lone Wolf - head to Kalte to interfere with the government of a sovereign country bring him to justice.

Lone Wolf sails north and has to cross the frozen wastes to the Ice Fortress of Ikaya. The usual hazards of arctic travel - bad weather, dangerous ice, equipment failing - occur, along with the more exotic threat of the Ice Barbarians who turn up on skis with child-archers on their backs. Getting away from them, you inevitably end up in the eponymous caverns, and wander through the various paths there. The Sommersword comes in hand facing an undead being called Akraa'Neonar, and after you rescue a wizard called Loi-Kynar, Vonotar is beaten and you're teleported back to your ship. Vonotar is thrown through the Shadow Gate to the plane of Daziarn from where no one ever returns. No one. Ever. (See Book 11 The Prisoners of Time and World of Lone Wolf Book 3 Beyond the Nightmare Gate)

Kalte is quite well written - the weirdness of the fortress, which was created by the ancients to imprison the Ice Demons was good, and the obligatory furry serpents had a twist. Overall a good first journey out of the Lastlands.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lone Wolf: Fire on the Water

Fire on the Water begins shortly after the end of Flight from the Dark. The Darklords' armies have laid siege to Holmgard so the king decides to send you - Lone Wolf - to Durenor to remind them of the treaty and get some help.

Almost immediately you're waylaid by traitors, and the ship you're on is damaged and then sunk by saboteurs halfway to your destination. Catching a coach, it's attacked by a Kraan[1]. And one of your fellow passengers attempts to assassinate you[3]. If you get through that and manage to navigate the bureaucracy at Port Bax, undead Helghasts, immune to normal weapons, dropped off by Kraan[4] try to stop you in the mountains.

Assuming you get through, and haven't lost the Seal of Hammerdal, the Durenese mobilise for war and set sail for Holmgard. They also give you the Sommersword, a +8 sword of Undead-slaying. Which is fortunate as the Durenese fleet is attacked by a fleet of zombie-crewed Death-hulks, lead by the traitor wizard Vonatar[5]. Getting through that, the Sommersword uses the power of the sun to destroy the Darklord Zagarna, after which the Draklord army flees in panic. Sommerland is saved!

This book has differences in style to Flight. There are more "pick a random number to find out what happens" and less "You can go this way through the woods, or you can go that way through the woods, but you may as well pick at random". Lone Wolf seems better equipped to deal with the countryside in Flight than the towns he finds himself in in Fire. Rather than the "regular" Giak forces[6] of Flight, we meet a lot of saboteurs and agents and "special" undead forces. If I have a problem with it, it's that the undead Helgahst are introduced as unstoppable without a magic weapon, but then you very swiftly end up with the ultimate undead killing tool. And get to keep it for the rest of the series.

Anyway so much for Fire on the Water. My only problem is that Vonatar the traitor[5] got away. Grr. If only there was an adventure to hunt him down.

[1] A black, leathery winged flying creature used by the Darklords for their airmobile attack, but also used in a close air support role. "Kraan!" goes up the cry when they fly past. "Kraan!" "Kraan!" "Nazgûl[2]! Sorry, Kraan!"
[2] Technically one should call "Winged Nazgûl!" but presumably if they were riding horses one would be more likely to have time to add detail.
[3] Hint: It's the one who looks evil in the portraits.
[4] Kraan!
[5] Vonatar! [Shakes fist]
[6] Regular in this case including the cold-blooded reptilian Gourgaz

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark

I discovered the Joe Dever Lone Wolf gamebooks are online here. Clearly, there's only one thing to do: play through and review them here, hopefully at the rate of one a day[1].

So Flight from the Dark. You are Lone Wolf (formerly Silent Wolf), training to be a Kai Lord at their monastery[2]. Unfortunately all of the Kai are wiped out in a sneak attack at the start of the book leaving you the only survivor. Obviously you make a run for it across Sommerland, which is being invaded by the Darklord's armies, to the capital to tell them that their most powerful force has been wiped out. If you make it, you're greeted surprisingly positively by the King, especially as his only son gets killed on the way. It seems that they have a job for you and only a Kai will do[3].

One of the interesting things about the books is that you're often given the choice to run away or hide, or generally act like a coward cautiously as well as being able to be all gung ho and fight-crazy, even when the plot doesn't require sneaking. These types of books (and games) usually make you a sneaker or a fighter, while in Lone Wolf you can decide how you want to act. My first try I was all up for a fight and died, which sucked, but my second go I ran away a lot, although I rescued a few people along the way, including a young journeyman mage, who I suspect has a great future ahead of him.

