Thursday, 31 October 2013

Service Ravine

I pass through this architect-designed ravine every morning on my way to work (not this morning, though: we're on strike!).  It's a brick-paved service thoroughfare that squeezes between the grand wood-clad cliff of the new Life Sciences building and the anonymous barn of the R.J. Mitchell Wind Tunnel.  For me, it's a nowhere place of significance, as 20 years ago it was the site of the University Day Nursery, which both of my children attended.

What I particularly like about it now, from a photographic point-of-view, is the way reflections bounce around inside it, enlivening some of the dullest utilitarian architecture to be found anywhere.

Mind you, for all its retail-barn appearance, the Mitchell Wind Tunnel is something of a national secret weapon -- the vans of the [cough] British Cycling Team [cough] were often to be seen parked outside during the run-up to the Olympics.  R.J. Mitchell was, of course, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Top Down

Remember these two trees, from last week?  (Yes, two -- look closer).  One has now done autumn and gone out the other side to bare stick status.  At first I thought someone had stolen it.  We had a big storm on Sunday night, which must have helped with the leaf redistribution, but it's clearly a trend-setter, way ahead of the fashion curve.

The one on the right is still thinking about it. So, it seems, are most of the others. We were speculating whether the vent to the right of it might be creating a micro-climate, but looking around campus it's clear the reluctant one is more typical in its timing.

It also seems that this species is generally inclined to put on autumn colouration from the top down, which is unusual but ornamental:

A few more weeks and another big blow, though, and it'll be sticks all round.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Balkan Sobranie

In a converging world, it's increasingly hard to know what "authentic" means.  Every day I see youngsters from all parts of the world all wearing the same universal clothing styles, all listening on iPhones to the same universal pop, and all wearing the same universal trainers.  Obviously this is a narrow and self-selecting sample and, true, there is resistance, especially from the Islamic world; spotting the various styles of hijab, chador, niqab and even the odd burka on campus is an interesting ethnographic pastime.  But, sadly, very few students these days wear national dress, in the way children's encyclopaedias from the 1960s might have led one to expect.  Frankly, I would feel a fool, now, wearing a bowler hat and East Anglian smock, the way I used to when I was a student.

Fig. 1, Hertfordshire towns

But there are still anomalies and outliers out there, thankfully.  For example, I recently came across the Romanian gypsy wind ensemble, Fanfare Ciocarlia. You can tell they're authentic, not because they all come from an improbably remote Romanian village (which they do), and not because some of their instruments are home-made (which they are) but, paradoxically, because they incorporate bits of the Godfather and James Bond themes (not to mention "Born To Be Wild") into their arrangements, made for playing at real gypsy weddings in the 21st century.  Yes, they'll wear preposterous stage clothes and play for cash on TV anywhere in the world; but their sense of identity resides in the music, not in the packaging. This is not museum music, or folk revival music.  This is virtuoso ensemble playing by vernacular musicians who have been taught to play in pretty much the same way they were taught to walk and speak.

There's an atmospheric documentary about them, "Iag Bari: Brass on Fire" (on YouTube here, in German with Swedish subtitles), made by the German enthusiast who "discovered" and unleashed them on the world, and they have now released several albums.  If you don't know it, give the music a listen ("Iag Bari" is very immediate in its appeal), and you'll feel the instant excitement it generates: it's like opening the door of a remote village hall on a snowy night where a celebration is in full swing. This may be the ideal music to be played at a funeral, provided the venue allows the consumption of bucketfuls of alcohol and frenzied dancing, and possible outbreaks of fighting between rival family factions.  I'm picturing something like the wake scene in Guy Ritchie's film Snatch.

Fanfare Ciocarlia are by no means unique -- check out this alternative combo, Taraf de Haïdouks, for that truly authentic Balkan look and feel.  A clear demonstration that you don't have to be young, thin, or even have a full set of teeth to swing.  Though a decent hat always helps, of course.  And isn't that Franz Kafka on violin?

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Pension Snatchers

We learned this week that there is a massive hole of several billion pounds in our university staff pension fund.  Well, that's just great.  But why am I not surprised about this, despite the reassuring noises the trustees have been making since the financial catastrophe of 2008?  If there's one thing I should know, it is put not thy trust in pension-fund managers.

