Tuesday, October 06, 2015

three songs


I drove the Stagecoach, the 55 to Calne
But I lost my way one evening and bounced it off a barn
A lady in the back she said I was asleep
And the Stagecoach inspectors agreed.
Well nobody died
They mostly just cried
But baby I’m feeling it now.

If I could meet my sister then I would say to her
“I wanted to come with you out to Australia
Where I could ride horses, take the boys to the sea,
Get to know my own family.”
I can’t really say
It would’ve turned out that way
But baby I’m feeling it now.

If I could make a pile, like those I lost before
Then I would buy a bottle and drink it by the shore
In the Palace of Fortune I’d stand there all day
And I’d watch my money dribble away
And I sit in a taxi to the far side of town
And I’d burn that barn to the ground.
What other people feel
Never seems real
But baby I’m feeling it now.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Photo of Wilkie Collins, probably from 1866, the year of Armadale's publication

[Image source: https://art.famsf.org/elliott-fry-studio/william-wilkie-collins-1824-1889-199613516 . Information about the probable date comes from Paul Lewis' excellent site, which includes a chronological list of Collins' many portraits: http://www.web40571.clarahost.co.uk/wilkie/wilkieimages/wcimages.htm]

Armadale (1864-1866)

The first thing it came into my head to say about Armadale, I suddenly realized, would utterly deflate the book for someone who hadn’t read it; and this is certainly a book that ought to be read once – which can’t be said of all Collins’ books (see below). And it ought to be read without knowing too much in advance, because (as John Sutherland says in his introduction) manipulation of the reader’s tensions is a principal factor in what the book means.

 [I’m inclined to invite those who have read Armadale to guess what my first thought was.]

In fact I’d now venture it the most interesting of Collins’ books, placing it in front of The Woman in White and The Moonstone. By “now” I’m alluding to the continuously changing way in which nineteenth-century fiction refracts upon us. But one day I might delete these sentences.

This is getting intertextual, but then Armadale is a very intertextual book. Its most central character, Lydia Gwilt, is presented with extraordinary indirectness. She makes no (recognized) appearance at all until the third book, and then we come into contact with her at first through letters. Collins is most reluctant to show her to us in his third person narrative, which is nevertheless increasingly about her. Her very first appearance in the third person (which somewhat paradoxically appears to the reader as the “unmarked case” of presentation), is the climax of Book III Chapter IX:

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Saturday, September 26, 2015

Alfred Duggan: Family Favourites (1960)

I found this book, with several others by the same author, on a friend's bookshelves. Intrigued by the unlikely choice of title (from a popular radio show) for a historical novel set during the later Roman Empire, and more so by the drily brilliant opening, I couldn't resist asking to borrow it.

The story is related by an old soldier in retirement (he had been first a legionary and then a Praetorian), called Duratius. He eventually becomes a friend and member of the inner circle of the young and flighty Emperor Elagabalus (c. 203-222 - Emperor from 218-222). When the court implodes he is unceremoniously knocked on the head and given an honourable exit. The beautiful Emperor is killed offstage.

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Friday, September 25, 2015

Surrealism and the English Channel

Paul Nash, painting of Dymchurch sea-wall

[Image source: from Cathy Lomax's pretty wonderful blog: http://cathylomax.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/paul-nash-and-dymchurch.html]

Lee’s poems had about them a remarkable tone. They were ‘quiet’ compared to the work of the Americans I was reading, but they were also surreal. It was a surrealism of everyday things. I often felt that surrealism arrived in Britain as flotsam; objects that floated across the Channel and sat displaced on a beach in southern England. It’s something you can see in the paintings of Paul Nash.

From Laurie Duggan's post about the late Lee Harwood.


I wonder if Tim Allen (who grew up on Portland) would recognize that psychogeographical configuration?

Thinking back to my Hastings days, maybe even (in early childhood)  my Eastbourne days, I'd say it I always had a vague sense of it.

That vague sense was confirmed when, much later, I discovered Montale's poem "Eastbourne" (not that Montale was a Surrealist, but...) , and by the Channel-Islander Jeremy Reed's translations of Montale in The Coastguard's House, generously and right praised by Michael Hoffman in the LRB - still surely one of Reed's most stunning achievements.

Maybe it's something about any town that sharply abuts the sea. That enormous sea-blankness always intrudes a kind of questioning commentary, a kind of provisionality, into the life of the land.

But maybe, too,  it's particularly something unique about the English Channel.  From a fairly early age the experience here was not just of the enormous sea-blankness presented to the senses but, at the same time, a pressing awareness that not very far beyond that blankness, though invisible to us, lay a populous, clamorous and totally different world; different languages, different history, different art, different thinking.

Plus it was a fact that continental visitors, like Montale, were a lot more likely to show up in South Coast towns than in, say, Derbyshire.

It always seemed to me quite natural that my own grandmother, an Eastbourne resident long estranged from her husband, should have fed her imaginative and emotional life with visits to Paris and Austria. She even made me call her by a German name (Mutti). I never really thought of her as English.

Though I couldn't see across the English Channel myself, it was obvious that Mutti could.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

Notes on Andrea Brady's "Export Zone"

"Export Zone" is a poem by Andrea Brady in Presenting, the second collection within Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street 2013)


An earlier version of the poem appeared here:

Invisibly Tight Institutional Outer Flanks Dub (verb) Glorious National Hi-Violence Response Dream (lifegangdocuments, March 2008) (hereafter Invisibly Tight)


The earlier version capitalizes Burundi, UN HCR, Venus, ABCDE, London Lite, Salt, Basra, and Eastern. (Some of those are helpful clues.)

There are some more substantial differences, too.

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Thursday, August 06, 2015

Lysimachia, etc, in Mälarland July 2015

A stand of Lysimachia vulgaris

Above, Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris).

At the end of July I spent a few days in Kallhäll, a Stockholm suburb on the eastern shore of Lake Mälaren.  These lake environs were, it turned out, the perfect home for Lysimachia, a genus that likes water in the vicinity.

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Thursday, July 09, 2015

librivox splurge

I moved house. As the drive to the office is now ten minutes not five, and as I've been making a few round trips to Frome and elsewhere, I thought it was worth downloading a bunch of Librivox audiobooks. (The splurge is, of course, free.)

