Monday, January 30, 2012

crushed data cube gridmap - spring-cleaning

So, after a mere 8 years on Blogger, I've finally begun to use Labels. This was yesterday, when I found someone - Kirk apparently - who could give me some code to insert into my ancient G1 Blogger template so that it could display a list of labels.

It was only when I'd started to use them that I began to grasp their full potential. Yes, I'd already foreseen that labels could eventually replace the painfully manual list of Botanical Posts. But what I now perceived, glimmeringly, was that they might also eventually supply a future for the Brief History, currently wrapped in the cloak of an ancient format that is difficult to update or consult or read.

Yielding to the power of Labels is also, I know, just another small step towards total compromise with the information-based nature of the Internet. I hope to make up for it in some other ways.

I've also been through my recommended links. Some sites, regrettably, have disappeared since the last trawl (notably, Charles Freeland's - it contained non-comprehensible fictions). I dropped some other links because I decided I was no longer as interested in them as I used to be. And I've added a few that ought to have been here ages ago.

* (Later the same day)

Curses! I've realized that replacing the manual botanical index with labels just isn't going to work, because there's a 200-character limit on the total length of labels per post. And some of my posts might talk about seven or eight plants, plus I want to give the vernacular name as well as the Latin. So I guess I'll be maintaining the index after all. Great for you; not so great for me!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

january wood in west swindon

Wind pruning.

Wind damage.

Beneath a bird perch.

Deer print.

(Above and below x 3) Marbling of young plane trees, presumably London Plane (Platanus x hispanica).

(Below.) Colour change, about six weeks later (March 9th 2012).

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

from my notebook

Broad-leaved Dock leaf (Rumex obtusifolius), or what's left of it when it's been food for something, presumably larvae of the Green Dock Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula).

(Above and below) The great pine of Brislington (outside Hartwell Jaguar showroom), as much admired, on weekday mornings, by commuters with nothing better to do while they're queuing to get through the Brislington bottleneck into Bristol. It's more pleasant to see it on a Saturday, from the convenient Subway on the other side of the road, which was constructed purely to allow a more leisured contemplation of this magnificent tree. It is a Corsican Pine (Pinus nigra var. maritima), a variety of European Black Pine, so-called because the tree tends to look blackish from a distance, even though the foliage is green. Corsican Pine has a neat arrangement of level branches, unlike the more scruffy upswept habit of Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra var. nigra). By pine standards it is fairly resistant to air pollution, but when I first noticed this tree in 1991 it was evidently finding the conditions of Brislington Hill a challenge; it looks much happier now.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

only one word

though the sky is written with vapour at sunset
and later the pointed laws of the stars,
though the barracking rain /
drills three or four-decker damp novels in love-letters
into the pipes and the lane

and the toilet / lino / is starry with regrets
and the cell wall is furrowed with curses,

though everywhere round me is harrow and surface /
roughened inscribed and defaced
with a million impossible words
in a million inscrutable senses,

but lay these aside, / some thousands of terms still remain
with the power to shine in the dark and explain;
there are words / whose knowledge is positive gain I suppose.

So how could I choose?

Is it choice, is it what you can choose, can you choose, when your life
is already within you on tape, it is already drawn round the pins
of your body, your mind and opinions recorded, precorded, precociously corded, pre / recorded?

When the gates of the dark
and the freedom of nothing to do
and the vaporous Oliver, Charlie in nappies, and Hamid, Olivia, Lacey
lie still in their cots
when the blanket is busy the crochet in furrows
all drink laced with foam and the marvellous winking horizon full up with all mother

I'd take a deep breath / and know what to say


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

tis distance lends enchantment to the view

Thomas Campbell, again.

This well-known line appears near the start of The Pleasures of Hope (1799).

At summer eve, when Heaven's ethereal bow
Spans with bright arch the glittering hills below,
Why to yon mountain turns the musing eye,
Whose sunbright summit mingles with the sky?
Why do those cliffs of shadowy tint appear
More sweet than all the landscape smiling near?
'Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,
And robes the mountain in its azure hue.

(The Pleasures of Hope, Part I, lines 1-8.)

OK, so the quote is much more fertile when it's taken away from the context of that poem and can breathe and develop its powers on its own.

Along with Hazlitt's remark about how we think of natural creatures as species rather than as individuals, this is about the only bit of aesthetic philosophy that I've ever taken on board. In compensation, I do think about both of them extremely often.

This morning, for example, because (in the office): the sudden stink of decay alerted me to a brief resumption of my sense of smell, for the first time since before Xmas. Perhaps what assaulted my suddenly-restored sense was the smell of my own trainers. Soon afterwards, we trooped along to the canteen on a tea-break - such an assault of smells. The jar of tea-bags smelt. The hot water smelt. The fridge made me feel like retching, and so did the distinct, personal odours emanating from the mouths of each of my friends.

Five minutes later, the olfactory system had all shut down again; I couldn't smell anything at all. This Brobdingnagian enlargement of sensory data is too much, too up close. In the circumstances, I drank it all in with enthusiasm, but it was not "beauty". "Beauty" in our present state of culture seems to require a desensitizing filter. That's what I take from Campbell.


The remarks by Hazlitt are in the Lectures on the English Poets (1818), specifically the lecture on Thomson and Cowper, which Hazlitt concludes with an excursus (springing from Rousseau at Annecy) about love of Nature. He says:

"That which distinguishes this attachment from others is the transferable nature of our feelings with respect to physical objects; the associations connected with any one object extending to the whole class."

