Saturday, December 15, 2018

join me


I don't begin.
It's more that a thread's cut

Jag börja inte.
Finns bara tråd som skäras


Even a daisy resists
your project. The resistance
is its life. The only thing
you can do to the daisy is
take its life.

Friday, December 14, 2018

It is a thing

OK, I give up, so I'm going to share this mystery with readers and appeal for help. These photos show an implement (?) ... oh, ok, lets just say a thing...  that my dad picked up recently at an auction sale.

It consists of a two-winged plane of wood, elaborately carved on the upper side, and mounted on a plain wooden pole, about 1.5 meters in length, tapering to a slightly pointed end.

At the auction-room a man who had "seen one before" said that it was a "Scandinavian marriage axe", which my dad inferred meant a ceremonial "axe" used in some wedding ritual. He was thinking about these lines in the Elder Edda about Thor's axe-hammer Mjollnir:

Bring in the hammer  to hallow the bride;
On the maiden's knees  let Mjollnir lie

(from the Thrymskvitha)

It's a good theory, except that our researches have failed to turn up any evidence whatever for the existence of such a ritual. Besides, in the Edda story, the bride at this giant's wedding turns out to be Thor himself in disguise -- you can guess what happens next.

And actually, it doesn't really seem like a Scandinavian object. The floristic carving  reminds me especially of the highland art of the Podhale region of southern Poland (Zakopane area), but I could credit an origin anywhere in central Europe.

On the side of the "blade" is some writing:


Except the N is backwards, like a Cyrillic I. So is the first line (name?) written in Cyrillic,, even though the second line (name?) is definitely in the Roman alphabet?

So yet more mystery. And now over to you! Where is it from, what sort of date, what does the inscription mean, and above all, what is it?

I can't see how it could be a practical tool, and there are no signs of wear. Is it something churchly or Masonic? Is it something carried in a procession? But if so, why is the principal decoration on the topside, where a bystander wouldn't see it?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

passing Narbonne

Field Maple (Acer campestre): simple leaf and enriched leaf. Beckington (Somerset), 5th December 2018.

Hungarian Oak (Quercus frainetto). Frome, 11th December 2018.

Hungarian Oak (Quercus frainetto). The Balkans is its heartland; being a calcifuge, it's actually quite uncommon in Hungary. Yet these young trees seem to be happy enough beside the river in Frome. (The soil must be almost neutral here, though the surrounding town is on Jurassic limestone.)

Widely planted for its splendid big leaves and impressive egg-shaped crown.

Hungarian Oak (Quercus frainetto) outside Frome library, 11th December 2018.

Empty bottle of "nectar of nature" gel douche délicat

So I've finally  used up the shower gel, and this is my fond farewell to it. I got it in Narbonne in mid-October.

The letter also inclosed to Emily an order upon a merchant at Narbonne, for a small sum of money.

(Ann Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho Ch XII)

The "muddy river" is the Canal de la Robine. Some of the roads beside it were flooded after a night of heavy rain. We had a long stay in the hypermarket and then had business at the tobacconist and the post office (where I stood in the queue behind a druggy young couple, just the same as I might do anywhere in the peripheral UK). Then we had a look round the "centre historique" and, with cold sun making a brief appearance in the square, contrived to enjoy some green tea while perching on wet cafe chairs.

Unconsciously we were passing by for the same reasons the Romans settled here: because this is where the road from Spain joins the road from the Atlantic. Via Domitia and Via Aquitania, in those days.

In the fourteenth century the course of the Aude changed, and Narbonne's wealth declined; the dizzying high-vaulted cathedral remains incomplete.

Narbonne was the birthplace of the troubadour Charles Trenet (1913 - 2001), now memorialized by a gigantic sculptured head at one of the nearby aires (motorway services).

Nationale 7
Il faut la prendre qu'on aille à Rome à Sète
Que l'on soit deux trois quatre cinq six ou sept
C'est une route qui fait recette
Route des vacances
Qui traverse la Bourgogne et la Provence
Qui fait d' Paris un p'tit faubourg d'Valence
Et la banlieue d'Saint-Paul-de-Vence
Le ciel d'été
Remplit nos cœurs d'sa lucidité
Chasse les aigreurs et les acidités 

 (from Charles Trenet, "Nationale 7", a 1959 song celebrating the inauguration of paid public holidays. We were about to drive along some of this route ourselves.)


Sunday, December 09, 2018

fox runs across the ice

[Image source: Photo by Emme MacDonald.]

This is a popular song in Sweden, known to all children. In its extended version it accompanies a round dance with actions (such as curtseying or bowing) -- e.g. round the midsummer pole or the Christmas tree.

Räven raskar över isen,
räven raskar över isen.
Får vi lov, ja får vi lov,
att sjunga flickornas visa?
  Så här gör flickorna var de går
  och var de sitter och var de står.
Så får vi lov, ja får vi lov,
att sjunga flickornas visa?

The fox runs across the ice,
the fox runs across the ice.
Shall we, yes shall we,
sing the girls' song?
  Thus the girls do as they walk
  and as they sit and as they stand.
So shall we, yes shall we,
sing the girls' song?

("Få vi lov att...?" is homologous to "Have we leave to...?" --  but with only the faintest residual tint of old-fashioned formality, so I've gone for "Shall we ..?")

The italicized lines, which accompany the actions, are usually sung in a slower tempo than the rest.

Subsequent verses are basically the same, but run through "gossarna" (the boys), "gummorna" (the old women), "gubborna" (the old men), then various optional professions: e.g. "skräddaren" (the tailor), "skomakarn" (the cobbler), "målaren" (the painter), "bagarn" (the baker) and "sotaren" (the chimney sweep). And such full-length renderings usually end up with verses about Grin-Olle and Skratt-Olle, who are apparently a pair of "snusande gubbarna" (funny snuff-stained old buffers). "De" (they) becomes "han" (he) in these later verses.

But like most popular songs, it's often abbreviated to a single verse or even a single line.

The single line (i.e. fox runs across the ice) is totemic, a title that has nothing in particular to do with the rest of the song.  As typical of nature in folk songs, it means both nothing and everything; it just means the song itself, the dance itself.

Because of this first line I always think of it as a Christmas song, but that's applying far too much logic. Besides, at midsummer in the north of Sweden ice isn't altogether a distant memory.

It's a pure sound game, too. Four different R-sounds followed by four different vowel-sounds.

raska -
r öve -
r isen

And "isen" also rhymes with "visa", but not very well. (If it was a full rhyme, I think that might get annoying after a while.)

The sound-pattern is preserved in the occasionally-reported variant "Räven raskar över riset" (Fox runs across the heather).

It's an old song. The scientist Olof Rudbeck described a version of the song in 1689, in his eccentric magnum opus Atlantica.

The melody normally heard today is a "polska", a dance tune in dotted triple time.

[Image source: . Photo by Olaf Schneider, used by permission.]


Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Tobias Smollett's poetry -- and homophobia, and climate change...

While I've been reading Peregrine Pickle, I've also been taking some quick glances at Smollett's poems, which are helpfully available on PoemHunter.


Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn
Thy banish'd peace - thy laurels torn!
Thy sons, for valour long renown'd,
Lie slaughter'd on their native ground;
Thy hospitable roofs no more
Invite the stranger to the door;
In smoky ruins sunk they lie,
The monuments of cruelty.

The wretched owner sees afar
His all become they prey of war;
Bethinks him of his babes and wife,
Then smites his breast, and curses life!
Thy swains are famish'd on the rocks
Where once they fed their wanton flocks:
Thy ravish'd virgins shriek in vain;
Thy infants perish on the plain.

(from "The Tears of Scotland")

"The Tears of Scotland" was written in London in April 1746, as soon as news came through of the victory at Culloden. Smollett, then 24, was one of a group of wellborn emigrant Scots who witnessed the wild celebrations in London and had to be careful not to let their accents give them away in the streets.

The details are in this interesting article in The Herald:

(I'm assuming this information comes from Alexander Carlyle's autobiography.)

If the April date is correct, it's surprising that Smollett's poem seems to allude both to 'Butcher' Cumberland's battlefield orders to slay the wounded (in marked contrast to Charles' humane treatment of the government wounded after Prestonpans), and to the aftermath in May 1746 when his troops scoured the glens to kill all potential rebels and to destroy their homes.

Did the classical motifs of Smollett's lament horribly anticipate what would really come to pass?

Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, was the youngest son of George II. Handel composed the oratorio Judas Macabeus to celebrate Cumberland's victorious return from Scotland. It includes the evergreen chorus "See, the conqu'ring hero comes!"


Also in 1746, Smollett wrote "Advice: A Satire". (A sequel, "Reproof", was written the following year.)

The poem is in the form of a dialogue between the virtuously indignant Poet and a devil's-advocate Friend who proposes various degrading ways in which the Poet might get on in the world.

Clearly the Friend is being blackly ironic, and it's he who delivers the most memorable passage:

Go then, with every supple virtue stored,
And thrive, the favour’d valet of my lord.
Is that denied? a boon more humble crave.
And minister to him who serves a slave;
Be sure you fasten on promotion’s scale,
Even if you seize some footman by the tail:
The ascent is easy, and the prospect clear,
From the smirch’d scullion to the embroider’d peer.
The ambitious drudge preferr’d, postilion rides,
Advanced again, the chair benighted guides;
Here doom’d, if Nature strung his sinewy frame,
The slave, perhaps, of some insatiate dame;
But if, exempted from the Herculean toil,
A fairer field awaits him, rich with spoil,
There shall he shine, with mingling honours bright,
His master’s pathic, pimp, and parasite;
Then strut a captain, if his wish be war,
And grasp, in hope, a truncheon and a star:
Or if the sweets of peace his soul allure,
Bask at his ease, in some warm sinecure;
His fate in consul, clerk, or agent vary,
Or cross the seas, an envoy’s secretary;
Composed of falsehood, ignorance, and pride,
A prostrate sycophant shall rise a Lloyd;
And, won from kennels to the impure embrace,
Accomplish’d Warren triumph o’er disgrace.

Smollett's control is a bit wayward but his assault on abject social climbing has some great moments, for instance the comic progress from postilion-rider to personal link-boy (who would guide the sedan-chair after dark) to brawny footman to Her Ladyship.

A "pathic" is a submissive sexual partner, i.e. the supplier of anus rather than penis. In Roman sexual morality that made a difference. A gentleman might engage with either sex without raising any eyebrows, so long as he was the active participant. But to be a pathic was to play the part of a slave or servant or woman, and was thus socially humiliating.

Smollett is evidently taking off from Juvenal's Satire II,  which is quoted in his epigraph (see below). Juvenal was concerned about foreigners (which pathic servants often were) acquiring undue influence over native Romans. But Smollett, probably conscious of being a foreigner himself, wasn't interested in that aspect of the matter.

On the other hand Smollett has his own era's outspoken revulsion at all homosexual activity whatever.

The Poet comments:

Eternal infamy his name surround,
Who planted first that vice on British ground!
A vice that, spite of sense and nature, reigns,
And poisons genial love, and manhood stains!*
Pollio! the pride of science and its shame,
The Muse weeps o’er thee, while she brands thy name!

(I had the thought that "Pollio" means Sir Francis Bacon, but I'm probably mistaken; most likely the veiled name refers to someone still alive.)

... and he laments the prevalence of the vice at Oxford University and within the Church:

Let Isis wail in murmurs as she runs,
Her tempting fathers, and her yielding sons;
While dulness screens the failings of the Church,
Nor leaves one sliding Rabbi in the lurch:  ...

Of course I'm not reading 18th-century satire to judge, or even learn about, 18th-century society. What I'm really thinking about is our own time and its ills, and why satire doesn't work when there are so many fit topics.

Satire musters the values of the tribe to attack social deviance (I confess I accept this more easily from the pen of crusty old Juvenal than from crusty young Smollett).

But in our time it's precisely the values of the tribe that are our greatest danger -- I'm talking about the human-caused environmental catastrophe, which we seem powerless to do anything about. It's pointless, isn't it, to shame prominent individuals who are shameless themselves and whose denigration leads to no social consensus?

The satiric focus on powerful individuals is astray in this case. Our danger comes from a system, which we can label capitalism but is merely a formalization of human nature. The most dangerous things we do are reasonably perceived as tribal norms; buying ourselves a new car, doing up our homes, having another baby, booking a long-haul flight, going for a better-paid job. Far from feeling ashamed by such projects, they make us feel more alive. Our conception of living involves a restless drive towards change. It's these all-too-normal drives, repeated by millions, that are melting the ice-cap.

Satire, it's true, is often directed against drives. In this Smollett passage, for instance, we're struck by the energetic activity of the sycophants and social climbers; as often in satire, the reader is meant to feel the threat of massed social activity.

Satire assumes that its targets are moral beings, susceptible to shame. So it doesn't patronize them. But here are several differences from the situation today.

First, booking a holiday isn't actually morally reprehensible. Ordinary people aren't preoccupied with abstract questions of the planet; conveniently, but also undeniably, it's actually pretty difficult to assess the full spectrum of consequences of a trip abroad. And if some technical breakthrough in the future meant that our high living no longer impacted the natural world, I wouldn't have a problem with it either. That unfettered human living and its drives, the kind of energetic intervention we're programmed for, destroys the natural environment -- this isn't a moral judgment but an economic one: the impacts don't need to be preached up because they can be measured.

Second, we all do these things. Smollett could be virtuously indignant because he himself wasn't guilty of the acts he castigates (all the easier, if they concern sexual behaviour that one isn't tempted to partake in).

Thirdly, morals change over time: for example, most Europeans today don't think homosexuality is a "vice".  Morals change like tastes change, because morals are an aspect of social self-organization, like class. And in fact we are already changing our views, and even our morals, to adjust to climate change. Already, we're getting quite used to the idea that species diversity is only a historical phenomenon, like language diversity; nature is prettier and more convenient with less species. Besides, isn't human experience already far removed from a direct involvement with nature itself? Icebergs may as well join dinosaurs and gruffaloes in the flourishing realm of the virtual from which nearly all our imaginative experience now derives. To subjugate nature isn't only natural to humans, it's a responsible use of God's gifts.... And so on...


