Sunday, 27 December 2009

Poem of the Week

The Welsh Incident
by Robert Graves.

To be read in a good Welsh accent

"But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder."
"What were they? Mermaids? dragons? ghosts?"
"Nothing at all of any things like that."
"What were they, then?"
"All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour.
Though all came moving slowly out together."
"Describe just one of them."
"I am unable."
"What were their colours?"
"Mostly nameless colours
Colours you would like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish
Some had no colour."
"Tell me, had they legs?"
"Not a leg nor foot among them that I saw."
"But did these things come out in any order?
What o'clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?"
"I was coming to that. It was half past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Iesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments,
Collecting for Caernarvon's (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth's mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English.
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail's pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all,
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder,
Did something recognizably a something."
"Well what?"
"It made a noise."
"A frightening noise?"
"No, no."
"A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?"
"No, but a very loud, respectable noise -
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In chapel, close before the second psalm."
"What did the mayor do?"

"I was coming to that."

Friday, 25 December 2009


I would like to take this opportunity to wish a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS to both my readers...

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Wet Wirral, last Weekend

In Wirral for the weekend, wet and windy (and some snow and sleet). This is the view looking south from West Kirby, on Deeside. The tiny Gormley-esque figures in the distance are people walking (and often also walking their dogs!) along an almost-hidden causeway. In the distance, on the other side of the Dee estuary, is North Wales. Notice how sunny it always appears from a distance?

And then on to marvellous Port Sunlight and the Lady Lever art gallery. Although I lived - many years ago - on the Wirral for a couple of years, I had never been inside. It has to be a serious candidate for a Tardis in Hiding award. It is much, much bigger on the inside than the outside.

We had a very pleasant (if speedy) wander around - spotting famous paintings, and so forth.
Opposite is the Museum of Port Sunlight- which we din't really have time for, although I loved the village itself, just looking at the houses and parks...

And then back to London in the horrible sleety, snowy weather.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Poem of the Week

The Darkling Thrush
by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited ;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air Some blessed
Hope, whereof he knew And I was unaware.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Wasted, wasted time

A few days ago, I dug out from our bookcases Modern Nature, by Derek Jarman. A diary he wrote in 1989 and subsequently published, and which J. bought me for my birthday in 1992.

On Wednesday 26th April, 1989 he writes:

Ministers attend a seminar on global warming.

- and then:

They say the answer is more nuclear power stations.

That was 20 years ago. And it was old news then.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

On Piers Morgan

The Guardian Newspaper yesterday identified Stephen Fry as the originator of the well-known Piers Morgan 'countryside' joke. But I'm sure I first heard it on Clue, where it was a new definition for the Uxbridge English Dictionary by - Graeme Garden.

Doesn't make it any less funny, though.

Poem of the Week

The Collar
George Herbert

I struck the board, and cried, "No more!
I will abroad.
What! shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free; free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
Before my tears did drown it.
Is the year only lost to me?
Have I no bays to crown it?
No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures; leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not; forsake thy cage,
Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
Away! take heed;
I will abroad.
Call in thy death's-head there; tie up thy fears;
He that forbears
To suit and serve his need
Deserves his load."
But as I rav'd, and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Me thoughts I heard one calling, "Child";
And I replied, "My Lord."

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Leon prologue

Just a taster...

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

At the Royal Institution

Yesterday we (the boys and I) went to one of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. This year's lecture series is by Professor Sue Hartley. Called the 300 Million War, it is about the battle between the plants (who don't want to be eaten) and the animals (who want to eat them).

I first went to one of these talks back in the 70s - I must have been between 14 and 17; I can remember it was about heat and thermodynamics. (Actually, looking at the record it was probably George Porter on 'The Natural History of a Sunbeam' so that gives you an insight into just how poor my memory is). Then in 2003 I took the eldest to see Monica Grady (who I used to know at college), talking about geology and space (to put it very simplistically).

But actually the Christmas Lectures have been going for far longer than that. The first was in 1825; Michael Faraday gave many of the earlier ones himself. So allowing for the WWII years (when the lectures were cancelled), this year's lectures are something like the 180th in the series.

I was also interested in trying to meet up with an ex-colleague of mine who has recently become something very senior there. So we went early.

However, yesterday was also the day that the Guardian ran a full page article on the internal politics at the RI, its funding and the position of the Director, Susan Greenfield (actually Baroness Greenfield), who has been leading the organisation since 1998. So I guessed that he might be a just a little busy - and so it proved.

Well, we got there early and the events team did seem very busy, so we went to the cafe for drinks. I didn't recall this, nor the glass elevator and roof - it all seemed brand new; the Guardian article had highlighted the new building works, and from here they were both very obvious and very impressive - very well done indeed. While we were sitting there, gangs of teenagers were wandering around (in a nice way) waiting for the Lecture.

And then someone led a Shetland pony past us. We were surprised, to say the least, and several of the teenage girls nearby started cooing over it.

