Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Not-so-flaming June, 2015

Even at the summer solstice the central heating was on.  I returned from travels to an empty, damp and chilly house, so promptly turned on two of the big radiators.  When you’re tired you feel the cold more.

First journey was up north, for a university supervision.  I don’t know why but I seem to have reached an impasse: I’ve done nothing new on the thesis for over a fortnight. I’m not sure what’s happened, but it feels like ennui ~ even accidie (mental sloth). Maybe it’s just a period of discontinuity. These interregna happen every so often. They’re not particularly linked into academic labour, albeit the stress of intellectual effort encourages a tendency (on my part) to drop the reins and wander off.
  June has been a reading month ~ and not 100% classical.  (Give the gal a break!) I have Erwin Rohde’s magisterial doorstop of a tome, Psyche: the Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks, on loan from the university library.  It’s necessary to check some references, if / when I can haul myself back to thesis writing.
  But, being away from home, I loaded up the Kindle with a lighter cast of fare, including Peter May’s Lewis trilogy (crime and detective fiction).  I can understand why the first two volumes attracted critical plaudits.  The action often takes second place to brilliant descriptions of island life in a Protestant church-dominated Hebrides (The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man). The third novel disappoints (The Chessmen).  It is readable enough, but for me it displays telltale signs of the tyranny of a three-book contract. By the end of volume two, you run out of writing steam. This is only my personal reaction.
  On a more literary front, now ploughing through Trollope.  As with Wilkie Collins, I read many of these books when I was young. Re-reading them, as an adult with life experience, high-lights much that was originally missed. The sly humour and cynicism, and the adroit way the Victorians managed to convey the nastier facets of human nature. Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) should have warned us about corrupt malpractices in the City. here 
  However, a night at the opera was an indulgence.  Amongst the slew of Verdi’s over-the-top oeuvre, Il Trovatore is possibly his most OTT work. Full-blooded love-and-death grand opera, its fanciful story entails a massive suspension of disbelief, and could only happen in opera-land, where fateful coincidences are rife, women are beautiful, men manly and villains mean.  Unfortunately, the divas and their tenor leads are not always quite what one feels they should be vis-à-vis their roles, age and size-wise.  Of course, you can always half-close your eyes. Plus, all opera singers have memorable and less memorable performances; not every one was born a Callas or a Domingo.   
  I go for Mozart, Verdi, Puccini; Wagner’s cobbled-together Germanic myths, Die Walküre and the rest, leave me utterly bemused.  Why would you want to spend days sitting through the Bayreuther Festspiele?  Life’s short enough as it is.
  The drama of the operatic stage also requires an ability to act. Few who aim for the great roles can convince. And save us from reedy soprano so-called ‘opera’ singers who won a TV competition. These cut CDs but do nothing else. They can’t read music, they mime public performances and insist orchestras must play in a required key signature, e.g., only in A# major or whatever, because they can’t manage anything else.
Crathes castle, Aberdeenshire
 From the far north I then drove south to Cheshire, via Westmorland (a favourite place). No.1 daughter lives over two hundred miles away from here, south of Manchester, where the Pennines and Peak District are both within reach. (For those minus a car, the only train service operating through the Peak District National Park is the trans-Pennine Hope Valley line. Running from Sheffield to Stockport and Manchester, it links to the Pennine Way at Edale.)
 Happy days were spent with my only grandchild, now six months old and irresistibly cheerful, although her parents are dog-tired 24/7.  (Children do that to you, but it doesn’t last forever.  We do regain full nights of sleep ~ eventually.) My idea of ‘family’ is continuity and people who matter, directly connected or not. Not that any of my fifish* Fife relations maintain contact with me. Och, well ~ c’est la vie.  
On the return journey, I originally aimed to take a sideways trip into Wales, but my Powys cousin was birdwatching down in Devon ~ a leg too far. It was a shame to have missed him.  I’m not that way too often ~ and, for once, time, diaries and schedules didn’t matter.  I could take as long as I liked and then some.
  On the other hand, I was quite glad to reach home (+ retrieve the deserted cat from her incarceration at the cattery).  Driving long distance makes me incredibly fatigued: motorways require absolute concentration. It takes a day or two to catch up with myself.

Otherwise, spare time was expended on DIY catch-up (DIY’s always catch-up) and assorted dreary but necessary tasks. Thank goodness #2 daughter’s back on the late flight tonight, after her three week sojourn with her father.  I've only had the cat to talk to for the best part of ten days.  I guess life will return to its familiar rut the morn’s morn.  All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl: I do wish there was more play and much less work ...
*fifish: crabbed and peculiar in disposition; cranky in a manner characteristic of Fifeshire in Scotland.
Picture credits: 14 day forecast weather map, © metraweather, www.yara.co.uk; Verdi, Il Trovatore, © Scottish Opera; Crathes, Aberdeenshire, © www.tartanfootprint.com;   A# major scale, www.basicmusictheory.com; top of Pistyll Rhaeadr, Powys, Wales, www.nickylewis.com;

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Locations, dislocations and losses

Well, May is over and done. However, apart from some thesis work little else has gone forward; much has moved backwards. As May months go, it’s been very Shakespearean: in the wild patch at the foot of the garden, after I’ve waited years for the crab apple tree to mature enough to put out its pretty  harbingers of spring, ‘rough winds’ did ‘shake’ the blossom off the tree, scattering pink and white confetti all over the shed roof.
  Another spring’s over, another summer begins tomorrow.  The solstice is less than a month away.  And still I’m incarcerated in my little prison cell, chained to a computer.  I guess there is hope. As someone said recently, ‘Don’t worry. It will come to an end’ ~ but when that day will dawn is quite another matter.

