Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Vanity projects

Does blogging come under this header? It’s a curious exercise – writing a diary is usually private, even kept under lock and key. But personal writing on what used to be termed the Interweb (still is in some quarters!) is no different from posting on Facebook or despatching bons mots to the Twittersphere. It’s personal, but it’s all social action, too.
  However, the public face one presents to the world, with or without the input of a PR person, can be either guarded or a messy incoherent jumble – either way ‘tisn’t the whole truth.
 This reflection came up because of The Photograph. The Photograph is the depiction at right, the preferred all-purpose shot for every application. Until someone recommends it’s updated. (A polite way of saying it’s passé: we must have a new one.)
  Me-eh! Unlike Dorian Gray’s portrait, time refuses to stand still. (Do you know there’s a syndrome termed DGS? I looked it up.) But virtually every writer I know sports an out-of-date portrait, a favourite flattering picture. Same goes for journo headshots beside bylines, and now on websites, too. But it’s selling yourself; therein lies the rub.
   I loathe having my photo taken. I’m not a Barbra Streisand, only permitting a left profile or whatever, but I like a measure of choice and control, and all photographers are not the same.
  Opinion from A Professional on the current mug-shot: ‘It looks like you had that from a supermarket PhotoMe booth.’
  Oh, thanks a bunch. You really do so-o much for my amour propre, thinks she, wilting.
  Anyway, I presented a definite outline of what is wanted. We shall see whether I get it. Or not.
  I fear those studio types who gaze at one with their heads on one side, and murmur about PhotoShop. (Airbrushing?) Oh, dear. We could be some time.
  On the other hand, one youthful creative guy’s got my suggestion first off, without the necessity of a lengthy explanation, so ...

Perhaps a casual acquaintance was correct, dismissing the PhD as ‘a vanity project.’ Maybe she’s right – it could be. After all, what am I going to do with it, should I ever attain the goal? Except she is an ambitious woman, and younger, and assesses everything she does in terms of an international career and her CV. (And good luck to her – these days we have to make hard decisions: husbands and/or children are often an encumbrance.) But acquiring learning for its own sake appears an alien concept for many. And everything, but everything, has a price.
  Not value, not worth – a price.

It’s the silly season. ‘Down time.’ Dolce far niente, but restless with summer ennui. The thesis has stagnated (hence all these posts). Leaving the writing / re-writing alone, or reading other researchers who’re suffering with the same mental block, only compounds the stasis. 
  Pat Thomson posted a lovely extract from Foucault here  – ‘I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but bring a work, a book, a sentence, and idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes ~ all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms. ~ Foucault (1977) The Masked Philosopher, p.323.
  How brilliant is that! 

So, instead of research, have been digging up my own history – an odd type of time-travel. Sending an email into the blue is like a dove launched from the Ark: something might, or might not, come back. The quest may be unsuccessful but it points up how much we can remember, given one or two minor clues. Other people recall a patchwork of things which I’ve long forgotten: what Simon Schama terms ‘a community of memory.’ Paul Cartledge’s saying, ‘The past is neither dead nor certain,’ reminds us the ancient Greek word for ‘truth’, mnemosynē, meant, literally, ‘not-forgetting,’ but it’s perplexing how we suddenly understand something, and realise we knew it all along only didn’t recognise it at the time.
  Perhaps I’m attempting to reunite one or two scattered pieces of my ‘truths.’  

Re. perceived truths, its very strange but theres been a rash of evangelicals hereabouts of late. Why this sudden influx? There are apocalyptic summons to the front door, and tracts shoved through the letter-box at all hours. The leaflets and booklets, expensive to produce, are liberally decorated with images depicting drink and drugs etc., and some utterly dire doggerel.  

