Tuesday, April 30, 2019

yeT I gUess the appropriate institutiOns simplifY horseplaY

The Carousing Duck is a zimzalla object (2014 ish): even its title is more a convenience than a fact. It was made by Tim Allen, with Tom Jenks providing the stylings I suppose.

It's possible to extract a text from the bewildering object, so here are some lines. I'm not going to bother about the upper case letters (because if I did I wouldn't be able to use predictive text).


giggling when getting in the maze but soon gets serious
the stately home is on fire boom go the windows
however sorry for the entire orchestra is conductor only
taunt the passionless with a throat sands run through

i'll be late indeed and not because i'm ill or anything
divided the day war broke out with bystander's standards
secondary mod school duped then tooled in development
layers of beauty beneath which a witch on aspirin

i guess the water filtered through the knot on a yacht
transparent institution or just a filigree of swimmers
thinking for example of them ears that walls have
ain't a soliloquy what warps them what hear shouted out

the hearse filled with petrol while we filled with tears
days turned into the library car park quite seriously
motifs, action plans, misrepresentative commas, drift ice
the only period in history i haven't an o'level in


The book or object or poem has something to do with Bob Dylan's version of "Froggy went a-courtin'".

A lily-white duck came and swallowed him up, uh-huh...


My much longer post about Tim Allen's poetry:



Sunday, April 28, 2019

farewell to this year's cherry blossom

Early on Saturday morning, the windy edge of Storm Hannah buffeted the blossom trees. Laura lamented that all her wild cherry blossoms were gone, having maintained (for a few days) a rare overlap with the Clematis montana that grows through the tree, making a lovely contrast. Of course we forgot to photograph it.

I have mixed feelings about Housman, despite "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now", but I couldn't help thinking of these lines from another poem:

The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away....

There's one spoilt spring to scant our mortal lot,
One season ruined of your little store...

The word "spoilt" might, you feel, be better applied to the speaker. His kneejerk reaction of "ruined" is silly, I suppose, but still, who has not felt it?

Cherry blossoms are actually remarkably tenacious against wind, so long as the tree still needs them. Those that fell on Saturday morning were quite ready to fall, from the tree's point of view. It's only us observers who feel cheated of a few more days. And, tranquilly or tempestuously, the blossom season always ends.

"Tied to the Buddhist themes of mortality, mindfulness and living in the present, Japanese cherry blossoms are a timeless metaphor for human existence. Blooming season is powerful, glorious and intoxicating, but tragically short-lived — a visual reminder that our lives, too, are fleeting."

(Helen, quoted from https://notwithoutmypassport.com/cherry-blossom-meaning-in-japan/ )

Still, I was determined to squeeze the last drops, so early this morning I went to Bradford-on-Avon, remembering the uplifting glimpse of a Shôgetsu I drove past on Friday. But when I found it, I was reluctant to believe it was the same tree, so thoroughly had it been stripped. It was also much further from the pavement than I'd supposed, and none of my photos were worth keeping.

Disconsolately returning, I remembered about the young Shirofugen in the unwelcoming village of Wingfield and stopped to have a look. It was coming to the end of blossoming, but this miraculous variety keeps on unfolding new glories. So in the chilly breeze beside the fast road I felt that I could say a proper farewell to cherry-blossom.

But my best picture, maybe, was a casual snap of opening hawthorn blossom in a hedge. Nature flows and we are meant to flow with it.

Prunus 'Shirofugen'. Wingfield, 28 April 2019.

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Friday, April 26, 2019


The drunk across the street is in the back of the police car and the policeman is watching you. He is curious and it seems he will cross the street to meet you and you tell the man into whom you crashed about this and he is scared. "Let's pretend we're good friends saying goodnight to each other," you say, and you take up the man's hand to shake it. "Okay!" you say. This is what you imagine one good friend would say to another at three o'clock in the morning on the side of the road in Hollywood. "Okay!" you say again. "Okay!" the man says. He is crushing your hand and you are smiling. "I still think you're drunk," he whispers. You wink and return to the Toyota. The policeman has lost interest and is filling out paperwork on his dashboard; the drunk is watching you from the back of the squad car. You point to him and tip back a phantom bottle, and he nods. He points to you and tips a phantom bottle and you nod. The drunk then points skyward, toward heaven, and to his heart. This is a beautiful gesture from a man on his way to jail and as you pull back onto the road you decide to have a cry over it. You try to cry all the way home but can manage only a coughing fit and a few moans. You had hoped your crying would be so relentless that you would be forced to pull the car over and "ride it out," but you arrive home without shedding a tear. You fall asleep in the Toyota and when you wake up you are covered with sweat and your wife is hitting you and shrieking in what seems to be another language and you say to her, "Okay! Okay! Okay!" She is curious about the damage done to the front of the car and her sharpened red fingers stab crazily at the morning air.

(Patrick de Witt, Ablutions pp. 18-19.)

Patrick deWitt is a Canadian novelist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Ablutions (2009), was his first book, a pills-and-Jamesons narrative of self-destructive addictions in Hollywood. DeWitt has since written another three well-received novels, traversing different genres while retaining an undertow of comedy.

Ablutions is subtitled Notes for a novel and this accounts for the "you" (the narrator-protagonist addressing an audience of himself), the failure to mention his own name, and the various sentences beginning "Discuss.."  ("Discuss Brent the unhappy doorman.") But this suggestion of note-form isn't developed any further, and as the narrative flows along a better analogy is the "you" of a stand-up comic's anecdote, the "you" that invites the audience to identify with the typicality of the comic's experience even when its exaggerations verge on the surreal.

