Wednesday, 31 December 2008


For a few days you can watch the exquisite Scottish Gaelic film Seachd ('Seven', pronounced Shukh-k) on BBC Alba. Myself, can't understand much without the subtitles, alas, but once I've looked at them I can work out which word's which.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Wings of Immaterial Glory

I'm going to paint me one of these. It's gorgeous, and by Dimitris Koliousis. Also, below are two extraordinary sculptures by the renowned British iconographer Aidan Hart. (The austere quasi-iconographical style does, however, bring with it an unfortunate whiff of Wyndham Lewis' portrait of Edith Sitwell.)

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Teeth of Glass

Here, to get you in the mood, is Laurie Lee's 'Christmas Landscape'. Enjoy, and a merry Christmas to all readers.

Tonight the wind gnaws
With teeth of glass,
The jackdaw shivers
In caged branches of iron,
The stars have talons.

There is hunger in the mouth
Of vole and badger,
Silver agonies of breath
In the nostril of the fox,
Ice on the rabbit’s paw.

Tonight has no moon,
No food for the pilgrim;
The fruit tree is bare,
The rose bush a thorn
And the ground is bitter with stones.

But the mole sleeps, and the hedgehog
Lies curled in a womb of leaves,
The bean and the wheat-seed
Hug their germs in the earth
And the stream moves under the ice.

Tonight there is no moon,
But a new star opens
Like a silver trumpet over the dead.
Tonight in a nest of ruins
The blessed babe is laid.

And the fir tree warms to a bloom of candles,
The child lights his lantern,
Stares at his tinselled toy;
Our hearts and hearths
Smoulder with live ashes.

In the blood of our grief
The cold earth is suckled,
In our agony the womb
Convulses its seed,
In the cry of anguish
The child’s first breath is born.

Monday, 15 December 2008


A clip from Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov's acclaimed opera about Federico Garcia Lorca, Ainadamar. Think of the luminous final trio from Der Rosenkavalier with a sephardic twist. (Lorca is meant to be a breeches part like Octavian or Cherubino, but the clip has him sung by a baritone.)

Sunday, 14 December 2008


I'm quite tired at the moment, and am getting the usual moments of cognitive dysfunction that always overtake me in the pit of the year. (I get SAD quite badly and now have a light-box). These days I don't get depressed so much as mentally wonky, with amusing little glitches. The loss of the ability to spell is the most irritating: I go to write 'for' and find I have written 'air', aim for 'naked' and write 'quack', try for 'homeless' and get halfway through 'hovercraft'. This makes rewriting a book rather a problem.

But it also happens visually. I was looking out of a window recently into a neighbour's garden, and saw an extraordinary sight. About ten feet away, by (for which I've just written 'but') a bush, there was a little, naked black man leaning down to touch the earth between his feet with the top of his head. Having never seen a homunculus before I was extremely puzzled and kept looking, until the image resolved itself after a few seconds into - a chicken. (It was like the way that the threatening spectre that one sometimes sees when waking up in a strange room resolves itself into a dressing gown hanging on the door of the wardrobe, or a pile of clothes on the back of a chair.)

The brain is a funny thing. (Or indeed, as I just wrote, a 'finny' thing.) I'm also incredibly emotionally labile: Noel Coward's potency of cheap music gets me going instantly these days. Normally completely immune to this kind of thing, my emotional stays well-laced, at the moment I'm sobbing along to X-Factor, wailing at the new Leona Lewis single, that kind of thing. I was describing this at lunch yesterday and one of my older colleagues commented that he had no idea what I was talking about, but admitted that he did 'get a bit wobbly' when he saw 'bad things happening to dogs.'

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Nustr Padr

Nustr Padr, ke sia i llo gel:
sia senghid tew nôn:
gwein tew rheon:
sia ffaeth tew wolont,
syrs lla der sig i llo gel.
Dun nustr pan diwrnal a nu h-eidd;
e pharddun llo nustr phechad a nu,
si nu pharddunan llo nustr phechadur.
E ngheidd rhen di nu in ill temp di drial,
mai llifr nu di'll mal.

Per ill rheon, ill cofaeth e lla leir es ill tew,
per segl e segl. Amen.

Revelation time. It's not Sard or Corsican, neither Aragonese nor Asturian; not Rhaeto-Romansh and certainly not Walloon.

In fact, it's a clever attempt to imagine a form of Romance language that might have developed in sub-Roman Britain had spoken Vulgar Latin swamped and killed off late British, as it did the closely-related Celtic language Gaulish.

For this contra-factual history to have happened, certain things would have had to have occurred. The interaction of Latin and British followed two phases, each the mirror image of the other. That we can discern these two distinct phases is due in part to the fact that the ways in which languages borrow words and structures from other languages with which they are in contact follow certain patterns. We need first to distinguish two types of borrowing: structural and lexical. Structural borrowing refers to the use by language A of a grammatical contruction properly belonging to language B. An easy example in English is the Hiberno-English use of 'after' to make a perfect tense: 'I'm after breaking the window', i.e. 'I've (just) broken the window', representing a literal structural borrowing of Irish Tá mé tar éis an fhuinneog a bhriseadh. But lexical borrowing, on the other hand, merely refers to the use by language A of vocabulary items drawn from language B.

Structural borrowing is generally a sign that the language being borrowed from is weakening, because it originally arises from imperfect learning of the target language. A British example is the Welsh pluperfect tense: Celtic did not originally have one, and the Welsh pluperfect is ultimately a structural borrowing of the Latin one. Compare:

Latin: amaverat, 'he had loved', which looks like the [perfect stem of the verb] + [the imperfect of the verb 'to be'] (erat, 'he was').

Welsh: doethoedd, 'he had come', which looks like the [perfect stem of the verb, i.e. doeth] + [the imperfect of the verb 'to be'] (oedd, 'he was')

This would have arisen when native speakers of British Latin had to adapt to speaking late British/Neo-Brittonic, with idiosyncratic results as they translated idioms literally and transferred grammatical structures wholesale. A kind of British would have arisen spoken by people whose familial language was or had until recently been Latin, heavily influenced by Latin grammatical structures: the Welsh pluperfect is a kind of fossil of one of these.

On the other hand, huge lexical borrowing of ordinary words occurs in rather different circumstances. Welsh has a large number of Latin borrowings (about 700 odd in total), but a significant proportion of them are very ordinary words for which there must have been a common British term. They include words like 'fish', 'leg',
'arm', 'cabbage', 'bridge', 'beard', 'green', 'cloud', 'wise',
'floppy', 'smock', 'fruit', 'people', 'cauldron', and so on. Now large-scale replacement of ordinary lexical items like this occurs into language A from language B when language A is weakening and language B strengthening. This class of borrowings is not, you'll notice, made of things which the Romans brought with them which the British didn't have before; they're not like English 'bungalow' or 'pyjamas'. (There is a large class of such borrowings in Welsh, but they're not our concern here.) They are ordinary, everyday words, and thus signs not of enrichment but of an accelerating process of linguistic impoverishment, reflecting social uncertainty and a period of low political status for British speakers. It's not as though no ancient Briton ever thought to put a slightly floppy cabbage into a cauldron with some fish until the Romans came along and gave them words for these objects. You can see this in modern Welsh, where native speakers will sometimes use an English calque even where there is a very common and widely-used native word.

So, what all this indicates historically is that from the 1st century to the late 4th, Latin expanded aggressively at the expense of British. Latin speakers had higher status than British speakers, and in a situation of unstable bilingualism British speakers borrowed huge amounts of vocabulary from Latin, and probably spoke Latin with some British grammatical features. This is when these ordinary Latin words came to replace British ones. Eventually, a large proportion of Romano-Britons in the lowland zone were speaking Latin as their native language. Had this situation continued, British would have died out, and instead of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton we'd have some strange form of Romance language. (This is exactly what occured in Gaul, and we call their strange Romance language 'French'.) The Nustr Padr quoted above aims to imagine what this Celto-Romance language would look like today. The many Latin words borrowed into British underwent exactly the same sweeping phonological changes as did native British words, and the language of the prayer represents those phonological changes extended to cover late British Latin as a whole, with the inclusion of 'Celtic' grammatical features such as consonant mutation. (So the word for 'heaven', cel, from Latin caelum (cf. French ciel), is soft mutated after the article to give gel.)

So why did this not happen in the real world? In the early 5th century, with the withdrawal of the legions, the linguistic shoe was rather suddenly on the other foot, and British expanded aggressively at the expense of Latin, recouping its former territory. In a second situation of unstable bilingualism, everything went into reverse. Latin speakers now spoke British with some Latin grammatical features (e.g. the pluperfect tense) and presumably a lot of British vocabulary. Eventually British Latin died out altogether as a spoken language, probably around 600. If Caesar had managed to conquer Britain in the mid 1st century BC, as he conquered Gaul, then British Latin might well have had enough oomph behind it to have swamped British altogether, as Gallo-Latin swamped Gaulish.

