Monthly Archives: October 2017

The Six Labours of Microcles

Once or twice upon a time I came upon a book.  It was very slim for a novel, but it undoubtedly was one: about the same length as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly but for very different reasons, it was a short Proustian burst of contemplation on the minutiae of modern life.  Like noticing when you go up an escalator that the hand belt goes slightly slower than the steps and that it wobbles slightly as you grip it.  Like having long and complex thoughts about bendy plastic straws – that sort of thing.  And I seized upon this book with a great gladness, for I had thought until that moment that it was Just Me – or rather, Just I, who had these wonted but unwanted thoughts; these obsessions that didn’t ‘get me anywhere’ and which I couldn’t share with any of my fellow-travellers, but which nonetheless struck my obsessive mind as significant.

Anyway, it set me thinking about the minutiae of life and asking, why should we think small things are less important than large ones?  So in that vein here are some of the labours of Hercules’ lesser-known sister, Microcles:

  1.  untangle threads and fluff from a velcro fastener
  2. extract a wad of chewing gum from a child’s hair
  3. get every speck of soil from a dirty leek
  4. retrieve every atom of glass from a smashed thermos
  5. clean the dog poo from the soles of a pair of DM’s
  6. untangle a drawer full of string.

I can’t think of any more at the moment but that’s enough to be going on with.  I recommend the book, too:

Share and enjoy!

Kirk out

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By the Word Divided

Yesterday I listened to the prequel to the prequel – or rather, the accompaniment to the whole, which was Phillip Pullman talking about his art in Book of the Week.  Now, I confess that although I love the work, I had conceived a prejudice about the man – due to believing that JK Rowling’s Professor Lockhart, the inept and narcissistic character in Book Two of Harry Potter, was based on Pullman (because of Sally Lockhart, a character in his series of potboilers.)  So I conceived an idea of Pullman as a narcissistic academic, long blond-grey hair swept back, striding around Oxford in a billowing gown.

Well, from the sound of these programmes, my conception was dead wrong.  Pullman started out as a schoolteacher; and his tone as he talks about what informs his writing is solid and down-to-earth.  He is particularly good at debunking Richard Dawkins’ ridiculously Gradgrindian theory that reading children fairy tales is likely to discourage them from accepting scientific ideas.  Plus, like me, he is a huge fan of William Blake.  What’s not to like?  I have to wait until this afternoon for the last installment, but here’s the link to the rest:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09b19y8

Anyway, the thing I was going to talk about today was the BBC mini-series (I have to hyphenate that word because otherwise it looks too much like miseries) about the Gunpowder Plot.  This is a story that never fails to capture the imagination, as it contains not only thrills and spills but the very real danger of the overthrow of government.  The idea of Guy Fawkes as a popular hero is ill-informed as he and his co-conspirators were no friends to democracy: however this production gives us something of the background of oppression which gave rise to the Plot.  Catholics were tortured and killed in the most brutal ways: while at the same time Protestants were being burned at the stake in Catholic Spain.

The production does get a bit Game-of-Throne-ish in the last episode: there’s rather a lot of swashbuckling and male back-slapping.  But there’s enough of a counterbalance by way of serious drama and a Horrible Histories-style detail in the telling: the Tower of London is shown in grisly and depressing detail as the Lubyanka of its day; we see details such as the storing of the gunpowder in an underground store and their concern about keeping it dry.  King James is down-to-earth and very non-regal and the true villain of the piece is the Richard III-like Cecil, whose web of spies intercept letters and people and interrogate both with an equal detachment.  So on the whole I think serious drama won over the GOT – but it was a close thing.

It’s interesting though, that we can still be gripped by a drama whose outcome we already know.  I wonder if Richard Dawkins would understand that?  He certainly wouldn’t understand Catholics and Protestants killing each other – but then neither do I…

Anyway, here’s the series:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p05j1cg8/gunpowder-series-1-episode-1

Kirk out

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The Book of Dust

To listen or not to listen?  That was my dilemma at the weekend (yes, that same weekend that was packed with non-violence and non-nuclear weapons) when the BBC broadcast in its entirety Philip Pullman’s prequel to His Dark Materials, another three volumes collectively entitled The Book of Dust.  I was so torn: on the one hand I really wanted to read the text first; on the other hand it might be Christmas before I could get my hands on a copy and even then, that particular item on my Christmas list might not materialise.  Add to that the inducement of Simon Russell Beale’s hypnotic voice – and reader, I caved.