Now, people sometimes say to me -- I'm paraphrasing -- why would someone as talented, well-educated, pacific, hedonistic, well-balanced and modest as you -- as I say, I'm paraphrasing here, maybe even interpreting a little -- ever have got mixed up with those humourless Trotskyists, dangerous Anarchists, and incomprehensible Situationists these files here on my desk suggest you once did?  Pray, sir, why did you have such a grudge against the world?

After I have gracefully accepted these back-handed compliments, I give them the shorthand version, which is to explain what happened to my parents.

They were good people, my parents, to an extent I must admit I found deeply irritating.  Having done their bit in WW2 (or The Last Lot, as they tended to call it), they settled into a life of obedient conformity.  Their faith, as I interpret it, was that if they did what they were asked to do, and maybe a little more on top, and made no trouble or unreasonable demands, then they would be rewarded in the only currency they valued: pensionable employment in clean, safe jobs, housing in clean, safe council accommodation, and education for the kids in clean, safe state schools.  That was it.  If my parents ever had any ambitions or interests that were out of that ordinary run, they kept fairly quiet about it.

They met before the War, working in the same factory, a manufacturer of cranes and conveyors, a local family-run concern called Geo. W. King, then based in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.  He was an engineering apprentice, she was a telephonist.  Like millions of other obedient souls, Dad served in the army from Dunkirk to VE Day, via France, the Western Desert, India and Burma. Mum served, too, becoming a sergeant in an ATS heavy ack-ack unit, even seeing overseas action at the notorious V-bomb siege of Antwerp.  They were married, still in uniform, in May 1945.

For the next 30 years, they lived the quiet, modest life they, I am sure, felt they had earned.  When Geo. W. King moved to Stevenage New Town, so did they.  I was born in an upstairs flat rented from the firm.  My father stayed loyally with King's, and my mother had a variety of jobs, eventually ending up in the back offices of that most patrician of firms, John Lewis.  By the time I left home for university they had established a level of modest prosperity that saw them branching out a little -- meals and drinks with friends, holidays in Majorca, a decent second-hand car.

Then, they received two hammer-blows in succession.  First, my mother had a non-fatal but disabling heart-attack, and had to stop working.  Always prone to anxiety and a little histrionic, she shut down completely, afraid to walk anywhere, or to experience anything other than placid, medicated emotions. She became impossibly unsympathetic, in my harsh young man's view.  The famously patrician John Lewis -- no need for a union here! -- simply let her go. She was grateful to be allowed to keep her "partner's card", which gave a discount in their stores, and to get an annual "bonus" of a few pounds.  In those days, of course, married women were not expected to contribute to any sort of pension.

Then, blow number two.  Geo. W. King was taken over by the multinational Tube Investments.  My father was made redundant, after more than 30 years with the firm.  To add injury to insult, TI stole the pension fund.  Simply transferred it into their own corporate pockets.  In 1973, that was perfectly legal.  Dad did get some work for a few years with ex-colleagues, but his faith in the essential contract had been broken: "they" had discarded him, despite being a model employee, and doomed him to lead a pauper's life for the rest of his days.  It didn't so much anger him as bewilder him.

Eventually, despite moving from an impractical fourth floor council flat into a supervised bungalow, my parents grew too frail and afraid of the town they had spent their adult lives in.  It had changed, for the worse: prostitutes had begun operating in their street, for example, and they felt vulnerable.  They moved into a mobile home that my sister installed in her back garden, living entirely off the state pension.  I'm ashamed to say that visiting them there depressed me so much that I made the journey there as infrequently as possible.  I was far away, physically and emotionally, an angry young man finding his way in the world.

When they died a few years ago, we were amazed to find there was nearly ten thousand pounds in their bank account.  It was as if they had refined their lives down to such a Zen-like minimum, hardly moving, barely breathing, that even the miserly state pension was more money than they needed. Or, perhaps in a form of self-harming, more than they felt they deserved.

Corporate Britain had used them, risked their lives, made empty promises to them, and then obliterated them.  But it would never have occurred to them to make a fuss.  As if somehow to protest might have made things worse.  As if somehow their misfortunes might even have been their own fault. It made me feel that original anger all over again.

