Tuesday 28 February 2023

Pebbles on the Beach

Periodically I look back through my "draft" blog posts – there are nearly 100 of them now – which sit there in various stages of completion, ranging from a single quotation to a few notes, sentences, or paragraphs that seemed to go nowhere. Many of them have passed well beyond their nominal "best before" date (being tied to a particular event, news story, or some long-finished project), but even those can often be mined for the raw material of a fresh post. For example, I found this quotation (actually a quotation within a quotation) lifted from something I had been reading:
To quote the narrator of my first novel who is here describing an exaggerated version of my own experience:
I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
(Ben Lerner, excerpt from "The Hatred of Poetry")
That really resonated with me, and still does. I read considerably more poetry than the average person (who, after all, reads none at all) but I find that I often react most strongly when I come across a self-contained nugget of poetic concision and compression quoted by someone in just that way. It's not only that the glitter of a jewel is most intense when it has been extracted from its setting among rival gems, or that some longer work has been reduced, like a sauce, to its most savoury, haiku-like essence. As Ben Lerner is suggesting, it's more that I feel re-connected to the idea of poetry, an idea that was first installed in me when studying at school, and one that can be powerfully re-activated by just this sort of unexpected encounter with its smallest fully-functioning component: you might say it's the application of the rhetorical device of synecdoche to the whole poetic enterprise. If that has also been your experience, or if poetry was once important to you but you find your faith has lapsed, then I recommend reading that whole linked extract from Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry.

Once, essays were riddled with quotations, small and large, mainly taken from the Bible and the Latin and Greek classics – have you ever tried to read Montaigne or Francis Bacon without the footnotes? – but it's a more infrequent habit these days, probably because the presumption that authors and readers share a common culture is no longer safe. Certainly, few of us today would recognise even the most well-worn classical references, even in translation. You might be on safer ground with the Beatles, say, but as someone or other once said, all things must pass. It is a fact that most British children today are unfamiliar with even that basic Christian shibboleth, the Lord's Prayer, let alone those passages of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer that for so many generations formed the common expressive treasury of our culture. Oh well... One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the art school dance goes on forever.

Trickier – or should we say more annoyingly smug? – than the direct quotation is the allusion to a quotation. By pointing sideways in the direction of some "famous" words, accompanied by a wink, the writer is not just presuming a common culture with the reader (or at least some readers): they are simultaneously highlighting it and concealing it, in what is the literary equivalent of a secret handshake. In the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, for example, you probably realised I had made an amalgam of two quotations, although I doubt you will have recognised them both (that's how annoyingly smug I can be). The first is from the Bible: "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever" (Ecclesiastes 1:4). Which reminded me of the second, the title of an album released in 1970 by Pete Brown & PibloktoThings May Come, And Things May Go, But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever. An album I have never listened to, but was one of the intriguing LP covers I used to pore over in the record-racks of W.H. Smith on the way home from school. Doubtless, that album's title is itself an echo of Ecclesiastes, reflected and refracted through various intermediary sources – culture is nothing if not "intertextual" – but for whatever reason it has stuck in my mind as a "thing" ever since. Of course, if you did spot them both, then "Pass, friend!" and welcome to the Pleasuredome (oh, stop it).

Photography is all about quotation, of course. You notice something interesting "written" in what the mediaeval mind thought of as the liber mundi (the "book of the world"; author: God) and record it for others to see (or "read"), isolated and set within a frame like a block quotation. It's no accident that the very first photo-book, published in 1844, bore the title The Pencil of Nature, and not "The Magic Pencil of Henry Fox Talbot". There was even a disclaimer from Fox Talbot stating that "The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil". It is, like every subsequent photographic book and album, a book of quotations from the Book of Light, and the alleged last words of J.M.W. Turner – still living at the time – come to mind: "The sun is God" [1].

At its most sophisticated (or annoyingly smug) photography can also be all about allusion to other, more famous photographs, and yet another secret handshake between initiates. To the appreciator of photography as an artform with a history every photograph of a large latticed window, for example, stands in relation to Fox Talbot's foundational photo of a window in Lacock Abbey (made in 1835 and probably the oldest photographic negative in existence), just as every photograph of weirdly identical twins is an indirect quotation of Diane Arbus, who was herself probably not unaware of precedents made by August Sander and numerous 19th century studio portraitists. Too great an awareness of precedent can be oppressive, but the fact is that, once an artform gets going, it inevitably suffers from what the literary critic Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence". That is, the cumulative difficulty (and ultimately the impossibility) of originality. But, as so many have been said to have said, originality is overrated.
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
Mark Twain, Chapters from My Autobiography  (published in the North American Review, 1906-7)
This world-weariness had already set in as early as 400 BCE it seems, when King Solomon (or the anonymous ghost-writers who really wrote the book of Ecclesiastes) declared:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Which is hilarious, really, when you consider what innovations were yet to come, from printing to plastic packaging (listen, Your Majesticality, nobody said "new" was necessarily going to be "good", did they?). Besides, gloom about originality can always be countered by quoting the many artists and writers who have been said to have said, in numerous variations: yes, everything has already been said / painted / photographed; but not by me. There is always everything to be said for joining in the game, rather than leaving the field in despair or sulking in one's tent, provided this is accompanied by an appropriate spirit of humility in the face of what has already been achieved. The art school dance goes on forever.

