Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Taste of Porridge

Taste in aesthetic matters is a personal thing, obviously, although the consensus around "good taste" is as rigorously policed by its self-appointed arbiters as that of its zanier cousin, fashion. "Tastelessness" is not quite the opposite of "good taste", however.  For something to be judged in poor taste it has to breach certain widely-held taboos about the suitability of subject matter, and its appropriate handling.  Sometimes, but by no means always, "tastelessness" is a marker of the new.  Satirical comedy is the obvious example, but John Keats, in his time, was another.

Of course, mention the word "taboo" and artists will start to swarm like, um, flies round a cow's head in a vitrine, scenting an opportunity for "transgression" (transgression has been the new black for some time, according to the taste police, hadn't you heard?).  But the taboos of taste are pretty flexible, really; genuine taboos, by definition, rarely get broken.  Images of what might be questionable in most contexts are usually rendered acceptable by the sanctifying cloak of art so that, for example, in the 19th century the likes of William Etty and Lawrence Alma-Tadema could make high-minded, high-end soft-porn into a respectable (and profitable) business.  Someone like Robert Mapplethorpe is their direct heir; his work is absurdly overrated by museums and collectors, in my view.

So I suppose one shouldn't still be surprised to discover super-expensive "good taste" and highly dubious camp imagery co-habiting, especially in the domain of self-declared fine art photography.  I recently checked out the website of an upscale photography publisher, for example.  Now, this is a very superior operation indeed.  They publish strictly limited-run books of mainly world-renowned photographers, with production values that are stellar.  Their productions are as good as it gets, the genuine white-glove, collectors-only experience, with no expense spared, no corners cut.  So much so, it is very difficult not to feel that perhaps one doesn't really belong on such a website.  There are no prices on display, for example, and there's nothing so vulgar as a shopping cart.  To be honest, I expect all the copies are sold in advance to subscribers, and the website is little more than a prospectus.

Now, I accept that taste is a personal thing, and that I am a cash-strapped nobody whose opinion on the matter nobody has sought, but I found the work being showcased so luxuriously to be, in the main, rather dull, and some of it, dare I say, a little tacky, though without achieving the glory of full-on tastelessness. It seemed remarkably staid in its aesthetic choices -- mainly monochrome, of course, with an emphasis on tonality and composition, and highly-crafted using alternative processes like platinum -- but that, presumably, is what collectors demand. But I also found the similarities of much of the tackier subject matter tedious, it was as if all the artists had been issued with the same kit of random parts and the same instructions. "Art photography junkyard challenge", perhaps.

Let's see: there are naked bodies in oddly contrived poses, nostalgic junk, dead flowers, candles, mysterious symbols, fruit, bits of taxidermy, and quite often "all of the above" in constructed surreal juxtapositions.  These are either carefully lit in "still life" mode or washed out with pinhole languor, generally with a brooding overlay of angsty sexuality.  Like Alma-Tadema, the work often invokes the support of classic texts, though I am curious to know which of Shakespeare's sonnets is illuminated by Flor Garduno's image of a naked woman holding a severed swordfish head over her own like an idiotic hat*.  Preposterous is too kind a word.  If the names Joel Peter Witkin, Jerry Uelsmann, or Eikoh Hosoe mean anything to you, you know what to expect -- the gang's all here, and it's dressing-up box time, complete with dwarves and suggestive fruit. It's simply not my cup of tea, but I imagine it must sell.

Why do I find this disappointing?  I suppose because I like the motivations behind an enterprise like this, and therefore want to like its products.  Although, at heart, I endorse photography's democratic nature (and am dubious about the value of editioning photographs and photo-books), I am nonetheless a sucker for the honest pursuit of craft values and premium quality.  Sure, I could never afford anything on sale here, but I love the look and feel of a well-made print, have strong views on the relative merits of papers, and adore the heft of a well-bound book; I would be happy just to press my nose against the show-room window for a bit.

But it is the disappointing truth that wealthy collectors drive the upscale market, and collectors seem to converge on the same work, portentous stuff plastered all over with every possible signifier of "art", but signifying nothing.  But I suppose there's no point in setting up a business without knowing your market.  In just the same way, the producers of cheap, lo-fi fanzine-style products all push an equally predictable "urban" imagery (apparently rescued from an all-nite film-processor's reject bin) and whatever "look" has been in vogue lately.

Whether excessively precious or eminently disposable, "taste" seems to be the driver.  And, as I read somewhere recently, there is a useful distinction to be made between the history of taste and the history of art.  The former is the realm of minor artists, typical of their time, briefly popular but quickly forgotten, the modish filler that serves as the matrix for the outstanding, untypical work of the true iconoclasts and groundbreakers.  But it's an undeniable fact that there's always money to be made from peddling "taste".  It's what people with money to spare want to buy.

