Thursday, 31 January 2013

Weddings, funerals and shared jeans

Today would have been my parents' sixtieth wedding anniversary, a diamond jubilee to rival that of the other eighty-something female that my mother bears, some would say, a striking resemblance to, if only my father could have been bothered to wait around for it instead of casting off the shackles of his mortality in some Godless and anonymous hospital bed all those years ago. (Sorry Da, but I told you to wait until you received my permission to go and you did not; you deserve my ire, as feigned as it is.) It is on a day such as today that I miss not getting, or being, married; there is something about a wedding, a proper wedding, Mendelssohn's Wedding March by the local Youth Orchestra, although that from Wagner's Lohengrin on a pipe organ is probably more usual, long trains of satin and tulle, morning suits with tails and cravats, hats fit to grace Ascot, a vintage Rolls Royce in white, that must make every wedding anniversary a day to remember; a day carved indelibly in memory of an occasion like no other. Naturally, it is highly hypocritical of me to occasionally hanker after a traditional church wedding with its attendant religious pomposity and avowed commitment before a nameless and faceless God, but, nonetheless I do.

Of course, this is a view of an event seen through spectacles so rose-tinted as to be almost opaque and I have no doubt that the sheen is somewhat tarnished by what seems now to be the inevitable 'messy divorce', alimony and single parents, not to mention fathers rationed and circumscribed in their exposure to their children's day to day existence; their first words, their first foray into that unknown territory of the 'potty', the day when the stabilisers were finally removed from the bicycle for ever or, worse still, a loveless marriage in which the only thing in common is a desire to maintain a nuclear family for 'the sake of the children' and which does little or nothing for their emotional well-being or development.

Although I have never experienced such a wedding, 'in the round', so to speak, with all of its trauma, worry, financial cost and joy, I have attended a few as an innocent bystander and I have always been struck by how much happier the couple seem to be at a church wedding than at a civil ceremony without all that 'pomp and circumstance'. For some reason, and it may be just my selective vision, a church wedding, which seems to me a potentially more solemn and formal affair, always attracts a sense of the 'happy couple' sharing a 'private joke' which, nonetheless, is infectious enough to contaminate the entire church; in my experience, I have not witnessed this in a civil ceremony. Perhaps it is merely to be put down to the 'sense of occasion' which civil ceremonies are somehow lacking.

In a society which becomes increasingly more mobile and less family based, weddings are often the rare event when all of the members of a family come together, if only for a brief while, as fractious though it might be, and only funerals command the same devotion to attendance. (The only time that I ever remember seeing my father's youngest sister was at my niece's wedding.) However, no-one takes photographs at a funeral unless it is a shot of the flowers piled high along the graveside. As keen a photographer as I am, even I had no inclination to take pictures of the hearse or the funeral director who, in the UK, walks before the hearse for the first two hundred yards or thereabouts so that the local community has time to gather on the pavement to pay their last respects to the departed. Weddings are not only renowned for the rare employment of a professional photographer and the vast quantities of images that he or she produces but everyone else has a camera and the number of pictures rises exponentially until there is not a single undocumented second to the whole event.

While I suspect that there is a certain vicarious thrill to looking at other people's wedding photographs, I seldom do it unless the photographs are old, more than twenty years old and I was present, or at least should have been present. I find it endlessly fascinating to try and remember all those faces which comprise the ubiquitous 'group shot' and try to pin names to them; those that have passed on; those that you saw just the once; the ex-girlfriends and partners; the small children now grown into adults with children of their own.

Yes, on the whole, I really should have done it once instead of just opting for joint bank accounts, joint mortgages, shared jeans and T-shirts or a lien on my record collection.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Parody, insults and what it is to be a bat (again)

I watched a pleasant little 45 minute drama last night about a single parent trying to juggle two children, a job as a social worker and studying for a degree who finds the first stirrings of affection, of love, in her first attempt, or so we must surmise, at a relationship in a while. The drama was not very taxing and hit the usual notes for such drama; largely inconsequential. However I was struck by the performance of the Norwegian actress/actor (the former seems to have fallen out of favour in Hollywood in recent times, presumably in a post feminist zeal, which is fine by me but it can cause confusion in the printed word when you cannot hear or see the actor speak). I did not recognise her and so I did a little googling and came upon ''.  (Incidentally, I am very much of the opinion that John Fogarty should re-record, complete with interminable guitar solos, Keep on chooglin' as Keep on Googlin'.*)

The article I read was an op ed piece about the Norwegian TV series, Lillehammer, which is about an American who opens a club in Lillehammer and which stars the actress/actor in question, Marian Saastad Ottesen; it purports to be a comedy/drama, although the one episode of it that I have seem did not make me laugh a great deal; but then I seldom find 'Being Human', a series about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost flat-sharing very amusing either and it trades under the same banner, although it is nonetheless an enjoyable view.

The article was, when you got over the first few paragraphs, quite obviously a spoof of US neo-con, fundamentalist Christian ideas; the geography of Norway was all wrong, and Sweden too; Lillehammer was spelt Lillyhammer; the characters were all described as drunken, licentious reprobates. However, this got me thinking that parody treads a fine line between spoofing the real subject of your parody, in this case ignorant neo-cons, and actually insulting the object of your attentions, in this case the Norwegians.

It is difficult to know with any certainty how many comments on the piece, many of names sounded genuinely Scandinavian, took it seriously and how many were simply entering into the 'spirit' of the article but is is surely stretching it to suppose that people might not actually find it offensive; Norwegian, whether Bokmål (almost-Danish) or Nynorsk, are the Norwegians' native languages, however good they might be at speaking English and they are very good; just listen to Morten Harket (A-Ha) giving interviews on English speaking radio of television,** and you run a very real risk of the parody being completely missed.

All humour relies to a greater or lesser extent on hyperbole and exaggeration to make its point; even Jeff Durham's 'vent' puppet, 'Abdul the Dead Terrorist', which pokes fun at Jihadists (and that can cause serious trouble, just ask Salman Rushdie or the twelve Danish cartoonists), falls short of genuinely insulting even Islamic terrorists, by (a) making Abdul  a somewhat inept terrorist and (b) by making him dead! The very problem that '' has is that it is attempting to parody, exaggerate, something which is already so totally and completely 'off the wall' that it surely defies parody; how can you parody something that is so far outside the normal bounds of any sane, rational human being as to be its very own parody. You do not need to invent the humour, it is there in plain sight for all to see! Of course some people are born blind or come to blindness late in life and there will always be people in the world who do not grasp quite what they are saying and then wishing us to believe in it.

Besides, Norwegians ARE a rum lot!  (Only kidding, Sonja!) Rampaging lunatics and death metal bands who think that 'Battle of the Bands' gives you 'carte blanche' to murder the rival band's guitatist is surely the result of not enough sunlight, the snow and a fondness for herring, although not as bad on the fish front as the Swedes who have taken  herring to unheard of culinary heights with 'surströmming', which comes in cans and which it is recommended be only opened and eaten outdoors, so noxious is the smell of the still fermenting, and rotten, fish; a delight only rivalled in my experience by Japan's 'kusaya' which is similar and carries the same health warning. They are both eaten through a gas mask. They are, however, quite nice in small amounts; you just have to have your nose surgically removed the day before; a gas mask will only mitigate the stench not remove it completely.

