Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Heaven on Earth, no expense spared and MG bummelt durch Europa

MG writes:

I came late to the Sagrada Familia, in my forties, although I had been an admirer for many years; ever since I lost the ignorance of youth and could appreciate it for what it was. It is saying something that, of Gaudi's fairly small number of completed buildings, none of which have the sheer audacity and scale of the Sagrada Familia, seven are on the list of UNESCO's 'World Heritage' sites. I think that Gaudi would have been mightily pleased, and not a little proud of his Catalan heritage, that UNESCO should rank so large a percentage of his output with structures such as 'the Alhambra', 'Machu Pichu', 'Stonehenge', 'Angkor', 'the Statue of Liberty', 'the Sydney Opera House' and 'the Kremlin' to name but a few of the 960 or so structures and sites that make up the list. (Correct as of today's date)

However, it is perhaps easy to list buildings which have the vast resources of the Catholic Church or Governments behind them; projects which command huge and skilled labour forces and an almost limitless supply of materials. The projects which intentionally go out of their way to make a statement, whether of faith or national pride. However, what of the projects which give meaning to the experience and faith of small communities, villages and hamlets, and which are, in their way, no less grand and magnificent than 'Chartres' or 'the Great Wall of China'?*

The Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church's response to Lutherism following the Council of Trent**, gave birth, or was midwife, to the age of the Baroque. That enormous seventeenth century flowering of art, in all of its myriad forms; the music of J S Bach and Telemann, Vivaldi and Albinoni; the architecture of Borromini and Wren; the paintings of Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio; the sculpture of Bernini***; the opera of Monteverdi and Lully; the poetry of Donne and the drama of Gryphius. Spreading out from Italy, it reached as far afield as the Netherlands and the UK to the north, and Spain to the west, even taking in the Catalans, rabidly independent as they were and jealous of their own unique identity. However, it was perhaps in Bavaria, a fiercely Catholic state, even today, that the battle lines were so vehemently drawn between the largely Lutheran North German states and the largely Catholic Southern German states.****

This is most typified in the architecture, especially church architecture. Munich, the capital, may have had St Michael's and the Theatiner (and latterly, the Asamkirche*****), products of a wealthy and properous city, but each small village embraced the style and opulence of the capital as though their very souls depended on it! The most widely known of these is 'Die Wies', although strictly speaking it is more Roccoco than Baroque, however the 'hidden gem' is Kloster Rottenbuch. Originally conceived as the church, adjoining the Abbey (Kloster), it was designed and built during the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Romanesque style. However, during the early eighteenth century, it was heavily modified by the painter Matthäus Günther and stuccoist Josef Schmuzer in Baroque style. This creates an interior of almost two quite distinct styles.

As you approach the building from the road into the village, you are immediately struck by how ordinary it appears. Plain, white-washed walls; the only ornamentation is the ubiquitous 'onion dome' of the spire common to all churches in the region. However, when you open the door and enter inside, below the organ pipes and gallery, you are immediately struck by the sense that you are, indeed, in Heaven on Earth. It is quite simply astounding; it takes your breath away. That a tiny insignificant village, albeit with an Abbey, since demolished, should have so wonderful a testament to man's faith. One can only imagine how the peasants felt the first time they entered the redesigned place of worship; rural Bavaria was very agricultural (and still is).

I must confess that, for all the great buildings that I have seen, and I have seen many of the great works of European architecture, Rottenbuch stands head and shoulders above all because of the effect that it had on a seventeen year old, atheist 'oik'. Whilst I am truly grateful to Max and Toni for giving me the opportunity to see such splendour, I do not think that they are entirely responsible for engendering in me the abiding love for J S Bach, I used to try to catch organ practice in every church I subsequently visited; the esteem in which I hold Caravaggio and Bernini; the endless joy to be derived from John Donne and the sublime pleasure of Telemann's work for Blockflöte, as played by Michaela Petri.

Some pictures are below. They do not begin to reflect the true beauty of the place but I hope that they will give a flavour; who knows you might want to visit.

An exterior view; dull isn't it?

....just wait until you get inside

View facing the organ gallery; the altar is behind you.

View facing the altar with the pulpit on the left

I think that is a detail of the pulpit.

I apologise for the poor quality of the images but I don't know where my postcards have disappeared to; every Catholic church in Bavaria has postcards and, boy, was I an avid collector!