It all reminds me of the poem "Popularity", by Robert Browning, which concludes with this verse:
Hobbs hints blue--straight he turtle eats.
Nobbs prints blue--claret crowns his cup.
Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats--
Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
   What porridge had John Keats?
In other words, originators starve, imitators thrive.  It surely takes a brave artist -- and an even braver gallery or publisher -- to choose the starvation route.  But then, you get the impression that true originators, poor devils, simply can't help themselves.

(OK, OK, but that's MISTER Nobbs to you....)

*  Let me guess:
Shall I compare thee to a Manta Ray?
Thou art more fishy and corniferous.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Bad With Names

Today is Shakespeare's (presumed) birthday.  You had probably already noticed: he's inescapable at the moment, what with the BBC's Shakespeare Unlocked season, and the World Shakespeare Festival, and goodness knows what else.  Sometimes, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether it is ever not Shakespeare's birthday.  But brace yourself for 2016, the 500th anniversary of his death.

One of the marks of an intelligent, aware person is an understanding that the world is never as simple as the version served up to satisfy the limited curiosity and attention span of children, and the cultural bystanders and don't-knows who make up 90% or more of the population.  But, even with that awareness, most of us are too lazy to act on it.  We stick with the official canons and "grand narratives", and tend as a consequence to suffer from a constant low-level guilt that we haven't put more effort into broadening our horizons.

But life is short and the Arts are overwhelmingly long.  Shakespeare and Dickens, Bach and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Turner; a person can spend a lifetime just getting to know the Premier League of the Arts, never mind looking into the life and works of the also-rans and might-have-beens. But it is troubling, isn't it?  Knowing how infrequently the prizes in life go to the deserving, you do have to wonder whether the Illustrious Dead, too, have somehow networked or sharp-elbowed their way to the top table.

For example, have you ever heard of Christoph Graupner?  No, neither had I.  Once, it seems, he was regarded as one of the most prominent composers in the competing courts of the German-speaking world.  In 1723 he applied for and was offered the post as Kantor in Leipzig, but his employer, the Landgrave Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt, made him a counter-offer -- more money and job security -- and so he turned Leipzig down, clearing the way for one Johann Sebastian Bach to get the job.  Graupner wrote over 2000 works, virtually none of which has been performed in the last 250 years, mainly due to a dispute over his legacy that kept his work unpublished.  Radio 3 played one of his choral works last week, and to my untutored ears it was indistinguishable from Bach.  But what purpose would it serve to redress the injustice or to rewrite the history of music now?  There's quite enough actual Bach to be getting on with, not to mention Telemann and a dozen other underrated but moderately well-known composers jostling for attention.  Only scholars care about context.

But the embarrassing thing is that I seem constantly to be coming across new figures of substance -- unknown to me -- in domains I thought I knew.  Somehow, you assume that after 40 years or so, you will have a pretty good sense of who's who and what's what, at least in those areas that matter to you.  I'm sure there are many prominent physicists and Formula One drivers whose names have passed me by, but I would have thought that I'd have the novelists, the poets, the photographers, the painters, the musicians and the "cultural moments" pretty well covered by now.  Not so.

This week I was surprised by Jack Spicer and the Berkeley Renaissance in poetry, a movement of the 1950s that is a direct precursor of  The Beats.  How did I miss that?  Spicer is a good poet with interesting ideas about the role language itself plays in writing (his collected poems are titled "My Vocabulary Did This To Me").  Maybe I'm just bad with names.

There's simply too much good stuff out there, but luckily there's no law says you have to keep up with it.  And the great thing about Shakespeare is that -- so far, at least -- he sits reliably, indisputably and unassailably at the top of that vast tottering human pyramid of artistic endeavour.  It doesn't do us too much harm to ignore everyone else, and it seems highly unlikely that we've overlooked some other great poet-playwright genius, unjustly buried and struggling under that heap.

Or does it?  Or have we?  I wonder...  But don't you worry about it, birthday boy. I think you're probably still safe up there.

If thou survive my well-contented day
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more resurvey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bett'ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
"Had my friend's muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought
To march in ranks of better equipage;
   But since he died, and poets better prove,
   Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his love."
Sonnet 32

Friday, 20 April 2012

The Waste Land

Of course, the second app I bought -- damn the expense!  -- was the Faber / Touch Press version of Eliot's The Waste Land The whole package -- poem, manuscripts, readings, interviews with the likes of Seamus Heaney -- is outstanding, but listen:  I don't know how many times I have read this poem, but I confess I don't think I ever really understood it until I watched Fiona Shaw perform it.  I had always thought of it as deliberately made of broken bits -- you know, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" -- but she brings a remarkable unifying sensibility to the whole thing.