He gives an example about foreign-ness:

"I remember when I was abroad, the trees, and grass, and wet leaves, rustling in the walks of the Thuilleries, seemed to be as much English, to be as much the same trees and grass, that I had always been used to, as the sun shining over my head was the same sun which I saw in England; the faces only were foreign to me."

A closer botanist wouldn't perhaps experience that; Lucy Snowe in Villette, more sensitive to the distinction of a continental climate, restricts her sensation of "English-ness" to the moon. Still, Hazlitt is on to something.

"The same principle will also account for that feeling of littleness, vacuity, and perplexity, which a stranger feels on entering the streets of a populous city. Every individual he meets is a blow to his personal identity. Every face is a teazing, unanswered riddle. He feels the same wearisome sensation in walking from Oxford Street to Temple Bar, as a person would do who should be compelled to read through the first leaf of all the volumes in a library. But it is otherwise with respect to nature. A flock of sheep is not a contemptible, but a beautiful sight..."

"This nature is a kind of universal home, and every object it presents to us an old acquaintance with unaltered looks..."

If I'm always pondering Hazlitt's claim it's because I don't believe it to be wholly true or invariably true. I think Hazlitt's sense of the delightfull unvarying class of sheep is an accident of point of view; a shepherd would look at sheep differently. In that respect Hazlitt is himself a walking illustration of "Tis distance lends enchantment to the view".

As it happens, Hazlitt is fairly scathing about Thomas Campbell. That may be right, but when he notices these lines -

Some hamlet shade, to yield his sickly form
Health in the breeze, and shelter in the storm.

- notices them, in order to assert a failure in the antithesis (the shade brings shelter, but it does not bring health: the breeze does), I don't think most readers today will feel the force of that logic; I think they'd judge Campbell's lines to be rather improved by the failure of his antithesis; it makes them rangier, more comprehensive.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012


I made a flitting visit to London yesterday to see Kyli and stay overnight at her no-longer-very-newly-moved-into gaff in Hackney; and I met her flatmate and old uni pal Aelia for the first time. We were all late - Kyli's journey from the City, and my car journey along the A501, were both disrupted by the same overturned car; Aelia just missed her stop. Anyway the evening got foreshortened, but we went down to Cirrik's and had a nice meal featuring olives, aubergines and tempranillo, then back home, I went straight off to sleep at midnight and woke up five hours later to begin the journey back to Swindon in hefty rain.

So I was only really {in London and not driving and not asleep} for about four hours, but what a wealth of images: I feel like a camera whose shutter opened on the lunar surface, and has now come back to earth carrying one photo to be analyzed for months by scientists. Yes, there is that much caffeine still swilling around the system; mainly due to Heston's Costa. But this indeed marked the end of my different-planet experience, and the resumption of normality. London driving had necessarily involved switching off the car stereo, I needed all my concentration to take in my surroundings. Now, back on the M4, I could switch it on again, and complete yet another listen to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, then a bit of country, and then some Kings of Leon (Because of the times - Xmas present from Kyli, who is my chief source of info about what's going on in modern music).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

workplace blogs

Busyness is threatening my record of blogging nearly every day this year. Also, as I've got more interested in the diastic method I'm updating my previous post because it doesn't make sense to split this material over multiple posts. Probably daily blogging is a bit too often anyway - Dan Silliman posts 2-3 times per week and I regard his blog as definitional.

But I do want to share this link (via Vincent) : Attitude and Pepper Spray, workplace blog written by a US prison guard on shift. Here's a bit of it:


It's been close to an hour since I got home and I think my earlobes are just now starting to come back online. It was the kind of cold that felt like someone was running a frozen chainsaw up and down your legs, even through the long johns.

As usual when we are running the chow line, there were officers inside the chow hall and some outside doing pat searches and watching the yard. I was worried that they guys outside were getting too cold and I kept running out there to make sure they were okay and then running back inside to make sure things were going well in there.

I'm sure it was mildly amusing to watch.

We had a good crew out on the yard tonight. I had the Fireman and Gray Ham and Snack. The Fireman and Gray Ham are both old yard dawgs and know what to do without me getting on to them. Snack is young and fairly new but has a pretty good head on his shoulders. He'd gone up to watch the med line and I ran up to make sure he went inside and warmed up when he needed it.

The Fireman was inside calling the houses and checking with me about the timing and Gray Ham was out in his insulated bibs wandering the yard watching the movement. He wouldn't have gone inside if I had told him to so I didn't bother.


Some of my favourite blogs are workplace blogs. For around five years I've been the avid reader of a private blog (circulated by weekly email) from out of the world of aggregates/tarmacing - I've often wanted to ask my mate if I could quote some of it here, but I still haven't got round to it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Mac Low's diastic process (in Gale Nelson)

[I've finally finished messing with this post so I've published it on Intercapillary Space:]

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

the biggest numbness

Farting along the river at night I was bold and breathy, I dragged over gates and held on to my toe-caps through dewy white sex-fields of peed and bollock, jutted on bitten stabs and went in among the elders. They did not think that anything was wrong. Howling among the elders sand in hand to the meadow I came to a deck and stank deeply. Then I was cold enough to puke. Beth was the full moo, swimming rough the nipples as I meant to for several hours and I suddenly felt terrific at the lone breath I plunder the ranch like a wong winkey.

a cold and frosty morning

Friday, January 13, 2012 - Balzac's Sarrasine - Jekyll and Hyde

When I was writing yesterday about Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, I originally started my piece with some buffoonery about it forming, "of course", the subject of Roland Barthes' S/Z. (I also speculated about how came by its name).