My own acquaintance with modern novels is so abysmally minimal that any meaningful comparisons with other books are out of the question. But the comedy and discomfort sometimes reminded me of Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man (1972)deWitt's prose is much more consistently relishable, but he makes no attempt at an original premise of the dice-rolling type. And the L.A. location also brought to my mind Dorothy B. Hughes' noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place (1947), which is hardly a fair comparison. Yet it's interesting how both books go about inventing a style and a mind to go with it; there's a similar integrity of imagination.


The style of Ablutions is highly infectious. You start to speak and think like its hero (not entirely reassuring), and everywhere begins to seem like a bar at which people are talking smack. I even thought I caught the Ablutions voice now and then in the book I started on next, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur:

Some of the kings had marvel of Merlin's words, and deemed well that it should be as he said; and some of them laughed him to scorn, as King Lot; and more others called him a witch.... 'Be we well advised to be afraid of a dream-reader?' said King Lot. 
That intrusive, dismissive voice might, admittedly, have something to do with Ablutions  containing its own prophetic Merlin, a 70-year-old chain-smoker with "desperate, deep-set gray eyes" whose "vocation is mired in the pall of alcoholic fiction".

DeWitt, an engaging interviewee, has said that he is not a political person.It had already occurred to me that Ablutions was a book that, for once, didn't keep making me think about Brexit. (Malory does, of course.)

The hero of Ablutions is unpolitical too, except when a change of scene generates inspired thoughts.

[W]hen you entered gas station number one your only idea was to purchase a phone card but your high made you dull-minded and there you were in the aisles, looking and pretending not to look at the coolers and at last giving in and purchasing the one can of beer, and later when you realized you forgot to buy a phone card you stopped at another gas station and again you forgot the phone card (you remembered the beer) but took comfort in the thought of the next gas station, and you wondered where it would be, and would the cashier be friendly or unfriendly, and you felt an uncommon patriotic shiver as you considered the country's innumerable gas stations and markets and rest stops, small businesses thriving or going under, the owners gambling their very lives on customers like yourself, travelers in need of single cans of beer and forgettable phone cards... 

That, as far as I recall, is the only time that the concept of a nation-state ("the country") flickers across his innocent mind. And in fact a European reader is likely to be struck by how very little these alcoholics have to do with the state, except sometimes in the form of law-enforcement. An uncaring society, committed to letting people go to hell in their own way; this land of the free.

"Innocent" may seem a doubtful word, given some of the hero's nastier behaviour. In fact the book shows us an identity in disintegration, which calls into question any overall definition. Still, I think "innocent" in the childlike sense covers a number of the hero's features. He has, he recognizes, a broad streak of hate, but is also apt to fall "platonically in love" and to be overwhelmed by sentimental-hysterical emotions of love and loss (they always go together). He is profoundly aware of and disgusted by the constant lies of his companions (though he lies just as compulsively as all the rest). Though it seems apparent that nothing can help him but changing his own thoughts -- so in that respect the book is an argument for personal responsibility -- there is also the blurry vision of a society that could be better than it is; kinder, more honest, less driven by its own ego-pursuits. Developed a bit further, that awareness could be the basis of a political discussion.

This book was part of a splurge at the local garden centre: four at 20p each, and two for donation-only. Books have never been more available nor less esteemed.

I've already finished the excellent short life of A.H. Clough by Rupert Christiansen -- leading to an attempt to read Clough's "Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich" on-line (the jury's still out on that one) and a renewed absorption in Matthew Arnold's "Thyrsis", to a certain extent an elegy for his friend Clough.

I've also read or skimmed a lot of Hattie Ellis' Planet Chicken. This was published in 2007 and that seems a long time ago when the debate on our society and environment is evolving so rapidly; but debate is one thing and change another. The vast chicken industry no doubt remains the same horror depicted in this book. Ellis is a chef and not a vegetarian, so her book is focused on eating less but better chicken: organic, local, slow food, real meat etc. From our perspective 12 years on, the question that the book poses is more likely to be about veganism. At any rate I questioned last night's omelette (though the eggs were organic of course). But that's the wrong place to start... Most of us get most of our food while out. It's the eggs in those innocent-looking veggie breakfasts and egg-and-cress sandwiches that ought to be bothering me.

For the rest of my money, I have Helon Habila's epic of rural Nigeria to encounter, and long-overdue revisits to Malory's "booke" and to the Austen novel I know least well, in one of those lovely Everyman hardback editions.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Unending mysteries of cherry trees

Unending mysteries of cherry trees. I almost passed this one by, but then I realized it was in flower. To a certain extent. It's a healthy young tree on a trading estate in Swindon. It looks a bit like Kanzan, if you can imagine Kanzan with hardly any blossom. But Kanzan buds appear before (or alongside) the dark red new leaves, and the emerging petals are deep rose. On this tree the little red buds appear when the leaves are already green, and the emerging petals are the same light pink as the mature blossom.

Just as a reminder, here's what Kanzan usually looks like (this one was a bit further down the street).


An hour earlier, I came across another mystery while strolling through the abandoned Moredon Tree Collection. (The white blossom you can see on the left is a collapsed Bird Cherry).

The blossoms were a bit past it, except for a few that were growing straight out of the bole (which has rocketed skywards).

