Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Phone chargers, 4-gangs. A metal mouse-trap, not set: flat and very calm. A playing-card: The Joker, who turns out to be a naked model with slumbrous eyes in the shingle. A dust-mask, disposable, laying on its side. An Asda bag containing two pairs of shoes. A scuffed football. A shrunken satsuma, remarkably dry and leathery.

Farewell, my workmates, my old friends! For you and for me, may that day be long deferred, the day of Hecabe's reply:

"Others may fare well. For me those words are meaningless."

The snow-drops, a fence of teeth: Thebes. Buried drums threatening a crescendo: Allan Pettersson.


The snowdrop stockades are growing up in magnificent rain and wind. The fields are shining with water. And there's lots of early primulas, and winter-heliotrope has never looked better. Spring-like, but they're predicting snow for next week.

Recent years in the south of England, people predict snow much more often than it really falls. These predictions reflect desire; we miss the snow. Some part of our ancestral memories provokes the inner feeling that the seasonal cycle isn't properly complete without the rituals of old winter. We rationalize this by fearing that the year's bugs, germs, pests, diseases and vermin do not get killed off. This assortment is not very clearly differentiated. The assumption is that, without a cold snap, something mountainous grows up in the earth like a dark analogue to a "seed-bank". Perhaps it is a horde, or a swarm. Of small, bad things.

I too say that I miss the iron slithery ice of a rutted lane, or tingling snowball fingers. I think I do mean it. But I keep the ancestral memory at arm's length, because it seems a little too ready to talk the language of demonization and ethnic purges. As our weather now is much the same as what it has been like for centuries in more southerly parts of Europe, how to explain what happens to their mountain of germs? I think it would be possible to have a meaningful biological discussion about this, but the ancestral memory isn't interested; it only discusses what it feels inside.


I've done a couple more pieces on Intercapillary Space:

Shakespeare's Sonnet 81

The Peter Redgrove Library (review)

Right now I'm writing about Arielle Greenberg. And Euripides. I mostly end up just writing my own thoughts in these pieces. That's not altogether intentional; I do make a slightly more than token effort to consult other secondary writings. But the story of this material on the Internet is, increasingly, that the university scholars have been re-grouped behind their cash-tills: JStor and Project Muse and Highbeam. Much they care about free global access to information! Looks like it's down to you, me and Wikipedia.

If you do a Google search on some hallowed classic, say, Euripides' Heracles, you are overwhelmed by a gazillion hits, a core-sample of cultural debris, nearly all of of it entirely useless. Links, bibliographical, commercial, a thousand variations on the same paltry need-to-know information for college students, a chatty piece about Simon Armitage, Amazon five-liners, historical links, broken links, indecipherable chunks of blogfeed, not to mention a few amateur cranks with weird theories to propound (these ones make me particularly uncomfortable), publisher's shop-windows, - and of course Wikipedia. Wikipedia is great, but it's mostly pretty much at the quiz-team level of depth, though in some ways it goes far beyond any previous encyclopaedia - check the staggeringly impressive detail of the entry, in English, on filmjölk. But the point I want to make is that the sheer number of hits means that, paradoxically, it's difficult to locate any in-depth knowledge about famous authors. (The system works much better with obscurer poets, whom no-one refers to at all unless they think they've got something to say.)

But what's the alternative? If you've spent a while on the Internet and then you go back into your nearest bookshop then, sure, it's luxuriously easy to pick up the newest popular edition of Euripides but you can't help but be aware of how filtered those comfortable easy-chair introductions are, how they're aimed squarely at your national market, your social class, your education-level and how they hardly ever step out of a familiar groove. For all the random junk on the Internet, the rarity of those moments when you hit on something that relevantly enlightens you, yet ... when someone writes on the Internet, someone with "too much spare time" and controlled by, rather than in control of, their vague writerly plans and aspirations, then you can somehow grasp their motivations in a more direct way; it lifts a veil (I suppose one of the veils traditionally conferred by the wedding-ceremony of publication). This is more like a conversation; and as with conversations, it's not too often that people come out with the mind-blowing things you hope for. No surprise, it's not about your needs, they're not talking for your benefit. But after getting used to this, it's difficult to go back to the old polite conventions - to, as it were, drop the veil again.

(But in practice, I do use books and the Internet side by side, to compensate for each other's failings I suppose.)

It is after all salutary. Yes, it's a salutary experience to remember that we don't really know very much worth knowing, about anything - about Euripides, for example. A well-stocked University Library constantly suggests the opposite - but most of this is rigmarole, fading patterns of imaginary certainties.


Was that me saying I'm too miserly and lazy to get with the secondary literature, and then slagging it off as being not worth reading anyhow? Hmm. But what I have in my head is this: that an artefact - Euripedes' Heracles is somehow also a natural creature, to know it is to have a relationship with it. It's true I'm horribly unfair about the sum of human knowledge contained in our great libraries. But I want to insist also on the primacy of connaissance. How much can you know someone before they're even born? That is how much we can know in advance of these primroses coming into early leaf in this mild January. Likewise, here are me and this ancient play. I want to connect, no-one else can do this for me.


At 9:50 pm, Blogger Vincent said...

I'd just like to comment on the snow, because I feel exactly the same way, and you touched a common thing there, I am sure. We did have snow the other day, which came as a huge relief. But it was not enough. I recall the winters of '47 and '63: they were the hardest, and each time I was in a place where only an electric fire was to be had. Bad as the hardship, disruption and even deaths must have been, there was something elemental about hard winters that put us all on a level with fishermen at sea, mountain climbers, miners, soldiers: the comradeship of survival. Our grandchildren may yet experience that, in other ways.


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