Monday, 20 June 2016

A land of lost content

Summer solstice, 2016 – allegedly.  Not that  I see much of the outside world.  In the words of an ancient song of the sixties, ‘It might as well rain until September.’

Thesis housekeeping proceeds apace. There are twenty-eight files on my desktop, the magnum opus entire.  The summer months are simply going to be bread and butter work – minus remuneration. Abstract is finished, and the Acknowledgements done, plus a lengthy, if still somewhat scrambled bibliography with numerous lacunae: twelve and a bit pages at present, typed single spacing, 11 pt font, and close on 6000 words. It’s currently divided into one and a half pages of ‘Ancients,’ seven pages of ‘Scholarship,’ another 4 pages of ‘Internet, Journals and Online Sources,’ two items of ‘Multi-media,’ and, finally, ‘Fictions.’  It will be expanded or contracted to a prescribed form anon, but ‘Figures, maps and Illustrations / Plates’ are yet to be finalised and listed.
  Citations are still a bore.  No one replied to my pleas for a ruling, so I’ll go with the Chicago system – it’s my default choice, and straightforward. Harvard in-lines are irritating to reader, and writer.
  Next is a double-check of pagination, to marry up the discrete sections into one whole ‘book,’ the rough completed copy of which is due at the uni by end August.  Pagination will mean fiddling with those sections that require Roman numerals, ahead of the thesis’s actual first No. 1 page.  So, it will be longer than its current two hundred and fifty seven pages.
  However, I foresee a potential fankle.  I have two ‘fair’ copies of chapters to date – and a plethora of bits and pieces to incorporate or move / remove.  Should be fun. Not.

The saga of internal / external examiners hasn’t, as yet, reached a conclusion, and I’m experiencing qualms about ‘who is my reader’?  The audience is important to me.  It’s my imagination, but it sort of sets the tone. Even for the driest of academic prose the rules of writing obtain, and after years of picturing silent readers out there sitting in judgement it’s impossible to shift him, her or them.  

Books – when this four year learnéd exercise is over, I shall have a sale on Abe and Amazon: the many volumes I shall no longer need or want.  Living space in this cottage is under siege, and one must make room on the shelves, let alone clear the floor.
  Every so often I prune the Kindle ‘library,’ too.  It’s not that the K won’t hold enough books to fill a stack at another British Library, it’s simply that many downloads are discarded, unfinished.  I tend to comb through free or cheap books on offer, and occasionally alight on gems.  Others are mere dross, and not worth the reading.
  The ebook publishing phenomenon has been a gift to every Tom, Dick or Harriet who ever dreamed of writing a novel.  Now they have.  All of ‘em.
  You’ll have better luck if the book’s been conventionally published as well as electronically. Titles tend to be properly edited, for starters.  Self-publishers stick out a mile, and can make readers grind their teeth.  As I’m a pedant and a stickler, just a couple of infelicities make for the swift but effective Dorothy Parker reaction.

June began with an almost universal condemnation of the BBC’s coverage of the death of Muhammad Ali (it went on, and on, for 24 hours). Then we had HM the Queen’s more important celebrations (which didn’t).  After weeks of hot sunshine, normal service (grey rain) resumed, but sadly not normal service on the BBC. Weeks and weeks of sport are scheduled, with programming all over the place (except for the soaps, those grim opiates for the masses).  I’ve laid in DVDs, but not enough to cover the wretched football in France, the tennis at Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics.  By 21 August I shall have become a gibbering mindless wreck.
  Perhaps I should write another novel!  Except I’ve had enough of this computer to last a lifetime. 

