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.
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