Friday, 31 July 2015

ave atque vale

July’s been a mélange of a month ~ a mix of lethargic aestivating and doing bits of this and that but not really finishing anything, or reaching any goals. ‘Aestivating’ is possibly the wrong word – it’s rained here with tropical ferocity, off and on. In between, nothing like summer days should be. As hazily recalled from childhood (inevitably) – long and hot, relaxing in hay fields or picnicking by streams. If climate change is Gaia’s vengeance for our despoiling of planet earth, this summer her revenge has mostly fallen on Scotland.  In buckets.

Anthony Trollope
Between the heavy tomes of Greek mythology and the scratchy process of thesis writing, I’m still forging my way through Anthony Trollope; He Knew He Was Right (a study of corrosive and possessive jealousy) and Framley Parsonage (the salutary tale of a debt owed by an unworldly clergyman) with a few characters from Dr Thorne making appearances.  Trollope wrote forty-eight novels – three times as many as Dickens (I sha’n’t be ploughing through his oeuvre!) – and, unusually for a Victorian male novelist, T. displays an understanding of women as well as angry and bitter men suffering frustration and irrational suspicions (the tragedy of He Knew He Was Right).  Can You Forgive Her? was an accurate picture of a man cracking under the strain of a kind of madness. Trollope’s Irish common sense bred a sceptical attitude to the mores of Victorian society.  You have to read certain writers in the round, as ‘twere. Trollope has ‘dated’ less than Dickens and Hardy, but the cherry-picking attitudes of current Eng. Lit ‘teaching to the exam’ doesn’t allow for this. Today’s kids never get the whole picture. (Neither did a ponderous course I once took on The Victorian Novel – the usual suspects et al – which leaned towards reading through an anachronistic feminist lens.)
THESIS: Is – and is not – gradually assembling itself. It’s like chasing fugitive globules of mercury.  However, on 29 July the word count reached 77,420.  Balance remaining: 22,580 max.  Considering notional length of Chapter 7 (‘Conclusions’) plus addenda, this should be enough?  Until I take an editorial scalpel to it ...
 With regard to a supervisory debate about using ‘science fiction’ in full, as opposed to shortening it to SF (as in SF/fantasy) I did some delving.  In the main the shorthand’s ‘SF’.  As this makes life easier for me, I will return to ‘SF’, employing ‘science fiction’ (or even ‘science-fiction’) only at first use in the relevant chapter, thereafter ‘SF’ or ‘s-f.’ Either appears accepted academic practice in the genre. There are as many nit-picking categorical directives on this question as there are authorities across the field.  It really does seem up to the individual writer. I prefer a natural flow of words, but I sha’n’t lose sleep over the question.
   Writing out in full would bump up the word count, but – fingers X’d, pro tem – said count is accumulating. Anyway, one should keep a quantity in reserve for the rewrite (again, inevitable).
A PhD thesis is such a long and arduous process I’m beginning to feel some minuscule fraction of the award is for sheer stickability – for getting there against all the odds. I have a lot of ‘odds’ to weather – commitments, sporadic requisitions of my time for people and tasks. But I need some time off.  One can become too obsessed. And lonely.
 And time ticks on.  One should bear in mind Simonides’ long-winged fly.   
  The prime factor is time, which is at a premium: a lack of it affects thinking, reading or writing.  I curtail expenditure of it as much as possible, so as not to waste it. Major domestic exercises, like keeping the fridge and freezer full, mean everything’s ordered online: home deliveries scheduled, or click‘n’collect incorporated into car journeys ferrying the daughter to / from work. The house itself is neglected: the cat’s pawprints leave mysterious feline hieroglyphic messages in the dust.
   I’ve been on this Classical quest for approximately fourteen years: an initial degree, thence to MA and thus to PhD.  I aim to work 9.30am to 5.00pm, with an hour and a half for lunch.  This doesn’t always happen – midnight lucubrations feature, as well as emails, etc.  (And, along with a new BT hub, now Windows 10’s to download.  More techie issues loom. Aaagh! Mamma mia! The precious thesis Word docs?) But I try to adhere to ‘office hours,’ with an odd half day or so off.  Don’t believe idealised notions about intellectual ivory towers; this is hard graft, and constantly under siege from real life demands (and ‘Persons from Porlock,’ vide S.T. Coleridge, 1797). My research isn’t going to set the heather alight – it’s not life-changing genetics, or awe-inspiring quantum physics.  It might eventually make an acceptable general interest book. Might.  When I’m being particularly pessimistic about its prospects or academic credentials I reflect that Occam (he of the Razor) would dismiss my puny effort out of hand as unverifiable.   
   Of course many hypothetical models are, like ancient Greek gods, unverifiable.  But when did that ever hinder writers, poets, philosophers and painters? Whilst the myth of Orpheus may appear to leave much indefinite, there are enough delineating foreground minutiae. What is known is sufficient, if arranged to accurately convey my theory (or theories).