The only single pink cherry blossom that I'm familiar with is Sargent Cherry, but 25th April seems a bit late for that -- I saw others coming into flower on 20th March, and the blossom usually lasts just a couple of weeks.

On the lateral branches the blossoms all hang down: it must have looked lovely a week ago.


Wednesday, April 24, 2019

a very careful walk / drawing a little less

R.K. Narayan (1906 - 2001)
[Image source: https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/r-k-narayan-5285.php ] we

R. K. Narayan: "Emden"

Narayan was born in Madras (Chennai), though the setting for his fictions (“Malgudi”) is based on Mysore and Bangalore. One of my favourites is ”Emden” (the final story in Malgudi Days (1943)), a tale of extreme old age. Its hero Rao, we gather, was not an amiable man in his prime; corrupt, fearsome, and very successful. At the present time, however, he is any old man, struggling with a failing memory and winding cautiously through an existence (for his few good hours per day) whose features are invisible to those around him. Rao is so old that he no longer recognizes the names in the obituaries. A disgrace ended his career, and changed his relationship to his own past. Now he has a daily routine that involves reading a daily newspaper column on religious matters, “adequate for him to brush up his thoughts on God”, and taking a very careful walk.Though the story is full of dust and silence, time is not passing ferociously; it has stopped.

In the story his self-imposed adventure consists of a futile search for a place where, half a century before, he behaved badly to a woman (S. in his diary). He would like to bring her some sweets (he is unable to grasp just how long ago everything is, and we know that he imagines her coming to him, still plump and jasmine-smelling, like a girlfriend abandoned “years ago” but basically unchanged). Eventually a dog scares him and he drops the jilebi; the mongrel takes them off, gratefully wagging his tail. He muses: “Who knows, S. is perhaps in this incarnation now...”

Rao’s transactions with others are, to say the least, limited. He is not sure of any names and can hardly hear. He is not interested in what they have to say, anyway; his own questions are on the edge of meaninglessness.

And then a young shop assistant came out to take his order. Rao looked down at him and asked, pointing at the cross street, “Where does it lead?”

“To the next street,” the boy said, and that somehow satisfied him. The boy asked, “What can I get you?”

“Oh, will no-one leave me alone?” Rao thought with irritation.

He is immensely alone. Nevertheless, he buys some sandalwood soap, and then he decides that S. must have smelt of sandalwood, not jasmine.

Rao, we assume, gets home. He will not remember this day, nor will anyone else. “Nevertheless” may represent our overall response to the story, though that places all the emphasis on what Rao still retains, not on what he may now have; in other words it accepts certain assumptions connected with the word “decay”. Rao still somehow registers the world – (The word “somehow” is a key one in the story, representing certain mental gaps.) He is not Alzheimered though he might be doting. Our vocabulary for these far steps is poor.

Narayan uses comedy as a highly complex illuminating instrument. Young people laugh, old people are funny. I don’t know why old people laugh so seldom, and can hardly even smile for a camera; they lose, obviously, the vanity-aspect of this display, for smiling is a communication, it is not frequently completely spontaneous. Rao’s internal commentary is sharp and spiced, but with only the ghost of humour; “nevertheless” he relishes, enjoys and becomes excited in his circumscribed way. 

I want to run jostling through the rain, and I do. If I ever find any pages that are more eloquent about those last stages of life that we may reasonably hope for without enthusiasm, and tremulously observe in others, then I’ll mention it here.

The other stories I like best are “The Evening Gift”, “Selvi” and “Lawley Road”. Like “Emden” they operate as spotlights if you let them.

Recommended! Maddy's compilation of biographical snippets about Narayan:

 Ashokamitran: Water (1971)

Ashokamitran (b. 1931) is a Tamil author. Tannir was serialized in 1971; it is set during the 1969 drought in Madras (Chennai). The English translation was by Lakshmi Holmström (Heinemann, 1993).

That sentence about the drought gave me some disquiet. I could also say, with no less disquiet, that it’s the story of Jamuna and her younger sister Chaya, two women in various sorts of trouble. What’s striking about Water – a sort of novella-length short story – is how it deviates from the expectations aroused by these literally true descriptions. It does not seem to be concerned with its subjects in quite the expected way – it leaves spaces, is not quite pinned down and not by a second reading either. Substantial scenes are devoted to other, unnamed characters. The author has said that he began only with an image of a girl carrying a water-pot, and that enigmatic and steady image seems to be always present, no matter what we’re reading. Water does not entirely cast itself adrift in narrative. 

Ashokamitran’s prose is plain to the point where you have to deal with it. Bhaskar Rao, Jamuna’s lover, comes to take her out. Chaya arrives soon after; she disapproves very strongly.

Jamuna handed Bhaskar Rao a cup of tea, placed another cup on the table and then went to the stove and blew it out. Chaya helped herself to a single brass chembu of water and left the room. Bhaskar Rao drew a long breath and looked intently at Jamuna. Jamuna avoided his gaze. When she caught his eye by chance after some time, he signalled to her, ‘Go on, get ready.’ Jamuna took hold of another small chembu by its narrow neck and dipped it into the water, filling it just half full. Chaya came in then, her wet hair clinging to her forehead. Jamuna went out of the room, taking her own vessel with her. Chaya immediately placed her chembu beside the buckets and left the room as well. Jamuna came back into the main room, having used her half chembu of water with extreme care, contriving to wash her hands and feet as well as her face. Bhaskar was standing up by this time, impatient, having finished his tea. When he saw Jamuna, he said softly, but with grim determination, ‘Get ready’. Jamuna wiped her face and opened her trunk. At that moment Chaya too returned to the room and began to drink the tea that Jamuna had left for her on the table.