The pretentions of "Advice" to being Juvenalian satire are explicit in its epigraphs:

——Sed podice levi
Caeduntur tumidæ, medico ridente, mariscæ.
O proceres! censore opus est, an haruspice nobis?


[Satire II, lines 12-13

"but the doctor grins when he cuts into the growths on your shaved buttocks" (G. G. Ramsay)


"but your arsehole is smooth when the laughing doctor lances your swollen 'figs'" (Susanna Morton Braund in the recent Loeb edition; according to her note, piles were thought to be caused by anal intercourse.)

followed by line 121.

"O ye nobles of Rome! is it a soothsayer that we need, or a Censor?" (G. G. Ramsay)]

——Nam quis
Peccandi finem posuit sibi? quando recepit
Ejectum semel atteritâ de fronte ruborem?


[Satire XIII, lines 240-242.

"For who ever fixed a term to his own offending? When did a hardened brow ever recover the banished blush?" (G. G. Ramsay)]


*Roderick Random quotes Smollett's own lines in Ch LI, where he gives his stoutly homophobic views in response to Lord Strutwell's defence of Petronius' taste. [The latter much recalling Herr Aue's conversation at Odessa in Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.]

Smollett takes up the "vice" of homosexuality again in Peregrine Pickle, Ch XLIX (first version). The doctor's classical banquet, in Paris, ends up with the guests getting very drunk, mainly to purge their memories and stomachs of the dreadful food (no author is fonder of the phrase "discharge its contents"). The Italian Count and the German Baron now start to enjoy each other's company, a spectacle that disgusts Peregrine, "who entertained a just detestation for all such abominable practices". But shy of incurring the consequences of his own interference, he arranges for the landlady to discover the pair and to execute the "vengeance on the offenders" that he himself wished on them.

Here as throughout the evening (and the whole novel) Peregrine justifies his cruel tricks by reference to the moral or social failings of his victims. Smollett himself doesn't approve all, or even most, of Peregrine's behaviour. Impossible to say whether in his heart of hearts he entirely shared his hero's homophobia; publicly, at any rate, he did. What's interesting is that he chooses to represent it.

But it was a topic that was being talked about a lot. Rictor Norton's site has a surprising wealth of 18th-century material.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

In NYorks

The lock at Ferrybridge undergoing repair in 1906. The bottle kiln in background was on Brotherton side of river, known as Glass House Yard.


Of all the books I'm in the middle of reading, perhaps the record-holder is Smollett's Peregrine Pickle ; the bookmark is my rail-ticket from September 1997. Yet in those twenty years I've only managed to reach the hero's unedifying attendance at Oxford, about a fifth of the way through. The reason for this glacial progress is that the book is at my friend's house in Yorkshire, a place I've visited all too rarely and briefly. Now, however, I'm here for a whole week!


On Blakey Ridge, the wind pouring up from Farndale in a steady, incessant assault on our cheeks and lips, which feel rubberized. The grouse glide and drop with a noise like clockwork running down. We're zigzagging along the old railway track. It was built to transport ironstone from Rosedale to Teesside. The population of Rosedale mushroomed from 200 to 4,000.Today it's back to 200.

[A fire at the inn; Peregrine has rescued his beloved Emilia, and his servant Pipes has rescued Emilia's cousin Sophy.]

Sophy observed that now Mr. Pickle had an indisputable claim to her cousin's affection; and therefore she ought to lay aside all affected reserve for the future, and frankly avow the sentiments of her heart. Emily retorted the argument, putting her in mind, that by the same claim Mr. Pipes was entitled to the like return from her. Her friend admitted the force of the conclusion, provided she could not find means of satisfying his deliverer in another shape; and, turning, to the valet, who happened to be present, asked if his heart was not otherwise engaged. Tom, who did not conceive the meaning of the question, stood silent according to custom; and the interrogation being repeated, answered, with a grin, “Heart-whole as a biscuit, I'll assure you, mistress.”—“What!” said Emilia, “have you never been in love, Thomas?”—“Yes, forsooth,” replied the valet without hesitation, “sometimes of a morning.”
Peregrine could not help laughing, and his mistress looked a little disconcerted at this blunt repartee: while Sophy, slipping a purse into his hand, told him there was something to purchase a periwig. Tom, having consulted his master's eyes, refused the present, saying, “No, thank ye as much as if I did;” and though she insisted upon his putting it in his pocket, as a small testimony of her gratitude, he could not be prevailed upon to avail himself of her generosity; but following her to the other end of the room, thrust it into her sleeve without ceremony, exclaiming, “I'll be d—d to hell if I do.” Peregrine, having checked him for his boorish behaviour, sent him out of the room, and begged that Miss Sophy would not endeavour to debauch the morals of his servant, who, rough and uncultivated as he was, had sense enough to perceive that he had no pretension to any such acknowledgment. But she argued, with great vehemence, that she should never be able to make acknowledgment adequate to the service he had done her, and that she should never be perfectly easy in her own mind until she found some opportunity of manifesting the sense she had of the obligation: “I do not pretend,” said she, “to reward Mr. Pipes; but I shall be absolutely unhappy, unless I am allowed to give him some token of my regard.”
Peregrine, thus earnestly solicited, desired, that since she was bent upon displaying her generosity, she would not bestow upon him any pecuniary gratification, but honour him with some trinket, as a mark of consideration; because he himself had such a particular value for the fellow, on account of his attachment and fidelity, that he should be sorry to see him treated on the footing of a common mercenary domestic. There was not one jewel in the possession of this grateful young lady, that she would not have gladly given as a recompense, or badge of distinction, to her rescuer; but his master pitched upon a seal ring of no great value that hung at her watch, and Pipes, being called in, had permission to accept that testimony of Miss Sophy's favour. Tom received it accordingly with sundry scrapes; and, having kissed it with great devotion, put it on his little finger, and strutted off, extremely proud of his acquisition.

(1758 revised edition Ch XXVII, equivalent to Ch XXX in the original text of 1751)


In Hovingham, on the Howardians. The baker, who is Swedish, has a poster of spice plants on the wall, titled "Nyttoväxter" i.e. useful plants. "Kryddpeppar" is Allspice (Pimenta officinalis), beloved in Swedish cookery. Rain threatens. A dark afternoon; we drove to Castle Howard but didn't get as far as the lake, instead we listened to the rain hammering on the roof of the garden centre, now in full-on Xmas mode. "Highland Spruce". A few streaks of rose and golden light at sunset.

[Pepper, an Indo-Aryan word that has meant many things. Even today, "pepper" means two entirely different ingredients in our kitchens. "Peppercake" means gingerbread or similar in many Germanic and Scandinavian languages, and even in northern British dialects. Peppermint is a natural hybrid between spearmint and water mint; apparently the name refers to its extra pungency compared with spearmint.]


Peregrine Pickle is a novel about the wellborn, the "people of condition", which is very apparent in the extract above where they are talking with some limited good sense about the anthropology of servants. Our reaction is typically mixed. Peregrine is not, on the whole, a lovable hero. When roguery is being performed by a wellborn hero (unlike Roderick Random in that respect), we become a bit more unsettled.  Then there's the connection with, the almost-plagiarism of Tom Jones. Smollett subjects the beefcake hero to a kind of critical torsion; how far can you twist this, and what's exposed?