The truth of the matter is that we Brits have never come to terms with all that pillaging, looting, raping and general mayhem occassioned by marauding bands of longship sailors from Scandinavia, keen to foist their hard-won catch of herring on us for nigh on three centuries. And, please, don't get me started on Knut and his ill-advised attempt to prolong his sunbathing by preventing, or trying to prevent, the tide coming in, which, as every Brit knows, is the only time we can retreat to the pub for a few jars and leave the missus and the mewling brats outside  playing with the bouncy castle and being sick!

I leave you with a short piece written by the Penguin but never published; it is quite short which leads me to believe that is not finished but nevertheless I think it sums up the Penguin's take on flying rather well. It was probably written not long after the post in 2008 which asked the question, as Thomas Nagel and Timothy Sprigge had asked; 'What is it, to be a bat?'

Oh, what it is to be a bat!

Oh, how we envy you. We birds, penguins, rheas, kiwis, birds that cannot fly. Birds that cannot swirl upon the updraughts; rise among the thermals over the African plain; birds that can only fly in the waves! To think that a mammal could fly; by it's own power, by its own design. To be a mammal and not human; and to fly? What would that be?

While we penguins lament our inability to fly, except through the more viscous medium of water, we envy bats more than birds; even though the birds' heritage is the same as ours. Orcas or porpoises traverse the same medium as do penguins but to behold the bat, without feathers, that supreme pre-adaptation to flight, soar amongst the tree tops, 'Uber allen Gipfeln'***, that must be surely wondrous! To fly on mere elongated fingers, without feathers embedded in bone; on the flimsiest of osteal structures. How much more can that feel? How much more must that feel?

To feel each fingertip flexing, as it must, with each down stroke, with each recovery. The tautness of the membrane as it sweeps and glides, the feel of the air on your hairless and featherless skin.

And then to 'see' through sound, as a dolphin does. To 'see' the echoes of a dragonfly, a cockchafer, the tiny, gossamer wings of a lace fly. Would not this be truly wondrous? But whence came this? This ability to sound? To paint pictures with the return of a simple wave, a movement through air,, a reflection, an echo. Does Zeus still dally while the bat hunts? Is the picture, which forms in the bat's mind, coloured? Does a bat 'see' red, blue, purple and gold as echo while still perceiving the reflected light? Are the echoes as subtle as colour and hue? Fancy? Perhaps, but a bat, and a dolphin too, can differentiate between shapes, densities, the very fabric of being. It can tell the difference between a perch, a twig, the trunk of a tree and an airborne beetle. But whence comes this precious gift?

The one thing that bats cannot do is to differentiate between monofilament fishing line and the empty air. MG tells of nights spent fishing with only the moonlight for comfort and how the bats, flying low across the water, would constantly collide with the taut line held tight by the leger weight. It apparently, or so he tells, took him three of four nights before he finally discovered what was causing all those false 'positives' on his 'bite alarm'. Only once did a bat actually collide with the tip of the fishing rod itself; less of an errror of judgement in its flying, far more likely that it thought the 'top ring' of the rod a beetle on a twig and tried to grab it.

* No, I have no idea what chooglin' means except that is likely a verb! Answers on a postcard to:
** It has always amazed me how the Scandinavians often lose the 'sing-song' quality (if you lose the music in Norwegian, you're buggered) to their speech when speaking English; the Muppet Swedish chef is not typical. It is the weirdest thing to listen to a bi-lingual speaker switch from one to the other, often in the same sentence. This does not seem to be true of Welsh, another sing-song language, and the Welsh largely grow up, except in certain well defined areas, speaking English as their native language.There is music to be found in the Welsh speaking English.
*** 'Wandrer's Nachtlied' (Usually translated as: 'Wayfarer's Evening Song', although I prefer 'lullaby') The title of a famous poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a writer without compare which has as its opening line: 'Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh', 'Over all the mountaintops there is calm'****. Franz Liszt wrote the most soothing and beautiful 'Lied' imaginable to accompany it; Schubert had a stab at it too but it is nowhere near as good in my opinion.
**** There are almost as many different translations of this poem as there are translators and mine is notable for but one fact; 'ein Gipfel' means 'a mountain top, peak or summit whatever other translators may say in their whimsy

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Idle speculation, self sacrifice and the Kobayashi Maru

"One misty, moisty morning, when cloudy was the weather....", to quote an old nursery rhyme and the inimitable Maddy Prior and Steeleye Span, I found myself cogitating a centuries-old ethical and moral dilemma; what I choose to amuse myself with on cold winter mornings should not concern you except insofar as you read this blog. A conundrum probably as old as thought itself, as old as the days when human beings begun to have the time to think of such things, such imaginings; a time when they were no longer solely preoccupied with finding shelter for the night or for putting food onto the table (or at least what passed for a table in our neolithic past); the very first stirrings of philosophy and the birth of 'logos', logic and rational, well argued dialogue, whether internally, within your own mind, or with others, in fierce debate.  The dilemma, couched in apposite, modern terms, is this:

You are asked to make a choice. Your partner, or a dear and well loved son or daughter, is held hostage. Either the loved one dies a quick and mercifully painless death or your entire nation will explode in the immense fireball of a nuclear holocaust, killing every living thing; however your loved one and you will be saved. 

How do you choose? Can you make a rational choice? Or are you simply a slave to your emotions, a pawn in the game between your altruism and your selfish, all too human, mode of thinking. I think that no-one would be able to honestly assert which route, which 'Forking Path', they might choose,  without actually being presented with the dilemma in the real world. It is a dilemma in which there is, in a very real sense, no 'right' answer; no solution which can be immune to refutation; a veritable  'Kobayashi Maru'*.

Do 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, the one' ?** This is similar to that age old question asked of lovers and spouses throughout the centuries: "Would you die to protect me?" However that question is a much easier one to answer because there are only two lives involved and one of them is your own. (Anyone who thinks that a lasting, loving relationship will be founded upon the answer 'No' to the foregoing question definitely has a lot left to learn about people and the nature, and the vagaries, of love.) 

 The crux of the original question to which you must provide an answer is, that given your own personal safety is not in jeopardy whichever option you choose, what rationale, emotion, mode of thinking, can you possibly use to divine an answer, however inadequate.

This is not so esoteric, nor so intractable, a question as it might seem; a question which only need be considered by learnèd treatises concerning the whichnesses of the why and the wherefore, written by moral philosophers with too much time, and money, on their hands and who are way too detached from the real world to have any significance.*** This fundamental problem is one that we deal with every day of our waking lives; all that is changed in our problem today is that the 'stakes have been raised'. Every decision we make, whether mundane or life changing, is weighed in the balance of a crude and mental 'cost benefit analysis'; do I shop at Tesco or Sainsbury; am I committed to this person enough to want to embark on the quest to raise our child with them; should I save for my old age or should I just make hay while the sun shines and 'que sera sera'; do I take that poorly paid job which I would love or do I stick at my well paid employment which I detest?

Each person will, ultimately, answer these, and a host of other questions, with a slightly different answer depending upon their psychological or emotional make-up; their life experiences; the weight they give to logic versus emotion or vice versa; the problem today is no different.