Score so far: 6 Giaks, 1 Burrowcrawler, 1 Gourgaz, 1 Cryptspawn

[1] Embarrassingly I was killed by a Burrow Crawler and had to start again, which begs the question of what I'm going to do if that happens by the time I get to book 16; do I have to go back to book 1 or just from the last savepoint (start the book again). Any thoughts?

[2] I think of the Kai as some sort of hideous cross between Knight's Templar, the Cult of the Assassins and Shaolin monks, as presented in popular media, but that's me.

[3] The Story So Far section makes the later "last of the Kai" theme I recall a bit problematic:

In the northern land of Sommerlund, it has been the custom for many centuries to send the children of the Warrior Lords to the monastery of Kai. There they are taught the skills and disciplines of their noble fathers.

The Kai monks are masters of their art, and the children in their charge love and respect them in spite of the hardships of their training. For one day when they have finally learnt the secret skills of the Kai, they will return to their homes equipped in mind and body to defend themselves against the constant threat of war from the Darklords of the west.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Cook Food: Nan's Cherry Cake

8 oz plain flour
1.5 level teaspoons baking powder
1 oz ground almonds
6 oz soft marge
6 oz caster sugar
2 standard eggs
6 oz glace cherries
1 level tablespoon plain flour

Grease and line a 2 lb loaf tin with greased greaseproof paper. Sift flour and baking powder. Add almonds, marge, sugar and eggs into a bowl, beat well with wooden spoon for 2-3 minutes until ingredients are thoroughly blended. Wash glace cherries and pat dry on kitchen paper then cut in halves. Wash again, dry and coat with the tablespoon of flour. Reserve about 2 oz of the cherries. Add remaining cherries to mixture and stir through.

Turn mixture into prepared loaf tin and smooth over surface. Scatter reserved cherries over top. Cook in centre of a moderately slow oven (mark 3 - 160 C - 325 F) for 1.5 - 1.75 hours till well risen and cooked through. Remove from tin by holding the paper lining the tin. Strip off paper carefully and leave cake to cool on wire rack.

This may have been the first thing I ever "cooked" at the age of 6, when my Nan was looking after me for the day. I was, of course, too young to know that cooking is for girls, and ever since have declared baking the manliest of arts.

As I baked this for Mum's birthday yesterday, I did slightly sex up the recipe.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I Cook Food: Cold Turkey Salad

Some lettuce, shredded
Some tomatoes, cut up
Some cucumber, cut up
Some preserved vegetables, cut into pieces

Piece of ginger, grated
Garlic clove, crushed
Chilli, finely diced
A couple of drops of fish sauce
A good glug of soy sauce
A large splash of white wine vinegar
Quite a bit of olive oil

Layer the salad pieces on top of the lettuce in a bowl. In a different bowl thoroughly mix up the dressing (amounts to taste). Shortly before serving, stir the dressing again, and pour over the salad.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Overanalysis of the Day

Mystery Jets, Two Doors Down.

Whilst listening to this when I was struck by this lyric (0:22 - 0:30):
Maybe I should call her up, invite her around
Or maybe I should move to another town

And he spins the globe and his finger ends up in South East Asia.

Now that's a feeling I've had that doesn't get much attention in pop music: the panic you feel when you suddenly realise that you really really like someone, and it could be really, really serious. On the other hand fleeing to the other side of the world seems a bit extreme.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Despair Revisited

Back when I was making a futile attempt to hide my despair I actually came up with all the boxes and keys, and a couple of the riddles. The riddles are all rubbish, but I quite liked my idea of the plutonium chest with a uranium key. That's the kind of puzzle I want my legendary heroes tackling.

(If you know what's going on, then it's simple[1]; make a copy of the key from a non-radioactive material. Preferably from about a mile away. The tricky part is if you don't recognise a plutonium key when you see one)

[1] In full supervillain mode I am now plotting a lock that is sub-critical when locked, but critical when open.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Conversation of the Wedding

[The Scene: Jim, the groom, has had 4 different people talk to him while wearing my lucky[1] wedding tie]

Jim: I thought I told you not to bring that hideous tie to... wait. I told you not to wear it, didn't I.
Me: Yes you did!
Jim: Shit.

[1] It is, of course, lucky for the people getting married, not for me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Not Painless

A few weeks back, one of my pupils finished his explanation of why he wasn't trying by telling me he was going to kill himself. After three or four repetitions, I got bored of arguing with him[1] and gave him a garbled version of Dorothy Parker's Résumé:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Obviously this didn't help.

Me: ... You might as well live.
Pupil M: What was that?
Me: It's a poem about not committing suicide.
Pupil M: I'm going to kill myself.
Me: The poem's not that bad.


