Over Christmas, Hogmanay and most of January I read way outside my research field – mostly fiction. Crime, detective or police procedurals are not normally on my radar, but I briefly fell for Louise Penny’s Canadian Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec – specifically The Beautiful Mystery, where music is the central theme. This is built around neumes in Gregorian chant and a lost monastic order, the Gilbertines: ‘Among (sic) the most memorable—and visually stunning!—real places in Louise Penny’s canon is the Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, the locale that inspired the fictional Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. The religious affiliation and events of the book bear no resemblance to the Benedictine Monks of the real abbey. As explained by Louise: “it became clear in researching [BeautifulMystery] that I couldn’t set the book in a monastery, or even an order, that really existed, so I dug into history and found the Gilbertines, an order that actually once existed, but went extinct”.’
I’m generally not keen on female authors, unless it’s classic Eng. Lit. But, while contemporary women’s pulp supermarket dross irritates me, it was pleasant to discover a writer one could tolerate without a Dorothy Parker reaction. Having read TBM, naturally I reverted to the start of the series; Still Life, shorter and much less complex than Mystery, did not impress. There are around a dozen titles, most recently The Nature of the Beast. The village background is a trifle stultifying, although its body count’s on a par with the rural milieu of ITV’s ‘Midsomer’ county – around 32 murders per million inhabitants. However, that’s not the most dangerous place in TV history. This accolade belongs to Abbot Cove, of Murder She Wrote. Over the course of its long run, 2% of the population of that small town in Maine have been dispatched – close on 1500 per million. Figures to worry any crime commissioner! But Brits happily consume gory whodunnits, and swallow horrendous scenarios whole. Yet they complained en masse of gruesome real-life detail in 2014’s World War I memorialisations.
In contrast, science fiction remains largely a male field. Before I actually picked up one of China Miéville’s works, I thought he was a woman. Nah – he is another man! However, he spans genres and isn’t categorisable. Categorisation is a pain, yet so many bleat about it. Wiki devotes screeds to ‘Women science fiction and fantasy writers’ – does anyone say ‘male science fiction and fantasy writers’? Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt and Ursula K. Le Guin aren’t in no-man’s land. The works don’t jump to mind because they’re written by women.
Miéville was actually the first author I came across who directly quoted from a writer who, along with Angela Carter, had the most enduring impact on me. A writer’s writer, who still possesses a small cadre of aficionados of the Gothic and weird – and just the type of author swiftly removed from the shelves by censorious and disapproving PC librarians. But not fast enough! I was fourteen or 15 when I first discovered her.
Maybe the unsuitable literatures explain my being well west of centrist. I shoot way, way past strange – for me, the simply odd is probably conventionally conservative.
While writing the thesis has been a learning experience, it’s not the kind of authorial work which fits into either of my boxes. However, Anne Rooney (Chair of the Educational Writers Group at the Society of Authors) posted an excellent reduction about prising apart the days and minutes, ‘and how far to let short-term demands compromise long-term aims or needs. I would rather have loved and cared for people dear to me than have written 250 books ...’ (My italics.)
It’s a good read – it’s got its priorities right, reminding me not to allow the real ‘voice’ to expire just because it’s not getting any oxygen at present.
The SOA is one of those protective organisations you may never need, but when you do, you most undeniably do! (The new chairman is William Horwood. Duncton Chronicles? Callanish? The Stonor Eagles? Unusual novels.)
However, the stolen holiday couldn’t last. By mid-January it was back to the academic tomes and research, and a major attempt to scale the PhD ‘wall’. Metaphorically, this was an SAS-style assault course – but, to one familiar with writer’s block, there are various modi operandi or means of skirting around the obstruction. Writing fiction or journalism it’s possible to evade the block when you realise it’s looming. You can try shifting into reverse, refreshing or rehashing your narrative, or erasing / augmenting the pile of wordage. But academic writing’s different; it requires a steady logical progression. While this requires adaptability, resilience and tenacity (essential components of a writer’s toolkit!) the accent’s on development. Stacking-up an argument, layer by layer, is the carefully laminated evidence for your theory. If this doesn’t happen it’s easy to imagine mere movement is forward progress. A lot of people appear to believe it’s the same thing.
