Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Groundhog Day

Sorry.

As you may have guessed, another hospital interlude, another interruption.

This is starting to get a bit boring. Here's to better news.

T

Thursday, 24 September 2009

'Coming through the ether like a radio signal'

Andrew Graham-Dixon has made a short film on a recent exhibition of the work of Mark Alexander at Haunch of Venison's gallery in Berlin (below). Please take a look - I'd be very interested to read your comments. I posted here on the sunflower pictures shown in the film, which I'd seen whilst visiting Mark and his wife Yuko with the boys earlier this year.


UPDATE: Here's the link if you have trouble viewing the film above: www.tinyurl.com/markalexander

Mark is a very dear friend. We go back a long way, first meeting whilst hanging out in Tudor bogs (the boys' lavatories and lockers at the Tudor house base of Cirencester Deer Park School - for some reason this was deemed a cool place to loiter). We got to know each other really well through participating in various inter-village battles, fought to settle disputes over which village's lads had got their harvest in first, sheared the most sheep, could do the best nutty dance, etc.

We went our separate ways for a couple of years or so but then, through coincidences too complicated to relate, we ended up getting confirmed in the Church of England and then going to Oxford together. The former was unlikely enough. But the latter, on Mark's part, was a fantastically unlikely achievement: he had only one 'O' level in art and one in metalwork (a B and a C respectively, I think). His admission was reported in the Daily Mirror. It was justified as, after an eventful time, he graduated with a first class bachelor's degree in fine art and since then has worked as a professional artist.

Here's one of his earlier paintings (left). It's in oil and looks monochrome but actually incorporates flecks of green, purple, blue and other colours. I think it's one of the most beautiful portraits.

When Mark left school he worked as a silversmith and then managed to become expert in precision aerospace engineering. These craft skills have informed his work. His techniques mirror those of the Old Masters - he taught himself in the traditional way by copying great works by artists such as Michelangelo, Vermeer, David and Stubbs.

Nevertheless, the ideas behind his works speak very much of our own day. Paradoxically, they speak of contemporary feelings of loss in a recovered language. I very much liked Mark's description of his 'sun' works as: 'Powerful, but hardly there, just coming through the ether like a radio signal'. It's a tremendously moving way to conceive of the past and the transmission of its culture to us today.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Back again

Discharged for the third time - the lucky one, we hope.

The only observation I have - and it's a valuable one if you ever spend any substantial time in hospital - is that if you get sick of the standard bland, over-processed hospital food (which you are sure to) go for the halal or african-caribbean option. This should be available from all good London hospitals and perhaps elsewhere.

The catering of these meals is contracted out, presumably to the people that do supermarket ready-meals, and they are tasty and seem to contain superior ingredients. I've enjoyed dishes such as Fish Escovitch - coley in spicy pepper sauce with potatoes and banana - and Sag Gosht with Channa Dhal and Basmati Rice. Helps put a bit of savour into what is a deadening experience. No-one raised the objection that I am not a Muslim nor, even more obviously, African-Caribbean. An instance where multi-culturalism works to the benefit of your White British CofE person.

I'm sorry to have been so boring as to have to inflict these hospital adventures on you. To adapt Tolstoy: all well people are well in their own way, each unwell person resembles any other, i.e. bored, boring, slightly smelly and, where I went, wearing regulation green NHS pyjamas.

Thanks for your thoughts and back to happier things.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Intermission

Sorry to all those who've been enjoying the renewed flow of eclectic posts. I'm afraid another setback means Gaw is back in hospital and taking an enforced respite from blogging again. Trust me, you don't want to know all the details.

I'm sure the poor chap will welcome messages of commiseration, and he looks forward to being back soon.

T

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Can't get you out of my head

In an earlier post I compared RS Thomas to the Russian poet, Sergei Esenin (below). There's something in Thomas's delicate interleaving of the natural and the human in his more gentle love poems that reminded me of Esenin. On reflection, a better match for Esenin is Dylan Thomas: both lavishly lyrical, celebrators of nature's richness and of the provincial; both were probably more beloved by the public than the critics. They also share a spectacular streak of self-destructiveness.