I was glad of my caving: it made the space between nuclear weapons and Casualty (not long usually but in this case about four hours) – enchanting.  I forgot I was in the kitchen making bread; instead I was at an inn on the riverside in Lyra’s Oxford where Lyra, a baby, is being looked after by some nuns.  But others are taking an unnatural interest in this baby…

I shall not post spoilers because as I said before, when a book is so new it’s unfair.  But here’s the link to the programme:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b099tf53

I might even listen again – again.

Kirk out

 

 

 

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Last Night I Dreamed I Went to Canterbury Again…

‘I’ve come on pilgrimage by mistake!’  That was my message to OH last night after I had attended a multi-faith prayer session at the local Brahma Kumaris centre and been unexpectedly swept up into a pilgrimage.  It was very short, as pilgrimages go: I’m guessing the fifty of us walked a total of 2 or 3 miles in between mosques, churches, temples and a field on our mission to experience and learn about different faiths.  The Brahma Kumaris centre reminded me very much of the yoga centre where I lived in Madrid: no furniture, soft white walls and a complete absence of clutter.  Brilliant.  Whenever I visit somewhere like that I want my home to replicate the stillness and lack of clutter.  Yet I am writing this on a computer which sits on a table in front of my chair next to my bed… what to do?

But there was no time to consider the proposition because after a brief (but good) meditation we were plunged into the outer darkness of Boyer St and up to the mosque.  This, like nearly all mosques in Britain, is in a converted building – possibly an old school – and the first thing you have to do is take your shoes off.  In fact the whole evening consisted of taking shoes off and putting them on again: I should have worn slip-ons.  The mosque was a surprise.  As we were going in I saw women cover their heads.  Assuming this to be a requirement, I did likewise (not out of any agreement with the philosophy but simply out of consideration as a visitor: in the same way, though not a royalist, I would call the Queen ‘ma’am’.  Should she ever pop in.)  But it wasn’t a requirement at all, I soon realised, and so uncovered my head as we sat round a cloth laid on the floor and covered with biscuits, drinks and samosas.  A very relaxed young man gave a talk about the mosque; there was much laughter and no feeling of constraint at all.  He introduced the Imam, who gave some prayers in Arabic (rather gabbled, like Father Ted rushing through mass:

and then we dug in.  Alas, it didn’t occur to me that the samosas might have meat in, so for the first time in twenty-seven years, flesh entered my mouth.  But it was just one bite, and to take the taste away I followed it with some delicious bhajis, all cooked on site.  No time to digest… shoes on, and we’re off to the nearest field (oh all right, patch of grass) for the Druids to do their bit.  Again, it was relaxed and jokey as a man in a robe told us about the various festivals and gave a little taste of a ceremony.  Passers-by were intrigued to see a group of fifty people all holding hands in a circle in the dark.  I learned something here too: apparently Imbolc comes from ‘ewe’s milk’ as it’s at the time of lambing – and if you go up Beacon hill at dawn on the solstice you’re likely to bump into some Druids holding their ceremony.

Shoes were on for this, but off again as we reached the Punjabi Hindu Temple.  I hadn’t known there were any Punjabi Hindus as they tend to be Sikhs, but statistically I suppose there must be some, and about a hundred or so attend the various pujas at this temple.  At the front were various figures of gods and goddesses all dressed in Indian costumes; as they were behind glass they had the oddest air of being like shop-window dummies, albeit ones that might come to life suddenly like in that old episode of Dr Who:

And finally to a somewhat anticlimactic visit to the Baptist Church.  I’ve seen the building before as they serve teas during the day; alas, nothing was served for us and since I know more about the Baptists than about any of the other faiths represented, it wasn’t of much interest.  They do have a large baptistry at the front though, above which hangs a beautiful tapestry.