While we are on the subject of UNESCO's Heritage sites, what about Neuschwanstein, guv? I know that it was built by a Bavarian king (Ludwig II) who, sad to say, did not appear to be dealing from a full deck and might have been two bricks short of a load, and the building was designed by a scenic painter in the Munich Opera (Christian Jank), but that should be no barrier to one of the most eccentric pieces of architecture in European history being declared an international treasure; hell, it even inspired Disney! The view from the bridge is simply staggering. Can you still go up there, I wonder? Fair made my scrotum tighten, to be sure; it's a long way down.

I can feel a photograph coming on.............It does not look so bad here but when I tell you that you have to climb a very steep hill to get to the castle's main gate and the bridge is roughly at roof top level with a deep gorge down below then..........

 Said scrotum tightening bridge with the castle in the background

Oh, the title? 'MG bummelt durch Europa'?  This is a reference to the German translation of the title of Mark Twain's book 'The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress', 'Mark Twain bummelt durch Europa' (Mark Twain bums/wanders around Europe), which I picked up in a German bookshop as reading material in the year I visited Rottenbuch. You can get the gist of 'bummelt' if I tell you that 'Er bummelt durch die Kneipen' means 'He goes/is going on a pub crawl'!

*          Incidentally, contrary to popular urban legend, you cannot see it from the moon!
**       'Es muss etwas geschehen! Es wird etwas geschehen!' (Something must be done! Something will be done!) My own little pun on a well known short story by Heinrich Boll about a post war job applicant to a soap factory.
***      Anyone who denies the sheer sexual exuberance and orgasmic delight inherent in the 'Ecstasy of St Theresa' quite frankly has never seen it! Or does not know what a female orgasm looks like!
****    Germany did not become a nation state until after Bismarck reorganised it all after 1870 and victory over the French (no surprise there, then) in the Franco-Prussian War.
***** Worth a post to itself really. Built by the Asam brothers from the gutted remains of two adjacent, terraced buildings and nestling in an insignificant sidestreet off the main square, it was originally planned as a private chapel. However, when the inhabitants of Munich got wind of it, the brothers were forced to open it to the public. It remains one of the most idiosyncratic churches in all of Europe.

Oh, alright then. A couple of pictures:

 Exterior view; a bit on the narrow side, don't you think?

Interior shot from the main door.

Since we are going for a 'picture round', here is your starter for ten, no conferring^; how about this!

^    A reference, which only the Brits will understand, to 'University Challenge', a popular, sort of, TV quiz show amongst undergraduates who are keen to pit their wits against other swot-like under and post grads whilst simultaneously swigging beer and eating pizza.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Sagrada Familia, hyperboloids and designing buildings upside down

MG writes:

Writing (in a small way) about Gaudi's masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, the other day has prompted me to expound upon one of the most bizarre, original and profound manifestations of faith in all Christendom; unfinished (as of today) as it is, it must stand witness to all that is good about Christianity. Not that the Christians have a monopoly on staggering architecture; the mosque, the Dome on the Rock, in Jerusalem is a pretty blinding piece of Muslim building work.

Since the earliest times, Mankind appears to have gone to almost unimaginable lengths to demonstrate their 'faith'. From Stonehenge, the pyramids and the temple at Giza, Pumapunku, Chichen Itza, the Parthenon, the temple at Baalbek, the cathedrals at Köln*, Freiburg, Chartres, l'Isle de France**, Salzburg, London, Rome, Seville***, societies have spared little or no expense in erecting monuments to that most ephemeral and insubstantial of their creations; God.

And yet, as the centuries have passed and the 'Enlightenment' and reason increasingly take hold, it relegates God, if he (or she) is to exist at all, to a mere bystander, a mere solitary witness to the glory of the universe which he (or she) set in motion, so both the pace and number of genuinely magnificent buildings to his (or her) glory gradually decline. Grandeur, magnificence, the awesome power and imagination of the architectural mind is now given over to the more secular activity of housing the 'money lenders in the temple'; the Gherkin, the Chrysler Building, the Burj-al-Arab, the Reichstag.

The USA aside, I know too little about churches in the US or their value in architectural terms, the only twentieth century cathedral apart from Gaudi's masterpiece, that springs to mind is Coventry. Liverpool was also built in the twentieth century but harks rearwards so much to the flowering of the nineteenth century neo-gothic that it can scarcely be thought of as a twentieth century creation.