Unlike Dylan, however, Esenin's lyrics celebrating nature, the rural, and village life bore more serious consequences than a measure of metropolitan critical disdain. He was disapproved of by the Bolsheviks, who couldn't countenance such a reactionary attitude. He was condemned by Bukharin and banned under Stalin and Kruschev. But despite this he remained one of the most popular of poets. One can well imagine the literate, industrialised Soviet man and woman gaining a wistful comfort from his works.

He was a drinker and a drug-taker, fulfilling the decadent stereotype. A man of violent rages, he was an early adopter of the rock star habit of trashing hotel rooms. He was also something of a lover, marrying five times. One of his wives, unlikely as it seems, was the dancer Isadora Duncan. She was eighteen years older than him and they hardly spoke a word of each other's languages.

Inevitably, he met the reckless poet's early death, hanging himself in 1925 at the age of thirty after having written his goodbyes in blood from slashed wrists. Neither Chatterton nor Dylan topped that. This was his valediction:
Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.
Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let's have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There's nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

Anyway, the reason I come back to him is that years ago I memorised a few Russian poems, one of which is below, an untitled work by Esenin. Of course, to appreciate it fully you'd have to read and hear it in Russian. So the chances are I can't really share with you very effectively why I like it (it trots along with a lovely iambic bounce). But as it's been rattling around in my head since I mentioned Esenin in the RS Thomas post, and is still refusing to go away, I felt like posting on it.

Below it's in the Russian, and below that I've attempted a mostly literal translation. The latter should give you a rough idea of its appeal: it's effect is very similar to that of a Chagall picture. It's distinctive of a very Russian artistic style. It has an almost naive simplicity made uncanny through some mystical and folkloric references.
О пашни, пашни, пашни,
Коломенская грусть,
На сердце день вчерашний,
А в сердце светит Русь. 
Как птицы, свищут версты
Из-под копыт коня.
И брызжет солнце горстью
Свой дождик на меня. 
О край разливов грозных
И тихих вешних сил,
Здесь по заре и звездам
Я школу проходил. 
И мыслил и читал я
По библии ветров,
И пас со мной Исайя
Моих златых коров.

O the fields, the fields, the fields,
The sadness of remote Russia.
In the heart is the day before yesterday,
In the heart shines old Rus. 
Like birds, fly the miles
From under the horse's hooves
And the sun throws its showers
in handfuls over me. 
O region of terrible floods
And the gentle forces of spring,
Here, from the dawn and the stars
I received my schooling. 
And I thought and I read
According to the Bible of the breezes
And with me Isaiah watched over
My golden cows.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Passionate about just about everything

This bandying about of passion has been bothering me for a while. Thankfully the excellent David Mitchell has nailed this heinous phenomenon. Ridicule is the least the perpetrators deserve. They actually deserve far, far worse. Or perhaps they're already living in a hell of undifferentiated emotion, mere husks of human beings? Making love to everyday objects in preference to their so-called loved ones, cherishing bland professional tasks rather than their nearest and dearest? Damn them, I say. Polluters.




H/t Tom Harris from the Daily Mash.

Monday, 14 September 2009

The history boys

I've been thinking about how my appreciation of history has changed over the years. In particular, how my views as to its 'knowability' have developed. I've tried below to categorise my attitudes over time. I would think that in our mostly post-ideological age it's a fairly typical intellectual progression.

Each phase has its own particular character, rather like Fry's Five Boys, as pictured on the chocolate bar of blessed memory (before my time, but I spent some time working in the old Fry's factory near Bristol where this bit of confectionery history was unavoidable).



Curiosity

Naturally, when you start studying history at school you know very little - some basic stuff taught in early years and what you've gleaned from films, the odd book, and trying to keep up with conversations between your elders (Dad and Taid debating whether Monty was a good general or just a show-off, or whether Patton was right in wanting to head for Berlin - usually kicked off by a Christmas war film: The Battle of the Bulge, A Bridge Too Far, Patton). You look forward to learning more, it all seems so very intriguing and might make you a man-of-the-world. Frustratingly, there's not a lot (if anything) about generalship, but more than you'd want about three-field crop rotation.