But isn't that the story of modern Britain, in a nutshell?  "Mustn't grumble" should be emblazoned on our national coat of arms.  Now, it seems, it may be our turn.  Pensions are once again melting away and magically reappearing in the pockets of the rich.  The trick is being done a bit more subtly this time round, but the effect is the same. Will we grumble?  Will we even be unreasonable, and make a fuss? Or will we resign ourselves to the view that it was all too good to be true, anyway, and probably more than we deserved?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Burn

I try not to pass on to you my book-buying addiction; in fact, I've been trying to go warm-turkey myself ("warm" as in, you know, just a little one now and then can't hurt...).  But this is one that is too good to miss, if you have enjoyed my previous recommendations:  it's The Burn, by Jane Fulton Alt.  It's published by German publisher Kehrer, so you can take the quality of the production as a given.  It's also small (21.5 cm square), which is a virtue as far as I'm concerned.

This is a really elegant set of photographs, extremely well put together as a book sequence.  Its concept is simple enough: the narrative of destruction and rebirth that underlies the controlled burning of vegetation by humans, that "slash and burn" tactic that must go back to our very origins as a species.  The beauty of these images is in the subtlety of the seeing, more than the complexity of the concept.

I must say I miss the annual ritual of burning the stubble in the fields after harvest.  In my memory, it drew a line between the end of the summer holidays and the start of a new school year.  We'd drive back home on a late August or September evening from my rural grandparents' village, and a slow line of fire would be advancing over each field, like a fuse.  Done properly, there was very little smoke; done badly, visibility was dangerously reduced as thick smoke rolled over the road.  Which is, I suppose, the main reason it has been banned.  But it had a similar excitement to Bonfire Night, something else which has vanished from the calendar, displaced by that pointless consumer-fest, Hallowe'en.

Fire itself seems to be disappearing from our lives, which is regrettable, I think.  Few people in urban Britain now burn rubbish or autumn leaves, or even light a domestic fire. New houses are generally built without fireplaces or chimneys.  Fire is no longer a dangerous friend, like a sharp knife, which one had to learn to respect and to control safely; it is now the very essence of "out of control", something to fear and to extinguish on sight.

This is a pity, not only because of the sheer pleasure a properly laid and contained fire can deliver -- whether indoors on a freezing winter's night, or at the end of the garden on a golden autumn afternoon -- and not only because it is good for people to feel in control of certain elemental processes, but also because some of our central, essential metaphors are being rendered obsolete.  No more smouldering or blazing, no more smoke, flame, embers or ashes.  I mean, surely no-one can compare the all-consuming strength of their desire to a warm radiator, or even a super-efficient convection heater...  At least, not with a straight face.

False fire... (red sunrise on boiler steam)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Not Making Waves

I've noticed a strange thing evolving on the roads in recent years in Britain.  I don't know how this works in other countries, but here we have a peculiar document called The Highway Code, which lies somewhere between an Act of Parliament and a pizza-restaurant flier in its legal status.  Disappointingly, despite the promising title, it has no cryptographic dimension but is a set of guidelines which set out the parameters of acceptable behaviour on the road.

It's a curious mix of legality, advice, and folklore.  A lot of it is clearly simply there for amusement, for example Rule 66 for cyclists:
You should
  • keep both hands on the handlebars except when signalling or changing gear
  • keep both feet on the pedals
  •  never ride more than two abreast, and ride in single file on narrow or busy roads and when riding round bends
  • not ride close behind another vehicle
  •  not carry anything which will affect your balance or may get tangled up with your wheels or chain
  • be considerate of other road users, particularly blind and partially sighted pedestrians. Let them know you are there when necessary, for example, by ringing your bell if you have one. It is recommended that a bell be fitted.
Excellent!  I can't remember the last time I saw a bike with a bell, at least ridden by anyone over 10 years old.  Nor anyone pedalling a bike with one foot.  And you really should not try to remain stationary at a junction with both feet on the pedals.  No, really, don't -- though you do often see cyclists attempting this balancing act (their feet appear to be taped to the pedals, presumably because they're deeply committed to obeying Rule 66).