Although the Sagrada Familia was 'designed' in the nineteenth century, Gaudi began work on the design in 1883, and also harks back to the Gothic churches and cathedrals of Köln, Frankfurt, Freiburg among others (although the founder of the order to establish the church, Josep Maria Bocabella, was probably more inspired by the Baroque church at Loreto), it takes the Gothic concept of high towers and vaulted naves and aisles and turns them inside out. Gaudi's cathedral design has not one spire (like Frankfurt) nor two (like Köln) but originally eighteen; one each for the twelve apostles, four for each of the Evangelists, one for the Virgin Mary and, finally the tallest (one metre below the height of Montjuic, the hill in Barcelona) for Jesus Christ. This is a dream seldom imagined before; it remains to be seen whether all eighteen are built.

The scale of the building can scarce be imagined but it is in the interior where the real surprise lies. In most Gothic cathedrals, the roof is supported by conventional vaulting, which lends a gentle, parabolic curvature to each facet of the four (usually) sides of each 'vault'. In the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi has preserved the vaulting but has appoached it in a highly novel way. Each vault is not 'designed' from the ground up, so to speak, but from the top down; yes, Gaudi designed the interior of the building upside down. Each element of the vaulting was envisisoned as a small, weighted bag suspended from the floor by thin strings; the strings provide the curvature of the vault. This produces a substantially different kind of vaulting to conventional models. (A model of the 'upside down' design, reconstructed I believe, is in the crypt of the church, which houses a 'museum' dedicated to the church and to Gaudi.). This hyperboloid structure is unique, as far as I am aware, in European church architecture.

Whether by design, laziness, pressure of work, Franco's vandalism or his untimely death (run over by a Barcelone tram on 10 June 1926), much of the detail was omitted from plans. This has led to both difficulties in imagining how Gaudi himself envisioned the cathedral but also an almost unprecedented scope for artists and craftsmen to create a truly modern cathedral within the strictures of the original design; truly a twentieth century masterpiece!

In keeping with other examples of Gaudi's work, it has an organic quality, as though it were not built but grew out of the stone and concrete, already present in the ground; much as a tree grows by layering successive bands of cellulose around a central core. You can see echoes all around; the way the towers are constructed like the covered walkways in Parc Guell, knarled tree bark constructed out of balls of concrete over a frame; the weird and fantastic shapes of the 'Casa Figueras' and 'Casa Vincens'; the sculptures surmounting the spires, so similar to the houses that can be seen in the distance as you approach Parc Guell from the west (not the usual way in but...)****; I even find echoes of Gaudi's design for lamp-posts (eg in the Plaça Reial). A witness to the consistency of his architectural vision.

I was aware of Gaudi's work from my late teens; photographs of the more bizarre details from the church and the houses that he built. In fact, for a long time, I believed that the English word 'gaudy' was a direct testament to his ostentation and over-ornamention (it isn't*****) but I always had a suspicion that the problem was one of scale; a 10"x8" photograph could not possibly capture 'the grandeur in this view of life"; I was right! Until you actually see it, it is impossible to appreciate the magnificance of it all. Truly astounding!

*           Cologne to you non-German speakers
**         Notre Dame as it is better known; it of Hunchback fame.
***       And apologies to all those other cities not mentioned
****     The approach to the west gate of the Parc is up a very steep hill lined with houses. There is an uncovered escalator riding up the hill with convenient 'drop off' points for local residents!
*****   It actually comes from 'gaud', E, 14th century, from L. 'gaudium', meaning 'joy', 'delight'; only later did it acquire its perjorative sense.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

UFO, Lt Ellis and those purple wigs

MG writes:

With the news of a new film based on a 40 year old TV programme (due for release sometime in 2013, I believe), I have recently been watching again a 1970 sci-fi serial, made by ITC and Gerry Anderson, he of 'Thunderbirds' fame, called UFO. (I saw it when it was originally aired but have not seen it since.) It is a live action, 'adult' drama which deals with humanoid, alien visitation, the UFOs of the title, which has a specific goal in mind, the harvesting of human organs for transplant, and the work of the counter-alien-threat led organisation and, more specifically, its deeply flawed and driven chief.

As a premise for a'story', this seems to me to be cut above the usual 'alien invasion' fodder often served up both on TV and in the movies; 'Independence Day', 'The War of the Worlds', 'Battlefield Earth' etc and while the 'special effects', in comparison to Industrial Light and Magic, are laughable, even these contain a certain 'British', quaint charm.