Research is incredibly all-consuming.  I spent last Friday tracing an obscure Greek fragment.  I thought I’d be fine with Loeb’s 2015 online texts. I wasn’t.  You are given so much access and thereafter must pay more than a hundred dollars, unless your institution’s a subscriber.  Edinburgh’s New College collection said it isn’t – and so did my home university. Then I clicked on ‘Shibboleth / Athens,’ and lo! There’s my university – except there was also a message: ‘If you think you were sent here in error or require assistance please contact the Service Desk.’ The Service Desk was out of action at that precise juncture, plus my PC was determined not to accept cookies. Online access is hedged about with Fort Knox-level security.  
   The solutions were to request an inter-library loan (vouchers are like gold dust) or go buy the volume – for a couplet of two lines?    
    Back to the Internet.  Life was much simpler when I had the London Library just around
the corner from the office, and the BM’s 1857 Reading Room was still in Bloomsbury (before 1997). They had books – not all this falderal of fiddling in digital archives. (Cf. Mary Beard, here).
Hence this post’s header: ave atque vale, hail and farewell.   I may pick up DBG again after return from Turkey, but currently envisage a measure of time sans blogging. Not because I dislike this journo-style posting (the opposite!) but the external world is an insane place right now, which exhausts emotions and saps thinking.
~ Emma Thompson
Mental energies are better channelled towards thesis writing. Chapter Five’s in the can (sort of: 14,015 words) but Chapter 6 is stuck precisely half-way: magno conatu magnas nugas.  I’ll need most of August to wrangle the latter into something approaching both sense and readability.  I know what I want – and I know what I’ve got.  It
s the attempt to unify the two which gives rise to angst.
  Next semester launches in September, although general terms do not apply to postgrads; academic research runs the year round.  Terms vary, according to faculty or school and stage of study.  However, in addition, a minor catastrophe has overtaken me, entailing dental X-rays + a discussion about options. Pensive ‘discussions’ invariably mean ‘expen$ive’.
  Time-consuming surgery is envisioned.  Anyway, we’ll see.  I have no particular regard for my appearance ~ only that one may eat! But orthodontic braces at my age?
  Alas, the penalties of falling off horses at speed. The damage has showed up some decades after the original impacts – long after I terminated my costly annual British Horse Society membership with its huge amount of dental cover. 

ἀνάγκᾳ δ’οὐδὲ θεοὶ μάχονται : not even the gods fight necessity ~ Simonides.
  See ya – circa end January, 2016. Inshallah
Picture credits: Study books © JAS; A. Trollope,; PhD cartoon,; The British Museum Reading Room, before the British Library relocated to St.Pancras,; Emma Thompson, Radio Times, 25-31 July, 2015, p.35

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Secrets, lies and histories

First off, although the Tunisian massacre happened at the end of last month I didn’t want to say anything at the time.  My daughter, son-in-law and the baby were due to holiday at Hammamet, just down the coast from Sousse.  ‘Careless talk costs lives,’ said GB’s wartime posters. Careless online references these days can do the same, so I decided to wait before mentioning it. In the event, they were permitted to change their bookings to Europe. Besides, travel insurance for Tunisia was unobtainable in the wake of the killings at Sousse. However, I’m now watching Turkey for later this year. There has been trouble in Istanbul.
  This may be paranoia, but Daa’ish has technologies and uses them.  In any event a low profile is wise, not just against world-wide terrorists but vis-à-vis all other perils, e.g., trolls. And don’t give out your address, or any other direct personal information.
  The International Business Times UK website edition of 28 June here expatiated on the FOC’s updated travel advice. But who then sanctioned a minute long anniversary online video with a picture of a grinning jihadi waving that horrible black flag?  Wrong picture, wrong place (since changed).  Don’t pretend to understand the jihadists, and stop feeding their pathological narcissism and their lust for publicity.  A dead child would have been more accurate. 