It can't be entirely a coincidence that, though I swear I didn't know it, I was actually in the middle of listening to the text that really does form the subject of Barthes' book - Balzac's Sarrasine, as read by Chip, a volunteer. (No wonder Barthes was interested, it's a very striking story.)

How all this happened, was that since I moved back to Frome (but still work in Swindon), I felt the desire to make some use of those 2.5 hours of driving every day by downloading some more audio books, a service formerly provided by Frome library. "Formerly" is unfair; they still do offer the service. The difference is that you can't get the audiobooks on MP3 any longer, but on some other format which is copy-protected. And that's no good to me. My car stereo will play MP3 off a USB key, but nothing else.

So I went looking for free audiobooks on MP3 and eventually turned to Project Gutenberg and found MP3s of some dismally ancient but well-loved favourite authors. All the ones I've heard are supplied by, a volunteer organization. They vary a lot, but they're generally fascinating. The other one I've heard in total is R.L. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, read by Londoner David Barnes. Could a reader go wrong? Certainly. Barnes doesn't attempt doing the police in different voices, but he reads beautifully, gives us perfect atmosphere and pacing. As for the story, it opens more depths on depths every time I hear it.

Chip's Colorado Sarrasine is good too - better in some ways - more gusto, livelier drama in the dialogue - and the tale carries a punch like a horseshoe. Balzac's manner of (apparently) gushingly over-writing is at first alarming, but it's a huge trick. And at the end of the story, you look back over it and you realize that, once again, he's always been several steps ahead of you, and you smile in chagrin and in delight and total admiration. But how many readers it must have lost him! Not many people, at any rate, have downloaded Sarrasine from Project Gutenberg, - and perhaps even those who do are nearly all studying S/Z in their theory class.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Swallows and Amazons

Well, I ought to write a little about this, but only for five minutes. It really is incredibly impressive because it was so original. It's obvious Alan Garner learnt from Arthur Ransome some of his most important techniques: painstakingly complete realization of physical action - I'm thinking specifically of the classic underground tunnel chapter in The Weirdstone of Brisengamen - and making character live through dialogue in action - the technique that leads eventually to Red Shift. Though that, of course, seems a shocking distance from Ransome's vision.

Imagine a book with six characters in which there is no change in their relationships, and you cannot say of any one character that they are the particular friend, still less the enemy, of any other at any stage. Imagine a book in which the terms of adventure are essentially and watchfully guarded, as in fact is usually the case for children. And yet, because of the realism, this is exciting and feels dangerous: the dangers are those of nature, e.g. the tremendous storm or the night-sailing among the islands, which nearly goes so wrong.

Here, they are bringing firewood from the mainland:


"It's a good thing it's so calm," said the mate, looking at the water, which was not very far below the gunwale.

Sculling over the stern is slower than rowing, but in the dead calm Swallow moved easily, heavily loaded though she was, and no water came aboard, though some nearly did when Roger suddenly changed his mind about the side of the boat he liked best.

"We'll take her to the old landing-place," said Captain John. "That's a good place for landing a cargo, and we want the wood handy for the camp."

"It would be a dreadful business carrying it all the way from the harbour," said the mate.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

birds singing at night.

It was Dec 22nd when I first heard it, at around 3 am, i.e. around 5 hours before sunrise. It was a sleepy sort of hushed chorus of low tweeting, evidently a whole treeful of birds and of several species. It consisted of twittering rather than full song. At one point even a crow chimed in, possibly saying "shut the fuck up".

And I've heard this middle-of-the-night singing several times since I moved back to Frome, where my bedroom backs onto waste ground with trees and a railway, always at around 2-4 a.m. Perhaps it has always been there but I never noticed it until I moved back from my six months sojourn at a house in West Swindon where there was practically no birdsong because there happened to be no trees near to my window. (West Swindon, I want to emphasize, is on the whole a distinctly treeish place.)

This seems to be well-known behaviour. Usually it is robins (some people have speculated that urban robins are confused by light pollution).

It particularly occurs around the winter solstice.

So Marcellus, in Hamlet, was reporting a genuine midwinter phenomenon:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairly takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.

Perhaps, too, it has some connection with T.S. Eliot's mysterious "midwinter spring".

The other noises I often hear are foxes barking (e.g. last night around 23:30) and the whistling of Little Owls (but generally not at this time of year). The trains make loud shrieking and grinding noises, which I usually sleep through. At some time between 05:45 and 06:30 my Polish neighbour drives off in his van, so that I begin every day feeling like a lazy git.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Oxford horse-chestnuts - St Leonards-on-Sea shingle

Yesterday evening, feeling gloomy, lonely and tired, I plunged into a book drawn randomly off the shelf; it was a selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins' Poetry and Prose. It was the prose I read, mainly; though before going off to sleep I read a little of the "Deutschland" and after the light was out listened for a while to my brain sponaneously constructing gibberish in Sprung rhythm, which it appeared to manage as sure-footedly as blank verse. But mostly I read the prose.

