Monday, 31 March 2014

The fourth wall

March came in like a nervous lamb, which, according to the auld wifies’ tales, means it goes out like a lion. In other words, winds descend on us – usually from the S/W quarter. However, as blasts swirl and whistle around this house at all times of the year, regardless of season, ‘tis no real difference.
  Snow decided to blow in, the first Friday – competing with the sun. But, the worst of winter’s over. This (allegedly) is the first month of spring; the clocks have gone forward. Sunshine from the off – albeit catkins were already on the hazels by mid-February. If this is global warming, it’s a random process. Some years we win, some not.

Ploughing on with Orpheus and the thesis. By the end of last month a pattern had emerged. The mass of material is settling into some kind of shape; the chapters are starting tenuously to link into each other. The thing’s still like a wet clay pot under construction on the wheel – add too much, take too much away, and the creation will collapse before it can be finished and fired in the metaphorical kiln.
  I am more confident in the process, but it’s a weird phenomenon. This is not like writing a book (O, if only it could be so simple!) apart from my invariable experience of not knowing what Im thinking until its on the page. Writing and putting facts and theories together somehow produces a ‘something else’ over and above researched info.  That ‘something’ emerges like a chemical reaction, producing un-anticipated consequences. It’s not always a plus – occasionally it gives rise to howlers! But by and large it’s a bonus. There’s been a clearing-out of anachronistic casts of Romanticism and the Nineteenth century’s conflicting interpretations of Orpheus. It is already apparent the research has changed my viewpoint on the status quaestionis but, as the thesis narrows its focus, it also seems to widen the perspective. Very strange.
  The word count (tonight, 11pm) stands at close on 70,000, inc. two addenda (already!) and a final chapter, maybe a couple, to be blocked in, ca. 10,000 words apiece, max. – then the first rough draft will be finished. Then, and only then, will the real work start. The final conclusions depend on what is evidenced by the previous five chapters (six, if you count the long Intro., which has far too much padding so will be shortened) so findings come last, but there will be excisions, compressions, transpositions and re-writes. This will be the stage when I completely vanish as far as friends and family are concerned. Probably for months, if not years.  
  Late this month the research student’s routine progress review form dropped into my university mailbox, to be completed within 30 days. It concentrated the mind.   
  Trouble is, every day seems to bring something new which shifts the view yet again. Thank heavens for computer word processing. You can whizz back through the work and alter or re-write as necessary. It is an episodic process (from ancient Greek, ‘coming in besides,’ ἐπεισόδιον, epeisodion).
   Oh, and Greeks had to go up a level. Tricky. 
  And the book bill, as ever, is heading for the stratosphere. Even more tricky. 
  Overall, mostly, the writing makes me feel happy. Surely this cannot be right! Arent theses supposed to be hammered out in a laborious grind of daily misery? OK, it is a daily grind, but its not misery. Yet. Except for missing out on some lovely spring days. Maybe the slough of despond is to come ...   
  (Along with the right wrist RSI, there’s now a callous on the tip of my right index finger – from operating the mouse. Corns are supposed to be on toes, for heaven’s sake!)

There are three walls to my life: family, writing / research, and day-to-day life as lived. The fourth wall is the one actors refer to, denoting the space outside, beyond, the audience or film camera – the bits you put out into the world, the interface, with yourself as a plural ‘I’ if you like.
  I like this idea – a thousand platforms convey the concept of the invisible fourth wall: all our modern technologies, from laptop to iPhone, blogging, F/Book, etc., with which we interact. Patterns and weavings-together are reassuring; they oppose the actual chaos out there.
  Speaking of weaving, I’ve sporadically utilised William Gibson’s concept of patterns (‘Pattern Recognition,’ 2003) – not in any direct Sf manner (although chases or quests feature in many of his books) but because Gibson deals with the paralogical, mirror-worlds and binary tropes. All of which have had an impact on one’s view of ancient Greek myth – simply because they make sense. However, in the main, the Sf’s been severely pared-down, and direct analysis confined to the parameters of its own thesis chapter albeit the longest one to date. But I have no desire to go chasing all over the universe in pursuit of this or that concept, and have even less enthusiasm, or time, for the self-regarding, self-referential Sf world where, it seems, everything since forever (1960 antediluvian!) is discussed and re-discussed in feverish chapter-long tallies of citing titles and authors, dividing and sub-dividing into internecine camps.
  Sf and fantasy are as one imaginary fiction.