My ex-colleague did join us for 10 minutes, which was good of him, as he seemed to have had an incredibly busy day. He recommended the Faraday museum downstairs, and when we mentioned the pony he just replied laconically 'That means they were late.'

So anyway, he left us and we tried the Museum in the basement. It was small but excellent - very well done, and with absolutely unique content. Faraday's original lab, a display of the first Dewar flask, the first electrical transformer, Faraday's egg, and the TEN elements all discovered at the Royal Institution. Brilliant.

And then to the lecture, (in the original lecture theatre of course, also recently refurbished and looking very spick and span). This had the requisite number of explosions, displays, messy experiments, animals (as well as the pony there were aphids, a huge St Bernard dog and a two-toed sloth). and so forth. It was fun - and then we went home.

The RI is strongly, strongly recommended. I can't believe it is sensible of me only to go there on odd Christmasses. It is a one-of-a-kind organisation, and just wonderful.

You should go there too. Go at once.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Spain Tour 14: Potes to Leon part 2

After the high pass, we came across this lake glistening in the sun: It looks like this on Google Maps:

By the bridge in the map above was this rather clean and lovely-looking town (Riano).
The reason that it is so clean and lovely looking is that it is brand new. The lake was caused by a dam project, which drowned the original. They built this new town alongside the new lake and moved the population into it.
The lake did look very nice...
... and the bridge seemed very nice too (how can you have a nice bridge, you may ask? Ok I can't defend the comment - I just liked it).
We stopped in the town by this classically Spanish church to take the pictures, and have a snack. Then we carried on to Leon.

Monday, 7 December 2009

On Bill Bryson

It is clear that there are only two acceptable ways of doing travel writing, (now at this point you must realise that I am speaking out of my bottom. I have no interest in travel, and consequently travel writing holds little attraction for me. In fact any kind of writing predicated on the notion of a journey for pleasure or discovery strikes me as not just wholly pointless, but also rather suspect. So I know nothing about, and wish to know nothing about, travel writing. Nevertheless, allow me some latitude...), the writing that tries to experience a place, and sympathetically feel its presence, and that which appraises each location on the journey and judiciously reflects on its competency.

Bill Bryson is clearly in the latter camp; this means that when considering his Notes on a Small Island (which I've just finished, after buying it not realising that it was a travel book at all but rather hoping for some kind of comforting polemic), the question that remains uppermost is: Is he talking bollocks? Or rather, how much do I agree with his judgements, and how well does he convince me of his views if I'm a bit iffy about them. Does he make any kind of sense? Failing that, he can be entertaining and very funny (but he must be very funny), or he can be purposefully, outright annoying and offensive, and that is OK too.

But Byson doesn't do any of this. He writes an irritatinging journalese, stringing together a patchwork of short-run incidents, but with no consistent thread, or, indeed, personality. He is shallow without being either avuncular, entertaining or even (the easiest) enjoyably rude. When you disagree with his notions, it is all a bit tepid and dull. And when you align with his perspective, it doesn't really seem to matter.

Just to give one example: He is unquestioningly, unquestionably and correctly enthusiastic about Durham. Especially the cathedral (and he is now the Vice-Chancellor of the University, so he must mean it, and have convinced someone, somewhere). But when I read that passage in his book I thought: 'Humph, so you noticed then?' I should have been pleased, and/or proud that our opinions coincided, but by that point I'd lost patience with his views without being really bothered about it. All a little lame really - I'm sure his other books are better.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

A little disappointing

For whatever reason, today I listened to the Adventures in Poetry programme about My Last Duchess that I mentioned a couple of posts ago, and didn't wait for the Saturday repeat as is my want.

I have to say it was quite disappointing. As far as I could tell, the programme continually took the lazy way out. They discussed Browning's original inspiration for the poem, his elopement with Elizabeth Barrett, the form of the dramatic monologue and how Browning virtually created / promoted it single-handed, the relationship with Browning's plays - they even had someone quoting from a yet-to-be-published novel 'inspired' by the original, but as far as I could tell they said very little about the poem itself. Lots of secondary (and easy to do) biographical, historical, sociocultural stuff but that was all.

If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that - while feeling comfortable when using the usual 'practical criticism' skills to analyse or understand Adlestrop, or An Arundel Tomb , the programme makers found that they seemed to work less well with a poem such as Browning's - which is dramatic, narrative and seemingly not as 'poetic'. In many ways thinking about the language and organisation of that kind of poem feels less rewarding, at least at first - it is a harder job. Rather in the way that English students trained in the canon can find it hard to discuss comic novels or genre fiction.

So (I'm guessing) they didn't try, and talked about all the other stuff instead.

Anyway, whether or not I've got the reason right, it was all a little disappointing.

Corner of Fenwick Road

I was rather taken by this fine tree on the corner of Fenwick Road, when I realised that down on the ground there was something just as interesting.