The first weekend of June I was over in Glasgow, and someone went into the rear of my little car.  The damage wasn’t major, but O! the hassle that’s ensued.  In the old days, you obtained three estimates, bunged these to your insurers and your car was fixed as soon as humanly possible.  Not so now.
  To start with, my insurers recommended handing over the no-fault claim to an auto-assistance company.  By doing so, I could avoid paying my hefty excess.  OK – fine. 
  I regretted it almost immediately, but digital contracts had been ‘signed,’ the ‘paperwork’ returned, and rescinding would mean more hassle. 
  It was the gentleman who was despatched hither to estimate and photograph the damage who really put the lid on the whole thing.  First, he was supposed to be here sometime between six and 8.00pm.
  He wasn’t.  He was late.  
  Secondly, he roared up in a bright red Ferrari, of all things.  A long low fume-spewing dragon of a car that will have surprised the village residents, let alone such a vehicle landing outside my humble door!
   Don’t ask me which model it was – I haven’t a clue.
  Estimator-man leapt out, Apple phone in hand, and snapped away.  By this time I was experiencing serious reservations.  What is so lucrative about the auto-assistance world that its inspection guys can speed around the countryside in snarling Ferraris?  He and his female passenger then shot off again in a cloud of exhaust that probably broke all emission records, and disappeared around the corner at FTL warp speed. I could hear them for a long, long time after, as they burned up Main Street.
  You know when you see the prancing pony on the front bonnet (hood) that it probably spells trouble with a capital ‘F.’
Incidentally, fluffy orange cat’s still around.  He eats, sleeps and keeps watch on our kitchen doorstep.  He’s attempting to gain admittance to the house – but however sorry I feel for him, wet and bedraggled in the rain, his long coat in such a mess, I cannot let him in.  For all her advanced age, Bonnie would go for him, a hissing spitting growling virago.  She eyes him through the windows. If he didn’t possess a microchip I would have taken him to the cat shelter weeks ago.  It’s such a shame. People who can’t look after animals properly shouldn’t keep them.
  I did contact the SSPCA, but (as has always been my invariable experience) no action’s been taken – or, if it was, I’m not aware of it. Neither is the cat: he’s still here, rain or shine, 24/7. He sleeps on the doormat, or under the dogwoods when it’s wet. 
  The SSPCA said they’d let me know what their findings were, but ...
  Zilch. Nada. ‘Tis ever thus with that lot. The English RSPCA would’ve done something positive by now, and resolved the poor cat’s problem, as well as my concerns for his welfare. 

Apart from the insane murder of one of our parliamentary MPs on 16 June, for which there are no words, there is that damn’ referendum this week, the ‘in / out’ vote on Europe.  The ‘pro-remain’ intellectuals’ arguments worry me – not because they aren’t cogent: they are – but because no one’s listening. The Conservatives have answers, but dont want these questioned, and the rest of us are full of questions. It’s all overwrought black and white emotionalism, and consequently (for me, anyway) invalid.
  I despair of this dim-witted little country, with its narrow obsessions and its less-than-educated populace at the mercy of the Daily Mail or its ilk.  #1 daughter blogged last week about her country, and what’s really important. 
  But how many voters are like the 90 year old lady who thinks full employment will return to the East End if she puts her cross in the ‘out’ box? We can’t all go back overnight to some Shangri-la of the seventies, or even the fifties, that lost land of content where we can never ‘come again’:

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
       A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, 1896

Who are the British, anyway, when citizenship can be bought? I shall not stay up to watch the breathless coverage, the guessing games and talking heads.  What’s the point?  We’ll all know the result a mere couple of hours ahead of the breakfast news bulletins.  You cannot change anything, so why bother?

Picture credits:  Orpheus coin: Staatliche Muzeen du Berlin, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Thrace 3.0: exhibition, Coinage in the land of Orpheus, 16.10.2015 to 15.10.2016, Bode-Museum, (Thracian coins in the holdings of the Berlin Münzkabinett);  
Ferrari badge: Google Images; 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Are all ends new beginnings?