Here's what I've listened to so far:

Marlowe, both parts of Tamburlaine the Great. A bit of a trudge through Marlowe's incessantly mighty line. It's not the fault of the readers - David Goldfarb and a good supporting cast. It's just that the uncut text needs something more than reading aloud to spark it into dramatic life. Listening to this, you are made aware that none of the participants are in the same location, and that each has recorded their speeches separately.  (As often in my own silent readings of Tamburlaine, I found the most lively part is the digressive episode at the beginning of Part 2 when the Christians under Sigismond betray their alliance with Orcanes.)

Benito Perez Galdos, Electra.  (see other post)  Here's proof that Librivox readings of plays can be very involving indeed. This is a proper performance. Brilliant production, recommended.

Balzac, Eugenie Grandet.  Absolutely wonderful. (I'd read it before, but a very long time ago). I am now at the age when everything in Balzac at last makes sense. Well, perhaps not all the financial details: I still don't entirely grasp how Grandet makes such a good thing of his brother's bankruptcy. The story (with its infinitely slow opening chapter) has me wide-eyed and gripped: it all seems real and unexpected, as if described events unfolding within my own family circle. Terrific reading by the great Bruce Pirie.

Dostoyevsky, The Gambler - Good reading (mostly by Bill Boerst) - the book is entertaining and empty-headed. Doesn't really make me want to go back to this author whose books I so devoured as a teenager, though I realize The Gambler is not by any means a fair sample.

Chekhov The Lady with the Dog and other stories. A surprisingly disappointing experience. I'm a massive fan of Chekhov's short stories, but listening to these one after another doesn't show them off to best advantage. The downbeat endings tend to come as shocks or mere stops; unable to see the page, I had little sense of them arriving. And then there was no opportunity to reflect, to look back over the text and to admire the artistry: instead, I was straight off on another jaunt to some usually inconclusive destination. The details blur. The doctor who doesn't marry the pianist. The kiss on the theatre stairs. The pistol-shot. The jealous husband at the army dance.

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Here's an author who is really new to me - at least, I've never read any of her books, though I imagined I knew something about them, I supposed I could "place" her. Now, all my thoughts are being revised. "Love the scenery of S. France  - the author must have remembered her travels well"; so I comment at this early stage.   (I was still near the beginning of vol 2). I've since discovered that she had never been on any travels. Her only trip abroad, later in life, was to Belgium.

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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pale Flax (Linum bienne)

Pale Flax (Linum bienne) - photos from June 21st 2015, on a roundabout just outside Frome, 

A plant that epitomizes the many transient beauties of midsummer. Driving through the long twilights of that blessed season, one is constantly accompanied by the starry whites of the roadside: Hogweed, Hemlock, Oxeye Daisy, Rough Chervil, Bramble...  But a rarer plant like this is seen only by chance. Once I'd taken the photographs, I never saw it again. It retires into fruit. 

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

by the roadside

Nectaroscordum siculum

A large colony of Honey Garlic (Nectaroscordum siculum), in a shady spot beside the M4 westbound, near Chippenham, Wilts.

Identifying plants at 70 mph tends to be a bit approximate.  Every so often, over the past fifteen years of commuting,  I'd get a flash of a strange group of what looked like a cross between bulrush and a giant cocksfoot. I never pinned down exactly where this was, and sometimes I even wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing up. (Evidently, the plants are not noticeable for most of the year.)

When I spied the colony again last week, my curiosity finally got the better of me, and I determined to find a way to get closer. That turned out to be easy. Exit at Jct 17 (2 miles up the road), take the road to Sutton Benger, then from there the road to Seagry. Handy lay-by just before you cross the motorway. The plants are just beneath you.

On June 21st 2015, the flower-heads looked extraordinary, as weird as a Cappadocian landscape.

(When I was on the spot I assumed that the upright pinnacles were "buds", i.e. yet to flower, but I've since been told that these were post-flowering. In Nectaroscordum the flowers are upright in bud, drooping when open, then upright again in fruit.)  

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

a double circuit of barbury castle

Visit to Barbury Castle last Monday evening, June 15th 2015. The Iron Age hillfort has two concentric ramparts. The steep banks support what appears to be a fairly unspectacular chalk-land flora (e.g. Common Spotted Orchid was the only orchid that I noticed), but I found a few things interesting enough to photograph. As I sank into the details of this landscape, I knew I'd want to come back soon. 

A patch of Crested Hair-grass (Koeleria macrantha) growing on an old ant-hill. (Try to ignore the intrusive fescue...)

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Monday, June 15, 2015

botanist in bath

A couple of interesting plants seen during yesterday's visit to Bath. 

A weird-looking bramble, growing among "normal" brambles, on the edge of the park at Bear Flat. With the help of the internet I've pinned this down to Rubus laciniatus, a species that's been given various English names, including Parsley-leaved Bramble, Fern-leaved Bramble, Evergreen Blackberry, and Cutleaf Evergreen Blackberry. (French: Ronce laciniée. Dutch: Peterseliebraam.)

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Robert Browning (1812-1889)

Portrait of Robert Browning by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1855)

[Image source: The Fitzwilliam Museum]

This post compiles all the pieces that I've written about Browning. The two most substantial pieces appeared in Intercapillary Space, so I've just given links to them.


Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833)


The name in the title should perhaps be pronounced in the French manner, as Pauline apparently hails from the Alps and her sole intervention (a footnote) is in French. But I don't think I'll be trying this in public.


Strafford (1837)


"Bishop Blougram’s Apology" (published in Men and Women, 1855)

Of course you are remarking all this time
How narrowly and grossly I view life,
Respect the creature-comforts, care to rule
The masses, and regard complacently
‘The cabin’, in our old phrase. Well, I do.

The bishop is fascinated (in what is finally a generous way) by his effect on the young man. Whom he doesn’t wholly understand, but he knows that “life” is a revered word. He enjoys the words “narrowly” and “grossly”; intended as criticisms of him, he smacks his lips over them. This is talk not lecturing, so his sentence leaves its moorings - he obviously does not mean, what he logically implies, “how narrowly and grossly I regard complacently...”

“in our old phrase” politely includes Gigadibs (he would feel, “implicates”).

“Care to rule” is an odd phrase, perhaps a false note, but it passes the crozier/crook under our nose.

Read more »

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Monday, June 08, 2015

Benito Pérez Galdós: Electra (1901)

Sara Casanovas as Electra in a 2010 production at the Teatro Español

I listened to Electra in the impressive Librivox presentation - the most professional-quality Librivox play-reading that I've heard, and highly recommended! (The excellent translation was by Charles Alfred Turrell.)

