Sunday, 31 August 2014

Some summer lands ...

As rural idylls go, Blue Cottage (L) is about as near as I imagine an idyll to be. Aside from the goat – I’ve had goats. They break fences.
  But last month, in the baking hot days of real July weather, when I was able to launder and dry a quilt in a single day, I realised I do have most of the ingredients and I should not be ungrateful. Books, music, the girls, the cat ...
  Even a garden, if I would only look after it instead of occupying my time with research and writing, 24/7. The neglected rowan tree is now so close to the windows it seems like a William Morris wallpaper pattern pasted on the glass, complete with thrushes and blackbirds raiding the bright scarlet berries.

August – hotter than June, but the days are already shorter. Because of the July sun the harvest’s in early – well, on time, really, if you go back to ‘ye olde days,’ BCC (Before Climate Change).
  Thinking about summers gone, my grandfather used to cut hay in June, turn it with tractor and tedder and leave it in windrows to dry. We children, and any other stray family members who happened to be around, were deputed to assist, along with long-handled wooden hay rakes. Later, the grain harvest – wheat and barley. Once the August fields were clear of stooks – in more recent time, combine bales – was when cubbing took place, ahead of hunting proper (November). Now seen no more.
  Oats were cut last, and the potato harvest was in October. Schoolchildren here still have a long autumn holiday which originated with the ‘tattie lifting.’ It’s all mechanical now and I bet there isn’t a child in this village who’d have a clue about lifting potatoes. Or indeed be willing to do the back-breaking task.
  It was all ‘organic,’ rotational farming methods that went back centuries; fields left fallow: the wild-flower rich headlands, where the corncrake crept about below the foliage and made its distinctive call – a secretive, skulking bird. A perky wheatear perched on a drystone wall, a flash of white rump with its distinctive black ‘T’; acres of sky loud with lapwings tumbling around, their calls competing with the curlews. There were blue harebells at the side of the track, and the ling and heather just coming into pink and purple. 
  And not a single monstrous wind turbine to be seen, nor any of the other blots on our landscapes we now must endure.
  My grandmother ran a small dairy – milk, butter and cream. She raised turkeys and geese, and kept chickens for their eggs. Not that one of those avian horrors ever stayed confined where they were supposed to be; they wandered everywhere. The geese owned the farmyard; they’d go for you unless you were quick over the gate. The big gander had an evil look in its eye. The hens would invade the garden and old Victorian-style glasshouse. A shriek would go up: ‘My gentians! My strawberries!’
  I don’t suppose all of it has vanished – yet – but the farmhouse has, replaced by a modern dwelling with all mod cons installed. I’ve deliberately refused to drive that road for years; en route to St Andrews I’ll go miles out of my way just to avoid it.
  The EU put paid to the small farmers and market gardeners of the East Neuk. There are featureless acres now, yellow with rape in spring or, in summer, the short-stemmed barley from which the long feathery awns have been bred out. I fail to understand why people protest about GM crops. These have been around for a long time already.  And efficient combine harvesters put paid to gleanings for the birds in the cold months, just as planting winter wheat did for the lapwings. There’s no room left for wildlife.
  Och, well – a day will come. Eventually. You reap what you sow.

Otherwise, the penultimate Wednesday of the month, there was a supervision session at the university.  I’m still not sure I’m progressing in the right direction – it usually seems to be a process of two steps for’ard, one back. This time it was a real step up, praise be!
  You have to learn the ‘how’ along with the ‘what.’ The ‘what’ is taxing – what to put in, what to leave out. Ahead of review the Greek is under discussion, and I am still trying not to be so darned literary and writerly ... 
  EdBookFest was a day out, away from computers if not literature. Adam Nicolson (22 Aug) was like the best sort of tutorial or lecture: an utterly brilliant reading of Homer which chimes with the ancient view of the poet as ‘a bible for the Greeks,’ (in spite of Xenophanes’ animadversions about mythology and truth).
  These days, people believe poetry doesn’t matter – but if it doesn’t, how come it’s one of the primary arts still practised today? The history of mankind’s written in blood: the First World War poets inherited the Iliad. Not much has changed.  