On the ‘Independence’ front, Salmonds very own vanity project, Im trying to ignore the wretched thing. However, shall misquote Alexandre Dumas, père: “You who are in power have only those whom devotion prompts ~ we who are in expectation have the means that money produces.” – Le comte de Monte-Cristo.  C’est tout.  Going by the BBCs Paul Lewis and Robert Peston, both of whom know what’s what, this referendum will be fought out over money. One woman queried, "What about my pension, earned in Scotland, but I live in Portugal? ..." 

Heigh-ho, the BBC Proms commence this week: 18 July to 13 September. The Last Night, for me, means summer’s gone and autumn’s heading into coming winter. Classical music is one of my refuges, but a lot of popular stuff is creeping in. I agree with art critic Brian Sewell, access to a single Prom won’t ensure people continue to listen afterwards – albeit Paloma Faith possesses a voice which could belong in opera. She can span two octaves and beyond, no effort or strain – unlike juvenile drones tweaked by software to render ’em in C# major. 

The EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL is on next month, 9 – 25 August, this year’s theme being ‘Let’s Talk.’ H’m. Don’t we do enough of that?
  The .pdf brochure, 96 pages long, features 750 authors over some eight hundred events.
 Nick Barley (director) wrote a fervent foreword which is full of hopes for this ‘independence year,’ but I’m afraid I skipped straight through to the writers’ index, from Abdolah to Zito. Some heavyweights, some politicians (of course) and all the old stalwarts who, it seems, appear every year – but an A list? Not really. (Alright – I’m v. hard to please.) And there are reams of children’s books and ‘teen fiction. Acres of ‘em.
  The event I’ve signed up for, and shall make heroic efforts to attend, is Adam Nicolson’s – ‘Why Homer Still Matters.’ According to the blurb, Nicolson’s on a mission to emphasise Homer’s continuing relevance to the world. He argues the great ancient Greek poet can be crucial in helping us understand humanity, love, loss and death as he journeys across France, Ireland, Syria, Sicily and Scotland in search of Homeric enlightenment.
   I support the mission, but I’m not so sure about Scotland ...
  The booking process was a nightmare ~ one of those systems where you’re stuck in an online queue of 2909 people waiting. But sometimes it helps to be psychic. I logged off, drove into town to collect some shopping and a daughter, came home, ate lunch and, at 2.20pm precisely, thought ‘I’ll be at the front of yon queue by now.’ And I was. Bang on, No. 1. Having landed 2 tickets, I hope someone’s up for the second one.
  It will likely cost me a signed copy but, unless it came up on Amazon Vine™, I was purchasing the title anyway. If I have one extra or three, no matter: there is many a Classicist on the Christmas list.

Picture credits: Johnson’s The Vanity Of Human Wishes © l-adam-mekler.com; Homer, Google images © Crystalinks;

Monday, 30 June 2014

Finding the key

This one’s going to be short. ~Er. Promise.
  This is a consequence of cutting the draft thesis. Prof recommended I ‘lose’ the first nineteen pages of my Intro., and once this was done it was manifestly improved. So, one’s now in favour of sharper, more concise prose – albeit reminds of days when an editor’s instructions always contained the well-worn phrase: ‘Give me a thousand words ...’
  No more, no less.
  Here are ca. 860. Max!

The long summer vac is upon us ~ technically, no call to be on campus until October. Shades of hols which stretched to the horizon, free of term-time restrictions, school and September safely out of sight. July and August were spent on the family farm here in Scotland.
  Not that life was always safe. The fire brigade was called once, when two tons of straw went up in smoke. However, I guess we were fortunate; acres of fields outside, attic rooms and old stone farm steadings to play in when it was wet. No computers or iPads – just books, and the painting gear I carted north every year.
Recent reports about white children from impoverished backgrounds failing to make the grade at school seem to me to have simple enough causes. Aside from parents perhaps being functionally illiterate and no books in the home, the factors which really tell against education are things like being ‘cool.’ ‘Cool’ is everything – applied across the board from clothing to what variety of phone you clutch – and school ain’t ‘cool.’ Neither is being bookish, or interested in anything except facile and ephemeral fashions, puerile ‘celebs,’ soap operas and football.
  Last year I read a piece by Jacqueline Wilson in the Indie, saying spelling does not seem to be taught. “[They will say] ‘I want to be a famos ritter’,” Wilson said. “They think all you have to do is finish a book and then it takes off and you have a movie deal.”  
  Misspelling is not dyslexia; it’s bad spelling, full stop. Computer spell-checkers are inadequate and often misleading. Plus there are some awful teachers around, far more concerned with ‘earning’ than ‘learning.’
  And the mindset which dictates that no child must ever be allowed to ‘fail’ is nonsense. I failed all the time. Regularly. Without fail. Still do. ...