Or is PP a Bildungsroman? Peregrine goes abroad and learns the difficult lesson of other cultural behaviours: for example, that a woman who publicly announces that she's leaving the room to have a wee is not necessarily available for sex with him.

In Ch XXXIV of the original edition, Peregrine and Godfrey go to take their revenge on the farmer's wife who "tricked" Godfrey (I.e. pretended to welcome his advances in order to lure him into her husband's hands). They plan to tie her up with her posterior sticking out of the window. But in the event Godfrey offers another way to make up their quarrel, and the farmer's wife agrees ("consents" doesn't seem the right word). Meanwhile Peregrine has a tumble with the maid. Neither  seems at all concerned about the ethics of this; nor does Godfrey seem bothered that Peregrine is the accepted lover of his sister. Smollett suppressed the episode when he revised the novel.

Smollett prefixed the story, "not but that they gave a loose to their gallantry without much interesting their affections, and amused themselves with little intrigues, which, in the opinion of a man of pleasure, do not affect his fidelity to the acknowledged sovereign of his soul ..."

Among the upper classes they had "certain notions of honour, which they never presumed to infringe, and therefore, no domestic tragedies took rise from their behaviour.

Among the lower class of people, they did not act with the same virtuous moderation, but laid close siege to every buxom country damsel that fell in their way; imagining that their dalliance with such Dulcinea's could produce no fatal effects; and that it would be in their power to attone for any damage the inamoratas might sustain. "

Smollett's version of Fielding's double irony leaves us uncomfortable, but it has the merit of being very revealing of class attitudes. The two authors are very different. Fielding delights in addressing the reader at relaxed length. Smollett, on the other hand, never steps away from the story at all;  instead, he pulls everything into it. One of Fielding's recurrent themes is attacking mealy-mouthed hypocrisy. Smollett, I think, isn't interested in that theme.


At Jervaulx. Wind blowing through our trouser pockets. The Monks' Frater, the Lay Brothers, the Chapter House, the meat kitchen, dorter walls; Cistercian. Benedictine previously?

Driving up Coverdale, the car-windows weeping. Vee-lined sheep in movement on the dark wall of a fellside. Penhill, Pennyghent, Brythonic, Aella at Craik, Elmet. Farmer with her sheepdogs.

Roulston Scar. Paths wet, gorse flowering, sour late bilberries. The heavens unsettled, a kaleidoscope of weather. Looking at it, and in it.


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)

Continuing my series of shrubs in late November! Actually this one deserves to be called a tree, just about.

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), growing on the eastern slope of Cley Hill near Warminster, on the chalky soil it likes best.

The berries are said to be mildly toxic, so not a jam opportunity...

Not to be confused with the red-then-black berries of Alder Buckthorn (extremely toxic) or the orange berries of Sea-buckthorn (edible and very useful).

After diligent searching I managed to find some leaves still clinging on.

In Sweden, buckthorn is called getapel, i.e. goat-apple. According to Den virtuella floran, this is because the leaves are somewhat similar to crab-apple, and the inside of the bark is fibrous and reminiscent of goat-hair. 


The word used is "getragg". "Ragg" is one of those Swedish words, like "ris", that has no precise equivalent in English. It is an animal-hair word, that is, it embodies the insight of people that lived closely with animals,  that those animals require their own set of terms: that one doesn't simply or always transfer analogous and even homologous terms from the human arena, such as "hair", but may instead use fleece, coat, fur, mane, pelt... "Ragg", used especially of goats, wolves, elk, musk-ox, seems toconnote bristly, wiry, twisted, perhaps shaggy, or sometimes woolly...). [It's earliest appearance in the SAOB comes from our old friend Olaus Petri, i.e. Master Olof...]

Once such a word as "ragg" is established, it can then be used of humans too, but always with a beastly connotation. For example, of one's own unkempt beard, implying that it needs a good tidy-up. 

The idiom "av samma ragg" is equivalent to English "of the same stripe". You could call it dismissive collectivization; such terms are often used in politics. "The PC brigade", "and the like", "of the same ilk", "of that persuasion"... (I was going to say, "politics of the pubby sort", which of course would be a great example of dismissive collectivization in its own right.)

The implication of all these idioms is that what can be categorized is not worth taking seriously. Individuals who fit into a group are already under deep suspicion of not thinking for themselves; moreover -- to speak legally -- they're subject to precedent and hence very vulnerable to the dismissive adverb "just". ... Just naysayers, just snowflakes, just whingers... Case dismissed!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Erin Mouré

I was trying to educate myself in the poetry of Erin Mouré, but I hadn't found it all that easy... There's lots of audio/video/image material online, but not so much text. When you're going easy on the data downloads it just has to be text.

Besides, she's quite an uncontainable poet: when it's her writing, it's often someone else's too. When it's her poetry, it might also be literary theory.  Many of her writings are in more than one language. Even her name has no definite spelling. And all this is the point, obviously.

Anyway, I did find this.

XX The Humber is pretty fabulous, really

The Humber is more fabulous than the creek under my avenue.
And the Humber is no more fab than the creek under my avenue.
You can't mix up the two when on my avenue;
For that matter neither of them are very big…

The Humber is too small for ships
Yet on its waters they still ply
For those who see the "not there" in all things:
The memory of canoes.

The Humber descends from up north
And the Humber enters Lake Ontario.
You always hear people say this on buses in the afternoon.
But few know the creek that races under Winnett
And where it heads
And where it came from.
And, as such, because fewer people claim it,
The creek of my avenue is more grand and free.

You can take the Humber out almost to Niagara Falls;
Beyond the Humber is America
Where fortunes are made.
No one ever thinks about what's beyond
the creek under Winnett Avenue.

The creek under my avenue makes no one think of anything.
Whoever goes to the edge of it has only reached the curb.

From Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person (2011)

This collection transforms the poetry of Albert Caeiro, himself one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, the one who wrote "bad Portuguese".

(Sourced from rob mclennan's blog ,


And then, as a last resort I tried PoemHunter... and there were 28 poems, including eight of the Little Theatres (2005) ! So here's one:

Theatre of the Hope of a Cebola (Santiso)

On the hill there is no hay
but rain

no hay for a hayrick but
small rivulets singing the grass down

An onion has toppled off a high cart
the chest of the high cart has gone on past the hill

if pressed with a shoe an onion toppled
may take root

Will a shoe ever find it
how can we know

will the onion find a mouth to eat it
how can we ever know

In the channels of water :
small blue rivulets of blue.

PoemHunter, I should explain, is not the place you'd normally go to for poetry by linguistically innovative poets. It's impressive that Erin is here in such quantity. But this is only an aspect of her work: it isn't representative of the whole. Or maybe, in a way, it is. I'll go on thinking about that.