At long last Turkey and the Aegean are 99.9% organised. Relatively simply, too, via a German-owned travel concern – except these days one must apply for the necessary visa online, which is no longer £10 but $20, plus the Euro is preferred travel currency.
  I can’t believe how inexpensive it is, in comparison to the Med. Four and 5 star hotels for a pittance compared with, say, Rome, Crete or Sicily. So, archaeological explorations in place for autumn when, I trust, ambient temperatures will be bearable yet there will be enough sunshine to set one up for the long grey drag of the dreich Scottish winter.
Of course, by then, we shall know the result of the wretched Scottish referendum, whether further travels are on the horizon, e.g., becoming a refugee in England.

At least this month some of the elephants in the various rooms were recognised and their presence addressed. US giant, BlackRock asset management, waded into the debate. It swears its apolitical, but facts are facts. And the Standard Life bank’s ‘contingency Plan B’ was a facer for the Nats, plus Shell came out with their pragmatic views – after all, profits are their main concern.  Thus far, what amazes me is not one of the vast army of civil servants in Scotland appears to have had the wit to realise his or her job will go. Like the proverbial monkeys they seem to see, hear and speak nothing.
  Go ask a member of le Bloc Québécois; they thought they could retain their cushy Federal careers when the French Canadians decided they wanted ‘independence.’ They soon changed their minds.
  So, go your own way, Scotland, if you so wish – but say goodbye to the UK civil service.
  Also, the banks are fidgeting with disquiet. SL isn’t the only one looking to shift its operations south of the border – the RBS is, too. UK finance is largely centred on the City of London – the Square Mile. The banks can’t function without it.
  It’s time to get a grip.
  One day, when all this is over, and I’m living in Northumbria (or not, depending) history will look back and muse – how could they have been such fools?

Sadly, I didn’t get to the British School at Athens’s Greek day in Edinburgh.
 I forgot about registration until it was too late to send the fee. This isn’t like me, but so many demands impinge these days the cut-off date was gone before I realised. A pity – I wanted to hear Prof Catherine Morgan, Director of the BSA, re. the excavations on Ithaka.  
  Otherwise, nary a lot else on the go here, but earlier this month I was busy printing out the whole of the draft thesis Intro when there was a knock on the front door. Hoping the forty pages wouldn’t snarl in a paper jam, I answered the summons.
  A large young man stood there, waving a piece of paper.
  ‘Bathroom?’ he enquired laconically.
  ‘Bathroom?’ I echoed, at a loss, peering at the van parked outside.
  ‘Yeah. Bathroom.’ Not much improvement on the sparse Spartan syllables.
  ‘Ah, bathroom!’ Light dawned. Some months down the line from initial plan ...
  Concentrating on the thesis, I’d entirely forgotten the revamp.
  ‘Come to measure up,’ he said. (Four whole words!)
  Which he did. Pointing a laser device wall-to-wall took about five seconds.
  ‘Phone the office. Make an appointment. I’m off – order plumbing parts.’
  He was becoming almost garrulous.
  ‘How long do you think installation will take?’ I asked.
  He shrugged. ‘One – two hours?’
  ‘The office’ indicated three to five, which means I planned for the water being off the whole day. I know workmen.
  And the mess they make. The bathroom is now a total wreck.
  Och, well ~ it kicked off a necessary, if perfunctory, spring clean of post-winter dinginess. The cottage needs redecorating, but this must wait until one is post-research, etc. If at all. (Be positive!) Then I shall ‘retire’ – do voluntary work or some such, and follow the advice of François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire): ‘Cela est bien dit, répondit Candide, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin.’ 

Two minor plus points this month: i) BBC4s weathered the cull, and the dire BBC3 is to go instead. A small victory for culture over cr*p?  
  ii) Im impressed with the quality of journalism in The Big Issue. The BI attracts some heavyweights, and opinions which could grace the nationals  bar the redtops and the DM, of course. (Quality journalism they are not.) A little while ago the BI ran a hard-hitting piece on the Scottish independence referendum which was worthy of the Economist.

The Kindle consumption of fiction goes on apace – I have just finished The Book Thief. The K has altered – restored – former reading habits, but there’s bad news on our local library front. It’s being shunted to one side to make room for a new museum and gallery space. This is Andrew Carnegie’s very first donated public library, in his home town, but seemingly the Heritage Lottery Fund wouldn’t give the local council money for an upgrade unless they dropped the word ‘library.’ ‘Library’ is élitist – it excludes all those who cannot, or do not, read. Books are out – modern tech is in. The ‘library’ as such will retain one floor, combined with its ref section and a coffee shop (of course). Doubtless the ‘book section’ will contain a plethora of the likes of Jodie Piccoult et al, but quality literature? Most of the erstwhile stock has been boxed; it awaits collection by the local warehouse for Better World Books. You couldn’t make it up.

