Thursday, 30 May 2013

Ludwig, Richard and the art of drowning

I wonder whether it is possible to kill oneself, successfully negotiate a suicide, by drowning oneself in the bath, ie in two feet of water. Is it possible to do so when one is fully alert; not blind drunk or unconscious? It has always seemed to me that suicide is a decision which may take a long time to come to but, having made the decision, the actual process is really quite quick, whether it's a gun, poison, handfuls of pills or even the slow transition to unconsciousness when gassed with your head in the oven. However to purposefully drown yourself seems to me to take more than an effort of will, more then a mere decision to end it all. To drown oneself means having to fight every instinct we have as human beings not to breathe water; only when you can hold your breath no longer, perhaps after 2 or 3 minutes, would you be forced, having no choice, to breathe liquid . To purposely drown yourself seems to me to be an impossibility. The relevance of this point will become apparent at the end of this post.

Ludwig II of Bavaria, der Märchenkönig, the fairy-tale king, ascended to the throne of Bavaria soon after his eighteenth birthday in March 1864 following the death of his father, Maximilian.

What is now modern-day Germany did not exist, in any form, before 1871; it was merely a collection of states some small, some large, of which the largest and most powerful was Prussia with Bavaria bringing it home in second place. Following the victory in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, in which Bavaria actually sided with Austria against the Prussians*, Otto von Bismark, the Prussian President, attempted to 'kick-start' the second empire (Das Zweite Reich**) using Wilhelm I of Prussia, the Hohenzollern King of Prussia, as de facto emperor, or Kaiser, essentially browbeating the lesser states into acceptance, although Bavaria still managed to retain a semblance of its previous Kingdom status, only coming under the Emperor's hegemony in times of war.

Whilst not in any way an absolute monarch in the manner of Louis XIV of France or Elizabeth I of England, the King and his court had some degree of influence. However, after the 'shackles' imposed on the the Kings and Princes of the various Germanic states following the unification and the establishment of the Empire, Ludwig increasingly withdrew into his 'personal projects' and abandoned any pretence at politics unless they furthered such projects. One can perhaps sum up his many personal projects in two words; Richard Wagner.

Ludwig had first seen Wagner's early operas (first Lohengrin and then Tannhäuser) when still an adolescent and before he came to the throne. He was completely smitten, as any adolescent with 'Romantic' leanings might be, by Wagner's highly charged and emotional music and myths of chivalry and the heroic. Within two months of ascending to the throne, Ludwig invited Wagner for a private audience which lasted an unprecedented one hour and three quarters. If Ludwig had been smitten before the meeting, he was in 'Cloud-Cuckoo Land' at its end; Ludwig effectively opened his wallet and said to Wagner: "help yourself!"

In fact, it is unlikely that Wagner would have been able to compose the later operas, the 'Ring' cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Valküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung), Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg or Parsifal, without Ludwig's patronage. Wagner had spent the preceding years fleeing creditors, angry husbands*** and all kinds of social scandal as befits a social and operatic iconoclast. Ludwig gave him money, social standing, performances at the Munich Opera and even made significant contributions to Wagner's very own 'Festspielhaus', the (Wagner) Festival Opera House, being built in Bayreuth.**** In return, Wagner gave to Ludwig free rein to indulge his own and Wagner's imagination with his undeniably remarkable legacy; his castle building!.

From early in his reign until the very end, Ludwig embarked on a furious round of castle building; major alterations at Schloss Linderhof, including the building of 'Hunding's Hut' and grotto, inspired by Act 1 of Die Valküre; modifications to Hohenschwangau; the building of Neuschwanstein and the laying of the foundations, groundwork and electricity cables for the unbuilt, 'robber-baron castle', Schloss Falkenstein and finally, his homage to Louis XIV of France and the Palace at Versailles, Herrenchiemsee; only partially completed at his death. Lying almost in a straight line across the Alpenvorland, parallel to the high Alps, the mountains serve as a fitting backdrop to Ludwig's (and Christian Jank's) imagination, his almost paranoid reclusiveness and his eccentricity. It was as if he were building sturdy fortresses in which he might keep the rest of the world at bay and from which he might only venture forth to travel from one to another; therein lay the roots of his sad downfall.

Ludwig was most keen not to use state funds to finance his many projects but the royal coffers were scarcely adequate. As a result, he amassed debts throughout the royal houses of Europe at a colossal rate and to levels which were surely unsustainable from his own resources without heavy state subsidy and, moreover, half of his proposed projects, already underway, were still a long way from completion. The state ministers and politicians were not at all happy with this state of affairs and even less so when Ludwig threatened to dissolve the cabinet of ministers and bring in a set of new brooms unless the Cabinet supported a fresh round of the 'royal houses begging bowl' to help build his castles.

Faced with existing royal debts of 14,000,000 marks***** and the prospect of more to come, the Cabinet decided at act. In the first three months of 1886, the Cabinet amassed a mountain of 'eye-witness' testimony as to Ludwig's alleged 'madness' and  'unfitness' to rule. We will never know how much was real, how much servants, for example, were pressured to exaggerate and how much evidence was simply fabricated but Ludwig's disinclination to have anything to do with a personal involvement in state affairs too easily lent itself to accusations of this nature. Four psychiatrists signed the final report in June 1886 attesting the King as paranoid and unfit to rule for the remainder of his life; not one of the four even gave so much as a cursory examination to Ludwig himself. On 12 June 1886, Ludwig was arrested and led away, accompanied by Dr Gudden, one of the four psychiatrists, to Schloss Berg on the Würmsee, now Starnbergersee (a lake).******

The following day, on 13 June, Ludwig, a strong swimmer, went for an evening stroll with Dr Gudden by the lakeside; neither of them ever returned. The bodies were found about 11:30pm that evening, after a furious and protracted search in a torrential rainstorm; they were floating in the lake by the shore in three feet of water. Gudden, so the official autopsy ran, showed marks of physical trauma to the head and shoulders and signs of strangulation; Ludwig was deemed to have committed suicide by drowning although no water was found in his lungs during the autopsy. The official line was that Ludwig had murdered the Doctor, perhaps in an escape attempt, and then, guilt-ridden, committed suicide; a somewhat convenient reinforcement of the official report's diagnosis of paranoia. Perhaps he killed the Doctor and attempted to escape by swimming away and then had a heart attack or a fatal stroke. Perhaps he was murdered and no witnesses were to be left. Who knows?

His cousin and friend, the Empress Elisabeth******* of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was reputed to have said after his death that, "The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end." Is this not the fate of dreamers everywhere; to be crucified on the cross of practicality and reason?

All one can say with any degree of certainty about Ludwig is that the Bavarian State Government has probably recouped whatever the cost of Ludwig's debts were, many times over, by the millions of fee paying tourists who flock to the castles, given to the state in 1923, every year.

I have fond memories of Neuschwanstein with its frescoes of Siegfried, Tannhäuser, Parsifal and, strangely, Die Meistersinger, then overnight at a Füssen hostel, back out to Hohenschwangau the next day and then east to Linderhof and finally, following a three day hike, after three nights of sleeping in the Bavarian forests under the stars, Herrenchiemsee; the bejewelled island under the summer sunshine.

* European politics before 1918 was always very complicated!
** The first empire has been the 'Holy Roman Empire', (neither holy, nor Roman nor an empire) in which 'Germans' were effectively Emperors from the sixteenth century until 1806 when it was dissolved during the Napoleonic Wars.
*** One such angry husband was Hans von Bülow, who conducted the premiere of Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde' at Munich in 1865, and whose wife, Cosima, had recently given birth to Wagner's child! Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of Countess Marie d'Agoult and Franz Liszt; you have to hand it to those composers!
**** After Wagner had been soundly turned down in his initial proposal for similar in Munich  by the controllers of the state purse strings.
***** It is difficult to assess exactly how much Ludwig's debts might be valued in today's currency because there is no real way to match 'exchange' rates and Germany's migration from the 'Bavarian' Mark to the pre-war 'Reichsmark' and then to the Deutschmark and finally to the Euro, but a figure of DM600,000,000 would be perhaps not nonadjacent to the size of Ludwig's debts today. (€300,000,000, £255,000,000 or $390,000,000)
****** Otto, Ludwig's brother and successor as King, WAS genuinely and medically deranged, which merely lent fuel to the fire of the accusations against Ludwig; it was 'common knowledge' at the time that madness ran in families.
******* Assassinated by an 'anarchist' in 1898. (There was a lot of it about; assassination, that is, at the 'fin de siècle'.)

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Gershwin, Levant and an American in Paris

If ever a movie were to be said to be hung onto the back of a solitary piece of music, it must surely be Gershwin's 'An American in Paris'. I doubt that this is the case but every time I watch the film, I get visions of Gene Kelly meeting Alan Jay Lerner for a drink and, as they are into their third of fourth martini, Kelly says:

"Alan, I have this great idea for a ballet for Gershwin's 'An American in Paris'; write me a schmaltzy script so that I can get a studio to put the ballet into a film."

There has always seemed to me to be a 'dream-like' quality to the entire movie which is not the product of a lack of location filming; it is almost as if the back-lots of MGM were purposefully chosen in order to 'mesh' with the surreal and cartoonish backdrop of the ballet sequence. The whole film, despite the arrival and departure of cars, the approximations to the narrow streets of Montmartre and 'la rive gauche', the fin de siècle apartments of Mulligan, Cook and Roberts, seem to be set in the revolving sets of a theatre rather then the living world.

It is quite clear from the opening of the film that we are dealing with an idealised picture of Paris; Paris as Mulligan paints it, not as it is. From the seemingly magical, but practical, way in which Mulligan's 'chambre' is transformed into an 'atelier' and the breakfast delivered to the door; Henri Baurel's imaginings of his love, Lise, and her five choreographed ballet routines of who and what she is not and who, more importantly, she is; Lise and Mulligan's first 'date' on the deserted bank of the Seine, surely at 10.00pm a rarity to beat all rarities*, has that ethereal quality of a dream; the dance without touching. This is only compounded by the daydreams of Adam Cook who occupies in his dreams the role of pianist, first violins, conductor, xylophonist and, finally, the applauding audience to an abridged rendition of Gershwin's 'Concerto in F'.** With such beginnings, it comes as no surprise, in fact it is almost expected, that the climax of the film should be the entire ballet suite set in a surreal landscape of cartoon backdrops and strange props.