My father, an experienced and able player, whose catchphrase was, 'don't play poker unless you can afford to lose' was perpetually at a loss in determining how he 'knew', in a statistically significant fashion, whether someone was bluffing or not, whether to continue to wager or whether to fold; a gift which I have not, regrettably, inherited. In the same way, none of us can ''know', 'gnōthi seauton'****  and the Delphic Temple of Apollo notwithstanding, how we make the choices that we do, merely that we do and, should chance befall,  you are presented with our little dilemma today, I am sure that you will make the right choice, the only one YOU can live with, whatever the rest of the planet may say, or think.

How would I choose? I'd like to think that my love would be stronger than the hold 60,000,000 faceless and nameless people have over me but I have a sneaking suspicion that I would save the nation and suffer the pain and loss of my belovèd; not for the accolades of a grateful nation but merely because I have a propensity to martyrdom.

* A reference to 'The wrath of Khan', the second and the undoubtedly the best of the movies made under the 'Star Trek' banner.
** Another reference to the same film; Spock's selfless, and ultimately deadly, sacrifice to save the Enterprise and her crew.
*** Think Herbert Marcuse!
**** 'Know thyself', often attributed to Socrates, but I believe (Pausanius' quote from) the Delphi inscription is earlier.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Columns, Columnists and 'that' punch.

Strange to tell, but this blog is now coming up to the beginning of its sixth year.  While postings have, until recently, been very sporadic over the last couple of years, this has been mainly on account of the dearth of anything vaguely interesting to say and, just as importantly, the lack of a suitable language; the effects of aphasia go far beyond an inability merely to speak. Even now, I find the dyslexia difficult to cope with. The absence of the 'built-in' thesaurus can be troubling at times when you search for the synonyms and antonyms in vain in your mind and must limit yourself to a reference book; yes, I still choose a book over the vagaries of the Internet. There is something reassuring about a book, especially so when that book was bought for your seventeenth birthday by someone who thought it might come in useful and who has now long since vanished into the mists of time.

Writing a blog is a little like writing a 'weekly' column for a newspaper, although far less profound, or well written; well at least by me. I was raised on the commentaries of 'Cassandra', Sir William Connor to his friends, he of 'outing Liberace' fame and the subsequent, unbelievably, lost lawsuit, and Keith Waterhouse, author of 'Billy Liar',  in their regular columns in the 'red top' and red-leaning tabloid newspaper, the 'Daily Mirror'; a newspaper in those far-off days which was only just to the right of the 'Morning Star' (formerly 'The Daily Worker', the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain) and nothing like what it has become, a fawning sycophant to 'New Labour' and its policies of not upsetting the middle classes  which I thought was the whole point of being (a) socialist!

I gravitated early to the columns in, first, 'Punch'* and then the 'Times' of the wonderful Alan Coren. The anticipation as you spent all week, and then some hours in the public library waiting for a copy to become available, and of that wonderful 15 minutes of suppressing bouts of laughter at the ridiculousness of all that was 'The diaries of Idi Amin'. It would, in reality, have been even more hilarious had there not been a great deal of 'truth' in the caricature of that bloated, vindictive, avaricious and mindlessly cruel windbag; Bokassa was an angel by comparison. Subsequently I became 'hooked' on my weekly 'fix' of Coren; the art of subtly and gently altering the perspective to produce such columns as 'Children's books written by famous authors'; 'The Pooh also rises' (written in Hemingway's style); 'The Gollies Karamazov'; the day the Eastern European 'maid' informed Coren that the Sanity (read sanitary) Inspector was due to call to do an inspection; the spoof of all those tedious books, a la Peter Mayle, about life in an idyllic backwater of France, 'Toujours Cricklewood'.** One of the great comic geniuses of the twentieth century and not a hackneyed, old joke anywhere in sight.

On the political front, I had always had a soft spot for Matthew Parris, his brand of conservatism notwithstanding, whose gentle sideswipes at the UK's Government (or opposition) were invariably insightful and betrayed his one time past as an MP; he no doubt did but it is difficult to imagine Parris as taking the whole business of being in parliament very seriously at all. Parris famously took part in a documentary TV programme in the Eighties in which he to had live on about £26.00 per week, the then payment to a single unemployed person on State Benefits; he famously ran out of money for the electricity meter!

However, I reserve pride of place to the political and social commentator, Bernard Levin.  Not because I agreed with him, I rarely did; not because he had good style, although he did; and certainly not for his political views; no, I give pride of place to Bernard because he never failed to exasperate, annoy and make me wish to tear his throat out with my bare hands every Monday morning. Roger Scruton used to come close as a 'social commentator' but Levin was always at the top of my 'hit list'. I would not have you think that I might have in fact acted on my fantasy, given the opportunity; in fact, I used to see him quite frequently in Marylebone High Street, wandering back to his little, or big possibly, apartment near where I used to work (just two doors down, if I remember correctly). Buttoned up in his grey herringbone overcoat, he looked for all the world like some diminutive Jewish tailor or high class jeweller. He always appeared to me to be conspicuous by his anonymity but with a look in his eyes, if you caught them in your gaze, that seemed to say: 'Recognise me, I'm famous!' Actually, infamous would be a better term. He is one of the few people to have had a punch thrown at him (for real, not just Rod Hull and Emu 'playing' with Michael Parkinson) on live television (an edition of the popular satirical BBC TV programme 'That was the week that was').*** It is reassuring to know that he was always a pompous and arrogant ass and he did not simply grow into the part with age.

I apologise to Katherine Whitehorn, Lynne Truss (on football!), Phillip Howard, Simon Barnes; Ben McIntyre and no doubt others that I have forgotten, for not including them; I make no such apologies to Gary Bushell and Richard Littlejohn! May they fester in the 9th circle of Hell, where surely they and their prose belong!

Speaking of journalists, reminds me that a couple of weeks ago, I had a 'roll-up'; those cigarettes which you make for yourself as opposed to ones that come in shiny, and not so shiny, cartons.  This was not a particularly pleasant experience, I have largely given up on tobacco and even then I never smoked unfiltered cigarettes, except for the occasional 'roll-up' when poverty demanded. I do not know if they are as ubiquitous in the rest of world as they are here in the UK but it has always mildly surprised me that someone, some business enterprise, could make a living out of selling gummed strips of paper in Europe to populations which outgrew 'do-it-yourself cancer sticks' along with hoola-hoops, powdered egg, slinkies, condensed milk and 'Buckaroo'.

The cigarette, which I rolled myself, with the same kind of inept semblance of a concentration usually reserved for something that you do 'once in a blue moon' like vacuuming under the bed or 'rodding the gerbil'****, was a classic 'Brixton thin'. 'Remand' prisons, of which Brixton, in London is one, very often have an impoverished clientele and they have to eke out their meagre allotment of tobacco as best they can; as a result the roll-ups are about as thick as your average skewer. In the absence of a filter, I did not want anything like a normal sized. ready-made cigarette.