Possibly because I'd found Balzac's plays such a let-down in comparison to his novels, I didn't have very high expectations of a play by Galdós. But I was wrong: Electra is terrific. And it has an importance in Galdós' career that Balzac's plays never did. Its premiere, on January 30, 1901, was scandalous. It was a great success, but its powerfully anti-clerical message led to public demonstrations. 

The traditional comparison of Galdós in Madrid with Balzac in Paris or Dickens in London is misleading in several respects. Both the earlier authors can be reasonably claimed to have had truly national audiences. Balzac was an idiosyncratic kind-of-conservative; but so large a presence rose above political divisions. And the great radical Dickens was read by all of English society. There might be mutterings from some quarters about the "sullen socialism" of The Chimes and Hard Times, but even conservative readers had been unable to resist Pickwick and Little Nell. By the time of Dicken's greatest novels, he was as much of an established institution as Christmas. 

Galdós wrote in a more fiercely polarized society. His audience in his own lifetime was far more restricted. For the conservative and pious majority, his work was considered off limits. And Electra set the seal on that.

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in the business park 2

Three plants that crop up on the extended paved areas that are used for parking. Photos from the beginning of June, 2015.

Above and below, Thyme-leaved Sandwort (Arenaria serpyllifolia) - probably ssp. leptocladus, though I need fruits to confirm.

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Thursday, June 04, 2015

another fine Yponomeuta mess....

I guess I'm getting my eye in for Yponomeuta outbreaks now. 

This is part of a length of hedge in the Swindon business park where I work.  I noticed it while driving past yesterday and thought: Hmm, I know what that's about. Sure enough, closer inspection revealed that the hedge was being absolutely blitzed by an Yponomeuta explosion. 

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

a sense of complicity - scratchpad

This is a theme that crops up a lot in the vicinity of Andrea Brady's poetry. Commentators mention it. The poetry mentions it. ("Winter Quarters", "Friendship 2") - the poetry, everywhere, is alert to it. You might almost say, lives and dies by it.

In our world it's hard to escape.

So thanks, Obama administration.

I am not very happy, right now, with the activities of Royal Dutch Shell, as they crow over their arctic adventure go-ahead.

Yet I drive, eat, heat and earn. (It's been estimated that 20% of pension funds are invested in fossil fuel companies.)

(I think we should now routinely call them fossil fuel companies. "Energy companies" is an attempt to occupy the centre ground that is now totally inappropriate.)

In fact you could say that a general unease and disapproval of fossil fuel industries goes back with me to teenage years. That was 40 years ago, and I don't think I'd heard of global warming, but it seemed vaguely wrong to me (and of course many others) that we were "using up the planet's resources". We were very protective of the planet, this big bouncing baby that was suddenly wriggling in the arms of my generation after all those millennia of being far too big for human beings to conceive let alone affect.

This was how I felt when university pals went off to earn big bucks with Schlumberger.

It was in the late 80s when we began to think that "the greenhouse effect" presented a more immediate danger than exhausting the planet. Svante Arrhenius had floated the concept in 1896, but no-one had thought it was really happening. Then the papers told us that the poles were melting. Cows and termites might have something to do with it, but it was mainly all about fossil fuels. 1998 was the hottest year on record.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Books to go

Another home move, and a clearout. The books are going to Julian House in Bath.

A consequence of relativism is that I could almost as happily keep these books and get rid of others. Most of these books I part with only because I have too many to read; some are favourites that I look forward to finding again one day.


For example, John Lothrop Motley, the first volume of The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1855). An Everyman hardback; a format for reading that, in my opinion, has never been bettered. How happy I am that formerly, at least, I had time for these deep dives. Now I can only wonder at the marvellous first chapter. Motley's classical idea of the ancient Netherlands being populated partly by yellow-haired Gauls and partly by red-haired Germans is a structuring myth that the few facts in Caesar and Tacitus can be strung around.

The truculent German, Ger-mann, Heer-mann, War-man, considered carnage the only useful occupation, and despised agriculture as enervating and ignoble. It was base, in his opinion, to gain by sweat what was more easily acquired by blood. ...

The contrast between priest-ridden Gauls and austerely monotheistic Germans is Motley preparing the ground for his later account of the Catholic-leaning Belgians and the Protestant Dutch. (As also, his claim that the ancient German government was fundamentally democratic, the Celts aristocratic.)


There's just time to mention, before night falls on it, one of the more obscure volumes in this big box.

Through the Land of Babylonia: A Fascinating Tour in Bible Lands by Leonard T. Pearson (1939, revised 1951). The Rev. L.T. Pearson travelled initially in a Nairn bus across the Syrian desert (with a party of 9, including three ladies); once in Iraq the party travelled by sleeper-train and Rolls Royce motor-car.

Pearson proves from the Bible that 1938 is the year when the time of the Gentiles comes to an end and the Holy Land becomes once more the gathering of the Hebrew people; as foretold, exactly 2520 years after Nebuchadnezzar. He takes his Bible very literally. The vitrified brick of Birs Nimrud is, in his view, the remnant of God's high-heat desolation of the Tower of Babel.  The silt found at Kish and Ur is a remnant of the Great Flood (3200 BC in Pearson's reckoning).

The long day spent in the ruins of Ur inspecting the walls and buildings of various ages, examining the pottery and piecing together the stories of the past, cause one to return to the Hotel on wheels, filled with wonder. On turning in for the night and with one's thoughts still back in the very early ages, the writer was brought abruptly into the present by a tap on the window and the stationmaster said:-- "Mr. Pearson, I thought you would like to know that Cambridge has won the boat race -- I've got it over the wire!"
Pearson's style veers between this pleasant homeliness and exalted preaching. Thus, passing the natural Oil Wells between Kirkuk and Mosul, and seeing patches of fire ("It is Hydrogen, which, when coming in contact with the air, bursts into flame"), he thinks this may be the Burning Fiery Furnace in the book of Daniel, and he homilizes:

The Law of the Sabbath is broken, even in church circles, the Word of God is popularised by taking out the very portions that would "hurt" the reader to his heart's good. The world today is worshipping "flesh" as in no previous generation under the guise of health, and exalted to the rank of deity until modesty, prudence and purity are ordered to the flames of extinction. It is in the suffering that the Christ is made manifest, it was so in Nebuchadnezzar's day, in Smithfield's bonfires, and it will be until Christ is revealed in the fullness of His Glory.

