Friday, 30 January 2015

Outside Looking In

Ferdinandeum library, Innsbruck

In my thirty years as an academic librarian, I have had the privilege of visiting quite a few magnificent libraries, either as a guest or by showing my access-all-areas On Her Majesty's Bibliographic Service wristband *.  I have gaped in envy at the Wellcome Institute's cash-rich plushness (the only library I have ever visited with its own logo printed on the vinyl dust-covers of its microfilm readers), been enchanted by the Harry-Potter-central-casting-leather-bound perfection of the Natural History Museum, and clanged through the shabby-chic recesses of the London Library and the old British Library stacks, with elevated walkways and shelving assembled out of slotted and perforated cast-iron sections (intended to maximise ventilation and penetration of daylight in the days before electricity), as if kitted out by a steam-punk IKEA.

So it was with a certain poignant foreshadowing of my imminent civilian status, back in the summer in Innsbruck, that I found myself outside looking in, peering through the glass partition separating a gallery of paintings in the "Ferdinandeum" State Museum from the comfortable and well-appointed Tyrolean State Library.  I was fascinated by the portrait of a bearded woman apparently wearing Comanche warpaint, hanging on the wall behind the researchers, until I realised I was seeing the superimposed reflection of another painting hanging on the facing wall [note to self:  maybe it's time to start wearing those glasses?].  The clients themselves were hunched in the international body-language of concentration, oblivious to each other and the idiot with a camera grinning at them through the glass.

There is an interesting portrait project for someone, probably not me, to capture the assorted states of rapt absorption, distraction and repose that people adopt when at work in a library.  Various photographers have done "people reading", from André Kertész to Steve McCurry, and there's a superb collection of anonymous photographic postcards on that theme, compiled by artist Tom Phillips from his own collection (now deposited in the Bodleian Library and published by them, ISBN 978-1851243594 **).  But "library readers" would be quite different.

In fact "library sleepers" might be even more interesting.  In a university library at exam times, students are always to be found slumped in various contorted poses over piles of books and notes at all hours of the day, sometimes with amusing notes pinned or glued onto their backs.  Not, I hasten to add, by library staff.  Or, at least, not as a matter of policy.

British Museum
I remember when this was all books...

It's only when you're finally permanently outside an institutional setting of any kind -- a school, an office, the police, a government department, or a library -- that you realise quite how crazy the long-term inmates invariably become. Which reminded me of this:

My former place of work has five floors, linked by a main staircase, a back staircase, and a lift.  One morning, I had to go from my office on the entrance-level floor (confusingly known as "Level 2") to take a copy of Puck of Pook's Hill I had on my desk back up to the top floor (Level 5).  I'm always in need of exercise, so I usually take the stairs.  That day I felt particularly badly in need of exercise, so I first went down to the basement (Level 1), and went up to Level 5 from there, using the back staircase.

I replaced the Kipling on the shelf.  It was the Puck volume of the Centenary Edition, published in 1965, with identical graphical dustjackets in a typically early 1960s design.  Soldiers Three in the same edition caught my eye, so I took it off the shelf and went back downstairs to my office, this time via the main staircase.  After a while I realised I probably didn't want to borrow it after all, and that I should probably return it immediately.

Just for fun -- I'm easily pleased -- I repeated my previous journey i.e. down to Level 1, and up to Level 5, again on the back staircase.  I replaced the volume, but for some reason took down another, Plain Tales from the Hills, and again went back down to Level 2, again via the main staircase.  Back in my office, I wondered: what if I were to immediately return this volume, too, by the same route?  How many times would I have to repeat the procedure before anyone would notice that I had just passed by in the same direction, apparently holding exactly the same book? (But, in fact -- ha! -- not the same book at all).  It struck me that this was a piece of conceptual performance art in the making.

Conceptual art is all about self-imposed rules and constraints; it's the Higher OCD.  So: what if I were to repeat this for all the volumes in the set?  There were only 23; what a pity there weren't 24...  Twenty-four being a magic number, instantly conferring significance; it might even be an ironically oblique way of marking our upcoming move to 24/7 opening hours.  I should probably find a different set of books, one with twenty-four volumes, ideally larger in size and with even more striking but identical dustjackets.