The only reason for mentioning this is something that the company, 'Rizla+' (it should be 'Riz la croix' - rice (paper) the cross' but it's always Rizla in the UK) who make the papers came out with in, I think, the late seventies or early eighties papers that were twice the length and breadth of their conventional papers*****. At first, I was puzzled but it did not take me long, about 5 seconds, to realise what they were for; in my day, you had to stick a number of papers together to get a decent 'toke'! How kind of Rizla+ to make a paper specially designed for your average 'joint'! However, what amazed me the most was not that Rizla+ should make such a paper, there was obvious demand, but that the notoriously 'anti-drug' UK government should not instantly ban their sale; after all, no-one would roll a conventional cigarette using one. They did however ban an ad with legend ,'Twist and Burn', an all too obvious reference to 'spliffs',

* Punch was founded as a satirical magazine in the mid-nineteenth century by Henry Mayhew and the engraver, Ebenezer Landells. Mayhew was the author of 'London Labour and the London Poor', a truly massive dissection of the conditions experienced by the poor in London at the time; one of earliest, and well researched, examples of the 'sociological study' of an underclass. If you want to go beyond the fiction of Dickens or Conan Doyle to learn about conditions for the not-so-privileged in the UK in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, read Mayhew. There is at least one 'selection' currently in print; or was the last time I looked.

** Cricklewood is an area of London. Until the coming of the railways, it was an insignificant little hamlet but has now been subsumed into that sprawling, 'pack the poor in any old how' brick and concrete edifice that is 'Greater London'

*** Ah, don't you just love 'YouTube'. Here's the footage.

**** 'rodding the gerbil' refers to the uncomfortable (for the gerbil) practice, favoured by many in the rodent-keeping community, of regularly ensuring that your gerbil stays free from constipation, a common complaint with dry food pellets. It involves a 'Q-Tip' (cotton bud) and a rather private area of said rodent. I don't have to go into any more details, do I?

***** Rizla+ even make a special paper for the blind; it has the corners cut off of one side, opposite the gummed strip, to ensure that you can 'feel' in what direction to roll.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Snow, snow and more snow

It has been snowing here of late.

The climate of Britain is a benign and inoffensive protector of a nation. Not for us the vulcanism of Italy; an earthquake above '4' on the Richter scale, scarcely a tremor, which heralds headlines in 72pt in the nation's newspapers, as befits a once-in-a-decade event, is rare; the monsoons of Asia are but a tale of the Raj and a long-forgotten empire; the snowdrifts of Illionois, Kiruna, Narvik are but a setting for Santa and his reindeer, and his elves, to ply their trade, their skill in making toys; not for us Brits the dire consequences of the extremes of weather that Mother Nature is so well versed in, yet continues to practise.

Britain has a mild climate which surely suits, and has moulded, our national character; temperatures, rarely dipping below the freezing point of water, except in Scotland; summers without the oppressive heat of sub-equatorial Africa, or the Americas, or the dry and baking cloudless skies of the northern Mediterranean; a climate in which the emperor penguin's plight, forced by their nature, and instinct, to overwinter on the sea-ice, is surely unknown.The happenstance of the Gulf Stream, with its slightly warmer waters, protects us from the vagaries of the earth's climate, much like a 'dummy', a 'comforter', protects the child.

It is true that Britain has been renowned, vilified and mocked for its rain, that never-ending drizzle, with only the occasional torrential downpour, which forces its inhabitants to venture far afield in search of sun at every summer migration; packed airports in July, pregnant with the lure and promise of Spain, Greece, the Canary Islands at vacation time! As far back as the Roman Empire, the Romans, the first literary invaders of the islands, had this sceptred isle, this jewel, as cold, wet and miserable because of our incessant, but nonetheless comparatively mild, rainfall.

Our weather is so inoffensive that it is customary around December for the 'bookies', the turf accountants, those charged with the task of keeping a record of all of the wagers made against a particular outcome, to offer 'odds', the probability, of a 'White Christmas; most times any bets laid are akin to taking money from the mouths of babes, so seldom does this particular event occur, even as far north as Scotland is.

The year of our Lord 1963 was to be no exception. In the week preceding Christmas, rumours abounded that the 'cold front' sweeping its way across Europe from Siberia brought, in its wake, snow; lots of snow, a veritable deluge of snow! I have no doubt that many bets were placed in the week preceding Christmas day that year. Surely, this would be a bad day for the bookies, 'Black Wednesday'; surely this was a certainty. Many would be disappointed and yet as Christmas Day transitioned into 'Boxing Day', the snow finally started to fall.

Such blizzards! There was no need to sojourn in the Swiss or French Alps; real, bona fide, Lapland winter had finally come, in all of its pristine, virginal, white glory, to Britain.

I well remember that incessant, never ending snowfall, whipped around by the winds in eddies of snowflakes outside my bedroom window; so unlike any view which I had seen in my all too meagre years on the planet. Perhaps my parents remembered the winter of 1947, so soon after the disaster of war, but if they did, they never mentioned it; however this was nothing special, just a snowfall.

When the snowfall had stopped and the wind, whistling around the chimney had ceased, I remember going out into the street, all children played in the street, it was the only place to play; it was as safe as it is nowadays, except our parents had not been brainwashed by tales of violence, of paedophilia, by the the nation's tabloid press, and so we were 'allowed'. Armoured against the cold with my one winter coat and woollen mittens, I, too, launched avalanches of 'snowballs' at my friends; snowballs which could be easily gathered from atop the bricks of the walls surrounding each little 'garden' in the front of each little terraced house; it was easier than gathering the 'balls' from the road!

This is a 'joy' to be 'enjoyed' by every child who lives in a climate which experience the passage of the seasons, however what made this experience so much different from any that had gone before was the duration of the winter; never before had winter extended into March, yes, we could still throw snowballs, in reality 'iceballs', in late February.

I have seldom had a predilection for snowmen, although the magical story by Raymond Briggs caused me later in my life to give thought to the notion that such imaginary 'men' might be possible, and desirable, and so, in this vast expanse of snow and ice, I built the 'Alps' in our little garden; or at least as much as I knew, at age 8, about the Alps. I knew that they had had high mountains and so I built peaks from the snow; I knew that that they possessed 'passes' and so I built tracks around those peaks; I had heard of tunnels through the rock, through the very heart of these mounts, and so I built tunnels through my 'faux alps', chiselling my way through the compacted snow with a pencil (HB).

I, as a child, as an infant, did not not know of how widespread the 'disaster' had been; I did not know of the power cuts, the villages cut off from all humanity, from all human contact; the ruination of crops, the despair of the farmers, doomed to see their crops wither in the darkness of a seemingly perpetual winter; I did not see the 'thaw' which wasn't a thaw, merely a transient thaw, a thaw in which rivers flooded their banks, water mains burst and everything was deluged with water and yet was, somehow, turned to ice but mere hours later when the weather changed. I did, however, relish the lack of school; unable to heat the vast Victorian edifice that was 'The School', they closed it and we made merry as the 'sun shone'.

A year, a season, to remember; aye!

You are supposed to end an essay, a piece of 'homework', with a conclusion; what is the conclusion to this? That shit happens? That unforeseen shit happens? That Governments and Civil Servants, charged with administering a country, have not got a clue about how to deal with the unexpected, however expected; that those that were empowered to administer a nation were found wanting in the most extreme circumstances.? No, this is not the conclusion, however appropriate an end this might be.

The conclusion is this: take life, embrace it, for all of its faults, for all that it might disassocate from all that you take for granted,  and ENJOY. There is little left in life but to take joy in this life, however much it may take you to places which you would rather avoid; that it might disaccomadate you from all that you might be and all that you might wish to be.  It is a truism, to be sure, but enjoy the joy in life because this life is all the life that has been left to you. (© Albert Camus, 1944 or thereabouts.)

