Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Sticky Groundsel (Senecio viscosus>)

Sticky Groundsel (Senecio viscosus). Swindon, 30 July 2019.

Is there anything more depressing than being at home at this time of year?

Obviously yes, but I can't help giving way to a feeling of dreary flatness. No mountains here, just the chaos of lowland vegetation in its messy phase. We long to be born again, to piss away some fossil fuels, or maybe to riot, like that vegetation, through some resented citadel.

[I'm reading the Gordon Riots part of Barnaby Rudge now... they took place in hot weather from 2-9 June 1780.  The 1981 riots: Brixton (London) 10-11 April; Toxteth (Liverpool) 4-6 July, 27-28 July; Moss Side (Manchester) 8-11 July; Handsworth (Birmingham) 10-12 July; Chapeltown (Leeds) July.  The 2011 London riots: 6-11 August.]

Now when all vegetable nature is pregnant and ripening, now is the time -- it's too late for plans -- now is the time to take to our heels and to fly.  But who are we running from, and where will we end up?

There has to be a better way to move through August. Our children know it, at least until we infect them with our fuelled restlessness.

Autumn Hawkbit in front, Sticky Groundsel behind. Swindon, 31 July 2019.

Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, painting from c. 1590 by Giuseppe Arcimboldo


She's apples

(Laurie Duggan, from Afterimages (Polar Bear Press, Tamarama 2018))

Saplings of European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Swindon, 31 July 2019.

Saplings of European Ash (Fraxinus excelsior). Swindon, 31 July 2019.

Saplings of Norway Maple (Acer platanoides). Frome, 27 July 2019.

Saplings of Norway Maple (Acer platanoides). Frome, 27 July 2019.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Kallhällblomster -- Flowers of Kallhäll

Veronica spicata  (En: Spiked Speedwell, Sw: Axveronika). Lake Mälaren in the background.

I'm back from a family week in Sweden, where I went to meet, in particular, my wonderful new niece Sigrid. Amid all the bathing, football and tree-climbing with my nephew Finn, I took a few photos of plants.

This was at and around Kallhäll, a town on the western edge of Stockholm and the eastern edge of the vast, island-dotted Lake Mälaren. This post is complementary to my floral record of a visit to the same area four years ago:

A dewy morning at the bathing place at Ängsjö. One of the beautiful patterns that form on the leaves of Alchemilla (En: Lady's-mantle, Sw: Daggkapa), a genus that displays the property of ultrahydrophobicity. The Swedish name (=dew-cape) refers to this.

It's more common perhaps to see a single large globule of water in the centre of the leaf, as in Karin Boye's poem Wish:

The whole wide world is
an Alchemilla-cup,
and resting in its greenness
one clear water-drop.
That one, still, drop
is the apple of life’s eye.
Oh make me fit to look in it!
Oh make me purified!

It has been theorized that the purpose of ultrahydrophobicity is to keep the leaf-surface clean: the repelled water-drops tend to carry away dust and dirt.

As always, this leads to more questions. If ultrahydrophobicity is useful to Alchemilla (and a few other plant genera), then why don't other plants bother with it?

And why are so many Alchemilla leaves noticeably dirty, like these ones in Laura's garden? Does this mean that ultrahydrophobicity is useless at cleaning leaves, or does it mean Alchemilla is especially prone to get dirty, so has special requirements in the cleaning department?

Lots of Centaurea cyanus (En: Cornflower, Sw: Blåklint) on recently disturbed ground by a roadside. Perhaps sown deliberately in this instance, but the result looks much more natural than the usual sort of "wildflower mix". That said, the species was once quite common in south-central Sweden and made a mark on popular culture: it is the county flower of Östergötland.

In nearby Roslagen it has the local name of Blågubbar.  It's a moot point whether this means "blue blokes" or "blue lumps" (which is also the meaning of "klint": referring to the round knapweed-like knobble beneath the "petals"... the involucre, or whatever). The latter may actually have been the original meaning of gubbe, as in the Swedish word for strawberries, jordgubbar... earth-lumps. This meaning might then have got transferred to human males to produce the culturally important term that means "old bloke", "old boy"...

Mountain Currant (Ribes alpinum). The English and Latin names are a bit misleading: this species grows only in southern and central Sweden, whereas normal redcurrant (including its near relative downy currant) grows throughout, including up in the fells.