In an earlier post I discussed her fine performance of John Donne's poems on a TV programme by Simon Schama, but this is something else.  Eliot's original title was apparently going to be "He Do the Police in Different Voices", and the price of the app is worth it for her amazing act of interpretive ventriloquism (impressionism?) alone.

Your shadow at evening rising to meet you...

Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Humument (Unsolicited Testimonial!)

I have several times made reference to the bookwork A Humument, by artist Tom Phillips. As a new, 5th edition of this mighty work of creative book defacement is shortly to appear, I thought it would be worth mentioning it again, if only to persuade you to buy a copy (for the first time, it's only being issued in paperback). Artists have to eat, too, even famous ones (and you only have to see a photo of Tom to see that he's a man who likes his food).

The project is so unique, and so long-lasting (begun in 1966 and still going); so involuted, self-referential and hermetic, yet so open-ended, inclusive and oracular; so witty, so funny, so filthy-mindedly sublime; so simply good to look at ... It's hard to know where to begin. At the beginning, I suppose. In TP's own words:

Like most projects that ended up lasting half a lifetime, this work started out as idle play at the fringe of my work and preoccupations. I had read an interview with William Burroughs (Paris Review 1965) and, as a result, had played with the “cut-up” technique, making my own variant (the column-edge poem) from current copies of the New Statesman. It seemed a good idea to push these devices into more ambitious service.

I made a rule; that the first (coherent) book I could find for threepence (i.e. one and a quarter pence) would serve.
Austin’s the furniture repository stood (until it closed in 1995) on Peckham Rye where Blake saw his first angels and along which Van Gogh had probably walked on his way to Lewisham. At this propitious place, on a routine Saturday morning shopping expedition, I found, for exactly threepence, a copy of A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, published in 1892 as a popular reprint of a successful three-decker. It was already in its seventh thousand at the time of the copy I acquired and cost originally three and sixpence. I had never heard of W.H. Mallock and it was fortunate for me that his stock had depreciated at the rate of a halfpenny a year to reach the requisite level. I have since amassed an almost complete collection of his works and have found out much about him. He does not seem a very agreeable person: withdrawn and humourless (as photographs of him seem to confirm) he emerges from his works as a snob and a racist (there are some extremely distasteful anti-semitic passages in A Human Document itself).

However for what were to become my purposes, his book is a feast. I have never come across its equal in later and more conscious searchings. Its vocabulary is rich and lush and its range of reference and allusion large. I have so far extracted from it over one thousand texts, and have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover.

(from the Introduction, on the official Humument website)

I'll say. Over the years, Tom has settled on a signature style of overpainting the pages of A Human Document, which isolates and links words (and parts of words) by following those wiggly typographic secret passages known to compositors as "rivers". This technique is both instantly recognizable and incredibly expressive; pages worked this way can become simultaneously yearningly sad, laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply filthy. In fact, those are the keynote tones of A Humument.

I have very recently got my hands on an iPad 2, and immediately downloaded the Humument app.  Well, of course!  It is simply amazingly, breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with that remarkable Apple screen resolution and those vibrant colours bringing out the true essence of the work, like pretty pebbles still wet from the sea.  Much as I love the books (I own as many editions in as many versions as I can find or afford) I have to say I think the app is actually better than the printed versions.  There is also a tongue-in-cheek "oracle" function which may, for all I know, give the I-Ching a run for its money.  And it only costs £4.99 -- ludicrous!

Bill Toge, the Humument's shapeless
 lump of a protagonist

N.B. If anyone has a little bit more money than £4.99 to invest, Tom Phillips sells signed, limited run Humument prints at very reasonable prices at his online gallery, and you can also get them at even more reasonable prices at the Shandy Hall online shop of the Laurence Sterne Trust, which is well worth your support (you have read Tristram Shandy, haven't you?).

Monday, 16 April 2012

Frank Exchange

There was an interesting edition of BBC Radio 4's Front Row recently, when Mark Lawson pulled together interviews with young Jewish writers who have been grappling in their recent work with the Anne Frank Stoff (as we literary theorists say), sometimes in a way that is deliberately provocative to the pieties of older generations (careful now).

I normally find listening to Lawson trying to negotiate delicate topics rather like listening to a car crash (why does he get so creepily insistent about sexual matters?), but he handled this one well.  The authors included Ellen Feldman, Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander.  Auslander's novel Hope: a tragedy deals with the conceit of a man who discovers the aged Anne Frank hiding out in his attic, and poses questions that non-Jews of a liberal persuasion would never dare ask.  Such as putting these words into the mouth of Anne Frank: "I think never forgetting the Holocaust is not the same thing as never shutting up about it". Yikes.