Anyway, the prayer above is the creation of an ingenious man from New Zealand called Andrew Smith, and you can take a walk in the alternative linguistic past at his website here.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Zhivago & Fanshawe

...which sounds like a rather unusual firm of solicitors. In fact, I've just watched the last episode of Channel 4's four-part Civil War drama The Devil's Whore. I feel like an old dishcloth that's been sopped in tears and then wrung out. Superbly acted and written, I found it utterly compelling and artistic on several levels. I always feel that making TV drama is more often a craft rather than an art - the results, even when of very high quality, tend to be as interchangeable and anonymous as the stone-carvings on a medieval cathedral. But not The Devil's Whore. Take the way the landscape was shot, for example; filmed in South Africa, careful location scouting and some subtle visual effects create a countryside that seems convincingly English, but parched and strangely shadowed by tumbling, metallic cloudscapes. The earth seems muted and irradiated at once.

Andrea Riseborough as the spirited Angelica Fanshawe was heartbreaking; her face is perfectly in period, like a woman painted by Van Dyck. As she and her succession of husbands suffered wretchedly, I reflected that physical beauty can in and of itself be used to induce emotion in the viewer. We have a very primal reaction to seeing someone beautiful suffer, regardless of their moral qualities -- usually an urge to protect them, though this can of course be inverted into sadism thanks to humanity's usual psychological talent for enantiodromia. One thinks of Julie Christie in the original Doctor Zhivago: she was just so luminously, preternaturally lovely that powerful emotional tides are at work in the viewer that are quite anterior to her actual performance. In the 2002 TV series of Pasternak's novel, the principle had been cunningly updated so that both Yuri Zhivago and Lara were played by actors of extraordinary, plangent beauty: the brooding Scottish actor Hans Matheson and Keira Knightley at her most breathtakingly fragile. (See the clip above.) It's not to do with sex appeal, as such - a little Ken doll-plastoid like Zac Efron could never be the locus or cause of this kind of emotional wrench in the viewer. It's more physical beauty seen in the Platonic capacity of conveying the transcendental Good. Eva Green has it. Liv Tyler has it. Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell both have it.

Anyway, the Doctor Zhivago series had an exquisitely manipulative soundtrack by Ludovico Einaudi, the string chords of which just sock you right in the heart with their sunlit, melancholy glaze. I wept all the way through the last episode of the series - really, properly sobbed, in something like grief - and welled up whenever I thought of it for days afterwards. (This is what happens if, like me, you have no water in in your astrological chart.)

Doctor Zhivago the serial did not fare well critically, but The Devil's Whore has been rapturously received, especial praise being heaped on Riseborough, who is a major new talent. She has that incredible, rather rare actorly intelligence that I can only express, badly, by saying that she can project something into the character which is incredibly distinctive, and yet which is hard to put into words, a sui generis individuality that seems wholly organic and not constructed out of mannerisms. In the clip here, for example, she does something very supple and sensual with her spine as she walks, inflects her voice with a wonderful, velvety texture, and manages to convey great composure and great grief with just a smile. (Watch her face as she bids farewell to Sexby, her unlikely third husband and defender: love, bravery, resignation, freedom and an inner self-sufficiency are all conveyed with an incredible economy of means.) The last words of Angelica and Sexby are unbearably poignant in a quite unexpected way:

-- Do you know me, Angelica?

-- Aye, Edward.

You are yourself.

This (the attentive viewer realises) is the only time in the whole series that they call each other by their Christian names, as well as the last time they ever see each other. After all the blood and murder and horror, after rescue and regicide and after distinction of class between them has long faded, they finally see each other as they are: a woman and a man, one free, one bound to the past, both accepting, both loving, even so.

The Devil's Whore also has an extraordinary soundtrack, in which the simple recurring piano melody over the sweet, sad, string chords breaks the heart. It's in the clip above. I hope it's released to buy on CD.

The series is still available on Channel 4 On Demand. Hie ye thither.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


Rowan Williams on art and life. The man is a genius, as well as a hero and a fine writer. He's one of the few individuals in public life whose general treatment by the media and punditocracy - not to mention the more putrid corners of his own church - genuinely enrages me. In particular I hate the cynical way that whenever the rightwing press has something unpleasant to say about him, they always reproduce a picture of him being made a member of Gorsedd y Beirdd in 1997. They might as well caption the pictures: 'Look at the woolly Welshman in the teatowel! Ho ho, druids is it, eh? Looks a bit pagan to me, don't you think?!' One can imagine them in the Telegraph newsroom, secularists all, sniggering sotto voce, 'Ha, this'll get the Evangelicals riled up...' It encourages the despicable, hateful idiots who send Jane Williams (a fine theologian in her own right) faeces through the post, apparently reducing her to tears on more than one occasion. As that one-man-apocalypse Robert Mugabe said of homosexuals, these people are worse than dogs and pigs. (A favourite phrase of mine, nowawdays. So useful.)

On a deeper note, also from Rowan Williams' website is the following, an excellent poem for the season.

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Frondens Virga

I have a new game. Take a video of medieval music/plainchant of some variety, and open it on several pages at once (three identical videos handily provided above). Then start each track with roughly eight second pauses between them. The effect is magical: oddly like birdsong in spring, with random yet harmonious echoes and chimes.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Image Association

'Madonna and Child' by Jean Fouquet, c. 1450, and Sian Phillips in David Lynch's 1984 catastropiece Dune.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Herbert's God

I've been rereading the late A. D. Nuttall's Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John. At only 144 pages, it is a staggeringly compressed, clear and strong-brained book, situated in Nuttall's familiar territory between literary criticism and philosophy.

The longest section in the book is a fairly full reading of George Herbert's The Temple, seeing it as a partly submerged but very radical critique of Calvinist doctrine, to the which Herbert consciously assented as a Puritan divine. Nuttall is brilliant at showing how lyric poetry can constitute an unexpectedly, even unconsciously, trenchant philosophical and theological critique.

The argument is complex, but it is entertaining to read Nuttall's horror of Calvin's grotesqueries. Hard Calvinism is truly the most monstrous of all theological systems; Nuttall points out that the gall and ashes of its most extreme tenets are also its fundamental ones. First, human beings are totally depraved, incapable of doing good - any kind of good - without the action of God's grace. Even an apparently 'good' or 'virtuous' human action without God's grace active in it has the nature of sin in the eyes of God. Even your virtues are sinful. All truly good actions are, in fact, performed by God. When a Calvinist acts with virtue, it is not he or she who acts by their own will, but God who acts in them. When you praise God, that is in fact God in you praising Himself. We remember Herbert's line in 'Prayer I', defining prayer as 'God's breath in man returning to its source.' (As Nuttall wryly comments, 'The image is very beautiful but at the same time obscurely troubling. Most of us prefer fresh air to CO2.') To Calvin, we are incapable of willing good; esse est peccare, to exist is to sin.

On the other hand, we are capable of willing evil: we are responsible for our sins but not for our (apparent) virtues. All human beings thus deserve eternal damnation for our utter depravity. In damning all, God gives himself material on which his grace may more gloriously act; God redeems some human beings in Christ entirely to please Himself, for His own glory, rather than from any mercy. God saves some - never by their desert - and damns the rest eternally. Except that 'damns', in the present tense, is the wrong time-frame to employ, in Calvin's view: as God is eternal and unlimited by time, He had already decided whether you or I are headed for Hell or Heaven even before the creation of the universe. So when you stand before the Heavenly Judge on the Last Day and are consigned to the pit of fire and brimstone, then it will be true to say that you will have been damned from all eternity. Calvinist theology necessitates doing some very funny things with tenses.

The hideous God of Calvin - a bloated divine tycoon concerned with getting a return on His 'investment', arbitrary and filled with hatred for His fallen creation - is an unattractive figure, Blake's Urizen mingled with Moloch. Nuttall argues, cleverly, whether the obvious question had not occurred to Herbert: if this horrendous theology is correct, then - one shudders to say it - is God, in fact, evil? Some of the poems of The Temple do indeed seem to imply an unconscious assertion of the moral victory of the creature (Herbert) over the creator, as Nuttall reads them. After all, some virtues - humility, submission, worship, for example - become precisely meaningless and cease to exist qua virtues when not performed by an inferior being to a superior one. If Herbert's humility before God is actually God being humble in him, if his submission is really God in him submitting to Himself, then his humility and submission are self-cancelling. Virtue becomes a kind of weird divine self-respect, conducted through a human subject. Herbert knows this, and recoils from it.