One reason my version was garbled is I got it mixed up with this line from The Flash Girls song A Girl Needs A Knife[2] especially this verse:
I’ve bought myself a new knife
You’d be surprised at what my knife can do
Guns can jam
Bombs are complex
Sometimes bombs can fail to explode
You’d better listen
This is true
My knife is simple
Part of it I hold
The other part of it’s for you

I don't think I told Pupil M that "sometimes bombs fail to explode" but I may have done. It's a useful lesson anyway.


This leads me, inevitably, to another more recent song by two women about killing.

My Terrible Friend, When I Decide. It kicks into gear at about the 1:00 mark:
But when I decide to kill you
I'll do it with my hands
And fine gloves worth the death of a gentleman

(Also at 3:22, Nataly's mole swaps sides; someone has mirrorimaged that shot)
(I notice this as I also have a mole on my upper lip)

[1] Because he was just repeating himself, and it was pretty clear he was just trying to shock me. He wasn't one of the compulsive liars, most of whom would happily tell me for hours about their various suicide attempts. By the way, there is nothing more boring than a compulsive liar who isn't very bright; smart compulsive liars are at least entertaining.
[2] Lyrics by Neil Gaiman

Thursday, July 29, 2010

From the Department of Appropriate Names

I've been reading The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, about the rivalry between Russia and Britain in central Asia in the nineteenth century. This passage amused me:
Ellenborough's scheme for the clandestine survey of the Indus did not, however, meet with universal approval in India. One of it's severest critics was Sir Charles Metcalfe, a member of the all-powerful Supreme Council, and former Secretary of the Secret and Political Department.

Who would have thought that the Supreme Council of the East India Company would be all powerful? Rather sadly, although the India Office Records refer to Political and Secret Department records, the Department itself would have been called just the Political Department. The fact it was the Secret and Political Department seems to have been a secret.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Jane Austen's Fight Club

Partly due to things I'm doing at the moment, this amuses me greatly, even if I am the last person on the internet to see it.

(Is it churlish to note that it looks more 1920s than 1810 to me? It is? Oh dear.)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Blogiversary IV

4 years ago today I started this blog. To quote from my initial post:
Hopefully, this blog will never have anything of interest in it, and, even if I make a mistake and it does, only three people will ever read it. Which begs the question of why I'm doing this.

It's good to see that I've kept fairly closely to my initial concept. The only difference is that as some posts get crossposted to Facebook, more than three people read some of them. Anyway, here's a few highlights:

The Trial Part 1 and The Trial Part 2, which I think are still pretty funny, although they have been overtaken by recent events.

This apostrophe challenge.

The following post tells us the origin of the Spring Bank Holiday.

I criticised a Tarzan novel.

There's a series of posts about that scourge of the sealanes, piracy, beginning here.

I woke up next to a copy of a Ken Hom recipe book.

I created a sitcom called Stan and the fag machine.

I found a Tom Clancy spin off novel on the train. And read it.

I've had a go at bibliomancy.

I made In The Style Of French Onion Soup for a dinner party.

My brother became the future love messiah.

I began to put up some stuff from the Secret Diary of Major Squick.

I reread the James Bond novels.

Plus apologies, pop music, books, food, and the odd fairytale. Now on to year 5.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Non-mediocre Post

So blogging software allows people to become followers, in an attempt to make blogging more social network-y, in accordance with the usual plan:

1. Make blogging more social network-y
2. ?
3. Profit!

Slightly surprisingly this blog has followers, and, in accordance with the rules of social networkiness, I've tracked them back to their blogs[1]. This lead me to this post on Men to Avoid, which is uncomfortably familiar, especially number 4:

4) see's life as a Broadway musical (the guy who breaks out into song at any available moment, asks you to announce him before he enters rooms in a 'non mediocre' way; and thinks the best way to avoid an argument is to sing a ballad from the Pirates of Penzance). You will always be the supporting role in his life, or even an audience member with season tickets - not to mention the associated stress of attending to such a 'huge talent'.

Uh oh. Christal A aka is an Australian and as far as I know doesn't know me or any of my friends but that's worryingly spot on.

[1] This probably is called re-following or something. I may ask the 14 year olds I work with to explain it to me.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I Keep My Despair In An Old Bottle

I put my despair in an empty champagne bottle and corked it. Then I locked it in a box and locked that box in six other boxes, like a Matryoshka doll.

I gave the keys to seven sisters, each more beautiful than the next. They each promised to give the key only to whoever answered their riddles. Their riddles, their inheritance from their grandfather, are the most fiendishly difficult, as well as pointless and aggravating, puzzles ever brought back to the waking world.