But in most matters the Highway Code is quite clear, for example about who has the right of way in all situations (especially if you are a taxi driver, in which case the invariable and easy-to-remember rule is "I do").  For example, Rule 172:
The approach to a junction may have a 'Give Way' sign or a triangle marked on the road. You MUST give way to traffic on the main road when emerging from a junction with broken white lines across the road.
This makes perfect sense, unless you are in France, where the insane priorité à droite mentality still lingers.  Yet -- and this is the thing I've noticed -- in recent years it seems to have become an expectation bordering on "custom and practice" that, whenever possible, the driver with the right of way will yield it.

Sliproad from Hockley Viaduct to the M3 ...  Uh oh ...

In the right place, at the right time, this is a decent thing, an act of driverly goodwill.  Here, let me let you out of that side-street into the main traffic flow, or, Be my guest, I will pull to one side and give you a free run through this street narrowed to single-vehicle width by parked cars.  The counter-expectation is that the driver to whom priority has been yielded will graciously acknowledge the fact with an upheld open palm salute.  All very pleasant. But it has got out of hand, when people expect this to happen as a matter of obligation.  Increasingly, it seems, not to give up your right of way is regarded as the act of a selfish bastard. But it is quite definitely not written in The Highway Code that "it is simply greedy and inconsiderate to assert your right of way just because you can". I know, I've checked.

As a behaviour, this is actually quite dangerous in the wrong hands.  I have seen drivers travelling at or over the speed limit screech to a halt on a main road -- practically causing a multi-vehicle pile-up -- simply in order to let someone out of a side-street.  It can look irrational, superstitious even, in an OCD-ish kind of way:  Very often the very last vehicle in a queue of traffic -- behind whom there is no-one -- will halt needlessly and beckon a baffled driver out of a side-street.  There is clearly something quasi-religious going on here, a collecting of traffic karma points, which can lead to the Mexican stand-off where both drivers are determined to give way to the other -- No, after you! I MUST give way! -- blissfully unaware of the fuming queues building behind both of them.

The questionable psychology of all this is exposed when the driver conceding passage to the other fails to receive their wave of thanks.  I have been experimenting recently with not offering any acknowledgment at all,  just to see what happens. Quite often, instant anger is what happens.  People literally shout at you in sarcastic outrage.  Why, thank YOU, you ....!  This would suggest there's more at stake here than simple let's-all-get-along niceness.

It's rather like those weird Miss Manners clashes that happen on BBC Radio 4 Today, when the interviewer omits a formal greeting and gets straight to the question.

"So, Lord Lying-Scumbag, why are you telling us patent untruths again?"
"Good morning, John..."
"Um, yes, good morning..."
"And how is Mrs. Humphrys?"

It often seems that manners are not so much a social lubricant as a passive-aggressive way of policing the conformity of others.  "We're all nice and normal here!  Aren't we?"

I'm afraid this is something I react badly to.  I think I've mentioned before that sign above the carriage doors in the London Underground which used to say, "OBSTRUCTING THE DOORS CAN CAUSE DELAY AND BE DANGEROUS".  Around 1979, some punkish contrarian had taken white masking tape and changed the sign to read: "OBSTRUCT THE DOORS -- CAUSE DELAY -- BE DANGEROUS".  I rather liked that at the time, though I concede subsequent events have made it seem rather adolescent; innocent, even.  Well, you had to be there -- autres temps, autres mœurs!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Shades of Grey

Despite the many hours I spent in the darkroom, I think I never really got black and white photography.  I admired it tremendously, but could never quite do it myself.  Like the vast majority of darkroom amateurs, I never acquired the implacable "fail again, fail better" attitude that is necessary to end up with genuinely eye-pleasing prints.  I always ended up settling for a murky mid-grey porridge of tones that had no sparkle and neither a true black nor a true white.  Moving to colour was a revelation, and moving to digital was salvation.  Hallelujah!

Sometimes, of course, colour can be a little overwhelming, and easily veers towards the tackily tasteless.  The image above is saved (I hope) only by that yellow ball and the yellow stripes on the grey kerb.  Without them, it's the equivalent of an X-Factor contestant's impression of Whitney Houston.