It struck me as amusing, therefore, to find these posters for current productions at the Nuffield Theatre juxtaposed:

What Anne Frank thinks about...

Thinking about Anne Frank...

It amused me, anyway.  The posters are for the three productions, "At Swim Two Boys", "Souvenir d'Anne Frank", and "Lalita's Big Fat Asian Wedding".

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Alien Sweetcorn

The "mobile phone" -- as in, a portable telephonic device you can use anywhere, except on the train between Winchester and Southampton -- has been with us now for some years.  There is no denying that in its current evolutionary state as "the smartphone" it has become a wondrous thing.  To carry a phone, a camera, and the entire internet in your pocket in the same sleek gadget is a truly future-tastic Dan Dare moment.  However, these devices have had an impact on behaviour which is not entirely benign.

From its earliest days, the annoyance of having to listen to one half of a mobile phone conversation was the stuff of "observational" comedy.  "I'm on the train!" became a watchword for inane, inconsiderate behaviour.  Do you remember the story about the guy talking loudly and obnoxiously on a mobile phone in a train carriage, which -- when he was asked to use it to get help in a sudden medical emergency -- turned out to be a non-functional toy?  Back then, a decade or more ago, that story was all about "us" versus "them" i.e. a non-mobile-phone using majority vs. a minority of selfish, infantile show-offs.  But now, when according to Ofcom's figures for 2010 over 90% of the adult population of the UK owns a mobile phone, it has become quaintly historic.

But the issues of how, when and where to use a mobile have not gone away, however, they have simply become more complicated.

Walking around town and the university campus, I am struck by how hard it is to distinguish "phone-driven" behaviours from mental disorder or distress.  I see people talking animatedly to themselves, waving their arms and gesticulating in various corners.  I see people frowning down at their palm and muttering, as they page through mails walking along.  I see people laughing, shouting and sometimes crying at no obvious stimulus, as they do something as innocuous as fill a bag with potatoes in a supermarket.  The genuine lunatics must feel aggrieved at having their act stolen like this.

A lot of overseas students are particularly fond of hands-free earphone-and-microphone sets, which only adds to the confusion.  A bearded man of Middle-Eastern appearance with a loud angry voice comes striding towards you, both hands waving energetically, eyes fixed in the middle distance -- you have seconds to decide whether or not to take evasive action. A Chinese girl is smiling broadly at you through the shop window and nodding vigorously -- no, don't wave at her, fool, she's only on the phone!

There seems to be a new version of "privacy" under construction -- Privacy 2.0, perhaps*.  Call me an uptight boomer but, personally, if I wanted to discuss my financial situation or my recent operation, or to have a row with a builder, I would probably wait until the room was empty, close the door, and try to keep my voice down.  I would certainly not do it loudly and uninhibitedly in the street, on the bus, or in Tesco.  Nowadays, it seems, no-one is expected to pay attention if a person's life appears to be falling apart before your very eyes.  What business is it of yours? Why should you care if someone is in tears amid the alien sweetcorn, or of exceeding wrath in Poundland?  Get a life, stickybeak!

One of my colleagues complained to me the other day that she had been phoned, on an "urgent" work matter, while away on holiday at Easter.  I sympathised, but thought, More fool you, for letting senior management have your mobile number.  To me, my mobile is a private matter, shared with about five other people.  I only turn it on when I need to use it.  But this progressive, consensual and mutual erosion of privacy via electronic devices seems to be a generational thing.  My kids will receive and reply to texts from their friends under the restaurant table, even while engaging me in conversation at, ahem, an extremely expensive celebratory meal at Monsieur Blanc's establishment in Oxford.  It's the next step up in the evolution of multitasking, I suppose, from the way they did their homework while watching the TV, something I always found incomprehensible.

The barriers that I and my generation erect between activities, that serve to compartmentalise our  lives into "work", "leisure", "friends", "family", "public" and "private", are clearly dissolving.  This is how I know old age is approaching: too many fundamentally new things are starting to be beyond my ken.  Twitter?  Facebook?  There is no obvious place in my 20th century life for these 21st century things.  Try as I might to stay au courant, my similes and metaphors are losing purchase on the world.  Face it, those of us over 50 are hard-wired with a little icon in our brains of a proper bakelite handset with a dial, the one that lights up when anyone says "telephone".

Do you still raise your voice and ask "Can you hear me OK?" when using a mobile?  Do you worry endlessly about the battery running out?  Does the idea of tossing £50-worth of hi-tech gadget in the bin outrage you?  Do you wonder what on earth all these people find to talk about, constantly, just because they can?  Are you mystified why youngsters under 30 prefer to text rather than speak to a friend on their phone? Don't worry, you're just getting old, baby, and so am I.