It’s through Bhaskar, desperate to get away, that we experience the unpleasant tension that comes through these neutral-sounding stage directions. At the same time we are completely aware of Jamuna’s submissive/determined awareness of her sister, the meaning of the tea on the table (remember we share our life here just as usual, Chaya, please don’t walk out on me), the meaning of Chaya being so quickly not in the room (I wash my hands of you, my routine is not disturbed) and back in it (I have a right to be here, and you know what I think, are you mad enough to ride roughshod over me). And there’s the so-limited water, not a literary symbol of the author’s contriving, but a de facto symbol that everyone in Madras can’t help appreciating – it therefore becomes a prop in human communication. Drawing a little more, or drawing a little less, these are automatically eloquent, in fact it’s impossible not to mean something.

The scene inevitably slides downhill. Water has a good many ugly, powerful scenes like this. With only the faintest shift of emphasis Ashokamitran can also use almost the same technique to make episodes that, we decide, are funny. The later nocturnal scene when the rain is coming down, and an unnamed husband and wife wrangle about filling just one or two more containers, is like a jauntier setting of the earlier melody.

With the rain pouring off the ribs of his umbrella, he returned to his rooms. Immediately his wife asked, ‘Why couldn’t you leave this one somewhere as well?’
‘I was only able to find a place for one of the tins.’
‘It must be full by now. Go and fetch it.’
He hesitated for a moment. Then he opened his umbrella and started out again.
‘While you are about it, why don’t you take this one along as well? When you bring that tin away, you could put this one in its place.’
‘Go and get rid of it yourself.’ He flung his umbrella towards the tin. Being already open, it fell elsewhere, swaying a little.

That recalcitrance of the umbrella’s flight makes it one of a sequence of objects whose motion is hard to control. The taxi, after the driver pulls over in a street where the streetlights have failed, slipping into an open ditch :

There was a sudden strange noise. After that the car moved, as if of its own volition, still further to the left. Then it came to a standstill with a sharp grinding sound.

Or Jamuna’s mother in her dreadful bed:

He lifted Jamuna’s mother a little, standing behind her shoulders. Jamuna peeled away the sari and removed it together with the sacking. She wiped her mother’s waist and thighs. Swiftly Chaya wrapped the fresh sari around their mother. Then the older woman fell back heavily, on to the bed.

Through the spaces in the text you are still aware of the pot-carrier, clambering over walls, edging her water pot under a communal tap. 

[More gleanings from my former website: I wrote these two notes back in c. 2006.]

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019


Luzula campestris. Swindon, 23 April 2019.

Field Wood-rush (Luzula campestris), outside my door in Swindon.

             Human flowing
through dust. Basin of time.
Unsupportable howling. Man is

But what is woman therefore.


    But is it the will leading
the moments, or beauty
leading the vice
versa can also work too. But of course
it does.

When you follow the time
is all backwards, is it all or apart.
When you follow this
had to add up to itself before
its presentment.

(Emily Critchley, from Ten Thousand Things (2017)).

[Sourced from this interview with Charlotte Newman on prac crit:

http://www.praccrit.com/interviews/from-ten-thousand-things-interview-by-charlotte-newman/ ]

Luzula campestris, first stage of flowering: stigmas exserted but anthers not yet visible.

Luzula campestris, second stage of flowering: tepals open, anthers releasing pollen.

Luzula campestris, leaves with long silky hairs.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

old tune

The dipping sun behind those skinny trees,
The ones I came through just now, when I found
the hill all gone in shadow, just the one
last copper shoulder where the ridge swings round;
I ran like crazy into this plot of sun
   and fell upon my knees
in wintry tussocks, streaks of green and buff.
The sun's gone now but still the grass is dry
in this unwonted, heated February,
though evening dew, night frost, come soon enough.

“All the live murmur of a summer's day”...
Indeed, one bumblebee sailed in and out
of the hedgerow's tracery; no leaves as yet,
nor flowers, except near the Meads roundabout
yellow narcissi, purple croci, set
    along Great Western Way,
bathe in false summer, Mediterranean spring...
And lemon mahonia in business parks;
in gardens thin-twigged winter cherry marks
warm hours with a rosier smattering.

The strollers and their dogs are on the hill,
where three weeks past, on snow, toboggans ran;
the girls now pushing pushchairs, and the boys
flitting in furtive bands, from which you can
smell weed emitting, low laughter and noise.
     Everyone's here to chill,
in the last rays of a half-term afternoon;
the swings and slides full of the children's cries
and yellow alder catkins and spilled fries
on walkways, which the lights will shine on soon.

And on this tarmac fallen leaves lie flattened
by many feet, so crushed the stones show through;
the leaves becoming spectral, mere remains
of form and fibre; though their shapes stay true
no urgency of sap burns in their veins --
        and yet this fading, patterned
carpet makes the shade of homeward glow,
so tranquil and so open is this dark.
and still, threading Shaw Ridge to Lydiard Park,
comes many a runner from the homes below.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Those pesky life cycles

Harney and Sons tea. The "silken" tea-bags (as I discovered when trying to compost them, are nylon. It's staggering to think that any producer -- especially so recently -- believed this was a good idea.

I happened across Skye Morét's life-cycle analysis for this very item, proposing a linen replacement.


I do hope Harney and Sons are acting to replace nylon. That so-unnecessary tea canister provokes questions, too. The future of the high-end foodie gift market should be a green one.