Some other refinements were probably needed.  Did it matter whether anyone spotted what was going on, or was it enough that the procedure was carried out as planned?  If so, would I be more noticeable if I ran, or did a funny walk?  Perhaps the thing to do would be to arrange for a Keystone Cops-style squad of Security staff to pursue me ineffectually, until ... yes! ... a white-coated team with a strait-jacket waylaid me, noisily and publicly, during the twenty-fourth iteration!

But, in an Ono-esque gesture, I merely wrote this project down in my notebook, rather than carry it out.  Of course, in the way of all such conceptual art, who's to say I didn't do it?  What difference would it make?  Does anyone care what is actually inside Piero Manzoni's tins, or whether Tracey Emin ever actually spent a single night in that bed?  It did briefly occur to me that it might be worth submitting my idea to a suitable body for funding; it could become a useful supplementary income stream, and at the same time open up a new avenue of self-expression.  But in the end I decided the best course would be to retire as soon as possible, before anyone realised quite how mad I had finally been driven.

* "Her Britannic Majesty requests and requires all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to enter freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such access as may be required, with no jobsworth nonsense about opening times, public holidays, and the like. Don't make Us ask twice, yeah? Cheers, ER."

** In fact, there's a whole series of these Tom Phillips/Bodleian themed postcard compilations, all worth a look -- I particularly like "Bicycles" and "Fantasy Travel".

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Lots of Laughs

Last Thursday afternoon, I went for a walk across Southampton Common.  The morning had been bright, cold and crisp, but the light started to fail quite quickly -- the picture above was taken at 14:34, the one below at 14:54.  Bizarrely, there was no frost anywhere except at this one spot, wedged between a path and a stream.  There were even patches of ice where small puddles had frozen, too: it seems I may have stumbled over the single coldest location in South Hampshire.  No doubt when the next Ice Age begins this will be the starting point for a glacier.

Mind you, according to the weather-folk, the next Ice Age will begin on Wednesday, and it seems it's already sweeping into America's East Coast.  Wrap up warm, guys!

Any talk of snow at this time of year always puts me in mind of the last Great Ice Age, the mid-to-late 1960s, when rough beasts stalked the land, and the ground was deeply, crisply, evenly covered beneath what must have been at least several inches of snow.  Playing around with the new BBC iPlayer Radio app, it was a pleasant surprise to find that episodes of a show called I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again are being re-broadcast on digital channel BBC Radio 4 Extra.  Now, back in that last Ice Age, this was an innovative radio sketch comedy programme, a sort of pre-Python prototype.  It was very popular with some of the boys at school and, as with Monty Python later, breaktimes would be enlivened by the enthusiastic retelling of the previous night's feast of skit, wit and repartee.  Not having grown up in a "speech radio" household, I never did hear any of this show myself, and my memory of it is entirely second-hand.  So, I thought I'd have a listen, for old time's sake, and chose an episode at random from May 1966.

I was amazed, but not in a good way. The very first thing I heard was Bill Oddie assuming a bad generic "Jewish" accent, à la Fagin, as a booking agent handling Beethoven, although I suppose it might have been South African.  Are South Africans strongly associated with entertainment management? Not really... The cringe factor immediately went up to 9.  A few sketches later, we had Graeme Garden doing "Tales from Shakespeare, by David Pushoff", and the cringe factor went off the scale, and I had to stop listening.

I doubt David Kossoff is much remembered now, except possibly as the father of Paul Kossoff, the il-fated guitarist in the rock group Free, but his distinctive, avuncular storytelling style, with its kindly, sing-song Jewish inflections, was once a staple of British children's entertainment.  In the parody, Graeme Garden plays up the Jewishness for comic effect -- lots of "Oy! Oy!" -- and the wholesome-sounding audience laughs the laughter of "recognition humour".  Yes, Jews do have a funny way of speaking, don't they?  Ah yes, I've heard about Jews and their mothers!  That's funny, too, isn't it?

Now, clearly, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden are not, and were not, bad people.  They simply reached for whatever comic tools came to hand.  There was a fashion in the 1960s for dark, even "sick" humour, as an antidote to the bland and hypocritical pieties of an older generation, with the result that anything and everything was suddenly -- and confusingly -- fair game.  The boundaries of offense and "poor taste" had become blurred.  But this programme did remind me, uncomfortably, of the innocent, reflex racism that I grew up among and adopted, which I touched on in an earlier post.

