Thursday, 5 January 2017

Clouds rolling in

The Christmas decs are down, the tree’s away and the cards recycled (minus the glitter-laden ones).
 Return to routine normality – or as routine as it ever gets. The Fates have an annoying penchant for deciding life’s going far too smoothly for me ...
  On the domestic front, nothing much changes, from year to year. But little black cat is having an ‘up and down’ winter. Her thyroid medication doesn’t prevent sporadic declines into anorexia and lethargy. Then she will rally again. But the reprieves won’t continue forever.  After all, she is over eighteen – ancient for a cat. It’s hard to think of being without her: the faithful comforting purring presence, her head butting against my leg, accompanied by enquiring miaows and ‘prrrp’ noises that mean ‘Feed me!’ – the paws that attempt to prise open my eyelids at 4.00am, or trampoline on my rib cage when all else fails.
  We’ve been lucky in our local small animal veterinary practice, but – heads up, UK. There’s a crisis looming in general animal care as well as in our own human NHS. I’m aware that not all practitioners in either profession are uniformly caring, knowledgeable or indeed conscientious, but both, methinks, are afflicted by a similar creeping disease. They’re becoming service industries and, withal, are experiencing ‘customer’ abuse from patients / clients.  Having read up everything they can find on the Internet about their own condition, or various treatment options for their pet/s, they shout, cry, or become threatening if they don’t get what they demand. This is not what doctors or vets spend numerous years studying for – and the latter profession is suffering as vets leave general practice, or, at best, elect for specialist referral practices or individual vocational skills.

I don’t pretend to know what the roots of the problems are, but one aspect may well be the simple consequence of an increasing pet insurance market. Animals are an emotive issue – no one wants to lose their pet to illness or injury – but there are other concerns at stake. You’ve paid your premiums, so therefore you feel your sick pet should get every last thing going, regardless of whether it’s the best option?

Little black cat is not getting any younger – although she’s managed to outdo all her predecessors (apart from a kitten I rescued from a dustbin when I was four years old). But very old cats with deteriorating health conditions make you think carefully – about all the decisions you must make on their behalf: what’s best for your belov’d friends rather than what’s best for you. We should never make either an animal or another human the captive of our own fears. If it has to be ‘goodbye, little cat’ sometime I hope to be as accepting and dignified about the parting as she has always been in her long life and frequent misadventures.
   It’s not a weakness, to mourn the loss of a pet – but it is wrong to abuse the messenger when you won’t accept his or her professional advice.     
   Tomorrow, little cat goes into the vet hospital for six monthly blood tests due, etc. There won’t be any more cats here in future. The present incumbent has lived all her long life in this one place, and it’s never fair to remove cats from their familiar environment (unless they’re quite young). While we contemplate moving – depending on various factors, e.g., bl**dy Brexit, incomings vs outgoings, availability of appropriate properties and so forth – at current rate of progress were likely talking years. 

Friday, 20 January is imminent. Somehow, I didn’t believe the inauguration of the USA’s president No. 45 would happen (wishful thinking) but events and the machines of power and politics grind on, regardless of winter holidays. The rise of populism doesn’t augur well, either. Since November, DJT’s been crowing, strutting like a crown prince in expectation of a palace death. 

2017: Wars and rumours of war, the malversations and criminal stupidities of politicians lacking in moral responsibility, and the weapons bazaars that supply them with arms. All the dirty little gods of warfare (catalogued from Homer to Wilfrid Owen, down to Anthony Sampson, or Robert Fisk and his ilk) hand-in-hand with the holders of political, bureaucratic and financial power on this side of the Pond or t’other, as well as around the globe: ‘Once killing starts, it is difficult to draw the line’ (Tacitus).
  The ‘Net has given us a means of tracking, and talking about, events as they happen, 24/7. The conversation is live, at any hour of day or night. But it’s also blighted by idiots and messages of hate.  As Naomi Klein pointed out, it was corporate media, amplified by social media, that gave Trump his platform – and the resolution to pit him against Clinton. ‘The decision to run one against the other is what sealed our fate. If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?’ (Guardian)
  Good journalism is needed more than ever – but please don’t say the BBC is biased. Everyone is biased, vis-à-vis any conflict, but the requirements of impartiality mean too many vested interests, partisan persuasions and loony elements are given a platform to play the blame game, rather than basic reporting. It doesnt matter who drops bombs or fires bullets, the dead are dead. While bearing in mind war’s first casualty (a saying often attributed to Aeschylus) what is wrong with having a sense of common humanity, regardless of nationality, religion, race or gender? Although journalists are not immune to emotions, this doesn’t mean they don’t do their best to speak truth through the political fogs. Perhaps the silences in their dispatches are more significant. The freelance journo, or the stringer photographer, not beholden to an employer for a salary or (tellingly) a pension, possesses independence to tell it like it is. An acute, vigilant and sceptical “skill of reading between the lines, is urgently needed in supposedly free societies today. Take the reporting of state-sponsored war. The oldest cliché is that truth is the first casualty of war. I disagree. Journalism is the first casualty. Not only that: it has become a weapon of war, a virulent censorship that goes unrecognised in the United States, Britain and other democracies; censorship by omission, whose power is such that, in war, it can mean the difference between life and death for people in faraway countries, such as Iraq.” ~ John Pilger, 2006.
  Along with, one might point out, the systematic wrecking of Syria. As Fergal Keane highlighted on Twitter: “#Aleppo all so predictable. As will be the handwringing and choruses of denialism. Hard to know which is more odious,” and no one is ever held to account. On 13 December, a UN spokesman said it looked like there had been a “complete meltdown of humanity” in the city, as civilians were deliberately shot.
  Safely ensconced in a little rural enclave here, it is almost impossible to imagine what its like to be one of those millions without homes, without hope. 