On the subject of humility, I have always enjoyed a certain much-quoted remark of Isaac Newton, which I recently decided to track down to its source. This turned out to be Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters, of Books and Men. Collected from the Conversation of Mr. Pope, and Other Eminent Persons of His Time, by the Rev. Joseph Spence (1820). In the book Spence quotes Andrew Michael Ramsay as follows:
Sir Isaac Newton, a little before he died, said: "I don't know what I may seem to the world, but, as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me".
Isn't that great? You can see it for yourself here. Even more apposite to my current purposes, you will see there that this alleged remark of Newton's is followed by an asterisked note from the editor (Spence):
* This interesting anecdote of our great philosopher's modest opinion of himself and his discoveries, is only another proof of his consummate wisdom. It will recall to the memory of the poetical reader the following beautiful passage from the Paradise Regained of our great poet.

--------- Who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings, what need he elsewhere seek)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains;
Deep vers'd in books, and shallow in himself,
Crude or intoxicate, collecting toys,
And trifles for choice matters, worth a sponge,
As children gathering pebbles on the shore.
Apart from the image of children on the shore gathering pebbles, I think Spence rather missed the point of Milton's words and how off the mark the comparison with Newton's humblebrag is, but that is the fate of quotations, isn't it? They serve the purposes of the quoter, and not the quoted. Severed from their context, they can be bent out of shape to fit pretty much any design, including the complete opposite of what was originally intended [2]. In the end, it doesn't much matter to me what Ben Lerner really had in mind when he quoted himself in that extract from The Hatred of Poetry, although I do take care to quote his words accurately and to identify their source, which is more than can be said for nearly all popular quotation websites.

What does matter to me is that those words sparked something in my own mind that was – just to slip in one more quotation – "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd" [3] and which led, a little bathetically perhaps, to this blog post. Just as, some years ago now, Newton's remark about looking for pebbles "whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me" led to one of my first attempts at making an "artist's book", Newton on the Beach [4]. So, I don't know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy, etc. Well, you get the picture.

1. Dialogue from an imaginary 4-frame cartoon strip, "The Death & Final Words of J.M.W. Turner":
    "What did he just say?"
    "I think he said, 'the sun is god'? Might have been 'the sun is hot', though?"
    "Really?... Ask him again..."
    "Too late: he's gone. It's 'last words' time, I'm afraid..."
    "I must say I like 'the sun is god' a lot better"
    "Me too. Let's stick with that. I'll write it down"
    "I think I'll open that window now. It is getting a bit warm in here..."

2. If you want some context, the entire text of Paradise Regained is available here: search it for "pebbles".

3. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

4. All copies of which seem to have disappeared, except for the one I deposited in the library of Winchester School of Art. Probably just as well; it wasn't terribly good.

Friday 24 February 2023

iPhone Perambulations

Itchen water meadows

The weather has been dull, broken by brief spells of more typical February brilliance and big skies, but I've been out and about as usual, snapping away with my phone camera. I still can't quite get over the quality of the results delivered by the raw files made by the Halide app. All this phone (an iPhone 12 mini) lacks is reach: I'm not a natural wide-angle photographer, and I do like to use a moderate telephoto lens to isolate details and juxtapositions in the broader landscape. I'm beginning to think I may need to afford the next iPhone equipped with something approaching a long lens, should such a thing ever appear...

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are
looking up at the stars down at the gutter


Sunday 19 February 2023

Spain and the Hispanic World

The Four Fates of Man: Death, Soul in Hell, Soul in Purgatory, Soul in Heaven
attributed to Manuel Chili, called Caspicara (1723-1796), (from Ecuador)

To mark my birthday we had a family outing to the Royal Academy to see the major exhibition "Spain and the Hispanic World", billed as treasures from New York's Hispanic Society Museum and Library, and described as follows:

Discover the rich story of Spanish and Hispanic art and culture from the ancient world to the early 20th century through over 150 fascinating works: from masterpieces by El Greco, Zurbarán, Velázquez and Goya to sculptures, paintings, silk textiles, ceramics, lustreware, silverwork, precious jewellery, maps, drawings, illuminated manuscripts and stunning decorative lacquerware from Latin America.