Mountain Currant can be distinguished by the smaller leaves and slightly-richer-red berries in smaller clusters. The berries are utterly flavourless, but are not poisonous.

Garden Redcurrant below, for comparison. From an open day at the herb garden in Almare Stäket.

One of the area's most spectacular common flowers, Natt och Dag (Melampyrum nemorosum).

Growing on my nephew's favourite rock, a visitor (garden escape) from E. Asia. Is it Sedum kamschaticum, Sedum aizoon or Sedum hybridum? I don't know, because I didn't know what to check.

Coincidentally I had just noticed one of these plants growing on a roadbank outside Frome, the evening before I set off for Sweden.

Trifolium arvense (En: Hare's-foot Clover, Sw: Harklöver).

Sedum telephium aka Sedum maximum (En: Orpine, Sw: Kärleksört), not yet in flower. The wild plant in Sweden has greeny-yellow flowers. In the UK, where Orpine is most likely an introduction, the flowers are red-purple.

Eupatorium cannabinum (En: Hemp-agrimony, Sw: Hampflockel).

In Sweden, a shoreline plant that, like so many other species, gets no farther north than here... On the shore of Lake Mälaren, at Frölunda Naturreserverat.

Sloes. Prunus spinosa (En: Blackthorn, Sloe, Sw: Slån). This is about the furthest north this species grows.

Heracleum mantegazzianum (En: Giant Hogweed, Sw: Jätteloka). An alien from the Caucasus, as common in Sweden as in the UK. It builds up its strength for several years, looking like this, before the impressive giant flowering stem is produced, after which the plant dies. 

Lysimachia nummularia (En: Creeping Jenny, Sw: Penningblad) , extremely common in these parts. Growing on the shaded side of my sister's apartment, where the snow lies longest.

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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Traces of Scott in Dickens' Barnaby Rudge

The Maypole in Barnaby Rudge was based on the 16th century inn Ye Olde King's Head, in Chigwell, Essex. It now houses a child-free dining venue for blingy partygoers. 
[Image source:]

It is the privilege of tale-tellers to open their story in an inn, the free rendezvous of all travellers, and where the humour of each displays itself without ceremony or restraint.

So begins Scott's Kenilworth (1821), prefacing a meeting of travellers at the jolly Black Bear in Cumnor, near Oxford.

The brilliant opening chapter of Barnaby Rudge (1840-41) likewise begins in an inn, the Maypole in Chigwell. It's a tempestuous evening in March.

The bad weather is pure Dickens: Scott rarely thinks of mentioning weather. But the scene within recalls the earlier book.

The male leads are here: Edward Chester in BR, Edmund Tressilian in K, neither of them much inclined to talk. Likely villainy is more assertively present. But the host Giles Gosling's frosty attitude to his ne'er-do-well kinsman Mike Lambourne is transformed by Dickens into the host John Willet's bullying treatment of his son Joe.


When, much later in Barnaby Rudge, we encounter Dennis the Hangman, the graveyard humour and creepily loving affection for his clients owes more than a little to Petit Andre in Scott's Quentin Durward (1823).

"...—Well. Be as churlish as you list—I never quarrel with my customers—my jerry come tumbles, my merry dancers, my little playfellows, as Jacques Butcher says to his lambs—those in fine, who, like your seigniorship, have H. E. M. P. written on their foreheads.—No, no, let them use me as they list, they shall have my good service at last—and yourself shall see, when you next come under Petit Andre's hands, that he knows how to forgive an injury."

... [Quentin] therefore swallowed his wrath at the ill timed and professional jokes of Mons. Petit Andre

(Quentin Durward, Chapter XIV)

‘Did you ever, Muster Gashford,’ whispered Dennis, with a horrible kind of admiration, such as that with which a cannibal might regard his intimate friend, when hungry,—‘did you ever—and here he drew still closer to his ear, and fenced his mouth with both his open hands—‘see such a throat as his? Do but cast your eye upon it. There’s a neck for stretching, Muster Gashford!’

The secretary assented to this proposition with the best grace he could assume—it is difficult to feign a true professional relish: which is eccentric sometimes—

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter XXXVIII)


Quentin Durward has another deeper-level connection with Barnaby Rudge. Some elements of Scott's Hayraddin Maugrabin can also be seen in Hugh: neither of them altogether villains, two gipsies (of a sort), both notably attached to animals and also to certain people that we care for (Quentin and Barnaby respectively), both criminals whose inevitable executions leave us feeling uneasy.