A small footnote: I was watching a 1963 documentary by the BBC on that year's winter in the UK, which prompted this blogpost; the worst winter for 200 years. As the end credits rolled up, presenters, director, producer etc. whose name should appear briefly as 'Designer', one Ridley Scott!  Yes, THAT Ridley Scott! The BBC is often maligned, but surely if the corporation can produce, nurture, a talent as profound as to engender 'The Kingdom of Heaven',  'Alien', 'Gladiator' or 'Blade Runner', then surely it deserves, demands, preservation as conceived by its founders.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Creation, Allegory and Violation

It's a funny business, this creation lark.

Apparently, one of the most popular questions asked of successful authors during promotional tours, on the lecture tour circuit, at soirées, ubiquitous dinner parties is: “Where do you get your ideas from?” I doubt that any sensible, rational answer ensues, or can ensue, from such a question; who knows all of the dark secrets of the inner workings of their own consciousness which would, perhaps, provide some semblance of an answer. Of course, post-hoc rationalisation is always possible: I read something which gave me an idea for a setting; something happened to me a couple of years ago that suggested a plot; I used to know somebody who was very similar to my main character, I merely embellished him or her; such statements trip easily from the tongue. However, these do not explain the real reasons; why ‘you’ thought to invest a good deal of effort in expanding the original idea into a time-consuming, fraught, problematic and possibly highly emotional narrative?

As a sometime painter, I have a stock of drawings, sketches from life, from photographs, or from my imagination; sketches that encapsulate a certain subject, a certain mood, a certain time or place.* As I cut the paper away from the board of my most recent painting and, during the time when I am waiting for the next sodden piece of Ingres paper, taped to the board, to dry**, I rummage through old sketches to see if anything, a possible painting, suggests itself to me; it is, I assure you, a case of the sketch suggesting the painting not a preconceived idea looking for an appropriate sketch. In some, perhaps most, cases, something grabs my attention and, while the finished painting may look little like the drawing, still it emanates from it; why that sketch? What is it about that particular drawing that, at that particular time, attracts me enough to want to spend 7 or 14 days, 15 hours per day, working it up into something which someone might consider ‘suitable for framing’? 

Whether you compose music, write verse or prose, whether you draw or paint or sculpt, you place the child of your often unconscious intent out there for the world to see and hope for a reaction. Most times, any reaction you get, unless you are a professional performer, is predominantly an appreciation of the skill involved in the “object’s” creation and any emotional or psychological reaction is likely to be of a second hand nature; it's a comment on this blog; it's an email saying how touched someone was by your gift; it's a letter saying how moving someone found the music. It is rare, I think, that one gets the opportunity to witness the reaction first hand in real time; to see your intent, such as it is, and the effect of that intent.

Back in May 2009, I blogged a story here. It was part allegory of someone’s life and part conjecture. The allegory had been suggested by a chance remark some months before and by my own propensity to write fairy stories; there is something that makes archaic, unnatural dialogue somehow sound in context, at least, to my ears and I like writing dialogue from a more formal, constrained age, however dismal I may be at writing it. However, allegory is not only difficult to write if it is not to be just another story founded upon some experience, the allegory must be tied inextricably to all the salient facts of the event or sequence of events if it is to remain allegory, but, more importantly, at least for the purpose of story, this particular allegory did not possess a conclusion, the sequence of events was not over.

One day, a nondescript day, overcast and blustery, a day for doing nothing else but retreat to the cosy, air-conditioned warmth of your office, I began to rehearse “Once upon a time, there lived a young princess.....”. Nothing seemed to follow naturally from that but, upon pausing to light a cigarette, some words inexplicably came into my mind: “To say yes, you have to sweat and roll up your sleeves and plunge both hands into life up to the elbows.”*** At that point, I somehow knew that I had a conclusion to my little allegory; the ending did not continue the allegory but might, in a few short years, become part of it. For the time being it could remain simple conjecture; a solitary avenue among many of the infinite ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ **** that is life.

After posting the tale on this blog, I had another thought, a bizarre one, no doubt, but one which had a strange attraction. Over the following months, I tidied it up, pruned a little and laid it out in a form which could be presented outside of the virtual world; a ‘book’, paperback size, bound with gold and black thread and complete with ‘reviews’ on the rear cover. Later in the year, I gave it as a birthday gift. (You should not think of this as too strange, at least for me, earlier presents had included: ‘home', and hand, made chocolate mousse; a “doll’s house” saucepan – ‘chanter comme une casserole’, to sing like a saucepan, means to sing badly;  some underwear with the legend in a heart, “J’aime Montcuq”, in the manner of “I love London” – “J’aime Montcuq”, a village in the Languedoc, sounds like “J’aime mon cul”, I love my arse.*****)

She flicked through the pages of my little gift and alighted on a paragraph which had been (purposefully) designed to tug at heartstrings, as much of the allegorical elements of the story were; not just her heartstrings but anyone's, I hoped. To watch the smiling realisation of what the prose was about and have that turn to silent and hidden tears was about as good a vindication of the intent as one should ever hope to achieve.

I should have been proud. To have moved someone with mere words should have made me feel happy. I write. If what I write moves people, should I not be proud of my creation? Should I not feel that I have added something to the world? That it now is a more interesting place than it was heretofore?

I am proud but I am also deeply ashamed. A part of me wants to take back that which was made, the thing that was written, wants to forget the things that I know, the things that shaped a narrative, the things that allowed me a few brief minutes inside somebody else's head. It is hard to disengage from the thought that I had, in some way, abused a position, taken advantage of a trust; that, in seeking to make something beautiful from such pain, I had overstepped a critical line.

In the end, I did not, do not, know.

I had to wait a full 24 hours before I could garner the response to the complete story. In those hours, I fretted, I worried, I had dreams of feeling the sting of an outstretched right hand squarely on my cheek. The following day, she was late. As the minutes dragged by, I fretted and worried some more; what had I done? She eventually arrived; she was not wearing her customary smile. She hugged me, planted a kiss on my cheek and told me it was beautiful; no-one had ever written a story about her before. Vindication!

However, then as now, somehow, it still feels somewhat akin to rape.

Strange to say but this post has all the trappings of going through my sketch book wondering what to paint next. Yesterday, I was cleaning out some old drafts of material that I had written for this blog but which I never posted; blogspot has a separate folder for all that remains ‘unpublished’. I came across a short post written almost immediately after the events above which now forms the basis of this post. Why should I choose to publish something now, rewritten it is true with the benefit of a little more hindsight than before, when I surmise that I was reluctant to ‘publish’ it before? 

Who knows?

* Throughout this blog, and elsewhere, I have a tendency to write that construction, lists of three descriptions, without adding ‘and’ before the final descriptor despite the fact that it is notionally grammatically incorrect; it feels intuitively, instinctively, ‘more right’ somehow.  I do not why but perhaps it is related to how I would say, declaim, it from a stage, as if it were a line in a play; perhaps it reminds me of ‘triplets’ in music, you seldom get just one triplet in a measure; perhaps I instinctively remind myself that the three descriptions are seldom the only three descriptions that exist, a way of implying an infinity by using the finite. I do not know but it interests me nonetheless.

** How you stretch paper to avoid it ‘buckling’ when you apply water-based paint; soak it, flatten it down and then tape it to a board with ‘water based’ adhesive tape, the type that used to be used to tape cardboard packing boxes. You wait for it all to dry; no buckling, no matter how much you may ‘flood’ the paper with watercolour.