Apart from staples like Jewish jokes (meanness with money), Irish jokes (stupidity), and "nig-nog" jokes (grotesque physical features), our white English schoolboy argot was suffused with casual, almost unconscious racism.  You would complain that someone had "wogged" your pencil, or that a friend was "jewing" their bag of sweets.  Inevitably -- with hindsight, incredibly -- the first black boy at our school was dubbed "Wog" Walters.  Homosexuality was, of course, even more beyond the pale of acceptability, and any hint of effeminacy was bullied mercilessly.  In retrospect, the playground atmosphere was pretty toxic, and the few representatives of those mocked and despised minorities must have walked in fear and held their tongues.

It's a obvious fact that nearly all comedy sparks off of our prejudices and preconceptions.  I watched a Frankie Boyle recording for the first time the other night, and was, well, surprised at the level of hostility he unleashes; I was even more surprised at the readiness of his victims in the audience to offer themselves up, and to laugh along.  Finding oneself funny can be a saving grace, but allowing oneself to be stereotyped for comic effect by others -- or, worse, to collude in that stereotyping -- is surely always a step in the wrong direction.  It's never really worked for Jews, has it?  I recently heard a female Asian comic quip that "brown people don't do camping".  It got a big laugh.  But, "brown people"?  Really?

The problem is that, as someone once said, most of us don't really have a sense of humour, but do love to laugh.  A good comedian knows how to give an audience permission to laugh, through the shape and rhythm of their patter: one ... two ... three ... laugh now!  But the content of the material is nearly always about Us putting Them back into their box.  With honourable exceptions, few comics ever get beyond the contemporary equivalent of, "Jews, they have a funny way of speaking don't they?  Ever noticed that?  Oy vey!" [Laugh now] ...

I mention this because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  We're all Righteous Among the Nations these days, of course.  Who wouldn't have risked torture, imprisonment and death to rescue or hide Jews fleeing from persecution by a government we had somehow, in an inexplicable lapse of judgement, voted into power?  Who wouldn't have endangered their career prospects to speak up against the dismissal of Jewish colleagues, even though from 1933 onwards acquiescence was simply a matter of obeying the law?  Not us, I'm sure.  [Laugh now]...

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Spider on the Wall

Of all the images I brought home from Innsbruck, I think this is one of those that have pleased me the most.  That strange spidery sunburst on the wall is the shadow of a cupola on top of the circular gallery, distorted by the angle of the sun and the fact that the wall onto which it is projected is itself curved.

It must be a fairly predictable sight, but whether it has been photographed before I couldn't say.  I like the way the figure on the right appears to be flinching away from the apparition, like Little Miss Muffet, and the way the panel on the left and the portion of the projection on the floor break the symmetry of the "legs", not to mention the way the polished parquet floor reflects the whole thing.

Choice! Though I say so myself...

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Salty Bread

You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
This is the arrow that the bow of exile
Shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

Of others' bread, how salt it is, and know
How hard a path it is for one who goes
Descending and ascending others' stairs.
 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XVII

It is the fate of most of us to go through life without touching the sides.  Whoosh!  There it was, gone.  Was that it?  I'm afraid so...  Next!  Yet, although only an exceptional few ever make any lasting impression, there are still places -- maybe not in the glare of the spotlight but also not quite in the outer darkness -- where unusual, interesting, fulfilling lives can be led.  But you may find that those places are not marked on the map handed out to you at birth, and you may need to become a bit of an explorer.

This, in Britain at least, has always been a matter of social class and education. "Class" has become unfashionable as a way of describing oneself, and the organisation of society.  The idea that you are to any degree defined and constrained by your origins, or that mobility between classes does not simply correlate with an increase or decrease in disposable income, is at odds with the more marketable idea that everything is a matter of choices, of elective lifestyle.  That the choices available to you might in themselves be defined and constrained by your social origins is never part of the sales pitch.

I think I've become more class-conscious as I've got older.  That is, it has become more obvious to me that, despite meritocratic claims to the contrary, you are as profoundly and permanently marked by your social origins -- high, low, or middling -- as by, say, race or gender.  It doesn't seem that way when you start out.  Whatever circumstances you have been born into, if you have been gifted with intelligence, creativity, and perhaps a little originality, your early life is all about your own personal exceptionalism.  Sure, most of my friends are doomed to repeat the ordinary, dull lives of their parents, but me, I'll never fit in, because I'm different!  But the thrill of exploring the territory of your own unique "difference" diminishes, when the realisation dawns that the price of trying to escape the gravitational pull of your origins will be never to feel fully at home anywhere else, either.

