Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather extract (Pt. II)

"In the glittering, clattering, chattering atmosphere a head waiter was having a difficult time. There were a lot of people in, and the staff should have been fully stretched, putting bicarbonate of soda into the white wine to make very expensive bubbles and cutting the vegetables very small in order to make them cost more.

Instead they were standing in a dejected group in the kitchen.

‘Where did it all go?’ screamed the manager. ‘Someone’s been through the cellar, too!’

‘William said he felt a cold wind,’ said the waiter. He’d been backed up against a hot plate, and now knew why it was called a hot plate in a way he hadn’t fully comprehended before.

‘I’ll give him a cold wind! Haven’t we got anything?’

‘There’s odds and ends…’

‘You don’t mean odds and ends, you mean des curieux et des bouts,’ corrected the manager.

‘Yeah, right, yeah. And, er, and, er…’

‘There’s nothing else?’

‘Er… old boots.’


‘Boots. Lots of ’em,’ said the waiter. He felt he was beginning to singe.

‘How come we’ve got… vintage footwear?’

‘Dunno. They just turned up. The oven’s full of old boots. So’s the pantry.’

‘There’s a hundred people booked in! All the shops’ll be shut! Where’s Chef?’

‘William’s trying to get him to come out of the privy, sir. He’s locked himself in and is having one of his Moments.’

Something’s cooking. What’s it that I can smell?’

‘Me, sir.’

‘Old boots…’ muttered the manager. ‘Old boots… old boots … leather, are they? Not clogs or rubber or anything?’

‘Looks like… just boots. And lots of mud, sir.’

The manager took off his jacket. ‘All right. Got some cream, have we? Onions? Garlic? Butter? Some old beef bones? A bit of pastry?’

‘Er, yes…’

The manager rubbed his hands together. ‘Right,’ he said, taking an apron off a hook. ‘You there, get some water boiling! Lots of water! And find a really large hammer! And you, chop some onions! The rest of you, start sorting out the boots. I want the tongues out and the soles off. We’ll do them… let’s see… Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures…’

‘Where’re we going to get that from, sir?’

‘Mud mousse in a basket of shoe pastry. Get the idea? It’s not our fault if even Quirmians don’t understand restaurant Quirmian. It’s not like lying, after all.’

‘Well, it’s a bit like-” the waiter began. He’d been cursed with honesty at an early stage.

‘Then there’s Brodequin rôti Façon Ombres…’ The manager sighed at the head waiter’s panicky expression. ‘Soldier’s boot done in the Shades fashion,’ he translated.

‘Er… Shades fashion?’

‘In mud. But if we can cook the tongues separately we can put on Languette braisée, too.’

‘There’s some ladies’ shoes, sir,’ said an under-chef.

‘Right. Add to the menu… Let’s see now… Sole d’une Bonne Femme… and… yes… Servis dans un Coulis de Terre en l’Eau. That’s mud, to you.’

‘What about the laces, sir?’ said another under-chef.

‘Good thinking. Dig out that recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara.’

‘Sir?’ said the head waiter.

‘I started off as a chef,’ said the manager, picking up a knife. ‘How do you think I was able to afford this place? I know how it’s done. Get the look and the sauce right and you’re three-quarters there.’

‘But it’s all going to be old boots!’ said the waiter.

‘Prime aged beef,’ the manager corrected him. ‘It’ll tenderize in no time.’

‘Anyway… anyway… we haven’t any soup-’

‘Mud. And lots of onions.’

‘There’s the puddings-’

‘Mud. Let’s see if we can get it to caramelize, you never know.’

‘I can’t even find the coffee… Still, they probably won’t last until the coffee…’

‘Mud. Café de Terre,’ said the manager firmly. ‘Genuine ground coffee.’

‘Oh, they’ll spot that, sir!’

‘They haven’t up till now,’ said the manager darkly.

‘We’ll never get away with it, sir. Never.’

'I’m not going to,’ said the head waiter firmly.

‘Look, I’ll buy you a better pair after Hogswatch-’

‘There’s two more Shoe Pastry, one for Purée de Terre and three more Tarte à la Boue,’ said a waiter, hurrying in.

‘Mud pies!’ moaned the waiter. ‘I can’t believe we’re selling mud pies. And now you want my boots!’

‘With cream and sugar, mind you. A real taste of Ankh-Morpork. And we can get at least four helpings off those boots. Fair’s fair. We’re all in our socks-’

‘Table seven says the steaks were lovely but a bit tough,’ said a waiter, rushing past.