All of this stirred in me a desire to go on a proper pilgrimage; though I’m not sure where I would go.  As a Quaker I’m supposed to believe that all places are equally holy, though I’m not sure I totally go along with that: I think there’s something about a place – whether a building or a natural location – where people have gathered and worshipped for centuries.  I am inspired by the idea of going on a journey along with a group of people.  Who knows, perhaps I could write an epic poem about it?  The Glastonbury Tales?

Kirk out

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Work is a Seven-Letter Word

One of the best cartoons ever about work is Dilbert:

It’s a somewhat less benign version of W1A, the recent BBC series taking the piss out of itself by itself.  I recently had an epiphany about this where it struck me that Theresa May is exactly like the character on W1A who has been promoted beyond her abilities, has no clue what she’s doing and goes around saying ‘Yes, exactly yes.  The fact is, this has to not happen.’  W1A is a terrific series which may come in for some more detailed sitcom analysis on this blog – but today we’re talking about work.  W-O-R-K, work.  A t-shirt I’ve seen on sale proclaims ‘You don’t hate Mondays, you hate capitalism:’

No automatic alt text available. and it’s probably true: most people work because they must; because without the money that work provides they wouldn’t be able to do the things they most enjoy.  Like eating, for example, or wearing clothes.  Some people dream of a time when they don’t have to work; a time spent like sitting by a pool with a martini or working on your garden. But for most people work and non-work are clearly defined.  Even if, like a teacher, say, you take work home with you, you know when you’re doing it and when you’re spending time on leisure.  (Yeah, I know, ‘leisure?’)

But when you are a self-employed writer with very few (if any) actual funded projects on the go, you have to define both your hours of work and what actually constitutes work.  For example, I am about to go to my weekly reading group where we read and discuss short stories and poems.  Is this work?  On the whole I think it is, since it introduces me to new authors and sharpens my critical faculties.  But often when working I can appear to be doing nothing at all: staring into space, chewing my pen or doodling on my pad. Then again, if I’m on Facebook, is that work?  On the whole, I’d say no – it’s a distraction.  But occasionally I can see stories that give me ideas, or join an argument which helps me to hone the expression of my thoughts.  So it isn’t always worthless.

And how many hours should I do?  At the moment I’m doing about five or six hours a day.  But to me, six focused hours are as good as ten unfocused hours: as critics of the ‘long hours’ culture have pointed out, more time does not equal greater productivity.

And what about this blog post?  Does that count as work?

Kirk out

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That Guy Gandhi

It’s funny how a weekend comes together.  You do things seemingly at random and together they make perfect sense.  First, I’ve been watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.  It takes a whole weekend as it weighs in at around 3 1/2 hours, and I could spend a week’s blog posts just talking about the scope of it: a film as vast as India itself (I only gained an inkling when I went, travelling for hours on a train and then seeing the scintilla of map that I’d covered).  But instead of reviewing the film I want to think about the man and how much he achieved.  As a boy Gandhi was shy, but he overcame his shyness to achieve in one lifetime more than most of us could achieve in a dozen.  Though the ideas of satyagraha – ‘truth power’ – were embedded in Hindu tradition, Gandhi brought them into the modern age and taught an entire nation to practise non-violent struggle.

No sooner had I finished Gandhi than I was plunged into a nuclear-free session, ‘Can Nuclear Weapons Make us Safer?’  On the whole it was a rhetorical question with the answer ‘no’ – but to be fair, politicians on the other side of the debate had been invited and had declined (or been unable) to come.  But the ideas of Gandhi were key to our discussion.  It is hard to imagine a more violent weapon than nuclear missiles and in my view it is our duty to oppose them in any way we can: the idea that because our ‘opponents’ (whoever they may be) have them then we must have them is no different from the American saying that because the bad guys have guns, so must the good guys.  We all know where that ends up.  This is a discussion for another blog topic, but the reason North Korea has nuclear weapons (in my view) is because they fear the Americans.  We need to deconstruct fear, not escalate armaments.