In the throes of checking each and every reference I ordered more volumes from the Joint Library in London: ‘The Mythology of Plants: Botanical Lore from ancient Greece and Rome,’ by Annette Giesecke; ‘The Greeks in Asia,’ John Boardman, along with one of Blackwell’s companions to the ancient world, A Companion to ancient Thrace, eds Valeva, Nankov and Graninger. These are needed for further excavations regarding Hekate’s garden at Colchis, the Boardman for general detail, and the Blackwell for Thrace and the Balkans. While Boardman’s available as an e-book for Kindle, the K version doesn’t have numbered pages, an exasperating lack. We can’t possibly have proper footnotes without page nos., can we!
I’m no longer blogging about content – not now the research is within sight of its finish line (though this recedes every day) – but the most difficult thing has been avoiding an awed obeisance to ‘classicism’. While I like elegance and symmetry and craftsmanship, form, harmony, restraint and style must be part of the process. There’s a lot of extraneous material to be cut, but no one’s going to bother reading over two hundred pages if the writing doesn’t impress from the get-go.
Long ago, a senior author advised the younger self: ‘Grab your reader from the first paragraph – the first sentence!’ This is termed ‘the hook,’ and is as true for academic writing as it is for popular fiction. There’s the odd joke in the thesis, too, amidst all the chthonic Hadean darkness. The last thing I want is a worthy tome.
The figure of Orpheus has generated a lot of literature in the past, but he does seem to make for excess, the worst of melodramatic romantic or tragic loss. Back in 1958 one writer, referring to Rilke, spoke reverently of ‘unreverberating footfalls from the Hills of Primal Pain’ (sic!).
‘Hills of Primal Pain’?
I’m concerned about ‘housekeeping,’ e.g., which system of bibliographical referencing is necessary. And the big question, about who’s to be the internal ~ and who s/he should approach in turn to be the external. There are many queries one requires answers to, (including the notional idea of a finish date). I like precise information, from the right person, in the right order and at the right time, but in general universities are like the mills of God.
And will captions to the now reduced number of illustration plates need to be included in the word count? It looks as if they will. So, make provision for this. The monster chapters will probably have to be slimmed down. A pity in some respects – albeit no doubt removing duplications will provide the extra space. I’m already aware that Chapter Six is going to have to be swapped for Chapter 5: Chapter 6 is heading towards conclusions rather than being a structural argument per se.
The much-postponed supervision takes place later today, Friday 5 February – not without apprehension on my side.
Juggling all this with the ongoing Dentiad, re-drafting my will (overdue), annual service for car, plus various other tasks held over from January, is proving taxing. I’m not as mentally adroit as I used to be. Concentration lapses if one’s not careful, and multi-tasking actually seems to take more time, not less. Too much depends on other people, who, if not chivvied, reminded or held to account, are liable to not fulfil remits, which is frustrating. I ceased to believe in promises, lang syne. An ancient axiom for the modern age: if you want a job doing, do it yourself. I nod, smile and carry on regardless, knowing perfectly well that, whatever it is, it’s not going to happen.
Of those who are utterly reliable and efficient, one unsung heroine, a member of staff at the Joint Library in London, is worthy of an ode from an ancient Greek praise-singer, for unstinting assistance over and above the call of duty. I cannot thank her enough for her generous help – and I know for a fact I’m not the only doctoral researcher who owes her.
An upcoming occasion – the Aberdeen Scottish Hellenic Society, on behalf of the four Hellenic Societies in Scotland and the Friends of the British School at Athens, is hosting a one day event in the north-east in May. I am determined not to miss this one. I missed out on Edinburgh’s in 2014, due to an unaccountable memory lapse.
At the end of last month there was a great deal of concern for the little black cat. Given her age and frailty, a vet check-up was decided on. It turns out she has a thyroid problem ~ and, in the first instance, tablets were prescribed.
Now, this is the cat from hell as far as pills are concerned. ...
I’ll reserve judgement on the success – or otherwise – of the treatment. To date, after a couple of failures, it’s been moderately successful. Online advice from International Cat Care (formerly the Feline Advisory Bureau) helped. Once the condition’s been stabilised we can look at options for surgery, etc.
(Yes, little cat ~ I’m looking at you!)
February: four short weeks and we’ll be into March – signs of spring, signs the world’s turning as it should.
Outside, the garden still has pockets of snow under the laurels, and the birds are shivering in the trees.
Picture credits: header photo, © http://www.st-benoit-du-lac.com/Informations/information2.html; fragment of white-painted cup, Orpheus image, ©National Museum, Athens; little black cat, © JAS photo, 2015;