The actors appear to have been chosen, with the exception of Ed Bishop, surely a 'B' movie actor at best, and George Sewell, a staple of British TV in the '60s and '70s, as so much 'eye-candy'; Peter Gordeno, a dancer, and Michael Billington for the women and Gabrielle Drake, sister of the tragic Nick, and Ayesha Brough for the men; they even managed to squeeze in Penny Spencer {'Please, Sir', 'Fenn Street Gang') in a couple of episodes just in case more 'eye candy' was required. With all due respects to Ms Drake's acting talent, which she does possess, 'Au Pair Girls' notwithstanding, I don't think that was why she was chosen to appear. It had, I think, more to do with how good she looked in a tight silver suit and a purple wig!

While on the whole, it appears that very real attempts were made to ground the technology in new developments, the aircraft seem to this writer to be based on fighter aircraft designs which could have only been in prototype stage in 1970, it seems that, in common with all late sixties and early seventies manifestations of computers that no-one could envisage the day when open reel tape, endlessly turning back and forth, would be replaced by first the 3½" disk-drive and latterly the solid-state storage device. However, this is not UFO's most ridiculous assertion; how could anyone think that purple and violet wigs would replace helments and who, in their right mind, would assert that submarine crews would be kitted out in 'string vests'! (Well, actually we know; Sylvia Anderson, wife to the aforementioned Gerry and the voice of Lady Penelope!) The 'Nehru-style' suits worns by businessmen and commanders had at least an aura of practicality and were functionally fit for purpose, even if a little retro for 1980 when the series is set.

The series had been beset by production problems, most notably the five month hiatus between the first half of the 26 part series and the second half when the studio quietly went bankrupt and George Sewell and Gabrielle Drake jumped ship; Peter Gordeno had returned to his pliés and entrechats after about six episodes and the post hiatus series never really captured the 'vibe' of earlier episodes, although Dolores Mantez made not inconsiderable efforts to fill Ms Drake's shoes as resident 'totty in charge' on Moonbase. However, the series did try to tackle difficult questions, uncommon in sci-fi, 'Forbidden Planet notwithstanding; drug abuse; duty over personal loyalty; murder and the over-riding question throughout the series, which was never posed directly. Why did no-one, least of all Straker, attempt to negotiate a deal, similar to the transplant register, whereby the aliens could harvest the organs of the dead, instead of the living! That surely would have been a result; we gain the alien technology, they gain the organs they need for transplant.

No doubt the film will be crap and it won't have the wonderful Ms Drake in it, except as a cameo, if we're lucky, but I should worry. While the original remains on YouTube, we can all rest easy in our beds!

While we may lament the non-appearence of Lt Ellis surely what will be most missed is the almost constant cigarette and cigar smoking and the quafing of neat whisky in every other scene; hell they were even smoking inside the control centre of the submarine!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Ancient Aliens, Occam's Razor and Gaudi's masterpiece

It occured to me today that I have not spent too much time engaging in one of my favourite activities; bible-'bashing'.That is not in any way a conventional use of the phrase, which was used in the past to denote people who actually vigourously promoted the contents of that 'holy book', but rather bashing as a synonym for debunking or ridiculing. I actually do not engage in an awful lot of 'bashing' of the actual Bible, contrary to popular opinion. Providing the tales in the Bible are not taken as word for word evidenced fact, I think that you can make a fairly good case for the Bible (Old Testament), in part, as history, albeit a very biased and unbalanced one, subject to exaggeration, and the New Testament as simple folk philosophy dressed up as (a) a sort of new religion to replace the old Jewish and Roman faiths and (b) a guide for the simple man in simple living; surely a worthy goal for any philosophy.

I was reminded of the absence of my bête-noire from recent writings by a very long film (over 3 hours) which attempted to debunk (in the main, successfully) the popular 'History Channel' series of 'Ancient Aliens'. (A version can be viewed here: http://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/ancient-aliens-debunked/) It should be quite obvious to any sane individual that equating aliens with God  is like equating cheap, Bulgarian plonk with Chateau Yquem; they are both wines but of orders of magnitude of difference. However, it is only a difference of value, not type. Aliens are far more intelligent and advanced than humans, or so the story goes,  and God is far and away the most intelligent and advanced 'creature' in the universe. He/She did after bring it all into being.

