Friday, 15 May 2015

Democracy ~ ‘Vox populi, vox dei’?

The forensic dissection of the UK’s general election results continues unabated. And will do so for months yet, as the politicos manoeuvre around each other, jockeying for power and public attention.  As a life-long Liberal, I was saddened by Nick Clegg choosing to fall on his sword. At least he’s still a Sheffield incumbent, but who’s to take over the leadership?  
  Apparently LibDem membership shot up by 5000 after the poll. Wonder why! ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party’? 
  The situation here, north of Hadrian’s Wall, is something far more disturbing. The SNiPs (ScotNats) put yon Cameron back into power with an increased mandate.  It might have been part of a Grand Plan but, in the event, the lesser of two evils for the UK in general. The English envisioned reiving Scots rampaging over the border again. Some good and very able people have been ousted, and the poor intellectual calibre of Sturgeon’s Scottish MPs is alarming; the prospects for the home-grown Scottish parliament elections next year equally so. Will we have even more second- or third-rate ScotNat whingers ensconced at Holyrood, eager to raise income tax, council tax and so on?  
  Our first-past-the-post electoral system does not reflect the ballot: the LibDems polled 2,415,888 votes in total, 7.9 vote share, the SNP 1,454,436 ~ nearly one million fewer (961,452), i.e., a 4.7 share. The Scottish population is only just over some 5.3M, but the ScotNats landed 56 seats, the Libs only eight, losing 49 ... 
   It doesn’t make sense.
  The newly-elected rookies are bad enough (no doubt the Commons will slaughter ’em) but Sturgeon’s claim she can influence the Westminster parliament is an arithmetical nonsense. The Nats must have scoured the streets for candidates, what with a comedy promoter (I’m not joking!) and the 20-year-old who unseated Labour’s Douglas Alexander. The former Shadow Foreign Secretary was deposed by a politics student, Mhairi Black.  Yet to finish her degree, she is now the youngest MP elected since 1667. (‘Mhairi’ is pronounced ‘Vari,’ by the way. Many Scots names are similar; they sound nothing like they are written.) I heard this young woman, referred to as ‘Mary,’ speaking on the radio. I hadn't a clue what she was talking about.  The Glaswegian patter (the ‘Weegie’) is incomprehensible. 
  The idea that these people will hold power over one’s old age is frightening. ... 
  It’s going to be a hell of a nursery induction class for the Speaker at Westminster. I wish him luck.
  Nationalism’s not been successful in Wales for Plaid Cymru, but I’m pleased the UK Independence Party got it so-o wrong.