Further, Nuttall shows that the assertion - absolutely fundamental to all Christian theology - that God is good, is severely problematised by the implications of Calvin's arguments. The crux of the matter is what we mean when we predicate something of the Deity. 'God is our Father' is a predication which is ultimately analogical, a metaphor based on human experience of biological paternity. God is not my father in the way that my father is my father. But, there are deeper metaphorical underpinnings: God is, like a human father, a source and a protector, for example: qualities that support the metaphor of 'God is our Father' from below, as it were. But when we say 'God is good', we are not employing a metaphor. There must be a continuum of identity between human goodness and divine goodness, otherwise they could not both be denoted with the same word. (This argument also holds good for 'wise' and 'wisdom'.) When we say 'God is good' and 'Jane is good', there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. But if we separate human virtue and that which pleases God so wholly as does Calvin, then we have to posit a special category of 'goodness', entirely separate and distinct from human goodness (which is, of course, really evil in God's eyes), defined in circular fashion as 'What God is.' If human goodness and divine goodness are thus completely uncoupled, it is impossible to predicate of the Deity any of the things we commonly see, in human terms, as belonging to and characteristic of goodness. If God is good in a unique, divine sense of 'good', then God is not thereby obliged to be, say, merciful, just or loving. Being outside human moral laws, He is quite at liberty to be hateful, unjust and merciless, whilst as the same time remaining wholly and utterly good.

Nuttall is superlative in his explorations of the way that these kinds of bleak paradoxes are played out within Herbert's poetry; Overheard by God is a little book which I highly recommend. However, be warned: like many of Nuttall's writings (e.g. A New Mimesis, at once a homage to Auerbach and a learned critique of deconstruction, or Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure?) it is long out of print and hard to find.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Dreadful pun

This had me roaring on the train, and comes from Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, which I am reading - shamefully - only now, at the age of 28.

* * *

Lord Merlin wandered round with his tea-cup. He picked up a book which Fabrice had given Linda the day before, of romantic nineteenth-century poetry.

'Is this what you're reading now?' he said. ' "Dieu que le son du cor est triste au fond des bois." I had a friend, when I lived in Paris, who had a boa constrictor as a pet, and this boa contrictor got itself inside a French horn. My friend rang me up in a fearful state, saying: "Dieu que le son du boa est triste au fond du cor." I've never forgotten it.'

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The vacant intracranial spaces

Tacking hard to the right (to my horror) I find myself concurring with Theodore Dalrymple on the absolutely tragic death of 'Baby P.' I don't always agree with Dalrymple - far from it - but sometimes I really, really do, and his intelligently sceptical, rationalist views carry much weight. When I read him, I'm reminded of Quentin Crisp, who wrote: "If you describe things as better than they are, you are considered to be a romantic; if you describe things as worse than they are, you will be called a realist; and if you describe things exactly as they are, you will be thought of as a satirist." Or as a cynic, one might add.

* * *

Staying with child-abuse, but turning from tragedy to dark farce, the case of kidnapped nine-year-old Shannon Matthews continues: American readers, this is worth exploring if you want a horrified, half-suppressed laugh.

The Times had a brilliantly snobbish write-up of the courtroom proceedings of the trial of Shannon's mother: I especially liked: 'The jurors were shown a simplified version of Shannon's family tree', in which the word 'simplified' conveys a kind of middle-class nose-wrinkling at a large working-class family with multiple step-dads and half-siblings.

That said, one gapes in awe at the stupidity of Karen Matthews, who appears to have masterminded (if that is the correct term) the kidnapping of her own daughter in order to get the reward offered by the The Sun. The kid was dosed on temazepam by her maternal uncle and kept in a drawer under a divan bed for several weeks. 'The plan was' (says The Times) 'to release Shannon in Dewsbury Market and for Donovan [her mother's uncle] to discover her. The plan thereafter was to claim the reward which, by the time of Shannon’s discovery, was £50,000.' Slight flaw here: did they not expect the police to find it suspicious that Shannon should just be found wandering around by a member of her own family? (Whadda the chances?!) And second, did they not expect Shannon, when interviewed by the police on her recovery, to have said that she was abducted by her maternal uncle, her 'discoverer', and kept in his house?! The uncle hadn't blindfolded her or hidden his identity from her. Was she just supposed to have kept her mouth shut so that her appalling mother could snaffle the loot? Or was she supposed to have been so zonked out on pills that she thought a drawer in a divan bed was a suite at the Leeds Metropole?!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Dog as Schoolmaster

Blake, from The Four Zoas: the Wail of Enion, the Earth Mother, with Blake channelling Jeremiah and Job.

I am made to sow the thistle for wheat; the nettle for a nourishing dainty
I have planted a false oath in the earth, it has brought forth a poison tree
I have chosen the serpent for a councellor & the dog for a schoolmaster to my children
I have blotted out from light & living the dove & the nightingale
And I have caused the earthworm to beg from door to door
I have taught the thief a secret path into the house of the just
I have taught pale artifice to spread his nets upon the morning
My heavens are brass my earth is iron my moon a clod of clay
My sun a pestilence burning at noon & a vapor of death in night

What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the withered field where the farmer plows for bread in vain

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summers sun
And in the vintage & to sing on the waggon loaded with corn
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer
To listen to the hungry ravens cry in wintry season
When the red blood is filled with wine & with the marrow of lambs
It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear a dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughter house moan
To see a god on every wind & a blessing on every blast
To hear the sounds of love in the thunder storm that destroys our enemies house
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, & the sickness that cuts off his children

While our olive & vine sing & laugh round our door & our children bring fruits and flowers
Then the groans & the dolor are quite forgotten & the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains & the poor in the prison, & the soldier in the field
When the shattered bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity
Thus could I sing & thus rejoice, but it is not so with me!

Friday, 7 November 2008

ἥκω Διὸς παῖς...

In The Times today, Caitlin Moran remarked on the resemblance between British actor Jaye Davidson ('The Crying Game') and Barack Obama. I totally fail to see it myself, but it reminded me how badly I wanted Davidson to play Dionysus in a film version of Euripides's Bakkhai, which at one point I had, like, all worked out. The messenger-speech was to be cut - I hate that tedious convention of the genre - in favour of actually showing the night-time dismemberment of Pentheus by the Maenads on Mount Kithairon. Pentheus' tearing asunder was going to be soundtracked by Bjork's 'All is Full of Love'. (Imagine the magical first seconds of the song as the camera pans though the moonlit pine-woods, before the horror unfolds.)

Davidson's intriguing sexual ambiguity is just right for a play in which androgyny and the necessary reconciliation of opposites in one being is so foregrounded. Dionysus is everything which elides, dissolves, loosens: the universal solvent, Plutarch's hugra phusis, 'watery nature'. Alien and yet mysteriously native, male and yet feminine, god of things that seem real and yet are not (life-enhancing theatre, life-destroying psychosis), at once devastator and renewer, cosmic principle and oriental cult-totem, Dionysus is one of the most fascinating gods in the Greek pantheon. How can that huge, impersonal force in nature which pounds and grinds and churns all flesh to sopping mulch appear onstage, delicate and perfumed, followed by a band of god-intoxicated women, like another Krishna among the Gopis, but smiling an infinitely sinister smile?.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hallowe'en and the Evangelicals

Horrendous thing on the South-East ITV news on the 31st: an evangelical Christian-organised alternative Hallowe'en. Naturally this involved a ring of bored tots sitting round in a Church hall eating biscuits whilst Christian youth-workers led them in saccharine songs about Jesus. 'Jesus was a little lamb, his fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.' Or something. The light shined in the darkness, you see, and the darkness (viz, moi) comprehended it not.

Dyspeptic as I am about most aspects of Paganism, and respectful as I am about many aspects of Christianity (I like a nice Evensong as much as the next man), this sort of thing arouses my extreme distaste. First the youth-workers. The one interviewed was about 23, with blond straightened hair and angular, trendy glasses. Ping! went my gaydar - I wonder how that's working out for him. With a kind of horrible, glassy, fixed smile, he explained that it was the intention of his church to provide a place where children could get away from the annual celebration of evil and darkness that is All Hallows, and instead they could stress 'the positive' and 'the light.' By this time I was jumping up and down at the telly, shouting 'Have you never read Jung, man?! What about Bruno Bettelheim?!'

Kids need darkness. They need to be scared, whilst still being held securely by careful parents. Boundaries need to be explored, tested. They need to acknowledge the reality of death and decay, that ultimately nothing is permanent; and this is best done through play and make-believe. Now I suppose all this is in contradiction to the eschatological hopes of Christianity, which don't appeal to me. (Is there any more desolating line in the Bible than Revelation 21.1? - '...for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.' I bloody liked the bloody sea.) But I loathe this kind of Panglossian evangelicalism, which reminds me of nothing so much as one of those bright, striplit 24-hour shopping centres with their endless thin gruel of musak seeping out of the speakers. Or perhaps evangelical Christian churches are more like the spiritual equivalent of Motorway Services: overlit, overpriced, brutal, crude, at once constantly thronged and utterly empty. Do they not know that the Bridegroom comes at midnight?