* Actually, given Privacy 1.0 was "everyone sleeping in a cave", we're probably onto the beta version of Privacy 4700. by now, but you take my point.

Humble Retraction 19/4/2012:  A certain young man has strenuously denied using his phone on a recent occasion, and I humbly retract my unfounded allegation.  However, I'm pretty sure there was some brisk keyboard action going on in the seat next to him, so the rhetorical truth of my illustration still stands...  For the record, I should probably also point out that the meal was not "extremely" expensive, as the Brasserie Blanc is actually quite reasonable, given the standard of the food, though my advice is not to choose the liver.

Friday, 13 April 2012

A Walk in the Woods

Up behind "our" barn conversion in mid-Wales is an immaculately kept wood.  I think it may belong to Fernando, the Colombian builder who did the conversion.  Certainly, I have met him motoring along the track through the wood on his quad bike, on his way to the field that I know he owns, with a load of fence posts and cement.  Curiously, the owner of the conversion is Argentinian -- there seems to be quite a community of Latin American expatriates settled in the area.

In the bit of snow we had last week these woods became even more attractive, just right for an hour or two's easy hillside ramble with a camera.  You don't find many woods in Wales where there is grass underfoot, and the brushwood has been gathered into neat piles, ready for the wood-burning stove.

¡QuĂ© bonito!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Adult Content

This week, Number One Son turned twenty-one.  Although I was in the first generation to benefit from the lowering of the age of majority in the UK to eighteen in 1970, attaining the age of twenty-one still seems somehow more "right" to me as the marker of passage into adulthood.  Although, let's be honest, few of us can claim to be even borderline adults until we've passed forty.

I'm pleased to say he's rather taller than me, now...

We've had what, in my observation, is an unusual experience with our kids:  we actually like them.  This has been a truly life-enhancing bonus.  Most parents love their children, of course, but "love" is an oddly ill-defined set of emotions that, it seems, need not include "like". Those parents always worry me who claim, for example, to "love their kids to bits".  An oddly revealing metaphor, especially when uttered between clenched teeth and with hands round the throat of some obnoxious brat.

Ah well, time to start moving on the next phase for both of us, I suppose:

And then the blogger justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances.

Of course, both he and his sister have yet finally to pass through the white water rapids of that modern rite of passage, the exam system.  This has played havoc with my dreams of late.  Long-forgotten anxieties about essays unwritten and subjects unstudied have been waking me at 4 a.m., and the flood of relief on realising that I have actually already sat all the exams I will ever sit is indescribable.  Phew.

So, if it's wise saws you're after, this reminds me of a little piece of hard-won wisdom I like to pass on to new fathers. I tell them that the worst bit will be school.  You will revisit all the bad experiences you had at school -- The horror!  The horror! -- but this time you won't be able to do anything about it, except worry on behalf of someone you care about more than you ever realised it was possible to care.  Compared to that, I have to say, dreaming about exams is child's play.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Parable of the Tribunal

In the comments to a previous post, I proposed that to have some talent, in itself, is not enough to achieve anything worthwhile.  You also need
  • Application. That famous "99% perspiration", or the "10,000 hours".
  • A generous measure of selfishness.  Life, particularly family life, with a creative genius is a quick route to despair, divorce, and denunciation.
  • Something to say.  Most rare of all. The Real Thing.  Accept no substitutes.
I might also add
  • A  trust fund.  Or, failing that, a taste for the (very) simple life.
Frankly, if you are in possession of all of the above, any actual "talent" is an unnecessary luxury.  And, lacking them, the possession of any amount of "talent" is little more than an embarrassment, like having a car but no ability to drive.

This is particularly the case for those of us brought up in the non-conformist Protestant tradition (my family is Baptist; I am not).  We have a difficult relationship with a deity that likes to get quite personal about things like laziness and failure.  That notorious "parable of the talents" (Matthew 25:14 and Luke 19:12) is a central teaching for what we might call "shopkeeper's Christianity", and has been responsible for a lot of unhappiness.

Interestingly, those infuriatingly smug "wise virgins", who have loaded up their spare jerrycans of lamp-oil at the pump, also pop up in the very same chapter of Matthew.  There's an unpleasantly petit-bourgeois flavour -- Thatcherite, even -- to these parables that is hard to reconcile with The Man's more profound teachings that challenge precisely this "because I deserve it" world-view.  I have to say, Jesus as reported in the Gospels does seem to blow confusingly hot and cold on the subjects of the deserving and undeserving poor, the proper uses of wealth, and how far the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a Building Society account prudently tied to the FTSE 100 Index.  Maybe he just liked to play with his disciples' minds.

With which thought, I did read said parable again -- it is Easter, after all -- and now present it to you from a different perspective.  Let the hate-mail commence!


