From a Guardian profile of the naturalist and television presenter Chris Packham, written by Patrick Barkham:
In a nation traditionally distrustful of public intellectuals, Packham may be too clever by half for some tastes. Every year he slips song titles into Springwatch, beginning with his beloved Smiths and continuing this year with David Bowie.
Where to begin? What does he think — oh, never mind. Just pass the hemlock, will you?
From the London Review of Books, 30 June, p. 16 - "Hyena", one of two poems by John Burnside
Like something out of Brueghel, maned in white and hungry like the dark, the bat ears pricked, the face a grey
velour, more cat than dog, less caracal than fanalouc or civet ...
Whoa! I don't want to give away the ending; besides, it's less the poem that interests me - sorry, John Burnside - than the zoology.
To begin with, what kind of hyena are we talking about? There are three species, the spotted, the brown, and the striped: on the basis of the details Burnside gives ("maned in white", "bat ears", "face a grey velour"), it can't mean the spotted, which barely has a mane at all; he might mean the somewhat scraggy-looking brown, though the mane is less striking than the white ruff under the chin; but taking it all in all, the spotted is the best fit:
And then come some interesting taxonomic details. "More cat than dog" seems counterintuitive, what with the long muzzle and the habit of hanging around in packs, but Burnside is perfectly correct. Hyenas and dogs are both members of the order Carnivora, but hyenas sit alongside your actual felids (cats, such as caracals) in the suborder Feliformia. "[L]ess / caracal / than fanalouc / or civet" seems to imply that, within the Feliformia, they sit nearer the viverrids (genets and civets) and the euplerids (an exclusively Madagascan bunch of mongoose-like animals, of which the best-known is the fossa): again, the consensus is that that's how it is.
That "fanalouc" is a puzzle, though. He seems to have confused two different animals: the falanouc and the fanaloka - both euplerids, and closely related. Which one does Burnside have in mind? Here's a falanouc:
And here's a fanaloka:
Of the two, the fanaloka is, to my eyes, more hyena-like in appearance, and arguably in lifestyle. While the hyena is famous for the bone-splitting strength of its jaws, the falanouc's teeth, set in a narrow, shrewish head, are adapted for soft-bodied creatures, for worms, frogs, slugs. At least the fanaloka (also known as the Malagasy or striped civet) hunts something crunchy, even if it's only small mammals, birds and lizards.
All of which leads me to conclude ... Well, nothing: I've been wasting your time here. If anybody can tell me what Brueghel Burnside had in mind, though, I'd be very grateful.
Last night I went to the London Review of Books Christmas party, which was nice. Two things in particular made it enjoyable for me: first, Tariq Ali didn't make an impromptu speech; and second, I had a long conversation with the novelist Tessa Hadley, who is Tim Dee's cousin. Her latest, The London Train, will be published in January: it turns out that one of the main characters resembles me in a number of implausibly specific ways. For years the possibility has loomed that I am a character in a derivative and poorly written sitcom - Terry and June, with the occasional gag plagiarised from Strindberg or Edward Albee - so it's a relief to find that I'm actually a character in a novel.
Here's Tessa writing in the Guardian earlier this year on the connection between writing and life:
...we imagine that in order to write with these bold strokes, this distinctive truthfulness, this writing personality strong as the flourish of a signature, the writer in her or his self must be full of personality, distinctive, bold.
Yet I don't think writing begins necessarily in strength of self. No doubt some writers are born, so to speak, fully formed – when they find their right voice in the written word, it's as an overflow for the self that's already there, forceful in talk, in sociability, in influence. But the preparation needed for good writing could just as well begin in an opposite place – in a weak and underdeveloped sense of self, a chaotic and incoherent personality.
From today's listings for Radio 3 in the Guardian:
9.15 Nightwaves. Philip Dodd reviews a new production of Ibsen's comedy Ghosts.
To be fair, they probably just assumed this was another of his Farrelly Brothers-style gross-out comedies - along the lines of John Gabriel Dorkman, The Wild *uck, An Enema of the People, and, of course, The Master Bator (love the ending, with him falling off the tower - slapstick heaven).