Scotland’s dispiriting obsession with its wretched ‘independence’ referendum is increasing. The vote will divide along educational grounds. The professional / military / upper and middle classes etc will say ‘No,’ but the poor, uneducated, low paid etc. will believe the pie-in-the-sky. These are the people who think Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ is real true history ...
   Everything’s been thrown at the nationalist camp. Institutions such as the National Library, the art galleries, you name it, are encouraged to vaunt ‘nationhood’ and ‘freedom’ and other nonsense. If
you dare to say you’re going to vote ‘No’ abuse is hurled. J.K. Rowling, coming out for the ‘No’ side (bless her!) and donating £1 million towards the Better Together effort, attracted a torrent of insults in the Twittersphere, but I’d not dare to even sport a bumper sticker saying ‘No.’ My Fiat would be trashed. As it is I walked out of the door the other day to find ‘f-- yu english’ scrawled in the grime on the car’s boot lid. They spelled the F word wrongly, too.
  How can you reason with a mindset like this?

Intolerance breeds intolerance – it’s even affecting my normal laissez-faire attitudes. Watching the auguries out East, I’m not sanguine about Turkey this year if Iraq’s putsch continues. (Dubya, Blair et al were warned about just this eventuality.) I have taken the precaution of subscribing to FCOs email alerts ~ just in case civil unrest erupts. Such affects one’s travel insurance.
  I will never understand the battles between dogma as accepted by the Sunna (lit., ‘Mohammed’s example’) but rejected by the Shi’a. The latter sect’s largely Iranian, and holds the first three Sunnite caliphs weren’t legitimate: only the Prophet’s cousin/son-in-law was the true successor, ruling AD656-661 – a mere five years. It was nearly one and a half thousand years ago – why does it matter? This is the problem with studying the histories of religions. You get to a point where you suspect every one of them is wide of the mark. God isn’t in it. Haven’t all such wars been about men grabbing at power? The weak and powerless, the women and children, always suffer and the huge camps continue to grow: 50 million on World Refugee Day. Man’s inhumanity to man.
  And while all this is going on? England mourns – over a ball kicked into a net. As if that matters. Nobody died. I suppose for some the kicking of balls is religion.
  Sorry – I just don’t get it.      

June’s been remarkable for some proper summer weather – for a few days it was like Italy, except greener. Although late one night I managed to lock my car keys in the Fiat, and had to summon the RAC to fish them out. The burglar alarm ‘bleep’ is on that key-ring, so I couldn’t even make an attempt to get into the house.
  And it was raining ...
Picture credits: bunch of keys, www.theguardian.com; winter view SE across farm, Largo Law in background © J. Bain, 2005: Wikimedia Commons; referendum ‘Better Together’ campaign, Google images; 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

In time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ ...