Meanwhile we arrive at Nineveh where the author takes the opportunity to demonstrate the literal truth of the story of Jonah, and to explain that Christ's three days and three nights in the tomb (paralleling the whale) actually ran from Wednesday sunset to Saturday sunset.

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a walk in the park

Cherry Tree, Bath 5th April 2015

This tree is beside the pond in Royal Victoria Park, Bath.

A single-flowered pink cherry ought to be Sargent Cherry (P. sargentti), but this tree looks very different to the ones I'm used to seeing in Shaw (Swindon), pictured here. (On the trees in Swindon the leaves emerge beetroot-red along with the flowers.)  I suppose the other possibility is that this is a Yoshino Cherry (P. x yedoensis), but their blossom is nearly white, usually. The date could support either - the Sargent Cherries in Shaw bloomed the following day.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

the snowy scratch-card

OK, I admit it, I'm only posting this to see how my new email subscription service Feedburner (sign up over there on the right!) will handle multiple posts in a single day. (Not something that's likely to happen very often, but hey.)

[The piece that followed this flippant opening grew into a ten-part essay about Andrea Brady's poetry that was finished in September 2015 and has now been moved to Intercapillary Space. 




 After an immersion on this scale there's a strange sense of being reborn to life and feeling able to take a look around. And naturally, one of the first things I see is all the things I've missed out of my essay, of which the most glaring is Dompteuse, Brady's response to Hannah Höch.

The wire mother is a terrible cage regardless
serves its purpose. Same cloth
cuts an obscene hourglass against their figures,
proportioned to a Spanish drama on the Bangalore line.


And here's another free extra for those who've arrived at this obscure post:

The Brady poem I came nearest to writing about without actually doing so was "Tunic" (in Wildfire).

Coincidentally, (I'm writing this on October 1st 2015), I've just received my copy of the anthology of innovative women poets Out of Everywhere 2 . Brady is one of the 44 poets and is represented by "Tunic", along with some extracts from Mutability.


Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana)

Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), Middleleaze 7th April 2015

Named after Johannes Thal (1542–83), German physician and botanist. His Sylva Hercynia (written 1577, published 1588) is the first flora to attempt coverage of all the plants in a region, not just the ones with known medicinal properties. (It was, for example, the first to describe this charming and ubiquitous plant.)

Hercynia, in this case, meant the Harz mountains of N. Germany. *

Thal was severely injured in a horse and cart accident while on his way to visit a patient, and died a month or two later, aged only 41.

* It's possible that the MHG word "Harz" (mountain-forest) is somehow derived from the word Hercynia. Classically, the Hercynian forest (as described by Caesar, Tacitus, etc) covered a much wider area: a vast band extending eastward from the Rhine and running right across Germany, Bohemia, Romania... The Harz, like the Black Forest, is a relict.

Not to be confused with Hyrcania, classical name for a region of Iran immediately south of the Caspian (formerly Hyrcanian) Sea. In later writers (such as Shakespeare), the name usually crops up as a haunt of tigers. Probably Virgil was the key reason for this widely-dispersed meme, when he has Dido accuse Aeneas , "Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres" (Hyrcanian tigers nursed you). Tigers became extinct in this region in the 1970s.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book post as literature


A necessary part of the mainstream author's life, especially of non-fiction, is that they have to promote themselves by writing articles about how they wrote the book that is just being published.

(Obviously it helps if they already write regularly for the papers.)

Johann Hari promoting his new book about drug addiction.


Robert Macfarlane promoting his new book about landscape words.


I am reading Macfarlane's earlier book The Wild Places at the moment. It's often a really good book however undisguisedly a book written to the non-fiction formula of today.One of the best things about it is the studied deployment of the enhanced vocabulary that his new book centres on. But I haven't got time to think about the winter night on Ben Hope now, nor the holloways of Dorset.

The promotional-article-about-the-book, as evinced by the above, is also a genre with its own formula. For example, all those sentences that say "I did this interesting thing, I did that other interesting thing, while in still another interesting place I was emotionally stirred by hugely interesting things that I go on about in the book."

At the same time, in this internet world where all digitized products tend to become free, there's an awareness that the article will get more readers than the book itself, and accordingly it had better contain the heart of what the author would like us to know.

Because there are too many books, and we can't read any but a tiny fraction with the attention that they deserve and that all book-lovers would love to give but can't, it's a sensible faute-de-mieux to rely largely on these digests to gain a literate and informed view of what's going on in the world. Many of my clever colleagues in IT read no books at all; they have already forgotten Robert MacFarlane's name, but they remember something about the remarkable words for specific states of rain and ice; not the words themselves, but the fact that they existed.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

At last a new Catherine Daly book!... (took me a year to notice, tho)


So instead here's a link, to the online PDF of Catherine Daly's Controller / Seedbed , which came out in June 2014 (I think, her first book for about seven years).


Publisher's site:

Limit Cycle Press (Jukka-Pekka Kervinen):



Tuesday, April 21, 2015

William Shakespeare: Hamlet (1600)

Peter O'Toole as Hamlet

[Image source: http://theshakespeareblog.com/2013/12/shakespeares-hamlet-and-the-charisma-of-acting/]

Somewhere between the monumental savageries of Saxo's story of Amleth and John Marston's Antonio's Revenge comes a play called Hamlet.


We're just ordinary people....  (John Legend, 2004)

Revenge plays, prior to Hamlet (and after, too) had tended to be violent, rhetorical gorefests. But when we think about Hamlet it always comes as something of a surprise to look back on the final scene and find it studded with corpses. Everyone seemed so normal!

For the ordinary soldiers in the opening scene, taking note of the ghost's alarming appearance, Horatio speaks their thoughts: "This bodes some strange eruption to our state". No-one at that point sees fit to connect the eruption with the recent change of ruler or with the questionable marriage of Claudius to his dead brother's wife that is taking place concurrently. Their interest as commoners is more taken up with the clear preparations for war, including the heightened state of watchfulness in which they participate.