*** A quote from the English translation of ‘Antigone’ (by Lewis Galantière) written by Jean Anouilh. It forms part of a long justification to Antigone by Creon of Polynice’s lack of burial.

**** ‘El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan’, a tale by Jorge Luis Borges; who else? It is to be found in English in the collection ‘Labyrinths’ which book is drawn from a number of published anthologies in Spanish.

***** Until recently, residents of Montcuq (Mount of the cuckoo) spoke Occitan, the language of the Cathars, that 'heretical' sect wiped out by the 'crusade' of Pope Innocent III, and the pronounciation was Montcuk.

Finally, a little jest, for your amusement (with thanks to that 'old man' of comedy scriptwriting, Barry Cryer).

«A man walks into a bordello in Montmartre for the first time and looks a little lost, gazing around him distractedly as if searching for something. The maquerelle, 'the madam', approaches him and says:

"Can I 'elp you, Monsieur?"

"Yes, I'd like to spend some time with Natalie, if I may," the man replies.

"Bien sûr," the old madam says. "However, I must warn you, Monsieur, that Natalie is our most expensive attraction; she costs €2,000 per hour, although she is worth every cent."

The man merely shrugs his shoulders and hands the madam four crisp €500 notes. The madam leads him to Natalie's bedchamber and he enters. 

The next day, the man reappears in the 'salon' at the same time and again asks the madam if he can spend some time with Natalie.

"Certainement," replies the madam. "It is rare that you should return to sample the delights of our Natalie so soon and at such cost; it seldom if ever happens."

The man merely shrugs his shoulders once more and hands the madam a further four crisp €500 notes. He makes his own way to the upper floor and Natalie's bedchamber. 

On the third day, the madam waits expectantly in the salon for the mystery stranger and his €2,000. She is not disappointed.

At the end of his allotted hour spent in Natalie's bedchamber, the man after an hour of passionate love-making, the like of which he had never experienced before, is getting dressed to leave when Natalie asks:

"You are not from Paris; where are you from, Monsieur?"

"London," replies the man.

"Londres?" exclaims Natalie. "I have a sister who lives in London, in Kensington."

"Yes, I know," replies the man. "She asked me, as I was visiting Paris on business, to give you the €6,000 she borrowed from you last month."»

Men, ay? (And this is slightly differnet to Cryer's version; I added the 'French colour' which is lacking in the original. Outright plagiarism is something I try to avoid.)


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Wisdom, experience and Dirty Dancing

They say one gains wisdom as one gets older; the wisdom of experience. No doubt, this is true; if you have ever been hit forcibly on the head by a mallet, you will have a tendency to avoid a repeat occurrence. However, this is not the most important thing that you acquire; you also gain a knowledge of 'self' which, to a greater or lesser extent, differs from how you remember that 'self' in the past. It is difficult to disentangle the threads of who you might have been and who you are now; is this 'change' a result of the experience you have had or has this 'self' lain dormant, but ever present, just waiting for the opportunity to explode, as chance dictates, upon your consciousness.

Nowhere is this brought into the light more forcefully than in one's appreciation of art (or what passes  for 'art'). What explains the differences of your reactions to Grünewald's 'Isenheim Alterpiece'*, with its harrowing and stark depiction of the 'Crucifiction' and the sublime beauty and serenity of the 'Birth of Christ' and the 'Resurrection'? Do you remember pain and the tranquillity and peace that follows its cessation? Do you remember the joy that occasions the first-born? Do you remember the anguish of a mother who loses a child, or a lover who loses one so loved, and their final, reluctant acceptance of that death? Do we see in 'art' a reflection of our own experience, and thereby gain some semblance of meaning to our lives, or do we see truth; that ultimate reflection of life given to but a few privileged souls, artists?

Strange to tell but I was reminded of this by an insubstantial, but nonetheless iconic, piece of Hollywood schmaltz; 'Dirty Dancing'.  I well remember being dragged, kicking and screaming, to see this movie on its release by my then partner who had acquired a certain fascination with Patrick Swayze, which I have to admit I could understand, he does, after all, have 'most of the chops'; attractive, in a 'pretty boy' sort of way, tall and masculine, a body honed to almost physical perfection and an acting talent that was at least adequate, if not stratospheric.

I came out of the cinema feeling mildly cheated out of my money (It was, of course, my money!).  "Fodder for the emotionally immature," I intoned. "A simple fairy story of a down-trodden princess-in-waiting for little girls who have yet to grow up!" I ranted. "The worst kind of wish-fulfilment," I shouted. I calmed down eventually but for many years, I failed to see the attraction in this movie; why was it so popular amongst the VHS and DVD buying public? In the end, I finally succumbed to its lure by purchasing a 'two disc' DVD copy, replete with copius extras; surely I would now finally understand what it was that attracted so many people, although I suppose that, in the final analysis, I bought it because I had money to waste and I wanted to be disappointed and, perhaps, a little nostalgic about how little humility I used to have as a young man..

In many ways, it has the same 'feel' as 'Casablanca'. Another insubstantial, throwaway film which, in some respects, deserves anonymity; a film scarcely deserving of its iconic, hallowed status; a film with flimsy sets; a film with a trite, hackneyed storyline and a film with the 'usual suspects' going through the motions of trying to act.  Yet for all this, I never fail to derive a visceral, pure enjoyment from the movie; each scene feels like a pair of old slippers, well worn but strangely comfortable; the feeling of pregnant anticipation for the line that you know is coming, "If she can stand it, then so can I. Play it, Sam!"; the look in Bergman's eyes at the airport, when you realise that she so desperately wants to stay in Casablanca but cannot for a multitude of unfathomable reasons; finally the all pervading truth of Tennyson's words, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Since buying the DVD, I have now watched the movie of 'Dirty Dancing' four or five times and each time that I view it, I am more and more amazed at how shallow my initial reaction to the film was. It is a film steeped in nostaglia for a bygone age; an age of innocence; an age when Viet Nam was an unknown country on a map; an age before sexual promiscuity, when you preserved your virginity until your wedding night; an age when you took your holidays with your parents; an age when your independence took far longer to blossom.

And yes, this is a 'fairy tale' romance, How the 'prince' gets the 'girl of his dreams', a girl destined forever to be out of his reach; 'wish fulfilment' indeed. And yet it is not. It is a tale of a young woman who, despite the obstacles, mostly entrenched male attitudes, is prepared to go to extraorinary lengths to achieve what she desires; she does, after all, initiate the sexual encounter with 'Jonney'.

This is a 'post-feminist' film, in the sense that 'feminism' had already happened by the time that the film was made, and yet it speaks to us with a voice not of the political radicals of the Sixties but with the voice of an ordinary young woman of the time (or so we suppose); the voices of  Alison Krause and Sandra Scheuer**, a woman who is no longer prepared to live in the shadows of her (real and metaphorical) fathers..

Oh, balderdash and piffle, MG. You don't like, love, 'Dirty Dancing' because of its high ethical content; you love it because it reminds you what it feels like to 'be in love with someone' not just to 'love someone', there is a difference.

And Jennifer Grey is so 'beautiful'; the architypcal 'girl- next-door, albeit Jewish!