The Twinings mesh teabags that are served in Costa are, I believe, made of a corn starch derivative called Soilon. I have seen claims that this will break down in a month in compost, less quickly in open air. I'm running my own experiment at the moment!

I can find no reliable info on the Teavana mesh tea bags served in Starbucks. I have noticed that nylon bags are very difficult to tear laterally while corn starch bags are quite easy to tear laterally. If that's diagnostic then the Teavana bags would seem to be corn starch.


Meanwhile, a more hopeful sign.

Oatly (oat drink) are now labelling their products with a carbon footprint measurement. Theirs is, of course, a low one. But I hope to see the time when all products display this information.

It's a little confusing that the measurement is expressed by weight (Kg CO2e per kilogram) when the product is sized by volume (1 litre). However, it does weigh approximately 1kg. It's also unclear if the calculation includes e.g. packaging and distribution.

It's still a good start. I now know that 7-8 cartons of Oatly is equivalent to burning a litre of petrol (2.3 kg CO2e /kg). Given that this is such a relatively clean product, it may come as a surprise that the CF is as high as that. But as Oatly point out, the food industry generates 25% of global emissions compared to 14% for transportation.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hoarse Murmurs of the Main

Secure of Fate, while Cymon ploughs the Sea,
And steers to Candy with his conquer'd Prey,
Scarce the third Glass of measur'd Hours was run,
When like a fiery Meteor sunk the Sun,
The Promise of a Storm ;  the shifting Gales
Forsake by Fits and fill the flagging Sails :
Hoarse Murmurs of the Main from far were heard,
And Night came on, not by degrees prepar'd,
But all at once ; ....

A question that I imagine taxes many people is: "Should I bother to read Dryden's Fables?" For myself, I've put it off for forty years, but last night the book fell open at "Cymon and Iphigenia" and I became gradually entranced, not least by this thrilling presage of a storm at sea.

Dryden follows Boccaccio's story from the Decameron, so far as the events, places and names are concerned, but his poetry lights various mischievous trains that are absent from the prose. In the first part of the story (see below), Cymon is inspired by love and becomes a model gentleman. Unfortunately Iphigenia is betrothed to another, so Cymon attacks the ship in which she's being taken away and removes the bride. Then follows the storm, leading to his recapture by his Rhodian enemies and Iphigenia's restoration to her promised husband. Happily Cymon is given a second chance, when it turns out that Lysimachus, the governor of Rhodes, also wants to abduct a bride (the two women are going to be married to two Rhodian brothers at a joint ceremony). This time they are successful, Cymon kills the two brothers and all ends happily.

Boccaccio doesn't trouble to mention the women's views in the matter. But Dryden persistently foregrounds the morality, or immorality, of the story. He tells us that Iphigenia would indeed prefer to marry Cymon; on the other hand he says that Cassandra, though not disapproving of Lysimachus, loved the brother she was about to marry. He uses the term "rape", (i.e. the classical rape of e.g. the Sabine Women, meaning bride-seizure), to describe what Cymon and Lysimachus do. His heroes also debate "force": a gentlemanly accomplishment in itself, and a proof of love. The idea of rape in a modern sense lurks at the edges of the story: certainly for us, and probably for Dryden's readers too.

Without spelling it out, the narrative (like its introductory lines) responds to Collier's "A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage" (1698) -- Dryden was one of its targets. At the same time, this involves a reconsideration of cavalier gentlemanliness as being above the law; an idea, though never stated so baldly, that animates Clarendon's history and Restoration drama alike. By the time of the Fables Dryden was no longer in a position to manipulate public opinion; it must have been a kind of liberation. He didn't need to be conclusive. He certainly hadn't stopped thinking.

Lord Leighton's Cymon and Iphigenia

[Image source: Wikimedia. Leighton's 1884 painting, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.]

"Cymon and Iphigenia" was once a popular subject for painters: invariably this means the scene, early in the story, when a cloddish Cymon (a sad disappointment to his aristocrat father) discovers and falls in love with the sleeping Iphigenia, and is consequently inspired to become a belated prodigy of gentlemanly accomplishments. The subject was a great pretext for voyeurism (along with Diana and Actaeon, The Judgement of Paris, etc).

The Eclectic Light Company has an excellent illustrated post about the artistic treatments, which I won't spoil by repeating, but I couldn't resist including Lord Leighton's painting, lit by the last glow of a red sunset while a full moon rises behind. It's just as sexy as earlier treatments, even though Leighton's Iphigenia is clothed.

I've also added a later Rubens, a disquieting heap of naked bodies (the ELC post contains Rubens' earlier painting of the same subject); and James Gillray's 1796 travesty, probably commenting on parliament's failure to ban the slave trade in that year.

Rubens/Wouters: Landscape with Cymon and Iphigenia

[Painting by Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Wouters, from the 1630s. Image source: Wikimedia.]

James Gillray's Cymon and Iphigenia

[Image source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/351992]


Monday, April 15, 2019

Prunus 'Ichiyo'

Prunus 'Ichiyo'. Frome, 12th April 2019.

A youngish cherry tree, planted beside new sheltered housing in Frome around 12 years ago.

It's a mid-season zakura cherry (later than 'Shirotae' and 'Tai-Haku', but earlier than 'Kanzan'). I'm fairly confident that this is Prunus 'Ichiyo'.

Though still young, this tree has grown quite tall and already has a flattened top, promising an impressive lateral spread in years to come.