In many ways, the allure of such ideas appears to attract the immature; both the physically and mentally youthful. In my adolescence, I actively sought out the ideas (however bizarre) of von Däniken, Velikovsky, Ley Lines, Atlantis and the power of pyramids. I swallowed the re-writing of Egyptian history to sychronise with 'Biblical history' wholesale; I even ate up 'Das Kapital' as though it spoke a truth which was only revealed to Karl Marx by a non-existent God. Find an owner of 'Das Kapital' and I'd bet you a King's ransom that they also have 'Chariots of the Gods', 'Worlds in Collision' or 'Lord of the Rings' on the bookshelf.(Change the books, or authors, depending on the decade in which you were born)

However, as we gain maturity, and knowledge about the world, we increasingly use Occam's Razor to underpin our world view, our 'Weltanschauung'; why seek after complex and complicated ideas if a simple one will suffice? It is surely less complex an idea to imagine that a combination of time, language and an ability to pass on learned skills to successive generations, and to build on those skills will suffice, than it is to imagine that some extraterrestials would cover the vast distances involved in even interstellar travel just to visit a planet in the rural backwaters of the galaxy which was populated by people scarcely out of, or still in, the stone age. In our technological age, we have difficulty in imagining that relatively primitive mankind could imagine the kinds of feats which we take so much for granted.

Why should 'Middle Earth' only be a product of the twentieth century? Couldn't, wouldn't Plato be possessed of the same imagination to visualise Atlantis; or Spenser, Fairie; Homer, Troy? Why couldn't the pyramids be built on a combination of a large labour force, an autocracy, basic copper tools and a ready supply of sandstone. It took the Romans 200 years to build the temple at Baalbek, it has taken over 130 years to build Gaudi's 'Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família', although there was a hiatus, due to Franco, and a continuing reluctance to accept funds from the Roman Catholic Church, which has extended the time taken (it's why you have to pay to get into the grounds and the church itself) and it's still not finished; and we have had the benefit of modern technology. Why does it need alien technologies, lasers, levitation, nuclear power etc etc to build the Pyramid of Khufu or Pumapunku?*

Humanity progresses by building on what has preceded it; it is the prime gift of language, and more importantly, writing which enables humans to 'stand on the shoulders of giants'; and I don't mean Nephelim or aliens. It does our ancestors a disservice to make them 'need' a God or aliens to achieve what they did achieve. It may be hubris but, honestly, humanity does not need, nor ever has needed, such mental constructs to explain its achievements.

As a Parthian shot, I should point out that, while on the whole lauding the documentary, it is not a 'skeptical' enquiry, merely a partisan one. You have to wait right until the end before you get the revelation that Nephelim (giants) walked the earth in biblical times and that the tale of 'Noah' and the 'Flood' describes an actual historical event! :)

* Because it sold, and continues to sell, books for the simple minded and makes a few people shedloads of money.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Achilles, the tortoise, the arrow and Xeno

I would firstly like to point out that it is 'XENO' in the title, not 'XENA, (the warrior princess); she of the immense cleavage and armoured breasts! I have often wondered what thirteen year old, pumped up with testosterone, came up with the idea that developing the biceps with the capacity to wield a two-handed 'medieval' sword would also develop the female mammary glands to similar staggering proportions; I would have thought that it would hinder sword-play rather than enhance it. I blame Brigitte Nielson and the infamous 'Red Sonja' for starting that particular stereotype, although I suspect that it is older. However, Amazons were reputed to have the right breast cut off, or cauterised as babies, so that they could better wield a sword or draw a bow.

To return to Xeno, the life of a philosopher must surely be a happy and contented one. Nowadays, income is usually provided by the universities in return for certain teaching duties for the benefit of those of the young who wish to carry on the time-honoured tradition of sitting on your arse and writing the odd incomprehensible book or two. In the past, it could only be carried out in the main by those of independent means; you surely would not get much philosophising done if you were working from dawn until dusk ploughing the fields or baking bread. Of course, once you had acquired a reputation for philosophising, you could earn extra copper the same way the university professors do now, by teaching, but you had to get your 'head start', so to speak.