Certainty

You begin to learn proper history at what was 'O' and 'A' Level, and then at the more rarefied degree level, if you pursue it that far. Things at bottom seem to be quite clear and straightforward. You tend to be persuaded by grand narratives, or at least the one that appeals to your instinctive view of the world: Marxist, Whiggish, Darwinian - perhaps nowadays Environmentalist. You suspect you have access to some higher knowledge and wonder how a lot of your elders don't know any better - it's obvious what's been going on, isn't it? For me, it was some vaguely Marxist/progressive idea that progress was taken forward by revolution. For instance, Britain's biggest problem was it hadn't experienced a bourgeois revolution, unlike France, leaving it encrusted with outdated and irrelevant institutions, conventions and attitudes.


Doubt

You continue to read around and, more importantly, you live a bit too - getting a sense of what people are really like in the outside world. Things don't fit together as neatly as you guessed. You experience foreign countries and cultures. Is the hyper-critical attitude to where you grew up justified? You begin to doubt if the truth really is out there. All these grand narratives turn out to be partial or inadequate explanations of the world. Things you thought irrelevant are meaningful. Meanings are layered, non-obvious, paradoxical. Ideas matter, people matter, interests matter, no-one is in control really and no-one ultimately knows what the hell is going on. This is troubling. And some seem to have already reached this conclusion. Is it all just one damned thing after another? Is it a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?


Humility

However, you begin to accept contingency; it implies that life intrinsically contains an element of freedom. Instead of there being one big source of meaning, there are instead a succession of meaningful events. Establishing why they're singularly meaningful is the fun of it. Tentatively you begin to appreciate history's fundamental mystery; its subtlety, its profundity, its complexity. The satisfaction comes from struggling with this intractability. You may never come to the definitive truth about something, the chances are it may not exist. But to travel is better than to arrive. There probably is no Holy Grail. But there is a fantastic adventure to be had in trying to track it down, one which might teach you a great deal about the world. Galahad was a boring prig, it was Lancelot who experienced the exciting stuff.


Next?

As far as I know, the last phase is the end-point. But who knows? Perhaps I might end up an ideologue of some sorts, or perhaps a nihilist. Life, like history, can be full of surprises.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Freed from History

Alexander Chancellor writes that history is all the rage at the moment, what with hit TV series by Schama and Starkey, and Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall being favourite to win the Booker (posted on here). He casts around for reasons and believes:
a major one must be the generally dim and dingy role that Britain plays today on the world stage, as well as the various ailments that afflict society at home. A people that is no longer making history looks to the past for reasons to feel proud.
I'm sceptical. I know the papers are peppered with pieces on Britain's renewed declining status. This week, The Spectator makes it their cover story. I'm sure I'm not alone in not giving a flying feck about this. I care about the national debt and the tax rises that are down the pike. But all that nonsense about punching above our weight and managing to keep up the special relationship - I would think 90% of the population couldn't care less.

I think the real reason for history's rising popularity is that it isn't really taught very much in our schools any more and hasn't been for quite a while. Wasn't it virtually dropped from the national curriculum a few years ago? Now that people haven't been put off at school by all that stuff about dates, or more recently, having to imagine you are a peasant on the Long March - not a particularly useful exercise when I did it, as a 15-year old, West Country lad who knew nothing about China, let alone Mao, communism, nationalism, peasants, civil war, etc, etc. - they grow up to have a genuine and unjaded curiosity about the past. They're free to enjoy the good bits of history, the great stories and intriguing explanations. Something of a paradox.

I somehow managed not to get put off. My enthusiasm was only really fired, though, when I was lucky enough to be assigned a fantastic teacher in the sixth-form. Rather than doling out a typical school lesson, he gave us the most brilliant, thought provoking, idea- and character-filled lectures. Probably way above what we should have expected, but it worked for me. It's rather frightening how a chance assignation of a teacher can shape your life.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Munster octopus

Warning: reasonably very technical rugby post.