The most engaging piece, for me, was the early Platonic Dialogue on the Origin of Beauty, written 1865. This is unfinished, and it's basically a slow trainwreck, because it gets more and more bogged down in detail and ever less likely to successfully resist "de gustibus non est disputandum", which is what the Professor of Aesthetics is trying to do. But the early pages are enjoyable. He and his two pals begin with the horse-chestnut leaf, said to be at its most beautiful when it has seven leaflets, not six. (The Professor is working towards a fairly uninteresting insight about variety within uniformity.) The tree Aesculus hippocastanum has between 5 and 7 leaflets. You would expect Hopkins to be a close observer and he is, just as later in his journals writing about oak foliage. The only odd thing is when the Professor talks about Vesica Piscis (i.e. a lens shape), suggests that they are inferior to the Horse-Chestnut shape when it comes to making fans, then makes a fan of lime leaves to prove it. - But after all, lime leaves are unsymmetrically ovate/cordate, not lens-shaped at all! And of course it is not right to compare a (lime) leaf with a (chestnut) leaflet, but Hopkins seems to be unaware of this distinction.

Hopkins was passionately interested in his own apprehensions of nature, and yet he never seems to have been interested in learning the botanical words (like ovate or cordate) that would have made things clearer for him. Instead he preferred to be at the forefront of his own research with its own terms, fretty quains and all the rest. The same perversity comes out in later life when he firecely asserts, (but with suspicious repetition) that he doesn't care about not being able to read much or write much or publish anything at all.

The dialogue moves on to oak trees:

"We were speaking of the chestnut-trees, of their unsymmetrical growth. Now is the oak an unsymmetrical tree?"

"Very much so; O quite a rugged boldly-irregular tree: and this I should say was one of the things which make us invest it with certain qualities it has in poetry and in popular and national sentiment," said Hanbury.

"Very observant. You mean of course when it grows at liberty, rather than when influenced by confinement, cutting and so forth."

"Yes: what I say will of course be truest of the tree when uninfluenced by man."

"Very good. Now have you ever noticed that when the oak has grown to its full stature uninfluenced, the outline of its head is drawn by a long curve, I should think it would be that of a parabola, which, if you look at the tree from a little way off, is of almost mathematical correctness?"

This matter of being uninfluenced by man is almost the wrong way round. Before man, almost every oak tree was confined in dense woodland. It is the standard tree, carefully preserved in the isolation of parkland, that develops the parabola. Yet the parabola is part of nature, of course. (The horse-chestnut illustrates this even better. The few wild populations, in the Balkans, look very different from the handsome tree we are familiar with - small, tough, and crowded. Like other tree species, notably the Monterey Cypress, it seems to have ended up becoming trapped and hanging on in an ecological niche that doesn't really suit it.)

The other thing that stood out for me, reading Hopkins' letters, is mention of Campbell, alongside Milton, as one of the two masters of style - an idea that Arnold originated, I think. This is (presumably?) the Romantic Poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), who regarded the following as his best poem. Well, I like this poem too, but that's because of the feeling of excitement that comes with the thought of striding beneath the Marina in that blessed spot, scene of such significance to my own life.

Lines On The View From St. Leonard's

by Thomas Campbell

Hail to thy face and odours, glorious Sea!
'Twere thanklessness in me to bless thee not,
Great beauteous Being! in whose breath and smile
My heart beats calmer, and my very mind
Inhales salubrious thoughts. How welcomer
Thy murmurs than the murmurs of the world!
Though like the world thou fluctuatest, thy din
To me is peace, thy restlessness repose.
Ev'n gladly I exchange yon spring-green lanes
With all the darling field-flowers in their prime,
And gardens haunted by the nightingale's
Long trills and gushing ecstasies of song,
For these wild headlands, and the sea-mew's clang --

With thee beneath my windows, pleasant Sea,
I long not to o'erlook earth's fairest glades
And green savannahs -- Earth has not a plain
So boundless or so beautiful as thine;
The eagle's vision cannot take it in:
The lightning's wing, too weak to sweep its space,
Sinks half-way o'er it like a wearied bird:
It is the mirror of the stars, where all
Their hosts within the concave firmament,
Gay marching to the music of the spheres,
Can see themselves at once.

Nor on the stage
Of rural landscape are there lights and shades
Of more harmonious dance and play than thine.
How vividly this moment brightens forth,
Between gray parallel and leaden breadths,
A belt of hues that stripes thee many a league,
Flush'd like the rainbow, or the ringdove's neck,
And giving to the glancing sea-bird's wing
The semblance of a meteor.

Mighty Sea!
Cameleon-like thou changest, but there's love
In all thy change, and constant sympathy
With yonder Sky -- thy Mistress; from her brow
Thou tak'st thy moods and wear'st her colours on
Thy faithful bosom; morning's milky white,
Noon's sapphire, or the saffron glow of eve;
And all thy balmier hours, fair Element,
Have such divine complexion -- crisped smiles,
Luxuriant heavings and sweet whisperings,
That little is the wonder Love's own Queen
From thee of old was fabled to have sprung --
Creation's common! which no human power
Can parcel or inclose; the lordliest floods
And cataracts that the tiny hands of man
Can tame, conduct, or bound, are drops of dew
To thee that could'st subdue the Earth itself,
And brook'st commandment from the heavens
For marshalling thy waves --

Yet, potent Sea! alone
How placidly thy moist lips speak ev'n now
Along yon sparkling shingles. Who can be
So fanciless as to feel no gratitude
That power and grandeur can be so serene,
Soothing the home-bound navy's peaceful way,
And rocking ev'n the fisher's little bark
As gently as a mother rocks her child? --

The inhabitants of other worlds behold
Our orb more lucid for thy spacious share
On earth's rotundity; and is he not
A blind worm in the dust, great Deep, the mall
Who sees not or who seeing has no joy
In thy magnificence? What though thou art
Unconscious and material, thou canst reach
The inmost immaterial mind's recess,
And with thy tints and motion stir its chords
To music, like the light on Memnon's lyre!