The exhibition features the famous World Map of 1526 by Giovanni Vespucci, and culminates with Sorolla’s colourful, large-scale study for his monumental series of 14 paintings, Vision of Spain.

Founded in New York in 1904, the Hispanic Society Museum & Library is home to the most extensive collection of Spanish art outside of Spain. Presented for the first time in the UK, it will offer visitors a chance to trace the great diversity of cultures and religions – from Celtic to Islamic, Jewish and Christian – that have shaped and enriched what we today understand as Spanish culture.

 Inevitably, the rooms were kept fairly dim, and this emphasised a certain heavy tone of religiosity that characterises so much pre-modern work from predominantly Catholic cultures. The heavy-breathing, rather camp emphasis on the torments of saints and the terrors of Hell tend to give this Baptist-heritage boy the giggles, I'm afraid. Balancing this, though, is a delight in ornament – especially when Spain meets South and Central American influences – that  I find very congenial.

It was a very enjoyable outing, and if you can get to London to see the exhibition before it closes on 10th April I recommend it. It's worth it just to get the chance to stand in front of Goya's full-length portrait of the Duchess of Alba (the one with her pointing down at  "solo Goya" inscribed in the sand): wow.

An exceptionally rare Black Book of Hours, c. 1458
probably commissioned by María of Castile (1401-1458)

Juan de Juni: St. Martha & St. Mary Magdalene, 1545
Pedro de Mena: St. Acisclus, 1680

"The Wedding Feast at Cana" by Nicolas de Correa, 1696
a Mexican "enconchado" painting inlaid with mother of pearl 

Detail of "The Wedding Feast at Cana".
Amazing, and somehow very reminiscent of Samuel Palmer.

My favourite thing: detail of a map of the river Ucayali, a tributary of the Amazon
(painted by indigenous artists collaborating with Franciscan missionaries)

Monday 13 February 2023

Half Century

At a certain point last week I entered upon my 70th year. Which – just to be clear – does not mean I am now 70, but 69. Like the debate over the start of the millennium (2000 or 2001?) I suspect this common terminological confusion will never be resolved, but, as far as I'm concerned, this will be my last year of late middle age, or of nearly being old. Inevitably, this has led to a certain degree of retrospection.

In terms of anniversaries, in 1963 – the Beatles' first LP and all that – I was only nine years old, and still almost entirely concerned with the things that concern children: play, toys, comics, cigarette- and bubble-gum cards, and going to school. That was sixty years ago, and feels like it; in fact, it feels like another lifetime in another country. But 1973... Can that really have been fifty years ago? The arithmetic says yes, but I'm not entirely convinced. In a well-worn cliché, it still feels like yesterday. But there is no denying that fifty years have somehow passed since I finally left school and embarked on various postponements and approximations of adult life.

1973 was a very important year for me. One of the oddities of the British educational system back then was that Oxford and Cambridge ran their own entrance examinations which, inconveniently, happened during the winter term (i.e. the first term of a new academic year), followed by interviews, with admission results sent out by telegram and published in the national broadsheet papers around Christmas. So potential Oxbridge candidates would first have to secure some non-Oxbridge university offers, then wait for their A-Level results in the summer (in my case, summer 1972) and – if these were judged good enough (generally three or more straight A grades plus a couple of S-levels) – ask to defer when they would start at university by a year, and then spend an extra term at school preparing for and taking the entrance exams. The consequence was that you had to experience a peculiar extended period under a secondary school regime – a "seventh term" of sixth form, with uniform, shaving, haircuts and all – followed by nine months in the following year with nothing much to do. Meanwhile, nearly all your contemporaries would have left, either for university or the real world. [1]

I suppose for children from wealthier families this was an opportunity for travel and adventure: what today would be called a "gap year". But I and two of my fellow candidates – two of us successful in our applications, one not – came from typical New Town families, and needed to find paid work. Luckily, there was an informal agreement between some Stevenage schools that any Oxbridge candidates (there were never very many) might be taken on as temporary teaching assistants, so that's what we did. In January 1973 friend Dave went to a primary school, and friend Alan and I went to the Catholic boy's grammar school, St. Michael's, where I was put to work mainly as an art assistant.

Those two terms were actually some of the most contented months in my entire life. This despite the lingering illness and death of my grandfather and the family bad blood it was stirring up, all of which had cast an unhappy pall over home life in our little flat, and was exhausting my poor parents, emotionally and physically. Which, shamefully, I barely noticed. I was earning real money for the first time and, outside of work hours, was free to do whatever I wanted: no more homework, no more exams; for now, anyway. Life was good. I was finally able to let my hair and beard grow, too, with the result that the boys at St. Michael's nicknamed me "Roy", after Roy Wood of Wizzard, a group that was a bit of a fixture on Top of the Pops in 1972/73 [2].

