Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Song (Boiled in Lead)

So, here's the lyrics to a song that I think says a lot for this Christmas season.

recorded by Boiled in Lead [1987]
from the collection OLD LEAD

Born in the middle of the afternoon
In a horse-drawn carriage on the old A5
The big twelve-wheelers shook my bed
"You can't stay here" the policeman said
"You'd better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift!"

Born in the tatty hoagan time [= ? potato picking time]
In a canvas tent by the [tatie field]
The farmer said "Your work's all done.
It's time that you were moving on.
You'd better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go, Move, Shift."

Born in the common by a building site
Where the ground lay rutted by the trailer wheels
The local people said to me: "You lower the price of property
You better get born someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go. Move. Shift."

Born in the back of a blackthorn hedge
Where the white hoarfrost lay all around
No Eastern Kings came bearing gifts
Instead the order came to shift

You'd better get born in someplace else.
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go, Move, Shift.

The eastern sky, it was hung with stars
But one shone brighter than all the rest.
The Wise Men came, so stern and strict,
And they brought the orders to evict:
"You better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift!"

So wagon-, tent-, or trailer-born
Last month, last year, or in far-off days
Born near or thousand miles away
There's always men nearby who'll say
"You better get born in someplace else
Move along, get along, move along, get along.
Go. Move. Shift."

Move along, get along, move along, get along.
Go. Move. Shift.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Layoffs at Wizards of the Coast

Day before yesterday I had lunch with one of my friends who was caught up in what has become one of the holiday season's worst traditions: Christmastime layoffs at WotC. Having been there myself, I wish everybody who was part of this one good fortune in job-hunting and the smoothest possible transition to life on the outside, as part of what I've come to call the Great Majority: ex-TSR, ex-WotC.

And I really don't know what else to add. I didn't hear word about what'd happened until late the day after, and was so upset I couldn't draft a coherent response for a week. And when I did, it was so strongly worded that I was advised not to post it. For a more moderate response, see Jeff's posting at Grubbstreet (

I guess all I'd add is that I'm sad to see folks let go who have put in five, ten, fifteen or more years working there. And I'm sad that, so far as I can figure, they're now down to between eight to twelve people left from among those I worked with at the old TSR in Lake Geneva, auld lang syne.

--John R.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Linguaphone Update

So, my first attempt to listen to the Tolkien dialogues on the Linguaphone records has ended in failure. The new turntable I bought would neither play the records (it kept cutting out every thirty seconds or so) nor allow me to turn them into mp3 files I could play on a laptop or ipod. It's now been returned to the store from whence it came, and we've started in on Plan 2, the first stage of which (thanks to Janice's computer-fu) has met with success as of tonight. Now on the stage two; more about this later.

In the meantime, I've now done a little more research about the Linguaphone Institute, and found the preliminary results interesting. Originally Wayne Hammond dated these records as "[circa 1940]" in the Hammond-Anderson DESCRIPTIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY [1993]. By the time of the Hammond-Scull COMPANION & GUIDE (Chronology p. 153; Guide p. 822) this had shifted back to "June 1930", with a referent to a piece by Rene van Rossenberg in THE TOLKIEN COLLECTOR as their authority. Accordingly, I dug out my copy of that issue of THE TOLKIEN COLLECTOR (#5, Nov. 1993, p.18-20) to compare what Rene had to say with the box of records before me.

And this is where things get interesting. For the set of records Rene saw differs in minor but notable ways from the set I got. Mostly these are insignificant variants -- for example, the case mine came in is tan/brown, not black. Mine included the full set of fifteen records but lacked the sixteen record (the pronunciation guide) he mentions, although the accompanying text for it is included in the back of the booklet. Mine came with only one book, not the four he saw; I assume there was at least one extra book with mine at some point that either fell apart or was lost (the remaining hardcover clearly having seen much use over the years) -- cf. Andrew's comment to my previous Linguaphone post about his own set having two booklets.