The Spirit of the Universe in thee
Is visible; thou hast in thee the life --
The eternal, graceful, and majestic life
Of nature, and the natural human heart
Is therefore bound to thee with holy love.
Earth has her gorgeous towns; the earth-circling sea
Has spires and mansions more amusive still --
Men's volant homes that measure liquid space
On wheel or wing. The chariot of the land
With pain'd and panting steeds and clouds of dust
Has no sight-gladdening motion like these fair
Careerers with the foam beneath their bows,
Whose streaming ensigns charm the waves by day,
Whose carols and whose watch-bells cheer the night,
Moor'd as they cast the shadows of their masts
In long array, or hither flit and yond
Mysteriously with slow and crossing lights,
Like spirits on the darkness of the deep.

There is a magnet-like attraction in
These waters to the imaginative power
That links the viewless with the visible,
And pictures things unseen. To realms beyond
Yon highway of the world my fancy flies,
When by her tall and triple mast we know
Some noble voyager that has to woo
The trade-winds and to stem the ecliptic surge.
The coral groves -- the shores of conch and pearl,
Where she will cast her anchor and reflect
Her cabin-window lights on warmer waves,
And under planets brighter than our own:
The nights of palmy isles, that she will see
Lit boundless by the fire-fly -- all the smells
Of tropic fruits that will regale her -- all
The pomp of nature, and the inspiriting
Varieties of life she has to greet,
Come swarming o'er the meditative mind.

True, to the dream of Fancy, Ocean has
His darker tints; but where's the element
That chequers not its usefulness to man
With casual terror? Scathes not Earth sometimes
Her children with Tartarean fires, or shakes
Their shrieking cities, and, with one last clang
Of bells for their own ruin, strews them flat
As riddled ashes -- silent as the grave?
Walks not Contagion on the Air itself?
I should -- old Ocean's Saturnalian days
And roaring nights of revelry and sport
With wreck and human woe-be loth to sing;
For they are few, and all their ills weigh light
Against his sacred usefulness, that bids
Our pensile globe revolve in purer air.
Here Morn and Eve with blushing thanks receive
Their freshening dews, gay fluttering breezes cool
Their wings to fan the brow of fever'd climes,
And here the Spring dips down her emerald urn
For showers to glad the earth.

Old Ocean was
Infinity of ages ere we breathed
Existence -- and he will be beautiful
When all the living world that sees him now
Shall roll unconscious dust around the sun.
Quelling from age to age the vital throb
In human hearts, Death shall not subjugate
The pulse that swells in his stupendous breast,
Or interdict his minstrelsy to sound
In thundering concert with the quiring winds;
But long as Man to parent Nature owns
Instinctive homage, and in times beyond
The power of thought to reach, bard after bard
Shall sing thy glory, BEATIFIC SEA.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

at a boot sale

I bought a Penguin omnibus of Jane Austen's seven novels (Seven? Yes, they included Lady Susan), because the guy only wanted 25p for it. I'd read them all, some quite recently, and re-visiting Austen-land isn't especially high on my agenda, but it just seemed a nice thing to have. Also, for 50p I bought Andrea Bocelli's album Sacred Arias, because I thought it would introduce me to a hitherto unexplored bit of popular culture, which it has.

Then there was Ivanhoe, in the hardback Regent's Classics format that I owned as a child, though I think I never managed to get much beyond chapter 1, and what I mostly remember about it is Gurth and Wamba. But I did gaze at the illustration on the cover a lot, and I marvelled at the name Brian de Bois-Gilbert. The memory of that book must have had a lot to do with my subsequent devotion to Scott. The stallholder wanted a quid for it, which by now seemed far too much.

Finally, I got a Teach Yourself language course "Complete Finnish", with book and 2 CDs (£3 for this one). The girl asked me, did I ever go to Finland. I said no, then corrected myself, I had been there for about two hours once.

This was in 1998, when we crossed the Swedish border at Karesuando, more or less at the top of Sweden, and then drove westwards along the Finnish side of that border until we dropped into Norway. My memories of Finland are of a lively trucker's cafe and of endless flat bog and stunted trees, making me feel like I was truly getting close to the tundra. It was a dark afternoon up on this slowly rising plateau and I took no photos, hence Finland escaped being memorialized in F O T O. It would have been between nos. 24 and 25.

I confess, my practical ambition so far as Finnish is concerned was to be able to pronounce names and titles with reasonable accuracy. But now that I'm listening to the CDs, I think, why stop there? Why haven't I ever been to Porvoo, or lived the Year of the Hare? Truly, I've wasted my life.