What I can’t get my head around are the contrasts that impinge daily, between ‘real life’ and designated entertainment ‘escapism’ – cinema, TV and the popular literatures. And yet many of the genres deal in violence, predominantly against the person. Does make-believe CGI render it more acceptable? 
  How much are fictionally created human beings part of oneself? Are they allowed to reflect realities, or simply be ciphers for a public wanting more of the same, as with the industrial-level productions of, say, American thriller writer James Patterson, or fantasy authors Stephen Donaldson and Stephen King, who are all of an age, born 1947? (There are far more well-known men of this vintage than there are women: Hillary Clinton and Glenn Close feature, but it seems 47 was a fertile one for male creatives. What they have in common is they were in their twenties during the late 60s. Is this a clue?)

Reading: I’ve now consumed eight volumes of Lindsey Davis’s ‘Falco’ series, and shall hunt down the remaining dozen or so on Amazon’s used book marketplace.  A necessity, with not much left in the book budget, but unfair on writers – no royalties are forthcoming from second hand sales. But academic volumes are pricey, and I doubt I’m finished with research.   

One or two winter presentations are scheduled for this new year. On 25 January the village Heritage Soc.’s entertaining a professor on a local archaeological dig, and there’s another talk listed for 22 February, ‘In the Footsteps of the Roman Army,’ which should be interesting. Did they march anywhere near us?  Given the proximity of the Gask Ridge frontier, it’s possible.  
  Dear me, I’ve become too Romanist of late. Once more unto the Greeks!

Thesis report: no change. A month has gone, and nothings happened. Plus the neglected research email a/c now stands at 101 unread, and counting. ...
  I have sundry books to review, but little inclination to do so. I’d much rather hibernate in my mental bunker and read anything but scholarly tomes. Fill the coffee machine, make endless cups of tea or fiddle on the computer, blog or watch television – anything to avoid work.
  Two of the books need maximum concentration. I’m reasonably confident (~ish), about Green’s Iliad, but Barbara Graziosi’s Homer is too magisterially erudite for li’l ole me. That one shall be left to the more learnèd minds of the Ivy League and Bryn Mawr & Co.

(PS: Blogposts aren’t any shorter!)

Picture credits: clouds, © David Osborn,; ‘Keeping Watch,’ © from an original linocut by Helen Timbury, pub. Paper Dove Co. Ltd / Amnesty International; Roman Caledonia map, Historic UK;

Monday, 26 December 2016

Ghosts of Christmas

Yay! Boxing Day. The winter solstice is long past, and the end of a year approaches ~ yet again. Christmas en famille was celebrated up on Tayside, but in general seems ever less Christmassy. Once it was carols from King’s and church bells at midnight. Now, it’s the jingle of money, shopping, drinking and overindulgence.
 John Betjeman caught the old traditional season ~ extract is from his Collected Poems: ‘The holly in the windy hedge /And round the Manor House the yew /Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge, /The altar, font and arch and pew, /So that villagers can say/ “The Church looks nice” on Christmas Day.’

I suppose as the years roll we all look back to childhood. It is a pity the magic’s gone.  However, at least having a granddaughter restores some of its wonder. She’s just of an age now to be enchanted by it all.

This village is no longer the community it was, and wasn’t very festive this year. While the kirk and the primary school maintain their customs, and a few houses have displays of lights, many older folk are gone. Younger residents, in des. res. new-builds, are Edinburgh commuters – no children, no time for local concerns. They and their shiny 4x4s move on. 

All I really wanted of Christmas 2016 was a refuge from a world gone mad – the wholesale destruction of Syria and the Carthage-like hellhole of Aleppo. But, come the New Year, the auguries aren’t good. The CEO of ExxonMobil as US Secretary of State? Trump’s choice to head up the Pentagon, and his new national security advisor, too, have no executive experience of government – but hey! These men embody the wondrous ‘American Dream.’ So that’s OK. We can all sleep at night.   
  In less than a month the unknown quantity will be ‘enthroned’ in the White House, elevating his alt.right pals and making good on all his promises to divide and rule – meanwhile continuing the war of words via Twitter. On Saturday, 17 December, we realised he really can’t spell. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented act.”  His PR team rectified the error, but it isn’t reassuring. Imagine what else may be confused ...   