Banal as it sounds, I tend to feel this most on Saturdays, when I go to do the weekly shop.  I can choose between a number of supermarkets, depending on what we need and what mood I'm in, ranging from the downmarket anonymity of a Tesco superstore (situated off a dual-carriageway like a customs post to Nowhere) to the upmarket calm of a Waitrose in nearby market-town Romsey (which shares a carpark with a country lifestyle store where you can buy riding tack and hen coops).  In either of those stores, however, I wander the aisles, thinking, "I bloody hate these people...", whether it be the hyper-obese matriarchs in mobility scooters shrieking at brattish children, or the deluded snobs of rural Hampshire, happily paying those "reassuringly expensive" prices.

There is a smaller supermarket I use more often, situated in town near to the University, where I know I will meet a series of people I have worked with over the last 30 years, many of whom are long-retired, and hungry for a chat. The frequent stops mean the shop can take twice as long, and there is something unsettling about watching the wizened husk of a former professor of Rocket Science shuffling along absent-mindedly with a basket of cat food.  Laudably, the shop employs several shelf-stackers and trolley-retrievers on a "care in the community" basis, including a woman who sings and laughs constantly in a rather demented way and at the top of her voice.  In the wrong, uncharitable mood, though, the undertone of despair beneath the forced jolliness of her constant cackling and warbling can take me to a very dark place by the time I reach the checkouts. I often end up stuffing the bags in the boot of the car with a strong sense of relief: let's get out of here!

Most often, though, I use a large Sainsbury's in a nearby estate built in the 1960s on the top of a gentle hill, which has an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in.  There, although I know nobody, I know everyone, and they know me.  It's a pleasant feeling.  It's got a lot to do with body language, and choice of clothing.  These are "my" people, from my class of origin, living lives that -- with a little less awareness of difference -- would have been mine, and sometimes I can experience a deep sense of peace, simply pushing a trolley among the plumbers and builders, the primary school teachers and nurses, the postmen and electricians of the skilled, aspirational working and lower-middle classes.  And yet, of course, I am never now more than a weekend visitor, passing through.  Like thousands of others before and since, I left town at the first opportunity, never to return, becoming yet another displaced person, exiled by education.

So, wherever I happen to shop, it seems, I will drive home with the salty bread of exile stowed in the boot.  Which, let's be honest, is much nicer than the white sliced Sunblest of my youth -- though perhaps not as nice as a fresh-baked pain de campagne from a proper French boulangerie -- and I couldn't eat anything else, now.  Although getting the bags up and down all those stairs is becoming a pain.  Maybe it's time I signed up for online grocery deliveries?

On reflection, maybe not.  I'm still sufficiently a product of my origins to be embarrassed by the sight of an Ocado van pulling up outside.  So, who's gone all posh, then?

Museum staircase, Innsbruck

Monday, 19 January 2015


Finally, I am able to get out of the house for sustained periods, and went for a wander up on Twyford Down yesterday.  Like me, these two heifers were enjoying the last rays of the sun on a bright but chilly afternoon.  Although, unlike me, they weren't looking forward to a nice hot cup of tea.

As an image it's hardly to be compared with a Beethoven late quartet, but nonetheless I'm put in mind of the dedication of the third movement of Beethoven's opus 132, the extraordinary String Quartet in A minor:
Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart
(Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode)
Of course, in Beethoven's time, recovery from illness and medical intervention was rather less guaranteed than it is today.  Anyone who talks sniffily about "so-called progress" or regards the advances of empirical science and medicine as mere constructs is an idiot.  That such idiots should find a platform within institutions of higher education and be paid salaries out of the public purse is one of the wonders of our age.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Innsbruck Revisited

Given the dearth of new photographs in recent weeks, I have taken up a long-postponed task, and have been taking a closer look at the files I brought back from my residency in Innsbruck during summer 2014.  It's interesting, what a difference the lapse in time can make.