Onwards.

So, to complete the day, enter the latest BBC costume drama.  Lately this type of drama has come in for a lot of criticism for being dewy-eyed and romanticising royalty and aristocracy.  Not a scintilla of that here.  This was a very clear-eyed view of the times, beginning with a rough and tyrannical search by the King’s men of a Catholic house which has just been celebrating Mass.  Like many such houses it features a priest hole: however the Kings’ men know this trick and compare measurements outside and inside.  At this point a young acolyte, about to set off for Europe, is discovered hiding in a chest.  Though still very young, he is subjected to little more than a show-trial before being hanged, drawn and quartered, this being shown in enough detail to register its barbarity.  Before this we see the lady of the house put to death by the peine forte et dure, her ribs gradually broken by heavy weights while all the while her tormentor tries to get information from her.

The courage of people to undergo torture and death has never failed to impress me, particularly as I doubt very much whether I’d have similar courage.

Mark Gatiss (that man has an impressive talent) is excellent as William Cecil, the spider at the heart of the anti-Catholic web, sending out spies and poisoning King James’s mind with reports of Catholic conspiracies.  He’s the McCarthy of his age: played with the superior detachment of a Mycroft with the monstrousness of a Richard III (Shakespeare’s, not history’s).  The episode largely sets up the involvement of Catesby in the gunpowder plot, and Guy Fawkes is introduced to us right at the end.  This is costume drama so good that you just think of it as drama.

And how are the two guys celebrated?  One is burnt in effigy every year while the other continues to be venerated and his ideas practised the world over.

Great guy, that Gandhi.

Anyway, here’s the BBC drama – you can watch Gandhi on Netflix or DVD:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p05j1cg8/gunpowder-series-1-episode-1

Kirk out

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Death Nell of Dickens

I well remember my introduction to the famous (or infamous) death-scene of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/429024.The_Old_Curiosity_Shop

which was also my first introduction to the idea that one could ridicule the work of a famous and respected author and get away with it.  Aside from one teacher who disliked Betjeman (and apologised for it) my schoolteachers had approached texts as holy writ.  They were the Given: it was our job to understand Them and to convey that understanding in such a way that it could be marked and graded.  Scepticism, let alone ridicule, played no part in that process.

Enter Geoff Syer.  Geoff was a lecturer at Isleworth College, an unashamed communist who wore a symbolic red tie: he was also a profound literary sceptic.  So when we were discussing pathos in literature it was inevitable that Little Nell should arise from her grave like a shadow-puppet to be killed yet again:

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever. Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.1 (Chapter LXXI, p.524)

Victorians were as devastated by this scene as people more recently at the death of Princess Diana.  They wept openly in the streets.  But there were no Reichenbach Falls for Nell: Dickens was as implacable as death itself and refused to bring her back.

However, amongst the mourning there were even then dissenting voices.  Oscar Wilde remarked: “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without dissolving into tears . . . of laughter.”  And that, I would guess, sums up the reactions of most modern readers.  Though attempts have been made to explain Nell as symbolic of the victims of capitalism:

http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/boev1.html

I don’t think that’s the way Dickens worked.  His characters were visualised with an intensity rivalled only by Dostoevsky’s – and though he was deeply concerned with poverty and child mortality (the novel follows on from the death of his sister-in-law) such abstraction is not in his nature.  Dickens dealt with concrete realities.

I have to say the above article expresses everything I dislike about post-modernism; inventing complex terms for something already ‘out there’ which could be expressed much more simply.  That said, much has been written in the feminist era about Dickens’ women and how they tend to divide into the garrulous and the child-like; the figure of fun and the ‘angel in the house’.  Give me garrulous and comic any day: besides, I wouldn’t have been married to Dickens for any money.  Twelve children, a lifetime of unfaithfulness and ne’er a mention in any of his books.  No, ta…

I can’t remember why I started on this topic at all.  But there you go: I never could get the hang of Wednesdays…

Kirk out

 

 

 

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