‘Right. Use a larger hammer next time and boil them for a bit longer.’ The manager turned back to the suffering head waiter. ‘Look, Bill,’ he said, taking him by the shoulder. ‘This isn’t food. No one expects it to be food. If people wanted food they’d stay at home, isn’t that so? They come here for the ambience. For the experience. This isn’t cookery, Bill. This is cuisine. See? And they’re coming back for more.’

‘Yeah, but old boots…’

‘Dwarfs eat rats,’ said the manager. ‘And trolls eat rocks. There’s folks in Howandaland that eat insects and folks on the Counterweight Continent eat soup made out of bird spit. At least the boots have been on a cow.’

‘And mud?’ said the head waiter, gloomily.

‘Isn’t there an old proverb that says a man must eat a bushel of dirt before he dies?’

‘Yes, but not all at once.’

‘Bill?’ said the manager, kindly, picking up a spatula.

‘Yes, boss?’

‘Get those damn boots off right now, will you?’ "

Monday, December 24, 2007

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather extract (Pt. 1)

Sky One, 8.00-10 PM, 24-25th December

"The beggars stopped singing, except for Arnold Sideways, who tended to live in his own small world.

‘- nobody knows how good we can live, on boots three times a day…’

Then the change in the air penetrated even his consciousness.

Snow thumped off the trees as a contrary wind brushed them. There was a whirl of flakes and it was just possible, since the beggars did not always have their mental compasses pointing due Real, that they heard a brief snatch of conversation.

‘It just ain’t that simple, master, that’s all I’m saying-’


‘No, master, it’s just a lot more expensive. You can’t just go around-’

Things rained on the snow.

The beggars looked at them. Arnold Sideways carefully picked up a sugar pig and bit its nose off. Foul Ole Ron peered suspiciously into a cracker that had bounced off his hat, and then shook it against his ear.

The Duck Man opened a bag of sweets.

‘Ah, humbugs?’ he said.

Coffin Henry unlooped a string of sausages from around his neck.

‘Buggrit?’ said Foul Ole Ron.

‘It’s a cracker,’ said the dog, scratching its ear. ‘You pull it.’

Ron waved the cracker aimlessly by one end.

‘Oh, give it here,’ said the dog, and gripped the other end in its teeth.

‘My word,’ said the Duck Man, fishing in a snowdrift. ‘Here’s a whole roast pig! And a big dish of roast potatoes, miraculously uncracked! And… look… isn’t this caviar in the jar? Asparagus! Potted shrimp! My goodness! What were we going to have for Hogswatch dinner, Arnold?’

‘Old boots,’ said Arnold. He opened a fallen box of cigars and licked them.

‘Just old boots?’

‘Oh, no. Stuffed with mud, and with roast mud. ‘s good mud, too. I bin saving it up.’

‘Now we can have a merry feast of goose!’

‘All right. Can we stuff it with old boots?’

There was a pop from the direction of the cracker. They heard Foul Ole Ron’s thinking brain dog growl.

‘No, no, no, you put the hat on your head and you read the hum’rous mottar.'

‘Millenium hand and shrimp?’ said Ron, passing the scrap of paper to the Duck Man. The Duck Man was regarded as the intellectual of the group.

He peered at the motto.

‘Ah, yes, let’s see now… It says “Help Help Help Ive Fallen in the Crakker Machine I Cant Keep Runin on this Roller Please Get me Ou-”.’ He turned the paper over a few times. ‘That appears to be it, except for the stains.’

‘Always the same ole mottars,’ said the dog. ‘Someone slap Ron on the back, will you? If he laughs any more he’ll- oh, he has. Oh, well, nothing new about that.’

The beggars spent a few more minutes picking up hams, jars and bottles that had settled on the snow. They packed them around Arnold on his trolley and set off down the street.

‘How come we got all this?’

‘ ’s Hogswatch, right?’

‘Yeah, but who hung up a stocking?’

‘I don’t think we’ve got any, have we?’

‘I hung up an old boot.’

‘Does that count?’

‘Dunno. Ron ate it.’

High over the city Albert turned to Death, who seemed to be trying to avoid his gaze.

‘You didn’t get that stuff out of the sack! Not cigars and peaches in brandy and grub with fancy foreign names!’


Albert gave him a suspicious look.

‘But you put in the sack in the first place, didn’t you?’


‘You did, didn’t you?’


‘You put all those things in the sack.’

‘You got them from somewhere and put them in the sack.’


‘You did put them in the sack, didn’t you?’


‘You put them in the sack.’


‘I knew you put them in the sack. Where did you get them?’


‘Whole roast pig does not, in my experience, just lie around.’


‘Couple of chimneys ago we were over that big posh restaurant…’


‘And it seemed like you were down there a bit longer than usual, if you don’t mind me saying so.’