The psychological and spiritual ramifications of this narcissistic splitting and repression are frightening. What gets tamped down into the collective Shadow along with the 'evil' and the 'darkness'? Night, and with it sleep, and silence. Emptiness and waiting. Genuine mourning, and its capacity to heal. The ability to deal with ambiguity and nuance, with the ambivalence of thresholds and doors, with cyclicity - the ebb and flow of things. Insight, and honesty. The mysterious unsafety of the world. Our common human flesh.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Forest Fire

Piero di Cosimo's A Forest Fire (1503). The more I look at this enigmatic painting, the more I feel there is something really weird about it. Di Cosimo was a pyrophobe who could scarcely stand to cook his food, and perhaps this externalising of a morbid fear accounts for something of the painting's nervy intensity. It's a bit like the Nerdrum paintings I was discussing below: here surely is allegory, but an allegory of what? Shades of Noah, shades of Orpheus. It's like an illustration of an episode from some strange Gnostic alternative Genesis: The Burning of Eden with the Expulsion of the Animals.

2.4 So the LORD God drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

2.5 And the LORD God bad the Cherubims to smite the tree, and it blazed up, with all the trees of Eden, with Cassia and Cedar, with the myrtle, with gopher wood and Olibanum.

2.6 And the fowls of the air arose thereat, and they fled with wings, fugitive and vagabond; and the beasts of the field also, and the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing of the earth after his kind.

2.7 And all of Eden was behind them as a flame of fire.

Saturday, 18 October 2008


Parody, notoriously, can have a corrosive effect on an original work in a way that more abstract forms of criticism don't. R. P. Blackmur really disliked Emily Dickinson and subjected her poetry to a fairly swingeing critique, but having read Blackmur doesn't spoil my enjoyment of reading Dickinson: I can simply disagree with the good critic and put him to one side. But a really effective parody will bleed mentally into the thing parodied, so that one can never afterwards encounter the original without the parody being evoked simultaneously, undermining it.

Here's a classic example. Shakespears Sister's 'Stay' is the first song I remember distinctly (it was No 1 for eight weeks in 1992), and it was rapidly parodied by French and Saunders ('Dickens Daughter'). I now cannot watch the original without it, in itself, seeming parodic: the skit has permanently punctured the fragile membrane marked 'suspension of disbelief' around the original song and video. Siobhan Fahey's glittery, black-catsuited Goth space-witch, looking like the brood-mother of the Mediaeval Baebes,* is now irreversibly blended in my mind with Dawn French galumphing around singing: 'Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall...' The parody exposes that in the original which was contingent, making it seem more provisional and slapdash than it actually was. For instance, the characteristic, deliberate 'breaks' in Marcella Detroit's delivery are imitated by Saunders, but exaggeratedly and at random - she sings in this over-cur-rowded puh-lace...' for example, and inserts brief, half-hearted little 'oohs!' at odd moments, as Detroit does.

Once the parody has been seen, it cannot be unseen; thus it ultimately ends up leaching all the meaning from the original song by making us laugh, and thus being almost a kind of defacement.

The original:

The French and Saunders parody:

* but nice to see that Ishtar/Inanna archetype still vital.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Odd indeed

The art of the Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum (b. 1944) unnerves, fascinates, and occasionally repels. He paints in a highly classical manner, with an obvious debt to both Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but also to the disparate school of late 19th century Symbolists. Nerdrum's paintings are numerous: many are self-portraits (including one, undoubtedly unique in the history of painting, showing Nerdrum as a cloth-of-gold-clad character pulling up his smock to display a a doughy belly and a rather forlorn erection). Some have a scatological focus; still others depict hermaphrodites, the deformed or the mutilated, or are painstaking still-lives of enigmatic single objects such as a brick, or a set of false teeth.

Many of his paintings resemble allegories weirdly divorced from any interpretative framework, like an emblem-book written in an indecipherable language. Against stark landscapes of rock and tamped-down red earth (we recall Genesis 2:7 and the meaning of Adam, Hebrew adamah, 'ground, earth' - Adam is literally a 'groundling'), nude men and women appear caught in sinister, threatening psychomachiai.

In 'The Cloud', a hooded figure overlooks a twilit, estuarine landscape from a high vantage point. His leather snood has a vaguely Egyptian or Persian air. As often in Nerdrum's paintings, the curvature of the world is clearly visible, lending the painting a strange sense of expansive distance and simultaneous claustrophobia. On the horizon, out to sea, a monstrous, blimp-shaped dark cloud is forming, perhaps threatening the end of his civilisation, as though nuclear war had been transplanted to ancient Babylon and the wadis of the Euphrates. In 'Woman Kills Injured Man', two struggling, naked figures hurtle from right to left across the darkling canvas, the woman clutching the man's leg and preparing to stab him with her blade. Together, they make the shape of an odd, hobbled, two-headed quadruped, whilst in the background, a group of people, one with a flaming torch, stand impassively by the shoreline looking in a different direction, as though taking part in sacred mysteries.

In the last image above, a howling, immobile woman is being buried alive by a man with a rifle. Why can't she move? Is she somehow paralysed, like many of the maimed - legless, armless - individuals who appear in Nerdrum's paintings? The man, the red flaps of whose hat resemble the horns of the demons in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, has gone about his task in a strange way, placing the woman's feet in the hole before he has dug something big enough to put all of her in. He appears to be turning to her, perhaps telling her to stop screaming. One suspects an existential allegory: if the woman runs away, she will be shot with the rifle, and will be dead instantly; but if she stays where she is, the man will eventually smother her, and she will be dead eventually. The gravedigger may be death himself, and the painting an image of the human condition.

The painting is also beautifully structured, the horizontal, prostrate form of the woman contrasting with the sharp downward plunge of the spade, and the crooks of elbows and knees echoing each other. The curved emptiness of the hole in the bottom left is mirrored by the rock arch framing the top right, with the pivot of the man's knee acting as the focus of the composition. It is an intolerably gloomy and unsettling painting: the woman's tightly-drawn up arms seem parodically to echo the shape of a butterfly, the psukhe which both is and is not going to escape from the larval form of the woman's body.

Nerdrum's paintings can be viewed here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Margery Kempe

This piece of joy was brought to my attention the other day - Margery Kempe goes to the MLA, done throughout in beautifully-sustained Middle English. Poor Margery. Medieval England's holy housewife and globe-trotting hysteric is transported unexpectedly to modern-day Baltimore and the conference of the Modern Languages Association. The mutterings of Medievalist PhD students strike her as black magic and necromancy - the 'eke' in 'and eke sum to seynt blume' is hilarious.

Than sche askid the clerkes to which seyntes thei prayid, and nat oon seyde a holy cristen seynt. For sum seyd thei prayid to Seynt Agamben, and sum to Seynt Schischek, sum to Seynt Foucauld and sum to Seyntes Deleuse & Wauttaure, and sum to Seyntes Jamison and Egleton and eek sum to Seynt Blume. And lo thys creatur had gret feere and terror for thes weren nat holy cristen seyntes. Hir names weren al straunge and were nat writ in ony legendes of seyntez and thus thei weren assuredly the names of devylles and feendes of helle. And thes clerkes seyd thes devils gave hem grete powers for to undirstonden textes and to gloss hem, and also gave hem poweres to deconstructen thinges and to unpacken thinges and to see the privee menynges of wordes. Than the creatur knewe that al the semynge holiness of thes yonge clerkes was but devocioun to ower goostly enemy, and hir gret piles of papir were but devylles writtes and hir gret tomes weren but grimoyrez and bokes of necromancie. She tok hede to listen to the murmuringez of the clerkes, and thei al spak of “My dissertation addresses the pressing question of...” the which ys nat a prayer but an incantacioun. And than she fled doun-stayres to get a frappucino for she was so soore adraad so sche cam to the elevatours.

Whoever wrote this is a clever bugger.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Fovea Hex

A link from James at Théâtre Phantasmagorique put me on to this: go here at once and listen to the song While You're Away. Sounding like Kristin Hersh reincarnated as some otherworldly bean sí, Clodagh Simmonds' voice is eerily double-tracked (Paglia's allegorical repletion there), plying a slowly descending vocal line against a wax-and-wane string pulse that provides the only beat. The orchestration grows ever more lush and heartbroken, carried on star-sparkle, bird-song and cold night winds. Limpid, lambent and pellucid, and genuinely extremely beautiful.

The atmosphere of the song is startlingly like that of this poem by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

* * *

James' eloquent review of the whole EP is here.