Sunday, January 08, 2012


Sunday being a day of rest, I'm posting what I've written thus far about Charlotte Brontë's Villette:

Villette (1853)

More Penguin Introductions, this time by Tony Tanner, who specializes in psychologically-informed criticism, but is reliably boring, and fails to avoid such critical clichés of the time as “appropriately” and “serves to”.

I’m sorry to keep coming back to this thing about CB explicitly turning her back on the Angrian inspiration. That was a statement of intent, but the inspiration was evidently too powerful, because Villette returns to it. It is a book full of Angrian tricks.

Everyone remembers the final page, in which CB (in deference to her father, apparently) does not quite say what she so direly hints at – and, of course, reminds us that all is fiction.

But the performance in the open pages is equally “worked”. Lucy Snowe, girl, is the observing narrator; but as page follows page and the story of little Paulina and young Graham proceeeds, we become ever more uneasily aware of something missing that we expect to find. It is the complete absence of any account of Lucy’s background, parents, family or even age. (Graham is sixteen, Paulina is six – we will eventually infer that Lucy in these opening chapters is 14 or 15.) With the beginning of Chapter 4, Lucy returns “home”. This, then is surely the expected, if delayed, account of “I was born in __shire, my parents were poor but genteel,” etc. No – instead all we are given is a trickily evasive metaphorical account of generalized disaster, clad in maritime terms. The storm and the wreck appear, and the storm reappears later in the same chapter, when Miss Marchmont tells the story of Frank; all this foreshadows the storm, wrecks, and non-return of the lover in the novel’s Finis. So this active, tragic but occluded material supplies both the book-ends for the novel proper: Lucy is offered as a character without no known past or future. Rather as the indifferent Graham sees her, in fact; as society generally will see her. It’s striking, impressive, and rather artificial.

We are often told that it is a great and all too prevalent sin to read the Brontës’ novels as autobiographical documents, but I think it is quite right to read Villette in this way, and that’s one way to make sense of its artificial, pointedly un-naturalistic structure. I am not referring so much to Charlotte’s memories of her two stays in Brussels, I am referring to the much more recent catastrophe of losing her three lifelong companions in short succession. The occluded and secretive Lucy Snowe makes sense as a mouthpiece, to express it as crudely as possible, for giving vent to Charlotte’s sense of alienation, her resignation to having no clear future, and her consequently extremely critical and judgemental view of the life around her. Such story as Villette possesses is, I won’t say of secondary importance, but it is “worked” in a somewhat offhand manner (very Angrian, this) in pursuit of other more personally pressing goals. Do you think, reader, that this place Villette is truly a solidly wrought fictional scena possessing a sober truth in sharp contrast to those unreal heather moors and cities off the coast of Africa? Well, I do not. This Villette with its spectral nuns, its bejewelled hunchbacks, its fanatic priest, and its undisclosed Graham Bretton the first person that Lucy meets? Or what do you make of Madame Beck, a wonderfully elaborated image of surveillance and respectable selfishness who is constantly built up as if to play a part in some plot, yet is never really given any plotting to do? The naturalistic novel does not seem the best model for this disorientating waywardness.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

in Somerset

[Above: The Cheese & Grain, Frome, drawn this morning while stallholding at the Collectables Fair; note lava-lamp in foreground.
Below: Scenes from the Bay View Cafe, Burnham-on-Sea, on an overcast New Year's Day.]

Parrett Estuary / Bridgewater Bay
Morrisons Car-Park
The Quantocks

Also in a Somerset groove, tune into Brenda's charming Bristol Channel, but you've only got until Friday. Swedish Mik may possibly be me. I hear it will be returning as a blog in due course; I'll post the link when I know.


Friday, January 06, 2012


Blogs are dead, everyone's moving on! This vigorous meme continues to circulate in literary circles, Chris Goode (on closing down Thomson's) noting with something like surprise that Dennis Cooper's DCs is still so vigorous. (Great and alarming blog, but not necessarily one to browse in the workplace, as I found out to my cost yesterday.) And today Todd Swift is taking a break from his long-running Eyewear, using very similar rhetoric about there being more elegant and quicker ways to reach people. (Chris and Todd might not agree about a lot else, I'm thinking.) Perhaps I'd better wait. Todd tends to shoot from the hip, and many's the time that I've spotted the first few lines of one of his tastier posts on "Blogs I Follow", only to find that by the time I get there the post has already been pulled.

Mark Scroggins, it must be a couple of years ago now, also lauded the potential of Facebook and Twitter - but Mark still maintains his blog, and even writes good things on it, though never enough. But I just don't think Facebook has the potential that's claimed for it. (I subscribe to the now equally vigorous meme "What a waste of time and evergy is Facebook, I'm moving on".) I think it's quite good for vaguely staying in touch with the more shadowy outer circles of your acquaintance, and that's it.

But surely blogs themseves move pretty fast? Last autumn's targeted attack on Todd and Eyewear by the Barque crew Sean B, Frances K et al was so Swiftly tidied up that most people missed it, even if they were watching. Like a tussle in a disco, its 10 blurry seconds revealed a lot more about all the participants than anything that clear-minded literary historians compose.

It would be better to celebrate the democratization of literature, The Blog's gifting of an expressive outlet to such a various and surprising crowd of lay people - admittedly, not a representative bunch in global terms - but a large number of people, nevertheless, who might otherwise never have found writerly expression in any form. If many of the resultant blogs are quite generic, though in ways that might not have been predicted - e.g. the workplace blog - yet The Blog is also a container that can be used in many ways, most of them not discovered yet.