Next month is looking hopeful, empty (~ish) of diary entries at present, aside from dental appointments, the ongoing bathroom revamp saga (don’t ask: it’s a WIP) and all the boring necessities of life.  Plus that bl**dy referendum of 18/09/14 – which one has given up any attempt to try to understand. I noted with amusement a couplet posted on Mary Beard’s blog, here: ‘Scotland, how thee a double darkness mocks, Thy name is Skotos and thy teacher (K)nox.’ I don't know where the comment writer got it from, but it’s very clever: ‘skotos’ (σκότος) being Greek for ‘darkness,’ and ‘nox’ the Latin for ‘night.’
  I shall simply make my big black X mark in the ‘No’ box and have done with it. However, the Howe of the Mearns and the wider environs of the northern university city are firmly on the side of ‘No’ – largely a conservative lot (small ‘c’) and those with enormous industrial vested interests to protect. I hope the rest of the country is similar. It’s not today or tomorrow we’re worried about – it’s the next thirty or 50 years.

Perhaps I’ll be able to have a good ‘go’ at the research in September (and the rewrites). I’ve spent much less time on the computer and the ’Net of late, which frees up lots of mindspace. Time to read, time to mentally ‘potter,’ time to think, vaguely wandering around to the likes of J.S. Bach’s ‘Sheep may Safely Graze,’ Butterworth’s ‘Banks of Green Willow,’ John Tavener’s divine oeuvre, Pat Doyle’s ‘My Father’s Favourite’ (from Emma Thompson’s ‘Sense & Sensibility’) ~ even the Academic Festival Overture.’ (Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind. ~ J. Brahms.)
  I own to catholic tastes! (Another small ‘c’).
  But I could ruefully say without inspiration, the craftsmanship is a mere shaking reed. I still can see the finished ‘thing’ (thesis) in my mind’s eye, just not 100% sure of the route map. The more reading I do the more frequently new angles spring up, often to contradict what one’s already written.
  Greek is insidious, slippery and fluid. So many words and terms have different meanings in different contexts – which peculiarity, in turn, has spawned generations of debates for mythographers, philosophers and theologians. (A halting, lexicon-led reading of the NT’s koine was when I first began to suspect the untold centuries of men who have issued dogmatic diktats.)  At times the language can be a miracle of economy or impossibly wordy.
  Greek also influences your way of thinking, which is why it was taught in public schools to young men destined for the higher reaches of the state. In ancient times rhetoric was a skill; words were magical, prophylactic or curative: αἱ γὰρ ἔνθεοι διὰ λόγων ἐπωιδαὶ ἐπαγωγοὶ ἡδονῆς, ἀπαγωγοὶ λύπης γίνονται· ~ ‘By means of words, inspired incantations serve as bringers-on of pleasure and takers-off of pain.’ *
  Like poetry.  
Credits: Bwthyn glas (Blue Cottage) Valériane Leblond, lliw olew are bren gan (oil on wood); Nicolson, book jacket,
* Gorgias of Leontini, Encomium of Helen; Cf. Peithô’s Web : trans. 1999 Brian R. Donovan,

Friday, 15 August 2014

Orpheus redux

From the first day of August, research has been slotted-in between various appointments and equally varied workmen’s requirements. The bathroom has turned out to need a comprehensive renovation. How did a simple job turn into such a complicated one?
  Then there is the central heating. It is totally out of sync with the energy supplier’s cheap overnight rate. No wonder the annual bills have been so high.
  Cue a power company review. Or at least it was supposed to be. So far, they’ve merely replaced the meter.
Greek’s proving taxing. There are words and expressions in the field which were only used once by this or that ancient author – and etymology’s a parlous area. I spend whole days fossicking in online sources, the lexicon, Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautika, the three tragedians and Herodotus, Kern’s Orphicorum fragmenta ...
  Some of these are easier than others. Apol. Rhod.’s one of the simpler ones – or I’m getting better at Greek. However, although the lexis is peculiar to the corpus or topic, the conceptual and metaphorical vocabulary differs in previous academic researches to date and appears incomplete. So, Ms Shaw bravely launches her own – O, chutzpah!
  It is also likely academic interview personnel won’t be overly familiar with the myth of Orpheus. For the sake of clarity (and sanity) it’s important to demonstrate where one is departing from accepted or past theories, not only to outline what those views or ideas are (or were) but what mine are now.
  But I believe I’ve nailed the Eurydike business, which exercise has clarified the myth.
  The more I investigate this Thracian figure from the dim and distant, the more threads have to be untangled.