I'm typing this overlooking the Scholars' Garden at my college. I've slid the window open so far that I am as near to sitting typing in the rain as possible. I can see: dripping green barred with grey mildew, livid skies, dark, wet trunks. Lawns leaf-scattered. Puddles swelling in the paths; a bush of blue-grey rue humped against the holly, red-berried, darkly gleaming. Beech boughs rise and fall in the wind like fingers over a keyboard. On the dark twist of the topmost linden branch, a few yellow leaves are clinging, fluttering like a shoal of tiny yellow fish nibbling a spray of black coral. The wind makes a far-off sigh like the sea.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Readers may recall that I and my friend Stripy Mark went to see Thomas Adès's Tempest at the ROH last summer. Subsequently more clips of the opera have appeared on YouTube, and this one - Ariel's aria 'Five Fathoms Deep' - is a good example of the eerie beauty and weirdness of the muisc. Cyndia Seiden, singing spectrally, inhumanly high, utters a long, slow series of notes which constantly seem to be about to break out into ravishingly wistful loveliness, but never quite do. The recording is scratchy, and Meredith Oakes' libretto is still rubbish.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Mapp and Lucia

E. F. Benson’s delicious series of comic novels, Miss Mapp, Lucia Victrix, and Lucia in London, set in provincial high-society between the wars, are one of the few things that can soothe this particular savage breast when at its most fiery. As Philip Hensher has said, 'E. F. Benson's rather remarkable achievement is to have written a series of books which hardly contain one single generous or kind action, with a cast of characters with hardly one single redeeming quality between them, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition; books, however, whose unrelentingly negative view of human nature and delight in the most refined cruelty results in an atmosphere of sunny cheerfulness and exuberant amusement.' Quite so. And to think that Benson (1867-1940) was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

LWT (London Weekend Television) made the second of the novels, Lucia Victrix, into a television series in the early 80s, entitled Mapp and Lucia. It remains one of the most perfect things of its type ever attempted, and it was in this form that I first encountered Benson’s fabulous cast of eccentrics, snobs and provincial social climbers.

The action is centred on the little seaside town of Tilling, a thinly-veiled version of Rye in East Sussex, where Benson was Mayor for three years. (The television series was filmed in Rye itself.) The queen of Tilling’s social circle at the start of the series is Miss Elizabeth Mapp, a middle-aged, bossy, condescending frump, played to perfection by Prunella Scales. She presides over a clique of alternately downtrodden and rebellious eccentrics, hosting an endless series of bridge-parties and dinners.

There is Godiva Plastow, Mapp’s intermittently mutinous ‘friend’, handicapped by her plainness and that dreadful name. Major Benjy, whom Mapp (always so called) eventually marries, is a mustachio’d retired military man, golfer and alcoholic, who, forgetting that he is no longer in India, is prone to bellow ‘QUAI HAI!’ to summon another Scotch from his harried servant. Then come Mr and Mrs Wyse – Susan Wyse being a great galleon of a woman, preposterously rich and attired in sables, who often drops her MBE into conversation. Her husband, Algernon, is a little sparrow who wears a monocle and who constantly bows to everyone he meets. The Vicar (‘the dear Padre’) comes next; a kindly man with a rich Scottish burr, entirely put on, as he in fact hails from Birmingham. Last but not least is Irene Coles, universally known as ‘Quaint’ Irene, a knickerbocker-clad lesbian who paints naked women wrestlers, smokes a sailor’s pipe, and speaks her mind in a fruity bellow.

Into this closed little world, over which Mapp presides, enters Emmeline Lucas (Geraldine McEwan), known to her friends as Lucia. She has been doyenne of the social scene of her home village of Riseholme (‘Rizzum’) until the death of her husband Pepino. Along with her best friend, the effete, be-toupéed Georgie Pillson (Nigel Hawthorne), Lucia arrives in Tilling, first as a visitor, soon as a resident, like a force of nature. Whereas Mapp favours muddy browns and has an unattractive mop of mousey curls, Lucia is exquisitely coiffed and effortlessly elegant. Mapp is like a dowdy owl, but Lucia resembles a gimlet-eyed hawk in a floral smock.

The voices adopted by the two actresses in the series are strokes of brilliance. McEwan gives Lucia a preposterous range, from silvery, trilling laughter, aflutter with amusement, to the most stentorian of baritones when she wishes to impose her iron will. For Mapp, Prunella Scales adopts a version of 'Surrey Received', a ludicrous British accent hardly heard these days except on art-critic Brian Sewell. Its oleaginous, curdled vowels perfectly suit Mapp's bullying condescention. Brilliantly, as Lucia gets more and more worked up, her voice gets deeper, whereas Mapp's gets shriller and shriller.

When Lucia and Georgie visit Tilling for the summer, Mapp humiliatingly curries favour before realising that Lucia is hugely more charistmatic than she is. (She has, for instance, adopted Lucia and Georgie's habit of saying 'Au reservoir!' instead of 'au revoir', and anyone who has a secret jargon of words and phrases shared with friends can appreciate the annoyance of having it co-opted.) Over the course of two series, all-out war is declared, but conducted covertly via the medium of garden parties, recipes, games of bridge, municipal elections and public bequests.

The storytelling is marvellously amoral. Although there is not an ethical whit to choose between Mapp and Lucia, we always side with Lucia, for all that she is a dreadful snob and obscenely self-delighting. Viewers (and readers) feel part of the wicked, cliquey friendship of Lucia and Georgie, and share their delight in each other's company. (Especially fun is the fact that they play duets on the piano in lieu of sex: 'Georgino! We finished together!') Indeed, Georgie and Lucia’s friendship – and eventual lavender marriage – is the emotional heart of Mapp and Lucia. They speak to each other in baby-talk ('Georgie - Oo have had dweffle disappointy') and, brilliantly, in cod-Italian, energetically fostering the rumour that they speak it like natives. In fact, their repertoire in ‘la bella lingua’ is limited to a few oft-ungrammatical phrases, including ‘Georgino mio!’, 'these piccoli disturbi',‘a little divine Mozartino’, and ‘un giardino segreto!’

This affectation not only leads Mapp to start dropping equally awful French into conversations, but nearly proves their social undoing. In one of the most brilliantly realised episodes of the comedy, Lucia and Georgie hear to their horror that Mr Wyse’s sister, the Contessa di’ Faraglione, is coming to stay. Married to an Italian, her command of the language is reputed to be perfect. All Tilling looks forward to hearing the three of them converse, especially Mapp, who rightly suspects that Lucia speaks no more Italian than she does.

Facing imminent social catastrophe, Lucia and Georgie are forced to scheme as never before. Georgie is promptly despatched to a hotel in Eastbourne for the duration of the Contessa’s visit. Lucia is reduced to pleading infectious influenza and shutting herself away. Mapp, in triumph, realises that she has Lucia on the hop, all the more since she knows that she can spy into Lucia’s giardino segreto from the top of the church tower. She climbs, she looks – and espies the supposedly bedridden Lucia performing her speciality ‘callisthenics for those no longer young’ in the garden. Mapp plans to release this incendiary information at the party Mr and Mrs Wyse have arranged for the Contessa.

However, in the interim, Georgie meets a charming lady and her daughter in his Eastbourne hotel. The lady is Italian, but her husband is English and their daughter has been educated in England. Her mother is improving her daughter's Italian by setting her little exercises. Georgie sees his chance, and asks the mother if he might not set a translation for her daughter, to which the mother delightedly assents. ‘Well’, says Georgie to the daughter, ‘why don’t you write a letter apologising to an Italian Countess, whom you’ve never met, for having to miss her musical party, on account of influenza.’ Charmed by the request, the daughter sets to work, and at Georgie’s request, a fair copy, duly corrected by her mother, is presented to Georgie as a keepsake. This copy is sent to Lucia posthaste, who copies it out in her own hand and sends her servant Grovesnor to deliver it personally to the Contessa. Just as Mapp, nearly bursting with glee, is about to reveal Lucia’s underhandedness, the note is delivered – in Lucia’s handwriting, and, as the Contessa remarks, ‘not just in Italian; in perfect Italian.’ Mapp is utterly crushed.

So even though Mapp was absolutely right - Lucia was faking illness, and she and Georgie can't speak Italian - we rejoice at her downfall. 'Georgino! She was malicious!' carols Lucia, self-satisfiedly - 'and that never pays.' As the series progresses, with its twists and turns and petty schemes of revenge, we find that we never pity Lucia, but intermittently feel slightly sorry for Mapp. She is both outflanked and outclassed, yet cannot – must not – accept this state of affairs. To acknowledge the fact that she has lost her position in her own town would be an abject, soul-destroying humiliation for her. As a result, sometimes - just sometimes - we enjoy seeing Lucia get too big for her boots and come a jolly good cropper, usually led to it by her own pretension.