I’m depressed about Iraq and Syria, and the seemingly unstoppable rise and rise of Daa’ish (ISIS).  It believes it’s on a mission for a new world order – through terror, violence and the impulse to destroy. By last weekend they were less than 70 miles from Baghdad, and their black flag was flying over Syrian Palmyra. The more the west cares about what the thugs destroy the more glee they have in doing it.  ...
   Palmyra, an ancient capital which challenged the power of Rome, was a magnificent desert oasis city on one of the main routes from the Med to the Euphrates and further east. It’s one of the world’s great archaeological sites, with colonnaded streets, a monumental arch and a theatre, as well as the huge temple of Bel and the Valley of Tombs. Its museum has – had? – some wonderful portrait sculptures. According to bbc-cnn.com, 25 May, there were more than 260 summary executions, beheading even little children.  If this is what the black blight does to its own, what could they do in the west?  
   No more ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ (pace Cavafy) ~ they’ve arrived at the gates.
  This ancient historian doesn’t like living in the middle of current modern history. Earthquake destruction is an act of God; ISIS’s is deliberate intolerance and utterly execrable cultural vandalism. It’s to be fervently hoped Turkey has troops massed on its own borders. It’s knee-deep in archaeological remains and ‘idols,’ and we are due down in the south of the country this coming autumn. Rather too close to the border with Syria. 
Is it too much to hope that maybe somewhere there’s an emergency high-level political pow-wow going on?  Not that we can do much about these unspeakable thrice-damned iconoclastic kamikaze killers with their self-styled ‘black days,’ JCBs and pneumatic drills. My sister, who has walked ‘the street called Straight,’ was unable to find words. 
  Other countries, who might own to something in common between them, have been similarly visited with destruction – not least the loss of the archaeology of the lofty 61m Minaret of Jam, hidden high in the mountains of Afghanistan.  By the time Rory Stewart came upon the tower (The Places in Between, Pan Macmillan, 2005) much of the Afghani cultural heritage had been removed or destroyed, the Kabul museum looted and the Bamiyan Buddhas dynamited by the Taliban. These episodes remind of how much has been lost in all the wars of recent years. The rape and looting of ancient cities is no better than it was over two thousand years ago.  And for what?  When will they ever learn? Will they ever learn?
  As UNESCO waited in fear and trepidation for bulldozers and wrecking crews to move in to demolish ancient Palmyra, the BBC was wanting pictures: We’re looking for your photographs of the Syrian city should you have ever visited it. You can email [...] with your experiences or [...] images.’ Just in case, I guess. 
   If all that remains of our collective pasts is an online picture library then I despair of mankind.

On the UK front, the Queen’s speech to Parliament on 27 May outlined legislation for the coming five years. Cameron’s ‘one nation’ spells trouble vis-à-vis the promised ‘in / out’ referendum on our membership of Europe.  If the result is we’re out, then so is Scotland, and Sturgeon’s running scared.  She wants the four home nations to vote separately. No chance. Little hope for the ScotNats’ vaunted ‘independence.’  They’d have to petition separately to re-join Europe  – but why on earth would the European community want another Greece to bail out, eh?

Thesis report:  Currently, sporadically slogging through Chapter 3 and inserting marginal electronic ‘Post-It’ notes to myself.  It’s a hugely complicated chapter, and the subsequent ones depend on it. I’ve never been much cop at self-editing, but needs must. It’s good practice. 
  The thing still needs a step up, an intellectual fillip: simplicity of writing should not be simplicity of content. And [...] developing a theory, is an edgy over-committed, anxious, labour-intensive, exhausting process’ ~ Prof Mary Beard, 15 Apr 2014, www.telegraph.co.uk Back to the piles of tomes on the dining table ...
  Behind my figure of Orpheus lour the old gods of Greek mythology, when primal physis (nature) was at the root of all things. The account of the descent into the dark netherworld is a journey into the wild, and teasing out various connections and contradictions within the traditions remains a time-consuming task.  Nothing in that ancient Greek world happened without some reason or other, but the how, when or why cannot be confined to neat bullet points ~ especially as we rely on extant artefacts and literary remains. The record is full of gaping lacunaeHow I construct what is taxing my writing know-how, which, until now, I complacently assumed I knew backwards! 
  I’m glad I wrote Chapters 1 - 6 in rough, before starting in on this, but we don’t yet know if I will have eighty or 100,000 words.  My supervisors believe the whole thing will turn out to be 100K, by the time we add in addenda, illustrative materials (Greek vase art) and captions. Thank goodness the bibliography doesn’t count.  It’s going to be the length of a novel.
  For June itself, #2 daughter’s away to her father’s.  I will spend some few days up north (including a Verdi opera) before wandering south on an undecided route, or indeed date.   
  Had I been more adroit, I could possibly have whisked abroad (I do need to get away from the thesis thing for a while. My mind’s going stale.) One acquaintance desperately wants to see Venice – which would have been nice, except this year it’s la Biennale di Venezia ~ the 56th, and entitled ‘All the World’s Futures.  (Does the world have more than one future?)
  Venice is insupportable during the artfest.  And the costs of accommodation, already high, rocket to the stratosphere.

I’ve been having a clear-out – of unnecessary people.  Along with paper shredding, and filling boxes of stuff destined for the charity shop, there’s been a ruthless pruning of fifteen or even twenty years of  obsolete contacts automatically saved into email folder – all now consigned to Room 101.

Picture details: view to the Firth of Forth estuary from Castle Campbell, Dollar; street called ‘Straight,’ Damascus, Syria © Vahe Shahinian: (cf. JAS: dibianchigirari, 15/06/2014); minaret of Jam, © Wikipedia; photo of Venice quayside, © JAS;

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, www.mlahanas.de;