Sunday, 15 November 2015

Turning my back on the world

Update: Over these recent non-blogging months life’s been mostly thesis effort, i.e., more reading, more writing. While I did free-up hours of concentration, it’s not been easy to ignore the ongoing impact of the outside world. The outside world persists in obtruding.
  We aborted the Turkey trip. Problematic family concerns, fears and reservations were raised, and although I spent ages agonising over pros and cons eventually the cons won out. OK, a lot of prepaid monies were down the drain – insurance did not cover the outlays, because there were no FCO restrictions on travel.  But, given the situation in the ME, being monitored, or told we couldn’t go somewhere in Istanbul because of suspicions or possible anti-government activities, it was better to settle for not going at all.  Western travellers are soft targets.  I had no wish to spend all our time looking over my shoulder. Cancelling out of hand was less worrying.
  Earlier this year, when I made the booking, there was little to be concerned about. In the interim the barbarism and Dark Age mentalité of Daa’ish happened, Tunisia happened; Syria’s gone up in flames and the diaspora of refugees, augmented by those from Afghanistan and Iraq, is washing up on the shores of Europe.
  Maybe it would have been OK, maybe it wouldn’t. The loss of the Russian tourist flight from Sharm el’Sheikh tipped the balance.  It reminded too much of Lockerbie.  
  And now last Friday’s attacks in Paris, cradle of the Enlightenment. ...

A lot doesn’t reach our insular news services – the FCO is slow to update, and I obtain data from Reuters or AP.  CNN, Channel 4 and the BBC can be too inward-looking ~ even Aljaz doesn’t always report on the impact of wider issues. (Yesterday, when BBC24 was covering Paris, Aljaz was showing ‘news’ about Dubai’s fleet of double-decker Airbuses.) Our world is indeed a global village: what happens at the other end of the ‘village street’ matters. It may not appear to be of moment to Mrs Jones or Mrs Smith playing Bingo or Scrabble with their fellow pensioners, but it matters nonetheless.
  I find myself looking inward, too: my world is contracting to Jane Austen-like local dimensions.  One’s concerns are minor – not footling but they have no importance in the universe at large. Nevertheless, I sha’n’t cease adventuring. I refuse to dwindle into a wee Scots wifie who talks to her cat, potters about in quilted anorak and gardening trousers and takes annual sunshine trips no further than the Channel Islands or the Canaries.  Life has much broader horizons to offer. But contemplating far-flung destinations now involves an atlas.  After the loss of Turkey and Istanbul I looked at Malta’s archipelago – five islands in the Central Med., south of Sicily (which is easily reached by a boat trip).  On the other hand, it’s north of Libya and east of Tunisia and, with my unfailing record of picking war zones ... 

À la recherche du temps perdu. In September, after exhaustive online searches, I managed to source a copy of a TV programme I particularly wanted to view (Metamorpheus, BBC2, 2000). After negotiations I was permitted to borrow a DVD via inter-varsity loan (apparently unheard of: DVDs are too easy to copy). I sallied forth to the campus to watch the 45 minute recording, which featured an Oxford classicist and a modern poet. In that era, ca. 1999, when there was no BBC4, and factual BBC2 programming dominated most evenings from 7.30pm until the end of Newsnight, the main preoccupation was how the channel might broaden the offering – and, one suspects, the target audience. This was definitely not how to do it.

The quality was poor: obviously a VHS recording transferred to DVD. But now I know what my slant on the Orpheus myth should NOT be! While the two protagonists went to extraordinary lengths to prove their take on the ‘real’ Orpheus, all that emerged is a frightfully precious, pretentious essay that at times is visually ridiculous. If I’d seen this aery-faery programme when it was first broadcast I would have been put off Orpheus for life!    
  There was a great deal of self-consciously poetical narrative, some of it cobbled together in rhyming couplets, attempting to place Orpheus’s decapitated head (a floating wax model, I assume?) within the real geographic landscape of the river Hebros, with the poet declaiming how Poetry will never die, etc. There were romantic soft-focus scenic shots of Bulgaria, which contributed nothing to the film’s topic, merely high-lighting the flimsy core ~ in other words, TV padding. The Oxford professor even made the 10 hour ferry crossing from Turkey to Lesvos. (I don’t believe he would care to be doing that at present.)

