Thursday, 15 January 2015

MMXV & travel in mind

A specific against the January blues ~ travel plans for the year.
  It’s not that one doesn’t have anything to do ~ one does. Lots ~ but a Scottish winter is so cold, dreich, grey and long, January’s the best month for poring over travel guides and deciding on destinations for the coming year. Brochures are being shoved through the letterbox. The travel industry knows perfectly well when we are at our most vulnerable.

So far, rough plans are sketched in for a spring break in the Low Countries, and away to Tuscany in early autumn.  #2 daughter wishes to return to Turkey, but this can wait. Besides, we can’t visit there in summer ~ not with an ambient temperature of 55°C!  On the other hand, having written a short travel piece on Turkey, the  company sent me a hard-to-ignore invitation to explore further ~ at their expense.
  I wish ... 
  Time. Its always about time.

The Niew Jaar has not started out propitiously. The dog days of the season – 24 December to Epiphany – never augur well for me.  It’s something to do with a hangover from the previous year (no, not that kind of hangover – merely Things Not Done needing to be merged with a list of Things To Be Done). When I first moved into this cottage it was midwinter, so everything falls around this time, e.g., house insurance. This leads to a fractured multi-tasking state of mind, Janus-faced, looking both ways like the old Roman god.

Otherwise, last week we took off for Cheshire to visit first grandchild ~ a very happy experience.  I so seldom travel south of the Border in anything other than aeroplanes it made a change to be on the ground. But, for someone who daydreams of Housman’s ‘country for easy livers, | The quietest under the sun,’ the sub-urban north-west is as noisy as Athens or Rome, loud with police and ambulance sirens night and day.   
  Here at home one Sunday night wasn’t quiet. The alarm system began bleeping, issuing directives on a rising panic scale, to ‘alert’ me to a problem.  A cheerfully efficient young man fixed it toot sweet, within twenty minutes of phoning the security firm.  In this day and age service like this amazes me. This is the UK. With its failing NHS, dilatory government services, appalling public transport (and even worse roads) GB is the most incompetent country under the sun. However, returning from down south, the bleeping re-manifested itself. Due to last week’s hurricane force winds and Scotland-wide storm damage, we were fortunate not to be one of the ca. 140,000 households without power or water supplies ~ many lost both. An alarm is a minor if annoying inconvenience, but fixing the system was a challenge.  
  Until this winter I hadn’t heard the term ‘polar vortex’ but, triggered by plunging temperatures in the US colliding with warmer southern air, an ultra-powerful jet stream made westerly gales slam into the rear of the cottage.  I thought the bedroom window was going to cave in.  I wonder how we’d cope with a planet-sized catastrophe.
  At time of writing, were being blanketed with snow. I hate snow. Unfortunately, we live too high above sea-level to escape it. Getting the car up or down Main Street is hazardous, slip-sliding all over the place.

A few days break from academic thesis research / writing was beneficial. The mind can become stuck, forgetting there’s a world out there. To get away from il mondo accademico requires la forza della mente and actual physical removal from home, or else the computer’s blank screen is reproachful and the guilt gets me.  Oddly, when research and writing goes well (OK, amend that: ‘seemingly goes well,’) concentration in the normal world suffers a lack. Unfortunately, when thesis work is not progressing, ditto ...
  H’m. Summat wrong there, methinks.
  To date, aside from a reluctance to re-immerse oneself in the research, theres been no advisory notification regarding the university’s spring Review. Can I rest easy?  It seems I’ve lapsed into default book writing mode. Decoding Orpheus and Greek mythology is a multifaceted undertaking but if composition comes too painlessly perhaps it should be viewed with suspicion. This task was never meant to be easy, m’girl.  A thousand words a day is all very well, but are they the right words, eh?
 Dating’s complex. I’m familiar with the useful handles of archaeology, but with myths and their histories you work it out for yourself.  At research level you should be doing so, and clues aren’t that dissimilar from potsherds or grave goods.   
  I’ve wandered all over the Med and Aegean, and picked up little broken bits of coarseware and terracotta from differing eras lying about at surface level. Sometimes it’s possible to identify them by colour or glaze, the temper in the clay, or by a scrap of incised Geometric design or a tiny speck of paint. The fragments can be aeons old but they’re curiously touching ~ domestic remains which have survived for thousands of years.   
  There was never a sudden eclipse of ancient cultures.  No one woke up one morning and declared, ‘Hey! Today’s the beginning of the Iron Age,’ – a New Year dawn with yesterday dead.  Every change was a gradual process, not an overnight sensation.  As with Orpheus, random pieces of cultures, societies or religions endure. There are ‘bits’ scattered all over the place.  I just have to find them, and hopefully fit them together without too much modern clay filling the gaps.