These bollards (rusty hunks of metal) signify, I think, the entrance to the Bellenden Rd regeneration area. The four different designs of bollard all appear here on the corner. All vaguely phallic, all rather annoying. They seem like the left over pieces of a giant, discarded modernist chess set. Really quite unattractive.

If they were going to commission some street furniture - bollards - for the scheme, they surely could have done better?

Equivalence and Arundel

There is a marvellous programme on Radio 4 at present called Adventures in Poetry. This could be awful (especially with a title like that), but it isn't. Each week just one poem is discussed in some depth for half an hour. There is a certain amount of biography and historiography - setting the piece in context - but mostly these programmes work as extended analyses of the poem in question. For example, a few weeks back they joyfully spent some time considering the various effects resulting from Adlestrop beginning with the word 'Yes'.

The result is people with a deep knowledge and understanding speaking about something they care about, and refusing to talk down to their audience. On the contrary - being wholly unafraid of using their expertise and eridition.

It is broadcast on Sunday afternoons, but I prefer the late night Saturday repeats, as I can concentrate much more on the people and what they are saying about the poem when I'm lying cosily tucked up in bed. Last night we had Larkin:

An Arundel Tomb
Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet,
stillClasped empty in the other;
andOne sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Next week (or 16:30 this afternoon if you like) the poem is Browning's My Last Duchess - so I have to recommend it.

Amazingly, this wasn't the only example yesterday of surprising amounts of real knowledge being displayed in a broadcast programme. I caught an old edition of QI on Dave, flipping over to find, (as I thought initially), the usual clutch of five white, middle-aged comics sitting chortling to each other. Chief chortler was Stephen Fry of course, but the other villains were Alan Davies, Sean Lock, Rob Brydon and Ben Miller (from Armstrong & Miller). I was, I would soon realise, being somewhat unfair on the last of those.

The theme was science fiction (and science too, I guess, I missed the beginning), so they were all wearing silvery Klingon-style regalia over their shoulders. Of course they were.

At one point Fry asked a question about alien life - Rob Brydon said he didn't believe in aliens, and then - wonderfully - Ben Miller spent some minutes properly discussing he Principle of Equivalence and the Fermi Paradox. Brydon looked a bit shocked. A few minutes later Fry stated that science 'knew of no reason why time travel shouldn't be possible' and started to give an explanation of the grandfather paradox. Miller then challenged this view with a very sensible discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, ending with questioning whether humans could exist in a universe where time's arrow didn't only point in one direction. If the other three panellists were gobsmacked, it was also true that the dilletante-ist Stephen Fry seemed very much out of his depth.

The jokes about not understanding this stuff came quickly, of course, to cover up their embarrassment. Then a minute or so later Locke said something about not understanding how even simple machines like telephones worked. Brydon responded - slightly sneeringly, I thought - with "And now my colleague Mr Miller will explain it properly to you."

So he did.

He spoke about transduction and piezo-electric crystals, was clear and straightforward - and kept it to the basics - and explained in essence how landline phones work. The others were again clearly flummoxed to find someone who knew what they were talking about on the show.

It was marvellous, of course, but almost unwatchable given the smug, sheep-faced responses of the rest of the panel, so I had to switch it off. Sigh.

Still, two peices of something sensible being broadcast on the same day? Who'd have thought it?

There's hope yet.

Postscript : According to IMDB, Ben Miller's (uncompleted) Cambridge PhD Physics thesis was on 'novel quantum effects in quasi-zero dimensional mesoscopic electrical systems'.

Poem of the Week

September 1, 1939
by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Spain Tour 13: Potes to Leon part 1

Finally on the 20th we left the camp site and headed for Leon. The N-621 is a fairly empty road that climbs up and over a high pass in the mountains. It rises from 300m at Potes to over 1600m at the highest point of the pass - and much of the climb is in the last few kilometres. From Google Maps here is what part of the road looks like - it really does twist and turn like this as it as it climbs.

The view was absolutely fantastic, and the sky felt huge.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Syon Park

Syon Park. Or rather, a Christmas do like no other I've ever been to, in a large tent in Syon Park. As you may be able to tell, the theme was something like "A Night in Marrakesh".

So, lets see, there were sort-of belly dancers near the bars as we came in... but that was OK 'cos the bars were only selling sort-of bitter.
These two women were fire eaters. With huge flaming torches (that the photo doesn't really do justice to) ...

... and giant flaming hula hoops which they... used like hula hoops. Leaving sooty streaks across their stomachs and necks.
This next was a spinal tap moment, with flaring lights and mood music, and a build up of gently hilarious tension, until what was revealed was...
... a couple of women playing on some curtains.
This is what happens if the camera strap passes over the flash and stops it popping up, so the camera tries to do a long exposure on the wrong setting. I think it is some people from work dancing.

And I haven't mentioned the dodgem cars, nor the meal and wine, nor the 'bucking bronco' camel, nor the stilt walker, nor the two men dressed in a camel suit.

Oh well, you can't have everything.