(In both this and the former instance, we might suspect unconscious influence, one of whose features is its lack of waking logic. The Scott characters are markedly unlike the Dickens characters.)


Dickens was very fond of Chigwell, in his day a country village, and still more so in 1775, the date when Barnaby Rudge begins. Now it's on the Central Line, just 46 minutes from Oxford Circus. The novel moves obsessively between Chigwell and London, and this is also a Scott technique, seen at its plainest in Woodstock (1826) where the action moves repeatedly between the house and the town. But Kenilworth too shows something of this organization of travel: Tressilian is always travelling, but the book isn't picaresque in structure: one is never merely on the road, the destinations are momentous, and the arrivals key to the story.


This advice was received as such advice usually is.

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 3, referring to Gabriel Varden's attempts to moderate the dispute between the Willets, father and son.)

That's a very Scott-like sentence!


When Barnaby Rudge is described as influenced by Scott's novels, the most commonly-mentioned specific example is The Heart of Midlothian. The description of the Porteous Riots at the beginning of that novel, including the storming of the Tollbooth prison, is obviously pertinent. Additionally, Gissing suggested that the figure of Barnaby owed something to Madge Wildfire (though he surely owes more to Wordsworth's Idiot Boy).


In these brief annotations, I've been avoiding larger generalizations about Dickens and Scott. They are, of course, often raised in connection with Barnaby Rudge in particular. Despite it being an essay into Scott's terrain, the historical novel, the overall effect is remarkably unlike Scott. Sometimes this is sensationalized into Dickens' "rejection" of Scott, but there seems no real justification for this. The two authors had interests that overlapped a bit, but were fundamentally different.

It's interesting that the Scott novels I've been reminded of while reading Barnaby Rudge are set in southern England (Kenilworth, Woodstock) and in northern France (Quentin Durward)... that is, they're among the relatively few Scott novels that fall within the strangely restricted geography of Dickens' world. Dickens' phantasmagoric imagination only really lights up in southern England (London above all), though he also loved  France. For a voluminous national novelist, he takes notably little interest in the other parts of the UK; even in northern England his imagination is under constraint. As for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, their presence in Dickens's fiction is minimal. And it's remarkable how very few Welsh or Scottish or Irish (or black) people cross our paths in Dickens' London; there were many. Scott's grandest theme, the meeting (or clash) of cultures, is somehow antipathetic to Dickens' vision. (As a matter of fact, Barnaby Rudge does contain a Scotsman: Lord George Gordon. But you could be forgiven for not realizing, because Dickens makes absolutely nothing of his Scottish background.)

I don't mean, of course, that Dickens was ignorant of or ill-disposed towards Scotland etc. In fact the riot scenes in Barnaby Rudge were actually written in Scotland, in July 1841. Dickens thoroughly enjoyed his Scottish tour, being especially awed by the tremendous gloomy pass of Glencoe ( he was forced to travel back through it in dreadful weather conditions; he and Kate and the coachman narrowly avoided a fatal mishap); he was lionized in Edinburgh and spent a day at Abbotsford. Despite all these excitements, Dickens's deeper imagination lay elsewhere. He wrote to Forster:

Sunday, off at seven o'clock in the morning to Stirling, and then to Callender, a stage further. Next day, to Loch Earn, and pull up there for three days, to rest and work. The moral of all this is, that there is no place like home; and that I thank God most heartily for having given me a quiet spirit, and a heart that won't hold many people. I sigh for Devonshire Terrace* and Broadstairs, for battledoor and shuttlecock; I want to dine in a blouse with you and Mac; and I feel Topping's merits more acutely than I have ever done in my life.

 (Forster I.15-16).

*Dickens's London home from 1839 - 1851, now demolished. Site of the Charles Dickens Memorial in the Marylebone Road.