The immediate standouts that got used in my blog posts, and were reused in the "blog book" I produced last year (A Tourist From Mars) still mainly work for me, I'm glad to say, but others have begun to come to the fore, now the actual experience is receding into memory, and I am able to see them with a more objective eye.  In particular, there are many images I dismissed previously as "untypical outliers" or, at the other extreme, as "too like my other work".  Some of these are much more interesting than they appeared at first glance, and reveal some consistent threads in my approach I wasn't conscious of at the time.  Amongst other things, I was clearly obsessed by the way the intensity of the southern sun in June reveals colour and texture in the plainest of walls.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure how much further effort I will put into this.  As I have said about other isolated sets of images -- our yearly visits to Wales at Easter, for example, or what amount to "holiday snaps" taken on other short visits --  they tend either to lack enough coherence, to be too few in number, or to cover too limited a part of the year to make a considered, coherent series in their own right.  There was initially some talk of a possible further exhibition, but on current showing this seems unlikely.

I actually have no idea how the summer exhibition was received, as I haven't heard a single word about it, positive or negative, from anyone since returning home in June, and must conclude that it was less successful than hoped.  In particular, there seem to have been no picture sales at all this time, which is both surprising and disappointing.  I have to say I thought it was a pretty good show, and that I managed to produce some outstanding new work from a brief 10-day residency in an unfamiliar location, but, too bad: if we waited on other people's opinions and responses, we'd never do anything worth doing.

Thursday, 15 January 2015


I'm not normally keen on photo-books that are compilations, and I have also generally been less than impressed by the photo-books produced by publisher Thames & Hudson.  Somehow, despite their track record in art publishing, they don't seem to get photography.  Their books tend to be too large, too glossy, and aimed at too broad a segment of the market -- they always remind me of cookery books.  So you can be sure I'm impressed by the compilation made for Thames & Hudson by William A. Ewing, Landmark : the Fields of Landscape Photography (ISBN 978-0-500-54433-4), because I'd recommend you get a copy if you have any serious interest in contemporary landscape photography. 

The weakness of compilations, generally, is the attempt to be comprehensive.  If you include a little of everything, it's very hard to make a satisfying whole, with a unifying sense of taste, design and intention. Any book which is simultaneously an academic overview and a "sampler" aimed at beginners is pretty much doomed, unless the compiler's taste is exceptional, and the underlying motivation of the publisher is clear.  There are any number of poetry anthologies, for example, which simply re-shuffle the same old selections, or which showcase the compiler's own poor judgement.

This volume is outstanding in every respect.  I suppose I would say that, because this is the selection I would have made myself, apart from the fact that I had never before come across the work of about 50% of the contributors, but wish I had.  There's no "landscape porn", no School-of-Charlie-Waite, but page after page of outstanding contemporary photography, including a number by that brilliant photographer known only as NASA.

It's not cheap, and it's quite bulky, but if you've got any Christmas gift tokens left over, you could do worse than buy yourself a copy.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Whatever Did Happen to Yorick?

January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman deity, noted as the god of revolving doors, with special responsibility for the safe return of goods to their shop of origin after the gift-giving season.  Traditionally, offerings to Janus took the form of credit notes, rather than cash.  January is thus a time for refunds, swaps, reviews, fresh starts, and subscription renewals.

It's also a time for simultaneously looking back, and looking forward.  Don't try this at home.  In fact, here is some excellent advice, which I wholeheartedly endorse: never go back, never dwell on the past.

But, as you take the sharp January bend into a new year, it's impossible not to glance back and find yourself wondering about the trail of wreckage you have left behind, not just in the previous year, but in all the preceding years.  With the turn of each successive year, the view of the past does seem to improve, like the view back down a mountain road of hairpin bends.  What most of us see down there is the strewn debris of a lifetime of broken resolutions, missed opportunities, abandoned projects, and poor choices.  Reason enough to refasten one's gaze on the road straight ahead once more.  This time, it will be different!

Nonetheless, around this time of year I often catch myself in a retrospective mood, thinking, "I wonder whatever happened to So-and-So?"  No matter how fortunate you have been in your friends, or how assiduously you have tried to keep in touch with each other, some will simply have vanished from your life.  All it takes is a change of address, some mild "musical differences", or a significant fork in the metaphorical road.  Oddly, it seems to take a special effort of imagination to realise that you have vanished from their lives, too.  I think most of us nourish a narcissistic fantasy of walking back into a certain place -- it might be a pub, or a cafe -- where all those past acquaintances sit waiting in a state of suspended animation for our return, like Norm Peterson walking into Cheers.  Yay!  So what have you been up to for the past forty years, man?