The boxes I gave to their brother, who hid them in a cave on a mountain which can only be found by one guide. Sadly this guide was stolen from his home when only three nights old and has not been seen since[1].

I realise, of course, that these precautions are worse than none at all, as any hero worth his salt will find this quest not only irresistible, but will find his eventual victory inevitable. Because of this, next to the bottle I have left a note. Before drinking from the bottle of my despair this hero can read my final warning:
You're welcome to it

[1] I apologise for this not making any sense, but I have cribbed this bit from a classic source.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Something Tolkien Left Out

I'm reading Millennium by Tom Holland, a popular history of Europe in the 10th and 11th century. On page 220 I came across this quote:
A harsh world it will be, whoredom rampant,
An axe-age, a sword-age, shields shattered,
A wind-age, a wolf-age before man's age tumbles down.
The Völuspá

That sounds familiar:
Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day... a red day... ere the sun rises!
(from 3:45)

and also:
Hold your ground, hold your ground! Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of woes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!

(quotes from IMDb. I'd always heard it as "An hour of wolves and shattered shields", but that's just me, and the whole thing with Wargs and also Fenris)

I think we can all be sure that Tolkien was familiar with the Völuspá. So why did he leave the bit about whoredom rampant out of The Lord of the Rings?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

If You Don't Want A Marxist Critique, Don't Argue Like A 19th Century Mill Owner

In today's Independent, Dominic Lawson argues against Keynesian economics in the provocatively titled A lesson from the Napoleonic wars[1].

Lawson says

It has, historically, been military adventures that have led governments into financial crises – and it is worth turning to an earlier such example in order to see the oddity of the argument that public expenditure cuts "take money out of the economy".

In the case of an unproductive and unnecessarily bloated army, as in the thought experiment of Bastiat that Lawson refers to, then the argument has merit. However Bastiat begins the section with this important preface:

To a nation, security is the greatest of advantages. If, in order to obtain it, it is necessary to have an army of a hundred thousand men, I have nothing to say against it.
If we confine ourselves to this answer - "The hundred millions of men, and these hundred millions of money, are indispensable to the national security: it is a sacrifice; but without this sacrifice, France would be torn by factions, or invaded by some foreign power," - I have nothing to object to this argument, which may be true or false in fact, but which theoretically contains nothing which militates against economy. The error begins when the sacrifice itself is said to be an advantage because it profits somebody.

Taking into account this caveat, my response to Lawson's version of this argument is twofold:

1. Increasing government debt is a necessary sacrifice, indeed a necessary evil, in order to help the people the government is supposed to represent. This argument is better made here, albeit in reference to similar arguments to Lawson's made in the US, but referencing that influential economist Karol Jozef Wojtyla.

2. Cutting government spending and raising taxes is all very well, at the right time. Imitating an unreconstructed Keynesian for a moment, the problem is not that governments cut taxes and increase spending during recessions, but that they fail to increase taxes and cut spending during periods of sustained growth[3]. The reason for this is that growth is fueled by debt. To set up a business we borrow money against current assets and future profits. This is the way it always is, so that we don't have to save for 20 years to put our cutting edge idea into the market (or buy our own house).

I've previously asserted that no one can borrow money more cheaply than the government. In hard times borrowing money is expensive and difficult for individuals and businesses. The government can fuel growth more cheaply than private enterprise.

And to return to my point 1 again, the government might think about doing us a favour and using it's position as borrower of choice to keep people in work and doing useful work and maybe avoiding some of the increase in despair, poverty, illness, mental illness, crime and family dissolution[5] that usually follow unemployment. Just a thought.

[1] I say provocatively as the essay Lawson quotes from, That which is seen and that which is not seen, was published in 1850, some 35 years after the end of those wars. The author, Bastiat, was born and grew up during the wars, and these undoubtedly influenced his work, but it might be just as accurate to call it A lesson from the Second "Republic", the French Second Republic that is you ignorant scallywag. Frankly though, why not quote that bloke[2] who suggested destroying all mention of income tax when they abolished it after the Napoleonic wars, so that future generations would never know what desperate and awful measures they had to resort to. I paraphrase as I can't find said speech.
[2] Who I've failed to find the name of in 10 minutes of more and less specific googling, which might be why Lawson didn't quote him.
[3] Some of you may notice a negative feedback loop[4]: during good times, the government takes money out of the economy slowing the boom; during bad times it spends it again, lessening the bust.
[4] Those of you familiar with Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (or the book it's based on) may notice that this is similar to Pharaoh's response to the dream involving 7 fat cows and 7 thin ones.
[5] Is the coalition in favour of keeping families together by small tax breaks, or just the Conservatives?