In a surreal sequence of events, extraordinary floods trap both Mapp and Lucia in Lucia's kitchen. (Where, to be precise, Lucia has caught Mapp in the act of attempting to steal her prized recipe for Lobster a la Riseholme.) As the floods rise and the dykes burst, Lucia and Mapp are swept out to sea on the upturned kitchen-table. 'Au reservoir!’ calls Lucia to the aghast onlookers, brilliantly throwing an arm around the hysterical Mapp.

Two days later, the brine-soaked table is found washed up on the beach, with no sign of either of the lamented ladies.

Tilling’s spirit is utterly broken. Quaint Irene, who has been in love with Lucia (‘Queen of my heart!’) from the earliest, breaks down and storms off. To his amazement, Georgie discovers that Lucia has left him her house, and eighty thousand pounds – a vast fortune. Major Benjy finds that Mapp has left him her house, and a much more modest sum. He promptly packs up his tiger skins, golfclubs, and whisky tumblers, and moves in. Georgie, on the other hand, cannot bear to move into Lucia’s much grander house, but keeps it going, and pays the servants, ‘just as if she had gone away on holiday and forgotten to leave a cheque for expenses.’ He commissions a memorial stone for the pair, and by an unfortunate mistake on the part of the stonecutter, ‘Emmeline Lucas’ ends up carved thereon in much bigger letters than ‘Elizabeth Mapp’. (The memorial's marvellously ironic legend: 'In Death They were not Divided.')

Tilling settles into a waste of grief.

But then, months later – two figures clad in oil-skins trudge up the Tilling mudflats, and slop through the churchyard, only to find their own memorial-stone. In one of the most touching scenes in the series, Georgie is sitting listlessly at home, doing his needlework. The telephone rings.

‘Georgie! Georgino mio!’
His heart stood still.
‘What? What?’ he cried.
‘Yes, it’s Lucia,’ said the voice. ‘Me’s tum home, Georgie.’
Eighty thousand pounds (less death duties)…seemed to sweep past him like an avalanche, and fall into the gulf of things that might have been. But it was not the cold blast of that ruin that filled his eyes with tears.

And ours, if watching this scene for the umpteenth time after a few too many. Whereas Lucia finds that Georgie has preserved her house perfectly, even though she had bequeathed him both it and eighty thousand pounds, Mapp goes home to find that the Major has entirely taken over her home, drunk her wine-cellar, 'and eaten a whole row of my beetroot'. And once again, we rejoice with Lucia and Georgie, and laugh at Mapp's fury. As Hensher comments, 'In the end, we love Lucia because she is a radiator, whereas Mapp is a drain.'

But Benson is too skilful an ironist to let Lucia get away with it completely. The table had bumped into a fishing-trawler in the Channel, and she and Mapp have had to spend three months fishing for cod off Newfoundland. But, disastrously, it was an Italian trawler. Lucia's inability to speak Italian was finally proved to Mapp, and she is forced simply to brazen it out. ('I told her the sailors spoke an obscure Neapolitan dialect and that Captain wanted to practice his English', she tells Georgie, ever so faintly abashed.)

So there we have it. Rivalries, at once volcanically magnificent yet small-scale, squabbles and acid put-downs, all set in the kind of society which betcame utterly impossible after about 1930. No one in Mapp and Lucia actually seems to need to work for a living, and all lead lives of luxury in which the passing on of gossip and the stoking of social tensions is the main occupation. I highly recommend the series, now available on DVD, as a source of pure pleasure, and as the origin of some fabulous bon mots. Au reservoir!

* * *

Below there is a collage of some moments from the series: the dumpy character at the beginning is one of Lucia's acquaintances from Riseholme, Daisy Quantock. Notice how Lucia (in deep mourning) bristles at the suggestion that anyone but she might play Elizabeth I in the town's Elizabethan Pageant. Also included is my favourite put-down from the entire series: Diva is shocked that Tilling-newcomers Lucia and Georgie are staying together (in one room, so she thinks) in the local pub, and Mapp brilliantly says: 'Diva dear, old friends though we are, I should be sorry to have a mind like yours.' Genius.

John Tavener: nipson anomemata, me monan opsin

On the subject of music, some witterings are in order now on the subject of the composer John Tavener, whom I mentioned in the post below on Lisa Gerrard. A great hero of mine, this man, and splendidly bonkers in the best English manner. Tavener is probably the most popular British classical composer of our times, although popularity is of course a dubious index of artistic quality. He's often lazily grouped together with Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki, all three being so-called 'Holy Minimalists', which is something of a feeble categorisation, and one which Tavener angrily rejects.

Tavener's goal is to put the Sacred back into music. His work is underpinned by a complex set of theological aesthetics, which require explanation; however the effect of his music is anything but complex, with many pieces having an extraordinary, pellucid beauty that goes straight to the heart.

Tavener's aesthetics grow from the idea of the Primordial. He harks back to the idea of Sacred Tradition - the so-called 'Perennial Philosophy' common the all the world's religions, as understood by such modern thinkers as Réné Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, who are often accused of being dubiously reactionary, with some justification. Tradition here does not mean the exoteric canons of any Church, still less ossified dogma. Rather it indicates an unchanging, mystical understanding of Humanity's relationship with God, the purification of the soul and its eventual reunion with the Divine Source. It is panentheist - seeing God in all things - but not pantheistic, identifying God solely with the Universe. The Sufis, Plato (and Plotinus' Neoplatonism), the Upanishads and Vedas, the insights of Buddhist sages, the extraodinary 'apophatic' theology of the Eastern Church, the wisdom of First Peoples throughout the world: all have their part in the Perennialist point of view.

Tavener is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, which he joined in 1977. Since then a torrent of liturgical music has poured from him, invariably (in the past) based in the Tradition of Orthodoxy. 'Tradition' is a vital concept in the Eastern Church; the saying goes that Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church. In musical form, this consists of an immensely complicated system of church music, organised around tones, or modes. These are difficult to explain, but consist of a body of melodies, with many variations, that have significance in and of themselves, beyond their mere emotional effect. Patterns of melody are themselves meaningful and symbolic, and are used to bind the liturgy together, underpinning the words with their sacred meanings. Byzantine (Orthodox) music is always monotonal, i.e. it has no polyphony, no interweaving of different vocal lines. This is because oneness is seen as the essential attribute of the Divine - not disunity or competition. The melodic line will however be sung over an ison, or 'eternity note' - a vocal drone that represents the unchanging radiance of Heaven glowing behind the music. The background of gold-leaf on an Orthodox ikon signifies the same idea visually. With its strange intervals, rapt introspection, and complex, sinuous spirals of half and quarter-notes, Orthodox Church music sounds extremely unwestern. It is radiantly beautiful without being in the least sensual. Tavener has utterly integrated Byzantine musicology into his work. He tries to rid himself of ego when making music, he says - it is not creativity in the usual Western sense of self-expression. Rather it is an attempt, through a mystical self-emptying, to recapture the primordial music before the Fall.

Recent years have seen Tavener's spiritual perspective deepen and expand. He no longer sees there being one way to God, but rather sees mystical truth in all religions. (This sadly led to a rift between him and his erstwhile librettist, the formidable elderly Orthodox Abbess, Mother Thekla.) Works as yet unrecorded include 'Majnun and Leila', which promises us a female God, and a piece called 'The Beautiful Names', a setting of the ninety-nine mystical names of Allah in Islam. His work is sheerly, rapturously, beautiful. It often features spatially arranged choirs, eastern melismas and semitones, glowing drones and radiant, gauzy strings. he has a particular penchant for the counter-tenor voice, for which he writes exquisitely. Very often he is inspired by a liturgical or mystical text - the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, the Akathistos Hymn of the Orthodox Church, or a haiku by Seferis. Or indeed the Byzantine palindrome that heads this post: found on the rim of a fountain, it reads 'clease the sins, not only the face' in both directions.

The thread of the Divine Feminine that runs through his work has come nearer to the fore. It has always been there, even as early as his operas 'Thérèse' (on the deathbed atheism and reconversion of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) and 'Mary of Egypt'. (The latter aspired to be 'an ikon in sound' about the ancient prostitute turned saint and Desert Mother. Profoundly 'feminine', it featured the deep, eastern-inflected voice of Chloe Goodchild placelessly emanating throughout the opera house as the voice of Sophia, Divine Wisdom.) A man who has had passionate relationships with several muses in the past, including - bizarrely - Mia Farrow, Tavener would surely agree with Goethe that 'the Eternal Feminine leads us upwards.' The climax of this tendency was his extraordinary 'Veil of the Temple' - an all-night vigil featuring Hindu, Sufi and Christian texts, ending at dawn.