Despite its obvious charm as a 'romantic comedy', its leading man and the ingénue, Leslie Caron in her first film, with her classically trained footwork and gamine haircut, still it is surprising that it should garner six Oscars, including best picture; not because it is not good but that for all of its conformity in places to the Hollywood ideal, still it seems just a little bit too 'left of field' to have garnered much support from the Academy.

Perhaps the only low spot in the film is the frankly awful rendition of 'I got rythym' by Kelly, who taps in his usual excellent manner, but is regrettably joined by a bunch of (American) street-urchins, singing 'I got' (leaving Kelly to add the rest) and singing and speaking the most execrable French!***

I was perhaps inevitable that the success of 'An American in Paris' should promote a 'sequel' or rather a 're-imagining' in the following year; almost the same basic story but different songs, different details, 'Singin in the rain'.  Interestingly, given what I said in my first paragraph, there is an explicit credit for inspiration given to the 1929 song 'Singin in the rain' in the opening credits, although it is hard to see how the whole film could see that song a source in anything else but the most general sense. By grounding the latter film in Hollywood at the birth of the 'talkies', Kelly was able to rid himself of the dream-like 'fantasy' sequences of 'An American...'; they could now be shot as 'alternate takes' for a movie.

Although 'Singin in the rain' is a more satisfying, linear narrative than 'An American...', it still retains the long choreographed scene at the end of the film. While no less 'chaotic' than its predecessor, it features the divine scene between Cyd Charisse,**** Kelly and a long flowing, gauze shawl. This may almost be seen as a guerdon on director Kelly's part*****; Charisse was slated for the Caron role in 'An American in Paris' before she fell pregnant and thus could not appear.

Like many of my contemporaries, I eschewed the nineteen fifties as a cultural reservoir to be tapped for more years than I should have; In my late teens, I came upon William Russo's 'Three pieces for blues band and symphony orchestra' and subsequently to his 'Street Music- a Blues Concerto'; these led in a line, as straight as a die, right back to Gershwin's 1920'sballet suite. Intrigued by what Hollywood might have made of Gershwin's music, I watched the film. I was not disappointed but, perhaps more importantly, this was at least one film from the 1950s which managed to be somehow 'the same Hollywood pap' and yet inventive and different. This in turn led to my wholesale reappraisal of many other movies of that era, much to my benefit both then and now.

Ir perhaps says something about how 'unappreciated' Kelly really was, even in his heyday, that one had to wait until 1972 for anything like the same quality in the genre as 'An American in Paris' and 'Singin in the rain' to appear; Bob Fosse's 'Cabaret', based uktinately on Isherwood's 'Mr Norris changes trains' and 'Goodbye to Berlin'.

* The last time I was in Paris, admittedly many years ago, the banks of the Seine were scarcely deserted at practically any time of the night or day if the weather was fine! Once you have seen the film, it is always difficult not to emulate Kelly and Caron when walking with your lover along the 'rive gauche', whatever the audience.
** Casting Oscar Levant as Adam Cook was surely inspired. One of the foremost interpreters of Gershwin alive in the 1950s and an excellent self-deprecating wit, whose naturally acid tongue so neatly captures Cook's already world-weary cynicism at being the 'oldest child prodigy in Paris'. Levant made the now famous quote, following Marilyn Monroe's conversion to Judaism that 'at least Arthur (Miller) can eat her now!"
*** Of all the versions of this song, the one that I like the best is the version by Mike Oldfield and Wendy Roberts, sung not as in the film but as a harmonised ballad!
****I could never understand why the studio, or Astaire himself, favoured Ginger Rogers over Cyd Charisse who I always thought the better dancer. Not bad for a polio victim christened Tula Ellice Finklea!
***** Kelly shared directing duites on 'Singin...' with Stanley Donen, who later went onto to make another Paris movie; 1963s iconic 'Charade' starring Audrey Hepburn (sigh) and Cary Grant.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Avoid explicily detailing in the title what is in a post which will be trawled by Google, the 'P' word and the OCC

Once again, pornography and the Internet are in the news again in the UK following the report commissioned by the Office of the Children's Commissioner (OCC) and undertaken by, primarily, researchers at the University of Middlesex. No doubt this will occasion the usual pointless and acrimonious dialogue between the 'guardians of the public morality' and those in defence of the Internet's right to freedom of expression.

(Of course I am ignoring the long-standing question of the morality of pornography per se, in whatever form or medium of distribution; that is as much as an intractable problem as is its effect on the Internet. I will say only one thing in that respect; it is no more exploitative of its workforce and its customers than any other capitalist enterprise and no less prone to breaking the law!)

In five years, I have purposefully steered clear of the thorny issue of the ubiquity and ready availability of web-based porn primarily because it is so intractable. On the one hand, we have the defenders of an adult's right to choose what they read or watch in the comfort of their own home and the very real necessity of trying to protect young children from exposure to writing or images which could be immensely damaging to immature, malleable and impressionable minds.

While there is little hope of a compromise being brokered between the two sides, who, let us be blunt, both have a certain degree of 'right', if not God, on their side, the Government's tentative plans to try to cover the ubiquity and availability of pornography in all of its varying degrees of 'hardness', ranging from 'pin-ups' in the Sun at 9B to the frankly stomach-churning at 9H*, is to be commended. I fear, however, that they are barking up entirely the wrong tree when they seek to encompass it all under the banner of 'Sex Education'.

Before the late 1990s, Britain was renowned for having one of the most repressive of cultures in relation to the 'sex industry' in Europe; probably only Roman Catholic Ireland was more repressive. Strangely, the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 and 1964 had largely failed because juries would seldom agree with the prosecution on what might be considered 'obscene'; pandering to the prurient interest was no longer enough for juries to convict, raised as they had been in the new-found permissiveness of the 'teenage revolution' that was the nineteen-sixties. However, no UK publisher or film-maker was willing to risk all on a 'continental European' approach and, somewhat grudgingly, allowed themselves to be governed by a self administered 'Code of Practice' which eschewed, what at the time were seen as, somewhat naïvely as it happens, the worst excesses of the Scandinavian, German and Dutch models. This led to all manner of ridiculous photo shoots and films, where the participants were trying very hard to appear to be in the throes of lust and yet evidenced none of the physical signs; a recipe for a train wreck, if ever there was one, Internet or no Internet.

Once the Internet became of age (and real-time streaming became actual), pornographic film making, for release, whether in the mainstream or into back- street seedy cinemas or home video, took a nose-dive and magazines all but died a death. However, this new-found, and it must be said cheap, ability to both make and distribute pornography, led to an explosion of content the like of which Harrison Marks** could have only dreamed about; freed from the requirements of capital for the making, processing, conversion and the manufacture of physical media and packaging, anyone with access to a semi-pro camera, a PC or a Mac and access to the Internet could go into business. Of course, 'the elephant in the room' was the truism that, in an ocean of, often mediocre, content, how did the individual pornographer make their product stand out; by making it different!

While the likes of the big four and the big two, Tracy Lords, Taija Rae, Ginger Lynn, Amber Lynn and Peter North and Tom Byron respectively could still expect to sell well during the eighties and the early nineties, the market was moving in an entirely different direction. With the freedom and, to a large degree, anonymity on the part of the consumers, pornography not only moved into the 'fetish zone' in a way and a volume unheard of twenty years before but also took a turn for the worse in its treatment of its 'actresses' and to a lesser extent its 'actors' not only in real life but also in the movies and stills, with their attendant incipient 'violence' and degradation, especially of women. How much of that was down to the popularity in the US of John Stagliano and Rocco Siffredi, producers and actors in some of the most violent, short of outright sado-masochism, movies, is difficult to tell but one thing is clear; such 'violence' is now the norm in the US and Germany.***

It is this, I think, which, primarily, concerns the OCC. While, I, along with most of my fellow males, do not find what passes for pornography now, in the least bit arousing, it is largely because we are (a) mature enough to treat the opposite sex as equals and (b) to find doing violence to a woman who does not specifically request it distasteful, nay abhorrent. The only people that those with a leaning to sadism should jump into bed with are avowed masochists; at least there is a certain mutuality there. However, if your only experience of sex is the occasional fumble behind the bike sheds or, worse, none at all, then what are you to make of images which are so prevalent as to foster a belief that this might well be the 'norm'. Girls, so they say, are less inclined to the visual and more inclined to the bizarre writings such as '50 shades of grey' and the 'twilight saga' but their 'partners' will most likely be males who will often have had exposure to varying degrees of pornography and they need to be prepared, inculcated, as much as the boys, in what society deems broadly acceptable, a lot more than it used to, and what is unacceptable behaviour towards another human being, irrespective of gender.

Quite obviously the answer, to some degree, is to impart the wisdom and maturity of the older generations to the young. However this is much easier said than done. Males and females, with the arrival of puberty, the onset of which appears to reducing with every passing decade, have a very distinct tendency to do the exact opposite of what they are told or advised by their elders. I doubt that this is likely to change in the foreseeable future; adolescence has always been a time for rebellion. We can teach them all about 'loving' relationships, we can teach them about the dangers of unprotected sex, we can even try to delay the onset of experimentation but will they listen? In truth, without some other education, which does not relate to sex and relationships, I see little prospect of any change in the near future.