* There is a small reproduction here ( but no reproduction can prepare you for the reality of the actual altarpiece. Painted by Mathis Gothart Nithart, known as 'Matthais Grünewald' ('Matthew Greenwood') in the early sixteenth century, it represents the last flowering of 'Gothic art', a style already being supplanted by the 'renaissance art' emanating from Italy; while Dürer was painting works such as the 'Heller alterpiece' in 'high renaissance' style not 150 miles away, Grunewald stoically adhered to his Germanic heritage. The altarpiece was commissioned by the Monastery of St Anthony at Colmar which specialised in the kind of palliative care of the poor now undertaken by 'Macmillan nurses'. The dying inmates would be wheeled out to view the altarpiece with its graphic description, in visual terms, of Jesus' suffering on the cross, and the attendant anguish of Jesus' mother (comforted by John the Baptist) and the 'Magdelaine' who wrings her hands in her despair, only to be lifted by the transcendental image of the resurrection and the quiet peace of the nativity and the 'Annunciation' on the inner panels. Long dismissed, until the twentieth century, as a jobbing artist, Grunewald's artistic vision of Christ's final hours is almost unique; it is sad that so few of his works survive.

** Two students shot, and killed, by the Ohio National Guard, in a protest about the escalation of the war in Viet Nam. If there was ever a 'riff' which encapsulate a 'thing', a 'feeling', some indefinable quantity, then Neil Young's opening to 'Ohio', a song about the shooting at Kent State University,  does that; in spades! (Although it may be that Stephen Stills generated the opening; wouldn't surprise me!)

Monday, 14 January 2013

Francophilia, the Battle of Senlac Hill and the Harrying of the North

It is not fashionable in these 'enlighted times' to view the history of the world, and the nations which make up its past and present composition, as the exploits of a few 'great' leaders and the great events with which they were intimately connected; we adopt a more prosaic attitude now, preferring to see great in the very small, a more egalitarian concept better in keeping with our pseudo-socialist morality and ethics.

Yet it is difficult not to judge that there have been life, and nation, altering events throughout recorded history to which we place a greater emphasis in assessing their importance and that these events are often ascribed to single individuals, or small groups of individuals, with some justification. The American Revolution which saw the Americans lead the way in casting off the yoke of British imperialism; the events of December 1941, which led to the American entry into the war in Europe, and subsequent victory against the Nazis; surely unthinkable before the beginning of 1942; 9/11 and the rise in collective hysteria and paranoia among rank-and-file Americans which has contributed to the gradual and on-going decline of American dominance of NATO-led 'Weltpolitik'; the Soviet revolution of 1917; 'the Battle of Britain' in 1940, which most certainly would have led to a Nazi invasion, and almost certain defeat for the British, if that particular battle for air supremacy had been lost; Solidarnosc in Poland in the 1980s which played a most prominent role in the final dismantling of Soviet hegemony not just in eastern Europe but throughout the former Russian Empire in the east; the rise of Maoism in China and finally, to end this brief and in no way complete list, the teachings of an obscure, little known, Jewish rabbi who lived at the very fringes of the former Roman Empire and who was to change the very course of European, and subsequently American, history in the most profound way.

Of course, there is a point to this list; a tale of a revolution. Not in any way a conventional revolution, in the manner of which we speak of such events in this day and age. The Soviet Revolution, the American, which in turn  was inspired by the French, the Cuban or the Chinese; these are seen as popular revolts by a populace trodden down by an 'elite' ruling class, however led they may be by a 'middle-class' intelligentsia. The revolution I want to talk about is a revolution brought about by invasion; an invasion which led to the almost complete suppression of the indigenous culture which had preceded it. And no, I am not talking about the serial invasions of the Americas by the Spanish, or Africa by the French, British and Germans (well Italy did try as well but......) nor of the invading of India, the Philippines, the Indonesian archipelago by the British and the Dutch; this is a tale much older, a tale of the Norman invasion of England in 1066!

Most of the invaders throughout the centuries have, generally speaking, learnt the lessons of  the Persian Satraps and the Alexandrian provinces only too well. Providing the natives do not get too 'uppity', leave them to their own devices. Leave them enough wealth be be satisfied but make sure you take the bulk of it out to your own coffers and, if at all possible, marry your nobles, high born, the elite to local nubile females of equal rank. The Norman invasion of England has none of the characteristics of a benevolent conquest.

The history of these times, as recorded by contemporaries, or near-contemporaries, is almost exclusively Norman; any Anglo-Saxon perspectives on the sorry escapade were destined for an audience of one (or perhaps two and then only in secret). However, it is possible to create a scenario which paints William the Bastard, the Conqueror, as a man obsessed with gaining the English Crown at any price as a means of obtaining a very tangible and influential power base as well as immeasurable wealth; not bad pickings for a bastard son of the Duc de Normandie,

In the years preceding the Norman invasion, England had experienced a great deal of turmoil in the century and a half since Alfred the Great's death in 899. By the time of Aethelred the Unready* in the mid-tenth century, England was effectively partitioned with the Anglo-Saxons inhabiting the western half of the country and the Danes settling around York (Jorvik) and in the area which comprises modern-day East Anglia but still making forays into Anglo-Saxon territory. It was Aethelred, or his advisers, who first came up with the idea of bribing the Danes (and Swedes and Norwegians) to 'keep the peace', the 'Danegeld'. It was an annual tax levied on land held by the Anglo-Saxons and amounted to thousands of kilogrammes of silver paid to the Danes each year. No wonder that they ceased to plunder, they had no need, it was being delivered to their doorstep!

However, that did not stop one Svein Forkbeard and his son, Knut (Canute) from grabbing the throne in 1013 to add to the one in Denmark and driving Aethelred into exile, probably in Normandy! (Such irony!) Upon Knut's death in 1035, Harthaknut, King of Denmark, succeeded his father Knut as King of England and Denmark but realising that he had little time remaining to him, invited Edward, soon to be known as 'the Confessor'**, back from exile as his heir. Edward was crowned in 1042.

Edward was initially a quite vigorous ruler early in his reign but appears to have withdrawn into a more priestly mode later; it was probably due to this withdrawal from active politics that led to the re-emergence of the House of Wessex during his reign; first Godwin of Wessex, who had a turbulent relationship with the king, and, after his death, his four sons, of whom Harold Godwinsson was the eldest. This family, for all intents and purposes ruled England in the years preceding Edward's death in January 1066.

Edward died childless and Harold Godwinsson had himself crowned king the day that Edward died. It is here that the tale becomes murky. Harold maintained that Edward had entrusted the kingdom to himself and Edward's wife, Edith, but William, Duc de Normandie, insisted that Edward has promised him the throne. You pays your money and you take your pick; there is little evidence either way and Edward may well have done both, changing his mind as one or the other pissed him off.

Whatever the truth of William's claim, he invaded across the channel and after his defeat of Harold at Senlac Hill in October***, the 'Battle of Hastings', and the customary meander through the rich lands of Kent pillaging, looting, raping and burning, finally arrived in London for his coronation**** some two and a half months after his victory in battle. To be fair to William, it was not entirely an exercise in acquiring the 'spoils of war'.  There were pockets of resistance to the invasion and, after Harold's death at Senlac Hill, a new king, Edgar the Atheling, grand-nephew to Edward the Confessor, was proclaimed. Quite obviously, William had to quash all such proclamations, usually with the sword!