The flowers are double... About 20 petals. 'Ichiyo' means "one leaf", referring to the small pistillate pseudo-leaf in the centre of some of the blossoms (though you can see this feature on other double cherries too).

The leaves struck me as particularly broad and short -- some are even obcordate -- but I haven't heard if that's a feature for which 'Ichiyo' is known.


Saturday, April 13, 2019

How can you confuse their miserable cunning with reason?

Galileo has discovered Jupiter's four moons, an observation that constitutes a death-blow to the Ptolemaic system.  Galileo thinks that, now he has proof, his theories will be accepted and he'll be safe from persecution. His friend Sagredo is astonished by this naivety.

[SAGREDO]... You thought [the Ptolemaic system] untrue, like Copernicus; but you taught it.
GALILEO Because I could prove nothing.
SAGREDO incredulously: And you believe that makes a difference?
GALILEO: All the difference in the world! Look here, Sagredo. I believe in mankind, and that means I believe in its commonsense. Without that belief I should not have the strength to get up from my bed in the morning.
SAGREDO: Then I will tell you something. I do not believe in it. Forty years among men has consistently taught me that they are not amenable to commonsense. Show them the red tail of a comet, fill them with black terror, and they will all come running out of their houses and break their legs. But tell them one sensible proposition, and support it with seven reasons, and they will simply laugh in your face.
GALILEO: That is untrue -- and a slander. I cannot understand how you, believing such a thing, can yet love science. Only the dead are no longer moved by reason.
SAGREDO: How can you confuse their miserable cunning with reason?
GALILEO: I am not speaking of their cunning. I know they call a donkey a horse when they want to sell, and a horse a donkey when they want to buy. That is their cunning. The old woman who, on the eve of a journey, gives her mule an extra bundle of hay with her horny hand; the mariner who, when laying in stores, thinks of storms and calms ahead; the child who pulls on his cap when it is proved to him that it may rain -- they are my hope -- they all listen to reason. Yes, I believe in the gentle power of reason, of commonsense, over men. They cannot resist it in the long run. No man can watch for long and see how I -- he lets fall a stone from his hand to the floor -- drop a stone, and then say: 'It does not fall'. No man is capable of that. The temptation offered by such a proof is too great. Most succumb to it, and in the long run -- all. Thinking is one of the greatest pleasures of the human race.


[A minute later, after the entry of his housekeeper, Signora Sarti...]

GALILEO: Signora Sarti, perhaps you can help me then. -- Look, a question has arisen about which we cannot agree, probably because we have read too many books. It is a question about the Heavens, a question concerning the stars. It is: would you say the larger revolves round the smaller, or the smaller round the larger?
SIGNORA SARTI suspiciously: One never knows where one is with you, Signor Galilei. Is that a serious question, or are you trying to make fun of me again?
GALILEO: A serious question.
SIGNORA SARTI: Then you can have a quick answer. Do I set the dinner before you or do you set it before me?
GALILEO: You set it before me. Yesterday it was burnt.
SIGNORA SARTI: And why was it burnt? Because I had to bring you your shoes in the middle of cooking. Didn't I bring you your shoes?
GALILEO: I expect so.
SIGNORA SARTI: You see, you are the one who has studied and can pay.
GALILEO: I see. I see. That's simple. -- Thank you, Signora Sarti.

Exit Signora Sarti, amused.

GALILEO: And such people cannot understand the truth? They hunger for it!


[A few minutes later]

SAGREDO: Don't go to Florence, Galileo.
GALILEO: Why not?
SAGREDO: Because the monks are in control there.
GALILEO: At the Florentine court there are scholars of repute.
SAGREDO: Lackeys.
GALILEO: I will seize them by their necks and drag them in front of the telescope. Even monks are human, Sagredo. They succumb to the temptation of proof. Copernicus, don't forget, demanded that they believe his figures; but I only demand that they believe their eyes ...

(from The Life of Galileo, Scene Three)

The ensuing Scene Four appears to confirm Sagredo's views; the Florentine "lackeys" (a philosopher and mathematician) find all sorts of ingenious ways to avoid looking through the telescope and to discredit what it purports to show.

But there's much more to the debate than that.

Concerning mankind, Galileo's three examples of precautionary planning (the old woman, the mariner, the child) demonstrate that ordinary people are perfectly capable of reasoning, and that within the round of their own daily lives they employ reason unhesitatingly.

Signora Sarti's reasoning powers, likewise, are not in doubt; in fact she can surprise the astronomer by a peculiar penetration that, within her own sphere, sees clearer than he does.

But is Galileo right to make the sweeping assertion that mankind hungers for truth? He means beneath the current of daily life, so it's an unfalsifiable claim. Nevertheless, it seems pertinent to ask, the truth about what? Signora Sarti is evidently very interested in the truth about people's behaviour: monks, students, Victoria's suitors. She is evidently not interested in astronomical researches, and can't see the point of rousing her sleeping son Andrea to peer through a telescope. Astronomy is relevant for those who have studied, and are pursuing a different way of getting by; not for those who serve. (Horoscopes are a different matter.) Galileo is well aware of her views. He's almost apologetic, in his playful way, in putting to her a question about the heavens. And we see elsewhere that he's positively unwilling to spend time sharing his researches with rich students who don't really care about science. We also see him crushing his own daughter's vague stirrings of interest in the telescope: he has already pre-judged Victoria as "not intelligent", as someone who cares only for courts, balls and marriage.