Given current Europe-wide consciousness of the Great War’s centenary and legacy, Thos. Hardy’s 1916 lines return to mind. In my Eng Lit days I thought Hardy too melancholic, too much doom and gloom. But now his picture of the English countryside is no more, let alone the farm labourer and his plough.
  Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.
  What’s wrong with our world? Even as Europe is commemorating the 1944 Normandy landings, tides of nationalism are gaining around the globe. I trust Europe remains sane. We’ve had two major wars, and many minor ones, mais je suis une Européenne, una europea, eine europäische. Ik ben een Europese vrouw. But the Euro-elections in May appeared to indicate UK voters dont feel the same.
  One GB newspaper split the division into classes: rich university graduate globe trotting wine enthusiasts, etc = Europhiles; poor, low-paid and unqualified, no overseas travel, etc = Europhobes. For these men or women read Little Englanders ~ or indeed Little Scotlanders. I don’t suppose UKIP’s natural constituency, hoi polloi (Greek, ‘the many’) speaks one foreign language, much less the five that Nick Clegg does, but seems proud of it, as if such underlines True Brit credentials. Which it doesn’t.
  Here in Scotland, as we creep nearer to September, empty nationalistic rhetoric is being ramped up. Comminatory demagogues are the same, wherever you are. Too depressing.
  And, oddly, top of this blogs average audience list lately has been Ukraine.

Last month I was rifling through the postcards stuck on the kitchen fridge, fixed to the freezer door with assorted magnets from various European Classical destinations: Rome and Athens, Cyprus, Crete and Sicily. ...
  I found cards from the East sent by my sister, including Carthage and Syria (sister being as much of a Romanist as I am a Graecist) as well as her communiqués from Iran and Russia. Re-reading a message from Syria brought home how the country she saw is probably now only a memory: “We were in The Straight Street, Damascus, today [originally Greek, then Roman, it runs E/W in the old city ...]; you must visit sometime! [How likely is that, now?] The [...] Syrians are easy-going and friendly. The historic sights are myriad, ranging across millennia - going through a gateway one can step across a thousand years.”
  A step now probably obliterated by Assad’s forces.

My interest in the East is limited to Troy, Ionia and the Aegean shore. I am not enamored of anything later than the Late Antique, and even that is pushing it. However, as a human, one cannot be anything but sad and appalled at what’s happening around the world, and why and how things have come to this pass. And, as an ancient historian, be dismayed at what must already be lost forever.
   It is apparent the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn.

Is our Twenty-first century the era of the Wars of Religion? The snatching of young schoolgirls in Africa was an unacceptable face of something utterly abhorrent: the refusal to countenance that half the human race is entitled not only to an education but to be unencumbered by draconian medieval ideas of men with Neanderthal mind-sets. It is nothing to do with God, whatever you perceive Him to be. I am willing to bet the bestial kidnappers of those Nigerian girls are illiterate, but put AK-47s in their hands and they’re lords of the universe. 
  Now Iraq’s up in flames – again. A year ago no one had heard of ISIS, but someone must be arming them. They want to restore the caliphate. Strangely inappropriate acronym: Isis was an ancient Egyptian goddess (Greek, Ἶσις, likely original ‘Iset’.) There's a temple to her at Pompeii.
Lack of freedom and choice was underlined not only by Angelina Jolie (now an honorary Dame) but also by Amnesty International’s campaign regarding the Sudanese mother, Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, under sentence of death in Khartoum for ‘apostasy,’ on account of her Christianity. Why can't we put a stop to this madness? Every thinking woman in the West must be revolted by these practices.