As thesis endgame approaches, one factor has emerged: the necessity of changing your institution or university if you want to pursue a PhD degree.  Not only because not all universities present the same research opportunities but also because another place will give you fresh challenges.  It’s too comfortably easy, to stay lodged in a safe, cosy, well-known academic milieu, knowing everybody and not having to make any effort to find out what pastures new might offer.
Of course your first institution will wish to hang on to you; of course they want and need doctoral candidates, and if your alma mater is the only place on the planet which can provide the necessary for your niche research, then fine – no problem.  But this is rarely the case.  Go west, young man or woman – or north, south or east. Gain confidence with a wider experience.  Another campus and faculty will provide you with opportunities you may never have thought of before.
  But UK universities are changing.  Bean-counters are in charge, and this is forcing change, and, one suspects, not always for the good.   

Higher education is one of the things which are worrying me about the proposed EU ‘in or out’ referendum next month.  The UK is so insular.  Every year hordes of British would-be undergrads visit various universities, looking to make a decision about where they would like to go, come September.
  Why don’t they contemplate crossing the Channel?  There are huge benefits attached to European universities. Many courses are taught in English, e.g., Holland or Bologna, and the subventions on offer will mean that by the end of your studies you may well find you’ve saved over £65,000 in costs.  Isn’t that an incentive?  One of the great evils of our time is the millstone of the student loan, slung around your neck for practically the remainder of your working life.
  As the UK contemplates allowing the best of our universities to charge higher fees, and the lesser ones to be forced to reduce theirs in line with their results, the playing field here is going to become lop-sided.  Kids with rich parents will be able to afford the top Russell Group names – the less well-off (the target group for GovUK’s ‘social mobility’ aims) will migrate to the lower echelons of the league tables.  I can’t see any benefits in this government tinkering, but politicians always believe they can change the world. University isn’t just fees and maintenance money. It’s the whole experience, in the round.  Social backgrounds come to the fore, and if you’re miserable, whether due to lack of preparation for the sheer work load, or because of particulars like having a bedder at Cambridge (someone who tidies your room and makes your bed), it will have an effect. Not everyone is suited to the life. While dropping out is the worst manifestation, spending years in an unhappy state of mind and eventually scraping graduation with a Third seems an exercise in wasted time. 
  So, think wider.  At least, for the time being, pending the result of this other wretched, ill-timed political exercise ...
  I’m EU, me. You?

One of the least likeable characteristics about Brits is a propensity to need someone or something to hate.  It’s a widely-distributed trait, from the personal to the general. The EU comes under the heading of ‘general,’ and too many politicians are playing on this for their own gain.  Politicians don’t change – they’ve always been a weaselly lot, from the Athenian oligarchs or the Senate of ancient Rome to our day. But ‘One of the greatest benefits of an education in Classics is that it teaches you two very important skills which serve you well no matter what field you happen to go into post-degree: critical thinking and source criticism’ – David Meadows, Rogue Classicism, 16 May 2016. His web page’s epigraph is ‘quidquid bene dictum est ab ullo, meum est’ – roughly, ‘whatever is well said is mine.’  This can have many meanings, especially for writers and journos!

Of late, I’ve been idly musing over modern mythologising.  We all come up with our own personal myths – most noticeably vis-à-vis the ‘Net.  Facebook and similar sites tend to make us invent, and invest in, social media identities, selecting what fits the face we present to the world, our own myth.  Although I, personally, don’t ‘do’ F/book. It seems programmed to encourage anxiety neuroses and justifications for our lives, to avoid a depressing lack of meaningfulness (in a Sartrean sense) or how irrelevant we really are – i.e., our vulnerability.  Maybe this is why social media generates so much unpleasantness; someone else’s apparently ‘successful’ life, or entourage of faceless followers, are criticisms to those who lack such?  
  Dunno.  I’m no psychologist.  