So people have reasoning in their toolkit, but are selective about its use. Like looking. Each of us would very gladly see certain sights, and each of us would like to learn the truth about certain topics. We dread losing our sight, and we dread losing our ability to think. Nevertheless, most of the time we don't take pleasure in the act of looking per se; and it could only be an academic who opines: "Thinking is one of the greatest pleasures of the human race".

This selective aspect has many implications. It means that choosing how to apply your reason becomes subject to your own needs: it is not so often a free choice as a choice dictated by circumstance. Most people are trying to scrape a bare living: but both rich and poor, all-powerful and almost powerless, have motives for the tactical deployment of reason. Reason becomes a tool in the struggle to better oneself. Reason is for use, and that may include trying to manipulate other people's reasoning powers: not necessarily to stop them reasoning, but to allow their reasoning to arrive at the wrong conclusion, as the cunning donkey-sellers and horse-buyers do. Most people will not waste reason where there's no benefit to them. On the contrary, there may be benefits in doggedly asserting that two and two makes five (as Galileo puts it). And when we account for our actions, we can use reason for that too, to supply rationalizations that may convince others and may convince ourselves, though they are not necessarily the real reasons why we so acted.

Galileo speaks of the "temptation of proof", and the phrase is arresting; precisely because it is not one of our most obvious temptations, the ones that affect us every day. These other temptations are the more decisive, but it may be that this one at last gets a hearing, and that could justify Galileo's faith that truths become established "in the long run".

Brecht said that the hero of his drama was, not Galileo, but the People. Sagredo and Galileo, though they use the word "mankind", are also thinking about the People. Who is this? For it isn't just the totality of human individuals. It is spoken of as a "they" by the two scientists, not as a "we". Apparently it means the mass of people who are not "us"... The intelligentsia. Demagogues and editors speak of the People too; but by speaking in this public way, they show themselves to be no members of this much-addressed body. The People is all those who don't speak publically. And who, consequently, are spoken about as an animal species.


This was the other book I picked out of that "donations only" tray. My first Brecht play, and I suppose it's easy to see why I went for it (though this didn't occur to me at the time)... I just have a thing about history plays.

Regular readers will know that I've spent an awful lot of time delightedly immersed in Shakespeare's histories.


Edward III
1 Henry VI
2 Henry VI
3 Henry VI
Richard III
King John


But in the last couple of years I've also begun to dip cautiously into some more recent plays, for instance Kingsley's The Saint's Tragedy and Strindberg's Master Olof.  And thus, by this not too obvious route, I've finally arrived at 20th-century drama.

[Coincidentally or not, the three plays have quite a lot in common. An authoritarian church is a major player in all three. Two of them feature a cardinal inquisitor (ST, LG). Two of them feature heroes who eventually renege on liberal causes (MO, LG).]

I think a certain part of the appeal of the history play, for me, is that it has a solid impersonal core that tends to restrain the author's fancy -- or ego. To put it another way, you don't have to be a Kingsley fan to enjoy The Saint's Tragedy. (And the Life of Galileo has sometimes been described as the Brecht play for those who don't particularly like Brecht.)

A partial exception that springs to mind is Marlowe... I've never really taken to Edward II : it doesn't persuade as history because there's too much of Marlowe's personality in it. Yet for the young Brecht, adapting Edward II was crucial in developing his idea of an epic theatre that didn't have to run along Shakespearean lines. So maybe I should give it another go.


The Life of Galileo (Leben des Galilei) has three versions. The first, the "Danish" version written in 1938 in the shadow of Nazi irrationalism, was uncomplicatedly supportive of reason and science, The second, the shorter "American" version, Brecht's own English translation (with input from Charles Laughton) in 1944-1947, was affected by the atom bomb (not to mention Nazi scientists) and took a darker view of science's free research; the morality of science becomes a prominent theme. The final "Berlin" version (1953-1956), in German once again, restores much of the "Danish" material and adds yet more to Galileo's contradictions. (This Methuen book contains Desmond I. Vesey's 1960 translation of the "Berlin" version.)


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

you looked like a princess

Randy Newman's queasy song Marie, a first take recording that I was quite pleased with. It's what the song doesn't say that inevitably rings #MeToo alarm bells.

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Friday, April 05, 2019

compound words

Painting by Kyli John (detail)

I've been seriously trying to improve my Swedish. Aside from translating Swedish from books, and learning a few Swedish songs, I've been following the Swedish news service SVT nyheter on an almost daily basis. 

That's brought up what I consider one of the most demanding aspects of Swedish vocabulary, the host of compound words, in particular those beginning with simple prepositions or other common prefixes. I've pasted my running list of common ones below... It's a tiny sample; there are thousands more.

Swedish is well known for being an agglutinative language, meaning that where in English we have a term of two or three words, in Swedish this tends to be presented as a single word. (For example, "chairman of the board" is "styrelseordförande"; "in terms of animal welfare" is "djurskyddsmässigt".) These "words" can be coined at will, so only the common ones are listed in dictionaries. But once you've overcome your fear at the formidable string of characters, this is not a big issue. When translating, you notice that it can make Swedish writing seem tautological to English-speaking eyes. A British botanist would say about his new handbook: "Every species is given a description." A Swedish botanist would say the equivalent of: "Every species is given a speciesdescription".