One of the problems that Hamlet faces, we imagine, is that the injunction to revenge feels out of sync with the apparent ordinariness of the court going about its business. After Hamlet has spoken to the Ghost, he returns to a court that outwardly looks innocent. As a matter of fact, it is innocent, all but one man. Nobody abetted Claudius in his crime. No-one suspects it. And Claudius is no Piero (the equivalent figure in Antonio's Revenge), i.e. an out-and-out villain exulting in the powers of hell. (Shakespeare would return to that motif in Iago and Edmund; but Claudius shows no sign of loving evil for its own sake.)

The super-abundant richness of Shakespeare's realization of the Danish court is a matter of people behaving ordinarily. The family scene with Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius is a good example.

Guildenstern, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and Gertrude make unexceptionable conversation about the players and the play they perform. Their remarks are not out of character, but also not narrowly related to the roles these speakers play in the drama (Gertrude's apart, perhaps). A year or two after Hamlet had already been successfully performed, Shakespeare seems to have inserted a highly topical discussion of the children's companies (Harold Jenkins gives the details). In this passage Rosencrantz provides the lively satire, and Hamlet is the casually interested questioner; the tensions between these two characters seem to be put on hold; they can lay them aside and just be ordinary people again. And there's nothing jarring about this - in the world of Hamlet such non-sequitur is characteristic and convincingly naturalistic. It's difficult to imagine any other play, even of Shakespeare's, being so capacious as to allow this. But here everyone, good or bad or mixture of both, can behave in an ordinary way.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

J.L. Runeberg: Tales of Ensign Stål (1848, 1860)

Illustration by Albert Edelfelt

[Image source: http://allthingsfinnish.tumblr.com/post/101044861262]

The original title is Fänrik Ståls Sägner – Ensign Stål is the supposed originator rather than the hero. His voice is not often heard, but his shade hangs over the ballad-poems – a figure of undaunted resolve in age.  

Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born in 1804 and died in 1877. He was only a small child in 1808 when the Czar suddenly declared for Napoleon and, since Sweden was now his enemy, invaded Finland without warning. (Finland had for six hundred years been loosely united to Sweden). The Finns defended heroically but they  had been taken by surprise; the Swedish king was not helpful and the war ended in subjection to Russia. This war of 1808-1809 is the subject of Ensign Stål.

Both volumes were eagerly awaited, many of the poems having been published in advance. The subject of Finnish heroism against the oppressor spoke to a young audience who were ardently patriotic. They reacted as Runeberg claimed to have reacted to a neglected history-book:

Oh what a land, what men were these,
How resolute, how glorious!
An army that could starve and freeze
And yet remain victorious!
Onward and ever on I sped;
I could have kissed each page I read.

The hour of danger spurred this band
To bolder resolution.
What love didst thou inspire, O land,
Despite thy destitution, -
A love so strong, a love so sweet
From those thou gav’st but bark to eat!

Runeberg’s work nurtured a new, Scandinavian style of patriotism. “Our land is poor”, he says with pride, but

            We love the thunder of our streams,
            Our torrent’s headlong bound,
            Our gloomy forests’ mournful themes,
            Our starry nights, our summer’s beams...

Patriotism in most countries involves some recognition of the beauty of one’s land (“England’s green and pleasant land”), but in Sweden and Finland the beauty is more intensely experienced. It is omnipresent and has a certain uniformity: the largely poor, acidic soils, and the long winters see to that. There is no rank overgrowth, and birch by a wooden shack by a lake is an extremely sparse symbol that evokes everything.

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Thursday, April 02, 2015

in eastern Jämtland


This is the seal of Fors parish, the easternmost parish in Jämtland.  The name "Fors" referred, no doubt, to the mighty waterfall Storforsen on the Indal river. 

The motto "Fisket förlorat" (the lost fishery) was coined at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the immediate aftermath of Vild-Hussens inadvertent destruction of Storforsen

The salmon fishing at Fors was famous and had been economically important. After the reformation, the crown took over control of the fishing rights from the church, and there were quite a number of lawsuits with local bondsmen. 

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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

specimens of the literature of Sweden - Påskmust

Stay away from anything that ends in "must", advised my Mum.

 I thought it tasted all right, though. That's supposing you can cope with very sweet soft drinks at all. It looks like Coke (as usual, I din't think of photographing it until I'd drunk it.) Tastes a bit like it and a bit like Dandelion & Burdock.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Prosper Mérimée (1803-1870)

Prosper Mérimée iPhone Case

Mérimée is one of my compensations for not being able to read French well enough to manage Balzac or Proust. His most productive period came early and did not last very long; in 1834 he was appointed Inspector of Historic Monuments and thereafter his brilliant career as a hard-working public servant meant that the literary output became fitful. But when the stories did emerge, like Carmen (1845), they were as casual and wily as ever.

Chronique du temps de Charles IX (1829)

One of the first works to show how fertile Scott's influence would prove in Europe: the effect, as usual, very different from Scott and playing on a wholly different register of ironic subtleties. A wonderfully readable book.

Mateo Falcone (1829)

The "ravins" of the topographical opening paragraph return with changed effect at the end; Mateo tells his wife that Fortunato's body lies in the ravine. The comedy of "Si vous avez tué un homme" is also changed, into the harshness concealing tenderness of "Elle est bien longue, n'importe". In the key central scene, the soldier turns the child's inherited pride this way and that until he finds a way to get what he wants. This is a perfect short story - the challenge for later writers was to achieve that perfection without resorting to such soon-exhausted extremes as filicide.

La Partie de trictrac (1830)

One of the great gambling stories. Roger's moment of dishonesty proves to have appalling consequences that he is unable to avert or undo, though he tries to give half the money back. In fact it's the Dutchman's principles, as well as his own lack of them, that destroys them both.

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Xenophon: Anabasis

Old Khndzoresk, Armenia (Photo by Mher Ishkhanyan). Xenophon mentions seeing troglodytic villages like this.

[Image source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/70883746]

Xenophon wrote the Anabasis some time around 370 BCE. The narrative covers spring 401 - spring 399.

The book I read was a Penguin Classic (The Persian Expedition) containing Rex Warner's translation of 1949 along with George Cawkwell's 1972 introduction.

Some readers have found George Cawkwell's introduction to The Persian Expedition too captious, because it's primarily concerned with weighing the accuracy of Xenophon's account; but after all that's the proper thing for a historian to do, rather than spend time eulogising the lucid prose. We do like, I know, a eulogistic introduction; it reassures us we are reading something great, and are spending our time wisely. (Just as, so I've heard, the main audience for car adverts on the TV is people who have just bought the model being advertised.)