Satirical cartoons are not worth one life, let alone 17, but the the wider implications are matters for humanity, beyond considerations of difference and nationalism: Je suis Charlie was adopted fast by international media (who love a catchy shorthand token) but Le Monde has been less hysterical than the UK press. Hopefully our responses won’t be muddied and muddled by pedantic pundits and political opinions ~ let alone the sensationalist UK redtop ‘translations’ of serious issues which concern us all. The revolutionary French Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1789 stated: The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
  By LAW, not by vigilantes or terrorists.
  However, 1.5 million people marched in Paris on 11 January. I assume they believe a malignancy must be eradicated (which sounds perilously like the ultra-right-wing Marine Le Pen’s National Front) but the focus should be the basic human evil rooted in Jihadi Joe and his fellows. This is l'année européenne 2015, not 1436. As Will Self* has said, disaffected marginal elements enforcing their take on ‘religion’ with AK-47s in a Jewish supermarket is symptomatic of an ‘egotism that grew like a cancer – a lust for status and power and “significance” which metastasised through these murderers’ brains.’
Header photo, JAS, © 2012; Kalliope, Orpheus: Antikenmuseum und Sammlung Ludwig, Basel, Switzerland
No: Basel BS481,; *Will Self,; Se rappeler les douze victimes de l’attentat contre Charlie Hebdo, © Google; Paris march, Le - Actualité à la Une;

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

And now the 2015 show ...

2014’s been an unsettling year, overall.  I guess this was more than a little due to the effects of memorialising the First World War, and will probably endure until 11 am on 11 November, 2018.
  The startling thing about the media overkill was all those archive letters from the Western Front – the pencil notes to loved ones at home. The letters, in the main, are written in clear legible hands, accurately spelled and grammatically correct. So many were written by ordinary working class men, not the officer class – men who gaily left the fields of the shires or the mines, the railways and factories of the north, and went to France and Belgium to fight a war which was supposed to ‘be over by Christmas’ and wasn’t.  The contrast of the letters with today’s basic educational levels is very marked.
  Looking at man’s everlasting conflicts, the arena of war and our obsession with its fall-out, its ‘collateral damage,’ we’re passive TV spectators. We haven’t advanced any from watching gladiators die in the blood and sand of Roman amphitheatres. But I’m just a cock-eyed observer of less-than-civilised human habits.  
  I heard an expression lately, one my parents were prone to use: ‘san ferry ann.’ It used to puzzle me. Thanks to Google, I traced it to the trenches. When Tommy Atkins arrived in France he changed French to sound like English. Thus ça ne fait rien, ‘it does not matter,’ became an Army catchphrase signifying resigned acceptance of the situation.

Time moves on. The Greeks had two kinds of time: a linear method of measurement and an expression of there being a right and proper moment for action or change. The first was to do with quantity and length, the second was quality.  I’d rather have the latter, thank you.

Christmas came and went, all very traditional. The drive up along the Tay estuary, bright cold sunlight reflecting off the sandbanks; frost on the grass verges, the leafless beech woods busy with birds. Wood burning stoves, a token tree, chat and cheerful warmth; turkey dinner and lots of wine; presents, telephone calls to family elsewhere, etc. And no viewing of rubbish TV.
  But I am less and less enchanted by our latter-day winter Saturnalia, once the ‘feast of Christ.’  The admen have hi-jacked it with their accent on Mammon and shopping.  At a time when people are queuing at food banks, you do wonder exactly where the message was lost in translation. The Greek word for ‘Mammon,’ μαμμωνάς, occurs in the parable of the Unjust Steward and the Sermon on the Mount. (The etymological explanation that it is a Syriac loan word is entirely imaginary.)  
  Mammon incarnate, the massive Tesco emporium, issued another profits warning recently.  I’d feel pity for ‘em, were I so moved, but I’m not.  
  Food banks are a reminder of South Africa, after the demise of the white Afrikaaner government. There were soup kitchen queues in well-to-do residential areas such as Constantia and Rondesbosch in Cape Town. You’d think it would have been non-white South Africans, but those from the townships were used to the miserable pressures of poverty – hunger, poor health and nutrition. The white middle class wasn’t, and it had to re-adjust to new realities practically overnight.