But here I'm talking not about agglutinative coinages but about ordinary compound words, the same thing that we have in English (probably in even greater numbers): words like "demanding", "consider", "translating", "description", "overcome", all in what I've just written. There's a difference, though. The English compound words are predominantly Latinate, and the verbal or nominal part often has no independent meaning (except perhaps as a rare archaism). Thus we have demand, command, remand, but not mand; invoke, revoke, provoke but not voke; describe, inscribe and proscribe but not scribe (vb). My strong impression is that in the predominantly Germanic compound words in Swedish the verbal part is usually meaningful on its own; as in "overcome".

The difficulty for a learner of Swedish is that the meanings of the compound words are so hard to guess, even though Swedish is quite a close relative of English. We share many of the prepositions and prefixes (for, in, under, over, up, out..). Despite this, it's surprisingly rare for a Swedish compound word to have a cognate English equivalent. In the list below I've noticed only one: "förbudet", clearly related to the English "forbidden". 

An [ down](rare except in compound verbs)
Anledningen the reason
Ansenlig considerable
Anställda employees
Ansvar responsibility
Använde used

Av of, by
Avgift charge,fee
Avgå resign
Avgångsvederlag severance pay
Avslöja reveals
Avslutas is ended
Avtal agreement
Avtalsbrott breach of contract
Avvisat rejected

Be- only as prefix
Begäran request
Behållas retained
Beklagar regrets
Bekräfta confirm
Bemöta answer, deal with
Beredning preparation, (committee)
Beslagtas seized
Beställdes commissioned
Betonar emphasizes
Betyda mean

Biträdande assistant

De- only as prefix
Dementera deny

Er- only as prefix
Erbjudit offered
Erfarenhet experience
Erkänner acknowledges

Fort fast, also prefix meaning continuing
Fortfarande still

Framgår appears

För for före before
Förbudet prohibition (cognate)
förenlig compatible
Föreslogs was proposed
Företag business
Företräds represented
Förfärande terrifying
Förfärlig dire
Förhållande relationship
Förhållanden conditions
Förluster loss
förmögenhet fortune
Förslaget the proposal (compare föreslogs)
Förstå understand
Förstöra destroy
Förtal slander
Förtegen reticent
Förtroliga confidential
Förundersökning preliminary investigation

Genom through
Genomfört implemented
Genomslag impact

In in
Införa introduce
inställt cancelled
Inställda på. Willing to
Inverkan impact

konkurrent competitor

Med with
Medborgare citizens
Meddelat announced
Medfången cellmate
Medför cause
Medvetna aware

Ned down
Nedmontering dismantling
Nedrustning disarmament

Nu now
Nuvarande current

Om round, around
Omfattande extensive
Omsorg  care (health, social)
Omständigheter circumstances
Omvärlden abroad

På on, in, at
Påbörjades started

Re- prefix only
Reklam advertising

Till  to, for
Tillfrågad prompted
Tillfällig temporary
Tillräckligt sufficiently, enough
Tillträdde assumed

Underlag foundation, basis
Underrättelse intelligence, notification
undersökning investigation

Upp up
Uppdrag. Task, mission
Uppger states (says)
Uppgörelse settlement
Upplösning resolution (photo)
Uppmanade invited
uppmärksamheten attention

Ut out
Utförts performed
Utgjort constituted, posed (e.g. a threat)
Utreda investigate. Utredare investigator
Utrymmet space (eg advertising)
Utskott committee
uttryck  expression
Utträdesavtalet exit agreement

Åt to,towards åter back
Återhållsam restrained, reserved
Återges reproduced
Åtgärder measures (safeguards)

Över over
överenskommelse agreement
Övergrepp abuse
Överhuvudtaget at all
Övertänt ignited

If you look over the meanings of these words, you can see they talk about imagined concepts; things we can't directly see or smell or touch. They are, however, just the things that news stories are about. A buttercup doesn't make news. But a settlement, a resignation, an investigation, comprehensive yet restrained citizen measures... That's quite a different matter! This is the language of power, it's a toolkit for talking about impact, on us and on others.

On the other hand, this language is quite rare in poetry. For various reasons poets have usually preferred to evoke the tangible and the concrete: a mossy rock, a cheek, a branch, a boat.

It can seem like a progressive limiting. Shakespeare and Donne used a lot of commercial and economic terms; Wordsworth, Tennyson and Hardy, not so many. Arnold's "Scholar-Gypsy" is evidently in some sense a poem about worldly power. But it conducts its critical investigation by leaving the language of power decisively unspoken; by heading for the pastoral fields.

The Cambridge School, you might say, lost faith in this centuries-long project. They dramatically changed direction. Aware that the language of power is chiefly deployed by those who have a stake in power, it felt like poetry was neglecting a duty to contest the terms. The powers that be should not have it all to themselves, for instance to control and manipulate their euphemisms for profiteering, abuse and exploitation.

So Cambridge poetry aggressively and disgustedly incorporates the language of power. Its popular and establishment reception reminds me a bit of the reception of Schönbergian serialism, though without the press outcry. Everyone can understand the point of it but few can abide the results. Even a century later, it's rare to hear Schönberg's serial music on Radio 3. A pity, because it's a wonderful thing. I wish I felt so unconflicted about J. H. Prynne's Brass or John Wilkinson's Lake Shore Drive. I suppose I'm not quite so ignorant of poetry as of music; so everything appears more of a battleground. And besides, this poetry is art of our own time, rarely a matter of simple satisfaction.

Painting by Kyli John

[Image source: from Collision, Kyli John exhibition at the Herrick Gallery, 93 Piccadilly (9th - 14th April 2019.) Artist: https://www.instagram.com/kyli.john/ ]

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