Anyhow, back to the everlasting thesis effort.  Time is still the overriding problem.  I can’t shake off the daily occurrence, where the hours between 4 o’clock in the afternoon and seven or 9pm in the evening are the period of maxi-intellectual fizz and output.  This plays utter havoc with an orderly household (if mine was orderly, which it is not).  However, let the hours stray past nine p.m., and all that’s extruded onto the monitor screen is fanciful rubbish. ... 
  But yay! Now gazing at the final sprint down the home straight.  I think I wrote the final sentence of the final para on Friday, 27 May. Next, tot up the word count looks like ca. 90,000-odd.  Will this be enough?  I need to leave leeway for filling in lacunae, footnotes, etc.
  I did attempt to cut corners by reverse outlining and writing Chapter 7’s conclusions in tandem.  Nah – doesn’t work.  Traditional pens, pencils and sheets of paper are the only effective means. However, as writing is – at date hereof – going great guns, I’ll be fairly preoccupied with it for a while yet. At present it’s creating the kind of exhilaration that was once generated by writing fiction.
  Maybe this thesis is fiction!  
 (My late godmother once remarked, when I was very young, ‘You write stories?’ – to which the seven year old self brightly replied: ‘Doesn’t everyone?’)       

However, the conclusions have thrown up a few interesting sidelights, e.g., (©)Orpheus is not the masculine paradigm of a Greek hero.  He is the antithesis of the ancient Greek warrior culture, and his gifts and virtues are those of peace, not war.  He is not a muscleman like Herakles, or hypersexual and violent as Achilles.  Nor does he die a hero. Thanatos [death] comes for him through the agency of the Thracian Ciconian women – women, not warriors.’  While I’m undecided if this will be amended or struck out – purple prose alert! – it’s just one of the oddities kicked up while I was methodically demolishing the image of the effete adolescent lyrist of the literary and music worlds.
  I have conjured up a Thracian figure of Orpheus, not so much a classical Greek (and subsequently Roman) one.  With a bit of luck, he’ll set a cat amongst a few pigeons.  And, in common with the sociologists, with their determination to coin new concepts or expressions, I have also borrowed a neat French antithesis – shades of Bourdieu, Foucault, Vernant et al. Dear me, one must have a foreign phrase or two! It seems to be absolument indispensable.

Back home, on the blog front – Russia again headed up the views, for some mysterious reason. I haven’t had time to excavate which posts are of interest there: normally it’s the US that tops the reading list.
But it’s been a month of cat concerns. Not our own feline resident but a young stranger who arrived and will not depart. Worried about its well-being, I posted details on a site for losts-and-founds, and within a day someone made contact, hoping our furry ginger and white guest was her own lost pet, who went missing in September last year. Sadly, our visitor isnt him. Eventually, a microchip scanner elicited the info that the cat has had two changes of home in its first year of life.  He doesnt know where he belongs.  A father gave it to his son, then the son re-homed it to a family here
  An ultra-long-haired cat is high-maintenance, a lot of grooming and care. Keep’s not simply a matter of feeding – it’s welfare considerations: annual vaccinations, anthelmintics, vet fees, insurance, and cattery fees if you go away on holiday.

Travels – off to the Maltese archipelago, come early autumn. Four hours on Ryanair, but we can’t have everything. Insurance shall be doubled. The NHS providers of the European health card have warned it will likely not be accepted in the EU if the ref. goes the wrong way. (Hell! What about our passports?)
  I hope my faithful companions won’t mind inspecting Tarxien megaliths, the Borġ in-Nadur temples and especially Ħaġar Qim, south of Il-Qrendi.  I have an ancient photo of my father at a 3000 year old Phoenician gateway, complete with knee-length Brit-style shorts and smoking his everlasting pipe. He loved Malta: Sliema, St Paul’s Bay, Comino, an August Monday at Paradise Bay, and not forgetting Myrtle the turtle, temporarily kept in the bathroom handbasin. (Don’t ask – I don’t know why, either!)  It’s a pity all the pictures are grainy black and white. Our dates will almost coincide with those of his times, but I shall be toting my late mother’s trusty hazel stick – in case of snakes!
  I guess this will be the end of tracing the paternal footsteps.  The Med is moderately safe, ~ish? – but Israel and Palestine, Algeria, Libya, and probably now Egypt, are off-limits.  These days, going where the whim listeth isn’t sensible.
Picture credits: Orpheus with his lyre, Robinson, E. 1893 Catalogue of Boston Vases, US: NY, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., illus.;  cat photo, © JAS, 2016;