Years in South Africa made me loathe nationalists, but also in play here is an ancient Greek distinction, made between the educated, pepaideumenós, and the vulgar, phortikós.  (That’s ‘vulgar’ from the Latin vulgaris, national or vernacular.)
  So, ineffably weary of the rampant hatred of all things English, I started on Plan A as of last week, to remove out of Scotland.  I sha’n’t do anything in a panic: I need to finish the PhD first.  It may well take till the next general election in 2020, but go we must. Not for my sake but for my daughters. I have no faith in the wee Plastic Sturgeon’s re-arranging of the face of Scotland. Behind her tit-tupping high heels are ghostly supporters of tribalism masked as revolutionaries, busily knitting. ...
  What rubbish this woman spouts. She bases her pie-in-the-sky on ‘new analysis’ of research by the OECD (Org. of Economic Co-operation & Development). ‘New analysis’ actually means ‘We've re-jigged the data to make it reflect what we want.’ 
  You know the saying, ‘There are lies, damn’ lies and statistics’? Scotland’s ‘record employment levels’ are mostly low-paid minimum wage employees ~ e.g., coffee baristas, checkout operators and care workers. They’re going to earn an extra £1600 p.a. each, eh?
   But, hey! What do I know? I’m just a harmless hack.  
  Boyd Tonkin’s comments in the Independent said it all, really. here He was in Athens, home of democracy (not a ‘democracy’  we would recognise). As he climbed the steep stepped streets of Lykabettos, behind the British School of Archaeology, he reflected on Sokrates’ judicial murder in the prison of the agora. Even as I type, there is a tiny dry sprig on my shelf here, from the olive tree that grows in the ruins of those same walls (R). I keep it carefully; it’s both a reminder and a symbol.
   Tonkin writes:
  “Complain about the raucous sound of the popular voice, in ancient Athens or contemporary Britain, and you risk sounding like a Platonic elitist or one of those would-be tyrants outlawed by that tablet in the Agora. Bertolt Brecht secretly wrote a poem (“The Solution”) when the Communist regime of East Germany crushed a workers’ uprising in 1953, asking with tongue wedged in cheek: “Would it not be easier ... for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?” But even though voters may act rationally, the wheezing machine that they feed swallows up their hopes and routinely spews out a stream of perverse outcomes, skewed rewards and unintended consequences. Thus Scotland almost becomes a one-party SNP state on half the popular vote; Ukip’s 12.6 per cent yields one seat; a 6 per cent disparity in votes between Conservatives and Labour delivers a 100-seat differential; around 1.45 million voters gain 56 SNP MPs, while 1.15 million Greens earn a single one” and “Vox populi, vox dei? However divine the popular will, to regret a few of its results should not qualify anyone as a crony of despots or a patrician snob. The draconian public punishment inflicted on the Liberal Democrats this week may, with hindsight, come to look childish, irrational and even sinister. That herd-like quest for easy scapegoats is something the Athenians knew only too well.” 
  I can’t improve on these opinions. Subscribing to a notion of an élite merely means believing in better.  It doesn’t make you ‘a patrician snob,’ and there’s got to be better than this.  Under PR the Libs would have retained their seats. here You may or may not agree with, or like, Russell Brand, but in a democracy all voices have a right to be heard.  What they say when given a platform or a brief TV vox pop soundbite is another matter ~ an awful lot of the xenophobic vox publica here are eager to spout dire rubbish about ‘independence.’  They do not have a single clue about economics, international business etc.  They only see what they want to see. 
  ‘Twas ever thus.

On the reality front, there was a supervision session up north, the day before yesterday, to dissect Chapter Two. (Very positive feedback!) Methinks I’m no longer generating more heat than light in Hades, albeit still feeling I’m on one of Plato’s ‘circuits’.  Later, these ‘circuits’ became a pathway of initiation: plánai tà prôta kaì peridromai kopōdeis (my transliteration) – ‘at first wandering about as in a labyrinth, wearily running round.’ Yep ~ that just about covers it!  I’ve had to buy yet another four-hole punched file: 55mm.  The stationer tells me these are available up to 65mm wide. No doubt I’ll need one of those, too, for all the ‘versions’ which are being generated. You reach a stage where you’ve lost sight of first drafts, second ones, etc.   
  I’ve desultorily picked at Chapter 2, pared it down, but it got to a point where brain failure set in.  However, on the plus side, having eliminated the irrelevant, and some of the lengthy quote-dumps, hopefully each paragraph has its topic. The object was to establish a concept, plus evaluate it, but rewriting’s thrown up different meanings.  It’s amazing how many conflicting views there are of Orpheus.  Sometimes it’s an impossible dilemma to construct a thread out of the assembled bits, to guide me in, and out of, the labyrinth.  
Picture credits: Athens, Akropolis © editions Κ. Voutsas & Co., ΑΘΗΝΑ, Ελλαδα; prison in the agora, © Dr D Campbell, Leics. & the BSA; Greek drachma postage stamp,;

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Coming at things sideways

The summer months loom, but there is no excuse for not plunging back into the research effort. Picking up Chapter 6 where I left off, it’s Orpheus redux again, even if, having been away for a while, I can’t kick my brain into gear. Im currently plodding through translation / transliteration et al ~ phew! what an onerous task.
 Although early relevant evidence for Orpheus is found in scenes on Greek vases from the beginning of the Fifth century, the Attic red-figure pieces tell us little outside the Classical–Orphic incarnation. However, they do place a burden of proof on the academic shoulders of the revisionist ‘happy-ending’ supporters. 
  As with most of my projects, I’m coming at it sideways. Apart from the frequent representations of Orpheus among the animals, another topic of interest is consistent: his ugly murder by a group of Thracian women.  Occasionally he is shown playing his lyre to men as the women charge to the attack; on other vases he is already fleeing for his life from the angry female band.  Sometimes we are shown his final desperate moments as he falls under the weight of the women’s vicious fury. The traditional reading is that the women took against Orpheus because their men became followers of the Thracian, but there was also an ancient viewpoint that Bacchantes were dangerous, anyway, rampaging around in the Dionysian wild.
  What did Orpheus do to cause these manic creatures to hunt him down, armed with their kitchen implements, axes, clubs and stones?  The artworks offer few clues. The assumption must be that he ran up against some incompatible issue and, for me, it can only be his defection to Apollo – he would have no more to do with the realm of Dionysos. For ‘Dionysos’ read ‘Thrace,’ or ‘darkness,’ and for Apollo read ‘Greece,’ or ‘reason.’  This fits with patterns of change and divergence. 