 Of course, one of the major advances of digital photography is that anyone can now master the monochrome print, using easy-to-operate plugins for Photoshop.  Adjustments to tonal value and contrast are simplicity itself, and fancy stuff like filtration and toning and even different "film" characteristics can all be simulated easily and retrospectively using a colour original. But what many digital monochromists don't appreciate is that, in the darkroom, every single one of these adjustments and choices would have required the full processing of a test print (more likely, several test prints) and that every single one would have to repeated cumulatively for every single test print, like one of those songs ("The Twelve Days of Christmas") that add more items to the chorus with each iteration.  You can't save processing changes onto a film negative.  There are no adjustment layers in a sheet of light-sensitive paper. 

And yet, curiously, good black and white work is still rare, and mid-grey porridge still predominates.  I think this may largely be because very few of us get to see examples of outstanding monochrome prints, made by true masters.  I remember the first time I held one of Thomas Joshua Cooper's book dummies in my hands, containing tipped-in original prints.  It was a stunning experience.  The range of tones and the subtle coloration applied to the shadows and highlights by split-toning Agfa Record Rapid paper in selenium was a real treat for the eyes.  there was nothing dry or austere about them: they were richly dark and full of complexity like a good Christmas pudding or a single-malt whisky.

Monochrome doesn't reproduce well, paradoxically, so even excellent images in books and magazines are not good exemplars to follow.  I suppose it also carries built-in retro-truthiness values: the past happened in black and white, after all, and some of the most exciting bits happened with that grainy Tri-X look, ideally with a black border to show nothing has been cropped out.  It often seems that fans of monochrome are pursuing false goals.

The point of black and white, in a colourful world where blood can now be shown to be shockingly red under clear blue skies, is not simply to remove the "distraction" of colour, in the hope that other qualities will shine through.  It is to find images where interesting shapes and subtlety and range of tone combine to form an alternative language to colour, something that equally delights the eye and satisfies the mind's craving for variety and harmony.

It's the difference between a piano sonata and a symphony, or a solo acoustic guitar and a full-on rock band.  Neither is superior to the other, but the quieter solo alternative requires absolute mastery.

Saturday, 19 October 2013


We had a visitor this week, an old acquaintance from our Bristol days.  She and my partner were colleagues at the old Bristol Polytechnic, where they started down the sparse and stony track of an academic career.  But now they are both international jet-setting professors at the height of their game, so the conversation tended to be of that name-dropping, jet-lag and hotel horror-story, "when I was in Melbourne last year" variety -- a game I am neither much interested in nor qualified to play.  I have long tried to follow the advice of Rumi: sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.  So I made the tea, and put food on the table.

But it was interesting for me, too, though, as Liz's job title is Professor in Photographic Culture.  She is adamantly not a photographer; she has established herself as a facilitator, curator, historian and theorist of photography, with several books to her credit which are required reading on photography degree courses worldwide.  She knows and is known to pretty much everybody who is anybody in photographic education, which these days includes a large number of eminent "practitioners".

So-called "networking" is a curious thing.  It's very much the way of the modern world.  Kids are expected to "network" their way into employment (we used to call this "nepotism"), first in unpaid internships (we used to call this "exploitation") and then into career paths where the ruthless use of contacts is expected and encouraged (we used to call this "climbing the greasy-pole").  This is another game I have never been much interested in playing.  On reflection, having Liz in the house was, I suppose, a major networking opportunity.  But I was happy to make the tea, put food on the table, and swap photo-gossip.

I suppose this could seem like a self-limiting form of pride.  Here I am; here is my work; take it or leave it.  But I prefer it that way.  There's a reason so many eminent artist-photographers have ended up teaching in colleges and universities: there's no living to be made otherwise.  Apart from that fortunate handful, there are many thousands of wannabes out there networking themselves to nowhere, and hardly making any worthwhile work in the meantime. I'm happy to stay out of their way.
A handsome face, that fine young man,
and deep his knowledge of the Classics and the Histories.
All call him Elder,
all grant him the title of Scholar...
But he doesn't have a post yet...
and he has no knowledge of planting and reaping.
Winter's here. All he owns is the ragged cloak
he uses to cover his books, not himself.