For me, Tavener is something of an inner guide. I've only met him once in the flesh (very tall) but he has appeared in my dreams several times. I'm not daft enough to think that those dreams were Sir John himself astrally projecting, but nevertheless my unconscious chose to clothe the archetype of the Wise Old Man in his form. For all his eccentricities - the fast cars, the friendship with the Prince of Wales and the Beatles, the wafty 'I had a vision once while lying in the bath' pronouncements - he is someone whom I revere, truly. As the Russians say on birthdays - Mnogaya Leta! Many Years!

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Those of you who have sent me google account addresses will find invitations to view TEBB in the inboxes of the email address you supplied. Thanks!

On the Horizon

My friend, the poet, novelist and critic Jane Holland, has been editing a new literary magazine, Horizon Review, available online here. It is fantastic, and much kudos to Jane for all the hard work she has put in to organising it, and to SALT for publishing it. I'm lucky enough to have got a slot in the first issue: my translation of a newly discovered medieval Welsh text (!) brings up the rear of the magazine.


Guy Davenport, who along with Tony Nuttall has shaped one of my conceptions of what an intellectual should be like, includes a number of delightful aperçus, apophthegmata and observations in his various volumes of criticism. Several of these jottings occupy an ambiguous ground between fiction, poetry and condensed critical writing: each one of them might be the kernel around which one could crystallise a short-story or poem.

Here a a collection of ones which I particularly liked. It includes Davenport's own thoughtful agraphon, literally 'an unwritten thing', denoting a saying or tradition about Christ not recorded in the Gospels. (A particularly beautiful poem in this tradition was written by the Greek poet Angelos Sikelianos in 1941, and has been set to music by John Tavener.)

* * *

From G. Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington, 1996).

Greek time is in the eye, anxious about transitions (beard, loss of boyish beauty). Hebrew time is in the ear (Hear, O Israel!). What the Greek gods say does not make a body of quotations; they give no laws, no wisdom. But what they look like is of great and constant importance. Yahweh, invisible, is utterly different.

Being ought to have a ground (the earth under our feet) and a source. It seems to have neither. The Big Bang theory is science fiction. It may be that the expanding universe is an illusion born in physics labs in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berkeley. It is all too eerily like Genesis (being in a millisecond) and other creation myths. It is partly medieval, partly Jules Verne. From a human point of view, it has no philosophical or ethical content. It is, as a vision, a devastation, an apocalypse at the wrong end of time. It is a drama in which matter and energy usurp roles that once belonged to gods and angels. It is without life: brutally mechanical. It is without even the seeds of life, or the likelihood.

Je ne veux pas mourir idiot. French student demanding that Greek be put back in the curriculum.

Danish, like Dutch, is English unmarried to French.

Athens (which could not tolerate Socrates) and Jerusalem (which could not tolerate Jesus) come down in history as the poles of the ancient world (for Proust, Arnold, Joyce, Zukofsky). If these two long traditions have fused, they have no genetic line. Judaism is closed, is itself exclusively; Athens is diffused and lost.

In Kafka other people are too close and God is too far off.

Where it was, there must you begin to be. There are no depths, only distances. Memory shuffles, scans, forages. Freud's geological model implies that last year is deeper in memory than last week, which we all know to be untrue. The memories we value are those we have given the quality of dream and narrative, and which we may have invented.

Freudian analysis turned out to be insensitive to the very values that give art its identity, as deconstruction is a hostile cross-examination of a helpless witness.

The emptier a room the smaller it seems. This is true of minds as well.

Country as the satiric unit: Coconino, Bloom, Yoknapatawpha, Raintree, Tolkien's shire, 'the provinces'.
Tragedy: house, castle, room.
Romance: sea and open country.
Comedy: city.

Samuel Palmer. Moss sopped in gold clotted on the thatch of a roof. Mr. Christian trudging by.

The white frost that made the fire feel so good, and the quilt so comfortable, had also reddened the maples and mellowed the persimmons. Cloth shoes stink by the fire. Foxes bark in the deep of the wind.

Hemmingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?

Forty finches in the thistles, in the high summer of time.
  The road, always the road, through groves of olives, through fields yellow with wheat. Figs, melons.
  Their walking made the silence creak. Flap of sandals. Thomas, the twin, talking.
  - Rabbi, this tearing off of the foreskin, is it right?
  Yeshua's answers were always quick, as if he knew what you were going to say. He looked at something else while you were talking, a woman with a jug of water balanced on her shoulder, a sparrow hawk circling, cows in a wadi, and at you when he answered.
  - If the Everlasting had wanted us to have no foreskin, we would be born without one. Nothing should be shorn that does not grow back.
  Thomas looking around Yeshua's hat to study his eyes in the brim's shadow.
  Yeshua's smiling irony.
  - If our bodies were designed by the Everlasting for our souls, what a wonder!
  Yeshua talking, talking with the sweet patience of the fellowship, to Thomas and Simon and John, and to someone else also. They had remarked on this among themselves, that their company sometimes included an unseen other.
  - But if our souls are created for the body's sake, that would be the wonder of wonders. The Egyptians elongate the infant's skull while it is still soft, and there are people you know nothing about who bind their women's feet and picture their skins all over with needles and ink, and file their teeth to a point. Only the subtle Greeks, whose Heraclitus could parse the grammar of creation and whose Pythagoras discovered the harmony of numbers, leave the healthy body intact, as it was created.
  A stonechat dipped and sailed sideways. Yeshua put out his hand and the stonechat came and sat on it, head cocked.
  Yeshua speaking to the stonechat, in its Latin.
  - Is the flesh then good? Thomas asked.
  - Is there, Yeshua asked, perhaps of the stonechat, perhaps of Thomas, Simon, or John, any other way of being? The Everlasting's work is all one creation. Are we to say of the one creation there is that it is nasty?
  Thomas looking at his fingernails, Simon at his feet.

An Execration upon Vulcan

We were woken at 2am by the sound of the house on the other side of the street - literally fifteen paces away - burning down. I heard bangings and crashings as I slept, enjoying a fitful dream, and when I opened my eyes I could dimly see orange flames reflected on the curtains. With the kind of cold instant alertness that possesses one at times like these, I leapt out of bed, ran up the front stairs - ran back, put some clothes on, ran out again - and saw fifteen-foot flames licking the front of the house directly facing ours in our small urban street. A parked car was five feet from the blaze, with its petrol tank already no doubt on a rolling boil. As usual in Britain, people were standing around in quilted dressing gowns drinking mugs of tea - I half expected the genteel old queen who lives next door to be out there cracking open the Harveys Bristol Cream and suggesting a round of community kumbayah-ing.

Fortunately, no one was in the house; it's a student property that was being redecorated. The builders had tossed all the crap from the renovations - rotten plasterboard, card, old planks and so on - into the tiny bit of front garden instead of into a skip. On top of this ziggurat of crud they had placed an old-fashioned 70's foam sofa, with a particularly eye-watering orange paisley cover. No doubt some drunken cretin had thought, as they shambled past with a kebab, that it would be good clean fun to set light to this inflammable appurtenance. The inhabitants of the house had until recently been a band of bastards who had held incredibly noisy late-night parties and who were prone to sticking techno on at 6.30am, making our lives a misery. I found myself hoping that they were merely on holiday and their wretched stereo had been reduced to a plasticy puddle. Alas, I'm fairly sure they'd moved out, and it will doubtless be the poor landlord who has to pick up the tab. (Brand new UPVC windows, incidentally, go up a treat, with lovely ribbony, greasy, black and orange flames.)

The fire engine came, and it took the fire crew twenty minutes or so to get the blaze under control. I went back to bed, and lay awake listening to the pocks and tumbling thuds made by glass breaking and water-saturated plaster collapsing.

Hill and Williams

I've just had the good luck and privilege to attend the opening of the current Geoffrey Hill and his Contexts conference at Keble College, Oxford. The first session was a conversation between Rowan Williams and Hill himself, and this was an opportunity to hear two shockingly good intellects in dialogue and mutual accord.

I've just finished an article on Rowan Williams' 'CELTIA' poetry, so the opportunity to see the man in the flesh was delightful. He has an incredibly deep and resonant voice (as does Hill) and they both speak most beautifully, in strong, lapidary sentences. I came out of the session with the feeling that my own thought had been clarified and deepened simply by listening to the two of them speak.

Both articulated positions and observations about poetry and the world which I had but dimly adumbrated to myself. (One of the marks of a really good teacher, I feel, is the ability to intuit a student's half-formed thoughts, to articulate them clearly and resonantly, to enlarge them, and then to give them back to the student, as theirs by right.) Both were humorous. Williams in particular mocked himself for coming up with an opaque phrase like 'the sentimentality of apophaticism', which he clarified by saying that the assertion in the woollier kind of poetry that some things are inarticulable tends too easily to be a trite cop-out. It is the purpose of poetry to say what cannot be said.