Even more locally, the ongoing Battle of the Harris Hawk’ has progressed to Community Council level. I also wrote in stiff legalistic terms to various Fife council persons about the never-ending noise. The county council is prone to buck-passing. At present it looks like we’ll end up at the Sheriff Court.
  If this is the only means by which I and my desperate neighbours can rid ourselves of the problem, so be it. The wretched creatures matured now; its huge.  

Meanwhile, progress is being made v/v #1 daughter’s wedding. I have no experience – having simply jetted into London long ago, from half a world away, and acquired a special licence. Everything else was project managed by one’s late father, who was brilliant at such enterprises. Wish he was around now – I’m unable to organise the details of my own life, let alone anyone else’s.

Picture credits: ‘spring clean’ pattern, generic image; Wm. Gibson, 2003 ‘Pattern Recognition,’ original artwork d/j, © G. P. Putnam’s Sons; cat / ‘It’s time ...,’ generic; 
Ithaka, ©
Carnegie blue plaque - Fife Council;

Friday, 28 February 2014

Research, opera & market forces

This was going to be a condensed post. The previous one was too long. And February is a short month.
  On the first of the month, my valued Vancouver contact mailed, à propos of thesis-writing, that ‘a journalist [...] tends to generate relatively spare prose, making word count a problem. H’m. Excessive wordage here more like – which has a scalpel ruthlessly applied! But yes, hitting an eighty to 100,000 word count is proving a struggle.
February started fair and promising – primroses and snowdrops were planted out, next to an infant birch tree by the broken-down fence, ‘When the short day is brightest’ (‘Four Quartets: Little Gidding’). How can you not love Eliot’s lines?
  The days are lighter earlier, when the fugitive sun consents to penetrate the uniform grey. On Groundhog Day sunshine gilded the hilltop opposite, although down here it was still shadowed until past noon. Every day adds minutes of daylight – albeit each morning is cautiously inspected between the blinds, to ascertain whether or not snow has fallen.
  It could be worse. Were very fortunate to be 400+ ft above sea-level, unlike the poor folk down south, who are not waving but drowning ...  
  Last night February put on a magnificent farewell colour show, the lights of the aurora borealis flaming across the skies from the coastal beaches of East Lothian to the northern shores of Aberdeen, as if all the old pagan gods were partying. (Purple-winged Boreas, who swept down from Thrace, was the ancient Greek god of winter and the north wind.)

This month was to contain a break away from ploughing on with Orpheus, albeit I did finish the first difficult draft of Chapter 5 (11,355 words) and went back to write Chapter 2 (purposely left blank until now) which drew forth not a few new angles and ideas quite exciting. Reviewing the figure’s cultural exchanges, and the value of considering the parallels between ancient Greece and modern Sf / fantasy, as well as the difficulties inherent in the ancient sources and the problems of drawing analogues, I kicked up something serendipitously – one of those moments when it seems a hidden process is taking place uncontrolled by the writer, when you punch the air, yelp a joyful ‘Gotcha!’ and swiftly wrap up your chapter with a satisfying ending ~ what journo types term a slug line.
  Good news from the Loeb Classical Library ~ its to go online in the autumn of this year. As long as its Greek errors aren’t reprod, this will make research life so-o much easier and cheaper, albeit no mention of cost as yet. ... 
  February 14 was also to hold a rare visit to the opera, the Eighteenth century Eccles Judgement of Paris, plus a supposed supervision at the university, too, but neither came to pass. The omens werent propitious from the off. I not only prefer to but must organise life in advance ~ albeit this doesnt work for everyone elses lives. As Burns quoth, The best-laid schemes, etc.  However, alternatives were proposed, so AOK (~ish) in the end. The supervision was a no-go, but the bonus week was very productive in terms of Chapter 2 ~ much burning of midnight oil, but 5,385 words in the can.
  When writing goes swimmingly, Im suspicious. Surely the quality aint good?
  I have RSI in my right wrist from mousing. No one tells you Ph.D stands for physical deterioration.’  

So, in sum, alas! no supervising but, O joy, I did get to Verdis Aida, on the 24th. A little detail entertained, re. the silly modern fashion for printing a capital ‘A’ as a Greek majuscule lambda (about which I’ve fulminated before now, dd. 09/02/2011). On the programme Aida’s name is displayed lambda – iota – delta – lambda, ΛIDΛ~ which spells ‘Lidl’ (Λιδλ). ...
 Ads in place are all very well, but isn’t this a mite complicated for those unfamiliar with Greek?!   