Han Shan, Cold Mountain Poems XLVI, translated by J.P. Seaton

Friday, 18 October 2013

Tree by Tree

This is quite odd -- two identical trees, side by side.  One is doing autumn in a big way, the other is not.  It seems autumn is a lifestyle choice this year, tree by tree.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Coffee Time

A handy spell of sunshine between heavy showers of rain lifted the mood during my afternoon coffee-break yesterday, and I headed straight for a recently-erected set of marquees.

I find something irresistible about the painterly, impressionistic effect of a scene viewed through a translucent, mobile medium.  In a way, it's a sort of metaphor for both the process of photography and of vision -- of seeing -- itself.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Ironist

There's a particularly good Wondermark cartoon this week:

I keep getting the feeling that someone, somewhere has pulled the plug on irony (by no means a bad thing).  Get ready for the New Sincerity: say what you mean, mean what you say.  [I know, I know, someone will have written an article on this months ago, but blogs don't write themselves...]

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Meles Meles

I was just putting the wheelie bins out ready for tomorrow morning and admiring the brightness of the moon, when I heard a rapid skittering noise.  I looked down, and what looked like a fat, legless dog was barrelling along the pavement towards me.  I experienced one of those hair-raising moments of uncanniness before it and I eyeballed each other at about a couple of yards, and I realised it was a badger travelling at speed.  I'm not sure what it made of me, but it paused, checked me out, and carried on down the road.

I've never seen badgers in our street before, though I believe they do hang out in the nearby allotments.  Perhaps word of the rather ineffectual badger cull in Somerset has spread to Hampshire.  Or maybe it was a Somerset badger, putting some distance between itself and the hunters.  Run, badger, run!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Red Trousers

It's amazing how quickly comedy clichés get established in (and by) the media.

Before about three week ago, I had never heard of the wearing of "red trousers" as a marker of "posh".  You may have done -- or may now think you had -- but I certainly hadn't.  Most of the posh people I've ever encountered looked positively normal (aside from the top hat, of course). Then someone mentioned on the radio that red trousers were posh because they are worn by the serious yachting crowd around Cowes, where it denotes a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron (whatever that is).  Really?  I had no idea.  You simply can't see that sort of detail from the cheap seats on this side of the Solent.

Then last week on Tuesday the estimable comic turn John Finnemore did a song "Red Trousers" -- about being posh -- on his Radio 4 Souvenir Programme.  I'm pretty sure hardly anyone would have had a clue what he was on about.  Red trousers?  Eh??

But these things have a habit of catching on.  No-one likes to feel out of the loop, comedy-cliché-wise.

By Friday the even more estimable satirical crew at Radio 4's The Now Show had a throwaway line about "red corduroy trousers" as, yes, an indication of poshness.  Red corduroy trousers?  On a yacht?  Are you sure??

Mark my words, by Christmas everyone will be saying it, without ever having (a) seen a proper posh person, or (b) a proper posh person in a pair of red trousers.  But it won't matter, because everyone knows posh people wear red trousers, and it will raise a knowing insider's laugh every time it is said.  And, as someone claimed recently (can't remember who), most people don't actually have a sense of humour, but do love to have a laugh.  So, throw someone a joke-shaped feed, and they'll find it funny.

Ed Milliband has a speech impediment!  Angela Merkel is a bit overweight and a bossy German!  Plus, she's a woman!!  Liverpudlians will steal your car's wheels! Posh people -- they wear red trousers, don't they!!

Thank you and good night.  You've been an audience, and I've been the Idiotic Hat.  I'm here all week.

Lord Snooty
 In my day, the Beano was in black & white

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Deeply Unhelpful

The M3 in heavy rain, seen from Twyford Down

Here is something I read over the summer that I found thought-provoking:
The words we constantly use and the narratives we write reinforce a drama of selfhood that we in the West complacently celebrate. There is also much consolation taken in the way in which writing and narrative can transform emotional pain into a form of entertainment, wise and poignant in its vision of our passage through the world, intense and thrilled by its own intensity. Narrative is so often the narrative of misery and of the passage through misery.