But you have to take chances or you’ll never really live. 
  I loved Tunisia; the country and the people. Douz in the Jebel Dahaar, the vast desert night skies down at Borj el-Khadra (the sub-Saharan tip) and Tataouine. If this last sounds familiar, it is: George Lucas took the name for Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars (1977). Matmata’s troglodyte Berber cave dwellings, which also featured in Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, did duty as a homestead, and Lucas left some of his film’s props at Onk Jemel, Tozeur, where they probably still remain.
  Although I was (as ever) trekking around the archaeological sites, which are so miraculously well-preserved in that hot dry climate, I found more than I expected to.  I’m not a beach person, where the real tourist monies come in, but the desert landscapes were unspoiled. I hope they still are. 
  Not much remains of original Carthage (‘New City’) the oldest Phoenician settlement on the coast of North Africa – time and the Romans made sure of that. The much-restored site doesn’t have the mysterious atmosphere of Malta’s megalithic Phoenician temples (ca. 3600BC – ca. 700BC) but you can find the Antonine baths, the creepy Salambo Tophet, the Punic ports, the amphitheatre and the acropolis of Byrsa. here
  How can these new Vandals of Daa’ish not realise that time is something that can’t be undone?  History is as it is.  It’s universal. We are our history: you can’t re-write it, nor can you destroy it – however many spurious ahadith you adopt, or ancient remains you topple and smash. Some day these iconoclasts, too, will be ‘one with Nineveh and Tyre’ (Kipling, Recessional, 1897).  
  We are history – but not in the negative sense the soi-disant Khalifate thugs would like us to be.

History repeats itself.  The following is from an essay by Sir Valentine Chirol in the June 1924 issue of Foreign Affairs (courtesy of Reuters). here The original article was about Turkey, but the basic gist applies:

‘The Khalifate is an Islamic institution which goes back to the death of Mohammed in 632, and its history has been almost from the beginning a stormy one. The Khalifa-Rassoul-Allah, the Viceregent of the Prophet of God, [...] is the Defender of the Faith, armed with the sword to defend a faith which leapt sword in hand into the world. Out of the dissension which sprang up over the selection of the first Khalif arose within less than thirty years the great schism between Sunni and Shiah Mohammedans which, having engendered fresh heresies, endures to the present day. The fourth Khalif, Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed, was murdered in 661, and the Khalifate, which his followers, who became known as the Shiahs, have ever since repudiated, passed by a combination of violence and fraud to the Ommayad dynasty of Damascus.  As a divinely appointed institution it has always been upheld, though with varying fervor, by the Sunnis who comprise the large majority of Mohammedans. But there have been many and often violent feuds as to the legitimacy of successive Khalifates whose title has in fact usually rested in the last resort on the power to enforce it. Since the Khalifate of Damascus there has never been a Khalifate universally recognized even by the whole Sunni communion itself. With the rapid expansion of Mohammedan conquests, which extended in the first centuries of Islam from Central Asia in the East to Spain and even a large part of France in the West, it became impossible to maintain unity either of temporal or spiritual sovereignty.’
Does it sound familiar?
  The modern world’s problems are typically the old ones – man’s will to power, now augmented by the propaganda machine of the Internet.  Lies, half-truths and evasions slip around the globe fast these days – yet still people persist in believing what they have no reason not to believe. 
  It’s reported the three silly girls who disappeared to Syria are now wed ~ two were fifteen, the other one sixteen. Mere children. My two were still at school at that age. I suspect the envisioned scenarios haven’t worked out ~ no romantic young fedayeen toting big guns, no glamorous desert sheikhs in the vein of Valentino: more likely older men and a life burden of cleaning, washing and childbearing. Passports and iPhones confiscated, and the full black burkha, face masks and gloves mandatory.
  What a fate.  It must have broken their families’ hearts.    
  Still, if that’s what the girls wanted ...

