Thursday, 5 March 2015

World Book Day

I’ve never been certain exactly what World Book Day stands for. Is it just for children, simply to bolster literacy or reading, or to sell books? Whatever the reason behind the idea, it’s fatal for bibliophiles like me, who buy books, hoard books, cannot live without books – and increasingly can’t live with them. They take up more houseroom than I do.
  On the upside, our local library emailed to say Better World Books are hosting their own WBD event today, even providing a free shuttlebus to the warehouse premises. This second-hand book charity concern was where many of our Carnegie library volumes were carted off to (ref. blogpost, ‘The Fourth Wall,’ 31.03.14) so I’ve decided to make a date and go fossick around in the antiquarian and ancient history sections ~ hopeful of finding the odd gem lurking in their stock, e.g., a Loeb Aeschylus.  It might be there ~ I borrowed it enough times!  I figure ancient Greek isn’t too high on the ‘must-have’ lists of the local populace.
  I’ve ordered second-hand volumes from Better World before now, but always have to pay p&p, even though theyre only down the road as twere. With luck, there might be other titles which once reposed in the Carnegie backroom reserves, in the days when libraries were libraries and not infohubs, coffee shops and / or anything else dreamed up by local authorities anxious to be sharp, modern and ‘inclusive.’
  We shall see what the new ‘updated’ library offers, but I don’t believe it will be the same as the old one. If Iain Banks was still with us, I can’t imagine him giving readings of his latest work in a designated corner of ‘the book space.’

Once upon a time, WBD meant a day out for the children.  I remember a Book Train at Haymarket, Edinburgh ~ the girls had a lot of fun on that. They were at an age where #1 daughter read omnivorously and #2 was just getting into Postman Pat.
  Looking around now, it seems every child has some electronic device or other. You rarely
see an actual book in their hands – not even a Kindle. Given #1 daughter would sit on the stairs and read the telephone directory (if nothing else was on offer) what does today’s child do? Read endless banal text messages, or look at Facebook on its smart phone? Not the same thing.  I guess perhaps parents don’t have time, as I once did, to ferry someone to the junior library four times per diem in the long summer holidays, because the morning’s borrowings had been consumed within hours. ...
  Readers are made, not born. If a home doesn’t have access to books – all sorts of books – you’ll not inculcate the reading habit. There’s always something easier, flashier or quicker to distract children.  However, like fast food, this doesn’t mean better.
  And you’ll never make a writer without being a reader ~ a real reader, a person who reads not just widely but well. Not in the sense of reading aloud but reading more than the Daily Mail, the Sun or vacuous gossip-mongering magazines.
  The right to read what we want to is on a par with freedom of speech. However, in the UK there’s evidence of anxieties about inadequacies and insufficient education coupled with fear of a perceived cultural élite. This ‘them and us’ fear, based in class, race and income, and the widespread cult of the meaningless, permeates everything to do with education. There’s not a lot wrong with the notion of an intellectual élite – after all, élite does mean ‘the best’ – except in academia it’s too small and far too narrow in its concerns. The upper echelons, say ca. 10-15% of the population (I’m being generous!), the literati and the media, have manifestly not prevented the UK’s gradual slide into illiteracy, so they’re not in the business of improving much beyond their own hothouse concerns – or, for that matter, stemming the tide of less-than-desirable fallout from the Internet.

I’m beginning to recognise the impact of functional illiteracy in dealing with workmen. Whatever their manual skill levels they will go to endless lengths to give only verbal estimates or information; they avoid writing anything down, much less follow installation instructions. It’s a matter of male pride.  They might believe they conceal it, but the lack is always obvious. An alert is usually manifested, as soon as they step in the door: ‘What a lot of books!  Have you read them all?
  By the way, I note this does not apply to foreign craftsmen. They appear to have a better command of our language than we do.

Coda: Sad news, Leonard Nimoy’s demise. Apart from a sneaking affection for his Star Trek character, Mr Spock (eps still play on the digital channels) I once heard Nimoy reading a science fiction short story as an interact on Radio 3.  It was Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth, featuring Rhysling, ‘blind singer of the spaceways’ (how Homeric).  Despite the jingle-like stanzas of Rhysling’s various songs, the rich dry timbre of the narration was powerfully musical.  It has remained in my mind ever since.  
  LN did not sing Rhysling’s verses: such is the province of the Filk music genre: Green Hills of Earth can be set to Amazing Grace. ‘Filkers have been known to write filk songs about a variety of topics, including but not limited to tangentially related topics such as computers and cats’ (Wiki).
  The Science Fiction Poetry Assoc. presents an annual Rhysling Award for speculative fiction poetry.  There’s also a Moon crater named after the character. Truth is stranger than fiction – but sometimes fiction’s stronger than truth.
Picture credits: section of Reading Hour (Lesestunde) Axel Johansen, 1920: Galerie Paffrath, Düsseldorf;  © WBD logo, Google images; Caedmon audio, cover art,