What silence and meditation leaves us wondering, after we stand up, unexpectedly refreshed and well-disposed after an hour of stillness and silence, is whether there isn’t something deeply perverse in this culture of ours, even in its greatest achievements in narrative and art. So much of what we read, even when it is great entertainment, is deeply unhelpful.

From Inner Peace, an article on meditation by Tim Parks, Aeon, 26/7/2013
Hmm, is King Lear cathartic or deeply unhelpful?  As the exam papers say, Discuss...  The Ten Thousand Things vs. No-Mind. Amphetamine vs. Prozac. An all-nighter vs. a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013


From Ring Hoard

I've posted about my ambivalent relationship with Old English before (The three-part Caedmon's Dream, here, here, and here).  But that drab and baggy monstrosity Beowulf has been slouching around recently, following the death of Seamus Heaney, so -- if only to get another stamp on my "certified contrarian" loyalty card -- I thought I might add a dissenting note to the hagiographic outpourings that have ensued.

Now, just to be clear:  I think Heaney was an excellent poet.  Many of his poems are very good indeed.  A few are classics that will probably endure as long as English is a readable language and poetry understood as a means of expression.  That's pretty much how it goes for a "major" poet.  He also seems to have been a nice, approachable man, relatively uninfected by ego (which is not generally how it goes) despite the whisperings about "famous Seamus" -- poets are notoriously poisonous in their rivalries.  It's true, however, that he did love being on TV, and talking about and reading out his own work.  To adapt an old Irish joke, he may not have been an actual celebrity, but if the celebrities were short-handed, he'd certainly have pitched in.

But this is what I wanted to say: I don't think Heaney's version of Beowulf is much good.  If I'm honest, I think it's pretty poor.  It's clumsy, literal, unexciting, earnest, and adds nothing other than a smattering of dialect words to the various existing translations. I cannot understand why it has acquired the reputation it has.  I think it's probably a case of people wanting something to be good so badly that it has overwhelmed their judgement.

From Ring Hoard

Well, it had sounded so promising.  I remember the publicity interviews on the arts programmes, and even on the daily news bulletins (pay attention, it's that "famous Seamus" again).  Heaney was going to use vocabulary and rhythms that linked Anglo-Saxon to modern English via the dialect and lived landscape of rural Northern Ireland.  What a prospect!  After all, his "bog bodies" poems are among his most interesting; perfect encounters of subject and words that haul deep antiquity into the immediacy and ambiguity of the present day.  "Poised between the Bible and folk wisdom, between the Light Ages and the Dark Ages - and at the same time pulverisingly actual in its language. He has made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece", opined Andrew Motion of the outcome.  Crikey!  Though, frankly, anyone who considers the original Beowulf a "masterpiece" is already halfway to self-deception.

I received a copy of Heaney's version as a Christmas present in 1999, and tried and failed several times to enjoy it.  Later, someone also gave me the audio CD, but even hearing it read in Heaney's glum sing-song voice didn't help either.  It simply fails to catch fire.  It plods.  Not surprising, as the original is a pretty damp and dull thing, too.  Don't believe me?  Try reading it.  No wonder they felt they had to sex up Grendel's Mother for a film version.

This is a shame, because there is clearly a need for some new work that captures something of the grim glitter of Old English at its best, and that can re-invent it for a contemporary audience in the way that Christopher Logue's War Music has re-invented Homer.  Now, it's just possible that a poem recently published by CB editions, J.O. Morgan's At Maldon, may be nearer the mark. I remember reading the Old English fragment The Battle of Maldon as an undergraduate, and thinking it would make a terrific graphic novel -- nervous but resolute Saxon home team vs. shield-biting Viking invaders, set in the Thames Estuary back in its day as one of the dark places of the earth.  I've ordered a copy of At Maldon, and I'll let you know if it hits the target, or flops short into the tidal mud. 

There is something there in Beowulf, of course.  If you can get past his trademark sparkly-eyed enthusiasm, TV historian Michael Wood made a programme for BBC Four (Michael Wood on Beowulf -- it appears to be available here on YouTube) which comes very close to conveying the Anglo-Saxon spirit.  Though he, too, succumbs to the desire for Beowulf to be a great poem, rather than what it is -- time-worn hunks of formulaic huffing and puffing lashed together with bits of narrative twine, and draped with some pretty unconvincing Christian garments.  Surely an honest, modern appraisal has to conclude that Beowulf is not a masterpiece, but a scarecrow.  Seamus Heaney, I'm sorry to say, did not rise to a challenge that perhaps Stephen King (or possibly Peter Jackson) might be better fitted to face.