"Roy", the carefree technician

With most of my friends away at university I had the time and the money to visit them at weekends in what were still to me exotic, faraway cities like Bristol, Norwich, Birmingham, and Brighton. In the main we just got drunk and/or helplessly stoned together, which in those days seemed to be the main point of going to university. I had also begun one of the more ill-fated "relationships" in my life, which started well but ended in confusion and anger later that same year. In retrospect, I suppose I was spending as much time as possible away from the glum atmosphere at home.

But I loved the work. I was a "technician": I learned to stack and fire a kiln, how to prepare and use slips and glazes and other useful hands-on skills, such as how to make screens for screen-printing, and racks to hang prints and paintings to dry. Sometimes I was asked to help boys realise their art projects, and I also occasionally gave a hand with remedial literacy classes. During the 1973 Easter break I was part of the staff contingent accompanying two mini-vans full of boys to a Youth Hostel in Derbyshire's Peak District, although in the event I had to leave early to attend my grandfather's funeral. But the job was mainly brain-light manual work. I did an awful lot of sweeping up, tidying up, and putting tools back in racks and cupboards, as well as the eternal de-hazarding of the clay bins, into which the more psychopathic boys would drop razor-sharp Stanley-knife blades or transparent plastic injection-moulding pellets that, undetected, caused pots to explode in the kiln.

I made friends with some of the younger teachers, and was invited into their homes. It was there that I first became aware of the ways of the new, semi-bohemian professional classes, with their Habitat furniture and collections of eye-pleasing junk-shop bric-a-brac: stuff like antique glass bottles, stoneware jugs, enamelled metal signs, and little lacquered boxes, which sometimes concealed a small lump of hash for their weekend soirées. One couple in particular introduced me to the pleasures of illustrated books, of which they had a strikingly well-chosen collection, including one I came to covet, Arthur Rackham's Some British Ballads [3].

In return, I introduced them to the likes of Joni Mitchell, and other musical revelations. It's hard to imagine, now, how quickly one lost touch back then with the latest things after settling into adult life. The hipper reaches of pop culture were still mainly passed on by word of mouth, and the very idea of a middle-aged enthusiast for what was still seen as ephemeral young people's music remained a little left-field. Besides, none of these cash-strapped, child- and career-bound folk could have afforded the speculative investment in vinyl records that would have been necessary to keep up with the burgeoning music scenes of the late 60s and early 70s. And what a time that was! [4

To those teachers I expect I was just a curiosity, one of the local natives with unexpected tastes and ambitions, but to me this was an important glimpse of my anticipated future life. These were the people I aspired to become, and I studied them like an Ancient Briton hoping to become a Roman citizen. This, combined with the rather wilder times I and my old schoolfriends were having together, and an affaire de coeur that had soared then crashed and burned, meant that by the time I turned up at Oxford in October 1973 I considered myself quite the worldly sophisticate, especially compared to my privately-educated peers, most of whom were a year younger, some arriving more or less straight from school.

Heh. Little did I know how much I still had to learn, and what a gulf there was between the home life and aspirations of a secondary school teacher in a New Town and those of the established upper-middle classes, brought up to expect privilege and prominence by right of birth. But there was one very valuable lesson that I had learned that year that was out of reach to the privileged, the well-connected, and the wealthy: that there is great satisfaction to be had in doing a necessary, semi-skilled, reasonably-paid manual job, free from worries and responsibilities, with the anticipation of a pleasure-filled weekend just a few days away. It's what ordinary young people are for, isn't it? It's Saturday night and I just got paid... Here comes the weekend... Believe me, we will be making a huge mistake as a society if we allow such jobs to be automated out of existence, just because we can. Not everyone aspires to a career as a policy wonk looking for new ways to destroy other people's lives, or as a hi-tech nerd handing them the means to do so. It's just wrong, and so short-sighted. Call for Captain Swing!

So, anyway, here we are, fully fifty years on in 2023. Well, who'd have thought it? Although, sadly, not everyone I knew in 1973 has made it this far. In fact, several didn't even make it to 1974. But I suppose it's time to get on with figuring out what us ordinary old people are for. I'm sure there must be something more than endlessly going on about the old days, and how different, and how good those days were...

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!

Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book XI (1850)

Yeah, yeah, OK boomer... 

50 years on... Thinner hair, thicker beard
(and whatever happened to the nose?)