However, it was bemusing how they managed to swallow some extraordinary tales about Orpheus, as spun by local experts in various Balkan venues. It seems the visitors were told only what they wanted to hear. I was forced to purchase a collection of the film’s verse, to try and make sense of whatever the theme was attempting to convey. I isolated a couple of angles in the recording which informed my research, so not a total waste of time, but it was particularly striking how various incompatible bits of 3rd c. BC Greek literature, a Roman coin plus a highly creative use of Otto Kern’s Greek fragments could be made to testify for Orpheus. An Aweful Warning about avoiding anachronistic pitfalls!

Having finalised Chapter 6, not without difficulties, I launched into the preliminaries of the conclusions chapter, albeit merely blocking it in (inc. updates on Neil Gaiman’s Orpheus).  This may have been unwise. Re-reading, re-writing, re-casting and so forth should come first – what I term the ‘blue print’ – but to be able to see it properly I need space between me and the work (which is why we have editors!) To date, I have 2,480 words of final deliberations. The writing muse demands and stuff must be committed to paper or screen, but it’s an access of faux energy caused by the desire to finish. This is normal for me. Heaven only knows what goes on in the mechanics of my mind. But, get that draft chapter parked out of the way and I can begin revisions / excisions / replacing / re-writing / ‘academicising’.  Going by previous experiences, the ‘blue print’ stage will take the same amount of time as the original MS if I let it.  As long as it doesn’t occupy another four years I’ll be happy.  There are a lot of questions to be asked about practicalities. Not simply set-up requirements for printing (margins, spacing and so forth) but a parallel electronic submission as well. The student handbook is for youthful computer fiends ~ it assumes we all comprehend what it’s talking about, although the university IT people do come back with sensible answers to questions about software, .docs and .pdfs.  And emails landed in my uni account, offering academic editing. I calculated 100,000 words at 1.2p per word. Me-eh! As editorial services stack up, that’s something over the odds. However, OUP are to publish a 2016 title which started life as a PhD research thesis at erstwhile institution, its author years ahead of me. One is made despondent by his classical scope and presentation, fearing my own effort’s too lightweight.
  I’ve set myself a personal finishing line of Friday 16 Sept 2016. This date is totally arbitrary, plucked out of thin air, but deadlines concentrate the mind. 

With the demise of Brian Sewell on 19 September, I decided to post a review of his South from Ephesus: Travels in Aegean Turkey on Amazon. I’m aware Sewell was not to everyone’s taste, but I like this book immensely. It’s a classic of its time: an admixture of art history, ancient classics and travelogue, and reminds of nothing so much as Freya Stark’s Eastern wanderings. It combines honesty, in-depth knowledge, self-awareness and idiosyncratic humour with a deep appreciation of Turkey and its people. Sewell visited the country regularly, occasionally on journalistic commissions from one of the heavy Sundays. South from Ephesus is a compilation of experiences and impressions from the decade between 1976 and 1986. He claimed it was a self-indulgent book; the language certainly is, but if you’re familiar with Sewell’s precise enunciation and crystalline vowels you can mentally hear his infamous English diction echoing in the written narrative.

Another birthday came and went. As with Christmas, these anniversaries come around too often. We scooted off up to the Tay. If I hadn’t left the house I’d only have immersed myself in the thesis. Besides, I wanted to borrow one of my sister’s books on ancient Bulgaria. It has proved very useful, detailing information unavailable from such as travel guides. It was written at a time when academic refs, e.g., Herodotos, Xenophon et al, were provided as a matter of course, making life simpler. Original Greek texts shouldn’t change, even if the English translated versions do. However, the Joint Library at Senate House turned up trumps with a new Loeb edition of Theocritus, Moschus and Bion, which arrived here from London within 24 hours. In the space of a morning I’d traced one vital line that agrees neither with Perseus’s digital Greek online version nor with another early 20th c. print version. When is an aorist not an aorist?!  Such fun. The perils of Greek.  But I figure Harvard does its homework. 

The epic dental saga continues – JAS’s Dentiad. One perfect porcelain tooth now happily in place, four to go. Someday I’ll smile again.
  Moral: don’t fall off horses and don’t collide with showjumping fences ...