I also briefly re-researched the Templars, v/v t’other magnum opus reposing neglected on the back burner since launching this doctoral enterprise. Facts and theories all OK’d ~ unlike Wikipedia, many of whose ramblings on the knights should be taken with a massive pinch of salt. Wiki’s put a lock on alterations, due – they aver – to ‘vandalism.’ Probably a good thing: the Templars attract neo-ultra-fascists and fantasists for some reason. However, I wouldn’t dream of entering the Wiki-verse and attempting to insert even a minor citation, however laughable some of the more outré claims and factoids are. Aside from the research, I was amused by Maria Konnikova, New Yorker online, here: “[...] the more data we mine, and the closer we come to determining a precise calculus of sharing, the less likely it will be for what we know to remain true.”

It would be great to have an opportunity to go down to the MS Reading Room of the British Library, or rifle through the Bodleian, to consult the Cotton MSS, although it would probably not be a terribly productive exercise. What I need to verify is in Latin – and that language, alas, is not one of my competences. It’s not really important – we’re not talking a work of scholarly history here, so I merely ferreted around online and then neatly circumvented the more doubtful statements.
  In Sir Robert’s original library the MSS were housed in presses surmounted by busts of the twelve Caesars and two Imperial women; they run from Julius to Faustina. The shelf marks of Cottonian manuscripts are headed ‘Cotton MS [emperor]’ followed by a Roman numeral or letter and then the part or folio number, e.g., Cotton MS Vitellius A. XII. This meant the volume was the twelfth from the left on the top shelf (A), surmounted by a bust of the Emperor Vitellius. Sure beats the Dewey decimal system!
  There are fourteen shelves on the big library book stack here. What can one think up in a Greek vein? The Olympic twelve, say, plus the names of Sappho and Helen of Troy? Or maybe twelve Athenians, together with two females such as Perikles’s mistress Aspasia and Hypatia of Alexandria, just to make my strange system even more odd.
  In 1602-03, the bibliophile Cotton gifted around a dozen volumes to Sir Thomas Bodley (d. 1613), the first major donation of manuscript documents to the Bod at Oxford. Sir Robert also made the mistake of loaning MSS to his friends – and, like many a borrowed book, these were never returned to him. The loss of the unique Life of King Alfred the Great in a fire in 1731 was a tragedy, but at least we have Beowulf – which we would not possess had it not been for Sir Robert Cotton, Bart.

2014’s projected foray to the sun ~ research is ongoing. Ephesus to Troy, the Aegean littoral: Apollo at Didyma, Miletus, Homer’s Smyrna, Pergamon ...
It requires investigation; many archaeological tours take in mosques and post~Greek / Roman eras and I’m not interested in much outside my own field. Turkey is a vast country, and my time’s always limited; it’s a case of constructing one’s route carefully.
  Thus, February also meant a hurried application for replacement passport, which arrived very fast. Thank you, HMPO ~ I am free to go!
In fact, much of this month was taken up with paper-type tasks. Having de-cluttered after the annual January stock-take, assets were another, if separate, ‘issue.’ I’m no financial whizz, but I do wish more women had a grasp of realities, were better financially educated, e.g., even I can see holes in proposals to ‘cap’ pension fund admin charges. If people, and especially women, were more capable and savvy they’d make
their own arrangements – the more so now, when the divorce rate is so high. If I can do this it’s not rocket science! The main snag is the incremental admin costs being levied on would-be future ‘pensioners.’ One provider’s estimate is ca. quarter of a million £s, to make for a reasonable pot, without too many frills. (Are they serious?) Calculate 1% of £250,000 and you’ll understand why ‘admin’ is so lucrative for the industry. One per cent, say, in the first year won’t alarm – 1% year on year will. In year two you’ll be paying another 1% for the first year, over again, plus the 1% for the second year and so on, annually. The ‘pot’ will increase; every twelve months you will have another year’s worth of contributions. Work it out, over your professional life – extra-specially if you intend to take career breaks. Career breaks and children are costly.
  Don’t factor your home into the equation, nor rely on a husband; either or both may not be around forever.
  It doesn’t require a PhD in aero-space technology. ...

Picture credits: primroses © Edwina_Beaumont-Plantlife_lo-res.jpg; Loeb logo ©;  statue, © RSD Travel; cash box, Google images.