Friday, 5 February 2016

Matters of choice

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,  ©; fragment of white-painted cup, Orpheus image, ©National Museum, Athens; little black cat,  © JAS photo, 2015;   

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Peaks, troughs – and the spaces in between

This is for the old year, even if the new one’s over a fortnight advanced. Translation’s from the Portuguese of Fernando Pessoa.

Poem for the old year
“I try saying what I feel
Without thinking about what I feel. 
I try fitting words to the idea
Without going down a corridor
Of thought to find words. 

I don't always succeed in feeling what I know I should feel. 
My thought swims the river only quite slowly,
Heavily burdened by clothes men have made it wear.
I try divesting myself of what I’ve learned,
I try forgetting the mode of remembering they taught me,
And scrape off the ink they used to paint my senses,
Unpacking my true emotions,
Unwrapping myself, and being myself ...”

‘You will never get to the bottom of Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa ... There are too many of him’ (Carmela Ciuraru).  Agreed – but he does put into words things we never knew we felt before.

The university term closed the week before Christmas. There was no hope for supervision last month, but this month suits me better, weather permitting. Whilst I had to submit an annual progress report by end 2015, supervision isn’t urgent – bar the likelihood of material having to be amended / discarded / transposed.  If so, then Chapter Seven will have to wait until all previous work is in order.  The trouble is Chapter 7 isn’t waiting! It’s already 4675 words long (14 pp) – ca. a third. It’s going to be another monster. While I habitually discard text, whole tranches of the original measure that constitutes a WIP (average over the years being ca. one third kept, two thirds thrown away) during the course of this virtually subconscious Pessoa-like ‘automatic writing’ the wastepaper bin is my best friend.  It should be every writer’s friend. (There are academics who hang onto everything they’ve ever, ever written.  I am of the Beaumont and Fletcher view: ‘all your better deeds | Shall be in water writ’.)  

Winter continues to ambush us. Parts of Aberdeenshire remain under water, and from here I can see snow blanketing the bellwether of Ben Lomond.
  To date, I’m no further forward in the race to complete the thesis by mid-September this year. That thing called life keeps getting in the way, slip-sliding into troughs. However, a skeleton structure for completion is envisaged.
  I’ve attempted to find my own approach and pathway, eschewing the gobbledygook that commonly masquerades as ‘academic writing.’ My main self-crit is habitual Homeric-style ‘ring composition.’ OK if you’re engaged in a fictional narrative –not so if it’s an academic one. Currently, the Orpheus material’s more like the roofless shell of a building. It outlines a defined space, but bits are incomplete, or occupying incorrect locations, let alone matching up. Re-writing will fix grammar and construction. Dyslexic propensities lead to strange syntax and embedded clauses – e.g., SVO (subject–verb–object) is regularly permutations thereof.  On the other hand, while ancient Greek is said to have free word ordering, this ‘freedom’ is in relation to the prescribed configurations of English. However, by transferring work to Kindle, mistakes leap out at me in the different format. I bookmark errors then correct the original Word doc. 
  (It’s a pity these posts don’t remain stable on different platforms. They’re fine on this desktop, but emerge with fonts and layout every whichway on other screens or devices – iPads, netbooks, etc. I’ve uploaded this four times since last night, and it’s still coming out a mess. Google is as Google does, but it ain’t always what I does. Irritating!)
  However, by November’s end I was finally 99% happy with Chapter 6 (thesis’s penultimate one) albeit it burgeoned into a monster. Further poking at it in December was counter-productive.

This month I’ve hit the notorious PhD Wall.  Hopefully, this may be simply a January trough.  I confess I abandoned any new thesis effort last month. It’s impossible to concentrate with only irregular and perpetually interrupted gobbets of time, plus all journeys took much longer, driving ‘scenic’ routes due to the closure of the Forth road bridge.  
  Having set a deadline, I’ve slowed down. In fact, come to a grinding halt.  I get one shot at this thesis so it better be good, but more bulk of material means increased complexity. I’m not sure where I’m going with it. I need to site my research in the field, and must bring the chapters together to swap and drop (systematic comparison of contents, inc. marrying-up similarities). It’s time-consuming, but I’m bound to have repeated myself and want to pin-point where.  While I’m anxious to get onto the final chapter, this really must be left in abeyance until all preceding chapters are signed off. 
   I spend hours re-checking refs and sources ~ books and journals, online and through the university library. There are arcane protocols for downloading academic material at a distance.  You can run into copyright issues, so it was a matter of a VDI ~ to load up a profile to make this PC imagine itself on campus. I managed this OK, but the software’s a bit clunky in use.
  IT’s not one of my strengths.  Let alone remembering a dozen or more different passwords. 
  Modern scholarship’s a complicated business.  