Not everything Cawkwell says has the weight of consensus behind it, for instance his account of the battle of Cunaxa. He asks the right question, though: how on earth did Cyrus expect to win it? Once asked, Xenophon's account is plainly unsatisfying. And Cawkwell's scepticism about the young Xenophon keeping a travel-journal is persuasive.

I don't think it's a firm conclusion, either, that the Anabasis has a Panhellenic agenda. Still, few works of canonical literature are as straightforwardly militaristic. The book's former prominence in the education of our male elite is something to ponder.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850)

Honoré de Balzac, daguerréotype by Louis-Auguste Bisson, 1842 (Maison de Balzac)

In the 1970s if you went to the shelves of a professional but not too literary British person you found novels in the Penguin Classics series. For instance Balzac, Zola, Turgenev and Tolstoy. (You also found Solzhenitsyn and probably Isaac Bashevis Singer.) There might be some Hardy and some Jane Austen, too, but the foreign-language novels, being translated into 1970s English, seemed more contemporary.

A few years later, these same persons “raved about” the French film Manon des Sources.

I mention this odd footnote of history (it’s in rather a Balzacian spirit, I think) because although the Penguin Classics list still exists, indeed is more numerous than ever, it has largely – and Balzac almost entirely – disappeared from the shelves of High Street bookshops. I suspect the main reason was the dramatically improved marketing of moderately substantial contemporary novels, which began in the 1980s and is indissolubly associated with the rise of Waterstones. Old Goriot and Lost Illusions didn’t have quite the same razzmatazz, and besides everyone was growing younger, especially middle-aged professionals. Channel 4 had something to do with it, and probably Thatcherism too, in a back-handed kind of way.

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Anon. The History of Poland (1831)

Bohdan Khmelytsky with Tuhai Bey at Lviv, painting by Jan Matejko (1885)

[Image source: Wikimedia]

This is a volume of “The Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Conducted by the Rev. Dionysius Lardner, LL.D etc, assisted by Eminent Literary and Scientific Men.”

I enjoy reading nineteenth-century historians. I have read most of Motley (The Dutch Republic and the United Netherlands) and thousands of pages of Lecky and Milman. This is not so good as those, but the author’s voice is one we are disposed to trust. In those days the historian made no secret of his beliefs, and judged accordingly. This historian is Protestant and enlightened, and so writes in a spirit of mordant condemnation about much of Poland’s history, especially the centuries of decline that made its demise as an independent nation seem (with hindsight, for now it was gone) inevitable. The other, apparently less partisan, value that has appealed to all historians since Thucydides is political savvy, the successful maintenance of power. Where religious difference is allowed for, the criterion of a supposedly common standard of morality is exercised. Thus, of the Catholic establishment yielding on an issue of clerical marriage: “This was a cowardly, we may add, a highly criminal subterfuge. Whether celibacy was right or wrong, they had sworn to enforce it.”  

But the reason for this note is the last six pages of the book: “to omit all mention of the Jews, a people more numerous here than in any other country of the same extent under heaven, and bearing so great a proportion to the whole population, would be unpardonable.”

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Jane Austen: Emma (1816)

Jane Austen, pencil-and-watercolour sketch by Cassandra Austen, currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery

[Image source: http://austenblog.com/2010/05/09/a-closer-look-at-images-of-jane-austen/ . This is the only fully authenticated portrait of Jane Austen that shows her face; there is a painting by Cassandra that shows Jane, but from the back.]

Emma is an epic of class distinction, or what might be better named class definition. The class being defined is the upper-middle class gentry, not quite titled. The same class that Scott in Ivanhoe five years later would call the Franklins of Merry England.

Knightley, the novel's most skilful operator, is relaxed in his nuances. He behaves well to the lower orders, he does not imagine what is not the case. When he discusses class distinction he is talking about classes or sub-classes that are lower than his own: we don't hear Knightley on the nobility. He uses the terms "line" and "set", apparently interchangeably, to talk about the place that Harriet Smith inhabits: Mrs Goddard's. But his definitions are also nuanced by "situation" - Miss Bates is in a situation which is economically straitened. Though her "line" is comparatively high, she ought not to be made the butt of Emma's thoughtless wit. Knightley praises Robert Martin, though he does not pretend that the friendship is an equal one. The exact wording is: "He knows I have a thorough regard for him and all his family, and, I believe, considers me as one of his best friends." It is not this: "I have a thorough regard for him, and he is one of my best friends." The phrase "and all his family" qualifies the thorough regard: what he registers is not quite a personal affection, it is a regard for retainers. And the second half of the sentence is like an ethologist talking about a chimp. Emma is an imaginer, that is the source of her errors, but Knightley speaks up for sense. Yet he is not (his term for Harriet) artless, except that comically both he and Emma turn out to have their humanly artless sides too, when it comes to making love. 


Harriet is a little embarrassing: I mean, for Jane Austen. In a book that so relishes its expansive accounts of discussions, there's a significance to its suppressions, to the things that are not given to us. They include (in I, XVII) the painful interview between Emma and Harriet at Mrs Goddard's, in which the error over Mr Elton is revealed; this is reported to us, not word by word, but summarized into Harriet's tears and good behaviour. 

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Monday, March 23, 2015

amazon reviewers

This is a stub list of interesting Amazon reviewers I've happened across. - reviewers that make you want to press the button that says "Read all my reviews". I'll update it as and when.


Steampunk "JS" Northern Ireland. 44 pages of reviews. 

His interests include razors and luxury eau de colognes and shaving creams, computer gaming, Christianity, painting and art history, Hebrew and classical Greek. He also does decent Vine reviews (these are solicited reviews where the reviewer gets the product for free).

There's pretty well no end to his talents: he paints, plays classical guitar, and runs Linux on his PC. He is 60ish and retired and in effect Amazon.co.uk is his blog - he's written lots and lots of reviews. He appears to be an Evangelical (believes John's Revelation to be a true account) but this leaves little trace on his reviews in general. He's theologically learned, yet enthusiastic about Transcendental Meditation and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 


jacr100 (UK). 13 pages of reviews.

Reviews global modern novels, - Latin American, Polish, Armenian and anywhere else. Also books about private investing. Visits Africa. The approach is unacademic, impatient of any avant-gardism or obscurity. Opinions are unpredictable and mostly acute, though sometimes bizarre. (I came across jacr100 while writing about L'Etranger).