1. It's hard to recall, in these days when almost 50% of British youngsters go into higher education, that even from a selective state grammar school like mine – typically divided in each year into ability-streamed classes of 30-ish pupils each – only some of the top "A" stream class and a few from the "B" stream would go on into the sixth form, and even then nowhere near all of them would achieve university or polytechnic places. Far fewer numbers, of course, meant that generous full grants were available from the county authority. (Student loans? What are these "student loans" of which you speak?)

2. Curiously, an old friend from those days knows someone who had been a pupil at St. Michael's at the time. It turns out that he remembers me, but thought my my name was Mr. Wood...

3. I recently discovered that this lovely book is currently available in facsimile as a Kindle book for a mere £2.99.

4. I was reminded of this when Tom Verlaine died recently, and I realised I had never knowingly heard the album "Marquee Moon". Why not? Partly because nobody I knew owned a copy, but mainly because by 1977 I, too, needed money to pay rent and bills, not to buy new records, and it no longer seemed that important, anyway, to keep up with the latest rock and pop sensations. Although in later years younger friends and colleagues repaid the favour by introducing me to the music of artists like Suzanne Vega and "world music" stars like the Bhundu Boys.

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Unfair Fairport Report?

When the university's Turner Sims concert venue circulated the list of upcoming events in 2023, I was interested to notice that the band Fairport Convention were scheduled to play on the weekend before my birthday. I hesitated, but booked us a couple of tickets anyway.

Why the interest, and why the hesitation? Well, where to start? I'm presuming you know who Fairport Convention are, but that's a big presumption and, besides, knowing who they are now – or perhaps, who they are not, and what they have become – was a large part of my hesitation.

For a period in my youth, between about 1969 and 1971 (an eternity in teen-years), Fairport Convention were pretty much my favourite musical act. I had developed an interest in folk music and folk traditions, and this group – who started out as interpreters of what we would now call Americana – had begun to break new ground in the electrification of traditional British folk music, hitherto an exclusively acoustic (and often unaccompanied) enterprise that took place in small rooms, often above pubs, like the Red Lion in Stevenage where my folkie education began (not to mention my career as an underage drinker). This all culminated in the album Liege and Lief, which established a way of bringing folksong to the big stage with electric instruments and drums and created a whole new genre of music, "folk rock", which brought in a whole new audience of youngsters prepared to stand, sit, and dance in muddy fields and cavernous music venues.

At its creative peak the group featured the stellar talents of guitarist Richard Thompson, vocalist Sandy Denny, and fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Rarely does such a constellation come together, and when it does, magic happens: album tracks like "A Sailor's Life", "Who Knows Where the Time Goes", or "Matty Groves" are surely imprinted on the soul of anyone lucky enough to have discovered them at the time. But nothing lasts forever. First Sandy Denny and then Richard Thompson left to launch solo careers; having failed to love the first post-Denny release, Full House, for the remainder of my folkie phase I transferred my loyalty to Steeleye Span, the new venture of yet another Fairport deserter, bass player Ashley Hutchings. But the band limped on with an everchanging line-up, with folkie stalwarts and original members constantly coming and going right up to the present day, creating a certain myth of indestructible longevity, and along the way acquiring a loyal fanbase, and even establishing their own annual festival at Cropredy in Oxfordshire.

So, the actual music both I and my partner had loved so deeply as teenagers is now over fifty years old, and none of the lead musicians who gave it its original character are in the band (both Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick died some while ago). More to the point, I have not listened to a single new album of theirs since Full House – there have been twenty-five studio albums alone – and I'm very aware that the core audience attracted to their Cropredy festival is not really my "crowd". As one strapline on the band's own website declares: "Fairport did for real ale what the Grateful Dead did for LSD". Enough said. Mind you, I don't much like the Dead or their fanbase of "deadheads", either. Look, I can't help being burdened by good taste.

So we went along on Saturday night armed with a degree of apprehension, not sure what sort of evening to expect. It started well enough. The support was from Hanna Sanders and Ben Savage, a talented young pair, with great acoustic guitar work and vocal harmonies. Hanna's voice in particular is pure and powerful, quite reminiscent of Maddie Prior or at times Jacqui McShee in their heyday. However, it also has to be said that they did rather remind me of similar folk-couplings I often saw in folk-clubs in the late-60s and early-70s – Bob and Carole Pegg [1], or Maddie Prior and Tim Hart, anybody? – and their repertoire also seemed surprisingly dated ("Let No Man Steal Your Thyme", "Trouble In Mind", and "I Gave My Love a Cherry"... Seriously? [2]), so it did feel a bit like falling into a time-warp. But it was all very nicely done, and I relaxed into expecting an evening of nostalgic pleasure.