In the main, we teach our children far too late about moral philosophy, responsibility, the myriad different ways of looking at the world and which ones our society might consider moral and which immoral, if we do so at all. We do not equip them with the necessary tools early enough so that they can make rational, justifiable arguments for their actions and behaviour. Some acquire such tools, from their parents, by osmosis, from older siblings, but many do not. Pornography and the Internet is not the only problem faced by our children but if we address this issue by not restricting ourselves to tackling that problem per se, in isolation, but trying to see that as one issue of many, which perhaps begs for a more holistic approach, perhaps we would gain benefits in a host of other areas as well as the one that concerns us.

PC based controls such as 'NetNanny' do a good job with younger children in weeding out the most troublesome sites if you set the controls up correctly and, to be frank, parents should take a healthy dose of responsibility in trying to ensure that their children are in some way protected on any machine that is based at home, whether desktop, laptop or tablet; after all, the education system stands 'in loco parentis' not as actual parents.

You will have noticed that I have not suggested 'central' controls to tackle this problem. Why? First, I believe in freedom of expression and secondly, more importantly, it would have no effect. There are always methods by which any semi-effective control of the Internet can be circumvented by a passably tech-savvy child (or adult), if she or he wishes to do so. Perhaps what parents need to do is to take a healthy dose of salt with their son's declaration that he only "found '' purely by accident! And no, there's no real reason for the cushion of my lap, Ma, but it does keep my thighs warm."

* The gauge of the 'hardness' of graphite pencils in the UK which range from 9BB (the softest, having a greater proportion of clay to graphite) to 9H, the hardest pencil imaginable.
** Harrison Marks was a notable film-maker of 8mm 'home movies' of the 'glamour' variety who only latterly in the 1970s moved into producing 'hard-core' pornography for the German and Danish markets, when the market in the UK for films featuring 'strippers' ran out of steam.
*** O where did all those cuddly German comedies go, 'Bienenstich in Liebesnest' (Bee Sting in the Love Nest) or 'Kasimir der Kuckuckskleber'**** (Kasimir of the cuckoo stickers); a time of relative innocence, Benny Hill with penetrative sex.
****Well nigh impossible to translate without seeing the film. Kasimir is a debt collector with all female debtors. With their agreement, he auctions them to businessmen for sex and thus they clear their debts with Kasimir. Before the auctions, Kasimir 'road tests' each debtor and if she 'passes' he applies a little cuckoo sticker to her bum. Very not-PC but in its defence it was made in 1977 and it was a comedy!

Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Alamillo, the Prince of Wales and urban carbuncles

I was looking at some of my old photographs of Sevilla in Spain this morning over coffee and especially those that I took, after a particularly gruelling trek around the city, of Calatrava's daring and iconic Puente del Alamillo (bridge) over the Guadalquivir; built for the 1992 exposition and the celebration of the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492. Although I am unable to find a reference elsewhere, I believe the Sevillans call the bridge 'cabeza de dragón', the 'dragon's head'. because viewed from above, from the Giralda* for example, the passage of the Guadalquiver through Sevilla seems to be punctuated by a great. writhing sea-serpent formed by the other bridges over the river with the Alamillo at the head-end.

This led to a brief flurry of exploration of other iconic bridges; the innovative and daring 'Gateshead Millennium Bridge' over the Tyne in Newcastle for pedestrians** that provides a most novel means of allowing boat traffic to pass under it, a time-lapse film is here; the five mile long Øresundbroen/Öresundbron*** which links Denmark and Sweden over the seven and a half mile wide Øresund strait, although the bridge is transformed into a tunnel under the strait for the remaining two and a half miles to avoid problems with aircraft approaching København airport to the west; that jewel of Victorian neo-Gothic extravagance, the bascule Tower Bridge.****

As I thought about the many splendid bridges which cross the Thames, Chelsea, Albert, Hammersmith, I was suddenly reminded of the now famous quote, made during a speech at RIBA,***** during an awards ceremony, by no less than HRH, the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, condemning the proposed extension to the 'classically styled' National Gallery: 'What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.' ******

I do not, it must be said, have a very high opinion of the Prince's views; one only has to look at his choice of women to think that perhaps he is not quite dealing from a full deck and the mouthings of rich, pampered royalty are apt to pass me by. However, in this, he struck a chord with ordinary people, people like me, who had been spouting the very same thoughts about the state of the 'built environment' for years.

Unlike New York, which had witnessed the rise of the 'skyscraper' in the 1920's, the Chrysler******* building and the Empire State to name but two, London in the period after the Second World War was still very 'low-rise'. Much of the architecture, or at least what was left after Hitler had tried to flatten it with high explosive or fire, was still Georgian or Victorian, whether 'classical' or neo-Gothic, and few buildings interrupted a low-key skyline. However, as Britain came out its impoverished post-war penury and started to rebuild its crumbling ruins, the mood amongst planners, developers and architects alike was to build up in the manner of New York.

In many respects, this made sound sense; by building upwards using the techniques of steel frames and reinforced concrete, you could fit many more people, whether commercial or domestic, into the same square yardage of land. This would not only generate greater profits for the developer but also solve, at a stroke or so they thought, the sometimes appalling conditions of the poor in London. However, this was no longer the early twentieth century when such movements as Art Nouveau and Art Deco held sway. This was an age of brutalism, almost an era of ugliness for ugliness' sake; it was as if such beauty which might exist would be buried for ever in the horrors of carpet-bombing and the extermination camps.

All around London and other urban areas, tall buildings started to spring up, 20 stories, 30 stories, as grey and as bleak as a London sky in mid-winter when the incessant drizzle falls. City dwellers were forced to trade nuclear sized homes and a small garden for a bathroom and indoor WC, a communal lawn, invariably unkempt, and a loss of community. Office workers fared little better as the towers of industry and commerce grew ever taller and their work-space grew ever smaller. By the mid-seventies, London and many other places, were awash with ugly buildings, with little to commend them; they fell into disrepair almost as soon as they were built. Lifts (elevators) always broke down and took forever to repair; communal areas were the province of cash-strapped councils who paid lip-service to the concept of 'responsibity'; tenant and owner became insular and concerned themselves only with their own 'little box' made of 'ticky-tacky'; each high-rise or collections of high-rises had its very own criminal element in the shape of narcotics dealers and whores who would bed down on an old mattress among the communal dustbins for a quick fuck. The Prince of Wales was only scratching the surface of a very real malaise in Britain's built environment.

Whether Charles' remarks had any real effect, it is difficult to say, (another gem was 'You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble') Local Authorities were already attempting to move back to a more 'people-sized' environment by the time of Charles' speech, but in saying out loud at such an event what most people were thinking perhaps served as a catalyst for a more beautiful, or at least less ugly, environment in which people could work and rest.

Although there are perhaps more examples of stunning buildings in the commercial sector, and still  some howlers like '20 Fenchurch Street, 50 New Bond Street and Paddington Canalside, it is the mundane realm of the domestic dwelling that still appears to be in a rut of, at best bland anodyne boxes with scarcely enough room inside to swing a cat, and at worst all the disadvantages of the high-rise but in a low-rise style.

Ultimately, perhaps the Brits hanker after a sense of, now lost, community which only the 'old' and traditional represent but whether the new has indeed displaced that feeling of belonging with alienation or whether it is a product of stranger and more subtle influences, we may never know. What is certain is that buildings decay, become worn out with age, and we will need to replace them. Perhaps all of us are guilty of sins of omission; we care too little for that which surrounds us to become involved in actively changing it for the better.

* The Giralda (a 105m high minaret) is all that remains of the Moorish Mosque which originally stood on the spot; much of Spain was conquered and occupied by the Moors (Arabs from North Africa) from the early eigthth century until the last bastion of Moorish influence, Granada, finally fell in 1492 to the 'Reconquista'. The Mosque itself was badly damaged in an earthquake in the fourteenth century, by which time the Christians had already taken back the city of Sevilla, and by the beginning of the fifteenth century work had begun on probably the most imposing of European cathedrals for which the Giralda would now form the cathedral's bell tower; it would therefore still call the faithful to worship. There used to be a facsimile in New York, at the site of the second Madison Square Garden, until it was demolished in  1926.
** The London Millennium Bridge, forever doomed to be thought of, in London at least, as the 'Wobbly Bridge' (because it did, alarmingly, until it was fixed) is but a pale and insubstantial structure in comparison.
*** The name of the bridge in Danish and Swedish respectively. Although they share a common root, Swedish is slightly different to Danish, hence the two names, one for each side. The company that runs the bridge calls it by its 'compromise' name, Øresundbron, which in no way lessens the impact of the toll levied; €43 one way (about £36.75 or $55.50) which has not lessened either the traffic or the Danes wanting cheaper housing in Sweden and a ten mile commute into København (Copenhagen).
**** The bridge management rent out the enclosed walkway between the two towers, high above the roadway, for functions and parties. I remember a particularly boozy Christmas party there back in the eighties, which was followed by my drinking all of my boss' husband's bottle of 'Wild Turkey' until 5am. Yes, of course I made it into work at 8.00am the following morning, still slightly the worse for wear!
***** The Royal Institute of British Architects.
****** The planned extension was subsequently 'dropped' in favour of a bland edifice perhaps more in keeping with the Prince's sensibilities, although whether he was actually responsible, no-one knows.
******* Surely one of the most beautiful buildings, of any size, to be built in the twentieth century.

In case you are not familiar with the Alamillo bridge, this is it:

Fed up with chasing arcane information all over the internet? Why not download the entire World-Wide-Web to your hard drive? All life is HERE.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Plastic Bertrand, the Somme and Que diable allait-il faire, dans cette galère

The vagaries of youth are a catalyst for some remarkable things; some transient, soon forgotten and some which last a lifetime. Although I have not led a pampered and bountiful life, least of all in my somewhat impoverished childhood and adolescence, still I have managed to acquire some, at least, of the things that give me lasting pleasure. Baroque architecture and the works of the painters of the renaissance; the wit and the wisdom of a host of European writers (and an Argentinian); the sublime joy of crafting a falcon or a songbird out of nothing but pigment, water and brushstrokes on paper, although I have still to master, and may never master, the ethereal beauty of egg yolk as a 'binder'; the awesome ear, and brain, numbing power of Wagner, Black Sabbath, Mahler, Led Zeppelin; the quintessence of the human experience, love, whether it be lost or not.