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Writing the past

Travels in the ancient world: various recent events dictated Italy 2015’s impossible, so have opted for Turkey again, late in the year, viz., Sardis, Laodicea, Antalya (for its archaeological museum), as well as Istanbul.
  Istanbul’s so-called Serpent Column, which Constantine nicked from Apollo’s Delphi, the Τρικάρηνος Όφις, (Trikarenos Ophis) cf. Herodotus’s Histories, still stands in the ancient Hippodrome, but only just. Of its original three snake heads one remains (in the Archaeological Museum) but after more than two millennia the bronze column itself has degraded – although, according to Simon Sebag-Montefiore, you can still read some of the Greek on the triple coils. The twelfth coil mentions 10,000 Spartans ~ more than any of the other poleis at Plataea, but possibly an overstatement.  It’s a pity the polished marble plaque has been smashed.
  I’m not interested in the Ottomans – although daughter #2’s keen to see Hagia Sophia, and no doubt even sail the Golden Horn. (Do we have to?!)
  I would like to descend into the cisterns with their phenomenal underground architecture.  We shall see – we’re not wandering around beneath the city on our own.
  I’ll probably be free of research per se by then.  C. P. Cafavy said, ‘As you set out for Ithaka | hope the voyage is a long one, | full of adventure, full of discovery (ever the lit. chick, me).  Well, it’s certainly been all that, and more.  Although not sailing in a seasick-making Bronze Age ship without a keel, it’s been the Greek poet’s marvel of a journey. Without my own ‘Ithaka’ I ‘would not have set out,’ except ‘She has nothing left to give [...] now’.  It was the travelling that mattered, not the arrival. From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is, and how injurious sometimes for the ships that undertake it’ (Cavafy, prose poem ‘The Ships’).  Hopefully it will be a while yet before this ‘ship’ makes its metaphorical landfall on Odysseus’s rocky home ~ though not a twenty year stretch, please!  I still want to continue tramping around Classical remains, too, until I’m ancient. (Perhaps that should read ‘I’m too ancient’.)
  And, without Classics et al, what to write about?  I began this blog on 1 August, 2010 and an initial vapid over-enthusiasm eventually settled into one or two posts per month.  Even so, it’s hard to believe it’s been close on five years. OK, it’s also been a learning process, over and above the writing – technology, the layout, how to process pictures, etc.  All useful, all fun. 
  However, on the down side, I feel more than usually isolated at present. Isolation isn’t always a bad thing, i.e., solitude to read, research or write, (see here) but combined with frittering my study time in intellectual frustrations, an incipient spring restlessness, a new grandchild far away who’s growing up daily, a marked boredom with the small concerns of village life, etc. ad infinitum et ultra, there is a something jumping up and down at the back of one’s normally serene unbothered consciousness.
  It’ll surface if it needs to.  I have a feeling I won’t like it but, if I don’t, can always studiously ignore it.  Besides, I have a general rule of thumb about life: if something is meant to be, it goes well.  If it doesn’t, it’s not meant to be. Que sera, sera ... 
  I suspect there are as many different modes of composing a thesis as there are supervisors.  This is a kind of authoring I’ve never truly had to immerse myself in before; it’s been a very steep learning curve. Very.  Re. writing qua composition, I’ve never been one for over-editing, being reluctant to polish too much in case shining the thing up removes its gilt, but academic prose has to be tightly constructed ~ minus ornamental over-indulgent adjectival clauses. 
  And time is perpetually in short supply. Time takes organisation, e.g., domestic tasks. Having a dishwasher frees up ca. eight hours a week – an ordinary nine to five working day.  But spread that working day across the week and it’s fractured and sporadic.
  Very little work has been done of late, anyway. ‘Off sick’ – a viral revisitation.  Blasted NHS and its useless 2014/15 ’flu immunisations.  Might as well have stuck a syringe full of holy water in my arm. ...