For the purposes of an upcoming review I’ve written a virtually new Intro., translating all Greek terms at first use to make for ease of reading (anglicised version follows in parentheses, together with translation). All repetitions are in anglophonics, and footnotes amended or augmented to the same end.
   It’s a fine art, fitting all this in without making sentences or paragraphs artificial – or pompous – or, worse, ‘Jane’s Janet & John Guide to Orpheus.’  
   It is in the interests of all not to descend into academic rhetoric to justify the use of the theory, and to constantly bear in mind Flaubert’s three rules for good writing: clarity, clarity and finally clarity. Complexity is not indicative of quality. Academia is full of shiny new-minted nouns (so-called nominalisations) which, given a free rein, actually conceal what you are saying – assuming you know what you are trying to say in the first place. I believe the phenomenon leaked from the social science camp, but it is breeding fast in other disciplines.  

My cousin enquired, When do you think you’ll finish? (The family’s bored with my obsession?) 
  Prof and 2nd supervisor did remark, some time ago, it could be end 2015.  I don’t think so. Not at present. With the revamp of presentation mode I can add another 12 months to that estimate, minimum.  People don’t believe it could take so long, but I know it can. The material’s there – say 75% of it, as conclusions haven’t been written yet – but re-casting the amorphous mass into an acceptable academic format will be time-consuming to the nth degree.  I’m getting good at junking superfluities, adjectival clauses and waffle, but the previous word count has been decimated and then some.  Still, the core’s there.
  ‘Sfunny, the more I work on delivering the prose the more skeletal and spare it becomes and yet it has lost little in the slimming down.  In fact, its new lean outline is more attractive.  But it mustn’t become asthenic – this thesis has to be more than a mere twenty thousand words!
  Och, well ~ there’s a supervision at the university next week. I’ll soon find out if I’m way off beam.
  Apparently there is an identifiable post-thesis state of mind. You feel bereft once the thing’s been handed in.  Personally, if the happy day ever dawns, I’ll feel as if I’ve been released from the Bastille.   
On another front, life interrupts as ever. This week studies were ‘out.’ There are ‘Men In,’ removing the bathroom ceiling, plus I’m due at the hospital today, so am grumpy. (I loathe anything medical.) Thus, between the chaos of the house and trying to maintain normal routines, I’m already a loser.

It’s only weeks before the wretched Scottish ‘independence’ referendum. Trashy junk mail through the door is taxing the capacity of the recycling bin.
  I noted some of the slightly less silly and facile comments in the Spectator. (I thought the Spec had an above-average readership, but seemingly not.) One or two hit the mark, especially regarding Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games having a polarising effect (allegedly, ‘Let’s a’ vote ‘aye.’)
  Yeah? Nah.
  If anything, the opposite: ‘family of nations’ and all that.  
  On Tuesday, while I was dismantling the bathrooms shower stall, #1 daughter emailed: Independence is not going to happen. Noare 20 points ahead!
  Is there Hope, as those little rainbow bumper stickers proclaim?
  And last week some heavyweights weighed in on the side of non-separation – from all fields, including zoologist Sir David Attenborough, actor John Barrowman (apparently a Scot; I thought he was Canadian), academic Classicists Profs Mary Beard and Paul Cartledge, artist Tracy Emin, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, singer Dame Vera Lynn, children’s novelist Michael ‘War Horse’ Morpurgo, broadcasters and historians Peter and Dan Snow ...
  But the arguments over the UK pound go on and on. There may well be no statutory barriers to Scotland using sterling currency but over national boundaries a small question remains about parity and exchange rates.  If one pound Scots is only worth a quarter (or less) of an English one, my personal income’s cut. Drastically. 

I’m trying to eschew politics ~ and not just Scotland’s.  I’m going off mankind as a species.
  Our world is a mess.  Despite owning to various personal remnants of faith or belief, I’m beginning to understand the atheist’s point of view.  The conflicts in Iraq and the Gaza are insane. A writer friend said recently: One thing you really have to give us atheists ~ we don’t cause a lot of religious wars. [...] fighting over who has the ‘real’ imaginary friend in the sky. [...] I seriously think you should stay far, far away from the ME. [...] I’m inclined to regard as incredibly foolish any conflict over who has the best imaginary friend.
  “Gaza et al remain at the top of our news lists. Just can’t really get too worked up about it, though.  I [...] just wish they’d all go away somewhere. And take their imaginary friends with them.” 
   Except the unholy mess is not about God per se, is it?  It’s about power: who has it, who wants it, and how much they can enforce their views at the point of a gun. And settle a few internecine tribal scores while they’re at it.