It is the B-side of this fantasy that, just as our lost friends remain Forever Young in our memory, so too do we in theirs.  Which is weird.  Especially when you think quite how much you have changed, both in appearance (argh) and in your beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. I don't know about you, but I was an idiot when I was 20.  I cringe with embarrassment when I think of some of the things I thought, said, and did, back then.  That there are people out there who still think of me as that posturing buffoon, unaware of the wise, caring, sober-sided-father-of-two citizen I have become since, is both amusing and appalling.  No wonder so few of them have stayed in touch.

Mind you, they were mostly idiots, too.  They are probably equally embarrassed, and rightly so.  I'm thinking mainly of the ones I knew in that youthful dreamtime, at university, when everyone still had their full unspent allotment of unrealised potential and the world was -- for the lucky, talented few, at any rate -- an enticing board-game of unmade choices.  Everyone was still a contender.  The dice were still in the cup.  While we're waiting for the game to begin, why don't we all experiment a little?

It doesn't take long for that to change, though, once the dice have rolled, and the snakes and ladders of life begin.  Paths immediately diverge.  In my case, tagged as an incorrigible hedonist, rarely rising before noon, seldom sober, and ironically something of a stranger to the library, I became less-than-essential company to the career-minded majority in a college noted as a launchpad for eminent public lives.  Toxic, even.  I didn't mind: it made it easier to spot the like-minded souls.  As someone once said, the dancers will inherit the party.  And what a party it was!

 Your blogger attempts "May You Never..."
 Balliol College JCR bar, 1973 *

Naturally, in a few cases, and naming no names, there has been no need to wonder, "Whatever happened to Wotsit?" because various Wotsits did become public figures, rarely out of the media spotlight, or perhaps choosing which way to direct it.  They're welcome to it:  it's a grim spectacle, following the ups and downs of the career, listening to the party-line opinions, and watching the mask slowly and permanently fix itself to the face of someone you once knew.  You can only hope they thought it was worth it.  There are no January refunds or returns on those sorts of life-choices.

But, at least you can say: Look, there's that Yorick on the TV again!  I knew him, Horatio, when he used to rock'n'roll!

* Actually, "Home Ranch", by Thomas Eakins, 1892, reversed laterally to get the guitar the right (wrong) way round (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Thursday, 8 January 2015


You may have hoped to see here some photographs of the Hoegh Osaka cargo ship, which was deliberately stranded on the Bramble Bank just off Calshot in the Solent, because of a sudden list that developed as the massive vessel left Southampton port -- loaded with 1,400 cars and JCB vehicles! --  on Saturday.  Sorry about that...  I'm still pretty much tied to the house following my surgery before Christmas.  It's deeply frustrating.

So, here's one I made earlier, with a cargo vessel a little south and west of where the Hoegh Osaka now is, having been refloated and towed to a position out of the main shipping lane between Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and Lee-on-Solent.

A very old joke:

Q:  What is brown, wet and steaming and comes out of Cowes? 
A:  The Isle of Wight ferry.

That one graced many a Christmas cracker, until ferries stopped either being brown or steaming.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Galette des Rois

Our French neighbours across the road invited us over for a traditional French Epiphany celebration, involving the consumption of champagne (mais bien sûr!) and centering on a galette des rois ("kings' cake").  This latter is not a celebratory cake in the British mould -- a grimly dark slab of burnt dried fruit, mixed with oddly spiced floor sweepings, bound with lard, laced with alcohol, and concealed beneath artex marzipan and icing -- but a really tasty bit of patisserie, filled with frangipane like a giant round croissant aux amandes, into which a single fève (bean) has been baked, rather like the traditional sixpenny bit in an English Christmas pudding.  A decent galette des rois, it seems, comes complete with a paper or cardboard crown to put on top, which is a bit unsettling when you first see one.

In the most traditional observance, the youngest person not yet incapably drunk gets beneath the table and calls out the names of those present, to ensure a random distribution of slices.  I'm not sure what happens if certain names get called twice, but -- as all the younger members of the party were rushing around like rugrats on a sugar high, and no single adult was entirely sure of everyone's names -- this element was dispensed with, anyway.   The "bean" is a little plastic figurine nowadays, so we were warned not to bite recklessly into our slices, in case we were the lucky recipient (having signed the traditional French waiver-form concerning liability for dental work).  That person becomes King for the day, wears the crown, and ...  well, we never quite figured that bit out, either.  It was a nice, convivial evening, and we were happy to have taken part in this little entente cordiale.