It was in such a mood, a 'remembrance of things past' (and extant) that led me towards a strange conflation of disparate elements; a play by Moliere, some disposable Euro-pop and the miners of the Somme. As staunchly English as I may be, and only my good sense stops me from being a supporter of the dreaded BNP, I occasionally hanker after the 'European'; a legacy of the years spent learning to speak and to read the languages of cultures that were not English and the necessary immersion in to those very cultures that were, in some ways, inimical to the English mode of being.

It started with a strong desire to hear, once again, the appallingly awful 'Plastic Bertrand' and 'Ca plane pour moi': a piece of music so disposable and inconsequential that it must rank with 'Chirpy, Chirpy Cheep Cheep' and 'Mouldy Old Dough' as the the most execrable example of the 'pop musicians' 'art' to be found in all the annals of the genre. You can hear just how awful it is here. As an example of how badly the Europeans could do 'punk' it cannot be 'bettered'. 'Plastic' was Belgian and the featured artist was not the individual who actually sang on the record - Lou Deprijck, the producer sang but Roger Jouret 'mimed', presumably an ageing 'hippie' producer was not in keeping with the times - but nonetheless, like '99 Red Balloons' (by Nena, a German) it swept all before it.

It is difficult now to determine exactly what lay behind this behemoth of a song; the backing track, a three chord wonder of F, Eb and Bb, was also recorded earlier with different lyrics (decidedly weird about a 'punk' and an older man) as 'Jet Boy, Jet Girl' by 'Elton Motello', a little known English 'punk band'  also founded around a record producer. (This is not to be confused with the New York Dolls', 'Jet Boy', which is entirely a different kettle of phlegm.) The Elton Motello version can be found here complete with 'hip', surreal German interludes. The lyrics to 'Ca plane pour moi', with suitable 'intepretation' and 'translation' is here.

The 'Sex Pistols' or the 'Damned', 'Plastic' decidedly was not!

Almost immediately, I was drawn into a tale of the sappers of the Somme; those British miners who tunnelled thirty feet under the Somme battlefield in 1916 to lay mines under the German trenches prior to the planned attack.  Despite the documentary's assurances, this was not the untold story of the Somme; Sebastian Faulks dealt with the horrors of such tunnelling in 'Birdsong'. However, the tunnels, such as they are, still lie beneath the battlefield around Ovillers and La Boisselle in Picardy; if the plight of Allied prisoners of war, tunnelling to freedom, can be counted as frightening and claustrophobic, then these tunnels are far, far worse.

Silence was of the essence, lest the Germans tunnelling from the opposite direction should hear you. Inch by inch, spadeful, by spadeful of wet, cloying clay, they made their way to the Germans' trenches. With each passing minute, a mere clod, a rock, would be passed, silently rearwards as the miners, especially recruited from amongst the coal miners of Wales and England, burrowed their harrowing way under no-man's land. It is difficult to comprehend what was the worst; to confront your enemy in the candlelit gloom of a tunnel, a la Wilfred Owen, or to be mown down, as wheat is scythed, on the surface. We do not, cannot, know what those men, at least those that survived, went through. It is hard, I think, to keep from pissing yourself at the prospect now of 'going over the top' to the barking of the incessant machine guns; aimed deliberately at knee height; not to kill but to maim; to cut the legs of the advancing soldiers from under them. It is hard, I think, to conceive anyone surviving the horror of that war.

Therefore, in the wake of this, I sought solace in the non-descript, the inconsequential, the farce that is 'Les Fourberies de Scapin' by Molière.  With a copy of the text in French in front of me, and a DVD of the play, in French, performed by Belgians, I laughed out loud, banishing the gloom before me. "Que diable allait-il faire, dans cette galère', I mouthed. 'What the f**k is he doing in that galley!' Molière wrote no better play than this; not 'Le Misanthrope', not 'L'Avare', not 'Tartuffe'.  Scapin, ultimately alone, despite his 'largesse' and compassion, doomed forever to be 'l'etranger', is surely the most tragic of creatures. A farce masquerading as tragedy? Or a tragedy masquerading as farce? Surely the latter!

The British, as a nation, eschew the European, although we are a part of it, We do so at an immeasurable cost.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Sarah-Jane, the Doctor and a British institution

One ought not to attempt to analyse popular culture; it is too often vacuous and insubstantial, and yet the BBC "children's" TV series,  'Dr Who', cries out for some kind of analysis, especially in the re-booted version, which resurrected the time-travelling 'Doctor' nearly 25 years after the wake that was the 1989 final and, quite frankly, awful episodes, featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor.

The past twenty or so years have seen a massive upsurge in the making of films for the cinema which have attempted to re-boot or re-imagine past financially lucrative films or franchises with varying degrees of success. In many ways, such films can be seen as merely attempts to extract even more cash from a gullible audience in a wasteland of original ideas. It seems that with each new advance in technology, a 're-imagining' will crawl out of the woodwork to take advantage of it. However, this is much rarer in the field of television, perhaps because it is so much more ephemeral, or at least used to be so before the days of VHS and DVD when every series now is re-cycled onto VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray (and whatever new and even more immersing medium is loitering in the wings - I am just waiting for the 'vitual reality' series of Dr Who to appear*).

I was only eight years old when Dr Who first appeared but, from the early days, it was difficult to know at what audience it was aimed. In its original format, it aired at 5:15 pm on a Saturday, immediately after 4 hours of sport, 'Grandstand', usually horse racing, but sometimes cricket or tennis in the summer and Rugby League in the winter; never live Football which was reserved for 10:00pm and only 'edited' highlights for fear of reducing numbers through the turnstiles on a Saturday afternoon. These were the days when the vast sums paid to the Football League by satellite operators were undreamt of.

Much is made, in nostalgic retrospectives, of the propensity of younger children to hide behind the sofa at the appearance of the various alien 'monsters' which have populated 'Who' through the years. Certainly I cannot remember hiding my eyes or being frightened, children, in my view, are only too aware of what is real and unreal, but it gave the programme an added frisson, and opportunities to the BBC make-up department, to show creatures, the like of which we, as children, had never seen; Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, Autons to name but the early ones.

The longevity of the programme was ensured when the script writers came upon the most novel approach to an actor's departure after a few series for 'pastures new', regeneration. In general, actors have only spent four of five years playing the part of Dr Who, although why this should necessarily be the case, I cannot exactly fathom; a large number of 'soap' stars do not 'move on', witness William Roache, Ken Barlow in 'Coronation Street, who has been in the 'soap' since it first aired in 1960. Having the 'Doctor' 'regenerate' into a new body not only allowed substantial continuity of character but also allowed script writers the opportunity to explore different facets of what was essentially a well-known and familiar character. While this is perhaps more evident in the current rebooted series, it was evident that Patrick Troughton was more 'mischievous' and somehow less serious than William Hartnell, Jon Pertwee was more of a gentleman (and a dandy) than both and Tom Baker was simply more barking than any of the Doctor's previous reincarnations to cite but the first four incarnations.

By the time of the third incarnation of the 'Doctor', Jon Pertwee***, it was quite evident that the show's producers were chasing the 'Grandstand' audience; fathers, males of a certain age, as the Doctor's companions became almost exclusively young, attractive and female; Katy Manning, Elizabeth Sladen****, Louise Jameson, Nicola Bryant etc etc; the rebooted series have merely continued this practice for all of the efforts of Arthur Darvill, Noel Clarke and John Barrowman to the contrary.

The rebooted series have, perhaps by necessity, seemed to have been pitched at a more mature audience, not necessarily older but mentally more mature, more intelligent, more considerate of the shades of grey inherent in the world. The show airs later and is seldom concerned with the black and white of good versus evil, although such villains do still appear; Saxon (the Master), Max Capricorn, John Lumic et al. Understandably, the pre-1989, pitched at a younger, less 'tech-savvy' audience seldom, if ever, explored the fundamental paradox inherent to the Doctor's existence as a time traveller able to move freely in space and time. This has been much more prevalent in the rebooted series and, especially, in the work of chief writer and now series producer, Stephen Moffat. Satisfyingly, in my view, the paradoxes eventually resolve themselves however incongruous the initial situations may be and, usually, however long they take, in the series time line, to actually provide a resolution.

In the end, science-fiction, in whatever form, seems to garner an audience which is, at best, interested and, at worst, obsessive. Perhaps it says something very fundamental about the nature of that audience.

I was rather hoping that Bonnie Tyler would do better in the 'Eurovision' so I could wax lyrical about my vinyl copy of 'Faster than the speed of night', 'Total eclipse of the heart' and Jim Steinman but she didn't, so I won't.

* Actually, I am just hoping that virtual reality, à la 'Otherland'**, makes an appearance before I shuffle off this mortal coil. A genuine, immersing RPG would make a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon,  I think.
** Tad Williams' tetralogy about a group of virtual reality game-players who stumble on a plot for immortality.
*** A fine comic actor, 'Admiral Burwasher' in the 'Navy Lark' and subsequent to 'Dr Who', an excellent 'Worzel Gummidge'.
**** In the fifty years of the programme, still my 'favourite' companion, Sarah-Jane Smith. She sadly died, aged but 65, on my 56th birthday.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Charles Pearson, tubes and Harry Beck

As well as being, a couple of days ago, the seventieth anniversary of 'Operation Chastise', the Lancasters of 617 squadron's epic raid on the dams in Nazi Germany's Ruhr district, the Möhne, the Eder and the Sorpe, this year marks the 150th anniverary of the beginnings of the London Underground; the Tube. (I have already written about the Dambusters' raid here; I do not propose to add to it.)