Seems now to have stopped publishing reviews. A pity.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

holiday reading

To start with:  two books that I didn't take.

In the checklist of things I had to do before leaving, one of the only unticked entries is "Buy Flora of Western Australia". This was my facetious term for a beginner's guide that would help me identify a few of the plants I might see as we walked about in this distant continent. It was a good idea, but I never got any further with it, or I might be able to tell you the names of the plants in these photos.

The second book that I didn't take was John Wilkinson's  book of essays The Lyric Touch. (I bought it primarily to read the piece about Andrea Brady; the one about Prynne is downloadable in the preview that you can find on Salt's website.) It was delivered a few hours before we left, and after skim-reading a few pages of Wilkinson's profoundly-considered but disputable prose I felt tempted to bring it along with me (plus I remembered reading his Lake Shore Drive while in Spain about ten years ago).  But I also knew that Wilkinson's text would try to make my brain work in a different way from the way it works on holiday. I need an emptier head than that.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Oliver Strange: The Marshal of Lawless (1933)

This is the third novel in Oliver Strange's great series of westerns about James Green, also known as Sudden. I'm talking about the reading sequence, which is different from the dates of composition and publication *NOTE 1. 

The Marshal of Lawless finds Sudden in the south of Arizona, near to the border with Mexico. Race plays quite an important role in the plot; in romances of this era, it is an irresistible ingredient, colourful in every sense; behind the racist story-lines, both author and readers are secretly attracted to what repels them. One of the villains is a Mexican (Moraga, the self-styled El Diablo), and the other - the principal one - is half-Commanche (Seth Raven, popularly known as The Vulture). On the other hand, the “injun” Black Feather, whom Sudden recues from being tortured by El Diablo, is devoted and honourable. El Diablo is naturally humiliated when Sudden invites Black Feather to give the Mexican a whipping in return. That overturns the natural order of things, from El Diablo's point of view. From Sudden's point of view Mexicans are far worse than Red Indians, inasmuch as they have pretensions to be white men. Worst of all, however, is miscegenation. Meeting Raven for the first time, Sudden runs an expert eye over his features:

"Injun an' Mex or bad white, like Durley said, reg'lar devil's brew," was Green's unvoiced criticism.

The book, naturally, supports the hero's view. We instantly scent villainous qualities in "the hooked nose, small, close-set eyes, thin lips, and lank, black hair". Yet though Sudden's race analysis is skilled, he is too honorable a man to condemn on racist grounds alone. Several chapters later, Seth Raven still puzzles him;

Apparently a public-spirited citizen..... With an innate feeling that the man was crooked, he had to admit that so far he was not justified in that belief.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Dorothy B. Hughes: In a Lonely Place (1947)

In a Lonely Place, jacket of first edition

[Image source: http://www.lwcurrey.com/pages/books/81975/dorothy-b-hughes/in-a-lonely-place]

* Spoilers for this noir masterpiece will shortly come thick and fast. In contrast to what I wrote recently about Fielding's Tom Jones, there is no double narrative in this novel; it's supremely a book that delivers all of its payload in a single intense reading experience. But the upshot is the same: your first reading is important and you don't want to be knowing too much in advance.


Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray in the film In a Lonely Place (1950)
[Image source: http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2011/3/20/take-three-gloria-grahame.html]

Nicholas Ray's 1950 film, starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, is a noir masterpiece too. It uses the names and some of the situations from Hughes' novel, but the screenwriters built a radically different story on this foundation. (You could put it this way: the film focuses on one idea within the novel and then explores a kind of variation on it.)

OK, enough messing about, here we go.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

magical moments in literature

[This post consists of raw notes towards an essay on Andrea Brady's poetry. The finished essay (eight months later) incorporated some of this, but not much.]


 OK, it's my mission to dash something off for Intercapillary Space, but what about? Let's check out what's in my backpack.

Edward Thomas, Werner Aspenström, William Shakespeare... hmm, it's not quite what I'm looking for.

Try another pocket. Tim Allen's Default Soul. Well that's more like it, but people are going to be fed up with me writing about Tim Allen. Anyhow, that's where we'll begin.


Default Soul (Red Ceilings Press, 2014) contains 44 poems that are all in the same format (three four-line stanzas). "Stanzas" is quite a misleading term here, but at least you'll understand what the poems look like.

The end-paper says that it's the first of a trilogy of such books, and I hope that turns out to be true, because of all the various Tim Allen books I've read I think this is the most imaginatively intense.

It's a small pamphlet and a very good thing to carry around in a pocket because you don't need to read much to get a hit off it. Each poem consists of 12 sort-of-jokes. They interact in a mainly subliminal way.  If I claimed that I'd laughed out loud a few times, you'd think that I'm lying, but anyway I've definitely chuckled. I think one of the lines was

chilly on the terrace even in the cubby hole

When something's a limited edition of 35 copies it seems ridiculous to call it popular poetry, but it kind of is. If you can imagine one of those comic compilations of amusing or wacky newspaper headlines, then that's not too far away from what you've got here,

physicist's life is in ruins he insists

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

stack o' tracks

I'm listening my way through a stack of CDs on one of those black plastic spindles (left with me by Kyli when she went abroad for a while and seized the moment to abandon old technologies).

None have their own sleeves and most have only a few hand-scrawled details.

To contextualize these comments, you should understand that I stepped off the pop carousel in about 1990 so like a Dantean soul have very little awareness of the recent past.

1. aardvarch.

Electronic music, probably European, and pretty good.

2. masters at work.

This must be the NY mixing duo who were pals of Todd Terry. Not sure when this CD dates from, but the general joyousness of it reminds me of what made Todd's music so great.  Lots of great extended dance tracks, mostly jazzy instrumentals, plus one or two with singers. Great piece of salsa to finish.

3. jimi hendrix.