So, no real thesis effort was made in December; too many distractions, and scooting hither and yon. But Chapter One is now over ten thousand words ~ again ~ and expanding; Chapter Fours over 12K, Chapter Threes gaining. ... 
  To date, the whole stands at 56,940 words ~ after its most recent ruthless pruning exercise. Which means another 46,060 to find, if its to make the 100K.  Still, combining all the chapters together into a first draft document (166 pages) has highlighted its weaknesses as well as its strengths. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts; I can deal with the glaring lacunae I now perceive on the page.’ I sent the MS (as it stands) to the Kindle, and am so-o delighted with myself surely such hubris must attract Nemesis.  (The K faithfully reprod the Greek, and even wrought my footnotes into EndNote. Brilliant little piece of tech.)
  The more I unravel the strands of Orpheus’s myth, the more conflicting elements emerge. Bits of his ‘history’ simply don’t fit together, but have become so embedded in what we call ‘the myth of Orpheus’ we don’t see the glaring inconsistencies. I blame the Romans (naturally!) Vergil in particular displays the welding of two disparate eras together, but he must have inherited it from somewhere, almost certainly Greek poetry ~ and Ovid’s mythologising was a response to Vergil’s epic.  Further excavations indicate it wasn’t only Vergil: the Greeks, too, re-drew the Thracian figure for their own purposes. This was ancient practice, but it’s confusing for a poor beleaguered researcher thousands of years down the line.  And, as I suspected, the rigid connotations attached to the myth are not actually secure.
  Writing and re-writing is like Jenga. The outline three-dimensional structure of the thesis tower is 99% complete. Now I’m manipulating, carefully removing ‘blocks’ and shifting chunks between chapters, etc.  The object is to do so and yet not allow the ‘building to fail. It bears comparisons with a game of Just A Minute, and must be done without hesitations, repetitions or deviations.  Harder than you think. ... 
  Classical research is a process of finding and collecting pieces which may, or may not, fit together, i.e., trying to resurrect a whole edifice from scanty surviving relics and ruins. 

NY resolutions for 2015?  The workable, not the impossible, i.e., with a realistic chance of success. As allegedly inscribed on Delphic Apollo’s temple: ‘Gnōthi seauton ~ know thyself. 
  I do.
  I’d quit smoking if I could return to singing. And thats about as likely as snow in August.

2014 and all that: as usual, discoveries and disappointments about equal.
  Individual favourite item of the year ~ new coffee machine: I love this appliance, but it isn’t one of those dinky contraptions which only use expensive plastic capsules. It’s a proper little workhorse.  Espresso consumption’s escalated as a consequence.
  Best triumph of the year ~ failure of Nats to impose their ‘independence’ on Scotland.
  Best book: Adam Nicolson’s ‘The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters.’
  Number one media personality of 2014: Prof Mary Beard. Despite the BBC now trawling for new presenters, I can’t see there’s much wrong with the old(er) ones ~ not where the Classical world is concerned.
  Preferred TV ~ BBC4. How did we survive without this channel? Or was Beeb2 more cultured in ye olden golden days?
  2014 discovery ~ Lidl’s Continental goodies: proper chocolate, Italian imports and flavoured olive oil.
  Now-much-loved tech: the Kindle. I shouldn’t have been a Luddite. I still cherish the heft of real books, but the K has its place. Although I thought it couldnt really handle Greek, and illustrations (if available) were hazy, I found out how efficiently it copes when I sent the draft today. Miracle machine.
  The best experience (apart from arrival of grandchild this month!) was standing on the ancient walls of Troy and sensing, time out of mind, the ghostly genius loci of the place.

Greatest neighbourhood improvement, by a country mile? We finally lost the miserable screeching Harris hawk. I guess even its owner became fed up with the noise. I don’t where she went, but she’s gone and has been replaced by a smaller male bird. He beadily eyes people through the mesh of his shed, and jingles his jesses, but no crying he makes. ...