As the oldest metro* system in the world, predating the Paris and New York metro systems by some 40 years and the Moscow metro by around 70 years, the London Underground railway was a typical response by the entrepreneurial Victorians to the twins probelms of a lack of effective transport into the heart of the capital and the city's rapid increases in population.

Even by the 1850's, London was still largely confined to the square mile that nowadays comprises the financial heart of London, the City of London. Much of the surrounding environs which now comprise row upon row of terraced houses and the semi-detached dwellings of the 1930's were simply fields and open countryside; the great explosion of building did not start until the 1880's and 90s, a response to a doubling of the population in the preceding 50 years, from 3,000,000 to 6,000,000.

Although the growth of the 'overground' railways had led to increased mobility in the UK, such railways and their stations were always situated on the edge of major conurbations and London was no exception. Liverpool Street station which now serves the City of London from East Anglia and Essex was only built in the 1870s. Main lines from the south, terminating at Waterloo and Victoria, from the west, Paddington and from the north, Kings Cross/St Pancras and Euston which existed in the 1850s were a considerable distance, measured in miles, from the financial centre and the only routes into the City were by horse-drawn cabs or omnibuses; this led to a chronic overcrowding on the streets leading into the City of London and in the narrow streets of the City itself. Perhaps, worst of all, this lack of transport led to severe overcrowding in the slum dwellings within reach of the City, such places as Clerkenwell and Whitechapel.

No doubt inspired by Bazelgette and his plans for the London sewage system, (see here),  Charles Pearson, the official City of London solicitor and campaingning social reformer, and for three years from 1847 an MP for Lambeth, campaigned tirelessly for many years to obtain approval to construct an underground railway from the outlying overground railway stations to the very borders of the City. In 1863, the world's first subterranean railway line was opened between Paddington and Farringdon, in the heart of Clerkenwell; a stone's throw from St Paul's Cathedral and the City beyond.**

The first underground lines were formed by a process known as 'cut and cover'. This entailed digging a very deep trench along the main routes and then covering them with a 'brick-lined' domed roof to support the roadway above. Much of the early 'tube' network was built in this way which accounts for the shallowness of much of the circle line which travels in the eponymous circle from Paddigton, through King Cross, Threadneedle Street (the Bank of England), the Tower of London, along the Thames Embankment and so through Chelsea and onto South Kensington before returning to Paddington.***

The first day of operations saw an estmated 38,000 people travelling on the gas lit carriages drawn by a specially designed steam tender. In the wake of such succcess, many companies were formed to take advantage of the ready supply of customers for an underground railway linking outlying regions of the London suburbs with the centre of town. By 1890, the first true tunnels had been excavated, deep underground, which obviated the need to get permission from property owners or to cause the kind of traffic disruption and chaos occasioned by the 'cut and cover' method, and under the Thames from the City to the leafy suburb of Stockwell, south of the river; the beginnings of the 'Northen Line' which now extends from Barnet in the north to Morden in the south, a distance of some 12 or 13 miles.

By the time of the nineteen thirties, the tube extended as far away to Buckinghamshire in the west to Essex in the east and was no longer merely a transport system for just Londoners. While much of the track in the outlying areas of Buckinghamshire and Essex lies above ground, there was no need to build tunnels and only about 45% of the network lies below ground, one can go from Amersham in the west to Epping and Upminster in the east and Wimbledon in the south to Harrow in the north without having to leave the network.

The network has continued to be expanded by the Victoria line (Brixton in the south west to Walthamstow in the north-east) and by the Jubilee line and its subsequent extension to service the O2 arena and exhibition centres. Together with the 'Docklands Light Railway, Thameslink and proposed 'Crossrail services, London has one of the finest intergated transport systems of any major city, for all we Londoners may moan about it. Despite the fact that for many years, even up to comparartively recent times, safety equipment was decidedly 'low-tech', there have been few accidents on the 'Tube'. In the span of my memory only the 1975 'Moorgate' disaster****, the1987  Kings Cross fire***** and the 2005 '7/7' bombings spring to mind. Given that the trains hurtle through the tunnels at 60mph and, during rush hours, passengers are crammed into the eight carriages so tightly as to make breathing, unless done in unison, very difficult, I am not a little suprised that one can feel as confident as one does, riding the tube between 50 and nearly 200 feet below ground.******

Like the Paris Métro, the underground in London has preserved many of its tradional sights and typefaces. The iconic signs for the stations stems from the 1930's and Art Deco; the distinctive tiling of the stations from the very earliest days of the network when few could read or write and stations were recognised by their distinctive tiling pattern; the glorious, most adept 'tube map' which hasn't fundamentally changed since it was designed in 1931 by Harry Beck. Eschewing relative distance and all but the broadest and most superficial of topography and geography, Beck designed a map which is both informative and crystal clear; few, if any tourists, who visit London in their millions each year become confused or lost providing that they have a copy of Beck's map. It is interesting that the Paris Métro map which I remember from my first visit to that city in the 1960's was a very confusing arrangement; it was so hard to decipher. It is good, I think, that it is closer to Beck's design now!

Sadly, Pearson did not live to see the culimination of his campaigning; he died on 14 September 1862, just 4 months prior to the opening of that first subterranean railway line and the dawn of the Tube.

* From the original French comany which ran the Paris underground railway, 'La Compagnie du chemin de fer métropolitain de Paris', shortened to 'Le Métropolitain' and, subsequently, further shortened to 'Le Métro'; only the London Underground railway is called 'The Tube', although its first operator was also known as 'The Metropolitan'
** It was some years before I learnt that the line I rode for nigh on twenty years each day (from Kings Cross to Farringdon) composed part of that very first 'tube' line .
*** The shallow and often exposed parts of the line form a plot device in Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mystery, 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' when a body is found by the tracks outside Aldgate station.
**** When a train failed to stop at Moorgate station and ended up running through the buffers and the 'sand trap' and into the terminus wall at full speed killing 43 people and injuring 74.  Unfortunately, the 'clearance between the roof of the carriages and the tunnel ceiling allowed the carriages to buckle upwards which led to a greater loss of life than might have been expected. Following this acccident, automatic braking was introduded on trains whenever they entered a station; formerly they had relied on the driver.
***** The fire, deemed to have been caused by a still burning cigarette or match discarded onto a wooden tread escalator by an unknown passenger led to 31 deaths and many more injured. The 1984 fire at Oxford Circus which led to the complete banning of smoking anywhere on the London Underground was probably caused by a cigarette igniting flammable material in a storeroom used by contractors. No-one died as a result.
****** Outside of a genuine accident or disaster, probably the scariest thing is to be led out of a halted train and along the tracks to the next station by the dim illumination of the small lights placed at intervals along the tunnel. Fortunaely, this has only happened to me once in 40 years of near daily travel on the network.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Little boots, De Vita Caesarum and 'Power corrupts and absolute power........'

We live in privileged times. Western Europe has now had one of the longest periods without conflict in its entire history and little likelihood that war will be erupting, at least between the European nations themselves, at any time soon; indeed it is almost inconceivable that armed conflict could arise in Europe now short of an invasion by some external power. If the US would for once forget its post second world war, self appointed role of policeman to the world, the entire world might bask in the undeniable tranquillity of peace; punctuated only by sporadic, brief periods of conflict, of metaphorical stone throwing, amongst the emergent nations.

The current 'Afghan war' has only been going on so long, nigh on 30 years, because of, first, the Soviet Union's and latterly the US and NATO's involvement. Let us be blunt, whether we in the West like it or not, the Taliban will eventually take back the country and it will be then up to the Afghani people to decide whether they are willing to tolerate that or not. Another Vietnam it is not but it bears all the hallmarks of the that earlier conflict; a conflict, for all of its esteemed firepower and technology, the US is doomed ultimately to lose.

One of the side effects of the sustained, and dare I say sustainable, peace in Europe is that it has given historians probably the most open view of history, uncoloured as it is now with victors and vanquished, overlord and serf, conquerors and conquered, than at any time in European history. (See here for a fictional exploration of the perennial dilemma) A growing belief in the scientific method and the subsequent reliance on primary sources rather than anecdotal evidence, wishful thinking or myth, has, I think, led to a certain gullibility; not with current historians, although, as with scientists, one must always bear in mind that any discipline is a product of its age, but rather that the rigours of the discipline now are taken for granted as though they were true of any work in the past that is deemed 'history'.

I was reminded of this by one of my occasional forays into the BBC dramatisation of the two Robert Graves novels, 'I. Claudius' and 'Claudius the God', and especially John Hurt's excellent performance as the 'mad and bad' Emperor Caligula, although nothing can match Derek Jacobi's performance as the club-footed, stammering, tic-laden show-stopper that is Claudius. Despite its lack of location filming,and special effects and the obvious 'theatricality' of the production, it remains, even after nearly fifty years, one the most exquisite jewels in the crown of terrestrial television.

Graves' novels are 'faction'. a largely fictional story, albeit an informed one, woven around real events from the time of Augustus' usurping of sole power after the Battle of Actium, and the collapse of the second Triumvirate*, to the time of Claudius' death in 54AD. One of the sources for Graves' novels is the only semi-complete work (the first few chapters are missing) of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, known as Suetonius to later historians, entitled 'De Vita Caesarum', usually translated as 'The (lives of the) twelve Caesars'**. These are potted biographies of the first twelve emperors of the Imperium from Augustus to Domitian.***  It is generally considered that Suetonius wrote his book (8 scrolls) in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

Suetonius is the predominant source for information about the life and 'Caesarship' of Caligula and his 'mad and bad' reputation largely stems from 'De Vita Caesarum'. However, I have had my suspicions about exactly how objective Suetonius was about, not just Caligula but about the whole Julio-Claudian dynasty, for a long time. As 'Keeper of the Archives' to the Emperor Hadrian****, he had access to to the imperial archives and he seems to make use of them, certainly in the case of Augustus. However, at the time of writing 'De Vita Caesarum', probably around 115-120AD, he would have little or no access to any personal recollections and, what details he garnered regarding Caligula's private predilections could just as easily be simply malicious gossip; imperial dynasties in the Roman Empire were very adept at 'rubbishing' their predecessors and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian) do come in between the Julio-Claudian dynasty and Suetonius' period and were no doubt as adept as any other, especially given the circumstances of Vespasian's ascension to power on the shoulders of the legions in Syria and Egypt after the debacle of Nero's reign (and those of Galba, Otho and Vitellius who were too busy fighting amongst themselves to do any good for the Empire).