Then on came Fairport, who promptly proceeded to butcher a cut-down version of "Reynardine" by rocking it up and playing MUCH TOO LOUD. I mean REALLY FUCKING LOUD. It was awful. The Turner Sims is a specialised music venue in which chamber music can be heard all the way to the back of the auditorium, but they were amped up for a windy day at Glastonbury. Even the drums were miked up, and every time Dave Mattacks whacked his snare it made my ears wince. The mix was also so muddy that all you could hear was this barrage of undifferentiated blare. I thought the sound guy would surely adjust things after that disastrous first number, but no, and it just became unbearably unpleasant. At least it did for me, suffering as I do from partial deafness and tinnitus (brought on, I'm sure, by many similar experiences of loud volume in small spaces in my youth). I was tempted to yell, "You're too LOUD, guys!" but despite the preponderance of white-haired elderly types in the audience I didn't detect much by way of discomfort or dissent – perhaps they had all literally been stunned into silence – so I kept quiet and resolved to leave if things didn't improve.

They didn't. Not least because the band's main repertoire now seems to be self-penned items in that jolly let's-all-have-a-good-time style that owes nothing much to either traditional song, dance music, or the folk-rock of the 1970s. If I wanted to be cruel (and why not? say my ears), I'd say their style owes more to Chas & Dave than to Cecil Sharp. Practically every number was accompanied by Mattacks's over-emphatic drumming that went "ba-dump diddle THWACK, ba-dump diddle THWACK", with every amplified THWACK driving a sonic nail into my head. Worst of all, they have no lead guitarist or vocalist of any stature, and a fiddler (Ric Sanders) who fancies himself as a live-wire and comedian, both while playing and doing cringeworthy patter in between numbers. Now, Dave Swarbrick was an impish little guy with a taste for mischief, but was also a seriously sympathetic and innovative master musician when it came to playing together with that other master musician, Richard Thompson. It was that combination, plus Sandy Denny's peerless vocals, that made Fairport worth listening to. Without it, or something very like it, this "Fairport" line-up just seems like the backing band for some absent lead talent.

The final straw came for me when, leading up to the interval, they did an excruciatingly lame rendering of the number "Sloth", one of the more interesting tracks on the Full House album, in which Simon Nicol attempted to play Richard Thompson's electric solo on an acoustic guitar, like some guy noodling in his front room, while Ric Sanders slathered effects-driven fiddle drivel over everything, in a vague mimicry of Dave Swarbrick's colourings, all the while sliding about as if polishing the stage with his feet. It just lacked the necessary drama and conviction, and was still FAR TOO LOUD. We left at the interval.

Now, not everybody hates being brutally assaulted by music, and I may be being unfair. Fairport have a reputation for being a great live band, after all. This gig is apparently one of the first, if not the first outing of their 2023 "Wintour" tour – coming soon to a venue near you – so things may improve. In a bigger, less intimate hall (or a very large field), it could work. If you're a Fairport fan of long standing, a serial Cropredy veteran anticipating a beer-fuelled knees-up, then you'll know what to expect and will probably love it, right down to Ric Sanders' comedy routines and physical clowning. You should certainly enjoy Hanna Sanders and Ben Savage, who are supporting them at every gig. But, if I had anything to do with it, I'd retire some of this pension-plan crew (all bar one of them well into their seventies), make Hanna an offer she couldn't refuse to join the Fairport line-up (what a difference that would make!), find a more nimble drummer and add in a proper lead guitarist. Oh, and a sound man who knows how to adapt to different acoustic environments. But I don't, and they won't, so I will certainly not be buying any tickets for Fairport Convention concerts again.

Instead, I may just go and put on "A Sailor's Life" this evening, just to remind myself why once, a long time ago, I used to love their music so much. Or perhaps it should be the live recording of Richard and Linda Thompson's "Calvary Cross", made at Oxford Polytechnic in November 1975 – I was there! – to remember what a thrill live music can be, especially when you're young and your ears are still working properly. [3]

1. AFAIK Bob Pegg is not related to Dave Pegg, bassist, sometime of Jethro Tull and the longest serving member of Fairport, who was playing bass on Saturday. However, I now realise that he and Carole were based in my home town of Stevenage 1969-72, which explains why I saw them so often!

2. It may seem a little strange to complain about songs being "dated" when you're expecting an evening of traditional folk... What I really mean is that these songs were already done to death half a century ago – they're practically camp-fire favourites – and require something more than pretty harmonies to warrant their revival. Although, as someone long absent from that scene, maybe, like Fairport Convention, they just never went away.