November and its gloomy prospect, the long dark ~ four Hadean months of it: a third of a year. No wonder the old northern pagans marked it with Samhuinn (a festival, not a death god). I’ll tolerate it, but being deprived of Mediterranean sun this year is unhelpful.
  A lot depends on stress levels. Stress leads directly to its inevitable corollary of depression – they’re polar extremes, opposite states of being: one high, t’other low.

Meanwhile, the world outside goes on apace, and I try to ignore it. 

Picture credits: Study of a cat: F.E. Jackson, ARA (1873-1945) pencil, pen and ink, © 1975, Royal Academy of Arts; Neil Gaiman, Sandman: image © Chris Close,; Sewell, B. South from Ephesus jacket © 2008;

Friday, 31 July 2015

ave atque vale

July’s been a mélange of a month ~ a mix of lethargic aestivating and doing bits of this and that but not really finishing anything, or reaching any goals. ‘Aestivating’ is possibly the wrong word – it’s rained here with tropical ferocity, off and on. In between, nothing like summer days should be. As hazily recalled from childhood (inevitably) – long and hot, relaxing in hay fields or picnicking by streams. If climate change is Gaia’s vengeance for our despoiling of planet earth, this summer her revenge has mostly fallen on Scotland.  In buckets.

Anthony Trollope
Between the heavy tomes of Greek mythology and the scratchy process of thesis writing, I’m still forging my way through Anthony Trollope; He Knew He Was Right (a study of corrosive and possessive jealousy) and Framley Parsonage (the salutary tale of a debt owed by an unworldly clergyman) with a few characters from Dr Thorne making appearances.  Trollope wrote forty-eight novels – three times as many as Dickens (I sha’n’t be ploughing through his oeuvre!) – and, unusually for a Victorian male novelist, T. displays an understanding of women as well as angry and bitter men suffering frustration and irrational suspicions (the tragedy of He Knew He Was Right).  Can You Forgive Her? was an accurate picture of a man cracking under the strain of a kind of madness. Trollope’s Irish common sense bred a sceptical attitude to the mores of Victorian society.  You have to read certain writers in the round, as ‘twere. Trollope has ‘dated’ less than Dickens and Hardy, but the cherry-picking attitudes of current Eng. Lit ‘teaching to the exam’ doesn’t allow for this. Today’s kids never get the whole picture. (Neither did a ponderous course I once took on The Victorian Novel – the usual suspects et al – which leaned towards reading through an anachronistic feminist lens.)
THESIS: Is – and is not – gradually assembling itself. It’s like chasing fugitive globules of mercury.  However, on 29 July the word count reached 77,420.  Balance remaining: 22,580 max.  Considering notional length of Chapter 7 (‘Conclusions’) plus addenda, this should be enough?  Until I take an editorial scalpel to it ...
 With regard to a supervisory debate about using ‘science fiction’ in full, as opposed to shortening it to SF (as in SF/fantasy) I did some delving.  In the main the shorthand’s ‘SF’.  As this makes life easier for me, I will return to ‘SF’, employing ‘science fiction’ (or even ‘science-fiction’) only at first use in the relevant chapter, thereafter ‘SF’ or ‘s-f.’ Either appears accepted academic practice in the genre. There are as many nit-picking categorical directives on this question as there are authorities across the field.  It really does seem up to the individual writer. I prefer a natural flow of words, but I sha’n’t lose sleep over the question.
   Writing out in full would bump up the word count, but – fingers X’d, pro tem – said count is accumulating. Anyway, one should keep a quantity in reserve for the rewrite (again, inevitable).
A PhD thesis is such a long and arduous process I’m beginning to feel some minuscule fraction of the award is for sheer stickability – for getting there against all the odds. I have a lot of ‘odds’ to weather – commitments, sporadic requisitions of my time for people and tasks. But I need some time off.  One can become too obsessed. And lonely.
 And time ticks on.  One should bear in mind Simonides’ long-winged fly.   
  The prime factor is time, which is at a premium: a lack of it affects thinking, reading or writing.  I curtail expenditure of it as much as possible, so as not to waste it. Major domestic exercises, like keeping the fridge and freezer full, mean everything’s ordered online: home deliveries scheduled, or click‘n’collect incorporated into car journeys ferrying the daughter to / from work. The house itself is neglected: the cat’s pawprints leave mysterious feline hieroglyphic messages in the dust.
   I’ve been on this Classical quest for approximately fourteen years: an initial degree, thence to MA and thus to PhD.  I aim to work 9.30am to 5.00pm, with an hour and a half for lunch.  This doesn’t always happen – midnight lucubrations feature, as well as emails, etc.  (And, along with a new BT hub, now Windows 10’s to download.  More techie issues loom. Aaagh! Mamma mia! The precious thesis Word docs?) But I try to adhere to ‘office hours,’ with an odd half day or so off.  Don’t believe idealised notions about intellectual ivory towers; this is hard graft, and constantly under siege from real life demands (and ‘Persons from Porlock,’ vide S.T. Coleridge, 1797). My research isn’t going to set the heather alight – it’s not life-changing genetics, or awe-inspiring quantum physics.  It might eventually make an acceptable general interest book. Might.  When I’m being particularly pessimistic about its prospects or academic credentials I reflect that Occam (he of the Razor) would dismiss my puny effort out of hand as unverifiable.   
   Of course many hypothetical models are, like ancient Greek gods, unverifiable.  But when did that ever hinder writers, poets, philosophers and painters? Whilst the myth of Orpheus may appear to leave much indefinite, there are enough delineating foreground minutiae. What is known is sufficient, if arranged to accurately convey my theory (or theories).