Re the un-Scott-like nature of Barnaby Rudge, I think Sir John Chester, one of its under-lauded triumphs, is quite a revealing instance. Sir John fascinates us, but he has a typical quality that is very unlike the many noblemen that cross our paths in Scott's books. They are individuals, with individual histories and ancestries, individual quirks of behaviour and language, individual opinions and lines of conduct profoundly rooted in their backgrounds. None of this is precisely untrue of Sir John Chester (though Dickens is not very interested in his background), but what holds our attention is something quite different. We understand very quickly that he represents a thesis about the ruling classes in general: he illustrates tendencies that, however submerged in many noble individuals, are intrinsic to British society of the 1770s (and not altogether absent from the 1840s). We appraise him not as a convincing portrait but as a convincing argument.

Take, for example, his infuriating and everlasting coolness; the coolness that even the locksmith bringing sensational news from Newgate can only shake, not dispel. In another kind of book this could be seen as portraying an individual who is singularly fortified against change, as we all are to some extent, by the ego's self-serving architecture of rationalizations and habits.  But here, the coolness demonstrates something else: the absolute security of the ruling-class and the means by which it contrives to unarm opposition and to convert people into tools for its own use. (Chester's power, by the way, is only in a moderate degree economic; connections, education, living in high style and dispensing with moral scruples all count for much more.)

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Recycling your single use cup at Stansted Airport

Bins in Stansted Airport Departures. Presumably that big open mouth in the centre goes straight to landfill, despite the word "Recycle" on the side. Happy to be proved wrong!

Pret A Manger, Stansted Airport Departure Lounge

All Pret A Manger's food and drinks are supplied in single use packaging (no crockery and no washing up, in other words).

I wonder what happens to the contents of their in-store bins? The company website is elusive on this point. So it all goes to landfill, I'm thinking.

[You can, however, drink coffee from crockery at Not Always Caviar, just opposite Pret.]


Going back a bit, to Paddington station, I found it pretty difficult to buy a drink in crockery (I eventually succeeded in Starbucks, next to the entrance to the Hilton). Of course it's no secret that staff prefer to avoid the bother of washing up, and often switch to single-use cups in the last hour of the day. But the staff have limited power. It's the coffee chains themselves who, in London especially,  are desperate to multiply outlets but to save every square inch of space. Solution, the express stall: no crockery and no dishwasher... simples. Sadly, central London is packed with thousands of express stalls issuing millions of single use cups.

Monday, July 15, 2019


Paavo Haavikko spent boyhood summers at Kirkkonummi, west of Helsinki, and later bought this holiday home there.
[Image source: ]

And yet, we must have a word with happiness,
Build the house to catch the sun's light...

Before the lake freezes over you hear the horsemen
On their way to the forest, before the mountains grow
             dark in Bohemia,
The Bohemian mountains, the Bohemian forests,
Deep down to the forests of the Balkan,
Deep down into Balkan dust
Where pine, fir and willow rise out of the sand, a white
             bird perches
On the far side of the Danube, utters a pitiful cry. ...

How can we endure without falling silent when poems
        are shown to mean nothing...

listen, it's a time of drums,

       it's a time of drums,
drumming is a sound as if there were a hollow dumbness
       in front of the drums,
pure darkness that carries no sound

twice, no
seven times, the Black Regiment paraded here
        under their black flags,
and it's not the same, they paraded here but this is now
And only now the drum-sound has this to say:

Now is the time, now is the time before death,
Before the trees burst into flower,
The time of the drums,
And thus, even this golden decade has begun and is
            drawn to a close ....

The wood of the pine-tree, used with great care,
All the way from the Balkan forests to these woodlands,
With care, the dampers are closed before dusk, to keep
            the heat in the stove,
How immutable this world is, terrifying, it is here, always
Only we move,
And I have to make up my mind what to do, what to begin ...

Oh I long for an end to changing, to stand where I am,
The soul is an empty space,
A field become too barren from too much tilling and reaping;

There are twelve of us here, of whom one is only half a
And one of us only a pair of hands with a rifle ...

Now see us standing among the sunflowers, within the dusk,
Among the black, broken stems,
See us, twelve empty spaces where we stand
In the field of flowers.


Some lines (a bit less than half) from Paavo Haavikko's poem "Synnyinmaa", in the 1955 collection of the same name -- I've seen the title variously translated as Birthplace, Homeland, Fatherland, Native Soil. The forest in this poem is partly the Finland forest of childhood summers but the poem insists on tracing it down to Bohemia and the Balkans: just a decade earlier, this vast eastern European forest had been full of war-zones.