‘How exactly were they just inverted comma lying around inverted comma?’


‘In a kitchen?’


Alber pointed a trembling finger.

‘You nicked someone’s Hogswatch dinner, master!’


‘Yeah, well, that was a bit different,’ said Albert, lowering his voice. ‘But, I mean, the hogfather doesn’t drop down the chimney and pinch people’s grub!’


‘Well, yes, but-’


‘No, it won’t!’


‘Yeah, but you might at least have thought about the people whose grub you pinched.’


‘We’re heading down, master.’


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alan W. Watts - The Way of Zen

Zen Buddhism

"has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’."

(Preface, p. 10)

This wonderful old book is another of my finds in the Secret Book and Record Store here in Dublin (for a mention of a few others, see here). Well, when I say old I mean 1957. That's not exactly from-back-before-the-automobile antiquity, but it's a nice aged Penguin paperpack - Pelican, actually, since it's non-fiction.

Now, this blog is mostly about fiction, specifically novels; however, the last post was about a combination of a recent film and an illustrated Zen poem, so I do like to mix it up a bit. This particular post is not only linked to the theme of that piece, but also to a general thread which has been running through the blog as a whole, right through the write-ups of Kerouac and Pirsig; there is a whole vein of American sub-culture, or counter-culture, which takes from Zen as its inspiration and influence.(For more Zen, see this post on Hardcore for Nerds)

This is, most of all, a very useful text. What The Way of Zen does as a book is, chiefly, provide a "'account of an esoteric doctrine', as the blurb describes. A quote from the New Statesman calls it

"Certainly the most explicit and orderly of it [Zen] that has yet appeared in English."

At the top of the blurb, in italics, is the prophetic (or rather anti-prophetic) quote

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know

Watts makes a great deal out of the non-verbal, not-literary nature of Zen: it is not something - at least not in itself something - to be learned out of a book. The traditional Zen way of indicating this is, roughly, to say that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself - as illustrated in this Yoshitoshi print:

"The night clouds dissolve

Hotei pointing at the moon

holds no opinion"

('Moon of Enlightenment', from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Views of the Moon, via monkeybuddha.blogspot.com)

Watts does a good job of finding the balance between accuracy and authenticity, on the one hand, and on the other, presenting Zen in an attractive, accessible manner. The style of the book is somewhat academic, and slightly dated by this stage, but it's still an easy read. It is split into two sections, 'Background and History', and 'Principles and Practices'. The first traces the evolution of Zen thought through the history and culture of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist thought. The second deals with both the central philosophical ideas of Zen and the traditional images we have of its practices - particularly za-zen, or sitting meditation, and koans, or metaphysical riddles, which separate the two major schools of Zen itself. There is a rich discussion on these issues in the book, and some of the more incidental sections on Zen in the Arts (the tea ceremony, formal gardens) are fascinating. It's a very sympathetic text, but also quite scholarly; it travels an interesting path between objectivity and subjectivity, some of which is explained in the extract below.

The Way of Zen is more than a worthwhile, comprehensive introduction to Zen Buddhism: it is to a degree a cultural text of itself, a book 'of its time'. Watts, the author, is mentioned by pseudonym in at least one Kerouac novel. The 1950s was a boom period for Buddhism in the US, particularly in California and San Francisco city. What exactly Watts made of Kerouac's idiosyncratic take on Buddhism would be interesting to find out, because whatever about hedonism, Zen is all about idiosyncracy - at least when it's not about strict discipline, that is, but I digress - and thus is more than just a spiritual tradition, but an artistic and cultural medium. As Watt mentions below, there is a 'parallelism' between advanced Western science and the Eastern metaphysical tradition; a subject later much covered by Fritjof Capra's best-selling The Tao of Physics.

While, as the blurb says, "it is unfortunately still easier to say what Zen Buddhism is not that what it is", there is a lot to be said for what Zen can be linked to outside of itself. So this book is best thought not of as a spiritual guide, but as a work of discovery for those who want to know about the culture, philosophy and life of Zen. I may return to this book and discuss some of the substantive aspects of it, but for now I'll leave you with an extract. This is exactly the first couple of pages from the author's preface:

"During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West. It is connected, no doubt, with the prevalent enthusiasm for Japanese culture which is one of the constructive results of the late war, but which may amount to no more than a passing fashion. The deeper reason for this interest is that the viewpoint of Zen lies so close to the ‘growing edge’ of Western thought.