Pre-Christmas, major panic: my workhorse PC suddenly became inoperable.  I wasn’t going to mess with it, so carted it to IT-man. It seems I’d closed down and switched off without checking if there was anything else going on. There was. It affected the registry; almost certainly an anti-virus update.  Apparently, the Dell doesn’t like one logging off and closing down mid-process.  I spent an insomniac weekend, agonising over the fate of thesis Word docs, but the glitch was easily fixed by someone who knows his hardware, software and symptoms inside out – which I don’t. For rescuing me yet again I added his name to LinkedIn. It was the least I could do.
 Also, one New Year resolution was to purchase an enhanced professional level of security.  And if I could only be rid of the Windows 10 nuisance, I’d be happy.  I’ve heard MS is to force us all to adopt Win10 – no choice.   There’s nothing wrong with Win7: it’s perfectly stable and does what I need.  But maybe it’s time to defect to Apple.

Village concerns: The end of 2015 brought an unseasonable warm spell, then early flurries of snow, the sudden death of a friend (not unexpected) and our water main burst. After a somewhat Heath Robinson repair the cold water tap had to run for 20 minutes to clear the pipes. 
  Scottish Water’s revenue stream’s over a billion p.a., yet they don’t invest in ageing infrastructure. Lots of the buried pipes at this end of the village are Victorian, and fracture with cold and pressure.  Our little rural roads and streets too often have to bear the weight of heavy trucks – mis-directed by satnavs. The stress does nothing for the fragile utilities. Many properties aren’t even on the mains but have septic tanks and all the hassle those bring.
  On Christmas morning, the power-shower failed. An electrician was called, Boxing Day – shower definitely kaput. Likely cause ~ too-frequent mains water bursts.  Grit and sludge in the system eventually ends up clogging shower filters, thus power units are affected.  A new one was required.  However, the plumber said regulations have changed, and the wiring we have is only up to 7 kWh. The new model is bigger. We had to depend on the electrician’s assessment as to whether existing cabling would take a power load of 8 kWh. It did.     
  The bill should be sent to Scottish Water.

Although the plan is to leave the village, I’m doing nothing in a hurry.   
 But I’m beginning to dislike this provincial domicile: the lack of real culture, its petite bourgeoisie and endless accent on the past. The present is exemplified by BBC Scotland: TV programmes feature enthusiastic couthy types in bobble hats traversing mountain scenery – same places, different presenters, always with the identical sub-text: ‘Here’s tae us; wha’s like us? Gey few, and they’re a’ deid.’ They died at Flodden field in 1513; they died on Culloden’s Drumossie Moor, 1746. Yet, 270 years later, ancient animosities persist – with alternative ideas of who’s to blame. 
  The Director-General of the BBC was up here, addressing Holyrood’s soi-disant ‘culture’ committee’s whinges about not having a weekday ‘Scottish 6’ (early-evening news). We already have half an hour – and most of that is football rubbish: every bulletin, every day.   
  However, while the scheme is to transfer south to a small garden-less bungalow for one’s ninth and final life, such an idyll must be found.  Here, there are too many plans for greenfield housing – the larks, lapwings and curlews are already gone, and the woods and fields will eventually be no more.  In a decade, or less, Scotland’s really not going to be worth living in.
So much for the troughs.  
  A few peaks: An unexpected mid-December visitation from #1 daughter and grandchild: I missed them when they left. There was one tiny sock left hanging on the kitchen airer, a miniature Christmas stocking. But granddaughter (now a year old) is one reason for optimism – even if I do wish she could live in a world before climate change, Internet and terrorism;
   Two daughters who each, in their different ways, are supportive of so much of my lifestyle. In other words, they don’t mind their mother being an eccentric – or, if they do, they never say so;
   A collection of friends, world-wide, who communicate more regularly than those living in the UK.  (NB: My sister’s been doing genealogical research, and found distant relatives in Australia.  What one might term ‘cousins’ more than ‘twice removed’.  A considerable distance removed!) Also, there are always books, cats, classical music, poetry, study, writing – and the anticipation of travel. (Due to wars, and rumours of wars, I shall not make reservations too early this year.)
   There are other peaks, but these are the important ones.

Picture credits: image, Ben Lomond, © Val Bisslan, National Trust for Scotland; Culloden Moor, © Mike Pennington,; a Christmas present fridge magnet:;