We’re under siege.  Plans are circulating to develop green field sites and so double the size of the village. There is also a proposal to erect a 250ft wind turbine less than a kilometre to the south west.  Both these insanities are contrary to current planning guidelines. But I’m tired of fighting rearguard actions on local issues. It only seems to happen here. The East Neuk is safe ~ too many big farms and estates over there, as well as being much further from Edinburgh.
The council weasels its way around contentious concerns. Notices of ‘public’ consultations are poorly advertised, then they piously bleat, ‘There have been no objections to [whatever].’  The reason?  They changed the name of the proposal – ergo, no objections. Changing a name does not, apparently, take prior objections along with it. The purpose is to claim there are no objections and thus endorse approval.  I did attempt to log onto a web address for ‘comments,’ but it was either a broken link or did not exist.  Mere mortals cannot hope to keep pace with these self-appointed gods of planning ~ not one of whom resides here, naturally.  These are the Nitby gods ~ ‘not in their backyards.’

Time wreaks changes. The ruins of Killernie Castle are at the southwest extremity of Saline
Hill (above L) on the top of which sits an ancient megalithic hillfort. Killernie, once known as the Castle of Balwearie, was owned by the Scotts, (one of whom was said to be Sir Michael Scott, knight and wizard). The ruins (R) now consist only of fragments of two towers. The southern one, said to be the more recent, bears the date 1592. Most of the castle’s stone was robbed out and can be found in the walls of surrounding farms and steadings.

Heigh~ho, a new year: church bells and fireworks at midnight for Janus-faced January ... 
  But the winter solstice is over: the northern days are lengthening.
  I wonder if we’ll still be here at the end of 2015?
  Tutti i migliori auguri, as the Italians say.  Libiamo ne' lieti calici.’ (Verdi)

Picture credits: midnight-clock, Google images; poppies, Tower of London,; Saline Hill and Killernie Castle, © Paul McIlroy licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Nine lives ... or losing my marbles?

I’m currently keeping a sharp eye on the Great Elgin Marbles Debate, albeit, in common with many such as Prof Mary Beard, remaining resolutely on the fence ~ precarious as the fence is.
  It’s impossible to judge the rights and wrongs of ancient artefacts currently reposing in foreign museums, far from their origins.  #1 daughter blogged last week on the action of advancing a reasonable point that nobody would really disagree with and using it to justify a more extreme point,here and this is whats happened to the Elgin debates. The Ottoman Empire was one contributor to the rape of Greek and Ionian treasures, the Nineteenth century’s political realities another. (The Ottomans cared nothing for what they viewed as non-Moslem pagan art, and were burning marble to obtain lime for mortar.) Schliemann smuggled ‘Priam’s Treasure’ out of Turkey (it’s now in Moscow’s Pushkin museum) and Germany built Turkish railways and then carted off Pergamum’s Great Altar of Zeus (now in Berlin).  No mean task: it’s huge.
  What’s the solution? I don’t think there is one.
  (And, Wikipedia ~ please learn how to spell ‘frieze.’)

It’s not only the feline who has nine lives around here.  It appears its owner does, too.
  #1 life ~ the reader: The Kindle accompanied me on travels through Turkey.  I’ve come to
Bonnie on the bookcase
love this flat little notebook-sized piece of tech ~ not least because I no longer have to lug weighty tomes in my baggage ~ but it’s not really capable of taking on more academic type volumes. The footnotes cause a problem. Some of my research volumes have pages which are more than half made up of footnotes.  But, for ordinary reading, the K’s fine.
  #2 life ~ the researcher: This is the life with a limited duration. It has an expiry date. ‘Research’ and ‘writer’ are concatenated together, but in practice are separate exercises. And reading because you want to and reading because you have to require different mind-sets.  
  #3 life is an extension: writing, and book people. This life is part of #1 and #2 lives, but leans to the critical (or picky) side.  As a reader of Greek mythology I become impatient with inaccuracies, especially with authors and editors who don’t know omega from alpha, i.e., their Odyssey from their Argonautika.  A case in point: one woman’s written, ‘The Argonauts were told to block their ears up with wax. [...] Odysseus got Orpheus to sing and play his lyre so loudly that the Sirens’ song could not be heard. Consequently, the Argo passed by safely, and the Sirens secured no victims. ...’
  Eh? Odysseus wasn’t on the Argo.  Orpheus was. Get it right, or don’t bother.
  I shant review that one.  I tend to attract brickbats for pointing out elementary errors. Besides, I dont have time for reviewing these days. 
  #4 life’s the online one: rapidly becoming not for me.  Perhaps this is to do with the increase in advertising for TV programmes which I have no desire to view, e.g., anything which employs ‘celebrity’ or ‘X’ in its title, or is a soap opera. News and current affairs are so dismal I avoid them – our recent venture east reminded me I can exist very happily without hourly updates on petty trifling domestic Scottish politics or the Life of Cameron et al.
  #5 life ~ family and animals. Not to be confused with each other. Family is about to be augmented with the anticipated arrival of #1 daughter’s first infant, and ‘animals’ is now limited to the one resident feline where once there were four cats and two horses.
  #6 life is travel and other pursuits, e.g., music and arts. This one is ongoing. Travel is my perpetual thing to be looked-forward-to. You can’t live in Scotland without hankering for the sun. And I can’t exist without music. I recently discovered Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Why it took so long is because I broadly dislike that particular Strauss; his Four Last Songs are just too doom-laden, worse than Mahler. The 1981 Berliner Philharmoniker recording of Eine Alpensinfonie was the first CD ever to be pressed, conducted by von Karajan (Greek descent: Karajánnis).
 #7 life ~ projects and planning, a.k.a. the road to hell. Ongoing ~ Jane’s perpetually cycling Five Year Plans defeated by DIY, i.e., Jane’s inability to progress her schemes to fruition.
  #8 life’s the routine one. Self-explanatory.
  #9 life ~ there isn’t one ...