In the mean time, here are some other glimpses:

Excerpts from O Cadoiro :

Sections 1 - 6 of "The Acts", from Furious (1988) :

Barbara Berman's review of Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erin Mouré :

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

Wayfaring-tree (Viburnum lantana)

Wayfaring-tree (Viburnum lantana). Native and common in southern England and the midlands. Prefers basic soils.

Not native to Sweden, hence named "Parkolvon" ("Olvon" being V. opulus, the Guelder-rose)

Linnaeus gave it the specific name "lantana",  which was the name of the wayfaring-tree in late Latin (adopted from Italian dialect).

["Lantana" was later re-used as the name of a tropical New World genus in the verbena family. Lantana camara, the multi-coloured bedding-plant-turned-invader of Mediterranean coastlines, has quite similar-looking leaves to V. lantana.]

These photos were taken on a frosty 22nd November 2018 in Frome. Afterwards I felt I should have photographed the fruits too, so here they are, a couple of days later:

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

a shot of high culture

When I got back from eight weeks of vagabondism round Europe, with the only music my own rough guitar, and the bright radio  in overnight motorway toilets... Well, I felt half-feral so far as high culture was concerned. So when I visited family in Sussex I made the most of my opportunities.

Half delirious from lack of sleep, I just made it to my sister Annika's birthday lunch and her treat for me:  "Mozart's Court: Opera arias & Chamber music" at the Kino-Teatr in St Leonards-on-Sea (part of the new Hastings Early Music Festival). I'll never forget the rush of feeling, of something like relief, or return, when the Rautio Piano Trio struck up their arrangement of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro.

Then Kirsty Hopkins stepped up for "Un moto di gioia" (also from Figaro), and thus we were off, for an afternoon of trio movements interspersed with arias and extracts from Mozart's letters. According to the programme, these piano trios were written around the same time as the operas.

I find Mozart both familiar and enigmatic, like memories of childhood, like scenes I attended but am no nearer to understanding. It's no disrespect to this music, quite the opposite, to confess that at length, in one of the Kino's comfy chairs, I began to drift through lost times...

Overture to The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
"Un moto di gioia" (Susanna), from The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
Trio in C KV 548, Allegro [YouTube].
"Deh vieni non tardar" (Susanna), from The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
Trio in G KV 564, Andante [YouTube].
"Batti, batti" (Zerlina), from Don Giovanni [YouTube].
Trio in G KV 496, Allegretto [YouTube].
"Vedrai, carino" (Zerlina), from Don Giovanni [YouTube].
Trio in B flat KV 502, Larghetto [YouTube].
"Ah! Chi mi dice mai" (Donna Elvira), from Don Giovanni [YouTube].
Trio in B flat KV 502, Allegro [YouTube].
"Porgi, amor" (Countess), from The Marriage of Figaro [YouTube].
Divertimento Trio in B flat KV254, Adagio [YouTube].
"Ch'io mi scordo di te", concert aria KV 505 [YouTube].

The Rautio Piano Trio (see them in action):

Jane Gordon, violin
Victoria Simonsen, cello
Jan Rautio, piano


Kirsty Hopkins, Soprano


A week later I was with Annika again, at a free coffee concert in the Baptist Church in Battle: the Hastings Philharmonic Wind Quintet (seasoned professionals all, but I seemed to understand that this was their first gig together as a quintet).

Sofia Castillo, flute
Olivia Stone, oboe
Laurie Truluck, horn
Ben Exell, bassoon
Boyan Ivanov, clarinet

We heard:

Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Sea Shanties  (1943). A standard of the WQ repertoire. [YouTube] Early composition, while Arnold was still playing trumpet in the LPO. A prolific composer for movies, depressive and alcoholic, his personal life became more turmoiled as time went by. His light music remains admired, also the twenty concertos (often for instruments that didn't have many), and the more personal symphonies.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Goldberg Variations. The aria and about seven of the variations, ingeniously arranged by bassoonist Ben Exell; this worked brilliantly.
Paul Taffanel (1844-1908), Wind Quintet.
(Taffanel, born in Bordeaux, was a celebrated flautist, conductor and instructor. This was the Quintette in G minor, written in 1876, a popular piece in the WQ world.) [YouTube]
Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), Trois pièces brèves. Composed in 1930. Ibert was a prolific, elegant and often light-hearted composer. His music was banned by the Vichy government, his presence in June 1940 on the Massilia, bound for Casablanca along with members of the deposed French government, being framed as "desertion".  They were also inclined to regard him as a Jewish composer -- apparently a mistake.  [YouTube]
Jim Parker (b. 1934 in Hartlepool), From "Mississippi Five". Parker graduated as an oboist. He's best known for his television work, but this is a concert piece for WQ.


This concert was part of an impressive weekend of concerts for the Battle Festival of Arts and Music. The evening before, I went with my Mum and Dad to hear Roman Kosyakov's piano recital at St Mary's Church. (An unexpectedly excellent acoustic!)

We heard:

J. S. Bach, Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903
(We didn't know the piece and it rather took us aback... Bach is full of surprises.) [YouTube]
Franz Schubert (1797-1828), Four Impromptus D 935. The impromptus, eight in all, were composed in 1827. This set, because it begins and ends in F# minor, has sometimes been considered a hidden sonata. I knew some of these quite well, but it's different when it's live. Not that we could see much, despite taking care to sit on the left; everyone else had the same idea. Of course, we were duly impressed by the hand-crossings in No. 1. [YouTube]
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Preludes Op 23, nos 2,3,4, and 5. No. 5 is the famous G minor Prelude Alla marcia [YouTube].
Samuel Barber (1910-1981), Sonata Op 26. Written in 1949; my personal musical highlight of the whole week; Barber in formidable modernist mode. My word-rhapsodies afterwards (a foggy, clanking Hudson river) possibly didn't persuade Mum and Dad. [YouTube]

What we all agreed was that the 25-year-old Roman Kosyakov was a pretty superb musician. His youth made us notice how old the rest of us were.

Roman Kosyakov, piano (see him in action).

The YouTube links are here to allow me (or anyone else who's interested) to revisit the music I heard. I've mostly gone for concert performances, but of course the musicians are different, sometimes more stellar (Cecilia Bartoli, Brendel, Schiff...). And the Mozart opera extracts are mostly with full orchestra...

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Friday, November 16, 2018

Paul Blackburn scratchpad

Paul Blackburn with Lee Byrd, 1967.

[Image source: Bobby Byrd's blog ( Paul Blackburn was visiting the Byrds in Memphis.]

I've been discovering Paul Blackburn's writing, something I've been meaning to do  for about a year, after Laurie Duggan mentioned him in a comment on this blog. Blackburn's poetry is a thrill, the way it keeps bumping into reality -- a kind of unstaged naturalism. With exquisite use of the page and the typewriter, especially the punctuation keys. Of course these remarks are not original.

Here's one of his poems, borrowed from the Poetry Foundation site:

Ritual X.: The Evening Pair of Ales

is mountains & desert
until you cross the passes into India  .
It is 3 o’clock in the afternoon or
twenty of 8 at night, depending
                   which clock you believe  .
It’s where the cups and saucers are,
the plates, the knives and forks  .
                   The turkey sandwich comes alone
                   or with onions if you like
The old newspaperman always takes his hat off
& lays it atop the cigarette machine;
the younger, so-hip journalist, leaves his on
old-style .