One of the bad things that happened back in the day if a big artist died young was that it triggered a mountainous shit-pile of terrible recordings flooding the budget market.   A budget Marvin Gaye album is almost certainly going to be live concert tracks, badly played, badly sung, hammily performed and badly recorded. Hearing soul masterpieces like Inner City Blues and Let's Get It On in this context is weirdly fascinating. It makes you realize how much the icon of greatness has to be sculpted out of the murk of reality. In Hendrix's case, the hundreds of indistinguishable budget records consisted mainly of sludgy blues jams. Occasionally they're lit up by some brilliant flash of guitar lightning; then, half a second later, it's back to the sludge. I suppose these were the scrapings of that period in every pop musician's career that is usually covered off in one forgettable sentence of the biog ("after playing in local bands such as Butterfudge, Luke Bumble's Strangers, and the Featherlites, he came to the attention of ..."). This pre-dawm in a musician's career ought to be nearly forgotten, cloaked in mystery, the lure of a few diehard collectors. But Jimi's pre-dawn wasn't forgotten. In most of these recordings the musicians are just messing about; they have no discernible audience in view so they aren't really trying to communicate anything.

4. Putumayo Presents Africa 1999. This is fun. Zimbabwean Jit, Congolese soukous, S. African township plus Togo and a few other places - no Nigerian or N. African. In the 1980s I eagerly collected African LPs from Sterns. 30 years later, my astonishment at the rhythms and guitar-playing has only grown stronger.

5. Coral. This turns out to be The Coral's splendid first album (2002), except that some of the tracks skip rather badly. The question of which one was better, this or its companion "Magic and Medicine", continues to resonate around the campfires of this land. Whatever, it was an amazing double-opening-gambit. What WAS it about The Coral that made them compulsive when so many of their musical ingredients suggested just another lightweight derivative good-time band? In the end I think it might come down to James Skelly's voice. Not only that, but especially that. Whatever ridiculous thing he's singing, he connects with us. It was the misfortune of the Coral that they were basically retro and late-arrivals to a music form (rock) that was already dead. hence they never received the kind of critical attention that, say, "Crocodiles" did; instead, the critical commentary amounts to little more than "Merseyside Mayhem Ahoy"! And that's harmful to the artists.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Victor Alexander Sederbach (fl. 1755-56)

Lacock Abbey, outside the Great Hall

Yesterday I spent a few sunny January hours with pals walking around Lacock. Sunny, but chilly, so the promise of a log fire in the Great Hall of the Abbey was quite inviting.

Lacock Abbey, Great Hall interior

This quasi-Gothic Great Hall was remodelled for John Talbot in 1753, so it's four years later than Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill. 

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015

manchester airport

someone I knew
drew in her nest breath

by fiber repose

beyond the full hotel
like a covered annexe
the empty airport

inter lube steel


viaduct travellators,
under its engineered roof
slung bottle-bin

night-lit, nearly empty,  clear my head

of its hall of trolleys

I took a snowy breath; I paused

and glanced out to the terminals;

taxi-ing craft, becalmed so late;

upward, as if to a belfry:

the southern night sky
and its distance; a pucker of the folds:
vegetation, fire, or birds?

something happened to dismay us

you looked via cool
                mile-long ringway return

came ads for greenspace
               back-lit caffeine hit

New Scientist rail and a rhythm of taxi phones
               Swissair: continuous, background resonance

   of something.
Mile of ring-pull warmth

gull of the hood jogging breeze
a shoe-in scarf

cabin-crew heels, claret lipstick
      if you switched to E-lites

panes flashed as I passed:
             the constant chuckle in the vents

          faster by the glass, postcard
serving Broughton Cliff Kersal Moor

I lay and smoked... around me, the night thickened.

in the lake mist, in a clearing

the spiral of a buzzard

spread fan, wisp of a dawn fire,

as if the momentum of the ringway

drew up into the dark

a pilgrim's spiral

I rested in the hugeness of triliphons

celestial board-meetings

flecked wingbeats

Is it summer, mamma?


Monday, December 29, 2014

specimens of the literature of Sweden - tea and glögg

Swedes are notoriously heavy coffee drinkers (according to stereotype anyway) but tea does play quite a big part in Swedish culture too; and not only in the form of Lipton's Yellow Label, the brand that owns all of mainland Europe.

Particularly noticeable are the various tea mixtures that appear on sale in markets, with more or less persuasive claims to local provenance. These teas, often spicy, come into their own in winter.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Byron: The Corsair (1814)

Episode from The Corsair, watercolour by Eugène Delacroix (c. 1831)

[Image Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum]

The exotic location of The Corsair is clearly important, just as the location of Scott’s narrative poems is important. Byron, we are persuaded, knew the Mediterranean

            Flash’d the dipt oars, and sparkling with the stroke,
            Around the waves’ phosphoric brightness broke;
            They gain the vessel – on the deck he stands. (I, XVII)

The author annotates: “By night, particularly in a warm latitude, every stroke of the oar, every motion of the boat or ship, is followed by a slight flash like sheet lightning from the water.”

[We don’t know much more about it now. The effect is due to the bioluminescence of certain protozoa, mainly flagellates. It is produced only when the water is disturbed. Its function, if there is one, has not been conclusively explained.]

When Scott wrote of Scotland, he immersed us in details of myth and tradition; in his prose he would also give us a distinct local speech. Being a variety of English, it was more or less comprehensible to those readers south of the border, but it was also revelatory; for here was a different culture in full operation. Byron had no such interests as Scott’s, and besides, his own chosen locale would have meant foreign languages. Byron’s Mediterranean was more like a psychological state; a heady feeling (at least in the Northern European mind) that comprised freedom and energy, open space, and escape - from prudence, from strait-laced moral codes, from families, even from self-interest and self-preservation.  Probably the lack of linguistic community, the sense of uninvolvement, is one of the constituent factors in why this familiar dream persists. (Corsair, like Capri, Ibiza, Sirocco, etc, would eventually become the name of a car.) The waves of the Mediterranean still whisper to us: Miss the plane home.

Byron’s poem intends to be a Mediterranean structure (that’s why Canto III begins with a Mediterranean scene pilfered from an earlier poem, whose irrelevance Byron takes care to highlight). Perhaps he succeeds, though there are elements of chivalry and lachrymosity that we recognize as Northern European. The story has something of the stiff gestures of Scott’s poor attempt at exoticism, The Talisman – think of the scene where Conrad appears before the Pacha, disguised as a pious Dervise. Yet a “scene” is just what this isn’t. Byron’s poem is best approached as a kind of process without beginning or end; a humming machine, details of whose operation can be glimpsed only by looking quickly aside; in short, as a modern poem. Because of the swirls and eddies of the undisciplined verse, The Corsair is a formidable and exciting plunge into uncharted territory.

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