Those who possess power, influence and wealth are disinclined to throw all that away on a madcap invasion, not to mention the potentially perilous sea crossing, without some kind of reward for their efforts and that of their vassals. The Normans were no exception. William had promised the leaders of his army significant land, and wealth, in return for support and was in no position to renege on the deal. As a result, England's ruling elite was replaced almost at a stroke: landowners, who had not fallen at Senlac Hill, were dispossessed and the land parcelled up to the Normans; castles were built to protect the Normans' new-found assets, more that 700 'motte and bailey' castles were built in the years following the invasion; Norman French replaced Anglo-Saxon as the common vernacular among the ruling classes; what wealth remained in Anglo-Saxon hands was often redistributed to Normans by 'forced' marriages of widows or daughters; the higher offices of the Church were exclusively doled out to Normans; the King nominally owned everything in the country, hence the Domesday Book which was intended to be an inventory of what the King 'owned' and what therefore might be due from whoever was 'using' the property for the privilege of so using. The only reason that the actual mechanism of government and the legal system retained much of the Anglo-Saxon flavour was because it was, and was seen to be, far superior to the Normans' own.

Resistance by the Anglo-Saxon continued for some years after the invasion but this was largely unco-ordinated and was suppressed with relative ease. However, in 1068 rebels appeared in York and later in 1069 the 'rebellion', such as it was, gained support from Svein II, King of Denmark, who sent a fleet and an army; many of the inhabitants of York and the surrounding areas had Danish ancestry, a legacy of the Danegeld and the founding of the Viking town of Jorvik (York). Despite raiding all along the east coast of England, the Danes, upon arriving at the Humber estuary, were promptly brought off with more Danegeld! Deprived of their allies, the  English rebels declined to enter into battle with William's forces; they had seen how badly their fellow rebels had fared at other 'rebellions' in other towns.

Unable to defeat the rebels in an open contest, William become increasingly frustrated and decided to act, swiftly and decisively; if the rebels would not do battle then he would deprive them of the means to continue their revolt in any shape or form. So started 'the harrying of the north'. All through the winter of 1069/70, William ravaged Yorkshire with fire and the sword; there was no escape for the serfs and peasants whether they supported the rebellion or not. In his Ecclesiastical History the Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote:

"The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. This made a real change.To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people***** perished of hunger.

I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him."
Needless to say, resistance to William and his kingship all but vanished from England in the wake of such ferocious reprisals.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that England might be very different from what it now is if Harold had had success at the Battle of Hastings. However, the train of events over nearly a thousand years would be impossible to even speculate on. One, as an Englishman, can only be thankful that this is the last instance of forced invasion suffered by these islands; long may the unbroken chain continue..

* The epithet meant 'ill-advised', not as Sellars and Yeatman wittily maintained in '1066 and all that' that he was never prepared for the Danes when they invaded.
** Edward was later canonised by the Pope in 1161.
***Senlac is old French/Norman for 'Lake of Blood'. It is pure speculation but I am inclined to the view that if Harold had not had to contend with 12,000 invading Norwegians near York in the month before Hastings and the three months spent waiting with his army around the coast in the summer waiting for William to arrive, Harold might well have won and driven William back into the sea. The Norwegians had arrived in 300 longships; they left in 24, such was the slaughter. True, the Normans came equipped with cavalry and archers, who were deployed to shoot at the unprotected men to the rear of the shield wall, but the French deployed the same tactics at Agincourt and that didn't go according to plan (for the French).
****William's coronation in Westminster Abbey turned into a fiasco when a shouting mob outside lit fires and a goodly proportion of the attendees rushed out to see what all the fuss, and the smoke, was about.
***** Estimates for the population of England as a whole at the time vary but a fair guess would be only about 2,000,000; one twentieth of the population of the entire country died in one single shire. This was not decimation, this was a massacre

Saturday, 12 January 2013

It's that time of the year, folks!

It is sometimes difficult to see things as they really are; faces, landscapes, cityscapes, a painting by Leonardo or Raphael, a crimson and magenta sunrise pregnant with the promise of the thunder to come. The images that we see, the images formed in our all too self-contradictory minds are not just an accurate, or inaccurate, representation of the vista before us, not merely the product of the flow of ions across a synaptic gap in the optic lobe; the merry gavotte of electrical energy as it dances the sublime, yet meandering path to consciousness. No, the images that we see are a mixture of light and memory, the subtle recombination of what lies before us and whatever our minds may conjure from the deep pools of remembrance.

Is that sunset really the colour of fire or merely a replaying of the evening when the fading sunlight danced across the gentle waves of an azure, tropical ocean with the seeming texture and hue of molten lava? Does the Great Hall really have such an oaken, sculptural quality or is it merely the product of the memory of blinding arc lights and distant shadows only dimly perceived, save for the applause? Is that face, etched in the consciousness, really as it appears to be; all traces of age, a life’s natural and inevitable weathering, smoothed flat by something as simple and as basic as enduring love?

In spite of the beauty which surrounds us at every moment of our waking lives: a barn owl’s gentle quartering of the fields of gold on silent wing beats at dusk, ghostly and ethereal; the towering sandstone majesty of Chartres or the Theatinerkirche, relics of a faith in divine providence long since vanished; the eerie glow of the Aurora, insubstantial spirits cavorting in wild abandon on days which never end; Monet’s Japanese garden; these are seldom enough.

For all such beauty, there is one memory that abides in all of us; one image, more telling than any artifice of man could magic from marble or pigment, from stone and steel and glass, more inexpressible that any talisman which nature can, in her infinite variety, fashion. The first memory of the faces of your parents as they lean over your cot, eager to catch that first glimpse of the light which shines behind the eyes, that first glint of the emerging consciousness that is, and will become, you; the moment when you metamorphose into a being charged with self awareness, with rudimentary language, with notions of ‘self’ and ‘other-than-self’, when you finally are able to reach out not for the breast or the comforter but in full awareness of what you strive for.  When that day arrives, it is the faces of those closest to you that live on.

As a sometime painter, I have, over the years of my adulthood, tried to learn, mostly with little success, the art, for surely it is an art not merely a skill, to see things as they truly are. As such, I look, long and hard at what is before me, and I try to see beyond the memories. If I have pencil and paper, I will try to represent as faithfully as my meagre skill with a brush will allow. In the absence of pencil or brush, I will draw using only my finger and such air as surrounds me. If all else fails, I will mentally draw pictures with nothing more than my mind in the manner of musicians without an instrument to practice on.

This can be a great joy but, conversely, a great burden. For I no longer remember my father as he was in my childhood; all memory has been swept away with the image of him during his final hours.  The sunken cheeks; the flesh pulled taut across the bones; the eyes, now a cloudy grey, buried in pits of an alarming shade of black; the tubes coming from his withered and spent arms; the hands, once so strong, gripping the coverlet or my hand weakly in mockery of what was once so assured; the laboured breathing; the raw fear that his very own angel of death was at hand and hovering just out of reach.

It is rare for parents to pay any attention to what their children have to say; even in the youngest of parents, they have a good head start on their children in the race to accumulate knowledge, wisdom and experience. My last words to my father were: “You are not going to die; you do not have my permission!”

Needless to say, cantankerous old bastard that he was, he paid just the same amount of attention at the end as he had done at the beginning.