The more alarming and destructive aspects of Western civilization should not blind us to the fact that at this very time it is also in one of its most creative periods. Ideas and insights of the greatest fascination are appearing in some of the newer fields of Western science – in psychology and psychotherapy, in logic and the philosophy of science, in semantics and communications theory. Some of these developments might be due to suggestive influences from Asian philosophy, but on the whole I am inclined to feel that there is more of a parallelism than a direct influence. We are, however, becoming aware of the parallelism, and it promises an exchange of views which should be extremely stimulating.

Western thought has changed so rapidly in this century that we are in a state of considerable confusion. Not only are there serious difficulties of communication between the intellectual and the general public, but the course of our thinking and of our very history has seriously undermined the common-sense assumptions which lie at the roots of our social conventions and institutions. Familiar concepts of space, time, and motion, of nature and natural law, of history and social change, and of human personality itself have dissolved, and we find ourselves adrift without landmarks in a universe which more and more resembles the Buddhist principle of the ‘Great Void’. The various wisdoms of the West, religious, philosophical, and scientific, do not offer much guidance to the art of living in such a universe, and we find the prospects of making our way in so trackless an ocean of relativity rather frightening. For we are used to absolutes, to firm principles and laws to which we can cling for spiritual and psychological security.

This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some fifteen hundred years, has felt thoroughly at home in ‘the Void’, and which not only feels no terror for it but rather a positive delight. To use its own words, the situation of Zen has always been -

Above, not a tile to cover the head;

Below, not an inch of ground for the foot.

Such language should not actually be so unfamiliar to us, were we truly prepared to accept the meaning of ‘the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head’.

I am not in favour of importing Zen from the Far East, because it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which are quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in or own way. It has the special merit of a mode of expressing itself which is as intelligible – or perhaps as baffling – to the intellectual as to the illiterate, offering possibilities of communication which we have not explored. It has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’. At its heart there is a strong but completely unsentimental compassion for human beings suffering and perishing from their very attempts to save themselves."

(Preface, p. 9-10)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Into the Wild/10 Bulls


Last weekend I went to see this film, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and I think it might be a masterpiece. Or at least, there are reasons for saying that it's really, really good. You can read a very good review of it by some random Aussie blogger here at typingisnotactivism.wordpress.com, and from which I've pulled a couple of particulary good quotes.

The basic plot is (based on a true story) that Christian McCandless, straight-A college student, abandons his middle-class lifestyle in the early 1990s to journey across America - "rather than the road so obvious, he embarks on a road rarely so sincerely travelled – donating his entire college fund to OxFam, destroying all his i.d., and disappearing into the still wild frontiers that live in the midst of, and beyond, American civilization." It seems like the film could be rather preachy or sentimental, but thankfully it doesn't take itself too seriously. There are plenty of gentle laughs in the story of the reinvention of Emile Hirsch as 'Alexander Supertramp' - it's not a comedy though, despite the appearance of Vince Vaughn in a small but key role - as well as a lot of real pathos and despair in his eventual journey to the Alaskan wilderness.

Into the Wild is a long feature - I reckon about two and half hours - but I never really felt boredom encroaching. The film is a study of character ambiguity much more than it is a simple story of self-discovery; the people McCandless meets, befriends and proselytizes to, and the places he travels as the determined, eager Supertramp sketch a multitude of American society and culture. Not to mention landscape, of which the towering Alaskan peaks are only the most dramatic. Accompanying this lush visual and literary experience is the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. I'm on a big Lungfish (and Pupils, the same band minus the rhythm section) kick at the moment, and while it might be a bit of a stretch to connect their various bands, there is something of the same spacious, weighty alternative-grunge, or folk atmosphere about it. There's definitely something very liberating and American about big/loud guitars, and not just (necessarily) in the Springsteen sense.

"The soundtrack... plays no small part in helping this film work its seemingly easygoing magic. Hard Sun has to be the song of the year but more importantly the musical feel is organic, subtle, and happy to be taken or left. There is no sonic cheapening of the moment with obvious emotional or responsive cues. The story is so beautifully told that Vedder only has to add to what is already a great accomplishment, rather than accomplish what hasn’t been done. Similarly the cinematography is subtly stunning but never overbearing. While the camera captures and conveys zen-like moments of motion and stillness, its ultimate achievement is delivering an almost objective truth that allows the viewer to respond in their own personal way."

Why I am writing about this on Steady Diet of Books is for a variety of reasons. Like I say, this is a literary film. Not just in its scope, but in part quite specifically so; McCandless is an avid reader of Russian literature (Tolstoy, Gogol) as well as American authors such as, unsurpisingly Jack London. What is a bit of a surprise is the lack of mention of Kerouac; more of surprise to me, of course, as anyone who has been following this blog might have noticed, I'm a big fan. Into the Wild sounded on at least the one level like a great Kerouackian adventure, and that was how I would have and did sell the film.