From Ring Hoard

Curiously, this all reminded me of a piece by Seamus Heaney in the Guardian in October 2003, describing the compilation of The School Bag, the successor anthology to Heaney and Ted Hughes' Rattle Bag.  I should simply quote it:
We began with a translation of a short sixth-century Irish poem about the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. In it, the new religion and the new age it ushers in appear in the figure of a mitre-wearing bishop, and this strange wedge-like head-gear reminds the poet of the sharp edge of an adze, so the poem in English goes by that title -- "Adze-head":

Across the sea will come Adze-head,
crazed in the head,
his cloak with a hole for the head,
his stick bent in the head.

He will chant impiety
from a table in front of his house;
all his people will answer:
"Be it thus. Be it thus."
Now there is an ancient poem in a modern version that works.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Like a Snake

We take love for granted.  As a word, it may be irredeemably debased: spell it "luv" or "lurve" and you're probably all the way there.  People talk about the distinctions Ancient Greek was able to make between types of love (eros, agape, philia, and storge) but other words are available to us in English, too, and did the Greeks have a word for whatever treacly state of mind is conveyed by the typical Valentine's Day message, I wonder?  But, words aside, the thing itself -- whether it's a feeling, an instinct, a need, a propensity, or a gift -- is an essential part of our humanity.

I was reading a group review of some recent books on Sufism in the TLS (Eric Ormsby, TLS 2/8/2013) and was fascinated by some of what was written.  The operning sentence, for a start:  "The eighth-century Sufi master al-Hasan of Basra was reported to have smiled only twice in his long life, both times at funerals".  That made me laugh, but it also made me think, especially when I then read this:  "In another dictum Hasan is quoted as saying that God 'hates the world' and indeed, to such an extent that He 'has not looked at it once since He created it'".  I found it unsettling to try to imagine an interior life based on such a fundamental fear and loathing.  Yet a rejection of the world as a seductive illusion, and a seeking for salvation through various degrees of self-denial and self-harm is a common impulse in most, if not all, of the world's religions.

I think most of us in the West have a lazy view of Sufism as a sort of Islamic mysticism, using music, dance and song as routes to ecstatic divine communion.  It seems this is both true, and untrue.  Apparently, the roots of Sufism lie in the bitter soil of that ascetic contempt for the world ("like a snake: beautiful to look at but toxic to the touch" -- Hasan again).  But at some point the idea of a love affair between God and humanity flourished, and the drums and flutes and songs took over from the whips and spikes.  Those of us who enjoy the poetry of Rumi (albeit generally in the Coleman Barks translation) are perhaps only seeing half of the story.

It is often strongly emphasised by popular archaeologists that those first Neolithic settlers 12,000 years ago -- the ones who first denatured wild animals so as to make slaughtering them simpler and more convenient, the ones who invented cities and thus created enemies, wars, and bad neighbours -- were people, just like us. But were they? You have to wonder: has love always been in the world?  When did humanity start to model its best behaviour on the child who nurtures a puppy, rather than the child who takes pleasure in torturing a cat to death?  Were there millennia of systematic cruelty and abuse of the weak by the strong before some crucial enlightenment or evolution of fellow-feeling tipped the balance, or have love and empathy been a fundamental human impulse all along?

We'll never know, of course. Hasan and his hair-shirted brethren probably don't care either way.  To a world-hating fanatic of whatever stripe all pleasures are snares and delusions, and life a series of tests to be passed as painfully as possible. What's love got to do with it?

One thing is certain, though: a contempt for this world, a fear of imaginary divine tyrants, and a baseless belief that the only authentic life begins after this one has finished -- preferably as miserably as possible -- have not prevented the greatest acts of human love, such as the advance of medicine, public sanitation, free education, and the removal of real tyrants from the real world.  Not to mention music, dance, and song.