Physical inactivity has a way of leading the brain along uncharted, and to be fair, incomprehensible routes. While much physical activity has a certain mindless quality about it, you still have to concentrate on getting your oxen to plough a straight furrow to make harvesting easier or adding just the right amount of yeast in order to make sure that your bread does not rise beyond the confines of your modest oven. However it still seems to me to be slightly beyond the bounds of your natural, 'thinking man' (or woman) to think of exploring the concept of the impossibility of motion; after all, how do get from one place to another if motion is impossible. The ancient Greeks would have found the Battle of Marathon* a little difficult to win if they could not get from Athens to Marathon in time and, even worse, could not even get started!

 What has this to do with Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, and a tortoise, I hear you cry! Well, Xeno used the fictional tale of the race  between Achilles and a tortoise to illustate the impossibility of motion. It was, in its own way, an extension of Parmenides ideas, which also influenced Plato. (And we have all seen where that got us; up a gum tree without a paddle.) Both Xeno and Parmenides came from the Italian town of Elea. The Romans had yet to embark on their quest for world domination at the time and Italy was dotted with Greek settlements around the coast. Ancient history can sometimes be confusing; a bit like the Irish are Scots who were originally Irish!

The rules of the race were simple; Achilles, because he was faster by far, would give the tortoise one hundred yards start over the course; the course was, to all extents and purposes, infinite. Achilles starts off and runs ten yards in a given time frame, the toroise travels one yard. In the next time frame, one half of the previous one, Achilles travels five yards, the tortoise eighteen inches. In the next time frame, one quarter of the original, Achilles travels two and a half yards, the tortoise nine inches. No matter how fast Achilles runs, he always has to pass through that place where the tortoise has just been. He can never overtake the reptile and thus will always lose.  This is patently nonsense of course but it is difficult to get out of the paradox logically and 'logos' was what was inportant to Xeno (and Parmenides and for that matter Plato). There were two kinds of reality; perceptual reality, which was not real and 'logos', reasoned discourse, logic, which was. Hence the dilemma and the paradox.

It is possible to get around the conundrum with mathematics, specifically calculus and modern quantum physicists rely on the Planck length and the Planck time, ie that time and length are not infinitely divisible; there is a lower, observable limit to their divisibility. Strict logicians may deny this; after all, on a line of finite length, there are an infinite number of points and on a line between two points on that line of finite length, there is also an infinite number of points. Quantum mechanics denies that kind of infinity as being essentially 'unobservable' and, ergo, unknowable.

* Incidentally, the Marathon race, named after the Battle, actually conflates two historical (or pseudo-historical) events, depending on how much credence you give Heroditus; Pheidippdes' run to declare the victory to the waiting Athenians and his subsequent demise from exhaustion..

The first is Pheidippides' jog to Sparta to request aid; he completed the 150 mile run in two days, which is actually not beyond the bounds of possibility. MG used to be able to manage 30 miles per day with a back-pack for six weeks just at a sauntering, walking pace. Needless to say the Spartans were not too interested in turning up for a battle during their 'Festival of Peace' and so declined, at least for a week or so, which was just as well for the Persians because if the Spartans had turned up, what became a rout would have turned into a massacre on an epic scale. As it was, Xenophon was quoted 90 years later as writing that a goat was sacrificed every year, to a maximum of 500 per year, for every Persian killed at the battle and, after 90 years, still the Greeks were not done with the goat-sacrificing.

The second event was the march, jog, run of the remaining victorious Athenian hoplites, in full armour/kit, over the 25 or so miles from Marathon to Athens in order to head off the other half of the Persian army which had sailed, without landing, from Marathon. Athens had probably sent out all, or the vast majority, of its hoplites to Marathon and would have been largely defenceless. The Athenians arrived before the Persians could gain a toehold on the beachhead and the Persians turned tail and headed back off to Asia Minor. No surprise there then! One rout was costly, two would have been unthinkable!

Oh, the arrow. A similar paradox to Achilles and the tortoise but relating to time not distance. Planck time deals with that paradox!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Clichy, the Dreamers and Coiled

 MG writes:

I must confess that as I grow into my second adolescence, there is a certain attraction to writing 'smut'; by which I mean writing the kind of sexual content beloved of boys who have yet to discover that not an awful lot rhymes with 'fuck' except maybe 'duck', 'buck', 'muck', 'puck' or 'cluck' (not to mention 'luck', ruck, suck and tuck*) and it is difficult to weave those words into a poem charged with nascent sexuality and burgeoning sexual awakening; not to mention the fact that is notoriously difficult to write 'smut' without defeating the object, which is to 'appeal to the prurient interest'. (The standard definition in the UK and the US to define pornography in the 50/60s.)