I am resisting the impulse to yet again list my favourite blogs. Most of them are in the list of links to your right, but it does need a spring clean.


The collaborative blog Montevidayo definitely needs to be on there, and it might be another demonstration of The Blog's developing vigour. Johannes Göransson is one of the people I listen to most attentively, and the way he's writing on recent posts about the Plague Ground (Playground) - e.g. this one, tracing implications of Joyelle McSweeney's original idea :

Welcome to the plague ground: There is still "too much" American poetry

- is typically beautiful with the beauty of clarity and pragmatic as a toolbox. Along certain lines the Montevidayo way converges with my own relativistic views of literature and artefacts generally. I'm not really talking about the detail, I mean the submersion in processes of decay and rebirth; artefacture as waste.

It so happens I'm reading Göransson's translation of Johan Jönson's Collobert Orbital at the moment. A fantastic book I will certainly write about some time.



I am reading the editor's preamble to a poetry magazine associated with the Cambridge School. The Editor tells us that this time he has, for pressing reasons that I forget, included a number of poems by both men AND women. He is well aware that, contrary to his usual practice, this flouts the principle of "NIcarnation" (in the dream I specifically noticed that this was an anagram of INcarnation). He then rather helpfully explains that NIcarnation means, of course, the separation of the sexes in poetry. His magazine usually prints either poems that are all by women or poems that are all by men. The heart of NIcarnational practice, as cultivated e.g. by Simon "Dionysus Crucified" Jarvis, is that a poem written by a male author should never refer in any way whatever to women, likewise a poem written by a woman should never refer in any way to men.

I'll resist interpreting this dream, at any rate publically, but I ought to say that as of today I haven't ever read anything by Simon Jarvis. (Maybe I will now, if only because I'm curious to find out whether his work does in any respect aspire to NIcarnation.)


"I made a suggestion once, but I didn't get any response, so I re-submitted it. Then I did get a response. It said, Shut up, we heard you the first time."

"Oh, that was the old suggestion scheme."

"The old suggestion scheme??"

"Yes, there was a suggestion scheme in Bob's time, but it got chocker with ideas so they killed it off."


AUTOMAGIC - Expression used by the UNIX community to explain things that happen on a computer that are clearly the result of some piece of automated stuff but no-one can remember exactly what it was.



(L Sings a line or two of "The One I Love.")

L: "I expect that's part of your set-list, isn't it Mike?"

M: "To be honest I'm SO old that I really think of REM as newcomers. I was never that into them. Because I'd been around for Neil Young and The Band, that was 15 years earlier, I thought I'd heard it all before."

L: "Neil Young. Yes, don't tell me, he went to sixth-form college in Ipswich."

M: "Toronto."

L: "I'm sure it was Ipswich."

M: "We're talking about two different Neil Youngs. I'm talking about the internationally famous one, and you're talking about your mate down the pub."

L: "I do get mixed up. Was he the one who sang Rhinestone Cowboy?"

M: "No... - who was that ... can't remember"

Terry: "Glen Campbell."

L: "Well, I'm sure he wore rhinestones. Oh yeah, (illumination) I'm thinking of Neil DIAMOND."

M: (Illumination) "Hot August Night! Yes, he was a bit like Glen Campbell."

L: "Maybe it was PAUL Young."

M: "who -"

L: "- who went to Sixth-Form college in Ipswich."

M: "Wherever I lay my hat."

L: "That's it."

M: (hoping to sow more confusion) "And then there's Paul Simon."

L: "My God yes. But I do know that one. He's the one with the recording studio in Box."

Terry: "..No, that's Peter Gabriel! Remember he did "Solsbury Hill", that's a hill just outside of Bath."

M: "The one they ran the by-pass down after it was a hit."

M: (later, reluctant to miss an opportunity) "Talking of towns that end in -wich, did you know that it means a Roman salt extraction site..?"

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Thursday, January 05, 2012

The January wind

There's been a lot of it, for the last three days. Laura accompanied a frail pal by bus to Wells. After waiting twenty minutes at the busstop they were drenched. The bus was unheated. The journey went on a long time. First there was a fallen tree in the road, then near Shepton the bus went through a flooded bit that was so deep the water ran over the floor. In Wells, Laura spent £2.50 on a pair of too-skinny jeans from a charity shop just so she could step out of her sodden rags.

An aluminium can rolled around the garages all night, temporarily drowning out the incessant flapping of a plastic sheet that was pinned under a car's rear wheels.

The wind is like a burglar wandering round the human premises and amusing itself by throwing everything about.

Paper plates, dried egg noodles, crisps, tacos, poppadoms, lettuce, rocket, lollo rosso, prawn crackers, meringues, tuile biscuit curls and other fancy rubbish are fair game. A 3-pack of sponge-scourers paws at a downpipe. A luxe bridal veil soars over the estuary. A draft novel that has been disposed of in bulk becomes separated into a stream of migrating pages, each of which makes better reading than the whole book. They encounter food-packets and till receipts, and a clutch of those unloved leaflets that (we now know why) are commonly known as flyers.

The wind is beginning to pry into our strongholds. The rain, hurling itself at every surface, is beginning to infiltrate our strongholds.