The remaining book itself differs in several ways from Rene's description. For one thing, the book he saw "contains a preface and an introduction in Dutch" (RvR p.19). He specifically notes that this preface is dated "June 1930". Whereas my book is entirely in English, and its Preface is undated. And while both his and mine had blue covers, his front cover had "a gold five-pointed star" on it, and the address of the Linguaphone Institute at the bottom, both of which mine lack*

So, it seems that each such set once had the fifteen (or sixteen) records, the case, the hardcover booklet, and probably at least one booklet in the language of whatever country the set was being adapted to. I don't know how many languages this set was available in, but the last page of the booklet gives the street (mailing) addresses of the various offices of the Linguaphone Institute in twenty-three other countries besides the home office in England. Some of these, of course, spoke the same language, more or less (e.g. Canada, South Africa, and the United States, or the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies). It's strange to think of a set of these records being listened to in Turkey, or Batavia -- though no stranger, I suppose, than that they should one day wind up Seattle.

More to come on Tolkien's actual contribution to these. The most surprising detail so far as actual contents go I'd say is the casual mention of television, by that name, in the final piece on "Wireless" (radio). I hadn't realized the extent to which people knew about, and were ready for, tv, years before it actually became available.


*i.e., my cover simply reads
[at top]
Conversational Course


[towards the bottom]

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Last Days of Socks the Cat

Sad news this past week that Socks the Cat is nearing the end of his ninth life. I was surprised to see the news, since I'd read a false report several years ago that he'd died shortly after Clinton left office. Instead he's had a long, peaceful retirement and is now nineteen -- about the same age Parker would be if he were still with us.

So, fare well Presidential Cat; go easy into that good night.

see here for an account of Sock's life in retirement after his abandonment by the Clintons and adoption by Bettie Currie:

and here for the news of his current condition:

--John R.

current reading:

current audiobook: VARNEY THE VAMPIRE [1847]

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fordyce Hall

So, Saturday night I began running my new CALL OF CTHULHU adventure, "Fordyce Hall". It's a CTHULHU BY GASLIGHT scenario, set in 1884 in the English countryside, and falls into two parts.

The adventure begins with the first set of Investigators arriving by train at the remote village of Tysoe Abbey in 'Momerset' (the nickname for Somerset among folks who aren't from there, Christopher Wiseman told me); think Somerset/Devon/Gloucestershire.

In Phase One, which we just started, all the PCs are servants who work for the new heir of Fordyce Hall, young Sir Charles Fordyce, a London gentleman who has just inherited the estate from an elderly great-uncle who kept the old place closed up and lived in town (York) instead. Neither Sir Charles nor any of the PCs have ever been there, but the new baronet wants to celebrate Christmas in his new manor and so has sent these trusted servants ahead to get the place in order for the family to follow a month later.

Without giving too much away, at least some of the fun of the adventure should come from multiple layers of distancing. The players are all Americans but here they're playing Englishmen. We're all 'middle-class' but they're playing servants--the "downstairs" of a vanished Upstairs/Downstairs world--but servants off on their own, without any of the Family present. And their characters are city-dwellers used to the modern conveniences of Kensington, like gaslight and modern plumbing and the new central heating, here thrown into a remote manor house that hasn't been renovated for more than half a century--rather like someone from today's Manhattan being dropped off at a Depression-era Kansas farmhouse.

So, on the one hand there's their task at hand, which for various reasons they couldn't have anticipated turns out to be greater than they imagined: a much bigger house, in a greater state of disrepair, on vast ground left to run wild year after year. So far they've done a great job of pulling together, getting organized, and making a preliminary survey. Next comes their first night at the manor, as they start the herculean task of getting enough of the place cleaned up enough that the Fordyces can enjoy a stay in their new ancestral home.

And, of course, I'm curious what they make of the various sanity-sapping occurrences they'll soon begin to encounter. So far what they've encountered has been more in the way of obstacles than mythos threats. They took the first minor shock or two well, but it's early days yet; they've only just arrived at the Manor and had their first look around to get the lay of the land. To use a Tolkien analogy, they're like the Fellowship when they'd only taken a step or two to disturb the dark waters of the Watcher's pool; any vast tentacular beast that might lurk below has given off nary a ripple yet, much less risen to the surface. Without giving too much away, the nature of the threat they face in this scenario is unusual, not your typical C.o.C. fare, and I'm curious how they rise to the challenge.