Most of the lines come from Anselm Hollo's translation in the Penguin Modern European Poets Haavikko/Tranströmer selection (1974), but I also took some lines from an extract I found in Herbert Lomas' Bloodaxe anthology Contemporary Finnish Poetry (1991) -- they are the uncapitalized ones, if you're curious.

I find Haavikko's poetry both exciting and worrying; sometimes more one than the other, but the two responses can't be separated from each other. Though a seminal Finnish modernist, Haavikko didn't have the usual kind of literary background; he never went to university but straight into real estate and forest management, and afterwards publishing. Trees, existence, love, death, history, power, economics, politics were some of his preoccupations. He was a sceptical humanist, critical alike of authoritarianism and liberalism. We live in a condition of permanent change, the world is real but too big to understand and attempts to control it are generally disastrous.

Marja-Liisa Vartio and Paavo Haavikko

[Image source: .  Haavikko with his first wife, the writer Marja-Liisa Vartio. They were married from 1955 until Vartio's death in 1966.]

Paavo Haavikko (1931 - 2008)

"Ei ole hienompaa ääntä kuin kirjoituskoneen ääni. Kun tekstiä korjaa, näkee aikaisemman version. Tietokoneessa ensimmäinen, paras, lause katoaa. Se on vaikuttanut kirjoihin aika paljon. Tietokoneella on helppo kirjoittaa runoja tai mitä tahansa, mutta ne eivät ole välttämättä syntyneet ihmismielen luontaisen prosessin kautta.”

"There's no finer sound than the sound of a typewriter. When you correct the text, you see the previous version. On the computer, the first, best, phrase disappears. It has affected books a lot. It's easy for a computer to write poems or anything else, but they are not necessarily born through the natural process of the human mind."

(From an interview in the final year of Haavikko's life, when he had almost stopped reading or writing, but still checked the share prices on TV: .)

He was apt to consider himself an entrepreneur first and a writer second. Yet in the end he wrote almost 100 books. This National Biography of Finland article on Haavikko (in English) gives some idea of his many-sided production:

And here's another biography, with additional details and a pretty complete list of the books.

Most of Haavikko's many sides are rather inaccessible to readers of English. Translations have tended to focus on his poetry, especially the earlier poetry. So I don't have any knowledge of his plays or histories or memoirs, more's the pity. As time went by his poetry, initially lyrical (or metalyrical) graded into aphorisms. Haavikko's serial aphorisms aren't individually clinching or ingenious; indeed, they are often ambiguous, sarcastic, simplistic, or contrarian.

What I long for most is a circle and a square
   and a caterpillar track, and the day's rates too,
but not education.
   No one educates you for this,
neither first nor last.
   Because it can't be learned, one's got to
             know bang off.
All the tritenesses, like the way of all flesh,
   come true.
I hate goodbyes because
   world-without-end goodbye means
      meeting soon, over again.
The great system of conceptions, bankrupt
   and a booby, like the rest.
And above all maybe what one can't even be
             bothered to say.
      What's the use of haggling?

(from May, Perpetual / Toukokuu, Ikuinen (1988). Translation by Herbert Lomas.)

This is Herbert Lomas's translation, from Contemporary Finnish Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1991). In the Introduction to this anthology Lomas has a little argument with Haavikko. The argument has many facets, but maybe, at bottom, there's a feeling of: What right has this successful Helsinki businessman to be so radically pessimistic about human existence and society? And yet, there's still that nagging conviction that Haavikko's work mines into something deep and real and important; at least there is with me.  


Some Haavikko poems online, in English translation:

Aphorisms, from No. That's to say, Yes (2006):

Paavo Haavikko

[Image source:!profile/727644 ]

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Friday, July 12, 2019


Stormigt hav. Ruskprick (August Strindberg, 1892)

[Image source: ]

Today's unusual Swedish word. I was looking up kvast (which means broom) in my battered dictionary (Esselte Studium, 1983), and my eye fell on kvastprick : buoy (beacon) with broom . Hmm...

Well, here's one, in a stormy Strindberg seascape. As you can see, it's a kind of primitive buoy where the visible part looks like a broom. They were painted red. Maybe the most literal translation would be a "broom-marker". Prick means mark, spot, dot, speck; also a bull's-eye, and (in sport) a penalty point.