This Industrial Tribunal has convened to consider the case of Simon the Servant brought against Lord Hardman for constructive dismissal.

Let me remind the Tribunal, that constructive dismissal occurs when an employer's behaviour has become so intolerable, or the original terms and conditions of employment have been varied so substantially, that the employee has no choice other than to resign. Since resignation in such a case is not truly voluntary it is, in effect, a termination of employment. For example, in a case where an employer has acted like an utter shit, in order to get the employee to resign rather than dismissing the employee outright, then that capitalist bloodsucker is trying to effect a constructive dismissal.  Are we on the same page, now?

OK, facts:

Lord Hardman decides to go travelling for a couple of months.  Nice work if you can get it.  He divides up some serious capital, eight talents, between his three employees.  However, this is not done equally or equitably.  OK, eight talents won't divide by three, but to divide them in the proportion five, two, and one says something about his view of their relative merits, does it not?  Also, it is a matter of record (Matthew 25:15) that Lord Hardman at no point explicitly instructed Simon the Servant what to do with the money entrusted to him, though we can accept the implicit instruction not to lose it or spend it on handmaidens.  What may or may not have been said in private to the other, more favoured employees is not recorded.

The plaintiff decided to play safe, and stashed the cash in a "hole in the ground" account, paying little or no interest.  One talent doesn't go far, and the minimum investment requirement for high-return cash investment products is a statutory two talents.  His fellow employees, by contrast, decided to gamble with their employer's wealth.  They claim the money was put into high risk structured investment vehicles, that they got lucky, and doubled their stake.  In a couple of months, in the current financial climate?  We should all be so lucky.  However, it is not the business of this Tribunal to make allegations of corruption, money laundering, manna dealing or other improper use of funds against any third parties.

On his return, Lord Hardman went through a little capo di tutti capi routine, that resulted in the promotion of the other two employees, and the ritual humiliation of the plaintiff ("Where's my freakin' vigorish, you wicked and slothful moop?"), with open threats of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Lord Hardman is known to be a "hard man" who, in the words of the plaintiff's deposition, "reaps where he hath not sown, and gathers where he hath not strawed".  We think this means that Hardman is a nasty piece of work, using business practices that border on the criminal.  A man to be feared, in other words.

It is claimed that the whole thing was a set-up to persuade Simon the Servant to resign (and thus avoid payment of the statutory redundancy lepton).  One talent out of eight? It was an insult, and a provocation.  Understandably, Simon left Lord Hardman's employ immediately, but was encouraged by the Amalgamated Union of  Slaves, Indentured Servants and Handmaidens to file this claim of constructive dismissal.


The Tribunal upholds the claim of Simon the Servant against Lord Hardman, and awards him the exemplary sum of ten talents, to be recovered from Hardman Enterprises Ltd.


We assert that the Republic of Heaven shall be like unto this Tribunal, whereby no wickedness which has been  perpetrated against any of these, my brethren, will pass without redress and compensation, though we are divided as to the wisdom of casting any rat-faced exploitative wrong-doer into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We also emphatically strike down and reverse the judgement that "unto every one that hath it shall be given, but from him that hath not it shall be taken away even that which he hath" as both implausible and unpronounthable.

Here endeth the lesson.

Addendum 10/4/2012:

I am appalled to be informed that there are people out there who do not know the parable referred to, or who do not have access to a Bible (have they never heard of the internet?).  For the benefit of those foolish virgins, here is the relevant part of Matthew's Gospel:

 14 For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.
 15 And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.
 16 Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents.
 17 And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two.
 18 But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money.
 19 After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.
 20 And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.
 21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
 22 He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.
 23 His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
 24 Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:
 25 And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.
 26 His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:
 27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.
 28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.
 29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
 30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Four Mornings in Wales

We've been in Mid-Wales this week.  The one dependable thing about the weather in Wales at this time of year is that it will change.

On Monday, around 7:00 am, I awoke to a theatrical sunrise spectacular, that had me leaning out of the bedroom window with a camera. It was the sort of surreal combination of sun, thick mist, and clear skies that makes you question whether you are truly awake.  It burned off to reveal a day of blazing sunshine.

On Wednesday, around 6:30 am, I awoke to the whistling and banging of high winds, and opened the window onto horizontally-driven snow that continued all day.  We had to drive to Hereford that day, but luckily the wind seemed to blow the snow straight through the valleys and up onto the hills.

On Thursday morning, around 7:00 am, the blizzards had gone, leaving a light covering of snow on the fields, and a bright white cap on the hilltops.  The sun stayed behind a covering of cloud all day, but the snow had practically all melted away by the evening, except on the highest hills.