Some of us are taught to question everything – to ask, like Cicero, cui bono? (who benefits?) Usually it’s masquerading as the solution to a problem when it’s actually the cause. But you have to cast around for different takes on big issues, and preferably not along party lines. 
  The late Anthony Sampson’s studies, The Seven Sisters (1974, the oil industry) The Arms Bazaar (1977, the weapons trade) and The Moneylenders (1981, international banking), all written in quick succession, gave a twentieth-century insight into what went on behind the scenes, and the world we’ve inherited today. Plus ça change ...

I mourn Greece’s misfortunes.  Perhaps it was always going to happen –Varoufakis said it’s a coup d’état using banks instead of tanks, and will only strengthen Golden Dawn. Someone, somewhere, will make a killing out of the débâcle. What the hell can the Greeks do?  In less than a week the EU have succeeded where even the Persians failed, and Philip II’s Macedonians had a struggle at Chaeronea (338BC) before any settlement could be imposed on Greece (aside, that is, from Sparta).
   You can still find the Greek oligarchic rich in the Onassis mould ~ and the rural poor, like an aged goatherd I met very early one morning near Olympia. Despite not comprehending each other’s language we shared peaceable communality on an olive-shaded hilltop. Beside a tiny apsidal chapel of St Basil we smiled and smoked cigarettes in silence, while his goats milled around, their handmade metal bells pealing a carillon.  
   That is, or was, my Greece.

On the research / thesis front, forward progress is limping. Needing something fresh to rejuvenate a jaded appetite, I jumped into Chapter Five. But one vital new publication was way overdue, despite being available in the States.  Its UK delivery date came and went, postponed to this month. Another important book’s due November: I hoped the same wasn’t going to happen again, but it has. My guess is copyright issues, but it’s frustrating. Queries to Amazon don’t help: their computers churn out generic catch-all responses. 
  However, I need more thinking time. Academia’s definitely divided into intellectuals and those who are perhaps best described as ‘academic’ academics, dealing largely in other people’s works.  The former are originals, the latter second-hand. A PhD thesis requires a modicum of originality, which is where the thinking comes in. Also, creative flow’s important for me: the thing must be readable, it must engage. (Cf. Prof. Pat Thomson, here)
  It’s welding this engagement to reading and thinking which will be the last ‘step up,’ the lead-in to tentative draft conclusions and hopefully a finished, if over-long, document – of sorts. I can see it now, as a whole. It’s getting it down on paper which taxes, pro tem.

I’m debating continuing this blog. On 1 August it will be exactly five years since I first ventured into the space, but Google’s suddenly dropped the facility to not count my own page views in their stats, or indeed retrieve them. In fact, much of the processing has become fractured and unreliable. This is more than an annoyance, but the big G hasn’t responded to my plaintive query.  Is it time to call it a day, or defect to Wordpress? Although WP doesn’t permit anything like the same ease of use, I created another blank template there just to reserve the name. It’s not important in the great universal scheme of things but I’d miss blogging – despite being dispirited by the current Zeitgeist.  
  The all-time high here was 4 July 2011 ~ 1,650+ views, closely followed by Cats of Crete at over a thousand: proof, if such is needed, that cats rule the Internet.

I should have been doing research. Quiet reigns undisturbed. It’s the silly season: no phone calls, few texts, fewer emails or letters, but I’d sooner write anything rather than the thesis. Instead of daily battles with the white screen page I prefer composing these posts, with word counts that total effortlessly in the left hand corner of the toolbar below. This is not the case in research. Every single word is extruded, pored over, changed, challenged, changed again, excised, replaced.  
  Academic writing can ruin your style, your ‘voice.’ I dislike losing the freshness of those initial drafts. While I was still in love with Orpheus I didn’t see him as I do now. 
  This always happens with men.  It must be me. 
Picture credits: ‘Secrets’ © Voyages Jules Verne, 2015; guard, Garden of 1001 Nights, Kairouan, Tunisia, © JAS;