Suetonius neatly prepares us for Caligula's reign as madman by having him as a frequent visitor to his great-uncle Tiberius' palace and Caligula's great-uncle is portrayed as a debauched, old lecher, content to spend the last years of his life not really ruling the Empire but pleasuring himself with young boys in his palace on the Isle of Capri.***** Little wonder that Caligula (who Suetonius invariably calls by his real name, Gaius, Caligula was a nickname******) turns outs to be even worse than Suetonius thinks Tiberius was.

However, the first years of Caligula's reign appear to be those of comparative sanity and moderate success. He restored many from the exile in to which Tiberius had sent them, outlawed treason trials, published the public accounts, opened up democratic elections to high office once more and provided a fund to assist those who had lost property in the many fires that were a regular occurrence in the Rome of the period.******* It is true that he gave every impression of wanting to expand the powers of the Emperor but in this he was scarcely alone amongst Roman emperors.

Perhaps, he did indeed go mad, as opposed to being mad on his ascension, and perhaps he was as eccentric and debauched as popular stories tell. Perhaps he did threaten to make his horse a consul but he did not have to be mad to do so; it could just as easily have been to insult the senate, my horse could so a better job than you senators. Perhaps he really did have incestuous relations with his sisters; it would not have required madness to do so and was scarcely unknown in Royal houses before the Romans. All that is required is 'absolute power' and Alistair Crowley's famous dictum: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." As to declaring himself a God while still alive, this too was not unknown in ancient times and Augustus had already been made a God after death; why not before?

While I have no evidence to suggest that Suetonius was merely spreading salacious gossip masquerading as 'history', I am more inclined to believe that these were simply the actions of a young man thrust into a position of immense power without the maturity and experience to temper the excesses of youth.

No doubt, he was doing something wrong, at least in the eyes of some Romans, otherwise he would not have been assassinated but mad? I find the case, as they say in Scotland, not proven.********

* The name literally means 'three powers'. They were the individuals who effectively ruled the Roman Republic with (or more probably without) the Senate after Julius Caesar's acquisition of power and subsequent death by assassination in 44BC. The second Triumvirate composed Marcus Aemilius Lepidus,  Gaius Octavius (Octavian, later known as - the first Emperor - Augustus) and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony, lover of Cleopatra VI).
** Suetonius also wrote, the now lost, 'The Lives of Famous Whores'; he always tried to be inclusive! Despite an exhaustive search, (!) I am unable to find a citation which is not in English; it was probably something like 'De Vita Meretricium celebrium'.
*** They are: Julius Caesar (the first few chapters are missing), Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero,(the Julio-Claudian dynasty) Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, (the year of the four emperors), Titus and Domitian (sons of Vespasian). The sequence, until the time of Suetonius, continues with Nerva, Trajan (famous for his column) and Hadrian (famous for his wall).
**** Suetonius appears to have been dismissed from the job on account of his affair with the emperor's wife, Viba Sabina; not that Hadrian was too concerned, he was almost certainly gay, (investigate the 'cult of Antinous') but it was a major principle at stake here; refrain from inserting the beef bayonet that is not the Emperor's into the Emperor's wife.
***** There is a, possibly apocryphal, story of how Tiberius would bathe naked (as most Romans did, whether in company or alone) and have his 'little fishes', young boys, swim under him and nibble his scrotum! Not so very debauched; people now do the same thing with their feet and real fishes! (Don't believe me? Look here)
****** For the sake of completeness, I will give the derivation, although the story is well known.  Gaius spent a lot of his time on the Rhine with his father Germanicus, Claudius' brother, and he had a miniature legionnaire's 'uniform' complete with galea (helmet), lorica segmentata (armour) and caligae (heavy-soled boot-like sandals). He was named Caligula, 'little boots' by his father's troops.
******* Rome actually had its own fire brigade, set up by Augustus, 'Vigiles Urbani' (the watchmen of the city), who doubled up as policeman when they were not putting out fires. They even had 'fire engines', 'siphones'; large horse-drawn hand pumps. Here is a little picture of a reconstruction:

******** Scots law provides for three verdicts, as opposed to the two normally found in western democracies. 'Guilty', 'Not Guilty' and 'Not Proven'; trust the Scots to hedge their bets! 'Not Proven' is sometimes called the 'bastard verdict' (following the quote of Sir Walter Scott, the novelist) or 'Guilty but don't do it again!'

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The strange case of conjoined equanimity and 'the curious case of the dog in the night time'

The 'normal' often have a weird fascination with the 'abnormal'. (I have covered something similar here.)  I look a little 'odd' and I have become accustomed to the stares of strangers; the furtive glances which hide the very real desire for enlightenment , an enlightenment which the world seems so very embarrassed to reveal. Why do you look like that? In what way are you different? Are you so very different? This is a natural human reaction to 'difference'; a natural. emotional response to those 'not of my tribe' and you do become accustomed to it. However, I find myself at a loss, floundering in a sea of incomprehensibility, in considering conjoined, Siamese twins.

The most well documented conjoined twins before the present, were two brothers born in Thailand, formerly Siam, Chang and Eng Bunker (not their original surname but they ended up settling down in an area of the US which had been predominantly settled by immigrants from the German-speaking part of Europe - remember it was not Germany before 1870!), although they were surely not the first to be so born; children with separate lives but who shared a common body. Chang and Eng were born to a not-so-enlightened age as our's and so passed a good proportion of their lives as 'sideshow freaks' first in a show by Robert Hunter and then in P T Barnum's circus. In between times, they acquired a plantation, two wives (sisters), 21 children between them and, being in nineteenth century North Carolina, some slaves! Strangely for a such a famous pair of twins, they shared very little of their bodies, being joined only at the chest with only the liver being shared; it would have been a relatively simple task to separate them nowadays. Sadly, they died within hours of each other.

Never having been blessed, or cursed depending on my mood, with offspring, I find it hard to imagine myself as a parent most of the time. Obviously, I can use what empathy has been given to me and what is left of my basic humanity but it is only a pastiche of what parents must (I hope) feel towards their children. However, in the case of conjoined twins my empathy, my sense of what it is to be another human being fails me. We are accustomed to treating a body as though it were a separate entity, as a very distinct human being. In the case of conjoined twins this is not so easy and I do wonder how parents cope with that dichotomy. In the case of Chang and Eng Bunker, the adjustment was not, probably, that difficult. Although joined at the chest, they had four arms, four legs, two heads; in all but the most trivial of details they were clearly two separate people.

However, I have been watching, intermittently it is true, a series about the Hensel twins; I detest 'reality TV' programmes, even the ones that pique my interest somewhat. Abi(gail) and Brittany Hensel are conjoined twins who share a body. Although they have separate spinal columns, two sets of lungs and two hearts, they share but one pair of arms, one pair of legs and lower torso and one genito-urinary tract. I did not catch the digestional arrangements, although I believe that they have separate stomachs but share a colon. Each twin has control over only her side of the shared body and arms and legs, the two heads lying atop the body, although the heads are at slightly different angles, Abi's lies about 5° 'off vertical to the right, Brittany's about 15° to the left. 

The twins appear to be well adjusted, normal college graduates, just out of school, and on the assumption that one plays the hand that life deals you, the cost of 'folding' is too high in most people's opinion, and they have had more than twenty years to become accustomed to doing everything together in relative harmony, literally, one would not expect anything else. Again, as one would expect, they are, as all twins are who grow up in the same household with similar experiences and similar friends, like but unlike only perhaps a little more like than unlike.

What intrigued me the most, after I had indulged myself for a brief minute or so with memories of Mark Wing-Davey's 'Zaphod Beeblebrox', President of the Galaxy* ('Like the extra head, suits you' as Ford Prefect once said), I came to be more interested in the parents than the twins. The 'disabled' make far less of an issue of their 'disability', whatever it happens to be, for the very simple fact that, for them, it is normal, if often unusual, not commonplace.

I am a cynical person, though I try very hard not to be but it is difficult for me not to think that the parents said what they felt we wanted to hear; not you understand out of malice, deception or an opportunity to con the world into thinking that they were the best parents since sliced bread. It is quite the natural thing to do; you have to keep some of it, whatever it is, joy, pain, anguish, inside yourself otherwise everything is spectacle and it becomes a real P T Barnum sideshow.

For many parents of conjoined twins whatever decisions they have to make are often made for them. About one half of twins so joined are still-born; around a further quarter have abnormalities preventing prolonged survival. Only about 25% of conjoined twins actually can expect to have a relatively normal life expectancy. However, the more I considered the parents' situation, the more I came to realise that, although the sense of what you have become accustomed to in your normal, quotidian existence of tubes, buses, supermarkets, work, getting pied-eyed with your pals, is initially sent reeling, you would very quickly adjust to the 'difference' and, as someone once said to me, you look past it to the person within; I imagine that this is so much easier for a parent.

The dog in the title is, of course, the one that failed to bark in Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, 'Silver Blaze' when an intruder allegedly breaks in to steal the horse but it turns out to have been an 'inside' job which Holmes correctly deduces from the fact that the dog did not raise the alarm. By the same token, the Hensel twins do nothing which appears out of the ordinary for girls/women of their age which makes for, in my view, quite boring television.