I tend to get my Epiphany mixed up with my Pentecost, and that's not the champagne talking.  Having been brought up in a Baptist-Agnostic household, I never really understood all those mysterious feasts that used to be printed in tiny type in diaries.  All a bit high church, rather too smells'n'bells.  Of course, for our ancestors, that was the year.  You planted and sowed, gathered and reaped, paid rent and renewed your Reader's Digest subscription by the calendar of feasts and holy days.  Candlemas, Ascension, Annunciation, Twelfth Night...  Each brought its reassuring round of customs, obligations, and associations, not to mention plays about cross-dressing twins.

Take the all-important "quarter days". In England, Lady Day (25 March), Midsummer Day (24 June), Michaelmas (29 September) and Christmas; in Scotland, Candlemas (2 February), Whitsunday (15 May), Lammas (1 August), and Martinmas (11 November).  These were when rent was due, and servants and field-hands were hired at fairs; serious, memorable, life-changing occasions when people from scattered villages would congregate en masse in market towns.  Mind you, the 18th century calendar reforms, when we switched from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar, rather wrecked all this hallowed continuity.  There were riots:  "What do we want?"  "Eleven days!"  "When do we want them?  "September 1752!"  One consequence is that in Britain we still pay our taxes on 6th April, rather than 25th March, because 6th April is "old" Lady Day.  I'm hopeless with dates, work it out for yourself.

I forgot to mention:  in the south of France, apparently, the equivalent cake is called gâteau des rois, and "is a torus-shaped brioche with candied fruits and sugar."  Now, that's an invitation I couldn't refuse!

More of a candied bagel, but...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

The Song Lines

Have you ever noticed how many people -- perfectly normal, intelligent, and otherwise observant people -- never bother to listen to song lyrics?  Or, if they do, consistently mishear or misremember them?  The word "mondegreen" was coined in 1954 to describe those garbled lyrics that people thought they had heard: you can read about it here.

This is something we're all prone to, and sometimes for good reasons; I've lost count of the times I've looked up the lyrics to, say, "Brown Sugar", only to wish I hadn't, only to forget them again, only to speculate once more what a "Cheshire queen" might be.  But not to care at all about song lyrics! To someone like me -- who recalls a large percentage of the lyrics to pretty much every song on every album I've ever owned, plus a huge passive corpus of songs I didn't even know I knew -- this is utterly mystifying, and at times deeply frustrating.

Do you recall the Wondermark cartoon I linked to a few posts ago?

It depends entirely for its effect on knowing the lyrics to "Winter Wonderland":
In the meadow we can build a snowman
Then pretend that he is Parson Brown
He'll say, "Are you married?"
We'll say, "No, man --
But you can do the job
When you're in town..."
It must be maddening, to produce something quite so economical, witty and off-the-wall as that cartoon, only to elicit the response, "Huh?"

So, I'm pretty sure I am not alone, though the crowd standing with me may be rather small, compared to the proportion of the population who are blind, deaf, or dumb to song lyrics (estimated at 93.6% by the OECD, 2010 figures).  And yet: there is no word to describe this condition.  Unbelievable!

So I thought I might make one up.  My first thought was mondegroid, given that the existing coinage covers at least part of the syndrome.  To be sure, until this post was posted, that word did not exist on the entire internet (at least, that part of it not lurking under rocks and invisible to Google).  But it does seem an ugly word, with some unfortunate undertones.  Also, chronically mondegroid people are a minority: the majority of sufferers have no regard for song lyrics at all.  Incredible, I know, but there it is.

Now, this is not the same thing as an indifference to music, as such.  As it happens, that does have a name, though not a very good one:  "specific musical anhedonia" (nothing to do with disliking South Pacific or Guys and Dolls).  Obviously, there is no reason why anyone indifferent to all music should care about the words of any particular song.  But, paradoxically, many sufferers of lyric indifference syndrome are genuine music enthusiasts.  They love songs, but have no more interest in understanding the lyrics or knowing who wrote them than in separating out the bassline or counting the beats between cymbal crashes.

The word dyslyrical seems already to have been coined by a few people on the Web as a synonym for "mondegreen", but I think it matches this syndrome better, and I'm tempted to appropriate it.  It does fit in nicely with the various words for tone deafness, such as dysmelodia and dysmusia.