On 11 March I was saddened by the death of the German Walter Burkert, whose scholarship on Greek religion has informed my research immensely, especially the influential Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, which attained the status of a standard work in the field.  A professor of classics at the University of Zurich, Burkert had a huge impact on generations of students, combining, as he did, the textual works of historians, philosophers and poets with the findings of archaeology and epigraphy – a practice which has gained ground, and must be fervently lauded. ‘Only connect ...’ said E.M. Forster (1910). Yeah. That thing ...
  Some of us do. Most of us don’t.

We are now returned to home turf – cousin, #2 daughter and me – from the south. It was family all round, visiting the newly-arrived generation.
 After motoring to the north-east of Scotland first, we went down to Cheshire and then back up north again. After a few idle days I headed south once more, to the central Lowlands. The weather was warm and sunny all over ~ a definite plus. And, whilst driving north-east from Westmorland and the Borders, we alighted at a 1792 hostelry at Carlops, Midlothian: the Allan Ramsay Hotel (Ramsay the poet, not the portrait painter) here. This old-fashioned inn not only serves a first class shandy with proper bitter beer but also offers the most superb homemade cullen skink I’ve ever tasted (fish soup made with onions, potatoes, smoked haddock and cream) here. Highly recommended and worth stopping-off for.
  Most visitors make for Edinburgh’s tourist mecca and drive fast and unseeing through the Borders, but Scotland isn’t merely its capital city, just as England isn’t simply London. And its food is most certainly not of the plastic pizza, KFC or McD kind.   
  However, once home, the weekend weather turned: sleet, snow, hail, rain, frost ...
  You name it, we had it. By Monday of this week the snow gates were closed in the Highlands.  

Of late I’ve been fossicking around in alternative literatures: mind-relief from too much research-heavy reading.  An eclectic mixture of American editions: Téa Obreht’s ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ ~ memorable but oddly uneven. The real and the imaginary together ~ the Deathless Man who wanders in and out of the narrative an obvious metaphor, set against the mise-en-scène of the Balkan wars: “Crossroads are where the paths of life meet, where life changes” (p.186). After that it was ‘Talking to Zeus: my Year in a Greek Garden,’ by Jane Shaw. (Not me. There are at least five ‘Jane Shaws’ in the authorial universe; one of the reasons I employ noms de plume.)  Possibly a one-off, I liked it because it’s very Greek.
  ‘The Prisoner of Heaven’ ~ the much-praised Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I read ‘Shadow of the Wind,’ and this is better than the first novel, albeit leans on Dumas (père)’s Count of Monte Cristo (1844). The translator is Lucia Graves, daughter of Robert, her English as peerless as her Spanish. And so it should be. Even the best writing can be lost in translation, and Graves is one reason for Zafón’s success in the English market.
It’s a damp dreich spring evening outside.  A blackbird’s carolling from the top of the hollytree, and being scowled at by a couple of magpies who have nested one level up from two rather dim woodpigeons in the tall overgrown Christmas conifers next door.  No doubt the evil pair’s eyes are on eggs or nestlings.  I dislike the pied pirates, but nature is as nature does.
  I can’t spend yet another spring and summer closeted indoors.  It doesn’t feel right, wasting sunlit hours glued to a keyboard or myopically peering at ancient texts. This isn’t the Med or Aegean; warm bright days don’t come around too often. The sunshine we had last week made me want to climb a mountain, or paddle in a gravel stream. Even the usually depressed mournful sheep looked happy.
Picture credits: Orpheus,;  Torkington Park, Hazel Grove, Ches.,; portrait of Allan Ramsay, hotel business card.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

It’s Not Easy, Being Green ...