We'll see.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Total! Drama! Island!

So, a few weeks ago I got hooked on a reality show. A cartoon reality show, on Cartoon Network (appropriately enough), called TOTAL DRAMA ISLAND.

By and large, reality tv is a phenomenon that passed me by, like rap music or the gentrification of tattoos. I know it exists, I just don't see the point: it just has no appeal to me. The sole exception is TOP CHEF, which Janice hooked me on during its second season (still never had a chance to watch season one, but so it goes). And so all the tropes that make up the genre (the meanie everyone's supposed to love to hate, the eat-disgusting-things episode, someone being voted off the island at the end of each episode) I know only through cultural osmosis.

Which makes it all the stranger that this hilarious parody of reality shows should so suddenly become a favorite. Partly I suppose that it has a distinctive animation style that I find appealing. And it has an interesting cast, nicely distinguished through the voice acting. While they all adhere to the cartoon convention that each only seems to have one outfit he or she wears everyday, their actions are all 'true to character', and they're a nicely diverse group without forcing the issue, which is good to see.

But I suspect the greater part of the show's appeal is its mastery of a sense of absurdity. Why should a lake in Ontario have sharks in it? Because, it breezily informs us in a later episode, they're freshwater sharks (no explanation for the piranhas is ever forthcoming). I only started watched about the sixth episode or so before the end, so it was a great help when they re-ran the whole season just before the finale -- where the character I was rooting for didn't win (dang!). That I cared at all shows they're doing something right. I'll definitely be checking out the second season, which (according to Wikipedia, Source of All Knowledge) will be called TOTAL DRAMA ACTION* and will parody movie genres rather than reality shows.

I don't know why, but for some reason the funniest part of the whole show for me is that it's Canadian. There's a valley girl, but she's a Canadian valley girl; a goth, but she's a Canadian goth; a juvenile delinquent, but he's a Canadian juvenile delinquent, and so forth. There's even what looks like a Hawaiian surfer dude, but he's apparently from a Canadian part of Polynesia none of us knew about, like we didn't know there were freshwater lake sharks, Canadian cursed Tiki Island, &c.

Best episode: I'd recommend the one about two-thirds of the way through that parodied the teen slasher flick, in which the goth girl keeps reminding them of the rules of slasher movies, only to have the others ignore them and disappear one by one. This also has one of the best lines from the whole series, where the announcer, Chris, says in effect "This could be really good for the rating . . . but really bad for the lawsuits!"


*check here for a trailer:

UPDATE: I should also have pointed out the insidiously catchy theme song ("I Wanna Be Famous"), which could easily fit alongside one of the sixties or seventies classic cartoon opening themes like Scooby Doo, Where Are You.

Also, Janice points out that there's soon going to be a TOTAL DRAMA ISLAND movie, apparently due out this month, though I haven't been able to find a more specific release date than just "December".

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"At the Tobacconist's", "Wireless"

So, Monday a box from Oslo arrived.

Inside, carefully packed in Norwegian newspapers, is a set of English language lessons on fifteen .78s recorded for the Linguaphone Institute back in 1930.

Why, since I already speak English as well as I'm ever likely to do, am I ordering language lessons from almost eighty years ago, and ones intended for foreign speakers at that?

Because it felt like I should spend part of the royalties from MR. BAGGINS on an addition to my modest Tolkien collection, something that I'd would otherwise never just come across (as opposed to, say, another interesting copy of THE HOBBIT). And these records include two dialogues which feature the earliest known recordings of Tolkien's voice: "At the Tobacconist", where he expounds upon the joys of smoking (which I've had a tape of for years, courtesy of a friend), and "Wireless" (which I've never heard before) where, somewhat surprisingly, he talks about how great radio is.

Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to listen to these yet, since, being from 1930, they're .78s, and our stereo only plays .45s and .33s. So, tonight we picked up a new turntable that supposedly converts records of all kinds (.78, .33, .45) into mp3 files which can then be downloaded to a computer, burned onto a disk, or put on an ipod. It might take a day or two to figure out the instructions, but when the reward is getting to hear some new Tolkien, the incentive is high.