But, it strikes me that the problem is really the other way round.  When 93.6% of the population share a tendency, the word for that is "normal".  As ever, the Normals go about their normal business undescribed; only minorities and the Eternal Other get labels stuck all over them.  There is no need for a word meaning "the inability to play the piano to concert standard", or "the ability to pronounce the letter R perfectly well".  What we do need is a word for that minority who have abnormally sticky ears for songs, whose brains reverberate with rhymes, melodies and rhythms like a busy hive of song-bees, or who stash away lyrics like song-rats or song-squirrels.

Looking far back in time, back to the days of the epic oral tradition, the ability to remember and sing large amounts of wordage was essential if your job description was "bard".  A bard who resorted to tum-ti-tum, or could only ever remember the first verse was unlikely to eat very often, though skilled improvisation was a matter for applause, and extra mead.  It may be that our 6.4% of the population (2010 figures) carry bardic genes: it was a trade that did tend to run in families, after all.  Steering away from obscure Greek words like aoidic, perhaps someone possessing that trait is not so much a songsmith as a songherd? Or, in a more modern idiom, a songpiler or perhaps even a wordhouser?

But it's not just a matter of passive memory.  Other characteristics and sub-categories quickly come into play, once you start thinking about it.  A coinage with real legs needs to reflect a worldview, to capture an attitude as well as a meaning, not just plug a semantic gap.  Above all, it must feel good to use.  Combining or twisting existing words is not the only way to do this, but is often the most effective in a world where no-one understands Latin or Greek any more.  It also helps if you can identify a concrete characteristic, or something that throws an ironic light on the subject.

For example, many LPs and CDs included a wordsheet.  The sort of person who might take the trouble to read the lyrical small print is a major subspecies of the beast we are trying to name.  Nothing would persuade me to coin a word like wordshit (though I have known a few of those), but nerdsheet and word-nerd have a ring to them, and wordsheet-wizard has definite potential. Fot the more annoying individuals, I'd propose chorus-borus, or word-wally.  Or what about credit-bard or insertovert for those who add obsessive attention to an album's personnel and production details into the mix?  For those with true total recall, perhaps lyric-savant would do?  My last throw -- for those of a truly archival tendency -- is a mashup of "lyrics" and "antiquarian", with a hint of "librarian": lyriquarian, or possibly lyriquary.

The proof of the coinage is in the usage, of course.  Let's see...

"Of course, the dyslyrical majority cannot understand why lyriquarians get annoyed when..."
"Wordsheet-wizards will agree, when I say that Led Zeppelin are leaden-footed thieves, lyrically."
"Only a mondegroid would say that.  And only a nerdsheet would spot the Steely Dan reference there."

Hmm, maybe none of the above, but that's as good as I can get it.  Let's wait and see if any of these escape into the wild.  If you have anything better to offer, of course, you know what to do.

But, on reflection, a small but significant subset of readers -- those who shared my Stevenage youth and ventured into the Undercroft Club on Friday evenings around 1970/71 -- will surely acknowledge that the best possible coinage for a person obsessed with lyrics and band personnel would be a Duncan (a true word-wally, if ever there was one).

Lyrical gold... Limited edition...
A ghost of Christmas Past

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year's Day

Hibernating bikes (sorry, Andy S., look away...)
For many years, it has been my custom to venture outside on New Year's Day, whatever the weather, and try to take at least one decent photograph.  We always used to take ourselves off somewhere fairly remote for New Year until we had children or, more accurately, until the children came to realise it was not actually compulsory to be stuck hundreds of miles away from their friends, in what is often the dreariest week of the year.  So, in recent years, I have generally simply gone for a walk.

This year, I made a token excursion into the back garden.  The weather and light were abysmal -- a heavy blanket of cloud and rain driven up from the south by a blustery wind -- and I'm still feeling beaten up by a couple of hours yesterday spent with "my" consultant (though I'm beginning to suspect our relationship is asymmetrical, and I'm really just "his" patient) who was clearly bored to be at work on New Year's Eve and decided to run me through all sorts of uncomfortable procedures.   Hey, it passes the time.

So, here's one I made earlier, on the 28th -- close enough for jazz -- which seems to capture something of the nature of the season.

Amazing, how I got that owl just right...  Beautiful plumage.  The empty cans are nice, too.