There is a decided difference between smut and pornography but what the actual difference is, is hard to put into words;you just know smut when you see it or read it. 'Confessions of a window cleaner' was smut; 'Seven days in Clichy' was pornography, although when your lover is as adventurous as Anais Nin was then it must be difficult not to write pornography all of the time; whatever challenges you might think that you are making against the social mores of the time!

Pornography is often defined as 'bad art' of a pseudo-sexual nature and what defined pornography in the fifties is wildly different to the current century. My own particular jury is still out after forty years in the back room on whether Henry Miller was 'bad' or 'good' writing; I hesitate to call it literature only because it is as interminable a read as de Sade is. Writing about obsession is a whole lot different to writing obsessively about something or, in de Sade's case, a positive raft of somethings! The only sexual thing which de Sade didn't write about was consensual sex between adults!

Although I wrote in my teens, mostly humour (I wanted to be the next S J Perelman or Alan Coren), I never once seemed to get around to writing the sort of thing that I would commonly read under the bedclothes by torchlight; Henry Miller, Fanny Hill, L'histoire d'O, Justine, Venus im Pelz. I never was a fan of 'Les 120 journées de Sodome 'or' l'école du libertinage'; way too much coprophilia for my 'taste', a criticism that can be levelled at de Sade in general. There is only so much coprophilia, flagellation, anal sex and 'golden showers' that even a testosterone fuelled adolescent can stomach reading sometimes and Catullus or Petronius have the advantage that you can read them in full view of your parents providing that they do not understand Latin.)

So, in my second adolescence, I thought it might be quite fun to try to write a poem about sex. I deliberately chose neither to use the word 'fuck' nor the word 'suck'; too twentieth century! I chose to use the language of metaphor or simile to add to the pretension of the piece. Of course, it is just as laughable as nearly every other attempt at a poem about sex, it should not be too difficult to divine what particular 'act' is being referred to, but it might amuse.

OFFICIAL WARNING: The following poem will make you about as horny as a night in with 4 cans of alcohol-free lager and a DVD of 'No sex please, we're British'.

SECOND OFFICIAL WARNING: The poem does not rhyme although it does have a metre of sorts; count the syllables!

* Anybody who composes a poem with all of these rhymes, and only including the word 'fuck' once, will be added to the prize draw. The winner will receive a prize of 'The Reader's Digest Condensed Guide to the lyrics of Iron Maiden' complete with a full-colour poster (suitable for framing) of Bruce Dickinson slaughtering Coleridge in his underpants; Dickinson's underpants not Coleridge's. 


Coiled, serpents entwined, we writhe
On satin sands that ripple and wave.
My hands carve runes ‘cross your back
In bloody rivulets of passion.

Moist breath, warm against my thigh,
The hot salt on the back of my tongue.
I swallow and move to taste
This acrid fluid ‘long parted lips.

Fiery tongue, aflame, parts the folds,
My soul erect, yearns for the touch,
A touch so soft, so gentle
As though delicacy itself tripped

Towards my own naked soul

Hands grip tight around your neck,
The tendons raised high ‘cross the knuckles.
Fingers capture the artery
Holds it hostage to fervent desire.

Vulpine shrieks, oblivious
To the onion-skin essence of walls,
Rise up from amidst the dunes
Before descending to the lowest

Murmurs of sated salmon. 

'The Dreamers' is only mentioned in the title because it is one of the most electrically charged films I have seen. Directed by Bertolucci and starring Eva Green, it is the only film I have seen with a backdrop of the 68 student riots in Paris. (It took 'Lust and Caution' to knock it from its top spot. And don't mention Ai No Corrida which has all of the passion and eroticism of wet fish!)

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Gladys, Frieda and the passing of beauty

MG scribbles:

One always likes to believe that one has been born into, and grows up in, privileged times; an age unique in the history of the world. This, I think, is true of every generation, no matter when, or where, they are born. To come of age in late nineteenth century Paris, the age of Monet, Morisot, Baudelaire and Zola; to grow up amidst the despair in the the years following the First World War and to witness, first hand, the second coming of the modernist movement; to be alive, youthful and impetuous, when Lenin and Trotsky galvanised the peasant masses to storm the winter palace. It would indeed have been a privilege.