Another tree comes crunching down in Little Keyford lane, taking a large bite out of a stone wall.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

dear diary

A tree shattered on the ground, from yesterday's stormy winds: horse-chestnut I think. I was out driving late last night. I listened to Exile on Main Street, and decided that maybe it wasn't so very like Villette, after all. Then I listened to a country compilation, which happened to include someone's rendering of the Patsy Cline song I Fall To Pieces - or rather, the first verse of it - (this is one of those country compilations that costs £1 in Dr Barnardos, so you don't ask too many questions) - but of course that made me want to hear Michael Nesmith sing it, and I remembered I had Loose Salute in the car, so I listened to it for the millionth time, and after that I couldn't help going back to Magnetic South for the two millionth time. I compared my experience of this brace of albums with Exile on Main Street (from around the same period) and wondered if an album I was discovering so late in the day could ever acquire - for my brain - the ineffable burnish, the singular communicativeness, of these albums that I'd known for thirty years. [They should have been the first two vols in an extraordinary Star Wars-style triple trilogy, but it foundered after four volumes. The others were Nevada Fighter, the last of the First National Band trilogy, and Tantamount To Treason (the only release with the 2nd National Band). Since I seem to be in a senile phase of picking up my early life's dropped stitches, perhaps it's time I went in search of the never-heard-by-me Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash.

Then I listened to Joan Davis' Promiseland, and even after all this it still sounded fantastic.

I've now remembered that the first trilogy was meant to represent tradition, the second trilogy the present-day and the third trilogy futuristic. This was one of those impossibly grandiose schemes that artists love to project, like Spenser's 24-book Faerie Queene, Wordsworth's Recluse, etc. They remind me of the usually-sensational unbuilt buildings that form such a large part of most architects' legacies. I'm waiting, not very stoically, to find out if Catherine Daly's and Richard Makin's trilogies end up being composed partly in the irrealis.

Of course most people find lost works, like lost sheep, unreasonably intriguing. (Who ever bothers to talk about Smile now?) That was why one of my regular conversations with Mutti was about the Swallows & Amazons books that WEREN'T on her shelf, The Picts and the Martyrs, and Great Northern?. I think perhaps she hadn't cared for them as much as the others, but anyway she didn't mind responding to my irritating questions.

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

close on me now.

Bit of a hiatus, but not of deep artistic, or any other, significance. It's been Christmas, and then before that it was moving home, back from the leafy walks of 2.4 West Swindon to the steeps of Frome (or as I prefer to think of it in limestone terms, from the Upper Jurassic to the Carboniferous).

Somewhere in the middle of this, I finished my essay about Harry Martinson and Chickweed Wintergreen and Karin Boye and Swedish popular song, and put it on Intercapillary Space (in a rudimentary form, it has been coming to birth here on this blog since August). I think I've managed to blend enough matters of acute personal interest into this essay to more or less defeat the well-intentioned interest of any other person on the planet.

Another great blog has come to an end, or to put it another way (because I'd like to see this in a celebratory rather than elegiac spirit), has been triumphantly completed. This is Chris Goode's Thomson's Bank of Communicable Desire. Does anyone ever read completed blogs, though? You should read this one. In principle, I am against blogs coming to an end. Death comes soon enough, so why forestall it? That's why I don't like themed blogs. Let your blog be anything, let it change and grow.

I am reading something you might not expect (or might you?): Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, the first of a long sequence of books for children written in the 1930s. Since I'm being opinionated, let me say that it usually makes me sad to see grown-ups reading books for children. The reason I got to this place was that I accidentally discovered that these books had been read not only by my grandmother (who lovingly collected them all), but then by my father and his brother, and then by my sister. As for me, I remember the books very well, as impressive physical objects (they are early, though not first, editions). As a child staying at my grandmother's house, I often used to linger over the maps in the endpapers, and I used to ask Mutti what the stories were about and I enjoyed her telling me and talking about which ones were her favourites. But I'm now certain that I never read them myself; the only page I recognized was the first one. I liked books, I was a bookish child, but it turns out that often I only dreamed over these family treasures. (In the same way I recently discovered that I never had read the whole of Selma Lagerlöf's Wonderful Adventures of Nils.) To read these books now is to be re-admitted to secrets of my own family history. I discover, for example, where my father learnt to fill a kettle from a lake; Ransome is very informative about sailing and camping. And I discover one constituent of the ideal of a family that my father had in his head; he had to find it where he could. I asked him if he and his brother ever got the chance to make use of all this sailing lore. He laughed wryly. Of course there was no possibility of that, there was no money at all. (But at some stage the boys found out that their estranged father, Mutti's ex-husband, had gone and bought himself a boat; it rankled.)

Around Christmas I also finished Villette, one of the few nineteenth-century classic English novels that for some reason I've missed out on up until now (most of the others I read in university days). - Perhaps I should qualify this by saying that I'm referring to the acknowledged list of classic novels as represented by the Penguin English Library, circa 1977. And even so, I can think of quite a few others: Adam Bede, Daniel Deronda, anything by Thackeray or Disraeli or Reade, Wives and Daughters, Jude the Obscure... But anyway, Villette's reputation was HUGE, even though a lot of people hadn't actually read it. Anyway I'm fitfully writing about Villette for the Brief Hist. (And, thanks to my other sister, finally listening to Exile On Main Street in the car, another masterpiece that I missed first time around and that I somewhat associate with Villette in terms of reputation, obscurity, sprawl, over-ripeness and a feeling about it that is half awed and half queasy.)

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