My great-grandmothers didn’t have the vote: my mother struck out for a career and left the family farm. I cannot imagine a life where I am disenfranchised, not permitted to study, to learn or earn, to travel, to dress how I wish or to drive a car, to have any of the long list of freedoms I possess. We might as well return to the Dark Ages if we allow pernicious insanities to gain ground.
  It doesn’t matter what the colour of your cloth. My current attitude to the RC church is similarly equivocal. I did not lapse over a matter of faith. It was to do with misogynists, men who really, really don’t like females, men supposedly celibate but in actuality often inclined to the ‘other side,’ dictating to me about my life as a woman while they are so manifestly wanting in their own, and on so many levels.
  In a diocese where scandal was papered over, it feels personal ~ but damnatio memoriae won’t solve anything, either. Don’t tell me this is human error and frailty. You shouldn’t sign up for the kitchens of God if you can’t take the heat.
  #1 daughter, newly-married, posted her thoughts on the woman-hating American youth who went on a killing spree. I could not but agree with her.
  Germaine Greer is right: feminism didn’t liberate all of us. OK, so western women seized the initiative and made a better future for ourselves – careers, freedom of choice in childbearing, etc – but far too much of our world is still dominated by a culture of violence and fascistic gender attitudes.  
  What are these men so afraid of?
  Don’t let them get away with it, not even silly remarks on your appearance, age or abilities by men who say they’re ‘joking.’ It’s only a backward step from there to a rabid antediluvian fundamentalism which won’t tolerate sight of your hair, arms, legs or hands, your whole face. That is the step that goes back a thousand years.  
  We are not invisible.
Midsummer’s Longest Day looms: the year’s on the slide. Like May before it, this month’s been busy (so far). At time of drafting this, #1 daughter was still on her honeymoon in Sicily; #2 daughter was able to resume work on 2 June, after three months or so of a recession-linked lay-off, thus former routines are now in swing. Mornings, bleary-eyed, out the door at 8.30am.
  I’m still fighting lethargy. Unable to concentrate or think with a tired mind. In case there might be some health issue in the mix, I reluctantly trailed off to see GP re. loss of appetite, possible anaemia and / or lack of B12. There is a health issue in the mix. Blasted nuisance. Och, well ~ whas meant for ye ll no miss ye, as my auld Scots grandmother was wont to say, but still a nuisance. With my usual happy insouciance, I shall doubtless ignore it. Lifes too short.  
  Living life back-to-front - waking ca. 1.15am, and unable to go back to sleep, I get up to make tea and toast, feed the importunate cat, read, power up laptop, etc. One bonus in the small hours is the peace and quiet, and reliable access to the ’Net, as well as America being awake / online. WiFi’s fast and efficient when seven other local users’ 7 different ISPs aren’t reducing our rural Broadband width. When one of my neighbours departs for work at 5.30am, and another follows him down the road if she’s on the early shift, I’m already perched here by the window, lights, laptop and TV switched on. However, such a habit tends to add to sluggish day-long fatigue and, along with too much coffee, too many cigarettes, doesn’t help sporadic insomnia.  
   On top of family doings – anniversaries, visitations, etc., there’s been some prep done for a future research review, but mostly a lot of reading. A lot, but it’s desultory, not to purpose. My feeble excuse for this is Im ‘resting the thesis; Ill go back to it when enough times elapsed and I can look at it with a fresh eye. Draft #1’s in the process of being cut up, re-written, re-shaped to fit the template, etc. I want to re-work the material – but can’t yet let go of the idea of creating something innovative. No doubt I shall come to grief! 
  I’ve reached a conclusion: the thing will render me all written-out. No more mental reservoirs for fiction or journo exercises. Or even blog posts.
   This writing life: done it all ~ from novels to copy writer, from editorial reader to reviewer, from journo to blogger ... What’s next? This blog alone is coming up for four years. As Prof Pat Thomson said of her own blog in her latest post, here "It’s at least three books worth." 
  In light of US warnings about malware, cryptolockers and ransoms, I’ve also transferred everything currently vital to disk; fiddly and time-consuming but imagine if it was lost ... 
  One may always obtain a new computer. Resurrecting years of work would be well-nigh impossible. 
  I’ve promised myself When This Thing is Done (when? If!) I shall adopt an untrammelled and unregimented existence. But if anyone ever sees or hears me musing over yet another heavy learning enterprise, call the men in white coats. Please. 

Picture credits: Paul Nash, Menin Road, © Google images; The Street called Straight, Damascus, Syria © Vahe Shahinian; Amnesty International candle logo,  © - Google Images.