The old man sits down in the corner, puts
                  his hat back on. No challenge, but
                        it’s visible, the beau geste  .
                                       The cigarette
hangs from the side of the younger man’s mouth, he’s
putting himself on  .
                   East of Eden is mountains & desert & every
                   thing creeps up on you & comes in the night,
                                      unexpectedly  .
when one would least put out his hand
to offer, or to defend  .

East of Eden, from Genesis 4:12 (Cain's dwelling after killing Abel), title of John Steinbeck's novel and Elia Kazan's movie, whose foregrounding of intergenerational conflict resonates in Blackburn's poem.

"East is east and west is west", Poem by Rudyard Kipling.

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

Somewhere lurking between these quotations is another one. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon" is a Norwegian fairy tale collected in the 19th century (Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne); Brooks Bowman borrowed the title for his 1934 jazz standard.


I've found some good things online that I want to read more carefully, so I'm bunging all the links into this post.

EPC page, with a decent few poems, plus other writings, interviews etc (compiled by Jack Krick).

Poetry Foundation page, including links to another bunch of poems:

Ron Silliman on PB:

Edith Jarolim and M.L. Blumenthal (extracted from the Selected Poems):

Edie Jarolim (Introduction to the Collected Poems)

Edie Jarolim's retrospect, 30 years on:

Clayton Eshleman:


Something that bothered me in the poem "Spring Thing", which begins thus:

Tomorrow Ramas
                                              & the moon will 
                                              come to full ,
Tonite at 9:25
she had just come over the mountain    .   a few 
light clouds pass quickly over her    ...

Surely the first line is talking about Domingo de Ramos, i.e Palm Sunday ? So maybe just a mistake, then. I can't blame him. One of the many baffling features of Spanish is its habit of giving subtly different meanings to masculine and feminine forms of the same root. "Ramas" is the common word meaning  "branches". "Ramos", however, means e.g branchlets of a main branch, or cut material, or ornamental arrangements such as bouquets. The right word, apparently, for the palm-fronds that carpeted Jesus's procession. 


Degradation and instinct

Xenophobia is a natural instinct in the human species, according to Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Hebrew 2011, English translation 2014). It was a matter of survival. Trust grows only from shared understanding. Incomers, even if not outright raiders, are always invaders, driven hither by a search for something you already possess. It's safest to assume that this involves dispossessing you.

Today we think of xenophobia chiefly as a hatred (suspicion, fear) of other nationals, but the idea of nations emerged only recently. At root we are talking about fear of strangers.

If we are honest we must recognize this ugly instinct as a loaded gun in our own mental arsenal. Just as (speaking of white men of my own generation), we would be unconscionably dim not to be aware of the racist and sexist attitudes lurking within us.

Like other instincts, fear of the stranger has an evolutionary basis but can be mastered, or over-ridden (not necessarily permanently) by other instincts, such as sexual attraction.

In the Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXXIX, Scott says of the poor (re the Allied seizure of Paris in 1814): "In the present circumstances the hatred to foreigners, proper to persons of their class, came to aid their admiration of Buonaparte."

Scott's unguarded views of the lower orders are always interesting. A few pages earlier, he notes this disturbing eruption on the streets of Paris, perhaps even more disturbing to the middle classes than the enemy at the gate:

At length, the numerous crowds which assembled in the Boulevards, and particularly in the streets near the Palais Royal, assumed a more active appearance. There began to emerge from the suburbs and lanes those degraded members of the community, whose slavish labour is only relieved by coarse debauchery, invisible for the most part to the more decent classes of society, but whom periods of public calamity or agitation bring into view, to add to the general confusion and terror. They gather in times of public danger, as birds of ill omen and noxious reptiles are said to do at the rising of a tropical hurricane; and their fellow citizens look with equal disgust and dread upon faces and figures, as strange to them as if they had issued from some distant and savage land. Paris, like every great metropolis, has her share, and more than her share, of this unwholesome population. It was the frantic convocations of this class which had at once instigated and carried into effect the principal horrors of the Revolution, and they seemed now resolved to signalize its conclusion by the destruction of the capital. Most of these banditti were under the influence of Buonaparte’s police, and were stimulated by the various arts which his emissaries employed. (Life of Buonaparte, Ch LXXVII).

This is a particularly negative vision and it doesn't represent Scott's overall view of the lower orders. Many of the finest characters in his novels are working folk portrayed with great sympathy. But here he's talking about a country not his own, about urban mobs rather than rural individuals, and of course in the context of Paris he wants to remind us of the all too recent Terror.

Besides, Scott's views on civil unrest had hardened after Peterloo. Interesting that he refers to the native underclass (from the point of view of the "decent classes of society") as strangers: "as strange to them as if they had issued from some distant and savage land". So the middle classes were xenophobic too: it's just that, for them, the strangers were the working classes of their own city. This was the exotic line crossed by Zola when he wrote L'Assommoir.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

Mew gulls, Anabaptism


"June night never comes," wrote Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, in his youth a sailor. Poetry floods over me this light, balmy, early summer evening, on a boat leaving Gottskär in northern Halland province.

The heavens have landed in the sea. Or else the Kattegat between Sweden and Denmark has become a galactic lagoon, a tranquil gleam, shimmering pink, along the Milky Way. We're on our way to Sweden's very first lighthouse site, ceded by the Danes in the Treaty of Brömsebro in 1645. Its setting is perhaps more remarkable and beautiful than others and it is also by far the most dangerous -- the terror of skippers in days gone by. A spoiler with treacherous reefs, shallows and sharp rocks that once caused at least two shipwrecks a year, sometimes even in calm weather. Thus also a place where bale fires were lit, logs burning in the dark to warn seafarers.

Geologically, the island is an end moraine, given a designer touch on the seabed by the most recent glacier when it receded more than ten thousand years ago, leaving debris shaved from the rock: blocks, boulders, gravel, sand. With land elevation, the tip of the ridge finally became visible perhaps around the time of the birth of Christ. It is still just a thin strip, like a mirage in the trembling heat of summer, a raft adrift towards the horizon.

You can tie up here only if the wind is slack. If there's a westerly blow, those ashore on Nidingen risk a stay of several days. ...

So my mind is back in Sweden again, thanks to these two books (above and below). Copies of West Coast: Sweden's Ocean Front, previously used to fill bookshelves in the showroom, were being given away by IKEA in Bristol. I found the volume of Strindberg's history plays in the bookshop beside the cafe at Bodiam Castle. Net outlay £1, unless you also take into account the lost income while I'm filling my mind with books instead of working.

In Sweden, but not in Swedish. The coffee-table book (photos by Tore Hagman, text by Stefan Edman) was translated into North American by Kim Loughran (hence "mew gulls", which I had to look up; in the UK they are known as common gulls), and the Strindberg plays are mostly translated by C. D. Locock (one by Joan Bulman) (1931).

I always feel a bit remiss, reading Swedish books in English; I miss learning, for instance, that the Swedish word for lighthouse is "fyrplats". This isn't the way to become competent in Swedish. As it happened my sister Miranda was in that Bodiam cafe, over from Stockholm; and how I admired her growing ease with "fastighetsforeningen" and all the other words you learn from being there. It's been an unprecedented three years since my last visit.