About a year or so ago the local authority delivered big green wheelie bins to every household within their purview.  These are the size of a kennel for quite a large dog.  At the time I thought we’d never manage to fill the container to the top – how wrong can you be?
  However, although our own recycling stuffs the bin to the gunnels every month, the Tetrapak cartons, plastics, tins and so on which go into it all have to be washed. This in turn takes energy in the form of water, both hot and cold.
  I guess it’s worth it, otherwise our stingy council wouldn’t bother, but there must be further energy expended in the recycling process itself – as long as the material isn’t being compacted and shipped off to China. Its ultimate destination seems to be subject to the Official Secrets Act.
  But not everyone makes the effort.
  Here, we’re apparently to receive purple bins for glass. These will be filled with ease: some here trot off to the bottle banks twice a week. On the negative side, apart from the noise, yet another bin will make our patio impassable. There will be five of the Dalek-like monsters sitting there.  The current four are food and garden waste for compost, one for paper and cardboard, a general household bin and the big green monster.
  I made the error of ordering a smaller-sized paper bin.  Big mistake. If the wind blows when I’m on one of my shredding missions there’s a snow-like scattering of cross-cut paper fragments lying around, like confetti after a wedding.

There’s being green and then there’s being a Green. There’s a difference between the two. The Greens’ policies appear optimistic but, one fears, unrealistic.  They stress public transport, but economic issues underpin it. Our buses and trains are lamentable. Run by diverse companies, nowhere do they marry up with other services (unlike the super-efficient Swiss).  Plus we’re an unprofitable rural route.  It’s mostly pensioners who use the buses, and it doesn’t take a genius to spot how some drivers mark up the value of zero cost OAP tickets funded by the Scottish Executive. These are simply issued ‘to the terminus,’ even if a little old lady’s only going a couple of stops. I bet she doesn’t realise.
  On the other hand, market economics have done for the coal-fired power station of Longannet – a good thing, too. It says it was elbowed out of its erstwhile connection to the Grid not just by costs but by the rise and rise of wind energy. 
  I try not to moan about the unlovely turbines – although I wonder how many more white colossi will be thrown up across our hills when GovUK’s subventions cease?  But even with the surge in Scottish clean energy generation there still remains the problem of storing electricity.  This is only accomplished with hydro power; kilowatts not unloaded to the Grid at times of low demand can be diverted to pump the water upwards again and so on – a virtuous circle.
  As Kermit said, its not easy being green (!) but opting for any other colour is equally difficult. Where doth one park one’s X?  I’m undecided, but it won’t be Cons, Kippers or those myopic one-trick ponies, the ScotNats. They didn’t see the collapse in oil coming, did they?  What did they imagine the North Sea was going to finance in their fantasy ‘Braveheart’ new world?   Health and hospitals, was it? Free nursery places?  I forget.  
  The SNP shop had a discount spring sale – we presume the items are well past their sell-by date, ‘BBE 18.09.14’.
Otherwise, Easter eggs having now been demolished ~ lovely dark German marzipan-eier mit schokolade ~ the humdrum hermetic existence continues.  Albeit, as this is being written and posted well ahead, by the time it’s up on t’Internet I’ll likely be oer the hills and far away. 
  I bought a little Chromebook last month, to check emails while travelling and promptly sent my 10Gb March Broadband allowance spiralling upwards! As the thing depends on connecting to WiFi, we’ll see if it functions in all locations: cars, trains, boats and planes.  It will mostly be used for notes, but I can also amend blog posts ~ although the font tends to go haywire. Finding out what else it can do is a gradual process. At least Chromes OS doesnt need anti-virus add-ons?
 If the mobile network’s anything to go by, I doubt theres much of a signal north of Inverness.  It’s no better going west. En route to Oban, you can be marooned on the ‘dark’ side of Ben Cruachan (Gaelic: Cruach na Beinne) – these days, a hollow mountain with a hydro scheme inside – or in the middle of Rannoch Moor, where there are no longer any familiar old red telephone kiosks to hike to o’er the heather. ...
  I believe even the railway line there is a request stop.  