This kind of buoy was also called ruskprick, as in the title of Strindberg's painting. (Ruska means a bunch of twigs.)

Here's a wintry photo of one, by the photographer Gustaf Wilhelm Reimers (1885 - 1963).

[Image source: ]

These simple kvastprickar are anchored, not solidly fixed into the underwater rock. That's about the only thing I can understand about the diagram below (mariners may do better). It comes from the Svenska kalendern  for 1926  -- evidently a sort of annual of useful (or useless) information, like the Dunlop Book of Facts I used to leaf through as a child.

[Image source: ]

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Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The unrecounted storm

Emily in the garden

[Image source: ]

And how asseged was Ypolita,
The faire, hardy queene of Scithia;
And of the feste that was at hir weddynge,
And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge;

(The Knight's Tale, 23-26)

This is from Chaucer's (or rather, the Knight's) brief summary of a whole lot of material that he intends to pass by in order to focus on the story of Palamon and Arcite.

Dryden, paraphrasing Chaucer, has this:

The Town besieg'd, and how much Blood it cost
The Female Army, and th' Athenian Host ;
The Spousals of Hippolyta the Queen ;
What Tilts and Tourneys at the Feast were seen ;
The Storm at their Return, the Ladies Fear :

(Palamon and Arcite, I. 19-23)

Chaucer's source for the story was Boccaccio's Teseida. He reduced it mightily: The Knight's Tale is 2250 lines: the Teseida is 9896 lines, coincidentally (?) the same number as Virgil's Aeneid. But while Boccaccio recounts Theseus' Scythian adventure at some length, there is no tempest in the Teseida. It was Chaucer's own idea.

Why he included it we can only speculate. Probably there was no big significance, it just seemed like the right sort of story-element for a romance. Storms occurred e.g. in Arthurian romances, or in other Boccaccio stories, such as Cymon and Iphigenia; and of course in the most popular part of Virgil's epic, the story of Dido.

"At hir hoom-comynge" might seem to imply that the storm was raging at the very moment the newlyweds entered Athens, but we soon discover that they haven't quite arrived there yet. Maybe Chaucer envisioned a storm at sea towards the end of their return voyage from Scythia.


Dryden embellishes Chaucer's unrecounted storm with "the Ladies Fear". That additional detail might seem rather ill-chosen in this instance:  would this "hardy" warrior-queen and her sister be so stereotypically fearful? But Dryden is rightly registering a certain paradox. The Hippolyta we meet in The Knight's Tale is, whatever her warrior-queen past, now an impeccably royal consort; when she influences her husband it's not by challenging his authority but by the sweetly irresistible plea of feminine sensibility. As for the Emily who comes to do May's observance in the palace garden, there's nothing at all Amazon-like about her. Boccaccio had begun this transformation himself. Initially he presents her as having only a single breast, like all Amazon warrior-maidens, but as the Teseida proceeds he makes her into a portrait of his own real-life love and sheds all such martial details. In Chaucer's tale, Emily and Hippolyta are fair damsels in the mode of medieval romance.

So far as we know Boccaccio made up the central story (though a few details, mainly about Arcite, might derive from a Byzantine source). In his story, Emily's desire to remain a virgin is connected with her being an Amazon. Chaucer doesn't mention this, so it comes across as an attractive girlish freak, evidence of Emily's chaste-mindedness (and, most importantly, malleable to male authority when the time comes).

I don't want to be heavy-handed about what is, after all, a romance and a made-up one at that, but still, it's hard not to notice that The Knight's Tale begins with a man (Theseus) winning his bride (Hippolyta) by attacking her, and ends with a woman (Emily) being forced against her will to marry, following another violent contest -- though in this case the physical violence is at any rate between the men and not directed towards her. Chaucer himself isn't oblivious to the tensions within his tale, but later authors seem to amplify them.


Dryden brings out those tensions at once.

In Scythia with the Warriour Queen he strove,
Whom first by Force he conquer'd, then by Love ;

(Palamon and Arcite, I.7-8)

In 1700 it was hardly possible to use "Force" in the context of "Love" without making the reader think momentarily about rape.

As we saw earlier, his summary of the war with the Amazons involves the "Blood" of both sexes. Dryden isn't bothered about being tactful.