* Zaphod Beeblebrox, a character in Douglas Adams' 'The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy', who picks up the hitch-hiking Betelgeusian, Ford Prefect. and his earthling travelling companion, Arthur Dent, who Ford has saved from the demolition of planet Earth by the Vogons, to make way for a hyperspace express route.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Challenger, the true nature of disaster and the man who survived the 'Little Boy' and the 'Fat Man'

It invariably never ceases to amaze me about how the media, and by extension the people, go into a seemingly rabid fit over an accident. While it is hard not to feel a certain empathy with the tragedy that is the death of complete strangers, I find it, in one sense, to be a complete over-reaction. Life, and the world in which we live, is still an extremely dangerous place even if we were to be rid of the people that actually, and with malice aforethought, want to do us harm; whether they be armed robbers, rapists, al-Qaida or simply some deranged psychopath who gets his or her kicks from killing and then eating people. When we ourselves actually court danger, it is scarcely little wonder that shit happens sometimes. It is as though we have been so completely cossetted in our sanitary, antibiotic-laden, miracle-cure world that the very prospect of dying before our time, whenever that may actually be, that in the wake of a disaster, we all seem to breathe a collective gasp of astonishment that such things are still possible in the twenty-first century.

I was reminded of this as I watched a film about the 'Challenger disaster' in 1986 based on part of Richard (and Gwyneth) Feynman's book, 'What do you care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character.' and the part Feynman played in the subsequent Presidential enquiry.

The first thing to take issue with here is the very name, 'the Challenger disaster'; that is how it is known. I am sorry but seven people died, heart-breaking enough for their families and their friends to be sure, but a 'disaster'? Surely the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s was a disaster; the 2004 Asian tsunami was a disaster; the 2008 Sechuan earthquake was a disaster; the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa was a disaster;  tens, hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Is it right to exercise such hyperbole when more people can be killed in an average motorway pile-up in fog or in a drive-by shooting than were killed in the Shuttle?

Of course such hyperbole is warranted; the US took such a knock to both its self-esteem as the world's foremost technological nation and, more importantly, to its finely and carefully wrought public relations image as being same that I doubt whether the subs at Fox or CNN or the Tribune or the New York Times even had a momentary glance at a thesaurus or a dictionary to determine if 'accident' might be a more apposite word in the circumstances; at least until the results of the enquiry were known when perhaps 'cock-up' would be more appropriate or perhaps 'the event that summed up all that is wrong with western democracy in its callous disregard for human life at the altar of success.'

In many ways, it was, for the media, almost a perfect 'dry-run' for 9/11 (or for the Brits, 11/9 - I do sometimes wonder whether the tube bombers in London in 2005 (7/7) might actually have chosen that date among so many that they could have chosen to ensure uniformity across media outlets, at home and in the US). The same collective hysteria, the same 'it cannot happen here' mindset, the same collective gasp; the only thing that was different on 9/11 was that there was no Christa McAuliffe to mourn by proxy. Does anybody remember the names of the other six who also paid the ultimate price of that ultimate fleeting adventure?* (In fairness to the Yanks, the Brits are not immune from this sort of behaviour. The gut-churning, cloying, sickly-sweet-smell-of death stench that pervaded the UK in the aftermath of Diana Spenser's death not only rivals the achievement of the Americans but actually surpassed it in all of its wreath-laying, goddess-worshipping, gnashing-of-teeth glory; you really would have thought that we had just been denied the 'second coming' and the 'Kingdom of Heaven' by the paparazzi.)

The film was, as I recall it, a fairly faithful adaptation of Feynman's book with the usual 'embroidered' scenes to give background and character; I have not read 'What do you care....' since it was first published in the UK in 1992. However it is, it must be said, coloured as is the book by Feynman's own views about what science is, and what it means, and by his heady dislike for the politics of a 'Presidential Enquiry'. It is hard to escape the conclusion both in the film, and to a lesser extent in the book, that left to their own devices, without Feynman, the enquiry would have found little to fault NASA with. It is to Bill Graham's credit,  the acting Head of NASA following the 'indefinire leave of absence' of James Beggs**, that he, amongst others, persuaded a disinclined Feynman to participate.

The story is too well known for me to have to go into any detail here but two things struck me, and continue to strike me, about both the accident (I refuse to call it a disaster) and NASA behaviour. The first is that it took a theoretical physicist, you know, the people that live on the planet Pluto, sorry, the dwarf planet Pluto, to actually perform the experiment with the 'O' ring and the glass of iced water.*** Despite the fact that they were going into uncharted territory by launching in such extreme conditions, against the advice of the sub-contractor responsible for building the solid fuel booster,  no-one had thought to do even the most preliminary test to see if the manufacturer was actually telling the whole truth in their specifications. One of the things that I have learnt in my long years of specifying and testing computer software is that you trust no-one; test everything until it passes or breaks no matter how long it takes, it usually does the latter.

The second issue is that, while Shuttle launches had become somewhat passé as far as the American viewing public were concerned, Christa McAuliffe had changed all of that; the first High School teacher, and a woman to boot, in space; a fact that NASA seemed to ignore. While recognising the pressure that NASA were under, they were seriously underperforming in the delivery of their commitment (in return for an enhanced budget) to Congress and the Department of Defence, not to go the extra mile seems at best imprudent and, at worst, downright reckless. However blasé NASA had become, this was surely a time when everything should have been similar to all of the other missions, otherwise postpone. I would not think of rewriting a long-running play on the evening that the Queen and Prince Phillip were due to attend but that, in effect, by not taking account of the much colder conditions, is what NASA managers did.

In the final analysis, going into space, into orbit, on a giant firecracker, and however many precautions you take, is a risky business; just ask Jim Lovell****. Like driving a car, or riding an aeroplane, climbing a mountain or ski-ing downhill, shit sometimes happens. Get used to it. Often it is no-one's fault, although in general someone has to be held accountable, even if it is not remotely actually their fault; the blame culture is so ingrained in our society that we feel cheated if there is no-one who we can deem culpable.

In one respect, I feel genuinely sorry for Christa McAuliffe, the only member of that crew to be given a personality, a life, by the media. To have worked hard to get your opportunity to do something that few of us would have the chance of achieving and to have it so cruelly dashed by fate a mere seventy three seconds into the flight seems to me to be unduly harsh on the part of God. By all accounts the command module, crew quarters, remained intact throughout the descent and some, at least, of the crew were able to activate the oxygen which meant that some, if not, all, of the crew survived the initial explosion which tore the ship apart. I wonder if Christa, as she fell, in that briefest of time, had the merest glimmer of a thought, which I imagine everyone subjected to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life must at some time succumb: why me, God? Why me?*****

* In case you want to know, and have forgotten, they are: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee (Commander),  Michael J. Smith (Pilot), Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, (all mission specialists), Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe.
** Beggs was accused of 'contract fraud' by  the US Department of Defence. Charges were later dismissed by the Attorney General and profuse apologies and 'trebles all round' followed.
*** In which Feyman suspended a section of 'O' ring, suitably cramped - yes, cramped, the tool is called a G-Cramp, not Clamp - and showed that the rubber did not immediately regain its former shape.
**** For those of you too young to remember (and I too stayed up all night for days to watch the coverage), Jim Lovell was mission commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Surely, along with Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, the luckiest man ever to have lived. If you have a accident and you cannot fix it at least you have a prospect of someone coming to rescue you; they had none. Only Tsutomu Yamaguchi****** might be considered more fortunate.
***** The absence of any 'rescue' facilities for the crew was surely hubris in the extreme. Even the 'make-do-and-mend' arrangements using old SR-71 'Blackbird' equipment of the first four Shuttle missions might have saved lives.
****** The man caught in the Hiroshima nuclear explosion, 'Little Boy', in August 1945 and who went by train to Nagasaki the following day. He was just in time for 'Fat Man'. He died on January 4, 2010, aged 93.

If only Jurassic Park was real. Birds, therapods and o, to be alive 150 million years ago.

I do not pay much attention to the basic Google stats that they provide as part of the whole 'blogspot' package but something caught my eye today, much in the same way as the 'zulu breasts' did the other day. I strongly suspect that much of the traffic generated by  posts comes from the crawlers, spiders and bots (which incidentally raises a whole host of questions, which I do not intend to address, about what will happen when those bots become sentient, assuming they are not already) but I was intrigued by the almost constant appearance of 'hits' each month for a post which I did way back in March 2009 about the 'wee malkies'.(It's here if you are interested); it is the most 'hit' post by a long way of the nonsense that I have posted since the beginning. Who would have thought that a silly poem in Scots dialect would be so popular; still it's an easy way to get the link to the video, which incidentally I have now fixed. (It's been broken for a while, I think; sorry!)

Like most male children, I had the ubiquitous fascination with dinosaurs. Every summer, along with my friends, all around the same age, eight or nine, I would dutifully wait for the number 45 bus and, passing Chelsea and Fulham would make my way to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington; one a cluster of four museums there which bear an enduring testament to the scientific values of the Victorians. Housed in towering edifices of the neo-Gothic revival, the Natural History Museum makes a fitting companion to the Victoria and Albert Museum which shares the Cromwell Road with it, separated by the appositely named Exhibition Road.

At that time, there were no  'special displays', exhibitions, animatronic life-size velociraptors; all there was to see were bones. Some were laid out as in life, or as much as the then state of knowledge was privy to; suspended by wires from the ceiling, the better to hold the weight of the skeleton, lacking as it must the muscles and sinews which would bind it and give it form. Pride of place, just inside the entrance, was given over to the diplocodus (Diplodocus Carnegii, collected by Joseph Wortman and described and named by John Bell Hatcher in 1901)), albeit only a replica (made of plaster, cast from the original) donated by the Andrew Carnegie Trust, which curiously enough was exhibited two years prior to the exhibition of the original in 1907; trust the Brits! '

Although I had seen elephants and rhinoceros at the the Zoological Gardens in Regents Park and these had seemed as big as a double-decker buses to one so young and of diminutive stature, nothing prepares you for the sheer extravagance of a sauropod, be it Diplodocus or one of it Jurassic (c133-145 million year BCE) cousins; Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus*, or Barosaurus. These sauropods dwarf double-decker buses! Only the Blue Whale comes anywhre near close. As jaded with age and long exposure as I am, I still get a frisson, much as I did at my first viewing, at the sight of something so spectacularly awesome, whether or not it is long dead. It is hard, I think, to imagine what it must have been like; herds of sauropods, and no-one seriously doubts now that they were a herd animal, 'Jurassic Park' can only hint at the spectacle.