--John R.
current audiobook: OF LIONS, DRAGONS, & TURKISH DELIGHT: C. S. LEWIS FOR LATTER-DAY SAINTS by S. Michael Wilcox (!)

current reading: DEATH'S JEST-BOOK by Th. Lovell Beddoes [1829]

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


So, today was my fiftieth birthday.

Fifty. Half a hundred. Still not dead.

Or, as my wife puts it, "Too late to die young!"



Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Owen Barfield's EAGER SPRING

So, recently a long-delayed project finally saw the light of day. Back around 1985, I spent the greater part of a research trip to Wheaton reading and making notes on his long unpublished novel ENGLISH PEOPLE. Ever since I've been firm in my judgment that this is one of the great lost Inklings works, and that anything I could do to help get it into print would be well worth the effort. So when the idea of printing some of Barfield's unpublished works was mooted a few years later by Bookmakers Guild, an Oregon publisher, and I was asked to write an introduction to one, I accepted with enthusiasm. I would have preferred for it to have been ENGLISH PEOPLE, but understood the publisher's reluctance to lead off with a long (500-page) novel written about 1930, the only surviving typescript of which was missing one crucial section.

The text I was sent instead was EAGER SPRING, a short novel Barfield had just written, which I quickly discovered was v. good indeed -- one of his best works, to be ranked with UNANCESTRAL VOICE, THIS EVER DIVERSE PAIR, and ENGLISH PEOPLE. It was surprisingly contemporary, being concerned largely with the threat of deforestation and toxic wastes yet stylistically more in keeping with Jean Giono's THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES, and no one reading it would have guessed its author to be in his late eighties. I wrote my Introduction in short order, sent it off and had it accepted by both Mr. Barfield and the publisher, and waited with great anticipation for the book to appear.

And a much longer wait it turned out to be than I expected. Not long after I completed my work on the introduction (January 1991), the publisher went out of business.* Thereafter the project languished and the unpublished book sank into obscurity. Indeed, after Barfield's death (in late 1997, not long after his 99th birthday) I was contacted by one of his executors, from whom I learned that my by now rather tattered photocopy of the typescript was the only copy of the text known to remain in existence, and would I please provide them with a copy (I was glad to oblige).

Thereafter occasional queries on my part led to assurances that one or another of the executors had plans for one or both works, but nothing seemed to come of them. Part of the marchen that ends ENGLISH PEOPLE, "The Rose on the Ash-heap", eventually got published in A BARFIELD SAMPLER [1993], and recently [2006] Simon Blaxland-de Lange, whom I'd met in 1998 at the Lewis/Barfield Centennial Mythcon at Wheaton, completed and published his biography of O.B., one chapter of which included a detailed synopsis of ENGLISH PEOPLE. But a synopsis, while welcome, cannot really take the place of well-written fiction, and "The Rose on the Ash-Heap" is by no means representative of the work as a whole any more than "Virginia's Conte", the final section of EAGER SPRING, is of that later and much shorter work; in each case the main text is far, far superior in every way to the relatively brief marchen or conte that follows.

And so the years flowed by until fall 2007, when to my surprise someone new took over management of Barfield's opus: his grandson (also named Owen Barfield), who made it his first priority to get his grandfather and namesake's works back into print. One of his first projects was EAGER SPRING, which I'm happy to say has now at last seen the light of day, complete with my Introduction (slightly revised to take into account the passage of another sixteen/seventeen years). My copy finally arrived on November 10th, 2008** -- making this the longest gap (so far) between my completion of a project and its seeing print.

For more on EAGER SPRING, and future plans for the Barfield Press, see

current reading: FRAGMENTS OF ANCIENT POETRY by James MacPherson [1760]

*they did manage to release one Barfield, several years earlier [1986]: a re-issue of THE SILVER TRUMPET, his first book.

**along with another new Barfield, NIGHT OPERATION, a dyspotian short story that had originally appeared in the journal TO-WARDS in 1983/84. While the story itself is not at all my cup of tea, I have to say that Janet Hipolyto has done a wonderful job with her introduction, bringing out elements in the tale that I certainly missed on my first reading of it years ago (e.g., that the three main characters in a sense represent Barfield, Harwood, and Lewis, or that it turns into a kind of grail-quest in the end).