I was born into mid-1950s Britain. A country reeling from the aftermath of a bloody conflict which few desired and yet which no-one could avoid; a war of sharply conflicting ideologies with the hardware to accompany it; a war which saw the dawn of the atomic age and the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction. Whilst, in truth, I, perhaps, would have prefered to have been born 4 years earlier (I would have got to see Hendrix at the beginning instead of just the fag-end of the apocalypse at the Isle of Wight) still I consider myself fortunate. To have grown into adolescence in an age of protest and 'free love'; to witness and experience the culture shock of radical feminism; to enjoy the first fruits of our parents' labour with enhanced prosperity and a freedom which was open to all, not just the privileged classes. Such optimism in the great 'white heat' of Wilson's (Harold not Woodrow) technological revoloution.

Although the youthful, and possibly naive, optimism of the late 1960s must stirke the generations that succeeded us as all so much fantasy, a future doomed to failure, still it seemed real to us. Incredible as it may seem, we really did believe that we could change the world! For the better! Ours was not an optimism grounded in nilhilism or dandyism or wanton violence; ours was based on that fundamental Christian and European ideal of LOVE (and PEACE and GOODWILL to all men)!

I was reminded of this through a truly bizarre documentary film about the life and works of one Gladys Mills, Mrs Mills. I do not know why I watched it, I abhor Mrs Mills, although I do have a vinyl LPof hers, inherited from my mother; truly dire! And yet the film almost immediately set about wrapping me in shrouds of cling film with the tale of a music hall performer, long past their sell by date; an anachronism in an age of 'Ferry across the Mersey' and 'Ticket to ride' not to mention 'Arnold Layne' and 'My white bicycle'. Such is her fame and popularity that there is a piano, housed on its own in an Abbey Road studio in London, which goes by the moniker of the 'Mrs Mills piano'. (It's the piano on 'Lady Madonna' by the Beatles!)

Mrs Mills, Glad to her friends, was a roly-poly, big fat mama exponent of the style known as 'stride piano'; heiress to the legacy of Russ Conway and Winifred Atwell.  'Stride piano' was a technique developed, and much beloved, of the ragtime pianists of the 1920s and notoriously difficult to play at speed. While the right hand hammers out the melody, the left hand 'strides' through the bass line with syncopated chords; you do have to know your 'shapes', instinctively. It was a style born out of family 'get-togethers'; when the extended family, aunts, uncles, in-laws, would gather around the upright piano in the parlour or the pub and sing early 20th centruy English music hall songs in mimicry of the 'Blitz-mentality'; a style which mid-fifties Britain would still gleefully embrace.

Mrs Mills was a staple 'guest'on the variety TV shows all through the sixties and early seventies. As the decade went on she became more incongruous with each passing year, although she was immenseley popular.As the Beatles were producing Sgt Pepper, Steppenwolf were releasing 'Born to be wild', Keith Emerson was burning effigies of the American flag during performances of the Bernstein song, 'America' and Black Sabbath were digging deep into the sound of the industrial jackhammers of the Midlands to produce the first glimmerings of 'heavy metal', Mrs Mills was still gaily banging out the old staples; 'My old man said follow the van', 'Roll out the barrel', 'Ma, he's makin' eyes at me' etc on her 'old joanna'.

Despite the bewildering array of musical styles born out of the era of 'downloadable' music when record deals are fast becoming a thing of the past and any nerd can create masterpieces in the privacy of their own bedroom and sell them, the unliklihood of Mrs Mills success is as bewildering today as it was at the time. Perhaps the English have always had a penchant for rose-tinted nostalgia and they had yet to become jaded and worn, tired out by pessimism and optimism in equal measure, and were still able to bask in the refelcted innocence of an age long past; destroyed by memories of the Holocaust and Vietnam.

Strangely I have also become captivated by a soap opera! I usually find the soaps too awful by far and yet Holby City, a kind of British 'ER', has had me tuning into Youtube to catch up on the 'back broadcasts' from the last 4 or 5 years. Whilst there is an awful lot of repetition of plot, incongruous storylines, impossible relationships and bizarre events, still it seems to capture the very madness inherant in the UK's National Health Service. Recent episodes have been lacklustre, although I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be due to the disappearence of the triumvirate of 'eye-candy'; Phoebe Thomas, Rebecca Grant and the quite simply awesome Olga Fedori as the goth ward sister. A truly inspired creation! Somehow the current crop do not quite measure up!