McCandless's hyperliterary tendencies are really quite central to the psychological and philosophical lines of the story; as the achingly real modern-day idealist who uses the timeless, to him, emotions of the nineteenth century authors to redefine his world. As his sister, whose character acts as the outside, objective narrative of the film, remarks, he had a quote for every occasion. His ability to intone chunks of literature with intense fervour is something I envy somewhat, my own memory not extending to verbatim absorption of even the greatest works - those around me may instead be quite thankful of that. And while if I was to trek out of organised society, it would be based at least in part on The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, the completely different references of this film only reaffirm the variety and expanse of Western or near-Western literature.

In any case, McCandless's journey completed lacked the on-again-off-again hedonism of Kerouac's, and its sincerity was social and physical as well as spiritual. Which brings me, rather lengthily, to the second reason why I'm posting about this film. For better or worse, environmentalism is about the only ideology to which I really subscribe anymore. Part of it is about being politically and socially conscious, but part of it is that truly transfiguring artistic view of the world which I first found in Kerouac. Pirsig, too, rekindled in his physical and philosophical American journeys that appreciation for worldly nature which is, probably, latent in our childhood sense of wonder. In music, as well; I got a little sidetracked already into the earthy, folksy and Taoistic guitar sounds of Lungfish - but on my other blog I've already posted some more lyrically evident pieces on environmentalism.

Finally, the last thing I'll say about Into the Wild is to briefly mention the character's anti-materialist stance. By some reviewers this has been portrayed as selfish and arrogant; while by others as noble, pure ideal. The truth is that it's somewhere in between; hence the film being a study in ambiguity. Actually, it's like an update of Rebel Without a Cause to the modern versions of idealism and rebellion.

In political science today, and I guess this is kind of sociological as well, the attitude referred to is that of 'postmaterialism'. A nod to the constructed complexities of postmodernism, the postmaterialist generation care less about material social issues (jobs, welfare, health) than they do about less tangible subjects such as the environment or quality of life. (The implication being, of course, that they are provided already with substantial if not excessive material benefits, and regard issues concerning their distribution as inconsequential). Against this kind of idea, environmentalism is meant to look hypocritical, and we lose that authentic Kerouackian artistic stance which, at least implicitly, Into the Wild portrays.


While doing some reading for an essay, I came across this passage in a book called ‘Beauty, Health and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985’, by Samuel P. Hays. In my opinion at least it forms a really eloquent, if academic, defence of 'postmaterialism':

“All this seems rather complex and contrived; public interest in environmental affairs is far simpler. It stems from a desire to improve personal, family and community life. The desires are neither ephemeral or erratic; they are evident in many nations, first in the advanced industrial and consumer societies and then in more recent years in those of middle and even earlier stages of development. They express human wants and needs as surely as demands for better housing, more satisfying leisure and recreation… We customarily associate these with human ‘progress’, which normally is accepted as a fundamental concern unnecessary to explain away in other terms. An interest in the environmental quality of life is to be understood simply as an integral part of the drive inherent in persistent human aspirations and achievement.”


10 Bulls, a 12th-century illustrated Zen (Chan) Buddhist poem, symbolizing the different stages on the journey to enlightenment. From the Zen Flesh, Zen Bones anthology, with modern woodcuts by Tomikichiro Tokuriki:

1. The Search for the Bull

2. Discovering the Footprints

3. Perceiving the Bull

4. Catching the Bull

5. Taming the Bull

6. Riding the Bull Home

7. The Bull Transcended

8. Both Bull and Self Transcended

9. Reaching the Source

10. In the World

"In the pastures of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.

Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains,

My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.

I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints!

Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints.

Deep in remote mountains they are found.

These traces no more can be hidden than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

I hear the song of the nightingale.

The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore,

Here no bull can hide!

What artist can draw that massive head, those majestic horns?

I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power are inexhaustible.

He charges to the high platueau far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The whip and rope are necessary,

Else he might stray off down some dusty road.

Being well trained, he becomes naturally gentle.

Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.

The voice of my flute intones through the evening.

Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.

Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Astride the bull, I reach home.

I am serene. The bull too can rest.

The dawn has come. In blissful repose,

Within my thatched dwelling I have abandoned the whip and rope.

Whip, rope, person and bull – all merge in No-thing,

This heaven is so vast no message can stain it.

How may a snowflake exists in a raging fire?

Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source.

Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!

Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with that without -

The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world.

My clothes are ragged and dust-laden and I am ever blissful.

I use no magic to extend my life;

Now, before me, the trees become alive."