Not that the same cancer isn’t growing and metastasizing here. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote: ‘We are the people of England, and we have not spoken yet.’ Well, they did, didn’t they? The Law of Unintended Consequences achieved the exact opposite of what was expected and, allied with the advent of the New Establishment, the tenets and values of the Old Establishment have been routed. Or so the UK believes. The New Establishment bleats it’s given the people what they wanted (which the Old Establishment so selfishly kept to itself) and so the NE reaps its reward. With the bonds of money linking business, the media and politics, the new populism can masquerade as superior champions of the people. ‘The people,’ methinks, are easily fooled. 
  If said ‘people’ are obsessively twittering about TV, who’s likely to win Strictly, or which puerile ‘celeb’ is doing what with whom, they’re happily engaged with dumb trivialities and not likely to be looking at the real world. Bread and circuses.
  Tacitus also opined that ‘the more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.’ Ring any bells?

I keep my fingers crossed that, in implementing the meaningless phrase, ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ sluggish Civil Service jobsworths, obstructive Whitehall colleagues and ministerial interdepartmental rivalries, will together defeat it in the end.
  What does ‘Brexit means Brexit’ actually mean?  You may as well say, ‘bacon means bacon,’ or ‘bread means bread.’ Try it out: ‘London means London,’ ‘Scotland means Scotland,’ – ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’?  Utter rubbish, innit?

If Germany had pulled this stunt on the rest of Europe, they’d have it done and dusted by now. Germanic attention to detail would never have permitted these idiocies. Merkel would have not only asked a properly-constituted question but also had plans A and B in place
 Classicists (and non-classicists) are prone to seeking parallels with the ancient world, but Tacitus long ago summed up us Brits: ‘Idque apud imperitos humanitas vocabatur, cum pars servitutis esset’ ~ ‘Because they didn’t know better, they called it “civilization,” when it was part of their slavery.’ And, ‘Rara temporum felicitate, ubi sentire quae velis, et quae sentias dicere licet’ ~ ‘It is the rare fortune of these days that one may think what one likes and say what one thinks,’ (Tacitus, Histories). Nevertheless, in todays Britain, it’s probably wiser to keep it to oneself.

The thesis squats on my desktop, simmering on the back burner till New Year. I view it as a malign presence – but I do wish the whole business hadn’t been so strung out. Much might have been said years (and several thousand pounds) ago. Now it’s too late: ‘There would have been a time for such a word’ ~ Macbeth, V:5. It’s disappointing, but comes down to simple choice. Take it or leave it. But I’m no longer sure I own the thing – not in the way I’m used to. It will probably emerge denatured, sterile, inauthentic: just another workaday piece.  
  I feel cheated out of something I love, as if it has to be neutered in the interests of the group, i.e., academe. However, if you let stress or depression gain a hold, then you cannot motivate yourself to do anything. Albeit, it wouldn’t be surprising: being perpetually closeted indoors, hunched over a computer, is tailor made to make anyone low. Besides, overall, I’m too preoccupied / weighted-down with other demands to privilege PhD above more vital things ~ e.g., actual living!
  The emotional investment in researching and writing has been incredibly draining. It’s much, much more difficult than fiction – where (most of the time) one may please oneself what happens, to whom or how.  Albeit life does go into it.

I duly received the promised books from the States – the novel and a volume of poetry written by a late American friend.  Even a cursory reading unlocked the memory archives – events, people and places. In parts it made me smile; it’s like reading an old diary. Especially as it was about this time of year, and how Paris appears in winter. The oily grey Seine sliding by, the Rive Gauche, the bridges and the lights. Montparnasse, or the white basilica of Sacre-Cœur, Montmartre. ...
  It was my first venture abroad on my own. When MH was at work during the day, I would wander around those ecclesiastical hymns of glass and stone.
  Her novel was a draft, not edited before she died, but it’s salutary to realise how much we are actually part of other people’s lives. And it is so long ago now that it doesn’t hurt to recall, as if it happened to someone else: a minor character in a novel – quite literally!
  I’m just glad now that I knew her.    
  I suppose this is the usual end-of-year meditation, but at least with middle age you can ditch regrets.  ‘Cos there ain’t nothin’ you can do about the past, so let it lie and just recall the good times. And Paris with MH was one of the best – ‘breve et inreparabile tempus omnibus est vitae’ (Vergil). I was much more me,’ back then. Not the same me these days.
  Actually, given that Vergilian apophthegm, ‘short and irretrievable is the time of life to all,’ JAS’s No. 1 New Year resolution for 2017 ought to be ‘write shorter blogposts.’ Brevis et dulce ...
  I’ll try.
  Felice anno nuovo.

Picture credits: winter, Culross late medieval village, © Fife council; summer view of village, from the golf course, ©; fragment of funerary inscription,; Art Nouveau, Paris Metro © f.o.c., non-commercial;