The proceedings may well be published in due course, I am assured, so I don't wish to reproduce too much of what was said here. Nevertheless, some of the insights made me nod in vigorous agreement and pleasure at hearing the very difficult and elusive so well phrased. Hill argued that a lot of contemporary poetry consists merely of pensées (putting his finger squarely on why I dislike Larkin), and that poetry is an annunciation or epiphany, 'not the filtering of one's emotions or opinions into a mellifluous medium'. Difficulty, Hill argued, is a sign of the poet's respect for the reader; he then quoted himself, telling us that 'a banal obviousness is what tyrants desire'. Williams fiercely made the the case that the idea that 'Difficulty = Elitism' is one of our contemporary cultural curses. (I silently cheered.) Hill described himself as a 'hierarchical democrat', saying that this hierachical democracy is also not the same as elitism: a subtle point, with the exciting frisson of the thought-crime about it.

A poet, both men maintained, it one who searches for and makes apparent the 'differentiated depths of things', and both were strong on the importance of poetic technique and formalism. 'Technique' (said Williams) 'is a metaphysical instrument that makes its own discoveries'. He referred to the ferociously complex demands of Welsh strict-metre poetry, in which the very difficulty of the rhymes and consonant-correspondences and vowel-assonance prompts the poet to suppress the unconscious inhibitions upon their imagination. This is precisely what I had meant when I wrote of Dafydd ap Gwilym:

There is constantly a sense of absolute wonder at the multiplicity of the world, and behind that, I sense, a spiritual insight into the profound interconnections and likenesses between things. The very nature of
cynghanedd reflects this: like a kind of Welsh gematria, the shifting of vowels within matrices of consonants inexhaustibly generates new and startling metaphors which betoken the providence of God at work within his Creation.

But I could never have expressed the thought so well as Hill and Williams. Hill drew our attention to a superb definition of poetry by John Berryman, which he told us that he takes as a personal touchstone. Berryman wrote that 'a poem adds to the stock of available reality'. This, Hill argued, is key - when we read a true, successful poem, our very self and our universe rearranges itself slightly, enlarged. (I was reminded of the critic and philosopher Elaine Scarry's dictum that 'How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things.') Too many poems become merely things among other things, objects within the universe rather than things which expand it. Such poems, Hill, only 'add to the stock of available actuality', 'the pile-up plethora of things'.

It was a sober and splendid occasion: the two poets and thinkers together fashioned an abrupt epiphany of their own, a strong palladium against the commodity culture and - the phrase is Hill's - its professionally-opinionated relevance-mongers.


I'm currently reading Barbara Newman's Frauenlob's Song of Songs: A Medieval German Poet and his Masterpiece. (This is for fun: the current non-fun book is German for Reading Knowledge. I've got to the stage where I really have to read German to cut it as a Celticist.)

Frauenlob, or 'Praise of Ladies', (c. 1260-1318) was the stage-name of Heinrich von Meissen, a spectacularly skilled minstrel. His masterpiece is a 500-line poem in 20 stanzas called the Marienleich, a long, ecstatic paean of praise to the Virgin Mary.

Newman - one of the world's most outstanding medieval scholars - has a professional interest in the manifold ways in which feminine imagery was deployed in medieval literature, musical, theology and devotion. Frauenlob's astonishing poem is a superb text for such a scholar to work on; as Newman says in the preface, 'To understand the Marienleich...we must first remember and then forget everything we thought we knew about the medieval cult of the Virgin, for the poem is at once a brilliant consummation of a preexisting genre, the Marienlob (or 'Marian praise'), and a theological and philosophical statement that goes far beyond anything that mainstream devotion, or indeed orthodox theology, had yet conceived.' She provides a text, translation, and a wonderfully lucid commentary, as well as a rich and broad introduction to the poet and his contexts. The book is also accompanied by an hour-long CD of the Marienleich being performed by the Ensemble Sequentia.

The imagery used to praise the Virgin in the poem is drawn from the Sapiential books of the Old Testament, in which God's personified, feminine Wisdom praises herself, but also from the secular lyricism of courtly love, the imagery of 'Natura' in medieval philosophy, the lush, erotic sweetness of Song of Songs and its allegorising commentaries, and the Book of Revelation. It betokens an enormous depth of learning on the part of the poet.

It is also a profoundly perfumed, iridescent work, in which Mary comes for all intents and purposes to be represented as a Christian Goddess, the eternal partner of the Trinity itself. Near the midpoint of the poem, the heavenly Lady declares Ich got, sie got, er got, 'I [am] God, they [are] God, he [is] God', presumably referring to herself, the Trinity, and her son. Later in the poem, she is explicitly said to possess both a human and a divine nature, like Christ. The proclamation of Mary's divinity is wildly heterodox, '[n]o matter how thoroughly divinized the medieval Virgin was in practice', as Newman says. Frauenlob's Marienleich is therefore a fascinating document suggesting how far Marian hyperdulia might stray into latria in the mind of one of her most enraptured devotees at the turn of the 14th century. Below you'll find stanzas 9 and 11 of this wonderful poem; I recommend the book highly.

* * *

I am the great and chosen Lady,
my will is ripe, my desire is mighty.
For fervent love I must unbar
the lattice of my cloister door -
my love all passionate drew near.
His hand caressed me, wet with dew -
O taste of honey through and through!
I ate the comb
and drank the foam
then came back home.
My God, such bliss!
What's the harm in this?

I the weasel bore the ermine
that bit the snake. With moring dew
I split the hard rock of the curse.
My divining rod, unforked,
crushed the heads of hell's black vermin.
When the palm tree of the Cross
saw me, it reddened without dye.
Speak, wise Adam, noble friend,
and tell how I
have come to end
your ancient blight -
I the Maid, by a mother's right.

11. The smith from the high country
hurled his hammer in my womb
and forged seven sacraments.
I carried him who carries earth and sky
and yet am still a maid.
He lay in me and left me without labor.
Most certainly
I slept with Three -
till I grew pregant with God's goodness,
pierced by sweetness upon sweetness.
My ancient lover kissed me,
let this be said:
I gazed at him and made him young -
then all the heavenly hosts were glad.
(The proud Maid's praises must be sung -
let none take it ill!)
He said my breasts were sweeter than wine
and drank his fill -
my Beloved is mine.

How intimate he was with me,
locked in my little room!
Who will lead me to the lily dell
where my courtly lover hid so well?
I am the high court's chamber
where they heard the case of Eva's fall -
I, the echo hall.
Dear friends, remember:
in the music of my dawn, I awoke exalted song;
from ancient night I bring the morn.
I am the Grail
that healed the noble king's great woe.
With my milk I nursed the hero
from the violet vale:
he gave me the antlers of a deer
to drive the curse out of the tent.
I pierced the ancient punishment
with awls, and broke the Fall's
inveterate snare.


On our trip to north-east/mid-Wales over the weekend, Matt and I visited Pistyll Rhaeadr, the hightest waterfall in Britain. At the end of a long valley near Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant ('Waterfallchurch-in-Hogvale') the cataract pours over the rock and plummets for 240 feet, passing through an astonishing natural bridge on the way. At the bottom is a plunge pool, with a deep foaming centre surrounded by a wide area of very shallow water over stones golden with silt. As I approached though the mist, early in the morning, a slim, blonde woman was sitting just by the pool with her feet in the water, wearing a strange, long grey garment, and watching me with calm, ageless eyes. Was this the otherworldly Lady of the Pool, I wondered, and felt very David Jones-ey. (No. She turned out to be Marie, on holiday from Dudley.)

We also visited the rich, melancholy ruins of Valle Crucis, on of the greatest Cisterician abbeys in Wales. Set in a wild valley near Llangollen, the Abbey is eloquent in decay, with some medieval appartments still visitable. At its height, the monks were very successful sheep-farmers, as well as patrons of native Welsh culture, and the place was obviously filthy rich. There was a remarkable selection of gravestones, one commemorating a woman called Dyddgu, 'Dear Day', which was the name of one of Dafydd ap Gwilym's mistresses.

The monastery is called 'Valle Crucis', 'Crossvale', because of the cross that once stood upon the so-called 'Pillar of Eliseg', about 400 yards up the valley. Today, this is a squat column on a little tump or hillock, which was erected in the mid-9th century by Cyngen ap Cadell, the then king of Powys, to honour his great-grandfather Eliseg or Elisedd ap Gwylog. It's in an extremely weathered state - we're missing the bottom half of it, and we only know there was an inscription on it because the great antiquarian Edward Lhuyd copied down what he could make out in 1696. This is vitally useful, because the inscription mentions several people we know about from the Historia Brittonum, written c. 829/30, and tells us a lot about who the kings of Powys at that time thought their ancestors were. (It mentions Magnus Maximus - the Macsen Wledig of Breuddwyt Macsen - and Vortigern, for example.) Looking at it, I would never have guessed it had ever been inscribed.
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