Watched Munster vs Cardiff tonight in the Magners Celtic League (the wonders of the red button). As usual Munster won (a common occurrence at the forbidding Thomond Park). And as usual it was through aggressively attacking the breakdown, shoving, pawing, grabbing and using other means of general interference. And again, as usual, Cardiff's ball was slowed up and generally taken on the back foot. Too slow and static to run through the backs - the ball only got as far as the odd infield player who tried to drive it up Munster's well-manned fringes where they were aggressively tackled, then either dispossessed or more bad ball recycled. This pretty straightforward cycle was repeated until Munster got either a turnover or a penalty (with the odd one going against them).

Munster do this tremendously well. Perhaps better than any other non-international side. Players such as Alan Quinlan and Marcus Horan are superb in this phase of play. Yet teams usually still try to counter it by doing the same thing - moving slow ball, not very far and then driving forward in ones or twos and just being gobbled up. Perhaps they think one day the story will change, and to be fair sometimes a break is made. But the record shows, not enough for teams to win other than rarely.

I'm puzzled that coaches - and players, why not? - don't realise that the way to counter this is to only release the ball when your team's on the front foot and when the Munster forwards are well bound in. Now the rolling maul is back there should really be no excuse. It's obviously not easy, and involves intense physical confrontation, but then Munster have never been an easy team to beat.

Picston Shottle

The Times informs us today that:
Picston Shottle (above), the world's top ranked bull, is still going strong. On his tenth birthday last month, the prize Holstein Friesian had notched up 50,000 daughters and earned more than £20 million from sales of his semen.
What a guy! Mind you, I bet he's still technically a virgin, it all being done mechanically nowadays. Also, fancy having 50,000 children and not one of them a son to take forward the noble name of Shottle.

I was thinking that given the convergence of ethical attitudes towards human beings and animals as well as the loss of anonymity for sperm donors it's only a matter of time before we can expect the following report:
Picston Shottle (below), the world's top ranked inseminator is still going strong. On his twenty-fifth birthday last month, the prized Mancunian - to his fans known simply as The Inseminator - had notched up 50,000 children and earned more than £50 million from sales of his semen.
We caught up with him on his Caribbean island getaway and found him in relaxed mood as he finished off a plate of oysters washed down with his trademark 'Flow' strawberry guava cocktail. His Flow lifestyle brand is now reckoned to make him as much as his inseminations, with a new synthetic semen-based facial treatment in the pipeline. [And so on].

Naturally, the whole field would have become celebritised. The X-Y Factor, Strictly Cum Dancing, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Up the Duff... Presented by a series of Ant and Dec clones, a Simon Cowell constructed mostly from lamb testes and a cryogenically preserved Brucie.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Adventures in the 20th century

I've been reading a lot recently. I couldn't face paying £3.50 a day to watch TV in hospital and Radio 4, for all its virtues, does have quite a few unlistenable bits. The books have merged into something of a wordy mass but one or two stand out.

A Chapter of Accidents by Goronwy Rees (above) was one. I was led to it via Byron Rogers' biography of RS Thomas (posted on here): Rees was fantastically rude about Aberystwyth* and by extension Wales, in withering d'haut en bas fashion. He had, at best, a dubious and patronising attitude to his home country - an attitude cited by Rogers as emblematic of the English-educated, somewhat deracinated Welshman of the time.

Rees had a glittering Oxford career, Fellow of All Souls at twenty-one and a social success to boot. He later became - unhappily for all concerned - Principal of the University College in Aber', being forced to resign due to articles he'd written on his close friendship with the recently defected Soviet agent and rake Guy Burgess. He both explained and condemned Burgess.

The bulk of A Chapter of Accidents is concerned with Burgess and his impact on Rees. Understandably, it's something of an apologia for Rees's relationship with a traitor: on the one hand, he suffered from the suspicion that he too was an agent; on the other, he was criticised by the EM Forster crowd for betraying a friend. Whilst the prose is always elegant and controlled it's quite a frightened book, written by a man in desperate need of justification.

Unsurprisingly, the account needs to be taken with the occasional pinch of salt. Rees apparently made a death-bed confession that he had been a Soviet agent, a claim substantiated by the discovery of a KGB file on him in the Mitrokhin archive. There's one thread in the book suggesting Rees had been an agent; however, it stays unpulled.

Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating dissection of the mentality and rationale of the mid-twentieth century intellectual communist. In Rees's case, the more typical reasons impelled him to join the party: the inter-war economic crisis (especially unemployment in South Wales), a deep suspicion of what seemed to be a clapped-out English ruling class reluctant to challenge the rise of fascism, and the attraction of communism's futurity, as well as its combination of ideas and action. Burgess's motivation, as Rees sees it, was more unusual, not to say paradoxical:
It was not for love of a new Utopian world that he had become a communist; it was because he thought that capitalism was at the end of its tether and could no longer fulfill its historical mission. He felt that it had betrayed him... British capitalism...could no longer serve the interests of the British people and could no longer shoulder the burdens of Empire. His hatred of capitalism was not that of the idealist who condemns it for its sins; it was that of a disappointed and embittered Imperialist who rejects it because of its failures...
[He] had an instinctive dislike, even contempt, for other than Anglo-Saxon countries. He did not speak their languages or read their literature and he regarded their politics as childish. In this respect he combined all the prejudices of an American WASP and an English country gentleman, and was as provincial, as insular, in a sense as patriotic, as a reactionary colonel.
Burgess was an incessant, almost obsessive, reader of the great Victorian novelists - George Eliot, Dickens - and of biographies of the great Victorian statesmen - Salisbury, Gladstone. He was nostalgic for an era of greatness whilst living, as he saw it, in an era of decline, one of frivolity and cynicism. He thought Strachey was a midget set against the Victorian eminences he lampooned.

I would say this is one of the more unusual intellectual formations of the mid-twentieth century communist. But in any event it underlines how it pays to beware the idealist and utopian: there's often something quite different motivating them than that which they'd like you to believe.

I find the most insightful descriptions of communism and its attractions are to be found in personal memoirs such as this. As the authors usually have a literary and intellectual background as well as a taste for the outré, they also often happen to be very good reads.

The God that Failed is the best known set of personal accounts (and the best known of these is that by Arthur Koestler). However, as a series of essays it doesn't provide the satisfaction of seeing the parabola of attraction and disillusionment in the context of the whole life. There are a few more obscure memoirs, which do this quite triumphantly. I would recommend:

The Undefeated by George Paloczi-Horvath: excellently written and something of a combined intellectual-action adventure story by a literate and aristocratic Hungarian.

Rise and Fall by Milovan Djilas: fascinating account by a swashbuckling, Montenegran soldier-intellectual who went from ultimate insider to ostracised outsider in Tito's Yugoslavia.

Children of the Revolution by Wolfgang Leonhard: another inside to outside account, Leonhard spending a good part of his childhood in exile under Stalin's terror (gripping), then being one of the Communist ruling elite inserted by the Soviet Union into post-war East Germany before defecting in 1949.


* We lived in Aberystwyth for a while when I was a child, in a damp - actually wet - farm cottage in the middle of Borth bog. My fondest memory is playing on the huge sand dunes of Ynyslas, not something which recommended itself to Rees, I suspect. A less attractive one is of my toddler brother falling off the garden wall and landing upside down in a disused toilet full of stinging nettles; apparently I ran inside shouting 'what to do? what to do?'.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A rare post on football

Having seen tonight's game against Croatia, I'm going to put a fiver on England to win the 2010 World Cup. Because of the excellent performance? Nah.

A regular in a pub I used to frequent in my younger days believed quite strongly - well, he used to shout it with foam-flecked passion - that England would never win anything whilst their kit was 'polluted' with the blue of Scotland. I note that England's new retro kit, with rugby-style collar, doesn't have a fleck of blue (badges excepted). The Caledonian curse having been lifted they should go all the way.

Seven Quirky Personality Traits

Gadjo Dilo graciously tagged me to write up my 'Seven Quirky Personality Traits'. In the belief that the quirk is in the eye of the beholder - your quirk is my normal, everyday habit - I asked two of the women in my life for their views (T and me Mam, who's staying at the moment).

The suggestions came in rapid-fire succession from each: 'obsessive', 'demanding', 'bossy', 'pedantic', 'always right', 'controlling', 'stubborn'.