Previous post, I said something about academia persisting in connecting prose to the advent of writing, asserting this was when people became literate – which seems a huge assumption to make.  However, making connections between an archaic Dionysian figure and the Orpheus of the (written) Classical world is the current locus of one’s labours. A late arrival on a Greek stage already overcrowded with gods, demi-gods and heroes, he first existed somewhere in that shadowy pre-literate gap.  
  Modern Bulgaria, and parts of Greece and Romania, constituted ‘barbaric’ Thrace, the non-Hellenic neighbour.  Vase art depicts Thracians wearing alopekides (fox-skin caps) and zeirai (patterned cloaks).  The little we do know of Thracian Orpheus is vague and subject to controversy but, broadly speaking, at some unknown date, likely not much before the Sixth-century BC, the cult of Dionysos spread into Greece from the north.  In the train of the horned god of fertility and wine came Orpheus – a figure not featured in the pantheistic Olympian world and yet seemingly essential to a post-Homeric Greek cast of mind, i.e., the concept of a personal control over your own fate and the hereafter. 
  Researching Orpheus is akin to cutting out shapes; the pattern depends on where you start, and which bits you join to what.  For instance, his power over animals is illustrated only in later Classical art, but where did the idea stem from?  I’m trying to body swerve around the ‘Orphics,’ modern theories and speculations, the Derveni papyrus and so on.  I know what I think, and why, but it flies in the face of superior scholarly opinions to mine, so shall keep schtum pro tem.   

Heigh~ho, end of February; winter’s terminus.  We had random days of sunshine this month, ‘days lent,’ as the saying goes ~ loaned from spring to winter.  In the kitchen my little basket of bulbs has crocuses and miniature tulips with stripey or jade green foliage poking upwards towards the increasing light.   Outside, there are snowdrops by the wall, and the rowan trees are showing buds; hopefully these will survive the pecking birds.  This is ‘the hunger gap’; wildlife has to find anything it can before new seasonal growth.  I’ve put out so much birdseed these last three months I could have field-sown a hectare or more.
  The season of lists begins. A garden list, a DIY list (more hope than realism) and catalogues of things-which-must-be-done (only won’t be). #1 task is a massive paper shredding op.  Acres of forests cut down, rendered into paper bank or tax statements, then sliced / diced and recycled.  There’s a moral in there somewhere, if one could only discern it.

The radio’s playing ‘O, soave fanciulla,’ (Giacomo Puccini, La Bohème: ‘O, lovely maid in the moonlight’ ~ molto romantico. Naturally, it doesn’t end well.)  But a better accompaniment to study than the wintry ‘Che gelida manina,’ ~ ‘Your tiny hand is frozen.’ My hands were frozen. And my feet.  And the rest of me.
  March tomorrow.  Avanti, la primavera!  

Picture credits: Turkish etching, JAS retrouvé; serpent column plaque,;  snowdrops,

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Entrances ~ & exits

Life’s been incredibly complicated of late.  In the midst of ruthlessly pruning my chosen offering for next month’s review, bad news was delivered: Lady Punto had not only failed the MOT (a broken sun visor!) but also required a huge sum for repairing a corroded sub-frame. (Scotland’s icy winter roads are thick with salt.) The bill would be somewhat over £1000 for labour.  Add in pricey Fiat parts and it was looking stupidly uneconomical, viz., in excess of £2,500.
  So, decision made. The DAB radio’s probably worth more than the vehicle.  I was slightly sad ~ I love Fiats, having had four of them in a row, but it doesn’t need a psychic to foresee the inevitable.  Alas, time to go, lady.  The Punto’s been good to me, but it’s almost ten years old and has done ca. 75,000 miles.  
  Sitting in the dealer’s vehicle park, lonely and forlorn but sparkling clean after the rural mud had been washed off, the car looked AOK.  Just illustrates how deceptive appearances are. But replacing it with an automatic Panda meant ordering from Turin (in reality, Poland); months to wait. You need wheels in this neck of the woods.  A Plan B had to be implemented. If you gotta have a car you gotta have a car.  
  In the end one elected for something sensible, a motorist’s equivalent of Barbour jacket and wellie boots: a Hyundai ~ described by Car magazine as ‘anonymous-looking’. That’s fine by me – anonymous is good. I like anonymous!  I must be getting old. It’s a conservative choice with an extended warranty, air-con (in Scotland?) and obligatory bells and whistles.  I confess its USB / MP3 or whatever player are no use to me; the radio / CD is all I need or want, as long as it functions reliably.  Too much tech is hazardously distracting.
  I did briefly contemplate bun-shaped little Fiat again, except automatic 500s are scarce even if theyre available (which I doubt).  Anyway, Top Gear gave it a thumbs down re. hills.  Its nothing but hills hereabouts ... 
  If all this makes me appear a petrolhead, Im not.  I just require the right vehicle for my lifestyle.