Research is incredibly all-consuming.  I spent last Friday tracing an obscure Greek fragment.  I thought I’d be fine with Loeb’s 2015 online texts. I wasn’t.  You are given so much access and thereafter must pay more than a hundred dollars, unless your institution’s a subscriber.  Edinburgh’s New College collection said it isn’t – and so did my home university. Then I clicked on ‘Shibboleth / Athens,’ and lo! There’s my university – except there was also a message: ‘If you think you were sent here in error or require assistance please contact the Service Desk.’ The Service Desk was out of action at that precise juncture, plus my PC was determined not to accept cookies. Online access is hedged about with Fort Knox-level security.  
   The solutions were to request an inter-library loan (vouchers are like gold dust) or go buy the volume – for a couplet of two lines?    
    Back to the Internet.  Life was much simpler when I had the London Library just around
the corner from the office, and the BM’s 1857 Reading Room was still in Bloomsbury (before 1997). They had books – not all this falderal of fiddling in digital archives. (Cf. Mary Beard, here).
Hence this post’s header: ave atque vale, hail and farewell.   I may pick up DBG again after return from Turkey, but currently envisage a measure of time sans blogging. Not because I dislike this journo-style posting (the opposite!) but the external world is an insane place right now, which exhausts thinking and saps emotions.
~ Emma Thompson
Mental energies are better channelled towards thesis writing. Chapter Five’s in the can (sort of: 14,015 words) but Chapter 6 is stuck precisely half-way: magno conatu magnas nugas.  I’ll need most of August to wrangle the latter into something approaching both sense and readability.  I know what I want – and I know what I’ve got.  It
s the attempt to unify the two which gives rise to angst.
  Next semester launches in September, although general terms do not apply to postgrads; academic research runs the year round.  Terms vary, according to faculty or school and stage of study.  However, in addition, a minor catastrophe has overtaken me, entailing dental X-rays + a discussion about options. Pensive ‘discussions’ invariably mean ‘expen$ive’.
  Time-consuming surgery is envisioned.  Anyway, we’ll see.  I have no particular regard for my appearance ~ only that one may eat! But orthodontic braces at my age?
  Alas, the penalties of falling off horses at speed. The damage has showed up some decades after the original impacts – long after I terminated my costly annual British Horse Society membership with its huge amount of dental cover. 

ἀνάγκᾳ δ’οὐδὲ θεοὶ μάχονται : not even the gods fight necessity ~ Simonides.
  See ya – circa end January, 2016. Inshallah
Picture credits: Study books © JAS; A. Trollope,; PhD cartoon,; The British Museum Reading Room, before the British Library relocated to St.Pancras,; Emma Thompson, Radio Times, 25-31 July, 2015, p.35