3. The folk-rock scene is nothing if not incestuous. Dave Pegg, bassist, sometime of Jethro Tull etc., was also the bassist in Thompson's band on that night in 1975. And if you listen to the track then there it is, unmistakable: the metronomic Mattacks WHACK... Not one of the more subtle drummers IMHO.

Friday 3 February 2023

It's a Puzzle

The Golden Wasp Game

Back in the Dark Analogue Age of two-TV-channel Christmas, one way – in fact pretty much the only way – of alleviating the tedium of long nights confined with your extended family was to play games. Have you ever had to pin the tail on the donkey, race cut-out paper fish across the living-room by whacking the carpet with a rolled up newspaper, or tried to play hide-and-seek in a house with no hiding places worthy of the name? Have you ever sat round a table, quietly astonished at the deep need of certain relatives to win a completely pointless board game? If so, you too will probably have discovered the solitary joy of reading a book or, as an adult, quietly getting drunk and pretending to be unconscious.

Personally – and I realise this marks me as a party-pooping introvert – I've never really been turned on by games. Even as a child, the idea of a round of Monopoly or snakes and ladders was never my idea of a fun way to spend the evening. I was always more interested in the design of the board and the gaming pieces than the game itself, and have certainly spent rather more time studying the curves, planes, and moulding of a box of chessmen than actually playing chess, a pursuit which, frankly, I find utterly baffling. The very idea of thinking several moves ahead, including the anticipation of your opponent's counter-moves, gives me a headache. It's not something I'm proud of, it's just that I know my limits. Oh, look, you win again: I'll put the kettle on. Do we have any paracetamol?

In the past I have attempted to master a few card games more complex than snap (which is difficult enough, if your attention is constantly snagged by the elegantly symmetrical intricacies of playing card design). Poker, for example, simply because it seems antisocial to spoil the fun of others by refusing to play, however badly, and there's nothing a decent card player enjoys more than to point out the idiotic way you have just lost a winning hand to their fistful of rubbish. You're welcome, Mr. Hickok! I recall once spending a memorable holiday in the late 1970s touring France and Spain trapped in a car with three keen bridge players. Rarely has anyone filled the role of "dummy" so well. Listen, you play out the hand, I'll get the drinks in [1].

Solitary pastimes of the game or puzzle variety don't generally hit the spot for me, either. The challenge of, say, a crossword was never one to which I had ever felt the need to rise. However, one of my oldest friends is a participant in one of those vibrant communities of interest that go completely unnoticed by outsiders: he is (whisper it) an active cruciverbalist (as comedian Eric Morecambe used to say, they can't touch you for it). To feed his habit, some while ago I started sending him the weekly Times Literary Supplement crossword, and this has drawn me, somewhat reluctantly, into this curious netherworld, as he sometimes asks me to help out with some of the TLS clues, under the mistaken impression that I have advanced knowledge of literary matters. Well, I suppose I do have some literary knowledge, but what I really know, after 35 years working in university libraries, is where and how to look for more. As Samuel Johnson put it, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries."[2] 

Now, the TLS crossword is not your simple "guess the word from the clue" type of crossword:  none of your "Author of Bleak House (7 letters)" sort of thing. No; it is a full-on cryptic crossword, which – with its traditions, explicit and implicit rules, and austere satisfactions – is a peculiarly British institution, not unlike our unwritten constitution, or the game of cricket. The civil servant who can finish the Times crossword during the morning commute, casually leaving the paper with its pencilled-in solutions on the train seat, is a figure of legend. But, as with chess, the mindset required to solve a cryptic clue is deeply alien to me. To reduce words to assemblages of letters, to be chopped up and re-arranged to form other words, is like regarding a person as a fascinating but interchangeable assemblage of organs. Which, I suppose, is precisely how a surgeon must come to see people. In Eliot's memorable words about John Webster, he sees the skull beneath the skin (an unapologetic little flash of literary knowledge there).

In a cryptic crossword a lot can depend on the personality of the crossword setter, who will change from week to week in the TLS. Some are like benign uncles, leading you on to some pleasing "aha!" moment, while others are more like malevolent misanthropes, delighting in the perverse difficulties they have placed in your path. This one has been recommended to me as a particularly pleasing beginner's cryptic puzzle, suitably equipped with training wheels, for example. But then consider, by contrast, this (to my mind) fiendish TLS clue:

"Service area crossed by Follett's drunken agent (6)".

As a sentence, it makes superficial sense. We know what a "service area" is, we can guess that thriller writer Ken Follett is being invoked, and that one of his books may well include an agent who is a drinker. Much googling ensues, but with little result. There are no obvious Follett novels with an alcoholic protagonist, no useful synonyms for "service area".