On Friday, around 6:30, there had been a heavy frost, and a smoking mist hung over the valley.  As on Monday, it had burned off by mid-morning, and we drove home in sunshine that grew increasing hot as we descended in altitude and latitude towards southern England.

Yes, that is the same oak-tree in each picture.  It stands in the field below the hillside barn conversion we have started to use in recent years.  It's a pleasant view to wake up to each morning, and it's one of the few places I know where you can wake up in a spacious timber-framed, oak-floored room, and get a regular photo-opp even before going downstairs to make a first cup of tea.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Material World

I recently watched the two parts of Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese's portrait of George Harrison, on the BBC iPlayer.  Not out of any great interest -- apart from a couple of years in my early teens, the Beatles' music has never had much resonance for me, and I can't say I've knowingly heard a George Harrison album ever in my life.  I used to find the Rolling Stones much more interesting (that is, until their only subject became their own descent into sleaze).  But I can't resist any programme that incorporates vintage footage and interviews with aging musical celebrities.

I was particularly struck by a sequence where Lennon and Harrison are guests on one of those hyper-serious chat shows that have since vanished from the airwaves.  I presume the theme was something like, what should we make of the spray-on "Eastern spirituality" that has infected some strands of pop of late? (maybe the programme was billed as "From Satire to Sitar"?)  The two Beatles seem to have been summoned to appear before an invited audience of the intellectual and bien-pensant establishment, in order to explain themselves.  Although, this is only an "audience" in the sense of the seating arrangement -- these people are certainly not there to listen to anyone.  In fact, they behave like hospital consultants invited to discuss an interesting pathology, as displayed by the baffled pair on stage.

John Mortimer (one of those annoying upper class rebels, the archetypal "champagne socialist") and the guy seated near him (whom I feel I ought to have recognised, but didn't) are shown giving free vent to their theories on "Mr. Harrison" and his wacky Eastern ideas, all expressed in the most preposterously patrician tones imaginable.  It's outrageous.  Nobody speaks like that any more.  You almost expect one of them to get up and poke John or George with a stick.

The main effect of their torrent of fruity verbiage, of course, is to establish a barrier: on this side we are serious, educated, well-informed, articulate people, with considered opinions, worthy of attention.  On that side of the barrier you are, intellectually, objects, never subjects. You people over there may, in medical terminology, "present" interesting and even sympathetic behaviours, but you can never be expected to understand or express them yourselves.  That's our job.

How very 1960s.  Particularly British, too, I thought, was the fact that John and George -- a couple of streetwise scallies who had lucked out, big time, but ended up defining the zeitgeist -- were actually putting up with this treatment without verbally decking anybody.  It appeared they knew their place, although it's clear from their faces that they weren't happy about it.  It seemed a long way from the scene in the train carriage in  A Hard Day's Night ("I fought the War for your sort!" "I bet you're sorry you won, now").  But then, I don't suppose they wrote that.

The irony is that Lennon and Harrison were pioneers of a New Aristocracy, and really didn't need to take any crap from those pompous schoolboy bores any more.  Mortimer and Co. simply hadn't yet heard the news. But, if the evidence of this film is to be believed, global fame had already turned into a global prison for them, within which even prodigious wealth had become prodigious boredom.  It seems no matter how you played it, mean-and-moody or eager-to-please, you ended up having to live in a stratospheric gated VIP lounge way above the wordy bleatings of the media, but -- more sadly -- also way, way above the world of the fans who put you there, but whose dangerous devotion was a constant threat to your safety.

No wonder Harrison eventually turned away, and took to either hanging out with congenial members of those other aristocracies in showbiz, motor racing, and the film world, or gardening and obsessively re-landscaping his estate at Friar Park.  Not that it brought him safety, any more than it did John Lennon.  A lunatic with a knife was able to penetrate into this sanctuary, and Harrison was probably only saved by the bravery of his gutsy wife.

George Harrison was clearly a man obsessed by death, or more precisely, by the "spiritual" preparations for leaving one's life with equanimity.  Yet, in the film, Tom Petty reveals that Harrison's surprising message to him on the death of fellow "Travelling Wilbury" Roy Orbison was, "Aren't you glad it wasn't you?"  Elsewhere, I read that Petty's message to Harrison after his stabbing was, "Aren't you glad you married a Mexican woman?"

Frankly,  my takeaway message from the film was,  "Aren't you glad you're not a massively successful and wealthy rock star?"  Something we all need reminding of from time to time.  As Keith Richards is often quoted as saying:  I do all this stuff so you don't have to.  Thanks, Keith.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


I have had a lifelong fascination with moths.  Some of my earliest memories are of driving home in the dark along country roads from our weekly Sunday visit to grandparents, with a constant barrage of moths strafing the car like tracer bullets.  Occasionally, a huge one would be sucked into the mighty vortex of our Austin A40 fighter-bomber's propellers, with eyes that gleamed briefly as bright as the cat's eyes embedded in the centre of the road.