The thesis has taken a back seat and the university semester’s winding down. The progress report is ~~ one officially gave in and re-wrote a truncated ‘Intro.’ in precisely one thousand words (erstwhile journo habits die hard) e.g., “I will be showing ...”, “Chapter One will demonstrate ...”  etc.  It’s clean, it’s clear and concise.  IOW, it’s on the damnably dull and kindergarten level of ‘I will tell you [...]’ ~ ‘I am telling you [...],’ and ‘I have told you [...]’ and so on. But hey! ~ if it gets the job done it’ll be OK.  I figure if I can’t beat ‘em needs must join ‘em ~ anything to wrench the albatross from around my neck.  The exercise proved beneficial in that it had the same effect as outlining ~ clarified the thing. All’s to do, of course, but it’s beginning to seem as if it might make sense.
  Overall, a cheerful little bunny, pro tem. That flickering light at the end of the tunnel just brightened.  And Chapter One’s also been pruned, made more logical, reduced to manageable proportions. Although its scope is such the word count will creep up if not reined back.

  An early New Year resolution’s been made: plan what’s to be done tomorrow before you wrap today.  I know ~ shouldve done this lang syne, but it’s not my usual writing MO. I do what I feel like doing ~ not a good idea v/v research write-ups.
  And, for a diversion, I drafted the covers artwork. The painting itself was no problem ~ finding its exact whereabouts in Italy was. (Attributions are important.) Hunting through my bookcases, I eventually ran it to earth.  
  I did all this while domestic chaos raged. 
  A contractor was ‘in,’ resurfacing the bath (it now looks pristine-new, v. impressed!) so it was generator, extractor fans + spraying machine on full blast.  #2 daughter was home at the time, so there were also three radios going, on different stations, and the cat was hopping around, wild-eyed, disturbed by the noise and the awful smell of the white enamel – it made my eyes water, so goodness only knows what it did to the feline’s sensitive nose.  But, if one can work under these circs guess one can work anywhere. Tho’ I’d prefer not to feel ‘poisoned’ by chemicals wafting around the house.

The current bleat I have (she’s being ultra-Classically-picky, again) is the appearance of ‘Orpheus’ in BBC One’s ‘Atlantis.’ A blind seer? Aw, come on! Aspects of Homer, Demodokos, Teiresias. And Eurydike has been miraculously resurrected ... 
  Alright, it ain’t ‘real’ Greek myth.  It’s only fantasy TV, on a par with Game of Thrones, Percy Jackson, or even Peter Jackson murdering The Hobbit.
  But is this youthful Jason character ever going to get to build the Argo?

Otherwise, Christmas has taken a back seat, too. We are, as ever, having a clan gathering; Tayside this year, not up north. I don’t want to stray too far from home soil. With #1 daughter’s baby due, an extra 125 miles or so would increase an already long journey south by another third. The ‘clan’ has dwindled. These days, sons and daughters make their lives elsewhere.  Some on the opposite side of the globe.

καλές γιορτές ~ may your days be merry and bright.

Picture credits: Parthenon frieze panel, © Google images; black cat, pen & watercolour © J.-A. Shaw, 2014;  Blind Homer, William-Adolphe Bouguereau