Apprehension in one sphere of life can spill over into other spheres, however much one tries to keep them separated. ‘Car anxiety’ even leached into the ancient Greek bubble I float around in most of the time.  
  I wish the problems of this research enterprise were as easily solved, or I could see the future. At present I’m taking a fairly basic, even literal, view: humans either seek explanations for or solutions to their problems.  Having disentangled discrete strands of his myth (as I see them), Orpheus proceeds on his way, toting his lyre: two steps for’ard, one back (until we reach the next road block).

Below are a couple of  out-takes, which may / may not be reinserted: Ive always junked far more than is kept in any MS, and I’d wandered off the research piste. Discards are occasionally useful, tho I’m not obsessive or precious about preserving every little piece I write.  If it’s cogent, relevant or worth saying in the first place it’s not dumped. 

While the Thracian poet and singer apparently returned alive from the Underworld, his original myth certainly wasnt connected to Christian ideas of  ‘resurrection’ or salvation.  One road block is the so-called ‘Orphics’ – a latter-day term; we don’t know what they called themselves. They must be mentioned, even if only in passing, but, basically, the extraordinary corpus ascribed to Orpheus is sham Dionysiac mysticism. Laminated with spurious literatures, it’s a mishmash of poetry, archaic myth and phoney religion. When I’m feeling mordant it appears to have been no more than an ancient game of dress-up, to purloin the mythic past and market it, something new with a seal of venerable antiquity.
  ’Twas ever thus ...
 To Western sophisticates (as we so-o smugly believe we are) the link between poets and divine knowledge might seem very strange. ‘Poetry’ derived from the ancient Greek ποίησις (poiesis), a ‘making’ or ‘creating.’  It was divine inspiration, oral and aural – words not meant to be read but heard.  
 Oddly, some academics persist in linking prose to the advent of writing, because prose can’t be memorised and transmitted in the way poetry can. From this they extrapolate the idea this was when literacy reached the populace at large – which seems to me to be rather a quantum leap.

But there’s also a mantic perception of future and past embodied in the figure of Orpheus: prolepsis (foreshadowing) together with flashbacks plus analepsis (restoration) – especially the oracular function as granted by Apollo when the Thracian’s head fetched up on Lesvos after his death at the hands of Dionysos’s maenads.
   I wanted to emphasise how vatic ‘prophecy’ per se should be divided into two distinct types. There is ‘seeing’ as in a ‘second sight,’ which comes to the seer involuntarily, from outside his or her self, e.g., Kassandra at Troy. Then there is the sight prophets or manteis (seers) could call on to understand the present, as a means of accessing an ‘other’ dimension of future, past, alternative reality or parallel worlds.  I believe the figure of Orpheus belonged to the second of these – an Apollonian category which included diviners and interpreters of auguries and dreams, omens, portents and visions. 
Oracles were not strictly prophecy per se; they were answers to questions in return for offerings ~ examples being the Delphic Pythia, the Temple of Apollo at Phrygian Hierapolis (‘sacred city’) or the sanctuary of Dionysos in Thrace.  Gaseous fumes were common features, albeit historians cannot deny the priests of any site were adept in creating simulations.
  Hierapolis, north of Laodicea, was infamous for a cave which emitted poisonous carbon dioxide (above). Pretty well a guaranteed one way street to the Other World, wouldn’t you say?  It still wafts CO2, but its killing vapour’s only hazardous for careless birds.  
  ‘Oracles of the dead’ weren’t necessarily a part of every ‘Gates of Hades’ around the ancient Greek world. Cumae in Italy was a Late Archaic Greek colony, ca. 500BC. The ‘Great Antrum of Baiae’ and its sulphurous underground ‘River Styx’ in the Phlegraean Fields, (northern shore of the Bay of Naples) where the Cumaean Sibyl dwelled, was reputedly an entrance to the infernal realm.  The ruined site, with its Greek temple and later Roman bath complex, currently lacks archaeological verification.

On with the labyrinthine trek to Hades and beyond ...

Picture credits: Fiat, Μεταχειρισμένα ανταλλακτικά για Punto,; Orpheus with lyre,; Hierapolis, Laodicea ©Francesco d’Andria;  ancient Roman resort of Baiae, © Google images;