It’s quite true that cats rule the Internet.  Inspecting the blog list, ‘cat’ ones receive the largest number of hits.  Even if a post doesn’t entirely consist of feline issues, obviously the Google crawler picks up on ‘cat’ ahead of almost anything else, e.g., ClassicFM here. Now, if cats were able to play Mozart, or Carl Czerny’s doleful Piano Duet (Opus 153 #2) they would be just perfect.
I’m a fan of Tom Cox’s Guardian pieces about The Bear, the world’s most melancholy cat (+ here). The cat-human relationship seems nicely balanced (i.f.o. a feline view of the universe). The felidae are naturally disheartened by our species, with good cause, but The Bear’s philosophical meditations counter human stress.
  For all her advancing years, the resident cat is feeling spring-like. Sitting by the window, she watches birds as they busily fly around, two by two. She chitters sotto voce, swishing her long thin black tail in indignation.  Her bird-catching days are long over – they never did cause much concern. Her most frequent quarries were field voles and a colony of mice which lives beneath the garden shed.  She would persist in bringing these into the house and dropping them – humans had to scoop the little creatures into a box or boot for release into the garden, sans the helpful assistance of an interested cat. I tolerated the wildlife forays because she has a slightly malformed lower jaw: her ‘bite’ is awry, so she rarely murdered anything. Now, she mostly eats and sleeps, punctuated by intermittent patrols around the house, yelling her head off, plus the daily mad half-hour of dashing up and down the stairs. (The term ‘mood swings’ was invented for cats). 
  One PhD friend occasionally emails feline haiku regarding catly behaviour and habits. But the cat’s my companion, too.  She’ll sit with paws folded and tail curled around, watching me solemnly from the doorway of my closet of a study. That ‘The idea of calm exists in a sitting cat’ (Jules Renard) is accurate – most of the time – and the watcher by the door is a charm to ward off the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer.  

Thesis: proceeds slowly ~ the further into the process, the slower it becomes.  The research must, of necessity, take in more than just textual sources; anthropology, history and geography impinge, as well as ancient poets and art.  But I need a break.
  Alas, the gaps are longer now, if or when the writing stops.  But the post-grad review was positive (~ish) although I neglected to click the ‘video on’ screen button, so, for most of the time, the Skype panel were looking at my profile picture. (A black cat. Of course.)
  It makes you feel better when academics say nice things about your work ~ actually, when anyone says such.  Labouring alone here, it’s difficult to get a handle on how I’m doing, whether it’s good enough.  That’s ‘good enough’ according to one’s own lights; we’re always our own fiercest critics. I suffer from inadequacy syndrome.
   Och, well: keep the focus, keep on going. 
   At time of writing, the word count is ca. three-quarters of the prescribed total.  On 7 April I printed out the whole second draft as a hard paper copy, for back-up: 208 A4 pages, single sided, line spaced 1.5, etc. ~ an inch thick. (Not being green?) And I haven’t yet done even a rough bibliography! Not certain the margins are correct or uniform, but that isnt germane at present.  Such will be adjusted when the things .pdfd for the university printer and binder. Made up into a working file, it’s a hefty weight but portable. 
  Thus the remainder of Chapter 6 plus Chapter 7 (Conclusions) and a possible couple of addenda must be no more than thirty-odd thousand. Not a lot to play with. However, the re-write will doubtless strike out some of the wordier footnotes, as well as modifying the lexical vocabulary, excising repetitions and deleting irrelevancies. I’ve got to the stage where a ghostly editor’s peering over my shoulder.

As for actual thinking, Tom Cox said (Guardian, 25 March), “[...] one of the cruel paradoxes of getting older: you have better thoughts than you once did, but you forget most of them seven seconds later.”
   H’m. Five seconds, Tom.  Especially that brilliant aperçu experienced before going to sleep – the scintillating one you’re certain-sure you’ll recall when you wake up.
  And don’t. 

Picture credits: green bin,; Ben Cruachan, © Joan Bryden Photography,
Tom Cox,; cat photo, © JAS, 2015;