And he assigns quite new motives for Emily wanting to remain a virgin:

Like Death, thou know'st, I loath the Nuptial State,   }
And Man, the Tyrant of our Sex, I hate,                    }
A lowly Servant, but a lofty Mate.                            }
Where Love is Duty on the Female Side,
On theirs mere sensual Gust, and sought with surly Pride.

(Palamon and Arcite, III. 227-31)

Dryden was not intending feminist revisionism, he simply lived in a different age. Moving from Chaucer's tale to Dryden's is like moving from "chivalry" to (that related word) "cavalier". One could be staunchly a cavalier, but it could no longer be idealized in quite the same way as the earlier term. No longer shielded by religion, the modern exemplar of arms and gallantry and sexual conquest was now in the public domain, a topic of secular debate in which women's voices, too, were starting to be heard.


Theseus and Hippolyta, the model royal couple who tranquilly preside over A Midsummer Night's Dream (and later The Two Noble Kinsmen) were in effect the invention of Boccaccio and Chaucer. (We know of two lost Elizabethan plays about Palamon and Arcite, so it might have been one of those that was Shakespeare's direct source.) The ancient classical stories about Theseus and his Amazon dalliance (sometimes Hippolyta, sometimes Antiope) are far less tranquil: in some of them, Theseus kills his Amazon girl-friend, in others she tries to kill him. (After all, these myths had to fit in with the more famous story in which Theseus is married to Phaedra.) Shakespeare did have an inkling of this wilder substrate: he knew (from Plutarch) about Theseus' rape of Perigune.

Didst thou not lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigouna, whom he ravishèd ...

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, II.1.80-81)

And this sunniest of his comedies contains a few other shafts of this darker light. It's there from the start.

Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword
And won thy love doing thee injuries ...

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, I.1.17-18)

The tournament

[Image source: ]


The Knight's Tale goes back a long way with me... I encountered it, as a child, in a marvellously illustrated re-telling. Some of those illustrations are still vividly present to me: the rivals quarrelling in the tower while Emily wanders in the garden below; the bloody fight in the grove; the stricken Arcite lividly swaying on his horse. I'm disappointed that I couldn't find those images online: the ones here (from the useful chaucereditions site), come from a 1912 Gateway to Chaucer by Emily Underdown, "With Sixteen Coloured Plates and Numerous Marginal Illustrations after Drawings by Anne Anderson".

If I'm honest I don't think I've ever cared quite so much for the tale since. That child's version stuck to the story and its scenes of action, needing no further commentary. Chaucer begins like that, and no-one tells a story better. But he slows right down for the description of the temples, the young people's prayers, the gods' debate, Arcite's funeral rites, Theseus' philosophical musings...  Here were the great passages admired by my university teachers, the meditations on violence, fortune and misfortune, the vanity of this life and the mystery of death. A childish part of me still feels there's a heavy price to pay.

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Saturday, July 06, 2019

Orfeo's enterprise

Orfeo and Caronte

[Image source: . From a production by Opéra de Lausanne, October 2016.]


Nulla impresa per huom si tenta invano,
Né contro a lui più sà Natura armarse:
Ei de l'instabil piano
Arò gl'ondosi campi e'l seme sparse
Di sue fatiche, ond'aurea messe accolse.
Quinci, perché memoria
Vivesse di sua gloria,
La Fama a dir di lui sua lingua sciolse,
Ch'ei pose freno al mar con fragil legno,
Che sprezzò d'Austr' e d'Aquilon lo sdegno.


No enterprise by man is undertaken in vain,
nor can Nature further defend herself against him.
He has ploughed the waving fields
of the uneven plain and scattered the seed
of his labour, whence he has reaped golden harvests.
Wherefore, so that the memory
of his glory shall live,
Fame has loosened her tongue to speak of him
who tamed the sea with fragile barque
and mocked the fury of the winds of the north and south.

End of Act III of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607). Its hero has just succeeded in entering the infernal regions, after using his lyre to charm the watchful Caronte (Charon) to sleep. From the libretto by Alessandro Striggio.  [Translation source:'-orfeo/libretto/english/ ]


And he held and went; air
whistled along the passageway;
Hold and go, hold and go.
his wood labour, that would have made
a battalion, his cornetto.

You lay both hands along the bow
as on a bannister, after a knee replacement,
and you think what is undertaken has
its scattered footprint, it can't fail.