I was always drawn to the Solnhofen Archaeopteryx for some reason, even at that young age. A tiny fossil, when one considers its import but so exquisite; a delicate jewel in the collection. Were it not for the impressions of feathers on the forelimbs and the bony tail, it would would have been classified as a kind of coelurosaur**, although nowadays most kinds of feathered therapods are classified as coelurosaurid; back then the notion of dinosaurs with feathers was arrant heresy. Perhaps my interest was piqued because Archaeopteryx shared the Jurassic with the giant sauropods but perhaps it was an unconscious and prescient presentment of a later love; that of painting birds.

As with all, or at least most, childhood obsessions, this one too waned through my teenage years. However, I retained a passing interest even if I no longer frequented the Natural History Museum as often, and for different reasons, and I had grown out of 'The Big Boy's Book of Dinosaurs'. I do not remember exactly what prompted me in the late 1970's, during the initial months with a Research Council, reading 'Nature', 'The Lancet', 'The BMJ' and the picture quiz, 'Spot the disgusting, nausea-inducing disease' in 'General Practitioner over lunch, to ask the Librarian to hunt out any articles by Robert Bakker and John Ostrom from the 1970s from Nature but ask I did. I was rewarded with, amongst others, Bakker and Galton's paper 'A dinosaur renaissance' (1974) which argued for a complete shift in the way in which paleontologists thought about dinosaurs. As far as I remember it, it steered well clear of Ostrom's then 'voice in the wilderness' about the birds' descent from dinosaurian therapods** (an idea first proposed by T H Huxley, amongst others, in the nineteenth century - see here) and concentrated on the large sauropods like apatosaurus and brachiosaurus, arguing for amongst other things endothermy (warm-bloodedness like mammals and birds)**** and parental care within a herd, like elephants.

It is difficult now, forty years on and with all of the recent finds from China and the Gobi desert of feathered dinosaurs, to realise how 'ground-breaking' this was at the time. However, I was convinced from day one! While I could not hope to assess the comparative anatomy involved in Ostrom's analysis, I could understand 'inertial homeothermy' (also ****), relative speed of bone growth, predator to prey ratios (and how they are closer to mammals ratios than lizards or crocodilians) and that where you have multiple large footprints in 'trackways' surrounding smaller ones of the same type then this might indicate a certain protectiveness on the part of the adults for their offspring.*****

'Nature' is expensive, prohibitively so, and I do sometimes regret that I now do not find it in my 'in-tray', albeit two months out of date. Perhaps I need to go back to work in scientific organisations.

* Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard) used to be known as brontosaurus (thunder lizard). However, the second skeleton which Othniel Charles Marsh excavated (he had put the wrong head on the first specimen which he named 'Apatosaurus Ajax'), he thought was a different animal and so named it 'brontosaurus'. The error had been noticed as early as 1903 but the general public have been reluctant to give the name up. I recommend 'The Bonehunters' Revenge:  Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age' by David Rains Wallace. A tale of the two 'robber barons' of late-nineteenth century paleontology, Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.
** In fact, one was but only after an extensive and painstaking analysis by John Ostrom in the 1960s correctly identified it as Archaeopteryx, so faint were the feather impressions.
*** Ostrom came to this conclusion after extensively studying Deinonychus antirrhopus (see previous) which was so bird-like as to beggar belief that it was not somehow related. Ostrom was, I think, Bakker's PhD supervisor.
**** Some dinosaurs, especially the large sauropods, may have been inertially homeothermic due to their large size. An animal loses heat in a direct correlation between the surface area of the skin and the animal's mass or volume. Proportionately large animals lose less of their body heat than smaller ones especially in the warmer climate of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Indeed, there may have been selection pressure on sauropods to grow to immense size for this very reason.
***** Interestingly, 'Oviraptor' (egg-thief) was so named from a fossil in which the small therapod dinosaur was found amidst a number of eggs; the animal was surprised perhaps by a 'falling dune' in the very act of theft. It is now believed that Oviraptor was 'brooding' in the manner of birds; Horner's discovery of nests of Maiasaurus (a duck-billed dinosaur) shows some evidence of parental care of their nestlings in the way that birds do now; Maiasaurus was too weak in the legs at birth to have fended for itself, it appears.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

W H Smug, In Search of Unicorns and Objective Knowledge

(Continued from Dromaeosaurs, the Waverley Publishing Company and the Eagle of the Ninth)

If you have a proclivity for reading, then there is undoubtedly no better place, and no worse place, to work than in a decent bookshop. While it was only W H Smug*, it was the large Chelsea branch and so stocked, as a matter of course, a goodly collection of Penguin paperbacks of both English and foreign 'classics' as well as the likes of Homer, Ovid, Petronius or Sophocles. It was, in many ways, akin to working in a library but without the Dewey system; you were not only expected to at least know the titles and authors of every book stocked and its position on the the shelves but also to be able to find it from the vaguest of descriptions by the customer, without benefit of author or proper title, just some questionable description of the plot as remembered from a drunken party two weeks before as a 'book that should be read'. Of course the downside to working in such a place is that you hand back to the company all of your hard earned wages in exchange for said paperbacks, although at least you received 25% discount on the list price.

(Being Chelsea, one had one's fair share of the icons, sort of, shopping for books there; I remember Christopher Lee - ridiculouly tall, made me feel like Kenny Baker** - Robert Vaughn -fresh from the 'Man from U.N.C.L.E' , Susannah York - and her book 'In search of Unicorns'***, Twiggy - just looking divine, and twig-like. For some reason, none of the female staff would ask for autographs; guess who got that job? It is embarrassing when you have to ask for five or six separate autographs, especially when not one is for you!)

I  grew out of my adolescent pseudery only slowly. Gone were the weighty tomes of the Russians and the Italian poets, 'Divina Commedia' and 'Il Decameron', to be replaced by the more manageable but infinitely more dense works by Plato, Descartes, the well known firm of London solicitors, 'Hobbes, Locke and Jeremy Bentham', Leibnitz, Nietzsche and all those other authors with way, way too much time on their hands. Interesting, without a doubt, but not a practical idea among them about how one SHOULD live one's life than Enid Blyton had. I definitely felt that, in some very arcane fashion, I had actually gone backwards from my earliest reading experiences. And it made my head hurt! Needless to say, I gave up on being a pseud thereafter, although the withdrawal was painful.

There is one notable exception in all of this. Two works by the same philosopher which had a profound and far-reaching impact on my own views; 'The open society and its enemies' and 'Objective Knowledge' by Karl Popper. The first made me realise that Marxism was just Utopianism wearing a different coat and not science as Marx had wished us to believe it was; the second made me begin to realise what science actually was and what it was not.

'Objective Knowledge' fueled in me an intense desire to think like a scientist without wishing necessarily to become one myself. By that time, my early to mid-twenties, I was already too steeped in the arts to think of changing tack; what I wanted was to be a painter! Nonetheless, it led to ten years of reading scientific and medical journals every week, reading everything I could lay my hands on, and could understand, in the fields of physics, evolutionary biology and paleontology; led me to Dick Feynman and Stephen Jay Gould.

I should perhaps mention in passing the outstanding, for me, novel of that period; a novel which I still occasionally re-read, to remind myself of what I used to be like; 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever' by Stephen Donaldson, all twelve hundred or so pages. With more than a passing nod, both explicitly and implicitly, to Tolkien, it tells the tale of a leper 'transported' to a fantasy world in which magic is a reality, although he does not have the power to wield it. In addition, the exigencies of his 'real' existence as a leper preclude him from permitting himself to believe in the reality of the world that he is now a part of. His solution, ultimately to the problem of his 'Unbelief' and the pain and the damage that he causes because of it is, perhaps, a little trite but nevertheless eased my own soul at the time; I found too many parallels with my life at the time. This is surely the meaning of our favourites, whether in literature, art - pictorial or sculptural, music; that they have an effect, a resonannce, not in any way connected to the work's intrinsic worth, unlike any other, or perhaps only a very small number of other such works.

By the time I had got to the end of my third decade, little gave me the 'wow' factor and nothing now does. I have retained my deep affection for the poet, Roger McGough, and of the literary endeavours of Jorge Luis Borges. I still rate 'QED: the strange theory of light and matter' by Dick Feynman as the best book ever written about science for the non-scientist (or more properly the non-phycisist) and I would buy Dan Dennett's or Douglas Hofstadter's collected grocery lists if they published them. Perhaps I am getting old, too old to be surprised, envigorated, amazed; too old for anythings to impress.

At a very basic level, the favoured works of others, in whatever medium, and whatever their talent, or lack of it, tells us in many ways who we are, not who we would wish to be. Despite my past protestions to the contrary, I know that I am a dyed-in-the-wool romantic because every year, at least once, I sit down and watch 'Casablanca'.  I know, however I might try to hide it, that I am a just a little bit anarchic because I truly desire to be like Obelix. I know that I am truly an atheist, not an agnostic, because Dennett means more than mere words to me. And I know that I am still a pseud, no matter how much I try to avoid it, because otherwise I wouldn't be writing this drivel, now would I?****

* The name, common in the seventies for the stationers, newsagent and booksellers, W H Smith and Son
** The man inside R2D2.
*** I once spent a whole week in the airless and torrid bowels of the basement, amidst the dust and mouse droppings (and hordes of Tuareg tribesmen), desperatelt trying to clear space in the stock-room for the pantechnicon-loads of copies of said book which arrived in the week before a 'signing'. I wish I knew what happened to my signed copy because it's not on the shelf!
**** After all, who else but a pseud would insert footnotes in a blog?