Like all things which emerge from the dark of night, the moths which settled on our kitchen window, trembling with some unknowable ecstasy, seemed like envoys from another dimension.  Let us in, please let us in!  We have tidings of great strangeness to impart!  Needless to say, we went to great lengths to keep them out.

If they did get inside, though, that ecstasy would be unleashed as fury.  there is something profoundly disturbing to the human mind in the way a large moth will hurl itself around a room, in the same frenzy as a fish landed on a riverbank or a cat in a sack, knocking itself to pieces in the blindness of its desire to escape or transcend its spellbound condition.  Eventually, exhausted and broken, the moth would vanish from sight, and the next day the smouldering wreckage would turn up under a chair or inside a shoe; message undelivered, mission impossible.

I became fascinated by these dead husks, that -- looked at closely -- resembled alien spacecraft made of intricately-engineered parts, decorated with a pagan, earthy camouflage that had a satisfying harmony of colour and shape.  A magnifying glass did not dispel, but enhanced the mystery.  Your gently exhaled breath would cause the defunct antennae and landing gear to tremble fearfully, and the hairy thorax would ripple like a field of sun-browned grass.

The next step after wonder, of course, is knowledge.  I still own the copy of The Observer's Book of Larger Moths and the two volume Moths of the British Isles I was given in primary school.  I studied them the way some children now study Pokemon or Top Trumps; I spent hours bent over these catalogues of marvels, feasting on taxonomies of similarity and difference.  It was like mainlining Gilbert White and Charles Darwin.

The names alone invoked enchanted Edwardian summer nights spent "sugaring", sweeping kite-shaped nets, and finessing captive moths into round cardboard pill-boxes:  Angle Shades, Clifden Nonpareil, Burnished Brass, Brindled Beauty, Silver Y, Hebrew Character, Snout, Toadflax Brocade, Foxglove Pug, Brown Rustic, Pebble Prominent, Coxcomb Prominent, Silver Ground Carpet, Autumn Green Carpet, Blue-Bordered Carpet, Lunar Marbled Brown, Feathered Gothic, Feathered Thorn, Jubilee Fan-Foot...  On and on and on...  There are many hundreds of native moth species with "common" names alone (and about 2,500 in all), compared to the 60 or so native butterflies.  This hidden abundance and diversity is part of their mystery.

Inevitably, collecting followed.  This is something I regret now but, like birdsnesting, back then it was regarded as a normal and instructive outdoors activity, and far better than slouching around all day with a comic.  I think you could even earn a badge in the Cubs for it. Certainly, a ten-year-old boy could walk into a chemists, demand a half-crown bottle of ether or ammonia ("for my killing bottle, please, mister"), and leave with his deadly purchase in a paper bag.

I would mystify the neighbours by pegging a bed-sheet to the washing line at night, together with a high-wattage lightbulb on an extension cable.  Our street was backed by a wood, so the nocturnal visitors came thick and fast.  I won't go into the details of what happened next, as I have no desire to attract hate-mail.  Suffice it to say I made my own [whisper] killing jar, relaxing box, and setting boards out of household materials, and achieved a pleasing level of skill in the business of miniature taxidermy.

Unfortunately, we then moved to a new-build estate of housing scraped out of the middle of some muddy fields, and the species count there was very low.  I began to lose interest.  We then moved again to a fourth-floor flat, well above the moth zone, and -- being by then thirteen and it being 1967 -- other interests came to the fore.

But I still get a little charge of excitement when I see the Humming-Bird Hawk moths working our Buddleia bushes on late summer evenings, or come across a Red Underwing sheltering in the eaves of the garden shed.  And my family sounded the true depths of my moth-madness when, a few summers ago, I stood entranced in a  Brittany car-park at dusk, where twelve individuals of three species of large hawk moth -- Privet, Convolvulus, and (I think) Striped Hawk -- were feeding in a blur of wings on the municipal Hydrangeas.  Very nice, they said, But we're hungry, and left me standing there, as they went to claim our reservation at the creperie on the other side of the square.

The thing is, unlike Pokemon or Top Trumps, moths are real.  And it appears they think they have an urgent message for us.  What can it be?

The Elephant Hawk moth that appeared in our garden,
2004, wearing the livery of Elvis' first album
(or London Calling, if you prefer).

By the way, if you want to see a photo-book that really understands the mystery of moths, then you should try to find a copy of Attracted to Light, by Mike and Doug Starn, or at least look at a gallery of the images on their website.  It's outstanding work, worthy of its fascinating subject.