But still, here I am, at any rate virtually, in Nidingen (an island off the coast of Halland), and in Strängnäs (cathedral town on Lake Mälaren (to the west of Stockholm).


I suppose coffee-table books are considered a lowly form of literature. Stefan Edman writes as an efficient journalist, seasoning his lyricism with lovely quotations and well-chosen scraps of history and geology. Perhaps he over-writes a little, but that's because this is the first page. I don't quite know what the milky way, that wintry sight, is doing in this evocation of early summer.

But all these judgements are rebutted by a single reflection, "He's doing it, and you're not." Edman's boat is certainly afloat, Nidingen here we come! And after all he has some admirable successes too: from far out to sea, the sudden close-up of "logs burning in the dark"; and the gradation of that sea's work in "blocks, boulders, gravel, sand".

"Seamen's spoiler", "a spoiler with treacherous reefs"... This sense of "spoiler" -- presumably, a hazard close to a sea-lane -- is unknown to the OED, and I can't find any examples on the internet either.

Harry Martinson, "June night never comes". In Swedish, the line is "Juni natt blir aldrig av", from this poem:

Nu går solen knappast ner,
bländar bara av sitt sken.
Skymningsbård blir gryningstimme
varken tidig eller sen.

Insjön håller kvällens ljus
glidande på vattenspegeln
eller vacklande på vågor
som långt innan de ha mörknat
spegla morgonsolens lågor.

Juni natt blir aldrig av,
liknar mest en daggig dag.
Slöjlikt lyfter sig dess skymning
och bärs bort på ljusa hav.

Bale-fire. A large bonfire. In older usage, a funeral pyre (e.g. Beowulf's). Later, often a beacon or signal fire, a usage popularized by Scott in the Lay of the Last Minstrel.

And yet you wish to sow the seeds of civil war. 'Tis a godless act!
Gert. Nay, now that you have the knife in the flesh, cut! Then the body may be saved.
Olof. I shall denounce you as a traitor to your country!
Gert. You should not do that -- you who have this day irretrievably broken with the Church! Besides --
Olof. Speak out, Gert! You look like Satan at this moment!
Gert. You shall share my secret; make what use of it you like! The King goes to Malmö today; two days later Stockholm will be in revolt!
Olof. What do you say?
Gert. Do you know Rink and Knipperdollink?
Olof (horrified). The Anabaptists!
Gert. Yes! Why are you so surprised? They are merely a pair of bourgeois louts. A furrier and a grocer, who deny the use of baptism to a soulless child, and are simple enough to object to deliberate perjury extorted from an irrational creature.
Olof. There is something more, surely?
Gert. What could there be?
Olof. They are possessed!
Gert. Of the Spirit, yes! It is the storm calling through them! Take heed if you come in its path!
Olof. It must be stopped! I shall go to the King!
Gert. Olof! You and I should be friends! Does not your mother live in Stockholm?
Olof. You know she does!
Gert. Do you know that my daughter Kristina is living with your mother?

(from Act I of Master Olof, by August Strindberg, trans C.D Locock, 1931.)

This was Strindberg's first major play, written when he was only 23, in 1872. It wasn't performed until 1881. (In the meantime Strindberg had kept rewriting it and in 1878 recast it in verse. But the earliest version was the one used for the first performance, and generally most admired. That's the one translated here and in the 1915 translation by Edwin Bjorkman, which is available online:

Mäster Olof: Swedish text.

Olof's horror reflects the general view of Anabaptists at the time. The term itself was invented by their enemies: it means "those who baptize again", which of course isn't how the Anabaptists saw it; they regarded infant baptism as invalid.

This was an opinion that appalled Catholic and Protestant churches alike; both saw their legitimacy (not to mention their economy) as founded on the involuntary membership of the entire local population.

The pellucid Schleitheim Confession is absolute in its declaration of pacifism and civil obedience.Yet some Anabaptist groups were prepared to take part in active, even violent, dissent. This, inevitably, became the fearful image of Anabaptism fostered by their opponents.

According to Bjorkman, Strindberg was misled: the Germans Melchior Rink and Bernhard Knipperdolling never came to Stockholm. I'm not even sure they knew each other; the active life of an Anabaptist, i.e. between baptism and life imprisonment (Rink) or execution (Knipperdolling), tended to be brief.

 But the Dutchman Melchior Hoffman did come to Stockholm. Hoffman influenced both streams of Anabaptism. His wilder adherents were involved in the Münster Rebellion (Bernhard Knipperdolling was one of its leaders); these activists were wiped out by a Europe who were completely united in this respect. But Melchior's peaceful disciples seeded movements that somehow survived, in spite of dreadful persecution. For instance Obbe and Dirk Philips; the former ordained Menno Simons in 1537, from whom the Mennonites take their name. Other modern-day groups deriving from Anabaptism include the Amish and the Hutterites.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2018


Fredrik Barth: An Intellectual Biography, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen (Norwegian text 2013, author's English translation 2015)

A book I picked up last week in a charity shop in Yate and have just finished; I found it thrilling. But not because I knew anything about anthropology: in fact this was a marvellous way of learning something about it.

Fredrik Barth (1928-2016) was an ethnographer renowned for his wide-ranging fieldwork, and a social anthropologist with a strongly empirical belief in observing behaviour, and in society as a dynamic and unstable entity that is best studied through the actions and local notions of individuals: generative processual analysis.

His Wikipedia entry begins by calling him a formalist, but this needs to be understood in the specific sense used in social anthropology to distinguish substantivists (system-oriented, studying systemic processes) and formalists (actor-oriented, studying agent transactions). (An opposition Barth himself regarded as not very helpful.)

Barth was instrumental in building up Norway's impressive tradition of social anthropology.

"...Fieldwork is very time intensive. Since the anthropologist in the field ideally does not ask leading questions, but waits for informants themselves to raise interesting issues, speeding up data collection is not recommended. When the ethnographer speaks with their informants, they try to have an ordinary conversation with them, and the informants may well ask as many questions as the anthropologist. They, too, may be interested in understanding another culture...

..In addition, anthropologists do not assume that listening to what people have to say is enough. They also need to see what people actually do. Generally, therefore, there are two kinds of data in ethnographic fieldwork: interview data based on conversations between ethnographer and informant; and observational data, including informal conversations between informants. Regrettably, contemporary anthropological research is increasingly dominated by interview data, which can quickly be collected through conversations, and which can relatively easily be edited and written out -- unlike social interaction and other kinds of observational data, which must be understood, contextualized and, not least, translated into language. This shift towards interview data is probably largely a result of time constraints and the mounting pressure to publish fast and in large quantities.

Barth's anthropology is, perhaps more than anything else, a demonstration of the importance of making observations ..."

Barth's fieldwork:

1. Among farmers near Sollia in central Norway (1950).  This was home territory for Barth; as a teenager he had several stays in nearby Engerdal during the occupation. Barth treated this assignment as a trial exercise, to find out if he was cut out for the demanding work of field ethnography.