But the experienced solver will have been alerted by the words "crossed by". Such innocent formulations often indicate a mashup of some kind; an anagram, a concatenation, a topping and tailing, or some other piece of word butchery. So, now let me reveal the answer. It is: KERNAN. Your considered response to this may be WTF?, as was mine. But here's how it works:

"service" = RN (abbreviation for the Royal Navy, the Senior Service);
"area" = A (a standard algebraic abbreviation);
"Follett" = KEN.
Now apply scissors and paste.

Now, I have read every word written by James Joyce (although, to quote Eric Morecambe again, not necessarily in the right order) but have no memory at all now of anyone named "Kernan", who, as you probably don't recall, is the drunk who falls down the stairs in "Grace", one of the short stories in Joyce's Dubliners, and who also features in Ulysses. He is a salesman, thus an "agent"; well, kinda sorta, maybe. So it seems there is no "service area", and the "agent" is not Ken Follett's at all. [3] Which, despite its sheer cleverness, and unassailable logic – at least within the conventions of cryptic clues – I find, shall we say, less than satisfying. Indeed, what baffles me most about this kind of puzzle is that the treasure chest – after the map-reading, the hacking through the undergrowth, and all that strenuous digging – is always empty, apart from a note saying, "Congratulations, you found it!". I suppose true cruciverbalists consider it sufficient reward for the time and effort expended to have successfully reverse-engineered the clue and demonstrated that their ingenuity is commensurate with that of the setter.

However, over Christmas – immobilised by a flu-ey cold and terrible weather – I came across another sort of crossword which, to my surprise, I do actually enjoy. As well as regular crosswords, both simple and cryptic, sudokus, and various other harmless ways of engaging the brain, The Guardian publishes a so-called Codeword in its Saturday edition. This is a typical crossword grid, but there are no clues, and instead all the squares are numbered: "Each letter of the alphabet makes at least one appearance in the grid and is represented by the same number wherever it appears. A number of letters have been decoded to help with the identification of other letters and words in the grid". You generally get three letters to start you off, and the whole thing then depends on your capacity to recognise words from patterns of letters – double letters, vowel-consonant combinations, etc. As a word-loving person, this works for me as it plays to my strengths, and is actually fun [4].

The example below took me about an hour to finish, and it seems like an ideal way to get the little grey cells fired up from a standing start first thing on a weekend. So my new Sunday morning ritual has become: get up, make a pot of tea, check out the new cartoons by Tom Gauld and Stephen Collins in the Saturday Guardian, tear off the last page, fold over the upside-down "answers" column to avoid the temptation to cheat, and settle down to breakfast with a pencil and the Codeword. It certainly beats reading the book review pages, which continue to shrink to make room for ever more absurd "lifestyle" features, and seem anyway only to feature the sort of books I am never likely to read. So, let's get down to it: first fill in all the Rs, Os, and Ms. Now think of six-letter words containing ROM and two of the same letter... Easy one! Probably... Tentatively, fill in the Ps and Ts. Actually, I could use a pee, and more tea might help... (Heh... Sorry about that).

1. A task I enjoyed, as a large part of that holiday was spent in the Basque Country, where I found – to my unaccustomed pleasure – that I was often the tallest man in the bar.

2. That quotation (from Boswell's Life)  has an oddly anachronistic feel, doesn't it, as if Johnson is talking about popping into the local public library and scanning the summaries and blurbs printed on the back of the books, but of course by "back" he means "spine" and by "library" he means either someone's personal collection of books or that of some private institution like a club.

3. Here is an expert's account: The surface of  this clue suggests a story about the author Ken Follett and his inebriated (and/or hopefully non-litigious) literary agent on a motorway journey, perhaps. Cryptically, however, it is a charade within a container, with the clear definition, "drunken agent" – a reference to Joyce's character, KERNAN, the answer. The charade is RN = Royal Navy ("service") + A ("area" -- maths) and that is contained within KEN, the author Follett's forename. The containment is indicated by the word "crossed". RNA is 'crossed' by KEN. The "'s" at the end of Follett is the link word between wordplay and definition. Cryptically, it stands for 'is': [this wordplay] is (the same thing as) [this clear definition], while in the surface it is a possessive marker. So the structure of this clue is: contained charade / link word / definition.

4. A very long time ago I sat the British Civil Service "fast stream" exam, which I passed. In principle, the papers test for outstanding linguistic, logical, and mathematical ability, but I was told that, although my scores in the logical and mathematical aspects were merely average, my linguistic scores were so high they had decided to give me a pass, anyway, and call me up for the interview stage. However, I came to my senses and decided to decline the opportunity to become "an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country" (Henry Wotton, 1604). Wotton's use of that ambiguous "lie" has something of the cruciverbalist spirit about it, I think.