A few days ago, my wife was sent this deliberately misleading “appointment”:
It comes with a location and a date, and tells you to go ahead and call them to confirm a time. But there is no appointment: this is merely spam. I wonder how many people fall for this, then find themselves on the hook for a £129 bill for a half-hour appointment that they assumed was free on the NHS?
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire — J. K. Rowling
By this point, Rowling has hit her stride — which is both good and bad. Having sold millions of copies of her first three books, she had evidently outgrown the commercial need for editing … but not the artistic need. As a result of Rowling’s power by this stage of her career, Goblet of Fire is flabby where Prisoner of Azkaban was taut. If you recount the plot beats in each, the two stories turn out to be about the same length — as testified by the running times of the movie adaptations, 141 and 157 minutes repectively. Yet the book’s 636 pages take literally twice as long to tell that story as the 317 pages of Prisoner.
How does this happen? Events are stretched out. The writing becomes indisciplined, indulgent. Minor school events that in earlier books would have been skimmed over in a half a page are drawn out into multi-page scenes with each aspect described in detail. As a result, the book is somewhat slow-moving, and I didn’t find myself drawn propulsively through as I did with the earlier books.
To my complete astonishment, I am 49 years old today. If someone suddenly leaped out in front of me on the street and shouted “Quick! How old are you?” and I had no time to think, I’d probably say something like 27. It’s sobering to realise that’s not much more than half of my real age. Where did it all go?
Due to a miscommunication, Fiona bought me (among other things) 48 walnut whips — a box of 16 boxes, containing three each. This renders all the more relevant the card that Jonno (our youngest, at the bottom of the photo) gave me. As you can see in the picture, he modified the “DAD” on the front of it to read “FAT”. I certainly will be.
I spent the back half of last week in Toronto with my colleague Jason Skomorowski. Jason’s great company anyway, but on his home turf he step up a level because he also knows his way around Toronto’s restaurants — and it’s a great city for food. And the most memorable of many superb meals I had in those four days was omakase sushi at Yasu.
Yazu exterior, taken after our meal, at nearly 8pm when it had got dark.
Omakase was a new experience for me. It’s a sushi experience where the chef decides what you eat, and in what order, and the individual pieces arrive one by one.
On Wednesday, Parliament will vote on whether to close the Dubs scheme, which allows unaccompanied child refugees to enter Britain. When established, this scheme was supposed to take in 3,000 kids; it’s done less than a tenth of that, and closing it now would be shameful.
I just wrote a brief letter to my MP to that effect:
As an offshoot from my tweeting about a session at the AAAS meeting, I found myself challenged: “what are some practical things you did with your sons when they were young to nurture critical thinking?”
Given that I wrote some brief answers in response, I thought I might as well write them up here. This is by no means exhaustive, just a few thoughts and memories.
THE COMPLETE BEYOND THE FRINGE — BENNETT, COOK, MILLER AND MOORE
I re-read this compilation of the scripts of the Beyond the Fringe sketches because I was also re-reading Roger Wilmut’s history of early British sketch comedy From Fringe to Flying Circus (see below). As with all cultural movements, it’s sort of arbitrary where one draws the line and says “this is where it started” (were Black Sabbath the first heavy metal band, or do we go back to the Kinks’ You Really Got Me?), but a fair case can be made that the 1961 revue Beyond the Fringe was really the starting point of modern sketch comedy: a show written entirely by the performers, with minimal set and props keeping attention on the words, and combining satire with surrealism.
Cast of Beyond The Fringe, by Lewis Morley, resin print, 1961. Back row, left to right: Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett; front, Dudley Moore.
From this beginning, and from subsequent Cambridge Footlights revues such as A Clump of Plinths (retitled Cambridge Circus for the West End), came most of the distinctive British sketch comedy of the late 1960s, 1970s and 80s — including The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus — and later narrative comedies like Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns. But in truth, it’s not at all obvious from the Fringe scripts that all this creativity was waiting to burst out. It’s clearest in the work of the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore duo, which is more prone to veer off on surreal tangents than that of Alan Bennett or Jonathan Miller. But there is a distinctively upper-class quality to the performances of all four (ironically given the relatively unexalted origins of both Bennett and Moore) — which makes it all the more strange to think that Beyond the Fringe was perceived as dangerously iconoclastic back in 1961.