Even on the unstable plain, which is built
over archaic landfill. If nature might
wear armour other than her own!

We and memory's noise of voices
have closed and opened, closed and opened
in the unjudging tide,
have fashioned such landmarks
that, to total and account for,
to look back, frightened by our own rumour,
to catch her fading on the sight....
-- Where does it leave us?



The wordless autumn wind
puts people's grief
into words. They themselves cannot
do it, for it is existence
that grieves, a nothingness
inside us all that compels us
to torment, and be tormented,
and thus exist so
intensely that being
drowns out the grief. . .

(Gösta Ågren, from "The Return of Orpheus", in Hid (Coming Here), 1992, translation by David McDuff.)


Sinfonia: Nulla impresa per huom (John Eliot Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists)

[Post inspired by the I Fagiolini production of L'Orfeo at this year's York Early Music Festival (5th July 2019).]

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Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Signal Point

At 0730 I walked out of my door to begin a four day jaunt across England, and felt a rush of joy at the splendid weather, and at my lack of encumbrance. I just had a light backpack, most of it filled with a rolled-up hoodie. "... We walked off to look for America..."

We enjoy playing at poverty. But actually, my joyful lightness was down to expenditure. I had the blessing of someone else paying my travel costs, so I was taking the train. (The cost of train travel in the UK is prohibitive.) I'm staying with friends, so I'm relying on their generosity in the way of  food, towels and raingear, should this lovely weather change. Thanks to the powers of the smartphone, I don't feel compelled to lug around a library of physical books. Once I would have wanted a camera and a laptop, but now.... Even my tickets are weightless electronic entities. I do feel a bit jittery about leaving my guitar behind, but in other respects I really have everything.

Paul and Kathy, I'm sure, would have had a guitar with them, but the song mentions only a minimum of luggage: cigarettes, a raincoat, a magazine. It allows ... it even encourages ... the idea that its protagonists are fairly poor.

I've been learning the song, which is a most beautiful construction (and has stretched my guitar technique). The song had come back into my mind when I heard an extract (a Paul Simon solo rendition) on a recent edition of The Verb, Radio 3's weekly poetry show. The theme of the show was the word America and its imaginative connotations. Ian McMillan and his guests enthused about Simon's artistry and about the song's evocation of space and distance: "The moon rose over an open field..."

Only one of the guests was unwilling to collude in this love-feast, the personable Terrance Hayes, chuckling and politely embarrassed, but nonetheless devastating. He said he couldn't really focus on the song without thinking about the rare and strange circumstances in which he would ever encounter a song of that kind. It just wasn't part of his world. I forget the exact terms he used to characterize its audience, and I might be embroidering, but the implications seemed clear: the song was a fantasy for an earnest, dreamy, self-absorbed, predominantly white and middle class student audience. The song evoked hobo tropes (such as a paucity of possessions, and using low-cost modes of transport), but it had little to do with the experience of those many working people who have had no choice but to uproot and travel across that broad nation in search of a bare livelihood. I think Terrance Hayes' embarrassed chuckle meant more than that, too, but this was what I took away.

The focus on primary audience isn't wholly fair. Paul Simon's songs have engaged so many different audiences worldwide, and have spoken to so many individual circumstances. The vacuity of the pursuit imaged by "counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike", though it's touched so lightly, still poses an urgent and angry question fifty years on.

But still, a primary audience is unquestionably a big part of what any pop artefact comes to mean. And after all, the luxury of acknowledging that personal emptiness ("I'm empty and aching and I don't know why") might have operated in ways to actually counter social change; by exculpating the morally sensitive individual and venting the pressure of discomfort into the empty air.

The Golden Shovel

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight

Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing

his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We

watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.

He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,

how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we

got down on our knees in my room. If I should die
before I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.

II. 1991

Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal

afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we

know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-

ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-

ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we

go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-

ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-

ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We

push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.

While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,

we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-

eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.


A poem by Terrance Hayes, riffing off Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool".

So there's no recycling capability for the main waste item on station platforms. Even though recycling of plastic-bonded cardboard has existed for years and is offered by many (most?) councils. And even though you can make single-use cups without plastic, as the Coffee #1 chain do. Time for the railway companies to step up!

Leeds City Council shows how it should be done

Discounts on factory-farmed meat for W.H. Smith customers

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