Picture credits: Thos. Crawford, 1839: Orpheus and Cerberus, ©Google images; Al Shejaeiya, Gaza, ©NBC News,, 22/07/14

Thursday, 31 July 2014

A life less sweet?

It’s been a low-key month. Email has been sparse, as if everyone’s gone to the Moon ~ or rather, sun-seeking in the Med, or even East Anglia.
  And, purely by accident, I gave up sugar in tea. I just forgot to buy it and felt better for the lack. Which was great ~ until, having sent my bro-in-law Italian nougat for his birthday, a craving for torroncini arose and I discovered specialità dell'Italia here ... 
  Otherwise, these have been the dog days of summer: a lackadaisical month of wandering around in bare feet due to the heat and not doing very much. I even bought the Independent a couple of weekends ago. (Other papers are available!) I hardly ever buy print newspapers; I get news online via AP, Reuters or the BBC, but it was a lazy Sunday. The Indie is like listening to Mozart: I feel energetic and clever for about half an hour after reading it. Then, as with Chinese food, the uploaded art and literary ‘carbs’ fast fade to normal levels. 

I am still trailing after the boy Orpheus, but – having managed to disconnect him from his later followers, the Orphics – the ‘thing,’ (the theory) displays some logic and coherence. The ‘thing’ is complicated by Orphism. If you disassociate Orpheus’s figure from the encrustations of later ages, and the inevitable religious fog which descends, then something very different emerges from the mists of the Dark Ages.
  The same goes for the Eurydike business. The myth of Orpheus is not a sweet romantic tale; strip that out and you have something older and much, much darker. This is what I have gone for.
  (Well, I would, wouldn’t I? Invoking the shade of Cambridge man, who really ‘got’ why people create – in marked contrast to the Eng Lit tutor who preached how dangerous it is for women to write. Tell that to the late Angela Carter, Nadine Gordimer et al.)

The 1.1., 1.2.1 etc modus operandi has proved useful. As with writing a project outline, details emerge from its skeleton. The theoretical hypothesis now stands out. Prior to the clarifying process it was lost in a welter of obscuring detail.
  I don’t find it alarming, narrowing down to a precise focus. In fact, it’s a relief, going from the general to the particular and seeing something take shape. The only annoyance is MS Word™’s endless nagging about ‘the passive voice.’ Word does not approve of the passive. Microsoft’s grammar police appear to have CCTV access to my prose. (Word is now being pernickety over each apostrophe!)

The research / writing schedule has been re-ordered, to render it less bitty and fragmentary. It is tempting, in some theoretical light bulb moment, to rush off to the keyboard and amend or re-write, forgetting this is ideally supposed to be a well-ordered theory or argument. Alterations or additions on p. 2 may well affect p.102, but it isn’t a linear process. More akin to filming episodes or events out of sequence, requiring a continuity person to keep track and avoid anachronisms. When you are director, producer, writer and continuity the muddle potential is huge!
  Amongst my wider family’s mottoes is spero meliora (I hope for the best) so, from ‘defining the myth of Orpheus’ I progressed to ‘The Theory,’ Argo and after. In relating Orpheus-the-myth to μεταβολή (metabolē, change), together with Dionysos, the ψυχή (psychē, soul), in addition to the mysteries and Orpheus vs the gods, plus multiple comparanda and mutations regarding the breaking of boundaries and limits, it all adds up to a neat 9000 words of ‘Introduction.’ What has been so eye opening is how simple it appears. Is this not supposed to be an agon? Or was it simply putting my finger on what connected these aspects? I don’t know at present – and it’s better not to over-analyse. Although the grammar police issue cautions I have a writer’s addiction to flow and to telling a story. Turning ad vocem into scriptis academica is the tricky part. Verba volant, scripta manent.

Overall, July has been coloured by the Ukraine air atrocity and the tragedy of the Gaza.
  There are no words for either of these although it doesnt mean we cannot feel. Who nowadays dares speak truth to power? The media are a hard-bitten lot, taught to distance themselves from their subject matter but, in a crazy world growing smaller every day, it is increasingly difficult to avoid man’s inhumanity. The magnitude of his brutalities exceeds those of wild animals – he slaughters his own kind. Murdering children is easy, especially when you have modern tanks and high-impact WMDs. 

Picture credits: July, ©; 
Banksy. Balloon Girl2005: Israel West Bank barrier, Bethlehem  © Wikipedia.