Mmm. I had to point out that these weren't so much quirks as, well, flaws. T suggested I could have included 'addiction to Earl Grey tea'. But for mysterious reasons that enthusiasm seems to have been brought to an end by my operation.

Any more, I wondered? Mum: you're quite vain, but not as much as your brother. T: how about 'plagiarism' as all you're going to do is write up what we've just told you?

Enough already. My feet remain planted firmly on the ground.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Our age

Interesting stuff on the excellent blog of science and finance maverick Scott Locklin. He argues that not much has happened technologically in the last fifty years, at least compared with the previous fifty and the fifty before that:
I’d go so far as to say that the main technological innovation since 1959 has been space flight—a technology we’ve mostly abandoned, and it’s daughter technology—microelectronics. Computer networks came a year or two after 1959 and didn’t change very much, other than how we waste time in the office, and whom advertisers pay.
On the other hand, the previous fifty saw truly revolutionary progress:
The rate of change between 1959 and 1909 is nothing short of spectacular. In that 50 years, humanity invented jet aircraft, supersonic flight, fuel-injected internal-combustion engines, the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, space flight, gas warfare, nuclear power, the tank, antibiotics, the polio vaccine, radio; and these are just a few items off the top of my head. You might try to assert that this was a particularly good era for technological progress, but the era between 1859 and 1909 was a similar explosion in creativity and progress, as was the 50 years before that, at the dawn of the Industrial revolution.
I imagine every age has its narcissism: that it is extraordinary in some way, the worst ever or the best ever. We're told we're experiencing a dazzling and unprecedented period of technological change: not so much, it seems.

Politicians, in particular, love this sort of discourse: they like to pose as the visionary, placing our uniqueness in the grand historical sweep. Another claim I've always found risible is all that Bush-Blair nonsense about our living in unprecedentedly dangerous times. The fact that we live in an unusually unstable and dangerous world is part of the small change of hand-wringing newspaper commentary.

But even in my lifetime things have improved in quite obvious fashion. Just of the top of my head, we've seen the back of: the Cold War (more than half of Europe occupied by a hostile nuclear power); the Soviet Union and Maoist China; fascist dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece (imagine that on your hols) as well as in a lot of Latin America and Indonesia; apartheid in South Africa; and Republican Irish terrorism. Incredible enough. But even more incredibly - and I mean virtually no-one would have believed you if you'd told them this 30 or so years ago - it almost all happened peacefully.

The viciousness of a group of inadequate Islamist nutters, whilst being something we could do without, doesn't really loom very large compared to a lot of the above. At least we've got global warming to hug to ourselves: we really are special, you know.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Back

Thank Christ that bit's over. I won't trouble you with the details, mostly because I don't want to trouble myself by recounting them. But here are a few observations:

- Is there a more disconcerting word combination in the English language than 'wound infection'? Other candidates might include 'rat bite', 'brain injury' and 'away day'.

- I remember a character on some Western or war film reckoning that the most painful way to die from a gun-shot wound is to take one in the guts. I can confirm that this is probably true.

- Hospital morphine, if taken in sufficient quantity, can help you partake in the sort of phantasmagorical visions experienced by Coleridge, De Quincey and other opium-eaters and laudanum drinkers.

I had a number of visions, which, thankfully, didn't spill over into the nightmarish. One had me at the bottom of a sea-cave looking up through a hole in the roof to see silhouetted shoals of whales, sharks and divers swimming amongst each other, sinuously and peacefully. Another had me peering through charcoal clouds at a patch of blue sky on which was projected portraits of people wearing dashing beards and headwear of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century provenance. Delicately pale faces and red cockades and lips.

Now, though, we move on. Except to thank those who left kind comments wishing me well. Blogging seems full of surprises, one of which is the peculiar sort of intimacy established with people you've mostly never met. I suppose this is because when you share personal thoughts and views - which you might not have shared before with anyone else - and invite people to comment on them, you implicitly rely on there being a degree of mutual interest, good faith and trust between you and your interlocutors. When this is justified, it's hardly surprising that some sort of connection is made. Anyway, thank you.