2. Among Kurds in the Zagros mountains and Mesopotamian plains (1951), investigating social organization in relation to the different social forms of kinship-based mountain autonomy and plains feudalism. "Barth was not yet 23 when he returned from Kurdistan in the autumn of 1951, but he had set out a course for himself and even deviated from a couple of conventions in the main currents of the anthropology of the day. At this time, anthropologists tended to study single societies, while Barth had done short stints of fieldwork in several villages with a view to discerning variation and producing comparative analyses. Additionally, he had an interest in individuals and their strategies, which was unfashionable on both sides of the Atlantic, for slightly different reasons..."

3. In Solør, near Kirkenær on the Norwegian/Swedish border, studying social organization of the Romani in Scandinavia (summer 1952).

4. In the Pashto-speaking Swat valley in the essentially ungoverned territory of NE Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan (1954). Barth's research concerned political leadership and stability in stateless societies ; i.e. without a central authority, monopoly of violence, etc. Barth prepared by learning Pashto; he was taught by the linguist Georg von Munthe af Morgenstierne. His research shone a light on conflictual strategies for ambitious landowners (and, accordingly, unpredictable outcomes). He also studied the relationship of saint and landowner, two forms of power that can benefit each other. Because of the region's strict gender segregation his work was exclusively in a male context. A trip into mountain territory beyond Swat brought him to a borderland between Pathans, Kohistanis and Gurjars, between feudalism and nomadism, between the subcontinent and central Asia: Barth's interest was in ecological adaptations at cultural frontiers, the development of non-overlapping niches allowing coexistence. Following one of several revisits to Swat, Barth later undertook the biography of the aging wali (prince). (And much later, he was in high demand for his views on the Taliban.)

5. With the Basseri, nomadic pastoralists in Iran (1958). The work was funded by UNESCO, and was founded on the Iranian government's wish to persuade nomads to settle. Barth, however, found that his hosts had a high quality of life: happiness, simplicity, good health, and easygoing ways (no gender segregation here). Besides, they had a cultural antipathy to sedentarism. Rich Basseri often used their surplus wealth to invest in land (there was a practical upper limit on the size of their herds), but they leased it out and had no desire to settle on it themselves. (Eriksen makes the point that nomadic pastoralism evolved only after sedentary farming; it was in the latter context that animals were first domesticated.)

6. On fishing-boats out of Møre in NW Norway (with Ingrid Rudie) (1961-ish). Interaction of status (skipper, fishermen, net-boss) with role behaviour and strategic choice.

7. At Darfur in S. Sudan (1964 ish), investigating economic spheres in Fur agricultural communities; i.e. where goods can be exchanged within one sphere, but not for goods in the other sphere. (Much later, from 2003 onwards, Darfur has become the scene of terrible conflict, indeed genocide.)

8. With the Baktaman in the New Guinea highlands. (1968) The Baktamans consisted of only 183 individuals, and had been "contacted" only four years previously. It rained nearly every day. Life expectancy was low, apparently due partly to violence and partly to diseases that would be easily cured elsewhere. The cultural centre of the men's world was a life-series of seven secret initiations; women were excluded and viewed with suspicion. As a grown man, Barth was fast-tracked to the fourth grade and eventually underwent the seventh. Barth's interest was in knowledge-systems but his approach was actor-oriented: "by bringing his own understanding as closely as possible to the actors, their interpretations and their actions, in order to discern what rituals actually meant to them. With the native point of view as his point of departure, he would then try to find out exactly which aspects of the rituals enabled them to express their inherent meaning-content". Their life had changed little in perhaps 10,000 years, and Barth admitted "they have a ritual life which is teeming with activity, and yet, after a short while I could feel that it was excruciatingly boring". The rituals gave significance to Baktaman existence; "The rituals of initiation establish contact between the novices and abstract entities such as invisible spirits, emotions and inner power, the cosmos and the inevitability of death..." Yet "What troubled him most was the feeling that they based their seven-layered mystery cult around an insight -- the ultimate truth -- which at the end of the day turned out to be fraudulent. At the lower grades, novices were fed secret truths, only to be told, when they reached the higher grades, that they were untrue. And the big truth, which was to be imparted at the seventh grade, did not exist".(Barth returned in 1981, initially to advise on the cultural consquences of gold-mining in this once isolated area. The modern world had arrived in spadesw with the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine: wage work, mass-produced goods, cyanide poisoning, and football. Barth did some more fieldwork with his wife Unni Wikan, comparing the cosmologies of the Baktaman and the seven other Mountain Ok groups.)

[Afterwards, things got worse. The mine's tailings dam collapsed in 1984, and since then the Ok Tedi mine has been dumping monumental volumes of untreated mining waste straight into the Fly River system. ]

About Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea:

9. At Sohar in Oman, with Unni Wikan (1974). About the dynamics of complexity and boundary maintenance in a highly plural society. Barth's focus on the close and observable, Eriksen suggests, fell short of the challenge in Sohar, where transnational groups, e.g. Indians living only part of their lives in Sohar,inhabited social worlds that only partially interacted, and where full understanding of an individual's social network would involve much that was not locally observable.

10. Initially a study of Muslim and Hindu villages in the Buleleng province of Bali, with Unni Wikan (intermittently, from 1983 - 1988); subsequently a broader account of diversity and internal variation in another highly complex environment. "Bali was arguably a pleasant place to be, yet Barth has described fieldwork there as extremely tiring. The reason is, paradoxically, the very friendliness of the Balinese. He experienced it as intensely social and the hospitality as exhausting. Since an anthropologist depends on the goodwill of their informants and has to use themselves as a research instrument, it was difficult to get away; it was nearly impossible to be left alone. Besides, Balinese culture was ritualized in such a way that one always had to stay calm in social settings. Gestures and displays of emotion were considered an indication that one was out of balance."

11. In Bhutan, with Unni Wikan (intermittently, from 1989 - 1994). In the end Barth never published from the Bhutan fieldwork. Eriksen reports a conversation with Barth: "He peered at me above his glasses and answered that it had been dreadfully tiring. 'It is the Middle Ages, you know, and the Middle Ages can be pretty uncomfortable'. Then he spoke in some detail about the Bhutanese passion for lukewarm tea with rancid butter in it".

Eriksen's book was written while his friend Barth was still living; though now in his late eighties, and in sheltered accommodation. Perhaps that accounts for the deeply engaging mixture of fondness, respect and honest criticism.


Fredrik Barth, "Overview: Sixty Years in Anthropology":

Scandinavian academics and intellectuals tend to be fluent in English, and (depending on the audience) often choose to write in it. Barth's overview is in his own English. Likewise Eriksen translated his own book about Barth into English. Regular readers may recall that I recently read the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski in English... Again, the translation was his own.

On close reading, none of them writes quite like someone for whom English is their mother tongue: you'll probably spot instances in the quotations. In fact this is what the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto called "second-language English". Lehto exploited it consciously and with a sense of fun. The others were not doing this, but their language equally deserves attention, not as something lesser than perfectly idiomatic or "correct" English, but as a widened English that can often enrich careful readers by its expression of Scandinavian (or Baltic) ways of thinking.

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